Archive for » March, 2010 «


Interdisciplinarity is hard! But you know what? Feminists have learned that it is crucial to work where the seams and borders get made.

It just got a little bit darker for a while

Yesterday, I found out that a brilliant light passed away. Leigh Star left us unexpectedly yesterday.

I’ve been interested in the politics and culture of technology since the Internet rocked my young world in the 90s. I remember sitting in my cubicle in 2003, browsing the web, and stumbling across Sorting Things Out by Geof Bowker and Leigh Star (partners in life and thought). “Holy crap,” I thought, “someone does think about this stuff!” Years later, I came to grad school and found so much of Leigh’s work to be speaking to issues few others would write about: invisible work, silence, power, and norms. She showed how the quotidian was laced with power relations and history. And she managed to offer productive and uncompromising critiques still with a sense of joy and empathy. She was not only a brilliant thinker, but also a human who was there for other humans (and non-humans). Beki Grinter writes about how Leigh helped her through dark parts of graduate school.

She didn’t only support. She inspired us to risk and experiment! It felt quite daring when Leigh suggested I look to Donna Haraway as a model for writing about the Postcolonial Computing work. HCI people don’t write like Donna Haraway, or can they? Leigh had a keen appreciation for when to write to your audience and when to push and stretch them to appreciate something different and politically important — when to do the work not only of analyzing, but also of the work of stretching language, form, and genre to help us know the world differently.

This journey through graduate school, both for me and at least three other people I know directly, was in part about learning to do the kind of work Leigh inspired so that we could think with her long into the future.

We’re still going to do that work, maybe even more so than before. But I sure wish we had her back.

LCD Soundsystem’s “Someone Great” kind of sums it up for me:
The worst is all the lovely weather,
I’m stunned, it’s not raining.
The coffee isn’t even bitter,
Because, what’s the difference?
There’s all the work that needs to be done,
It’s late, for revision.
There’s all the time and all the planning,
And songs, to be finished.

Soy Wars

At least once a year, I teach a class at a men’s prison– one of the few prisons, out of Illinois’ 46, that offers academic community college courses. The class is similar to a regular class with notable differences: the students are incredibly rigorous and living conditions are tragic, alienating, dulling and perverse. In this place, it is the classroom that mCeakes a small exception to the logic of confinement. In the prison, the classroom is practically sacared; men ask critical questions, pose intelligent problems and thoughtfully debate points. This doesn’t happen anywhere else on the prison grounds. Because this space and time is so coveted, I rarely hear students complain about work duties, cellies or officers. However, there is one complaint that I do hear often: soy in the food.

If the men were not consuming soy in the free world, they surely know a lot about it just by doing time in any of the state’s prisons. Many prisoners are Chicago and East St. Louis residents—city dwellers; now they live scattered around the state in and on farmland, amongst miles and miles of corn and soy fields. Sprayed, planted, sprayed again and harvested the soy and corn is visible from their very narrow cell windows.

In 2003, as a cost saving measure, Dept. of Correction substituted a significant amount of meat portions with soy, one of the state’s main crops and a big part of the federal farm bill. Soy rules the mid-west, so when Illinois made a deal with Archer Daniels Midland to add soy to the food, it not only saved money, it made money. However, the men at Danville prison, where I teach, regularly complain about it. It’s not that they are so picky about food—you can’t be picky about food in prison– it’s that they are worried about ‘feminization’. They believe that soy might lower the testosterone production, making men, well, altered. At least one recently published study says that soy does lower sperm count but researchers don’t know why. No one at the prison has uttered what kind of prisoner-cyborg this soy-food might create, but the myth is out there. Not just at Danville, but in many of the prisons. The state is fucking with them. In fact, many men have fallen ill, seriously ill with rashes, thyroid problems, irritable bowel syndrome and heart problems. There is a lawsuit pending right now. I see this ‘risk of feminization’ silly, even a bit offensive, but I do sympathize with their fear and recognize the reality experienced by these men.

There are strict regulations in place prohibiting various kinds medical research on prisoners but not other kinds of ‘experiments’. In this case, the experiments will not yield a study and placebo group, which might develop a new drug. The experiment is one of new relationships for state subsidies, with cost efficiency as the alibi. As state budgets shrink, it’s not just the schools that will feel the pinch. Instead of lowering the prison population, or creating programs that are proven to be cost efficient (because people get out and stay out, or have shorter terms in), states will most likely continue new experiments to trim unevenly distributed budgets of prisons.

Here are a few links that might be of interest:

Subservient robot Aiko

Human-Computer Interaction professor Beki Grinter blogs about a Japanese man’s life project: RealDoll-style, subservient robot Aiko

So there is a man that has a creepy imagination about his ideal woman — lots probably do. There’s the obvious problem that when people imagine what social role robots are good for, they tend to imagine women and servants fairly consistently. (Suchman’s Human-Machine Reconfigurations has a chapter tracking how these power relations pervade engineering and tech research.)

Anyone know about any alternative robotic culture jammers? Irvine Arts, Computation and Engineering alumni Brett Doar builds autonomous furniture that hilariously disrupts the faithful-servant trope:

What might other culturally disruptive robotics look like?