Archive for » January, 2012 «

Postcolonial Computing: A Tactical Survey

Kavita Philip, Paul Dourish, and I co-authored a piece for Science, Technology, and Human Values called Postcolonial Computing: A Tactical Survey. The piece brings together feminist science technology studies with postcolonial understandings of culture and theory to offer some tactics for detangling contemporary temporary politics. Enjoy! We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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On the politics of being ugly

Inspired by an article on turn-of-the-19th-century American whiteness this morning, I made my first tumblr-style triptych.

Other things I learned along the way:

  • Several major US cities, including Chicago, San Francisco, and Omaha, had “Ugly Laws” making it punishable by law for people deemed to be ugly or unsightly to be caught in public. [sourcesourcewikipedia]
  • Ayatollah Khomeini sanctioned Iranian nose jobs as compatible with Islam, saying “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” [sourcesource] Of course, by solely focusing on the “indigenization” of nose jobs under Islam, we miss the histories of Euro-American eugenics and race classifications that shaped those very definitions of beauty, both in Iran and among the diaspora living abroad.
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Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters: “utterly deplorable” behavior

Today we’re greeted again by images desecration, brutality, and celebration as YouTube screenshots hit the news showing Marines urinating on dead Taliban soldiers — with other Marines out of frame filming it, of course. Hillary Clinton condemned the acts and claimed that they are utterly incompatible with the values of “the American people” and the discipline of the military. Consistently, the behavior is located in the aberrant soldiers that we as a nation can come together to declare as the exception that emphasizes our distance from this event.

What if making these films isn’t the exception? What if it is instead the symptom — the eruption — of a culture of media spectacles of domination by forces convinced of their opponents inhumanity — or their own righteousness? I submit as evidence the t-shirt declaring “God will judge our enemies * We’ll arrange the meeting.” I spotted this shirt on a flight from Newark to Orange County two months ago. I was shocked that somebody would wear that in public, that they would wear that in public in such a regionally heterogeneous place as an airport, and at the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the shirt — the this man is god’s sweeper.

The video of the marines urinating isn’t just evidence of men urinating. It is evidence of a social milieu where you can get those people behind the frame to film this thing. It’s evidence of a milieu where marines felt like this act should be commemorated in the larger public that is YouTube viewership.

In a Radical History Review piece on Abu Ghraib, Nicholas Mirzoeff points out that breaking people into lumps of bare life is a documented interrogation strategy for the CIA and the army: “Declassified CIA and Army interrogation manuals make it clear that the point of all humiliation was to break down what the military understands as the civilized veneer of the mind to break through to the supposedly primitive core, where resistance is less effective” (2005:52). Freud gone wild.

These strategies of breaking down and unleashing primitivism isn’t just reserved for the interrogated. I had a high school friend who joined the Marines who explained that part of Basic Training was to break soldiers down to a primal place. He told me about an exercise where the marine to be placed in a deep hole and left to scream at the sky as loudly and deeply as they could muster until their superior tells them they can stop.

Jennifer Terry, professor of Women’s Studies at UCI, has also shown that making such videos is also a routine part of military action for documenting operations, proving the effectiveness of particular violent techniques, to inspire adherents to one’s cause, and to mock opponents. “They are part of larger and psychological and affective dimensions of this kind of war,” (“Killer Entertainments” in Vectors Journal). You can view the US military and opposition force videos that Terry collects, curates, and juxtaposes in Vectors multimedia journal. Videography is routine.

I’m no fan of the Taliban, but it is downright deceptive to declare that these recurring videos of violence are just the work of bad apples.

Digital Literacy in the News

The Guardian is hosting a large digital literacy campaign. (Thanks for the reference via Nana and friends).

Yikes! All the gender, race, technology, and education bromides of yesteryear warmed over and gussied up in a 2012 all-you-can-eat buffet. They’re so clichéd that it would be insufferably dull to list pedantic critiques, so let’s play some party games:

1. Spot the girl-child-of-color receiving her digital training!

In both of the two main campaign-launch photos, the foreground, on the margin and slightly blurred, shows a white child; the center face, in sharp focus, is a girl (varies from Asian- to Afro- British). At first glance simply centering diversity (and contesting the digitial divide) in a standard techno-progress narrative, it also feeds the anti-immigrant / anti-Black narratives that see white British citizens’s education as somehow marginalised, or usurped, by people of color and immigrants. Here the Asian-geek stereotypes and the Afro-British centering would occupy different fear-filled roles in the racist narratives of improving British education. Hmm, a rather clever photo if your intention is to attract a range of left- and right- wing readers to this live blog on digital literacy…

2. Spot the deterministic story about inherent gender differences !

“Geek perception of computer science putting off girls, expert warns.” Groan. There’ve been almost two decades of critique of this model. The article hits all the major stereotypes – everything from spreadsheets to war games is said to be an automatic turn-off for girls – and, believe it or not, it actually ends on a “positive” note by naming Engineer Barbie among girl-encouraging initiatives.

3. Spot the story about university-industry partnerships!

Workers of the future must be digital, not analog. So there’s the warning to schools and universities to look sharp about training workers for real-world employment, or risk becoming dead-end educators. There are predictable quotes from Mercedes engineers and Education ministers about modernising education. The shiny rewards here are slightly more exciting than Engineer Barbie:successful education programmes are offered the chance to create students who will design the next generation’s scenes of Death Eaters flying across the river Thames – this is, surely, enough incentive to cross art, design, and computational pedagogy? Jokes apart, this reminds me of critiques (such as Zelda‘s, or The Simpsons‘) of art-school graduates who are tracked toward sweatshop-design-labour, and also of the untimely death of truly experimental interdisciplinary programmes like ACE.

4.  Spot the Hollywood script !

Yeah, of course, Mark Zuckerberg features in this feel-good story. And there’s the predictable Brilliant-libertarian-geek-versus-Stodgy-Government accompanying story: “What governments don’t seem to understand is that software is the nearest thing to magic that we’ve yet invented.” Not far behind is the summons to change the world by coding it:  “All you need to change the world is imagination, programming ability and access to a cheap PC.” Voilå: ICT4D! Just 3 short steps from hollywood to academic script.

I could go on. There are, of course, good intentions and some nice ideas buried somewhere here, but for the most part, this is vacuous stuff. Party-game jokes aside, it’s depressing, and no laughing matter, that debates on science education in a supposedly progressive newspaper are still framed in such clichéd ways, when they could draw on years of critical work from STS, science education, and popular movements (ranging from the Levellers to Creative Commons). More food for thought for us : we’re in fields that are now becoming more interesting and complex in their insights on these questions, but, apparently, as our understanding improves, we grow more and more distant from the things that get called “real world pragmatics” – those issues that drive the apparent constraints of recession economics. We could easily pick holes in every term in the previous sentence. But also, more practically: I think that more public funding for these purportedly esoteric areas would actually result in measurably better results in many of the areas the Guardian cares about, as well as some of the areas we care about. But sketching that out is a difficult and challenging task (and not one that our careers easily allow time for).