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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 radicalsoftware.org)

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

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Proposing a ‘Guerrilla Girls test’

I’m thinking that in the field of techno arts and new media we need a Guerrilla Girls test, formed on the general model of Allison Bechdel’s infamous Bechdel test. Exhibitions, publications, conferences, and other public fora would have to pass the following criteria:

(1) There are more than an obviously token number of women involved. Let’s lowball it and take 25% for now, though obviously the number to shoot for is 50%.

(2) These women are not all chosen from within the organizing group—the editorial team or gallery staff, for instance.

As I write this, I pause to salute the Guerrilla Girls, who started trying to make this problem go away in the mainstream art world three decades ago.

I got to thinking about this because somebody recently pointed me to a newish publication, HOLO, from Creative Applications Network. The CAN website is plugging their first edition of HOLO like crazy:

226 pages, 34 contributors from 8 different countries, 12 months of blood, sweat and tears – the first issue of HOLO magazine, CAN’s exciting print spin-off that is “more a book than a magazine,” is near. And it’s bigger and better than what any of us could have hoped. Kickstarted in late 2012, HOLO set out to go beyond CAN’s daily project feed, step into the artist’s studio and uncover “the things we’re missing from the web: the faces, personalities and anecdotes behind important work”. A year of full-on, globe-spanning production later, we’rewe’re proud to say that HOLO is so much more than that. A unique blend of editorial formats, voices and ideas, HOLO captures what we feel no other print or web publication does: a carefully curated, comprehensive and people-centric snapshot of the creative dynamics at the intersection of art, science, and technology.

Here and on the main magazine page, they name-check 20 of the 34 contributors that make this a “comprehensive” look at “important work”: Philip Beesley, Greg Borenstein, James Bridle, Derivative, Eno Henze, Golan Levin, Wolf Lieser, Tim Maly, Raquel Meyers, NORMALS, David O’Reilly, Chris O’Shea, Ivan Poupyrev, Paul Prudence, Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt), Jer Thorp, Mitchell Whitelaw, Will Wiles, and Zimoun. Leaving aside the gender-indeterminate Derivative and NORMALS, 16 of 18 are men and 2 are women, or 11%. Either they’re hiding all the contributors who are women, or they just aren’t there.

This pattern continues elsewhere. Here is the mission statement of CAN itself:

CreativeApplications.Net [CAN] was launched in October 2008 and is one of today’s most authoritative digital art blogs. The site tirelessly beat reports innovation across the field and catalogues projects, tools and platforms relevant to the intersection of art, media and technology. CAN is also known for uncovering and contextualising noteworthy work featured on the festival and gallery circuit, executed within the commercial realm or developed as academic research. Contributions from key artists and theorists such as Casey Reas, Joshua Noble, Jer Thorp, Paul Prudence, Greg J. Smith, Marius Watz, Matt Pearson as well as CAN’s numerous festival involvements and curation engagements are a testament to it’s vital role within the digital arts world today.

Skipping over the grammatical error in the last line, one notices that of 6 people name-checked (presumably due to their importance), 6 are men. Representation of women: 0%.

And here is the masthead of CAN:

Editorial
Filip Visnjic (fvda.co.uk) – Founder, Editor-in-Chief

Contributing Editors
Greg J. Smith (serialconsign.com)
Alexander Scholz (alexanderscholz.com)

Tutorials
Amnon Owed (amnonp5.wordpress.com)
Joshua Noble (thefactoryfactory.com)
Mike Tucker (mike-tucker.com)

Guest Writers
Casey Reas (reas.com)
Paul Prudence (dataisnature.com)
Matt Pearson (zenbullets.com)
Emilio Gomariz (triangulationblog.com)
Andreas Zecher (pixelate.de)
Jer Thorp (blprnt.com)
David Wallin (whitenoiseaudio.com)
Nial Giacomelli (nial.me)
Jason Franzen (formationalliance.com)
Richard Almond (rafolio.co.uk)

Of this list of 16 names, 16 are men. Representation of women: 0%.

Does not pass the Guerrilla Girls test. Not even close.

 

 

 

 

other uncanny valleys

It seems that nearly every article on technology and culture I read these days references Masahito Mori’s concept of the uncanny valley at some point. It’s entered the intense late-meme phase which makes me think it’s about to be obliterated by some hot new techno-trope. But I think the underlying idea of the uncanny valley is actually a robust way of looking at other forms of cultural dissonance and estrangement that have nothing whatsoever to do with robots.

For instance, before I even came across the term, I had identified for myself something that looks to me like an uncanny valley of history: the period between the end of living memory—for practical purposes, about 100 years ago—and the beginning of what we are comfortable thinking of as history because there is substantial scholarship on the primary documents—roughly 125 years ago. In that uncanny valley we can’t quite find our familial connection to history any longer, but it’s close enough that it doesn’t yet feel completely autopsied by conflicting lineages of critical scholarship. Right now, that valley falls roughly between 1890 and 1915. Others might place the valley slightly differently, or even disagree that it exists at all, but it certainly exists for me.

I’ve recently identified a second, more culturally bound, uncanny valley pertaining to digital culture. This valley exists in the 70 years between 1923—before which nearly all printed matter is out of copyright in the United States—and roughly 1993—when the generation of early web adopters began putting the documents of their lives online. Although a good deal of writing and other media from this uncanny valley has been uploaded, a lot of it is behind paywalls of one kind or another (including the copyright-driven paywalls of Amazon.com and its ilk). Huge amounts of pre-1923 media have been uploaded through Project Gutenberg, Google Books, YouTube, major libraries and archives, and oddball projects like BiblioOdyssey. At the near end of the valley, you can find important or just interesting writings, artworks, and documentation by all the digerati online for free (as well as some behind paywalls). For a lot of what’s in the uncanny valley itself, you have to buy the materials online, pirate them, or go to a traditional dead-tree library. I’m not saying it’s not worth the effort to do this—far from it!—but that as one reads, skims, surfs, browses, and devours one’s way around the web these days, it can feel as if Rudyard Kipling is closer to us than William Faulkner, R. Austin Freeman than Sara Paretsky, D.W. Griffith than the Marx Brothers, Julia Margaret Cameron than Margaret Bourke-White.

What’s your uncanny valley?

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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

Janelle Monae’s Liberationist Posthuman Pop

In the winter of 2013, something amazing happened to me: I was hit with the fan-girl itch at the age of 31, something that hadn’t happened for years. It all went down when someone posted the video for Q.U.E.E.N. on my Facebook wall. Here was this young woman, Janelle Monae, and even legendary Erykah Badu wanted to be on her record. She was singing about self-respect, and it didn’t come at the cost of putting anyone else down. Instead, she points out all this rudeness, all the ways that other people cut each other down (I can’t believe all of the things they say about me/walk in the room they throwing shade left to right), but she just doesn’t care. As Richard Feynman liked to say, “What do you care what other people think?”

I did not know it yet, but I had been falling in love with the ways that pop artists imaginatively projected of blackness into the future since my early teens. I dug on Busta Rhymes and later, got sugar-high on Nicki Minaj’s crazy wigs and alter-egos. But Janelle was special. She approached the future as not a funhouse, but an ongoing struggle, and carried herself with grace and dignity. For starters, she wore a tuxedo, which as I was to come to learn, she saw as a uniform, and like a uniform, was a social signifier of labor. She doesn’t just sing, she works. Monae is conscious and she wants her music to raise the consciousness of others.

In point of contrast, consider Nicki singing about how she’s the greatest and how Lil Kim (truly, her mentor) is a “stupid hoe” (even if she does pay homage in the video to legendary Grace Jones). Janelle sings instead about how she wants to lead people towards their salvation by inspiring revolutionary love.

Janelle sings sings of comfort being an android (as Nicki does with being a Barbie girl). These figures do not shy away at “dehumanization,” but rather appropriate tools and technologies for self-discovery. These are hallmarks of Afrofuturism, a term coined by cultural critic Mark Dery. While cybertheorists have often studied the ways in which information technologies provide a challenge to liberal humanist views of subjectivity (e.g. Katherine Hayles), too often they overlook the ways in which groups of people who have historically been denied their full humanity make sense of these technologies. For example, sound studies scholar Alexander Weheliye provides a rebuttal to contemporary critiques of the degradation of the human voice in the recording industry by analyzing vocoders and autotuning as posthumanist technologies that expand rather than degrade the ability of black voices to make music. He and others included in sociologist Alondra Nelson’s special issue of Social Text illustrate how considerations of race and the goals of Afrofuturism likewise expand the analytic power of cybertheory.

Cyberfeminism and Afrofuturism have more than a few things in common. At the core of both is the idea that there is no garden to get back to, but rather that humans are deeply shaped by their technologies. Always have been, always will be. So if we want our politics to help us shape a brighter future, we had better consider what technologies might offer. For cyberfeminism, the erasure of the biology of reproduction (as in the writings of Shulamith Firestone) and the possibility of living beyond gender in online spaces (Sadie Plant) has been key. For Afrofuturists (from novelist Octavia Butler to jazz musician Sun Ra), the desired futures have been ones that do not erase race, but allow difference to not only peacefully coexist, but thrive in so doing.

In the science fiction world that Monae speculates as the scene until which her musical narrative and “emotion pictures” (her creatively apt term for music videos) unfold, humans have finally perfected androids and gynoids–human-shaped robots who serve them. This drive for robotic assistants as a replacement for uppity servants who are likely to complain about their human rights has been fundamental to American technological production. But so too have we also longed for make matter in our own image: from Pygmalion to Japanese Geminoid robots, non-reproductive humanoid creations offer a sense of godlike power—perhaps man’s freedom from women, as well as his servants. In Monae’s world, both these dreams have come true, and her alter-ego Cindy Mayweather, is just such a gynoid: a woman made to serve.

I was long skeptical about the idea of humanoid robots, especially the idea that machines could be made conscious–not politically conscious, but just having a mind, a sense of self and emotion. I saw these a dreams coming from a reductionist view of humanity. Monae changed that for me. By articulating the android as the fantasy of servitude, she highlighted the gendered and racialized dimensions of this figure. Androids are the ultimate exploitable “other,” a human-like being who does not need to be afforded the rights of humanity because it was created by human hands instead of human loins. But is this really okay? Especially if we do succeed in making conscious robots, what kind of society would we create by treating them as lesser humans? Our need for dehumanized service degrades us all.

Mayweather becomes a pop star. She starts out singing at android auctions (Many Moons emotion picture) but she’s singing about freedom. Android freedom. She wants androids to respect themselves and self actualize. She sings about love and that, too is revolutionary. She was made capable of love (a little gold door opens), perhaps because that was considered an engineering feat, but it’s not merely good entertainment for a robot diva to belt her heart out. She wants to share that love. She wants robots to love themselves and each other. She wants them to respect themselves, to grant themselves enjoyment and pleasure (Electric lady, get way down). Saying these kinds of things to a people who have been placed (engineered) within a role of servitude is revolutionary. Robots are not supposed to care about self-preservation. That is antithetical to Azimov’s three rules of robotics.

But Mayweather’s revolution is not just a matter of us versus them. Instead, it is important to Monae’s narrative that Mayweather breaks the rules of her society by transcending boundaries and falling in love with a human. When Mayweather and Anthony Greendown fall in love, Monae demonstrates a symmetry, an equivalence between the oppressor and the oppressed, a common core of something which may or may not be humanity in a biological sense, but which is nevertheless the deeply powerful, spiritual capacity to love.

In love is the possibility for something that is much bigger than a happy conclusion to a romantic story. In recognizing a universal capacity to love is the possibility for unity, for a better society. Love is the foundation for revolution. This is not to say that there will not be violence and struggle in the fight for a better future—after all, the narratives of both the Metropolis and the ArchAndroid albums follow Mayweather as she unsuccessfully tries to flee her dismantling, a a fate she fears.

We do not yet know what her fate will be, but we can hope that she will be saved by an uprising of those androids and human allies who she has helped make conscious through her music, those willing to fight the Cold War that will “bring wings to the weak” and “grace to the strong,” leading evil to crumble. We can hope that their cyborgian revolutionary love will come to the rescue and in so doing destroy the oppressive society so committed to exploitation of the weak that it literally builds its own slaves. These revolutionaries will Dance Apocalyptic, as Mayweather herself foretold, and will be given a chance to build a better future that celebrates the humanity and cultural contribution of diverse beings, no matter how they were made.

This post is by Marisa Brandt and cross-posted to her blog technomediatrix

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.)

http://nobrocomputing.tumblr.com

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.

the prejudice nobody seems to mind

This is a little off-topic so I’ll keep this short. Has anyone else noticed that writing reflecting generational prejudice seems to be everywhere these days? Twenty years ago, I would come across occasional snide references to Boomers and roll my eyes and move on. Nowadays, however, it seems that every other article I read on social, political, and cultural issues snipes at one age cohort or another in a completely stereotyped way. I’m not talking about those demographic characteristics that are actually supported by research, but rather about a set of  value judgments that pretend to interpret the statistics and very often substitute entirely for any consideration of facts. Boomers: entitled and selfish. Millennials: lazy and dependent. Sound familiar? Exactly. It’s a peculiar form of agism that can be aimed at any age range of choice (as opposed to just those who rank as ‘old’ in the eyes of the writer).

Given all the ongoing conversations aimed at eliminating other forms of prejudice—homophobia, racism, sexism—when and how did it become ok to tag large groups of people as defective according to when they were born? There is a good deal of really quite silly discussion about whether specific labels apply (Millennials: just dependent or also lazy?), but practically none that I’ve read suggesting that this kind of labeling is odious on the face of it. I find myself wondering what larger function this outburst of generational prejudice is serving. Could it be a way of bleeding off energy that could otherwise be applied to discussing the economics of class in America? Generational warfare instead of ‘class warfare’?

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 (medievalpoc.tumblr.com) 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!