Archive for » September, 2009 «

Lisa Nakamura and Difference Engines are going steady

Lisa Nakamura has been posting her thoughts and analysis of digital race issues to Difference Engines for a while. We’re excited to report that she’s joining as a permanent contributor to diffeng. Yay!

Lisa Nakamura is the Director of the Asian American Studies Program, Professor in the Institute of Communication Research and Media Studies Program and Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. She is the author of Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity and Identity on the Internet (Routledge, 2002) and co-editor of Race in Cyberspace (Routledge, 2000). She has published articles in Critical Studies in Media Communication, PMLA, Cinema Journal, The Women’s Review of Books, Camera Obscura, and the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies. She is editing a collection with Peter Chow-White entitled Digital Race: An Anthology (Routledge, forthcoming) and is working on a new monograph on social inequality in virtual worlds, tentatively entitled “Workers Without Bodies: Towards a Theory of Race and Digital Labor in Virtual Worlds, or, Why World of Warcraft needs a Civil Rights Movement.”

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Google Books: Thinking Like Engineers Rather than Librarians

I wish Google Book Search would hire a humanist and/or librarians and actually listen to them. I really appreciate digitized books but feel that they could be so much more than they are now.

Here, Siva Viadhyanathan asks of Google Book Search questions that I know librarians have developed a whole discipline to think about. He asks critical questions about the politics of search ranking and privacy of browsing records — questions that have been asked about search more generally but cannot be passed off as unknown territory when it comes to books.

Reading the post about Vaidhyanathan’s questions reminded me that I don’t know of a single librarian or even humanist on the Google Book Search team (and I know two of their engineers and several of their past product managers). My engineer friends’ joking pride at never visiting the college library don’t inspire confidence. I worry that much is lost when the business and engineering of information sciences is left to people trained as engineers. Engineering is hard and important, but it is not about understanding the role of books in culture, knowledge, and power. For a start, intertextuality is a lot more than the overt citations made between written works; engineering and to a lesser extent social sciences literally cite their references to ideas directly, but many works are speaking to audiences you can’t algorithmically parse out of the text. Second, knowledge politics is far more than civic participation; as a start, there’s no such thing as neutral or unbiased so we need to stop talking about your search ranking goals that way. Third, libraries are more than fuzzy search engines and a library is more than a dusty, paper database; if you’re offering to radically reconfigure a whole category of information institution, it would be nice to hear about your hopes for that institution can be in the future and see you taking steps to do that collaboratively. It’s not at all crazy for people to be freaked out about a corporation, where benevolence is a privilege of profitable times, taking such a central role in the distribution of books which had been far more distributed and decentralized. (Disclaimer: I’m not a library historian, so I just mean it had seemed more decentralized to me within my decades of life.)

I have to wonder how the female gendering of library professions is tied in with the relative silence on information studies concerns in Google Book Search from what I can tell from the outside, having used the services and having seen a few talks on it. But the people I know on the team are smart, feminist, and doing what they know they can do within the crazy complexity of making a product that doesn’t breakdown in a crazy mess of powerful organizational actors and infrastructures. This isn’t an indictment of their work so far, which I benefit from. But it is a earnest and concerned call.

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Racist gadgetry?

Via disgrasian, racist voice control on the iPhone and racist digital camera “blink deteector”

I don’t much mileage out of the words racist and sexist because they get used so broadly and differently that they usually just get read as attack but don’t actually explain why the situation is messed up. That said, these kinds of technology examples are exactly the sort of thing that set me down the path of feminist technology obsession that brings you this blog today. In Margolis and Fisher’s “Unlocking the Clubhouse,” I learned about conference phone systems tuned and tested only on male voices, literally giving voices that tended higher the short shrift. Got other examples of this sort of thing?