Author Archive

Viagra and design thinking, technologies of agency?

I can only assume that media planners figure IDEO fans are men. That’s my guess from watching the recent 60 minutes profile of IDEO’s David Kelley (several times…research!). The first time I was presented with a Viagra ad, which I’ll return to in a moment. The second time, an arthritis ad featuring golfer Phil Mickelson. Both ads directed me to Golf Magazine for more information and then let me move on to my Charlie Rose interview.

The interview profiled IDEO co-founder David Kelley and his Palo Alto company IDEO. We learned about the importance of diversity in breakthrough creativity — anthropologists, computer scientists, mechanical engineers, and business people, almost exclusively (it so happens) white, get together and talk across their domains of professionalized knowledge and liberal and technical educations. Not the only definition of diversity out there, but one to watch out for. Diversity doesn’t actually mean people from different class backgrounds or different social positionalities here. Diversity means people educated in different ways, but educated well with the “creative confidence” to meet the toughest challenges.

Kelley then tells a story of working on an early Apple mouse with Steve Jobs at Apple. The two became good friends, Kelley tells Rose.  Kelley on Jobs:

Kelley: “He would call me at 3am!”

Rose: “At 3am.”

Kelley: “We were bachelors so he knew he could call me. Right? So he’d call me at 3 o’clock, ‘hey it’s Steve.’ At 3 o’clock, I knew it was him. He’d just start, ‘you know those screws we’d use to hold those two things on the inside?’ He was deep!”

This story caught my ear as a story of creativity, as a story of economic production, and a story of masculinity. Kelley and Jobs are bachelors so they can devote their every moment of consciousness and responsiveness to the possibility of a creative project — here, the mouse. And in a world where collaboration is the key to creativity, there are no family accountabilities (women for Jobs and Kelley, though it need not be heterosexual I suppose) to fetter the creative feedback loops and produced momentum of brainstorms and productive development.

The story reminded me of my time working at Google. I went home for the evening once to find that my 23-year old teammates had made big product decisions while rock climbing together the night before. When I argued we should make big decisions at a more inclusive time and place, the product manager retorted “What? You want us to control when we come up with ideas?”

Romantic creativity and radical inclusivity seem irreconcilable here.

The Viagra commercial running with IDEO feature, viewable on YouTube, was itself a call to masculine confidence and creativity. The ad is called “The Age Where Giving Up Isn’t Who You Are.” The ad shows a grey, dusky solitary beach and an attractive, blue-eyed, aged man trying to start a fire. The wood is collected and piled, waiting for the spark. He pulls out his lighter, the manufactured and engineered tool for the job, and tries to flick it on. A part falls off of the head. The man looks slightly frustrated. “You’re at an age where giving up isn’t who you are. This is the age of knowing how to make things happen. So why let erectile dysfunction get in your way?” The protagonist goes to his toolbox, grabs a wood-paneled and brass pocketknife, and strikes the knife against the rock to spark a flame. His creative confidence meant that he didn’t give up in the face of technological failure. As soon as he lit the fire, a darkened tent 30 feet away lights up revealing the silhouette of a woman spreading out a bed on the ground.

The beneficiary of the fire on many levels?

So what does the masculinity have to do with IDEO? There are lots of women at IDEO, though I’m not sure of the percentages, so this isn’t a population representation problem. Rather, the masculine narratives we hear through these design stories (and the stories of ingenuity that associate themselves with design) often feature men, often feature heroes, and often feature the power of the idea as something that creates broader value absent of the labor or consumption it requires. Hence someone lighting the fire with creativity, and the wood burned is just found on a beach open for the taking and the labor of the knife is irrelevant. Hence a hero story on 60 minutes telling the story of a Steve Jobs and David Kelley as charismatic leaders and gurus with a lesson about thinking and caring creatives as the path to solutions, actual labor of change nowhere to be found.

What kinds of agency are recognizable here? And why are other kinds of agencies suppressed, hidden, or without consequence?

See also: Spacejump is about male enhancement for another cut through the question of technological progress and human agency

Qualifying feminisms, recognizing troubled histories

UCSB’s Amanda Phillips attended last spring’s FemTechNet conference at UC San Diego. The two day conference focused on “infrastructures and technocultures,” particularly from a media studies and a science studies perspective. Philips’ report from the conference emphasizes the way feminisms are not themselves always projects to be celebrated, but projects built on historical exclusions too — women of color, trans people, etc. I will quote from her liberally here, but go read her whole post An Astounding Display of Ladybrainz (Pt 1): Feminist Infrastructures and Technocultures

Several weeks ago, my colleague Micha Cárdenas sent a message out to the FemTechNet listserv urging them to explicitly address the historical violences, exclusions, and appropriations of “feminism” writ large by constantly qualifying with terms like anti-racist (or my own preferred term, race-conscious), queer/Trans inclusive, and so on. This is particularly important in interdisciplinary feminist events like FemIT – we all approach feminism from such different angles.

There were fewer queer feminists and feminists of color than I am used to in a gathering, but I kept an open mind about the lack of qualifiers in talks and conversations. The conference organizers did, for example, actively encourage us all to think about accessibility: talk more slowly, read your slides, always use a microphone. The extent to which the presenters successfully accommodated these requests differed. While accessibility only scratches the surface of disability activism in and out of the academy, it is a baseline condition that so few conferences achieve. I appreciated this a lot.

But certain small things – segregating graduate student presentations to the second day, when few senior scholars attended, concentrating the women of color in the very last late-night screening session, the handful of serious queer work in the face of “playful” cooptation of concepts like trans subjectivity and queer time, a comment here or presentation there – reminded me of Micha’s important email, and of the work we do when we add all those qualifiers to our feminisms. So many of my friends and colleagues (and, indeed, members of the FemTechNet listserv) insist that “feminism” works against and is respectful of all oppressions, and that anything less is not feminism. However, leaving these inclusions unspoken covers over feminism’s troubling history.

Covering over history is not an appropriate ally move. I loved FemIT, don’t get me wrong – but as a group, we were not conscious enough of the the intersecting racialized, ageist, heterosexist, and ableist exclusions of feminisms and technocultures in academia. I hope in the next iteration, we can correct some of these oversights.

The Future of Difference Engines?

We here in the Difference Engine room are talking a bit about the future of this space. We’ll be meeting over dinner May 21 in Orange County to discuss. The purpose of this blog has been to provide a forum for developing feminist, critical, and transnationally oriented understandings of technology, science, and technoculture — and for doing it safely (anonymously when necessary) and in public. We never wanted to be the most famous blog in the world. We imagined perhaps that more people might step out of the woodwork to write, comment and discuss. These and other issues will be discussed.

If you have thoughts and energy to share, email blogladies@differenceengines.com or comment here.

CFP for 4th Handbook of Science and Technology Studies

Our friend deuxlits tipped us off that the editors of the upcoming Handbook of Science and Technology Studies seek chapter proposals, and in particular are interested in global technoscientific phenomona.

These handbooks get referenced a lot so this seems like a good chance to interject examinations of engines of difference from a Difference Engines point of view. See the full CFP

UCFemTechNet conference being livestreamed now

A group of organizers across the UC are discussing new directions in feminist technology studies. Speakers include Anne Balsamo, Lisa Parks, Kelly Gates, Adele Clarke, and more!

Livestreaming here today and tomorrow

Remote work: Creativity, innovation, unmanned bulldozers, and faculty governance

Fascinating article about Cornell-Technion partnership to build NYC tech campus. It’s going to be organized as a hub for interdisciplinary work, like the WW2 RAD labs Peter Galison and Fred Turner have written about.

Ido Aharoni, Consul General of Israel in New York, told The Jewish Week that Technion’s partnership with Cornell “is of strategic importance in terms of positioning Israel not only in America, but all over the world, as a bastion of creativity and innovation.” He added that “When Americans think of Israel, overwhelmingly the first thing that comes to mind is the association with conflict, the fact that Israel is in dispute with its neighbors.”

Technion is a top international university particularly strong in developing military technologies. Israel is a top exporter of drones. And Technion developed unmanned bulldozers.

Why would someone need an unmanned bulldozer? <pause> Hrm? Search Rachel Corrie just for a start.

Cornell faculty and students are angry that this partnership has gone through without even a debate among faculty who, by school bylaws, are to approve cross-school educational policy.

For those of us studying creativity and innovation cultures, the consul general is explicitly binding togetherinnovation economy diplomacy to Israel’s military actions and racialized exclusion of Palestinians. It’s not even entirely surprising, since a lot of the cultures of creativity we celebrate today, Fred Turner teaches us, came right out of military technology research into networks and ballistics systems.

The unmanned bulldozer also seems like another important data point in governmental policies that use science and technology to reduce citizen involvement in warmaking, taking it out of our political domain into relatively closed-door security decisions. I wonder what else moving the human out of the bulldozer and into a control center somewhere was meant to accomplish?

Radiolab’s “truth” is no justice for Hmong activist

Kao Kalian Yang in Hyphen Magazine explains the racist pattern of interaction and representation in a recent Radiolab story on “the science” and “the truth” behind Yellow Rain. An activist and interviewee of the Radiolab show wrote the piece. Yellow Rain was a material Ronald Reagan and Hmong refugees have called a poison weapon. Some people we call scientists in American universities have claimed Yellow Rain was just bee droppings.

As the reporter tries to drill Yang and her uncle on what they saw and what they know, he tries to claim that they could not know what they claim to know — not in the terms that a bunch of lab scientists testing 20 year old samples could.

Hmong man who was an official reporter to Thai government on Hmong violence: “It feels to him that this is a semantic debate. It feels like there’s a jack of justice. The word of a man who survived this thing is pitted against a man from Harvard who read these accounts.”

Radiolab guy: “It seems like your uncle didn’t SEE the pollen fall. Your uncle didn’t SEE the plane. All of this is hearsay.”

Yang cites justice as a value that competes against various definitions of what can count as truth. It’s not just that we need plural truths, but we need truths we can use in pursuit of justice too. The means of pursuing truth must also themselves be just. Judith Butler writes about the politics of truth in her piece Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality (2001). She tells the story of the havoc wreaked on the life of an American kid whose non-binary gender became a battleground for a culture seeking scientific understanding of sexual “nature vs nurture.” The life of the person made a subject of scrutiny didn’t get factored into the debates about the politics of sexual knowledge. The “yellow rain” story is riven with questions of how we make our truths, as well as who gets to speak “truth.”

Must read for any ethnographers, journalists, and everyone who thinks they care about what counts as evidence.

Spacejump isn’t about tech progress. It is about male enhancement.

Cross-posted to Underthinking.

I know I’ve posted recently do DiffEng, but Spacejump is too timely so I couldn’t resist.

If you haven’t heard, Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a space balloon from 120,000 feet in the sky down to earth under the watchful audience of 8 million YouTube viewers.

DA Banks asks in The Society Pages

Why is a man jumping from the edge of space when we still rely on 18th century energy sources and can’t build a train network as advanced as the one we had a hundred years ago?

He then suggests that, following David Graeber, it might be

that existing bureaucratic systems under corporate capitalism are not up to the job of creating immortality drugs or colonies on Mars because huge disparities in wealth and power make it too cheap and easy to clean our homes and build our iPhones with cheap labor instead of robots. 

In the Tweet economy, I have made my response just a bit provocative but allow me to explain. Shortly after spacejump, Paolo Coelho tweeted this, which someone else commemorated on a meme-able image (below): “Never accept your limitations — because there are NO limitations. Viva Felix!” Spacejump, to me, seems to captivate people because it is an extreme form of personal technology. It creates the individual who can overcome all through technological and psychological breakthroughs. It is about remaking and bolstering the individual, the main thing we pay attention to in these days of entrepreneurial individualism, positive psychology, self-improvement, Ayn Randian ethics, or choose-your-individualism. The infrastructures DA Banks talks about are investments in the shared underpinnings of social collectivity — railways, standards, colonies (let’s not repeat colonialism though, thx). Social collectivities — the welfare state, the big society, the other America, unions — are things that don’t arouse passions, votes, and dollars that spas, coaches, and entrepreneurship do.

This is why I say spacejump is in part about male enhancement. It takes the (still) de facto (assumed to be) strongest, fastest, best kind of human and then enhances him to achieve what was beyond our wildest dreams.

FemTechNet: Massive online collaborative courses

There’s been a lot of attention paid lately to the massively online courses famously taught by Stanford. The model is generally center out, allowing people all over the world to access what is considered leading edge teaching from “centers” of research.  A recent online artificial intelligence course taught by Google AI researcher Peter Norvig attracted 150,000 students from around the world to listen to lectures, work on problem sets, and get familiar with Stanford’s flavor of artificial intelligence pedagogy. The New York Times even published an op-ed from Stanford professor Daphne Koller promising “technology as a passport to personalized education.”

Advocates of these models don’t acknowledge (or maybe even recognize) how the kind of knowledge and skill relevant in particular cultural situations vary. For example, I’ve met engineers in India who often complain that becoming a world class researcher requires working on problems set by agendas centered in the United States where their work might generate more useful and innovative results working from their own contexts. What would computer programming look like, for example, if computers didn’t rely on constant power or environmentally costly batteries to power and store a constant state? Why should supporting rural village innovation be an “India” business problem while the problems of corporations are “global” management knowledge? It’s not like rural people only live in India. Gender studies has dealt with this as well, grappling with how theories of gender developed around American or European experiences do not account for the experiences  of people embedded in very different kinds of institutions, social relations, and discourses. It isn’t surprising that it is Computer Science, a highly formalized discipline most immediately contextualized in mass-produced computing machinery, that is the most immediate proponent of the massive online learning model.

Connecting learners across the globe has the potential to de-universalize pedagogies in ways that the Stanford efforts have not explored. FemTechNet, a project spearheaded by Anne Balsamo (New School of Public Engagement) and Alex Juhasz (Pitzer College), is trying to develop a different kind of massive online learning experience, drawing strength and knowledge from the reach of the student population rather than simply disseminating out.

FemTechNet is going to run a course with 15 nodes, or instructor-led classrooms, in many continents, dialoguing on feminist approaches to science and technology. Rather than teaching from center out, the idea is to create a transnational networked classroom where students and instructors in very different locations can speak about and analyze themes together, learning from one another. The project is also developing an open-submission archive of short videos that can be used for educational purposes.

The network of people involved in this project are working to build alternative archives, infrastructures, and social practices to experiment with the possibilities of a less “colonial” education. I use “colonial” here because “democratic,” what I first wrote, seemed to specify too much about the multiple, temporarily aligned political ideals of people involved in the project. I simply wish to note how the project seeks to decentralize learning and make lateral learning possible. Often, “global” projects (e.g. development, humanitarianism) end up ordered as EuroAmerica-based professionals with passports and salaries that will move them around while they depend on the work of “locals” in places like Africa or South Asia who can’t get the visa or job to leave the country to actually get the work done. (This is Peter Redfield’s point. (2012)) When EuroAmericans call what they do global while those else where have “local” problems, that is a pretty colonial knowledge structure. FemTechNet is trying to build the infrastructures and establish the practices that can sustain an alternative.

“Why do theorists have to keep making jargon?”

As a graduate student in an interdisciplinary department, I inhabit at least two kinds of worlds: those that are fluent in feminist theories of science and technology and those that speak more of a naturalized language of organizations, technologies, and action. I find in each place generous people who are interested in what I bring to the conversation from the other world.

Every so often, however, I hear something like “I don’t do theory. I don’t need to make complicated words for simple things” or “oh, that academic rhetoric doesn’t make any sense!”

Doctor Decade’s video on sociomateriality is one expression of such a sentiment came into my mailbox, forwarded as an expression of such sentiment– a sentiment that, while understandable, often seems to come from a place of academic anxiety and disrespect of the writers using the “rhetoric.”

This accusation of “rhetoric” seems to me to come from difficulties people have reading cultural theories if they haven’t already been immersed in the discussion. Because these theories attempt to speak of our world in profoundly non-natural ways, they will necessarily develop and employ a vocabulary that is hard to approach at first. While this is unfortunate, I beg for more patience and assure the anxious reader that in the best case, the inaccessibility is a necessary part of the process. Theorists are often reaching for ideas themselves and are tightly referencing one another. Should my job cover letter or grant proposal not explain things more accessibly, shame on me. But asking that a particular book or publication speak in the language of all possible audiences at all times will chill the development of theory. Why don’t we ask that microbiologists’ work be written in a non-technical fashion that everyone can access all the time? First, scientists have done a good job of convincing the world that they operate in a highly expert sphere — that their inaccessibility is also their virtue. Second, scientists, like theorists, are often referencing things that non-member readers have no concept of and it would be onerous to ask for sufficiently detailed explanation at every utterance. Garfinkel and Sacks noted in their “Formal Structures of Practical Action” that we all routinely gloss in communicational interaction, glossing to indicate more than we can say in “so many words.” So why do humanists get attacked for their technical language — their glosses — in a way that scientists don’t?

So let’s briefly talk about sociomateriality and why it isn’t just a pretentious way of saying that “people use tools to do tasks.” I don’t offer a definitive description, but I know enough to argue that sociomateriality is not just academic rhetoric, as Doctor Decade and the folks who forwarded the video to me would have us believe. Sociomateriality is not just “people use tools to do tasks.” Sociomateriality comes in part from a long history of feminist studies and science technology studies that has tried to understand how scientific objectivity — the claim that we can observe general truths about a world populated with things — erases a lot of the work that goes into making knowledge. Making scientific knowledge isn’t something that happens if someone can scrub enough bias away from themselves. It happens through complex organizational arrangements of people, tools, materials, language, funding, cultural ideas about things (like gendered behavior), and more.

As Doctor Decade says, people use tools to do tasks, but there are much more interesting and politically important questions about which people use tools and what tasks are valued. Not all people have historically been created equal. Colonial powers thought that the savagery of non-European peoples inversely correlated with their machine abilities. (For more, see Adas Machines as Measure of Man.) Some people, historically, have been people who can use tools. Others were said to barely use tools and be less advanced. Even by today’s standards, the simple “people use tools to do tasks” refrain fails. Well, if you do human-computer interaction and you study Americans poking keyboards and looking at screens, then the formulation is adequate for your practical purposes. Jenna Burrell, in her book Invisible Users, argues that this formulation is not useful for understanding how the internet weaves into daily  life in Ghana. She argues that people might hear about internet rumors, they may see others interacting with the computer, they may ask someone to do something for them with a computer. The internet in Ghana makes different kinds of social forms possible, but it isn’t a story of “people use tools to do tasks.”

The idea that people use tools attributes also makes assumptions about agency that impute intentionality to people. On its face, there’s nothing wrong with this but historically, intentionality has often been imputed only to those seen to be rational, sane, and human. For large swaths of history, certain enlightenment thinkers denied these attributes to people they saw as animalistic savages. This isn’t some super subtle distinction. The very categories of traditional and modern and the disciplinary histories of anthropology relied on a division between those cultures who operate according to traditional, unchanging patterns and those rational moderns who live in an ever-progressive post-Enlightenment (EuroAmerican) society. This category of agency and intention also shapes design and creativity discourse. Industrial workers are compared to robots simply doing what they’re told, rote, repeating, unthinking while designers claim to be creative, reflexive, and adaptive. Some people are more equal than others, and some are seen as having more agency than others.

So what do we do if we accept that agency is not given or natural? That the category of person is not given or natural? The sociomaterial comes from feminist philosophers of science and technology, including Lu cy Suchman and Karen Barad, grappling with how to talk about the complex ways that we make ourselves and are made up through these entanglements. This opens up a lot of politically fruitful avenues for cultural analyses of technologies. You can start asking how entrepreneurial hackers are made not only of their own skill and volition, but from the divisions of labors, outsourcing technologies, and financial networks that let them have be the visible agent while lots of people who made their work possible are hidden in the infrastructure and factories. Sociomateriality starts letting you find different ways of thinking about design; instead of designing for what people “want” or “want to do,” you can design to provoke people to understand themselves and their relations with others in new ways, or to redistribute disability by sharing the work usually placed on the shoulders of the non-normative body, or who knows! Thinking with sociomaterial literatures can open up avenues for social and technical action far beyond where we get just repeating, “people use tools to do tasks.”

(Sorry for the rough state of this post! Difference Engines is the choir in some sense, and I’m preaching. I would like to make this more accessible and post it somewhere where it might do useful interdisciplinary explanatory work. Your suggestions for that, or your experiences doing such explanation would be fantastic!)