Author Archive

India leapfrogging again!

In my travels on the internet tonight, I stumbled across a small treasure: the magazine Radical Software, volume 1 issue 1 (1970) on The Alternative Television Movement. (See the issue over at

Among other things that caught my eye was a blurb on India by Gene Youngblood:

“In September 1969, the United States and India signed a pact which will bring direct satellite-to-village television for 5000 villages in India . Manually-operated generators in each vil se will provide electricity to operate one community TV set and a ten-foot dish antenna that will reach out 22,300 miles over the Indian Ocean to receive programs from two satellites. Next India hopes to have a TV satellite system that will reach directly into 560,000 villages by 1975, and for less than $200 million . Thus India has entered the television phase of the industrial equation considerably in advance of previous nations, having completely bypassed the ground relay stage and beginning with satellite television.” 

It reminded me of the discourse about India leapfrogging the modernization steps by going straight to cell phones without pervasive landlines (despite the broad distribution of village based STD stations that were more like group use, shared phone infrastructures). Here, television by satellite prefigures that same reading of the Indian leapfrog. How many times are Americans and Europeans going to be shocked that different groups of people may adopt arbitrary technologies in varied orders? Maybe one day I will be able to empathize with those for whom modernization proceeds as series of specific technologies in specific orders. Today is not that day. Perhaps you can help point me to where I can situate and understand this peculiar intellectual habit?

(I should point out that the Radical Software issue also has other passages in which people say things about TV that they will later say about the internet. For example, “the videosphere is a noosphere — global organized intelligence–transformed into a perceivable state.”)te

Laura Portwood-Stacer on the Stakes of Media Refusal

This is one of the best things I’ve read on social media refusal. Lisa Nakamura made similar points informally many years ago, but Portwood-Stacer has gone a long distance in theorizing the stakes of refusal for those invested in care work, for identity, community, or wages.

To resist what we might identify as an exploitative labor relation by walking off the job—by refusing social media participation—would mean giving up at least two sources of value that settle on the workers themselves…Professional and Social Payoffs

Read Care Work and the Stakes of Social Media Refusal at The New Criticals

Afrofuturist speculation: an introduction

With the publication of Speculate This! and reverberations of Occupy, there’s lots of talk about futures as a method. Afrofuturism has been doing this for a while, and some DE fans have been avid readers of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney. For newbies like me, I’m sharing Alondra Nelson giving a 6 minute introduction to afro-futurism:

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nobrocomputing is alive!

After I posted about nobrocomputing to Difference Engines last week, some amazing things happened with other people on twitter. (All usernames here are twitter names.) JoshHonn tweeted about the post, ncecire (Natalia Cecire) retweeted that. deannaday also retweeted and cc:ed NEnsmenger (Nathan Ensmenger), a researcher on gender in computing history. @NEnsmenger responded by posting a bunch of amazing images from his research archive to his blog “Computer Boys Take Over.” ncecire and thesonginmyhead (Thomas Conner) have tweeted other amazing images at me. (Oh, and also thanks to the tumblr coders, janitors, power plant workers that make this possible.)

So I initiated the tumblr with the URL, but you can see it is already a seed generated through collective labors. Nathan Ensmenger has been co-moderating and posting more of his great images from the archive around The Computer Boys Take Over.

Volunteers wanted! You can submit images, submit ideas for kinds of images, or even submit interesting interviews and stories (though tumblr as a medium works best with a lot of images). Let’s make nobrocomputing a place where people can send images, documents, and sources that transform what counts as computing.

Paul Edwards on how to write an op-ed as an academic

“Somebody once told me that to get an op-ed published, the secret is to write 80% of it in advance and then wait for a “hook” to appear in the media. Then you write the first paragraph in the last paragraph, which has to be some kind of policy recommendation, and fire away.” – Paul Edwards in a comment on a Society for History of Technology blog discussion from October

I think I have one of these cooking that I need to write about efforts to get girls to code or celebrate women who hack. I just need to wait for the next time Google or Facebook launch one of these things. Probably a few weeks from now.

medievalpoc and critical archive production as spectacle (featuring a rumination on images of women in computing)

I’ve been following People of Color in European Art History ( this week. The experience of seeing very old manuscript paintings of Dante’s Inferno showing Virgil as a person of color just pulls a jenga piece out of the bottom of my white supremacist basic education from kindergarten onwards. According to an NPR profile, the tumblr started with an art historian sharing pieces she encountered in her own work and exchanging ideas with other academics. It seems to have spread like wildfire though. As a media / STS / informatics person, I don’t do research related to medieval people for the most part at all, but the tumblr has been powerful for me because these images of medieval Europe are so central to American education from grades 7 on. How many history classes did we have that showed images of an all white medieval West, except when interrupted by those Moors or when crusaders went a traveling? The tumblr shows mundane cominglings of people of different colors in medieval art, images purified away by dominant historical practices and pedagogy. The topic of this blog vividly, compellingly, simply puts a set of images out there and seems to have ignited people’s interest. People from different parts of the world send questions, send their own finds, or even go out and produce interviews and generate archives to contribute back. To top it all off, the production of the archive is itself a kind of spectacle — an evolving story that, as a follower, I watch with anticipation and excitement.

Then again, medievalpoc’s challenge is to place show that people of color have always been part of Europe. The public (including my) view of medieval Europe is so whitewashed, that simply the presence proof — the image — is compelling. This is the kind of text that circulates well through the dashboards of tumblr — the colorful image that catches your attention as you casually scroll scroll scroll. Once she has you, then the second argument — that people of color were actually erased follows on.

Zinc has been talking about generating archives for science and technology in the global south for a few years. Workshops and online networks of participants are one way to do it. FemTechNet has also been generating archives and materials for feminist science studies, but their efforts have been largely among networks of academics. Those academics have been working with their students to storm wikis, generate interviews, compile research. I’m inspired by the way medievalpoc seems to circulate more casually and broadly than femtechnet work and wonder if there is something to learn from medievalpoc. Medieval POC makes me wonder if tumblr can be used as one way of reaching wide audiences, collecting from many places, and making the production of the archive a spectacle and event in itself (rather than materials for the production of other events).

By analogy, maybe there’s a feminist STS project that could take similar form. Women in computing advocates (e.g. Anita Borg Institute) often use the presence of women in computing history as the exception that proves the possibility. I’ve been frustrated for a while about the way well-meaning computing institutions deal with gender in computing by simply attempting to include women (future, present, and past) in the already gendered mold of the contemporary computer programmer. Here’s a picture of Grace Hopper and some women who wrote Fortran; they could code so can you! This Google Doodle from Dec 2013 celebrates Grace Hopper by showing her as a coder directly manipulating a machine — the model of computing celebrated today as one of a person/craftsman/artist manipulating media as an act of creativity.

Grace Hopper types at a computer terminal.

Take the above Doodle, for example. It is anachronistic; during Hopper’s time and for the next few years, computer programming was considered women’s work lower in status than the  occupations of manager and scientist occupied by men. The word computer used to name women who would calculate, and even after machines were introduced, it was often those women who would manipulate them to do calculations, as Jen Light has shown. There were lots of “Computer Girls,” as Nathan Ensmenger has tracked, but they were displaced as computing professionalized as a male-dominated discipline. Let’s say nothing of how the concept of computer science was defined to exclude the computing work women were more likely to be doing — assembly, technical writing, building educational tools.

The Computer Girls do data processing on the machine, managed by men.

Is it possible to crowdsource an archive of non-men in computing in a way that also challenges the boundaries of what is considered computing? Interviews with secretaries who coded, pictures of ads recruiting women to assembly like the one found by DiffEng contributor Göde Both, scraps of evidence from information processing student in the 80s who witnessed the professionalization of Computer Science into a male-dominated Engineering bachelor’s degree course of study. Rather than women in computing, perhaps it could just be nobrocomputing. Why nobro? I was looking for a category that would let the project generate insights about the exclusions of women, people of color, queer people, and others in a concept of “computing” that privileges the participation of white men. Bro is not perfect, but it’s the most succinct I could think of for the moment. I’m happy for alternatives, please suggest!


When Colbert names it, it is a thing – makers not takers

“As a #maker, I’m sick of the low income takers out there always asking for more.” – Stephen Colbert

With a good laugh, this Colbert marks a trend we noted here at Difference Engines back in 2012 in “Mitt Romney or Silicon Valley Designer?”. There, we quoted Pinterest founder Matt Sharp as saying: “Work with really nice people whose goal it is to make things and not to take things. Because there are people out there who just want to take things.”

The Colbert Report
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Making is more than the proverbial putting labor into nature that supposedly creates value in classical political economy. This particular era’s American predilection for making marks some labor as more interesting, creative, and unalienated as the labors of those many manufacturing people in places like China. Creativity has become more than just a privileged name for everyday ingenuities. Creativity marks certain kinds of ingenuity as intellectual property and authorial attributions. Chinese hackerspace elites know this, as Silvia Lindtner’s work shows us; with the government, they work to evolve their country’s image from “made in China” to “created in China.” Creativity seems to have a race, and the sort of making that Colbert celebrates (and lampoons) is raced as well. What’s the difference between these makers and the makers who labor to create widgets? Makers doesn’t mean workers. Makers in these innovation discourses marks those who “build” whole new markets — or at least commandeer them by getting the intellectual property and commandeering the labor forces. Makers of markets — the blue ocean strategists and Schumpeterian creative destroyers — are are makers of the biggest rocks of all.

Nikolas Rose’s “when we were structuralists,” and also getting dissed by STS

Nikolas Rose gets interviewed in this Public Culture (free excerpt w/o paywall) and it’s a little like listening to a seasoned old pro describing the muddling of getting to insight. I love Powers of Freedom, and in the interview we learn that Rose’s work on psychology (e.g. Governing the Soul) comes out of his experiences as a practitioner of child welfare psychology, both before and after his PhD. We hear about him muddling through Marx looking to answers to how subjects come to believe they are certain kinds of persons; we hear him struggling to decide that the answers aren’t there for him there. First, it’s a total relief to see the mess that others dwell in before getting to their sparkling insights. Second, it’s interesting to see the shadow life of the project as political questions about practice — the things we don’t usually see in methods section. If only more people wrote about their media interviews, consulting gigs, and activism as part of their work. Feminists were pretty good about this historically. 

And on getting dissed by STS:

TM: What was it that concerned these people in science and technology studies [STS]?

NR: In those early days, much STS was concerned with showing that even the “hardest” sciences were socially shaped, imbued with interests, and so forth — so obviously the targets were theories and experiments in chemistry, physics, and so forth. Of course, psychologists were interested in the “social history” of their discipline, but that tended to be represented as the march of progress, a story of brilliant individuals and their lives and interactions. That’s a parody; of course, there was lots of good scholarship, but not about the kinds of things that interested me. I went to the meetings and presented my work, but it was hardly well received.

Is “identity” a critical project in internet and media studies?

I’m at the Association for Internet Researchers in Denver at a discussion on “identity.”  The discussion starts off in somewhat predictable questions about media shapes “the creation of the self.” What is a self? Can you create it? I think both words should be analytical red flags for us new media researchers grown up in a petri-dish of technoutopianism, resist as we may.

Nicole Ellison complicates the conversation: “For people looking at the profile, what body, what self do they feel like they need to express?” Nicole Ellison asks of the others. She explains that in her research, interviewees understood the profile as a promise of who they would be in the future rather than who they were right now. It’s one step from this insight — that the profile hails people, and asks people to complete themselves in the database — to Illouz’s findings that dating website profiles materialize a literal market where many profiles can be evaluated in parallel. Illouz also finds people describing their profiles as their best, most authentic self — where authenticity is not at all innocent or liberatory, but an idea we are held accountable to and enabled by. She locates the authentic, communicative individual agent in half a century of corporate human resources management, psychological scienecs, and even feminist practices of liberation through communication. Identity here is the idea of a self that pre-exists power that must be given voice to be liberated, that must communicate well to live among others, and whose capacities can be tapped in markets of commerce and affection.

Pretty quickly you get to Nikolas Rose’s work on the powers of freedom, and governmentality that produces individuals who can be responsible and risk bearing. And you get to Boltanski and Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism‘s argument that contemporary France (at least), capitalism had to incorporate the 1960s artistic critique that work was uncreative and unliberating, and capitalist forms have done so by allowing for non-hierarchical management and creative class job roles (that still need low-paid janitors and temp workers). Venture capitalists and cultures of cool capitalize on those selves, those tastes, those countercultural and subversive ways of mining culture for forms that can be made into exchangeable commodities.

Identity as something people express and perform outside of fields of power pretty much is just celebrating this subject and trying to figure out how social media helps them be better authentic individual subjects. If social media profiles are identity, what are we being called to identity with?

There are a lot of commentators in the panel who get this and are raising these issues (search #ir14 and identity to get a sample of the amazing contributions). Lisa Nakamura points to how Time Warner very much markets and collects twitter handles, Facebook profiles, and the influencers that are tied to them. Holly Kruse asks us to look at the social construction of “authentic identity” as a concept. Alice Marwick’s comments suggest that one way into this might be to look at how “authenticity” is constructed and policed, as she has found that fashion bloggers attempt to construct a line between authentic taste and a presumedly commercial outside. Tom Boellstorff warns us not to take people’s accounts of identities as data about the relationship of people to subject-positions formed in power. Subject-position takes us from identity to an analytic that is formed in relations of power. Christo Sims then advises that we need to look at the histories of how particular subject-positions come into being so show the simultaneous contingency and sedimentedness of those categories.

But there are still folks out there who are worried about how people perform “themselves” and express themselves, maybe multiply, through these media. It is those projects that I worry reify an actual self inside the body shell that needs to be liberated out.

Is “identity” a critical project for internet studies? I think there is still a role to the extent that identification suggests an active social process that is one way of producing a larger collectivity — one that can do things. It is least interesting to me when identity is about indexing the self. This might be more like what Hall calls “identification” in “Who Needs Identity?” or Haraway’s  “ironic allies” that can dissolve Western selves in the interest of survival.

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Difference Engines has a twitter! Evidencing community, keeping up with DiffEng

Difference Engines now has a twitter @difference_engs. We’ll be posting updates on what is being posted here there. I don’t know how many of you have feed readers you use regularly. I don’t anymore. For y’all, the twitter can be a way to keep up.

To us writing here, the twitter followers will give us a sense that we’re writing to specific people, rather than some generic imagined public. Writing to a generic public was never the point. We never try to make this blog viral or famous. At the “Future of Difference Engines,” some longstanding contributors compared it to an awesome carpool where you can unload about the day, analyze something weird or interesting, and find companionship in shared critical exchange.

Writing into WordPress can feel like blogging into a void. Me. The box. The blue button. The page. There it is. Now what happens? Once in a while someone comments and a nice little conversation gets going. But at best, it takes a while for that to happen. And every so often, I meet people who tell me they read the blog, like Goede from Germany and Monika from San Diego and Vani from NYC. (Vani actually recommended the blog to me, not knowing it was me.) People are out there. But looking at hit count graphs sucks.

Recently, my friend Six started a good old fashioned email newsletter and he wrote the names of the people receiving the newsletter at the bottom. It was so lovely to read the newsletter and see the micropublic that also had asked to get the newsletter. It made it feel like I was doing more than reading Six’s words. I was reading what others were reading, and sometimes even submitting.

Can that presence be possible for Difference Engines? I hope so! I hope to see some lovely faces. “Following” isn’t the best word for community, but “Following” (as a technical verb) is what we have for now. Let’s see your lovely mugs over at our tweet nest