Interdisciplinarity is hard! But you know what? Feminists have learned that it is crucial to work where the seams and borders get made.
Yesterday, I found out that a brilliant light passed away. Leigh Star left us unexpectedly yesterday.
I’ve been interested in the politics and culture of technology since the Internet rocked my young world in the 90s. I remember sitting in my cubicle in 2003, browsing the web, and stumbling across Sorting Things Out by Geof Bowker and Leigh Star (partners in life and thought). “Holy crap,” I thought, “someone does think about this stuff!” Years later, I came to grad school and found so much of Leigh’s work to be speaking to issues few others would write about: invisible work, silence, power, and norms. She showed how the quotidian was laced with power relations and history. And she managed to offer productive and uncompromising critiques still with a sense of joy and empathy. She was not only a brilliant thinker, but also a human who was there for other humans (and non-humans). Beki Grinter writes about how Leigh helped her through dark parts of graduate school.
She didn’t only support. She inspired us to risk and experiment! It felt quite daring when Leigh suggested I look to Donna Haraway as a model for writing about the Postcolonial Computing work. HCI people don’t write like Donna Haraway, or can they? Leigh had a keen appreciation for when to write to your audience and when to push and stretch them to appreciate something different and politically important — when to do the work not only of analyzing, but also of the work of stretching language, form, and genre to help us know the world differently.
This journey through graduate school, both for me and at least three other people I know directly, was in part about learning to do the kind of work Leigh inspired so that we could think with her long into the future.
We’re still going to do that work, maybe even more so than before. But I sure wish we had her back.
LCD Soundsystem’s “Someone Great” kind of sums it up for me:
The worst is all the lovely weather,
I’m stunned, it’s not raining.
The coffee isn’t even bitter,
Because, what’s the difference?
There’s all the work that needs to be done,
It’s late, for revision.
There’s all the time and all the planning,
And songs, to be finished.
At least once a year, I teach a class at a men’s prison– one of the few prisons, out of Illinois’ 46, that offers academic community college courses. The class is similar to a regular class with notable differences: the students are incredibly rigorous and living conditions are tragic, alienating, dulling and perverse. In this place, it is the classroom that mCeakes a small exception to the logic of confinement. In the prison, the classroom is practically sacared; men ask critical questions, pose intelligent problems and thoughtfully debate points. This doesn’t happen anywhere else on the prison grounds. Because this space and time is so coveted, I rarely hear students complain about work duties, cellies or officers. However, there is one complaint that I do hear often: soy in the food.
If the men were not consuming soy in the free world, they surely know a lot about it just by doing time in any of the state’s prisons. Many prisoners are Chicago and East St. Louis residents—city dwellers; now they live scattered around the state in and on farmland, amongst miles and miles of corn and soy fields. Sprayed, planted, sprayed again and harvested the soy and corn is visible from their very narrow cell windows.
In 2003, as a cost saving measure, Dept. of Correction substituted a significant amount of meat portions with soy, one of the state’s main crops and a big part of the federal farm bill. Soy rules the mid-west, so when Illinois made a deal with Archer Daniels Midland to add soy to the food, it not only saved money, it made money. However, the men at Danville prison, where I teach, regularly complain about it. It’s not that they are so picky about food—you can’t be picky about food in prison– it’s that they are worried about ‘feminization’. They believe that soy might lower the testosterone production, making men, well, altered. At least one recently published study says that soy does lower sperm count but researchers don’t know why. No one at the prison has uttered what kind of prisoner-cyborg this soy-food might create, but the myth is out there. Not just at Danville, but in many of the prisons. The state is fucking with them. In fact, many men have fallen ill, seriously ill with rashes, thyroid problems, irritable bowel syndrome and heart problems. There is a lawsuit pending right now. I see this ‘risk of feminization’ silly, even a bit offensive, but I do sympathize with their fear and recognize the reality experienced by these men.
There are strict regulations in place prohibiting various kinds medical research on prisoners but not other kinds of ‘experiments’. In this case, the experiments will not yield a study and placebo group, which might develop a new drug. The experiment is one of new relationships for state subsidies, with cost efficiency as the alibi. As state budgets shrink, it’s not just the schools that will feel the pinch. Instead of lowering the prison population, or creating programs that are proven to be cost efficient (because people get out and stay out, or have shorter terms in), states will most likely continue new experiments to trim unevenly distributed budgets of prisons.
Here are a few links that might be of interest:
Human-Computer Interaction professor Beki Grinter blogs about a Japanese man’s life project: RealDoll-style, subservient robot Aiko
So there is a man that has a creepy imagination about his ideal woman — lots probably do. There’s the obvious problem that when people imagine what social role robots are good for, they tend to imagine women and servants fairly consistently. (Suchman’s Human-Machine Reconfigurations has a chapter tracking how these power relations pervade engineering and tech research.)
Anyone know about any alternative robotic culture jammers? Irvine Arts, Computation and Engineering alumni Brett Doar builds autonomous furniture that hilariously disrupts the faithful-servant trope:
What might other culturally disruptive robotics look like?
I never do this, but here I am liveblogging from the concluding keynote at MacArthur’s Digital Media and Learning conference, one which heralds the arrival of “our field,” as Eszter Hargittai put it during last night’s keynote panel. Generally I am finding this conference really really good. One of the reasons is the evocativeness of the work here. Even when it’s not pushing out paradigms that I want to use, it’s giving terms to react against or through from different contexts, such as education.
One of the educators’ panels asked us to come up with a definition of “digital citizenship.” This was a lot more productive a paradigm than the “digital natives” discourse I’ve been seeing that takes off from John Palfrey’s popular recent book. Digital native implies a special, exceptionally enabled sort of person, independent of race, class, or other factors–but as Livingstone’s ethnographies show, there is actually quite a low level of skill in young people’s use of the Internet, something that Siva Vaidhyanathan and Hargittai have noted.
Digital citizenship implies instead rights, soverignty, and a sometimes vexed relationship to affordances which works better to my mind. The rights to free movement (across platforms, standards, virtual worlds), the rights to speak your own language, the rights to access–these are less utopian ideas than “digital natives,” who seemingly need nothing and “naturally” know how to do everything.
I am almost out of batts! more later.
It’s been a long time with no blogging by me, but I think about Difference Engines all the time and have resolved to do better with it this year. I believe very much in collective blogging, in women’s blogging, and in the people who do this blog. Lily Irani and I got some F2F time at the New School conference on Virtual Labor, “The Internet as Playground and Factory.” Fun times, and I need to post about it before the memory is entirely gone.
This weekend I’ll be presenting at the first DML conference in LaJolla, entitled “Diversifying Participation.” I will try to blog some from there. I’m presenting on two panels: one paper is called “unfree labor: working at playing with race in digital games” and the other is “virtual labor migration in digital games: factionalized identities and racial minorities in world of warcraft” but since the presentations will be 5 minutes long or so I doubt it will be getting too deep.
So that’s the update.
Lately I’ve been thinking about conferences as performative venues and how esp. at digital media conferences the use of stickers on the laptop function like signage or endorsements, usually for causes rather than for products, though with new media those things sometimes blend together. I’m including two images of laptops to illustrate this: mine and my partner Christian Sandvig’s.
My laptop, which is what people are looking at when I give papers at conferences and sit at meetings, has four stickers on the red Speck plastic case for the macbook Air (solid state, thank you University of Illinois!) I made one myself, was given two at conferences, and the fourth was given to me by my eight year old daughter, who made it at school as part of a project to sell parents artwork that can be printed on mugs, tshirts, and other commodities. We did not choose to buy any of these things, but got the stickers for free. The one she made, of a flower, is also on Christian’s laptop:
I got the GLS sticker from the Games, Learning, and Society conference in Madison, Wisconsin last summer, along with a pair of socks with the same elf-girl knitted in them. I got the same sticker the year before, and put it on my ancient Mac g4 tower at work. The Spaceshift.org was given to me at the Internet as Playground and Factory conference by an Israeli software designer who makes an open source software project that is “an opensource layer above any website.” He seemed cool and his product is free and interesting and I like the sticker.
The little blue sticker that say “Good Job” has an interesting story. I have a Brother p-touch label maker at home, and my daughter uses it to make stickers sometimes. She made this one, which is pretty clearly imitative of the stamps that her teachers use on her homework, and I found it, and decided to put it on mine because my scholars and colleagues HARDLY EVER HEAR OR SEE THESE PARTICULAR WORDS. Digital media is, like all academics, a spectacularly praise-free environment. I wish that it was bigger, and that I could see it myself, but hopefully when people read it it does something.
I can’t decode my partner’s stickers for him–that’s really his job. I can say that he is a Berkman Fellow this year and that the ostrich sticker came from a cafe in North Portland where they had a glass dish of them.
There are lots of stickers around at cafes, conferences, and other places where people who would put them on their laptops gather. These remind me of zine culture in the early nineties–I was given a sticker from a student of mine at Vista Community College when I taught there while looking for a tenure track job. He was a skateboarder who had a zine, and was giving them to people–I put it on a notebook because I didn’t own a laptop then.
These are pretty clearly about declaring cultural affiliation. Cory Doctorow had a really big collection of laptop stickers, some of them about the EFF, last time I saw him speak at a conference. Now when I see them at conferences I see them as advertisements: for the projects/events that they reference, but mainly for the person who displays them. They seem to show that you’re still young, and will replace your laptop often enough to keep them fresh, and that you think that consumer culture *must* be modified in order to make a point about making and participation. I put mine on a case, which is totally wussing out. Though I don’t expect to keep this laptop for more than a few years, it makes me feel a little better about “taking care of it” correctly. This is no doubt about being raised as a thrifty Japanese American woman by two parents who spent time in internment camps during the war (Heart Mountain and Amache). We rarely threw things out and were not allowed to deface any parts of the house with Wacky Pack stickers; I never asked because there was no question that this was *absolutely forbidden.*” What kind of cultural affiliation was important enough to risk damaging the value of a commodity that you might need to sell in the future? Having consumer goods was all about preserving them. None of our cars (Fords and Lincolns, and later, a Volvo and a Jaguar) had stickers on them.
I wonder if the relative absence of stickers on women’s and maybe people of color’s laptops (as well as the absence of these people themselves) at digital media conferences is reflective of a thrift-culture that has to do with a different stance towards obsolescence, thrift, value, and preservation? There is a different sense of an object’s futurity if you are one of these people perhaps–”re-making” is a luxury if you know you’re handing down your machine to a relative who doesn’t have one, or selling it on Craig’s List when you get a new one. When my computer is replaced, it will return from whence it came–to the warm bosom of the University of Illinois.
Apple gives out stickers but I have never seen them on an actual computer. Weirdly, I have seen them on cars–one Saab and a few VW’s. I threw mine away, but not without a pang, because like everything that Apple does they are nice (again, thrift). Portland Oregon is the best place for bumperstickers I have ever seen: my favorite is “my other car is a broom,” which was often found on a weathered Subaru wagon or an elderly Toyota Tercel wagon with the long-throw manual transmission shifter and a Mexican blanket covering the back seat.
It would be good if I could get some stickers from Sarai: that’s a cause that I’d like to advertise a lot. But I don’t think that they make them.
The international Digital Arts and Cultures conference is being held at UC Irvine this year, Dec. 12-19. Subtitled “after media: embodiment and context” it looks like being an exciting event. Among the dozens of presenters and session leaders are Nell Tenhaaf, Andrea Polli, Nina Czegledy, and Katherine Hayles. There is an associated exhibition at the Beall Center for Art and Technology, as well as a concert. Come one, come all…
“Artivist” Ricardo Dominguez and his Chicana Coyotek Gangs are building a GPS tool for US-Mexico border crossers for the simple purpose of helping crossers not die. It’s called the Transborder Immigration Tool and it is out of CalIT2 in San Diego.
In an OC Register article about the work is not surprisingly focused on the anti-immigration activists the project enrages or annoys. Dominguez seems to have been somewhat successful in staking out a common ground of human decency. The Minuteman border guard agrees: “I’m sure his intentions are good. He doesn’t want people to die in the desert. I don’t want people to die in the desert either.”
It is cool to see technologies around mobility that go beyond the typical suburban imaginary of technology startups and the ubiquitous computing field. (For a critique of how ubiquitous computing conceives of mobility, check out Dourish, Anderson, and Nafus paper “Cultural Mobilities.”) Immigration is a sort of mobility arguably more important to the American economy than the pub-crawling that fuels foursquare and certainly more demanding of bodies, precisely as it is pushed underground because of its illegality.
It’s also rad to see this sort of work being done in a California public institution.
I am impelled to write this out of fury as I watch American women’s right to affordable birth control (including abortion) get sacrificed in the Democrats’ push to pass a health care reform bill. I don’t even have much new to say on the subject that hasn’t been written elsewhere (see for example this post on doublex.com). In California, where I live, we have become used to watching a minority—Republicans—hold the will of the majority hostage through the rule that a 2/3 majority is needed to pass anything through the Legislature. This is exactly what is happening at the national level—a very small handful of Congresspeople—in this case, Democrats—has succeeded in holding the health care reform effort hostage to their outdated and misogynist views on birth control. Over 90% of American women use birth control at some point in their lives, and all of these women and their partners—representing a substantial majority of the country’s population—are going to be harmed by this perceived need to pander to a few legislators.
The phrase “be careful what you wish for” suggests that when one gets what one wants, there are usually unintended consequences that turn the moment into a Pyrrhic victory. Certainly this looks like one of those moments for American women: take a big hit in the pocketbook, or even be forced by economic necessity to give up birth control altogether—which will be a catastrophe for many women and their partners—in order to get reform of a health care system that already discriminates against women (for example, in its pricing mechanisms). Yet even as I am placed in this double bind by Congress, I don’t find myself wishing I’d “been careful” and hadn’t supported the push for health care reform. “Be careful what you wish for” implies an irreconcilable choice, but there is no sound reason why 100 million adult American women should not have both health care reform and insurance coverage of birth control.
I see this as a classic case of a technology that doesn’t have a powerful enough interest group behind it. Which suggests both that American women still have a long way to go in owning their fair share of political power, and that people should be much more skeptical about the socio-political mechanisms by which new technologies get adopted. If a small group can derail such an important and widely used technology, then in the case of a successful technology one should always look for the power groups that pushed it through and not just assume that it was bound to happen that way.
I find myself fantasizing about a last-minute rescue of the birth-control provisions of the health care reform legislation, or about some kind of constitutional challenge eventually going forward to the Supreme Court. The first fantasy is pathetic and the second—given the present makeup of the Roberts Court—seriously deranged. But fantasy is one of the pernicious side effects of political impotence.