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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

Click to Enlarge

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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Nikolas Rose’s “when we were structuralists,” and also getting dissed by STS

Nikolas Rose gets interviewed in this Public Culture (free excerpt w/o paywall) and it’s a little like listening to a seasoned old pro describing the muddling of getting to insight. I love Powers of Freedom, and in the interview we learn that Rose’s work on psychology (e.g. Governing the Soul) comes out of his experiences as a practitioner of child welfare psychology, both before and after his PhD. We hear about him muddling through Marx looking to answers to how subjects come to believe they are certain kinds of persons; we hear him struggling to decide that the answers aren’t there for him there. First, it’s a total relief to see the mess that others dwell in before getting to their sparkling insights. Second, it’s interesting to see the shadow life of the project as political questions about practice — the things we don’t usually see in methods section. If only more people wrote about their media interviews, consulting gigs, and activism as part of their work. Feminists were pretty good about this historically. 

And on getting dissed by STS:

TM: What was it that concerned these people in science and technology studies [STS]?

NR: In those early days, much STS was concerned with showing that even the “hardest” sciences were socially shaped, imbued with interests, and so forth — so obviously the targets were theories and experiments in chemistry, physics, and so forth. Of course, psychologists were interested in the “social history” of their discipline, but that tended to be represented as the march of progress, a story of brilliant individuals and their lives and interactions. That’s a parody; of course, there was lots of good scholarship, but not about the kinds of things that interested me. I went to the meetings and presented my work, but it was hardly well received.

Is “identity” a critical project in internet and media studies?

I’m at the Association for Internet Researchers in Denver at a discussion on “identity.”  The discussion starts off in somewhat predictable questions about media shapes “the creation of the self.” What is a self? Can you create it? I think both words should be analytical red flags for us new media researchers grown up in a petri-dish of technoutopianism, resist as we may.

Nicole Ellison complicates the conversation: “For people looking at the profile, what body, what self do they feel like they need to express?” Nicole Ellison asks of the others. She explains that in her research, interviewees understood the profile as a promise of who they would be in the future rather than who they were right now. It’s one step from this insight — that the profile hails people, and asks people to complete themselves in the database — to Illouz’s findings that dating website profiles materialize a literal market where many profiles can be evaluated in parallel. Illouz also finds people describing their profiles as their best, most authentic self — where authenticity is not at all innocent or liberatory, but an idea we are held accountable to and enabled by. She locates the authentic, communicative individual agent in half a century of corporate human resources management, psychological scienecs, and even feminist practices of liberation through communication. Identity here is the idea of a self that pre-exists power that must be given voice to be liberated, that must communicate well to live among others, and whose capacities can be tapped in markets of commerce and affection.

Pretty quickly you get to Nikolas Rose’s work on the powers of freedom, and governmentality that produces individuals who can be responsible and risk bearing. And you get to Boltanski and Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism‘s argument that contemporary France (at least), capitalism had to incorporate the 1960s artistic critique that work was uncreative and unliberating, and capitalist forms have done so by allowing for non-hierarchical management and creative class job roles (that still need low-paid janitors and temp workers). Venture capitalists and cultures of cool capitalize on those selves, those tastes, those countercultural and subversive ways of mining culture for forms that can be made into exchangeable commodities.

Identity as something people express and perform outside of fields of power pretty much is just celebrating this subject and trying to figure out how social media helps them be better authentic individual subjects. If social media profiles are identity, what are we being called to identity with?

There are a lot of commentators in the panel who get this and are raising these issues (search #ir14 and identity to get a sample of the amazing contributions). Lisa Nakamura points to how Time Warner very much markets and collects twitter handles, Facebook profiles, and the influencers that are tied to them. Holly Kruse asks us to look at the social construction of “authentic identity” as a concept. Alice Marwick’s comments suggest that one way into this might be to look at how “authenticity” is constructed and policed, as she has found that fashion bloggers attempt to construct a line between authentic taste and a presumedly commercial outside. Tom Boellstorff warns us not to take people’s accounts of identities as data about the relationship of people to subject-positions formed in power. Subject-position takes us from identity to an analytic that is formed in relations of power. Christo Sims then advises that we need to look at the histories of how particular subject-positions come into being so show the simultaneous contingency and sedimentedness of those categories.

But there are still folks out there who are worried about how people perform “themselves” and express themselves, maybe multiply, through these media. It is those projects that I worry reify an actual self inside the body shell that needs to be liberated out.

Is “identity” a critical project for internet studies? I think there is still a role to the extent that identification suggests an active social process that is one way of producing a larger collectivity — one that can do things. It is least interesting to me when identity is about indexing the self. This might be more like what Hall calls “identification” in “Who Needs Identity?” or Haraway’s  “ironic allies” that can dissolve Western selves in the interest of survival.

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Difference Engines has a twitter! Evidencing community, keeping up with DiffEng

Difference Engines now has a twitter @difference_engs. We’ll be posting updates on what is being posted here there. I don’t know how many of you have feed readers you use regularly. I don’t anymore. For y’all, the twitter can be a way to keep up.

To us writing here, the twitter followers will give us a sense that we’re writing to specific people, rather than some generic imagined public. Writing to a generic public was never the point. We never try to make this blog viral or famous. At the “Future of Difference Engines,” some longstanding contributors compared it to an awesome carpool where you can unload about the day, analyze something weird or interesting, and find companionship in shared critical exchange.

Writing into WordPress can feel like blogging into a void. Me. The box. The blue button. The page. There it is. Now what happens? Once in a while someone comments and a nice little conversation gets going. But at best, it takes a while for that to happen. And every so often, I meet people who tell me they read the blog, like Goede from Germany and Monika from San Diego and Vani from NYC. (Vani actually recommended the blog to me, not knowing it was me.) People are out there. But looking at hit count graphs sucks.

Recently, my friend Six started a good old fashioned email newsletter and he wrote the names of the people receiving the newsletter at the bottom. It was so lovely to read the newsletter and see the micropublic that also had asked to get the newsletter. It made it feel like I was doing more than reading Six’s words. I was reading what others were reading, and sometimes even submitting.

Can that presence be possible for Difference Engines? I hope so! I hope to see some lovely faces. “Following” isn’t the best word for community, but “Following” (as a technical verb) is what we have for now. Let’s see your lovely mugs over at our tweet nest


Object-focused fields and ethnocentricism

In the latest Public Culture, Arvind Rajagopal argues that media studies has long been dominated with the American concerns that gave birth to the field: media as object, and therefore, media use, media effects, media reception. Key concepts tend to take form from the dominant American research cases and other global cases and insights tend to be no more than supplement, unable to to supplant the dominance of the American frames of analysis. The insights, then, “tend to migrate to other fields.”

See the excerpt of “Putting America in its Place” (with link to the full piece) here at Duke’s website

He points to how the concern with democracy and empowerment as obvious examples of American cold war political values smuggled in as theoretical questions posed of media. This question came up last year at femtechnet as a concern with whether the politics of handing someone a camera and giving them a “voice” really counts as a critical project anymore in the age of youtube and self-performance as brand building. Biella Coleman’s IR14 keynote argued that Anonymous’ political value is precisely in the tactics of invisibility they employ here in the age of big data and PRISM. The politics of invisibility couldn’t be more different from a politics of voice, or politics of recognition. Not to say these modes are invalid, but that the question ought to be open. We oughtn’t just hand people video cameras to tell their stories and assume that is a priori awesome or important.

Empowerment, the other project Rajagopal refers to, is wholly co-opted in America. And I’m not sure it ever wasn’t, if Barbara Cruikshank’s argument is to be believed. Cruikshank’s Will to Empower argued that empowerment comes out of 1960s US state projects to domesticate roiling civil unrest into a safer form.) So what should critical and political projects that we embed ourselves in look like now? What kinds of politics are people articulating athwart and through media in different parts of the world?

This argument is relevant not only to media studies, but also to STS. How are STS imaginations limited by the way the field focuses on science and technology? Science and technology are historical categories that delimited the bounds of the civilized, modern world. Technology, for example, came into being as a form of boundary work, purifying the “useful arts” of those skills and knowledges practiced by women, colonized people, and American black people. So purified, technoscience can have masculine modest witnesses and builders of industrial and patentable achievements. STS, like media studies, is an object-oriented field.

So can we look at the kind of cultural work science and technology do in the contemporary world? Itty Abraham explains the implications well in his piece The Contradictory Spaces of Postcolonial Technoscience. In India, he argues, science exists “as myth, as political slogan, as social category, as technology, as military institution, as modern western knowledge, and, as instrument of change.” Abraham argues that postcolonial science studies can’t be an “indigenous” science studies project, but rather needs to take into account the global relationalities of unequally distributed scientific and technological eminence. Then we can begin to see science and technology as categories that are themselves contingent and the product of social processes. Seeing them as contingent, we might be able to see them otherwise. Worry less about epistemology and ontology, more about social categories and how they change, or legitimacies of technoscience and their effects. Then we may be able to respond to Laura Foster’s #4s2013 call to decolonize innovation by examining technoscientific moorings and smuggled humanisms…  (Notice I didn’t say “answer” the call. No answers here. Just ways to proceed.) Patent laws make assumptions about what kinds of people actually “intend” to invent, or whose practices actually count as discovery rather than common sense.  In India, celebrations of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship and policies to stimulate small-scale rural entrepreneurs cast halos upon one another in a way that isn’t exactly STS but depends, in India, on the myth of technoscience.

What do you see as the limits of STS as an object-focused field?


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From the politics of giving back to the politics of standing with

Kim TallBear speaks against “giving back” with research. Giving back, she argues, implies a boundary that has two clear sides and renders one side in need of receiving, but without questioning or softening that sky high boundary.

What should count as research risk? Should they include “ontological risk?”

If we try to account for different standpoints, we spread ourselves too thin. Rather, one can speak as an individual standing with, rather than as a representative of a people. This can be speaking to further the claims of people, while refusing to be held to some imperial standard of perfect representation.

A too short rendering of her helpful words.

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