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Small Science Collective – Science Comix!

I just came across this neat group of people who make zines and comics on science topics. As an avid comics and graphic novels fangurl, I love the way the genre distorts the typical registers of science discourse. You can download pdfs of their library here.

biosphere 2 nitrogen



Minimal machines and status differentials

QuicKutz Epic 6 diecutter and embosser with letterpress extension.

QuicKutz Epic 6 diecutter and embosser with (in foreground) letterpress extension.

Recently I was up at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry (of which I am a longtime Associate), where I discovered that the ICI has acquired one of the tabletop die-cutters that have become popular in the last few years. This particular model comes with an insert that turns the die-cutter into a small letterpress printer. As one can tell both from the machines themselves—usually plastic and often cast in ‘feminine’ colors like pink and aqua—and the blogs where one finds information about their use (Not Another Craft Blog, Paper Pile Kitten), they are associated almost entirely with those activities that are currently designated as crafting. That is to say, the unimportant, largely unpaid leisure activities of women; the modern descendants of Victorian flower-pressing and hair jewelry. As Lilly observed in an earlier post on DIY, crafting is often cast as the opposite of design, and it’s also often cast as the opposite of technology and skilled work generally (never mind the facts).

What I wanted to talk about here, though, is not so much the problematic social status of crafting itself, but two specific aspects of the circulation of these kinds of small machines. The first might be thought of as a variation on the network effect. Traditionally, letterpress printing and die-cutting have been highly skilled occupations, and their products—hand-printed wedding invitations, small-run artist’s books, high-end PR materials with elaborate cutouts—have largely been luxuries for the well-to-do. The limited market has, in turn, helped to keep the industry small and operating under an almost guildlike mentality. So what happens when thousands of these machines get into the hands of untrained or semi-skilled individuals? Quality of output will initially go down in many cases—at least until the process of education-by-internet takes off—but public appreciation of letterpress printing and die-cutting goes way, way up. Two niche trades rather suddenly become part of a much larger arsenal of broadly practiced design-and-making techniques such as papermaking, woodworking, photography. And as Julia Lupton pointed out in a dialogue with Lilly, you never know what can come of “having access to tools that will help you shape your outlook in dialogue with other people, in ways that might not be predicted.” As with other downsized or simplified technologies—small cameras, for example—it is easy to view these small machines primarily as technological downgrades. But when I think of all those people out there experimenting with their tabletop presses and diecutters, what I see is a field of cultural potentials.

The second aspect of these machines that strikes me is how clearly they reflect the strict partitioning of the larger internet conversations about ‘new’ technology. The sites most associated with geekery, like boingboing or slashdot (not to mention all those ad-supported geek blogger-reviewers), are quick to parse every tiny iteration of the iPhone operating system or the latest inkjet printers. Many of these changes are really minuscule in their practical effects on users and form part of a larger pattern of hyping anything in the computational sphere. DIY technologies get some mention, but almost exclusively in their male-centric forms (think robots and 3D printing of nerdish objects). The development of small, hand-cranked die-cutter/presses whose early adopters include a lot of scrapbookers? Not interested.



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Viagra and design thinking, technologies of agency?

I can only assume that media planners figure IDEO fans are men. That’s my guess from watching the recent 60 minutes profile of IDEO’s David Kelley (several times…research!). The first time I was presented with a Viagra ad, which I’ll return to in a moment. The second time, an arthritis ad featuring golfer Phil Mickelson. Both ads directed me to Golf Magazine for more information and then let me move on to my Charlie Rose interview.

The interview profiled IDEO co-founder David Kelley and his Palo Alto company IDEO. We learned about the importance of diversity in breakthrough creativity — anthropologists, computer scientists, mechanical engineers, and business people, almost exclusively (it so happens) white, get together and talk across their domains of professionalized knowledge and liberal and technical educations. Not the only definition of diversity out there, but one to watch out for. Diversity doesn’t actually mean people from different class backgrounds or different social positionalities here. Diversity means people educated in different ways, but educated well with the “creative confidence” to meet the toughest challenges.

Kelley then tells a story of working on an early Apple mouse with Steve Jobs at Apple. The two became good friends, Kelley tells Rose.  Kelley on Jobs:

Kelley: “He would call me at 3am!”

Rose: “At 3am.”

Kelley: “We were bachelors so he knew he could call me. Right? So he’d call me at 3 o’clock, ‘hey it’s Steve.’ At 3 o’clock, I knew it was him. He’d just start, ‘you know those screws we’d use to hold those two things on the inside?’ He was deep!”

This story caught my ear as a story of creativity, as a story of economic production, and a story of masculinity. Kelley and Jobs are bachelors so they can devote their every moment of consciousness and responsiveness to the possibility of a creative project — here, the mouse. And in a world where collaboration is the key to creativity, there are no family accountabilities (women for Jobs and Kelley, though it need not be heterosexual I suppose) to fetter the creative feedback loops and produced momentum of brainstorms and productive development.

The story reminded me of my time working at Google. I went home for the evening once to find that my 23-year old teammates had made big product decisions while rock climbing together the night before. When I argued we should make big decisions at a more inclusive time and place, the product manager retorted “What? You want us to control when we come up with ideas?”

Romantic creativity and radical inclusivity seem irreconcilable here.

The Viagra commercial running with IDEO feature, viewable on YouTube, was itself a call to masculine confidence and creativity. The ad is called “The Age Where Giving Up Isn’t Who You Are.” The ad shows a grey, dusky solitary beach and an attractive, blue-eyed, aged man trying to start a fire. The wood is collected and piled, waiting for the spark. He pulls out his lighter, the manufactured and engineered tool for the job, and tries to flick it on. A part falls off of the head. The man looks slightly frustrated. “You’re at an age where giving up isn’t who you are. This is the age of knowing how to make things happen. So why let erectile dysfunction get in your way?” The protagonist goes to his toolbox, grabs a wood-paneled and brass pocketknife, and strikes the knife against the rock to spark a flame. His creative confidence meant that he didn’t give up in the face of technological failure. As soon as he lit the fire, a darkened tent 30 feet away lights up revealing the silhouette of a woman spreading out a bed on the ground.

The beneficiary of the fire on many levels?

So what does the masculinity have to do with IDEO? There are lots of women at IDEO, though I’m not sure of the percentages, so this isn’t a population representation problem. Rather, the masculine narratives we hear through these design stories (and the stories of ingenuity that associate themselves with design) often feature men, often feature heroes, and often feature the power of the idea as something that creates broader value absent of the labor or consumption it requires. Hence someone lighting the fire with creativity, and the wood burned is just found on a beach open for the taking and the labor of the knife is irrelevant. Hence a hero story on 60 minutes telling the story of a Steve Jobs and David Kelley as charismatic leaders and gurus with a lesson about thinking and caring creatives as the path to solutions, actual labor of change nowhere to be found.

What kinds of agency are recognizable here? And why are other kinds of agencies suppressed, hidden, or without consequence?

See also: Spacejump is about male enhancement for another cut through the question of technological progress and human agency

Qualifying feminisms, recognizing troubled histories

UCSB’s Amanda Phillips attended last spring’s FemTechNet conference at UC San Diego. The two day conference focused on “infrastructures and technocultures,” particularly from a media studies and a science studies perspective. Philips’ report from the conference emphasizes the way feminisms are not themselves always projects to be celebrated, but projects built on historical exclusions too — women of color, trans people, etc. I will quote from her liberally here, but go read her whole post An Astounding Display of Ladybrainz (Pt 1): Feminist Infrastructures and Technocultures

Several weeks ago, my colleague Micha Cárdenas sent a message out to the FemTechNet listserv urging them to explicitly address the historical violences, exclusions, and appropriations of “feminism” writ large by constantly qualifying with terms like anti-racist (or my own preferred term, race-conscious), queer/Trans inclusive, and so on. This is particularly important in interdisciplinary feminist events like FemIT – we all approach feminism from such different angles.

There were fewer queer feminists and feminists of color than I am used to in a gathering, but I kept an open mind about the lack of qualifiers in talks and conversations. The conference organizers did, for example, actively encourage us all to think about accessibility: talk more slowly, read your slides, always use a microphone. The extent to which the presenters successfully accommodated these requests differed. While accessibility only scratches the surface of disability activism in and out of the academy, it is a baseline condition that so few conferences achieve. I appreciated this a lot.

But certain small things – segregating graduate student presentations to the second day, when few senior scholars attended, concentrating the women of color in the very last late-night screening session, the handful of serious queer work in the face of “playful” cooptation of concepts like trans subjectivity and queer time, a comment here or presentation there – reminded me of Micha’s important email, and of the work we do when we add all those qualifiers to our feminisms. So many of my friends and colleagues (and, indeed, members of the FemTechNet listserv) insist that “feminism” works against and is respectful of all oppressions, and that anything less is not feminism. However, leaving these inclusions unspoken covers over feminism’s troubling history.

Covering over history is not an appropriate ally move. I loved FemIT, don’t get me wrong – but as a group, we were not conscious enough of the the intersecting racialized, ageist, heterosexist, and ableist exclusions of feminisms and technocultures in academia. I hope in the next iteration, we can correct some of these oversights.

How are monstrous monsters monstrous?

“Monsters never have children,” Peter Sloterdijk told us.  He was suggesting that we moderns, with our obsession with novelty, are about that life, so to speak.

At the end of May, Peter Sloterdijk gave a series of talks at Irvine.  Even if you weren’t in attendance, you may be familiar with Sloterdijk’s work.  The (massive) first volume of his Bubbles was translated into English from the German recently, and it’s making the rounds.

In this particular lecture series Sloterdijk took as his topic “bastards”– the unique, the unprecedented, the uncomfortable– the monstrous, in fact.  His route in was French opulence, with Louis XV’s mistress and advisor the Marquise de Pompedeur (formerly the never-quite-ordinary Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson) and her rise from the emerging middle class to an impossibility of wealth and power.

1. Every wish granted

Madame de Pompedeur is a rhetorical figure in Sloterdijk’s talk. Mme. de P. is not the sum of historical contingence and agency.  She does not bumble along.  In Sloterdijk’s work, she is pure deus ex machina, the composed story which always already is punching its own punchline.

And this semi-fictional figure was told in prophesy, when still a child, that she’d be the King’s lover. With this information, she became the kind of person who could be. It’s not just her rise that Sloterdijk is working through.  It’s the sheer unprecedented-ness of it. Sloterdijk puts it like this:  “In all likelihood Madame de Pompadeur was at the time the only person in France, if not in Europe, whose every wish was granted.”

She is a creature of unlikely entitlement here, an excess of sexy witty sumptuousness for whom all that stuff is only a stopover on the way to what she was made up for. The unlikeliness and completely produced nature of her triumph is worth taking a moment with.

2. On the flourishing of ideals?

Sloterdijk is a great thinker on the topic of flourishing and the mutualism, or exploitation, that sustains.  Bubbles, the first volume in his Spheres,  involves thinking through what he calls placental relationships.  The placenta is the is the companion that makes the subject real, and the framing for similar subsequent relationships. “From it, energies flow to me that form me.  Nonetheless, it remains unassuming in itself, never demanding its own presence” (Bubbles: 357).  For Sloterdijk, the subject will always have a sustaining or constituting other, even if it is imaginary or inanimate.

He gives us placental relationships, sustaining others that “never demand” (or never make demand that we notice) and then he gives us Mme. de P.

What makes her flourish as a subject?  Surely, the king’s attention, and the attention of a nation.  Perhaps also the perfectness of the story: the impossibility that someone like her could emerge from her class produced, after all, the conditions that made her fascinating.  The fortune someone told her as a child was absurd, her rise was amazing, and she, herself,  a curiosity.  An absolutely integral part of the way deus was clearly in her machina is that she shouldn’t have succeeded, at least as far as she’s depicted here.

I rather think this is productive for thinking about idealized subjects.  What kinds of monsters are the impossibly lucky?  Or the rhetorically perfect? I think it’s a serious consideration for feminists watching the media space these days, especially when thinking through the superwomen trope that fabulous performer Beyoncé Knowles or corporate phenom and writer Sheryl Sandberg have been discussed in terms of lately.


where Talk is not just talk

index of Harlan Ellison Talk page on Wikipedia, June 17, 2013

I’ve been thinking about an emergent aspect of my Wikipedia use that almost inverts the software’s intended design. That is: I’ve started to use Wikipedia’s Talk pages as if they were extensions of the articles themselves, especially for pages with controversial content. In some cases, I’m even finding the material on the Talk pages more informative and reliable than what ends up on the official page. The reason for this is that the public pages tend to carry only what a group of self-selected and often partisan editors can agree on; in addition, pages must meet Wikipedia’s own standards of neutrality and verifiability. Thus a lot of pages slowly morph towards the kind of pablum that public relations flacks generate. Since value judgments are frowned on, contextual analyses tend to get squeezed out in favor of a laundry list approach to any given subject: X did this, and then she did that, and then she did this other thing. What this means is that if you really want to get any kind of handle on a subject, you have to delve into the page history and the inter-editor discussions of the Talk page.

I first noticed that this had become a reflexive habit a while ago when I followed a series of links on sexual harassment, computer games, and science fiction and ended up on science fiction author Harlan Ellison’s Wikipedia page. There is a subsection on that page about controversies Ellison has been involved in, including an incident in which he groped a fellow science fiction author, Connie Willis, during the 2006 Nebula awards. (There is a YouTube video of this.) I immediately turned to the Talk page, knowing there would likely be a discussion about whether that incident should be included in his page and how it should be handled, and maybe also some indication of the larger context in which it took place. With luck, I would find out more about both the incident and Ellison himself, since he’s not a writer whose work I know well—and his Wikipedia page is an excellent example of the laundry list phenomenon mentioned above. Talk is where Wikipedia wants content discussions to happen, and the result is that Talk is where a good deal of information ends up that is not yet sourced and where the arguments over meaning and context occur.  As it happened, there wasn’t much more about the Willis incident, though there was a good deal more in support of the general view that Ellison is a petty and vindictive person with sociopathic tendencies—some of which has since been excised from the Talk page through a neutering process that parallels that of the main page. (The page on Ellison currently frames him as “abrasive and argumentative,” a phrase that hardly covers groping a colleague.)

If journalism is the first draft of history, then Talk is clearly intended as notes towards a first draft of Wikipedia. But like journalism vis-a-vis history, it has the unfiltered—or at most semi-filtered—quality of all primary sources, making it equally valuable and suspect. Andrew Leonard has an interesting recent post on the editors who use Wikpedia to pursue private vendettas, and Talk is one of the places where that kind of social engineering is most visible, because Talk is as much a contest over desire and between competing agendas as it is over content. Wikipedia—unlike its predecessors such as Encyclopedia Britannica—wants to pretend that knowledge equals facts minus interpretation. The shadow encyclopedia that is Wikipedia Talk shows up the naivete of that approach.

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With Boobies

I originally thought I would title this post: “Does Anyone at the New Yorker Actually Know How to Read?” but decided that was slightly too inflammatory. But I’m still baffled at this 2009 post, which I recently stumbled on over there:


It’s not the article itself that’s the problem—that at least is a readable and informed look back at the British physician Alex Comfort and his landmark 1972 book The Joy of Sex. The pretext for this article is the release of a new edition of The Joy of Sex, and there’s a good deal of ‘then and now’ stuff in it, leading up to the predictable conclusion that The Joy of Sex has been largely supplanted both by its own success as an educational manual (“What was revolutionary in 1972 seems obvious now”) and by the internet, our collective library of erotica and porn past and present.

Along the way, author Ariel Levy rightly criticizes The Joy of Sex for its—how do I put this without using words like heteronormative or phallocentric?—well, for what she flags as “the feel of a penis propaganda pamphlet.” She goes on to mention the “feminist alternative” to Joy of Sex, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was published a year before The Joy of Sex. Together and separately, these two books changed the terms of debate about sexuality in America by directly attacking the culture of misinformation surrounding it.

And this is why I’m still scratching my head. Here is an article written at a moment when women in America are having to refight many of the very same issues of the 1970s that prompted these two books—control over one’s own body, right to abortion, freedom from reflexive victim-blaming in rape cases, normalization of plastic surgery, to name just a few. And even as the author clearly respects The Joy of Sex as a mass education project, she also calls out Comfort for his various blind spots (homosexuality, for one). So what is the thumbnail image that accompanies this essay? In case you skipped right over it as one so often does with this kind of graphical window dressing:

Yep. In close-up. You might almost say, objectified.

I recognize the style: it’s either a Tom Wesselmann painting or a pastiche of one. I’d guess it’s the latter since reverse-image look-up doesn’t lead to any other versions of this image on the web other than those leading back to the New Yorker. And even more because the image itself is both uncredited and unlinked.

Wesselmann made his name as a Pop artist in the 1960s with a series called “The Great American Nude.” Here is a Wesselmann painting from that era that give a sense of his signature style:

Tom Wesselmann, “Bedroom Painting 2”, 1968

Feminists have long had a problem with Wesselmann’s work—the eyeless, supine naked women, the fixation on erogenous zones and detached body parts. At the very least this thumbnail is a puzzling choice to accompany an article about two books whose goals included, among other things, helping women to stop seeing themselves as a bunch of body parts intended solely for male pleasure. Way to undercut your own essay, guys. (Unless I’m missing some kind of twee irony here, which I certainly hope is not the case.)

So this is how I found myself wondering about the reading comprehension of the website’s art designer—or perhaps, this being the New Yorker, there is actually an entire Department of Thumbnail Iconography that makes these decisions at weekly closed-door meetings. Whoever it was, I suspect they may have leapt on this one sentence as the key to picking an accompanying image:

The Joy of Sex redux becomes generic—Cook’s Illustrated with boobies.”

With boobies, indeed.

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Collaboration and Authorship

Do you collaborate? What have your experiences been like? Are you struck by the ways in which humanists cite Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and enjoy demolishing (in theory) the myth of the heroic-male-solo-author, and then proceed (in practice) to make sure that the infrastructure of academic productivity rewards only the solo author performance?
Here’s one of the many articles that have appeared on this topic in academic publication outlets:

Friends With Benefits

Written by two philosophers, this essay has a title that’s a bit annoying (for its adolescent humor – really, is collaboration like an experiment in alternative sexual practices? Does that make scientists promiscuous, and humanists traditional monogamists?), and fails to mention that Helen Keller was a socialist from the deep South (complicated political economic considerations would be required to wrap that around the “wise blind girl” image). But it’s a useful think-piece and might be a spur to generating discussion. For example, their concluding point applies nicely to both the labor of teaching and of writing:
“We have to actually care when others don’t grasp our point … We cannot do this by ourselves.”
It’s a pretty simple point. But the infrastructures of humanist academia tend to work against recognizing it. So collaboration remains in the space of invisibilized labor. The work of rendering opaque that which should be transparent might also be called the work of mystification.

What would the labor of de-mystification look like?

The Future of Difference Engines?

We here in the Difference Engine room are talking a bit about the future of this space. We’ll be meeting over dinner May 21 in Orange County to discuss. The purpose of this blog has been to provide a forum for developing feminist, critical, and transnationally oriented understandings of technology, science, and technoculture — and for doing it safely (anonymously when necessary) and in public. We never wanted to be the most famous blog in the world. We imagined perhaps that more people might step out of the woodwork to write, comment and discuss. These and other issues will be discussed.

If you have thoughts and energy to share, email or comment here.

CFP for 4th Handbook of Science and Technology Studies

Our friend deuxlits tipped us off that the editors of the upcoming Handbook of Science and Technology Studies seek chapter proposals, and in particular are interested in global technoscientific phenomona.

These handbooks get referenced a lot so this seems like a good chance to interject examinations of engines of difference from a Difference Engines point of view. See the full CFP

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