laptop signage, or, what people see when we work with them

It’s been a long time with no blogging by me, but I think about Difference Engines all the time and have resolved to do better with it this year. I believe very much in collective blogging, in women’s blogging, and in the people who do this blog. Lily Irani and I got some F2F time at the New School conference on Virtual Labor, “The Internet as Playground and Factory.” Fun times, and I need to post about it before the memory is entirely gone.

This weekend I’ll be presenting at the first DML conference in LaJolla, entitled “Diversifying Participation.” I will try to blog some from there. I’m presenting on two panels: one paper is called “unfree labor: working at playing with race in digital games” and the other is “virtual labor migration in digital games: factionalized identities and racial minorities in world of warcraft” but since the presentations will be 5 minutes long or so I doubt it will be getting too deep.

So that’s the update.

Lately I’ve been thinking about conferences as performative venues and how esp. at digital media conferences the use of stickers on the laptop function like signage or endorsements, usually for causes rather than for products, though with new media those things sometimes blend together. I’m including two images of laptops to illustrate this: mine and my partner Christian Sandvig’s.


My laptop, which is what people are looking at when I give papers at conferences and sit at meetings, has four stickers on the red Speck plastic case for the macbook Air (solid state, thank you University of Illinois!) I made one myself, was given two at conferences, and the fourth was given to me by my eight year old daughter, who made it at school as part of a project to sell parents artwork that can be printed on mugs, tshirts, and other commodities. We did not choose to buy any of these things, but got the stickers for free. The one she made, of a flower, is also on Christian’s laptop:


I got the GLS sticker from the Games, Learning, and Society conference in Madison, Wisconsin last summer, along with a pair of socks with the same elf-girl knitted in them. I got the same sticker the year before, and put it on my ancient Mac g4 tower at work. The was given to me at the Internet as Playground and Factory conference by an Israeli software designer who makes an open source software project that is “an opensource layer above any website.” He seemed cool and his product is free and interesting and I like the sticker.

The little blue sticker that say “Good Job” has an interesting story. I have a Brother p-touch label maker at home, and my daughter uses it to make stickers sometimes. She made this one, which is pretty clearly imitative of the stamps that her teachers use on her homework, and I found it, and decided to put it on mine because my scholars and colleagues HARDLY EVER HEAR OR SEE THESE PARTICULAR WORDS. Digital media is, like all academics, a spectacularly praise-free environment. I wish that it was bigger, and that I could see it myself, but hopefully when people read it it does something.

I can’t decode my partner’s stickers for him–that’s really his job. I can say that he is a Berkman Fellow this year and that the ostrich sticker came from a cafe in North Portland where they had a glass dish of them.

There are lots of stickers around at cafes, conferences, and other places where people who would put them on their laptops gather. These remind me of zine culture in the early nineties–I was given a sticker from a student of mine at Vista Community College when I taught there while looking for a tenure track job. He was a skateboarder who had a zine, and was giving them to people–I put it on a notebook because I didn’t own a laptop then.

These are pretty clearly about declaring cultural affiliation. Cory Doctorow had a really big collection of laptop stickers, some of them about the EFF, last time I saw him speak at a conference. Now when I see them at conferences I see them as advertisements: for the projects/events that they reference, but mainly for the person who displays them. They seem to show that you’re still young, and will replace your laptop often enough to keep them fresh, and that you think that consumer culture *must* be modified in order to make a point about making and participation. I put mine on a case, which is totally wussing out. Though I don’t expect to keep this laptop for more than a few years, it makes me feel a little better about “taking care of it” correctly. This is no doubt about being raised as a thrifty Japanese American woman by two parents who spent time in internment camps during the war (Heart Mountain and Amache). We rarely threw things out and were not allowed to deface any parts of the house with Wacky Pack stickers; I never asked because there was no question that this was *absolutely forbidden.*”  What kind of cultural affiliation was important enough to risk damaging the value of a commodity that you might need to sell in the future?  Having consumer goods was all about preserving them.  None of our cars (Fords and Lincolns, and later, a Volvo and a Jaguar) had stickers on them.

I wonder if the relative absence of stickers on women’s and maybe people of color’s laptops (as well as the absence of these people themselves) at digital media conferences is reflective of a thrift-culture that has to do with a different stance towards obsolescence, thrift, value, and preservation?  There is a different sense of an object’s futurity if you are one of these people perhaps–“re-making” is a luxury if you know you’re handing down your machine to a relative who doesn’t have one, or selling it on Craig’s List when you get a new one. When my computer is replaced, it will return from whence it came–to the warm bosom of the University of Illinois.

Apple gives out stickers but I have never seen them on an actual computer. Weirdly, I have seen them on cars–one Saab and a few VW’s. I threw mine away, but not without a pang, because like everything that Apple does they are nice (again, thrift). Portland Oregon is the best place for bumperstickers I have ever seen: my favorite is “my other car is a broom,” which was often found on a weathered Subaru wagon or an elderly Toyota Tercel wagon with the long-throw manual transmission shifter and a Mexican blanket covering the back seat.

It would be good if I could get some stickers from Sarai: that’s a cause that I’d like to advertise a lot. But I don’t think that they make them.

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4 Responses
  1. Zelda says:

    I’ve been awol in codespace for the last few months, so I am a bit late to this posting. But I wanted to mention why I never put stickers on my own laptop or car: it’s the same reason I won’t generally wear clothes with visible logos. It’s not so much that I don’t care to show my affiliations as that I want to avoid being a free advertising mule for any part of corporate culture. I realize this doesn’t hold with quite the same force for things like causes one believes in, but I still resist sloganization of my life, even in trivial matters. It’s always already too easy for people to treat you like the sum of the parts they can see. I have a feeling this may sound hopelessly pompous, but I think it’s really just my inner contrarian at work.

    And it’s not about keeping things pristine either. When it comes to the appearance of my computers, what I most value is the marks of our history together: the one with a cracked corner that I superglued back together after it bounced off the concrete, the worn lettering on much-used keys, the shiny patches from constant rubbing. I can certainly see how stickers might fill a similar function, a mnemonic to good days and bad.

  2. Jana says:

    No stickers on my laptop. It’s pretty old (7+ years) and probably not going to be replaced anytime soon.

    I can’t recall seeing stickers on any historians’ laptops at conferences, but that’s probably because I rarely see historians with laptops and we rarely even have conf rooms equipped with a projector (yes, we are a low-budget discipline).

    However, my partner & I do have an old-school tall black metal file cabinet at our apartment that’s covered with stickers–including a few apple/Mac stickers. Hmmmm…what does that say about us???

  3. Lisa nakamura says:

    Lilly: the top one is perfect. I don’t think that it gets held against you because of your CS chops. Christian told me that he often sees stickers used to cover up the apple logo, so there are definitely ppl out there who are actively trying to “corrupt” it.

  4. lilly says:

    My laptop has a couple of stickers on it. Here’s a link to it:
    I’m actually considering removing the top one though because, while it speaks to a methodological principle of humility I think is important in feminist and postcolonial research, I can’t help but wonder if as a grad student and as a woman, I shouldn’t be making performances of my confusion lest it should be held against me or undermine what I’m trying to give voice to.

    Funny thing about laptop stickers is that I used to put them on my mac 7 years ago or so and someone actually called me out for impugning the sleek and unified Jonathan Ive design. It was like I was corrupting perfection.