Archive for » October, 2008 «

Will the semantic web be gendered?

Via maybe maimed but never harmed, Read Write Web reports researcher Corrina Bath’s cautions of gendered ontologies in the Semantic Web.

Too often, “binary assumptions about women and men are not reflected [upon] or the (gender) politics of [a particular] domain is ignored. Thus, the existing structural-symbolic gender order is inscribed into computational artifacts and will be reproduced by [their] use.”

Bath cites Bowker and Star’s example of how phone books in the US were first arranged indexed by the husband’s name, reflecting assumptions about the use of infrastructure and truth of American social life at the time.

In the original, longer interview at Austrian Semantic Web, Bath expands that the stakes of feminist ontology in the semantic web are two fold. First, what kinds of relationships between knowledge objects will be formalized, how will minority interpretations be handled, and what room for contestation of knowledge obects will there be? Second, and relatedly, will the semantic web recognize the contingency of truths and the situatedness of ontologies?

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man and machine

The image below is the call-for-entries flyer for a gallery show in nearby Costa Mesa:

Man and machine”? Are we to understand that the sexualized cyborg babe qualifies as both the man and the machine? Not human, not even woman; a convenient female assemblage of fetishistic flesh and prosthetics. Love that belt—is that the lock of a chastity belt or the metaphorical ‘lock’ of the always-available female? And it’s not enough to propose a union of art and the graphic novel; apparently it has to be a marriage, with all the conventionalized baggage of that state.

The statement of “Exhibition Intent” continues this line of thought:

“Artists will address the idea of man’s manipulation of biological and mechanical systems and their convergence in an improved and customized physiology: the perfection of the species.

I’ll spare you the rest of the futuristic drivel, but the key question appears towards the end of the intent statement:

“Can we, for example, design the perfect mate?”

I’d say the “answer” to this silly question is right there in the ad…

Full info, including show blurb, at the Grace Lane Gallery website.

What is the haiku author? Adventures with Mechanical Turk

I’ve been making some excursions into the land of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, where many thousands of anonymous workers with IDs like A30K1ZD4E07JX do cognitive piecework (“Human Intelligence Tasks”) for several cents a “HIT,” making what amounts to a dollar or two an hour. Mechanical Turk once instance of crowdsourcing, getting things done by employing the often low-paid enthusiasms of large crowds.

I’ll write more about the labor politics of Mechanical Turk later. I’m still exploring that. But one of my explorations in qualitative engagement with people I can’t meet has been documented on a blog I created Haiku Turk. I put up calls for a penny, ten cents, and fifty cents and asked people for a haiku. I wanted a parsimonious, fun way to make a human connection through the anonymizing web interface. In the last batch, I decided to intervene in the anonymity by offering people the opportunity to list their IDs and pick a nom d’plume.

Some of the strangely delightful haikus submitted include:

McCain picked Palin
Palin is not good for us
McCain, do not die [permalink]

graveyard shift provides
rare opportunities for
paid masturbation [permalink]

To learn more about the conditions of working in Mechanical Turk, you can check out my other engagement, Turk Work: Bills of Rights. It’s not very synthesized, but it’s there to wander through to hear different workers’ ambivalences. Unscrupulous work requesters who won’t pay up are a huge complaint, as is the very low pay. But some also value the flexibility of at-home, variable time labor they can do as a form of play or extra cash whenever they have the time.

I am plotting an intervention. More news on that later.

The Battle Over Wikispace

Recently I was made aware, through a listserv I am on, of a contest that was taking place over a new entry on Wikipedia. Although anyone can add an entry to Wikipedia, likewise anyone can nominate it for deletion. Both entry writers and would-be entry deleters are supposed to follow Wikipedia’s guidelines for what constitutes a worthwhile article and not either add or delete items randomly or at whim. Of course, this is not necessarily what actually happens where the avatar meets the interface…

What I found interesting about this particular contest was that it highlights the phenomenon of editorial bias, which has been somewhat obscured on Wikipedia because of its “anyone can write for us” policy. I’m not talking about the problem of bias in individual entries (which has been much commented on) so much as the problem of imbalance in topics and categories—what you might call the categorical topology of Wikipedia—which in turn directly reflects the interests of Wikipedia’s self-defined pool of contributors. It hasn’t escaped my notice, for instance, that just about every U.S.-produced computer game ever released, no matter how obscure, has its own entry, while very significant international artists, especially women and people of color are completely absent. And that’s just to point to two areas I happen to be interested in; I’m sure there are many others. A rather funny article on the Something Awful blog shows up what it terms the “nerd bias” of Wikipedia (I would categorize it differently myself) by comparing the length and professionalism of generally useful entries to loosely related but silly entries—modern warfare vs. light saber combat, for example.

Wikipedia has recognized the problem and is trying to remedy it through what it’s calling the WikiProject: “Wikipedia project suffers systemic bias that naturally grows from its contributors’ demographic groups, manifesting as imbalanced coverage of a subject. This project aims to control and (possibly) eliminate the cultural perspective gaps made by the systemic bias, consciously focusing upon subjects and point of view neglected by the encyclopedia as a whole.” A creditable goal—though I notice that the light saber page is “part of WikiProject Star Wars, which aims to build an encyclopedic guide to the Star Wars saga on Wikipedia”– hardly a neglected topic on Wikipedia! In any case, I think the problem runs deeper and can’t be entirely fixed in this straightforward fashion.

Which brings me to the article in question, which was an entry on “cyberformance,” a term coined by a new media artist and theoretician named Helen Varley Jamieson to talk about a particular form of online performance practice. (Disclosure: I know Helen, and one of my essays is listed under “Further reading” for this entry, probably because I am one of the people who have picked up her term and started using it.) Reading the “Articles for deletion” page where the discussion for and against deleting the cyberformance entry took place, the first thing that struck me was how ludicrous the rationale by the would-be deleter was:

“I’m not going to call Neologism on this one, despite all the sources being self references to Second Life culture… however not every word has a topic associated with it that can be considered encyclopedic. There’s no acedemic [sic] view on “Cyberformances” and more importantly there is little to say on the matter that makes it any different from an extremely sad (POV) form of Real Performance.”

By my count (and leaving aside idiosyncrasies of punctuation and capitalization), that two-sentence comment by “Jimmi Hugh” contains one misspelling, at least two factual errors, and a total absence of reasoned argument. As a subsequent post by the entry’s original writer pointed out:

“Jimmi Hugh’s initial comment that the sources all reference Second Life is just plain wrong and implies a rather careless initial reading. In addition, to make a flippant passing judgment that this kind of work is “extremely sad” seems to me not in keeping with Wikipedia standards of discourse, especially when it is not backed up with an informed analysis of the current state of performance practice.”

My purpose here is not to argue for or against the cyberformance entry itself—indeed, those Wikipedians who took the trouble to discuss the matter in an informed manner were divided on whether it should be kept or deleted, and as of this writing the decision is ‘no consensus’ (which in Wikipedian jargon means the entry stays for the time being). My point has to do with the way in which it was nominated for deletion in the first place. It’s remotely possible that Jimmi Hugh targeted the cyberformance entry through some obscure logic of his own, perhaps as part of a personal campaign to delete entries beginning with the letter c. But given the tenor of his comment, I can’t help thinking that his attempt to have it deleted is a reflection of virulent assumptions about who and what is worthy—assumptions that I suspect are not just individual to Jimmi Hugh but actually underpin the systemic topical bias of Wikipedia. Certain topics, like games, are in effect pre-validated on Wikipedia; and although I have only the evidence of my own casual browsing of entry histories, I seriously doubt that individual entries pertaining to those topics have to meet much, if any, scrutiny of their right to exist. The bar to entry is set low. Other topics—like, say, an unusual form of performance significantly associated with female practitioners—are forced to fight for initial validation. Fighting to be at the table, so that you can then fight to be heard in the discussion—sound familiar?

WikiProject can encourage people to write entries on missing topics—but it can’t keep the next Jimmi Hugh from reflexively pushing the delete button.

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Traversing digital boundaries: HASTAC III announced

The Humanities, Arts, and Sciences Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) has announced its third conference, themed traversing digital boundaries. It will take place April 19-21 at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne.

What kinds of “digital boundaries” do people seem to recognize as consequential?

There’s the whole online/offline thing which privileges one sort of authentic embodiment over another form of interaction. There’s class, which Eszter Hargittai and danah boyd have investigated in MySpace and Facebook. There’s the promise of racial boundaries being rendered inconsequential by the New Yorker’s cartoon “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” and Lisa Nakamura’s arguments that racial types are alive, well, and being reproduced on the internet.

This should be an interesting conference.

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Geospatial Information Design or Journalism?

I’m at a Microsoft Research event called Social Computing Symposium that brings together researchers, designers, writers, and strategist types for what amounts to a two day mutual teaching session. One of the focuses of today was locative media and the mood among the audience was optimistic and excited about all the things that can be possible in social computing if we show the right data and don’t violate people’s privacy.

O’Reilly’s Brady Forrest gave a presentation on the future of locative media. In general, the talks were optimistic and inspirational, but there was this strong sense that the brainstorming was coming from very specific locations — tech-enthusiast, Western professionals.

The location struck me at two points during the presentation. The first was when Brady claimed that we’d be doing less of looking up profiles on the web and more of seeing World of Warcraft and military video game-style overlays of information over people. We’d see information about the places we’re occupying on our mobile device. Throughout the talk, the information focused on focused on the consumption and peer sociality. All good, well, and fun for people like me.

But it did get me wondering what kinds of blind spots recur in our imaginings of locative media. When a mobile device tells me about the place I’m occupying, why can’t it show me labor complaints and relations in the area? Pollution in the air above? Traces of pedestrians at different times of day? Voter participation rates?

We ended up having a discussion of critical geography at lunch where designers and researchers hashed out some of what’s at stake in curating particular kinds of “data” and placing them in an information display. Designer Matt Webb had worked on several London maps projects, including crime maps and consumer map startups, and faced these sorts of decisions first hand — what kinds of information about a crime ought to be accessible off of a map? Anthropologist Thomas Malaby pointed out how in the 1970s, London police had created a category of “street crime” to encompass both muggings and protests, effectively cordoning off particular parts of the city as dangerous and improper for the average Londoner, giving a compelling example of categories can be intensely consequential for and shaped by social interests. Ubicomp designer Mike Kuniavsky asked what might happen if certain geospatial information is only visible to those who occupy the “represented” space with their bodies, pointing to an experience of map reading that hadn’t occured to me and that seems to force contextualization.

One of my big takeaways from the breakout was the importance of language in shaping our design imaginations in this space. When discussants talked about information and data, they talked about it as if it was out there, in the environment, as a matter of fact, and that people generally had a right to have it available to them. Here, the rhetoric is of information design and visualization — putting it out there for indeterminate uses. In reflecting on his experiences in mapmaking, Matt reframed the work as journalism, describing the work of designing data maps as one of telling a story with data. Describing the work as journalism and storytelling invokes a reader, framing, and a professional code of ethics that, while imperfect, is more than engineers and information designers have.

What happens if we reframe design as storytelling and choreography? What happens if data is described as a story, with values and messages encouraged and discouraged, if not determined? (Interestingly, James Clifford describes how anthropologists have done much to separate their practices from those of journalists.) While professionalism certainly has connotations of classed and, in some cases, gendered behavior, it certainly seems a step ahead of a free-market “vote with your dollars” mechanism of design that might end up having the effect of narrative or policy.

Opening the black box in consumer culture

Consumer culture maintains an inculcated ignorance of manufacturing and an alienated discomfort with the products that populate our lives. Our conception of manufacturing lingers in a capitalist mythology of the industrial revolution. This vision is irreconcilable with the modes of production familiar to information and service workers. At a time when self-imposed ecological disaster and increasingly apparent social inequities demand a revolution in our relationship to “stuff,” we are left without the means to understand contemporary object-making. So, we turn to science-fiction and futurism—imagining utopias resulting from technological innovation—to envision new relationships to the material world. But do these images and rhetoric make up more than futurist utopian fantasies? Do they drive development of the future technologies and paradigms of production? I’m beginning to see it this way.

Furthermore, I’m finding that in researching tools for mass-customization, even Star Trek, hokey as it is, is a real touchpoint for tech developers. Here’s how some of them imagine the ideal person-product relationship. It appears on command, no materials-acquisition needed, as a result of a massive sub-servient computer. Hmm.


What would feminist privacy discourse look like?

10 privacy industry experts, all men, sitting at around a conference table I was flipping through Scientific American’s special issue on privacy when I noticed a piece detailing their industry roundtable on privacy. I was immediately struck by the fact that all the experts were men. Now, I realize the perils of gender essentialism. But if we’re all located in different sorts of cultural and sociological situations, then 10 men (mostly white) coming from places of respect in industry certainly do have some things in common with one another that they don’t share in common with many people with different gender, (trans)national, racial, class, legal (etc) locations.

Put more simply, what does it mean that technological privacy discourse in the US seems to largely (but not exclusively) be the province of well-employed, technologically savvy, often white men?

Is the disproportionate presence of white men just because men are overrepresented in many high-status positions? Or is there something privacy as a discourse that invites certain kinds of perspectives and not others?

What kinds of ellisions are frequently made when discussing privacy and biological, social, financial, locational, or other data?

Of course, it would be too simple to assume that, say, people with medical conditions are more concerned about privacy and data hiding than other people. (I actually had this hypothesis in some ethnographic research around privacy I did last year.) Sites like Patients Like Me let people put volunteer their symptoms, drugs they’re taking, and discussions of their experience.

One disability activist group I studied met in Second Life and discussed personal information about living with a disability. One of their causes was to fight for patient rights. I once asked if they were worried about members of another group they planned actions against eavesdropping. One person explained, “At least that would mean that they cared about what we had to say!”

Predicting what people want to keep private is highly situated. Maybe the first step would be that privacy experts would stop giving us privacy prescriptions and start encouraging us to reflect on our privacy needs.

Tactical Biopolitics

Sarah Freeman at Feminist Review has blogged about Kavita Philip and Beatriz da Costa’s newly released volume Tactical Biopolitics. She focuses in particular on subRosa’s art:

Biopower, for Foucault, moves beyond the local disciplinary and containment of an individual and instead takes entire groups or populations as its central focus. So what subRosa has successfully depicted in their artwork are the various methods by which the capitalized and medicalized state apparatus has attempted to control women’s bodies and sexualities.

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