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“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.

more »

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.”


Actor Network Theory in Southern California

Some more opportunities to extend conversations across the humanities, social sciences, and informatics:

Dominique Boulier, who works with Bruno Latour’s group at Sciences Po, is visiting UC Irvine this week, on friday, May 18:

Latour will visit in UC Irvine in Spring 2013. He recently visited the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, where Nishant Shah organized his visit.

[Hmm, if I were Professor Latour and had to choose among a slew of international invitations in the middle of a busy term, I think I would choose CIS over UCI too. Of course that's just speculation - I imagine there was no direct choice, but it's a productive fiction to dwell on briefly: I've been struck by how many exciting conversations - those that touch on issues seemingly urgent and critical in those traditional intellectual tasks of analyzing pasts and imagining futures - happen these days in spaces that until very recently were marginalized and ignored by scholars in the metropole. I think this is a good change, historically speaking. How scholars in the industrialized North will deal with this change remains to be seen.]

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Signs of life: the people who scan Google Books

Flipping through Dewey & Tufts’ now public domain Ethics on Google Books, I think I’ve come across the scanned image of a woman’s fingertip. Google scans books in two ways. In some cases, Google cuts the spines off of books and workers feed the stack of pages into scanning machines. In cases where the book cannot be destroyed, they have workers flip the pages while a photographic contraption snaps the pages. (See Andrew Norman Wilson’s Workers Leaving the Googleplex for more.)

Response to Lilly on politics of ugly

A diagram of noses, from Civilizing Natures: Race, Resources, and Modernity in Colonial South India

Lilly, thanks for your great post on the politics of ugliness. This should be in the Response field, but my blogging skills are rusting; I couldnt get the images to load properly there. 18th and 19th century doctors, anthropologists, and others were obsessed with noses, especially of the “savage” world. And in the metropole, “intelligent” women were often synonymous with “ugly,” and there were medical theories that linked the two by chains of necessary entailment. And you could still see that in modern science (as for example the famous comments about Rosalind Franklin made by Watson and Crick; jokes about her tweedy clothes and supposed frumpiness effectively distracted people from the fact that she had the helix structure figured out before they did, according to some biographers).

Sianne Ngai’s work on ugly/aesthetics looks interesting; and Joanna Russ has, somewhere, a great essay on horror and gross stuff .. which is further afield, but you’ve opened up a great area of discussion for feminists in any field.



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Opening the black box of inevitability: robot futures

Another day, another drone in the news. The US military is moving towards remote controlled aircraft, saving US lives while completing tactical missions. This future seems inevitable; critical debates or understandings of the many political forces being blackboxed is nowhere to be found, only percolating in the back of science studies conference halls. Enter Lucy Suchman’s blog.
Suchman, author of Human Machine Reconfigurations, has started a blog to critically illuminate and unpack robot warfare: “Robot Futures”.
News you can use from differenceengines.

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Postcolonial Computing: A Tactical Survey

Kavita Philip, Paul Dourish, and I co-authored a piece for Science, Technology, and Human Values called Postcolonial Computing: A Tactical Survey. The piece brings together feminist science technology studies with postcolonial understandings of culture and theory to offer some tactics for detangling contemporary temporary politics. Enjoy! We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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On the politics of being ugly

Inspired by an article on turn-of-the-19th-century American whiteness this morning, I made my first tumblr-style triptych.

Other things I learned along the way:

  • Several major US cities, including Chicago, San Francisco, and Omaha, had “Ugly Laws” making it punishable by law for people deemed to be ugly or unsightly to be caught in public. [sourcesourcewikipedia]
  • Ayatollah Khomeini sanctioned Iranian nose jobs as compatible with Islam, saying “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” [sourcesource] Of course, by solely focusing on the “indigenization” of nose jobs under Islam, we miss the histories of Euro-American eugenics and race classifications that shaped those very definitions of beauty, both in Iran and among the diaspora living abroad.
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Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters: “utterly deplorable” behavior

Today we’re greeted again by images desecration, brutality, and celebration as YouTube screenshots hit the news showing Marines urinating on dead Taliban soldiers — with other Marines out of frame filming it, of course. Hillary Clinton condemned the acts and claimed that they are utterly incompatible with the values of “the American people” and the discipline of the military. Consistently, the behavior is located in the aberrant soldiers that we as a nation can come together to declare as the exception that emphasizes our distance from this event.

What if making these films isn’t the exception? What if it is instead the symptom — the eruption — of a culture of media spectacles of domination by forces convinced of their opponents inhumanity — or their own righteousness? I submit as evidence the t-shirt declaring “God will judge our enemies * We’ll arrange the meeting.” I spotted this shirt on a flight from Newark to Orange County two months ago. I was shocked that somebody would wear that in public, that they would wear that in public in such a regionally heterogeneous place as an airport, and at the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the shirt — the this man is god’s sweeper.

The video of the marines urinating isn’t just evidence of men urinating. It is evidence of a social milieu where you can get those people behind the frame to film this thing. It’s evidence of a milieu where marines felt like this act should be commemorated in the larger public that is YouTube viewership.

In a Radical History Review piece on Abu Ghraib, Nicholas Mirzoeff points out that breaking people into lumps of bare life is a documented interrogation strategy for the CIA and the army: “Declassified CIA and Army interrogation manuals make it clear that the point of all humiliation was to break down what the military understands as the civilized veneer of the mind to break through to the supposedly primitive core, where resistance is less effective” (2005:52). Freud gone wild.

These strategies of breaking down and unleashing primitivism isn’t just reserved for the interrogated. I had a high school friend who joined the Marines who explained that part of Basic Training was to break soldiers down to a primal place. He told me about an exercise where the marine to be placed in a deep hole and left to scream at the sky as loudly and deeply as they could muster until their superior tells them they can stop.

Jennifer Terry, professor of Women’s Studies at UCI, has also shown that making such videos is also a routine part of military action for documenting operations, proving the effectiveness of particular violent techniques, to inspire adherents to one’s cause, and to mock opponents. “They are part of larger and psychological and affective dimensions of this kind of war,” (“Killer Entertainments” in Vectors Journal). You can view the US military and opposition force videos that Terry collects, curates, and juxtaposes in Vectors multimedia journal. Videography is routine.

I’m no fan of the Taliban, but it is downright deceptive to declare that these recurring videos of violence are just the work of bad apples.