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Janelle Monae’s Liberationist Posthuman Pop

In the winter of 2013, something amazing happened to me: I was hit with the fan-girl itch at the age of 31, something that hadn’t happened for years. It all went down when someone posted the video for Q.U.E.E.N. on my Facebook wall. Here was this young woman, Janelle Monae, and even legendary Erykah Badu wanted to be on her record. She was singing about self-respect, and it didn’t come at the cost of putting anyone else down. Instead, she points out all this rudeness, all the ways that other people cut each other down (I can’t believe all of the things they say about me/walk in the room they throwing shade left to right), but she just doesn’t care. As Richard Feynman liked to say, “What do you care what other people think?”

I did not know it yet, but I had been falling in love with the ways that pop artists imaginatively projected of blackness into the future since my early teens. I dug on Busta Rhymes and later, got sugar-high on Nicki Minaj’s crazy wigs and alter-egos. But Janelle was special. She approached the future as not a funhouse, but an ongoing struggle, and carried herself with grace and dignity. For starters, she wore a tuxedo, which as I was to come to learn, she saw as a uniform, and like a uniform, was a social signifier of labor. She doesn’t just sing, she works. Monae is conscious and she wants her music to raise the consciousness of others.

In point of contrast, consider Nicki singing about how she’s the greatest and how Lil Kim (truly, her mentor) is a “stupid hoe” (even if she does pay homage in the video to legendary Grace Jones). Janelle sings instead about how she wants to lead people towards their salvation by inspiring revolutionary love.

Janelle sings sings of comfort being an android (as Nicki does with being a Barbie girl). These figures do not shy away at “dehumanization,” but rather appropriate tools and technologies for self-discovery. These are hallmarks of Afrofuturism, a term coined by cultural critic Mark Dery. While cybertheorists have often studied the ways in which information technologies provide a challenge to liberal humanist views of subjectivity (e.g. Katherine Hayles), too often they overlook the ways in which groups of people who have historically been denied their full humanity make sense of these technologies. For example, sound studies scholar Alexander Weheliye provides a rebuttal to contemporary critiques of the degradation of the human voice in the recording industry by analyzing vocoders and autotuning as posthumanist technologies that expand rather than degrade the ability of black voices to make music. He and others included in sociologist Alondra Nelson’s special issue of Social Text illustrate how considerations of race and the goals of Afrofuturism likewise expand the analytic power of cybertheory.

Cyberfeminism and Afrofuturism have more than a few things in common. At the core of both is the idea that there is no garden to get back to, but rather that humans are deeply shaped by their technologies. Always have been, always will be. So if we want our politics to help us shape a brighter future, we had better consider what technologies might offer. For cyberfeminism, the erasure of the biology of reproduction (as in the writings of Shulamith Firestone) and the possibility of living beyond gender in online spaces (Sadie Plant) has been key. For Afrofuturists (from novelist Octavia Butler to jazz musician Sun Ra), the desired futures have been ones that do not erase race, but allow difference to not only peacefully coexist, but thrive in so doing.

In the science fiction world that Monae speculates as the scene until which her musical narrative and “emotion pictures” (her creatively apt term for music videos) unfold, humans have finally perfected androids and gynoids–human-shaped robots who serve them. This drive for robotic assistants as a replacement for uppity servants who are likely to complain about their human rights has been fundamental to American technological production. But so too have we also longed for make matter in our own image: from Pygmalion to Japanese Geminoid robots, non-reproductive humanoid creations offer a sense of godlike power—perhaps man’s freedom from women, as well as his servants. In Monae’s world, both these dreams have come true, and her alter-ego Cindy Mayweather, is just such a gynoid: a woman made to serve.

I was long skeptical about the idea of humanoid robots, especially the idea that machines could be made conscious–not politically conscious, but just having a mind, a sense of self and emotion. I saw these a dreams coming from a reductionist view of humanity. Monae changed that for me. By articulating the android as the fantasy of servitude, she highlighted the gendered and racialized dimensions of this figure. Androids are the ultimate exploitable “other,” a human-like being who does not need to be afforded the rights of humanity because it was created by human hands instead of human loins. But is this really okay? Especially if we do succeed in making conscious robots, what kind of society would we create by treating them as lesser humans? Our need for dehumanized service degrades us all.

Mayweather becomes a pop star. She starts out singing at android auctions (Many Moons emotion picture) but she’s singing about freedom. Android freedom. She wants androids to respect themselves and self actualize. She sings about love and that, too is revolutionary. She was made capable of love (a little gold door opens), perhaps because that was considered an engineering feat, but it’s not merely good entertainment for a robot diva to belt her heart out. She wants to share that love. She wants robots to love themselves and each other. She wants them to respect themselves, to grant themselves enjoyment and pleasure (Electric lady, get way down). Saying these kinds of things to a people who have been placed (engineered) within a role of servitude is revolutionary. Robots are not supposed to care about self-preservation. That is antithetical to Azimov’s three rules of robotics.

But Mayweather’s revolution is not just a matter of us versus them. Instead, it is important to Monae’s narrative that Mayweather breaks the rules of her society by transcending boundaries and falling in love with a human. When Mayweather and Anthony Greendown fall in love, Monae demonstrates a symmetry, an equivalence between the oppressor and the oppressed, a common core of something which may or may not be humanity in a biological sense, but which is nevertheless the deeply powerful, spiritual capacity to love.

In love is the possibility for something that is much bigger than a happy conclusion to a romantic story. In recognizing a universal capacity to love is the possibility for unity, for a better society. Love is the foundation for revolution. This is not to say that there will not be violence and struggle in the fight for a better future—after all, the narratives of both the Metropolis and the ArchAndroid albums follow Mayweather as she unsuccessfully tries to flee her dismantling, a a fate she fears.

We do not yet know what her fate will be, but we can hope that she will be saved by an uprising of those androids and human allies who she has helped make conscious through her music, those willing to fight the Cold War that will “bring wings to the weak” and “grace to the strong,” leading evil to crumble. We can hope that their cyborgian revolutionary love will come to the rescue and in so doing destroy the oppressive society so committed to exploitation of the weak that it literally builds its own slaves. These revolutionaries will Dance Apocalyptic, as Mayweather herself foretold, and will be given a chance to build a better future that celebrates the humanity and cultural contribution of diverse beings, no matter how they were made.

This post is by Marisa Brandt and cross-posted to her blog technomediatrix

Afrofuturist speculation: an introduction

With the publication of Speculate This! and reverberations of Occupy, there’s lots of talk about futures as a method. Afrofuturism has been doing this for a while, and some DE fans have been avid readers of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney. For newbies like me, I’m sharing Alondra Nelson giving a 6 minute introduction to afro-futurism:

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nobrocomputing is alive!

After I posted about nobrocomputing to Difference Engines last week, some amazing things happened with other people on twitter. (All usernames here are twitter names.) JoshHonn tweeted about the post, ncecire (Natalia Cecire) retweeted that. deannaday also retweeted and cc:ed NEnsmenger (Nathan Ensmenger), a researcher on gender in computing history. @NEnsmenger responded by posting a bunch of amazing images from his research archive to his blog “Computer Boys Take Over.” ncecire and thesonginmyhead (Thomas Conner) have tweeted other amazing images at me. (Oh, and also thanks to the tumblr coders, janitors, power plant workers that make this possible.)

So I initiated the tumblr with the URL, but you can see it is already a seed generated through collective labors. Nathan Ensmenger has been co-moderating and posting more of his great images from the archive around The Computer Boys Take Over.

Volunteers wanted! You can submit images, submit ideas for kinds of images, or even submit interesting interviews and stories (though tumblr as a medium works best with a lot of images). Let’s make nobrocomputing a place where people can send images, documents, and sources that transform what counts as computing.

the prejudice nobody seems to mind

This is a little off-topic so I’ll keep this short. Has anyone else noticed that writing reflecting generational prejudice seems to be everywhere these days? Twenty years ago, I would come across occasional snide references to Boomers and roll my eyes and move on. Nowadays, however, it seems that every other article I read on social, political, and cultural issues snipes at one age cohort or another in a completely stereotyped way. I’m not talking about those demographic characteristics that are actually supported by research, but rather about a set of  value judgments that pretend to interpret the statistics and very often substitute entirely for any consideration of facts. Boomers: entitled and selfish. Millennials: lazy and dependent. Sound familiar? Exactly. It’s a peculiar form of agism that can be aimed at any age range of choice (as opposed to just those who rank as ‘old’ in the eyes of the writer).

Given all the ongoing conversations aimed at eliminating other forms of prejudice—homophobia, racism, sexism—when and how did it become ok to tag large groups of people as defective according to when they were born? There is a good deal of really quite silly discussion about whether specific labels apply (Millennials: just dependent or also lazy?), but practically none that I’ve read suggesting that this kind of labeling is odious on the face of it. I find myself wondering what larger function this outburst of generational prejudice is serving. Could it be a way of bleeding off energy that could otherwise be applied to discussing the economics of class in America? Generational warfare instead of ‘class warfare’?

Paul Edwards on how to write an op-ed as an academic

“Somebody once told me that to get an op-ed published, the secret is to write 80% of it in advance and then wait for a “hook” to appear in the media. Then you write the first paragraph in the last paragraph, which has to be some kind of policy recommendation, and fire away.” – Paul Edwards in a comment on a Society for History of Technology blog discussion from October

I think I have one of these cooking that I need to write about efforts to get girls to code or celebrate women who hack. I just need to wait for the next time Google or Facebook launch one of these things. Probably a few weeks from now.

medievalpoc and critical archive production as spectacle (featuring a rumination on images of women in computing)

I’ve been following People of Color in European Art History ( this week. The experience of seeing very old manuscript paintings of Dante’s Inferno showing Virgil as a person of color just pulls a jenga piece out of the bottom of my white supremacist basic education from kindergarten onwards. According to an NPR profile, the tumblr started with an art historian sharing pieces she encountered in her own work and exchanging ideas with other academics. It seems to have spread like wildfire though. As a media / STS / informatics person, I don’t do research related to medieval people for the most part at all, but the tumblr has been powerful for me because these images of medieval Europe are so central to American education from grades 7 on. How many history classes did we have that showed images of an all white medieval West, except when interrupted by those Moors or when crusaders went a traveling? The tumblr shows mundane cominglings of people of different colors in medieval art, images purified away by dominant historical practices and pedagogy. The topic of this blog vividly, compellingly, simply puts a set of images out there and seems to have ignited people’s interest. People from different parts of the world send questions, send their own finds, or even go out and produce interviews and generate archives to contribute back. To top it all off, the production of the archive is itself a kind of spectacle — an evolving story that, as a follower, I watch with anticipation and excitement.

Then again, medievalpoc’s challenge is to place show that people of color have always been part of Europe. The public (including my) view of medieval Europe is so whitewashed, that simply the presence proof — the image — is compelling. This is the kind of text that circulates well through the dashboards of tumblr — the colorful image that catches your attention as you casually scroll scroll scroll. Once she has you, then the second argument — that people of color were actually erased follows on.

Zinc has been talking about generating archives for science and technology in the global south for a few years. Workshops and online networks of participants are one way to do it. FemTechNet has also been generating archives and materials for feminist science studies, but their efforts have been largely among networks of academics. Those academics have been working with their students to storm wikis, generate interviews, compile research. I’m inspired by the way medievalpoc seems to circulate more casually and broadly than femtechnet work and wonder if there is something to learn from medievalpoc. Medieval POC makes me wonder if tumblr can be used as one way of reaching wide audiences, collecting from many places, and making the production of the archive a spectacle and event in itself (rather than materials for the production of other events).

By analogy, maybe there’s a feminist STS project that could take similar form. Women in computing advocates (e.g. Anita Borg Institute) often use the presence of women in computing history as the exception that proves the possibility. I’ve been frustrated for a while about the way well-meaning computing institutions deal with gender in computing by simply attempting to include women (future, present, and past) in the already gendered mold of the contemporary computer programmer. Here’s a picture of Grace Hopper and some women who wrote Fortran; they could code so can you! This Google Doodle from Dec 2013 celebrates Grace Hopper by showing her as a coder directly manipulating a machine — the model of computing celebrated today as one of a person/craftsman/artist manipulating media as an act of creativity.

Grace Hopper types at a computer terminal.

Take the above Doodle, for example. It is anachronistic; during Hopper’s time and for the next few years, computer programming was considered women’s work lower in status than the  occupations of manager and scientist occupied by men. The word computer used to name women who would calculate, and even after machines were introduced, it was often those women who would manipulate them to do calculations, as Jen Light has shown. There were lots of “Computer Girls,” as Nathan Ensmenger has tracked, but they were displaced as computing professionalized as a male-dominated discipline. Let’s say nothing of how the concept of computer science was defined to exclude the computing work women were more likely to be doing — assembly, technical writing, building educational tools.

The Computer Girls do data processing on the machine, managed by men.

Is it possible to crowdsource an archive of non-men in computing in a way that also challenges the boundaries of what is considered computing? Interviews with secretaries who coded, pictures of ads recruiting women to assembly like the one found by DiffEng contributor Göde Both, scraps of evidence from information processing student in the 80s who witnessed the professionalization of Computer Science into a male-dominated Engineering bachelor’s degree course of study. Rather than women in computing, perhaps it could just be nobrocomputing. Why nobro? I was looking for a category that would let the project generate insights about the exclusions of women, people of color, queer people, and others in a concept of “computing” that privileges the participation of white men. Bro is not perfect, but it’s the most succinct I could think of for the moment. I’m happy for alternatives, please suggest!


a modest proposal

I’m new here on Difference Engines—you can think of me as a 12th century physician of Constantinople, if you like— so first I’d like to say hello to everyone before plunging in.

I’ve been increasingly horrorified at all that is being done to persecute women of child-bearing age in the United States, and I’m just sick  of reading stories like this one. Reducing access to contraception, chipping away at the right to abortion: the list goes on and on, a relentless rollback of women’s rights. I will leave aside questions of the soul or the viability of a fetus;  I consider these red herrings. Whether the discussion pertains to fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus, the arguments around limiting women’s choices ultimately turn on a single point: the devaluation of the actual woman in favor of her potential offspring. I do not see a sound ethical argument for such a position. A woman may choose to risk herself for a potential child, but such a sacrifice should not be forced on her.

The risks of child-bearing vary from person to person but in all cases there is at least some chance of long-term disability or death for the woman.§ To refuse a woman full autonomy in deciding, with her physician, whether to carry forward a pregnancy and how to terminate an unwanted or problematic pregnancy is to force her to undergo this risk (as well as the risk of serious complications). I do not think it is right for 40% of all U.S. citizens‡ to be legally required to risk death in quite this way, through denial of simple, relatively inexpensive options that we know can greatly reduce her health risks.

For these and other reasons, I believe we must make a stand against all forms of reproductive coercion enshrined in law, and to this end I make the following proposal. It is time for women of child-bearing age to go out on strike. Literally. Together, we should refuse to bear any more children until all the laws standing between us and our child-bearing decisions are struck down. We should take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that we do not get pregnant. It won’t be perfect, and it won’t be pretty, but we could collectively crash the national birth rate overnight if we put our minds to it. True, it would be an enormous sacrifice for an entire generation of women to give up children altogether. But between the frustrations it will create at the family level and the likely economic consequences at the national level, it may be the surest way to get results. (Remember Lysistrata?) There are many people who urgently need to be reminded that there are no children without the bodies and labor of women, and that women are citizens, not chattel. We cannot continue to allow real women to be trumped by phantom children in the framing of our laws. A strike by today’s potential child-bearers would be in line with a long American tradition of organizing in the name of fair treatment, from the labor strikes of the early 20th century through the marches and sit-ins of the Civil Rights era.

Women of child-bearing age, withhold your labor. Both kinds.


§ The U.S. maternal mortality rate, at 12.7 per 100,000 births in 2010, is double what it was a quarter-century ago and puts the U.S. in a disgraceful 50th position among all countries.

‡Women make up just over half the U.S. population, and about 80% of women now bear children, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

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When Colbert names it, it is a thing – makers not takers

“As a #maker, I’m sick of the low income takers out there always asking for more.” – Stephen Colbert

With a good laugh, this Colbert marks a trend we noted here at Difference Engines back in 2012 in “Mitt Romney or Silicon Valley Designer?”. There, we quoted Pinterest founder Matt Sharp as saying: “Work with really nice people whose goal it is to make things and not to take things. Because there are people out there who just want to take things.”

The Colbert Report
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Making is more than the proverbial putting labor into nature that supposedly creates value in classical political economy. This particular era’s American predilection for making marks some labor as more interesting, creative, and unalienated as the labors of those many manufacturing people in places like China. Creativity has become more than just a privileged name for everyday ingenuities. Creativity marks certain kinds of ingenuity as intellectual property and authorial attributions. Chinese hackerspace elites know this, as Silvia Lindtner’s work shows us; with the government, they work to evolve their country’s image from “made in China” to “created in China.” Creativity seems to have a race, and the sort of making that Colbert celebrates (and lampoons) is raced as well. What’s the difference between these makers and the makers who labor to create widgets? Makers doesn’t mean workers. Makers in these innovation discourses marks those who “build” whole new markets — or at least commandeer them by getting the intellectual property and commandeering the labor forces. Makers of markets — the blue ocean strategists and Schumpeterian creative destroyers — are are makers of the biggest rocks of all.

Modern, young girls love beat music, fast cars and …

Last year I took a group of students on a field trip to the Nixdorf computer museum in Paderborn, Germany. Just by accident my eyes were drawn to the poster you can see next to this post. It didn’t have an explanatory text, just a caption saying “job opening of the Nixdorf-Computer from 1968.“ So, what does the poster say?

Job Opening Nixdorf Computers, 1968

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Modern, young girls love beat music, fast cars and … a timely occupation.
Our company offers 15 to 22 year-old girls
the possibility to participate in the manufacturing of computers, the most advanced machines of our time.

How can you contribute? There are many parts of the manufacturing process that are even too complicated for our technicians [male] and hence can only be executed by skillful woman’s hands.

Drop by and visit us! We will gladly show you your future workplace.

By the way, no formal training is required — only calm hands.

I was puzzled by this poster. While it told me a familiar story about gender difference, it also complicated my views on 1960s gender stereotypes. There is the expected sexism, for example, addressing future workers as girls [Mädchen] instead of women [Frauen] and reducing female bodies to skillful hands. However, the ad also appeals to the technological interest of the reader by evoking a narrative of progress, frontier spirit and adventure. In addition, it claims that some parts of the work process are too complicated for the male technicans. Even today German women are usually constructed as lacking interest and skill in technology. Hence, this poster was a surprise to me.

job opening at Nixdorf ca. 1968

Display at the Computer Museum in Paderborn, Germany

Of course, the world of computer manufacturing wasn’t as glamorous as it is promised here. These jobs usually had no opportunity for advancement, were paid badly and did not offer the security of a long-time employment.

Yet, I am wondering, who is driving the “fast cars” that the “girls” are supposed to be obsessed with? I doubt anyone who worked on this job could afford a car back in those days. Apart from that, in 1965 only 1/5 of the women had a driver’s license in Germany.

La Piedra Ausente // The Absent Stone

Sandra Rozental did her PhD research in the town of Coatlinchán in the municipality of Texcoco, just outside of Mexico City. As an anthropologist,  the time she spent there and digging around in archives is not surprising– anthropologists do that sort of thing.  She was on the trail of a story about how knowledge, history, and ownership were caught up in modernist Mexican nationbuilding of the 1960s, and how they still are. The resulting research is quite good and I’d recommend her articles to anyone interested, but that’s not what I want to write about.

I want to tell you about her film, “La Piedra Ausente.”  In English, it’s “The Absent Stone.”

el traslado 02

Produced in partnership with Jesse Lerner, it is not an ethnographic piece exactly. It’s a documentary, and seems more of an ethnographic analogue to me. It’s– ok, I’m a sucker for beautiful complicated film, even if I am not a film person, per se. This is incredible.

It’s particularly worth looking at for fans of cinema, of Mexico, and, possibly most relevant here, for academics thinking about the media in which they might render their work.

Made of archival footage, animation, and interviews with Coatlinchán locals and the engineers and architects who took their stone away, the film is about an ancient carved rock. The rock, transported by radical new feats of engineering to be displayed in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, became just as much a symbol of Mexico’s modern patrimony and industry as of its prehispanic past.

The documentary tells a good story: the largest carved stone produced in the ancient Americas, referred to as either the god Tlaloc or the goddess  Chalchiuhtlicue,  was in Coatlinchán, half finished and a bit broken, until the mid 1960s. Its removal to Mexico City in 1964 provoked an uprising, or something like one, and an armed intervention. The stone is still remembered in Coatlinchán, in such visual representations as  the replica below.

La Replica

Something really good happened here, something which stands on its own as a piece of film. It is enjoyable in its own right and informative in its own ways.  This film shows a non-didactic commitment to rendering people talking history, talking identity, talking technology and knowledge and ownership, that is really complex and unapologetically ambivalent.

Here’s the trailer. See it if you get the chance. Are there other academic/public crossover pieces that inspire you? What do you think makes for a good one?

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