Blog Archives

When someone tells you to put innovation in a funding application

phdstress:

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Given the association between innovation and masculine Silicon Valley cultures, I totally feel for humanistic scholars who feel like they need to invoke that language to get support for their work. We need critical inquiry into cultures of “innovation.”

When someone says his or her argument isn’t political

Via the tumblr phdstress, via el–ee

When someone says his or her argument isn’t political.

This exact thing happened at 4S 2012 during a talk claiming that synthetic biology experimenters recombining the materials of human life can be understood as practicing queer kinship. True the two hold in common the reconstruction of relations, especially geneological ones, between living things. But, some audience members feeling like Britney here commented, queer kinship is also about conviviality and care between often vulnerable people, not the hacker oriented celebration of catalyzed evolution that the synthetic biologists were practicing. When the audience membered queried the stakes of making queer kinship and synthetic biohacking commensurable, the speaker answered that her project was not a politically engaged one.

If you’re going to build your project on queer kinship theories in anthropology and feminist philosophies of knowledge, then you need to take on board the assumption that your project — just like your synthetic biologists’ projects — are political.

Kurt Vonnegut, “burn this letter”

I was shocked by the casual sexism and racism in Vonnegut’s personal letter:

http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2012/11/20/kurt_vonnegut_the_author_s_advice_for_a_friend_about_to_teach_at_the_iowa.html

He uses a derogatory racial term for East Asians, refers to the Taiwanese woman as a “mistress” of a famous white male writer (a person who I believe was actually a famous writer herself, and married to the Director of the Writer’s Workshop, a less well-known writer internationally than she was). And he refers to the (apparently common practice) of famous (male) visiting writers casually sleeping with (presumably young female) undergraduates , warning his friend that their parents were still watching.

I guess it shouldn’t be shocking to remember that so many DWMs were prejudiced, and that most people thought nothing of using racial slurs and sexist objectification. But the casual & sexist use of the racist term used by American military in Vietnam was especially jarring.

Zelda has done some really great work on sexism in art (like her piece Galileo in America, where Galileo’s daughter challenges some of Brecht’s famous reliance on the invisible labour of women).

It also made me think about Vonnegut’s instruction to burn the letter — clearly he knew he was talking trash; finding this is sort of like seeing those thousands of personal emails exchanged (on gmail!) by Petraeus and other high-placed security officials. It isn’t just electronic media that has shown up the imaginations of the private-public divide to be a figment of our Victorian imaginations.

 

 

Mitt Romney or Silicon Valley designer?

“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.”

This quote from www.designerfounders.com is attributed to Evan Sharp, the designer-founder of Pinterest. It reminded me of Mitt Romney’s 47% comment that almost half the country just wants entitlements, and Bill O’Reilly’s post-election analysis that Obama won because enough people out there just want “things.”

Not all designers talk like this, but that DesignerFounder.com thought this was worth highlighting on their homepage suggests that this kind of makers-takers discourse has wide hold, The question is how attributions of making and taking are being made, and I’m sure it is subtly different in different places but when “making” requires social, cultural, and financial capital, you tell me you don’t see some familiar gender / race / class lines being reinscribed.

Radiolab’s “truth” is no justice for Hmong activist

Kao Kalian Yang in Hyphen Magazine explains the racist pattern of interaction and representation in a recent Radiolab story on “the science” and “the truth” behind Yellow Rain. An activist and interviewee of the Radiolab show wrote the piece. Yellow Rain was a material Ronald Reagan and Hmong refugees have called a poison weapon. Some people we call scientists in American universities have claimed Yellow Rain was just bee droppings.

As the reporter tries to drill Yang and her uncle on what they saw and what they know, he tries to claim that they could not know what they claim to know — not in the terms that a bunch of lab scientists testing 20 year old samples could.

Hmong man who was an official reporter to Thai government on Hmong violence: “It feels to him that this is a semantic debate. It feels like there’s a jack of justice. The word of a man who survived this thing is pitted against a man from Harvard who read these accounts.”

Radiolab guy: “It seems like your uncle didn’t SEE the pollen fall. Your uncle didn’t SEE the plane. All of this is hearsay.”

Yang cites justice as a value that competes against various definitions of what can count as truth. It’s not just that we need plural truths, but we need truths we can use in pursuit of justice too. The means of pursuing truth must also themselves be just. Judith Butler writes about the politics of truth in her piece Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality (2001). She tells the story of the havoc wreaked on the life of an American kid whose non-binary gender became a battleground for a culture seeking scientific understanding of sexual “nature vs nurture.” The life of the person made a subject of scrutiny didn’t get factored into the debates about the politics of sexual knowledge. The “yellow rain” story is riven with questions of how we make our truths, as well as who gets to speak “truth.”

Must read for any ethnographers, journalists, and everyone who thinks they care about what counts as evidence.

Spacejump isn’t about tech progress. It is about male enhancement.

Cross-posted to Underthinking.

I know I’ve posted recently do DiffEng, but Spacejump is too timely so I couldn’t resist.

If you haven’t heard, Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a space balloon from 120,000 feet in the sky down to earth under the watchful audience of 8 million YouTube viewers.

DA Banks asks in The Society Pages

Why is a man jumping from the edge of space when we still rely on 18th century energy sources and can’t build a train network as advanced as the one we had a hundred years ago?

He then suggests that, following David Graeber, it might be

that existing bureaucratic systems under corporate capitalism are not up to the job of creating immortality drugs or colonies on Mars because huge disparities in wealth and power make it too cheap and easy to clean our homes and build our iPhones with cheap labor instead of robots. 

In the Tweet economy, I have made my response just a bit provocative but allow me to explain. Shortly after spacejump, Paolo Coelho tweeted this, which someone else commemorated on a meme-able image (below): “Never accept your limitations — because there are NO limitations. Viva Felix!” Spacejump, to me, seems to captivate people because it is an extreme form of personal technology. It creates the individual who can overcome all through technological and psychological breakthroughs. It is about remaking and bolstering the individual, the main thing we pay attention to in these days of entrepreneurial individualism, positive psychology, self-improvement, Ayn Randian ethics, or choose-your-individualism. The infrastructures DA Banks talks about are investments in the shared underpinnings of social collectivity — railways, standards, colonies (let’s not repeat colonialism though, thx). Social collectivities — the welfare state, the big society, the other America, unions — are things that don’t arouse passions, votes, and dollars that spas, coaches, and entrepreneurship do.

This is why I say spacejump is in part about male enhancement. It takes the (still) de facto (assumed to be) strongest, fastest, best kind of human and then enhances him to achieve what was beyond our wildest dreams.

FemTechNet: Massive online collaborative courses

There’s been a lot of attention paid lately to the massively online courses famously taught by Stanford. The model is generally center out, allowing people all over the world to access what is considered leading edge teaching from “centers” of research.  A recent online artificial intelligence course taught by Google AI researcher Peter Norvig attracted 150,000 students from around the world to listen to lectures, work on problem sets, and get familiar with Stanford’s flavor of artificial intelligence pedagogy. The New York Times even published an op-ed from Stanford professor Daphne Koller promising “technology as a passport to personalized education.”

Advocates of these models don’t acknowledge (or maybe even recognize) how the kind of knowledge and skill relevant in particular cultural situations vary. For example, I’ve met engineers in India who often complain that becoming a world class researcher requires working on problems set by agendas centered in the United States where their work might generate more useful and innovative results working from their own contexts. What would computer programming look like, for example, if computers didn’t rely on constant power or environmentally costly batteries to power and store a constant state? Why should supporting rural village innovation be an “India” business problem while the problems of corporations are “global” management knowledge? It’s not like rural people only live in India. Gender studies has dealt with this as well, grappling with how theories of gender developed around American or European experiences do not account for the experiences  of people embedded in very different kinds of institutions, social relations, and discourses. It isn’t surprising that it is Computer Science, a highly formalized discipline most immediately contextualized in mass-produced computing machinery, that is the most immediate proponent of the massive online learning model.

Connecting learners across the globe has the potential to de-universalize pedagogies in ways that the Stanford efforts have not explored. FemTechNet, a project spearheaded by Anne Balsamo (New School of Public Engagement) and Alex Juhasz (Pitzer College), is trying to develop a different kind of massive online learning experience, drawing strength and knowledge from the reach of the student population rather than simply disseminating out.

FemTechNet is going to run a course with 15 nodes, or instructor-led classrooms, in many continents, dialoguing on feminist approaches to science and technology. Rather than teaching from center out, the idea is to create a transnational networked classroom where students and instructors in very different locations can speak about and analyze themes together, learning from one another. The project is also developing an open-submission archive of short videos that can be used for educational purposes.

The network of people involved in this project are working to build alternative archives, infrastructures, and social practices to experiment with the possibilities of a less “colonial” education. I use “colonial” here because “democratic,” what I first wrote, seemed to specify too much about the multiple, temporarily aligned political ideals of people involved in the project. I simply wish to note how the project seeks to decentralize learning and make lateral learning possible. Often, “global” projects (e.g. development, humanitarianism) end up ordered as EuroAmerica-based professionals with passports and salaries that will move them around while they depend on the work of “locals” in places like Africa or South Asia who can’t get the visa or job to leave the country to actually get the work done. (This is Peter Redfield’s point. (2012)) When EuroAmericans call what they do global while those else where have “local” problems, that is a pretty colonial knowledge structure. FemTechNet is trying to build the infrastructures and establish the practices that can sustain an alternative.

“Why do theorists have to keep making jargon?”

As a graduate student in an interdisciplinary department, I inhabit at least two kinds of worlds: those that are fluent in feminist theories of science and technology and those that speak more of a naturalized language of organizations, technologies, and action. I find in each place generous people who are interested in what I bring to the conversation from the other world.

Every so often, however, I hear something like “I don’t do theory. I don’t need to make complicated words for simple things” or “oh, that academic rhetoric doesn’t make any sense!”

Doctor Decade’s video on sociomateriality is one expression of such a sentiment came into my mailbox, forwarded as an expression of such sentiment– a sentiment that, while understandable, often seems to come from a place of academic anxiety and disrespect of the writers using the “rhetoric.”

This accusation of “rhetoric” seems to me to come from difficulties people have reading cultural theories if they haven’t already been immersed in the discussion. Because these theories attempt to speak of our world in profoundly non-natural ways, they will necessarily develop and employ a vocabulary that is hard to approach at first. While this is unfortunate, I beg for more patience and assure the anxious reader that in the best case, the inaccessibility is a necessary part of the process. Theorists are often reaching for ideas themselves and are tightly referencing one another. Should my job cover letter or grant proposal not explain things more accessibly, shame on me. But asking that a particular book or publication speak in the language of all possible audiences at all times will chill the development of theory. Why don’t we ask that microbiologists’ work be written in a non-technical fashion that everyone can access all the time? First, scientists have done a good job of convincing the world that they operate in a highly expert sphere — that their inaccessibility is also their virtue. Second, scientists, like theorists, are often referencing things that non-member readers have no concept of and it would be onerous to ask for sufficiently detailed explanation at every utterance. Garfinkel and Sacks noted in their “Formal Structures of Practical Action” that we all routinely gloss in communicational interaction, glossing to indicate more than we can say in “so many words.” So why do humanists get attacked for their technical language — their glosses — in a way that scientists don’t?

So let’s briefly talk about sociomateriality and why it isn’t just a pretentious way of saying that “people use tools to do tasks.” I don’t offer a definitive description, but I know enough to argue that sociomateriality is not just academic rhetoric, as Doctor Decade and the folks who forwarded the video to me would have us believe. Sociomateriality is not just “people use tools to do tasks.” Sociomateriality comes in part from a long history of feminist studies and science technology studies that has tried to understand how scientific objectivity — the claim that we can observe general truths about a world populated with things — erases a lot of the work that goes into making knowledge. Making scientific knowledge isn’t something that happens if someone can scrub enough bias away from themselves. It happens through complex organizational arrangements of people, tools, materials, language, funding, cultural ideas about things (like gendered behavior), and more.

As Doctor Decade says, people use tools to do tasks, but there are much more interesting and politically important questions about which people use tools and what tasks are valued. Not all people have historically been created equal. Colonial powers thought that the savagery of non-European peoples inversely correlated with their machine abilities. (For more, see Adas Machines as Measure of Man.) Some people, historically, have been people who can use tools. Others were said to barely use tools and be less advanced. Even by today’s standards, the simple “people use tools to do tasks” refrain fails. Well, if you do human-computer interaction and you study Americans poking keyboards and looking at screens, then the formulation is adequate for your practical purposes. Jenna Burrell, in her book Invisible Users, argues that this formulation is not useful for understanding how the internet weaves into daily  life in Ghana. She argues that people might hear about internet rumors, they may see others interacting with the computer, they may ask someone to do something for them with a computer. The internet in Ghana makes different kinds of social forms possible, but it isn’t a story of “people use tools to do tasks.”

The idea that people use tools attributes also makes assumptions about agency that impute intentionality to people. On its face, there’s nothing wrong with this but historically, intentionality has often been imputed only to those seen to be rational, sane, and human. For large swaths of history, certain enlightenment thinkers denied these attributes to people they saw as animalistic savages. This isn’t some super subtle distinction. The very categories of traditional and modern and the disciplinary histories of anthropology relied on a division between those cultures who operate according to traditional, unchanging patterns and those rational moderns who live in an ever-progressive post-Enlightenment (EuroAmerican) society. This category of agency and intention also shapes design and creativity discourse. Industrial workers are compared to robots simply doing what they’re told, rote, repeating, unthinking while designers claim to be creative, reflexive, and adaptive. Some people are more equal than others, and some are seen as having more agency than others.

So what do we do if we accept that agency is not given or natural? That the category of person is not given or natural? The sociomaterial comes from feminist philosophers of science and technology, including Lu cy Suchman and Karen Barad, grappling with how to talk about the complex ways that we make ourselves and are made up through these entanglements. This opens up a lot of politically fruitful avenues for cultural analyses of technologies. You can start asking how entrepreneurial hackers are made not only of their own skill and volition, but from the divisions of labors, outsourcing technologies, and financial networks that let them have be the visible agent while lots of people who made their work possible are hidden in the infrastructure and factories. Sociomateriality starts letting you find different ways of thinking about design; instead of designing for what people “want” or “want to do,” you can design to provoke people to understand themselves and their relations with others in new ways, or to redistribute disability by sharing the work usually placed on the shoulders of the non-normative body, or who knows! Thinking with sociomaterial literatures can open up avenues for social and technical action far beyond where we get just repeating, “people use tools to do tasks.”

(Sorry for the rough state of this post! Difference Engines is the choir in some sense, and I’m preaching. I would like to make this more accessible and post it somewhere where it might do useful interdisciplinary explanatory work. Your suggestions for that, or your experiences doing such explanation would be fantastic!)

The Engineer as Milkman

The farmer and the cowman should be friends./Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends./One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow, But that’s no reason why they cain’t be friends. … /The farmer is a good and thrifty citizen, no matter what the cowman says of things./You seldom see ‘em drinkin’ in a bar room /Unless somebody else is buyin drinks.

Oklahoma! Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1943

 

Early this morning (Sunday, September 9), an Indian milkman-engineer passed away in Anand, Gujarat. He was a friend of dairy farmers, but he came out of the brand new profession of the mid-twentieth century: he was trained as a nuclear engineer at the University of Michigan. If India had a Rodgers-Hammerstein duo, they would be working on a sequel, The Engineer and the Farmer should be Friends.

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Artist pays homage to L.A.’s unseen workers

You know here at Difference Engines, we (I?) I am always posting about invisible work.

The LA Times features artist and sometimes-nanny Ramiro Gomez and his cardboard installations standing witness to the largely invisible gardeners, valets, nannies, delivery people, and other workers who make LA go.

“We see the beautiful homes. The hedges are trimmed, the gardens are perfect, the children are cared for,” Gomez said. “We’ve come to expect it to be this way. But who maintains all this? Who looks after it? And do we treat the workers with the dignity they deserve? Do we stop and notice them?”

Soon the [home] decor magazines that had entertained Gomez began to take on another meaning. He saw the posh living rooms, the fancy kitchens and immaculate gardens, but there was no mention of the workers who took care of them.

Go! Watch the Times’ video showing Gomez’s work! Then come back.

I’m reminded of Leigh Star’s writing on invisible work (“Arenas of Silence, Layers of Voice”) — how there are circumstances where “even when the act of working or the product of work is visible to both employer and employee” the employee is invisible, or a “nonperson” in Goffman terms. She cites Judith Rollins’ experiences of housework for her ethnography where employers diligently ignored her even when she was in the same room.

Invisibility isn’t just an unfortunate oversight in the information system. (A favorite framing of Turkopticon by observers of Amazon Mechanical Turk.) It is a social accomplishment, done through effort. I guess the interesting question for me is why? How does this invisibility get accomplished in different work arrangements and for what purpose? At Google and at UCI, the janitors come around 11pm in part I’m sure to have a clear site to work and be out of the way of daytime activities. Having them out of the way also makes it easier for UC administration to squeeze budgets and cut janitorial hours while applauding themselves for achieved “efficiencies” on the ledger. Bureaucratic rationality and invisible work interlock to make “nonhumans.”