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.