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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.”


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.

Digital Literacy in the News

The Guardian is hosting a large digital literacy campaign. (Thanks for the reference via Nana and friends).

Yikes! All the gender, race, technology, and education bromides of yesteryear warmed over and gussied up in a 2012 all-you-can-eat buffet. They’re so clichéd that it would be insufferably dull to list pedantic critiques, so let’s play some party games:

1. Spot the girl-child-of-color receiving her digital training!

In both of the two main campaign-launch photos, the foreground, on the margin and slightly blurred, shows a white child; the center face, in sharp focus, is a girl (varies from Asian- to Afro- British). At first glance simply centering diversity (and contesting the digitial divide) in a standard techno-progress narrative, it also feeds the anti-immigrant / anti-Black narratives that see white British citizens’s education as somehow marginalised, or usurped, by people of color and immigrants. Here the Asian-geek stereotypes and the Afro-British centering would occupy different fear-filled roles in the racist narratives of improving British education. Hmm, a rather clever photo if your intention is to attract a range of left- and right- wing readers to this live blog on digital literacy…

2. Spot the deterministic story about inherent gender differences !

“Geek perception of computer science putting off girls, expert warns.” Groan. There’ve been almost two decades of critique of this model. The article hits all the major stereotypes – everything from spreadsheets to war games is said to be an automatic turn-off for girls – and, believe it or not, it actually ends on a “positive” note by naming Engineer Barbie among girl-encouraging initiatives.

3. Spot the story about university-industry partnerships!

Workers of the future must be digital, not analog. So there’s the warning to schools and universities to look sharp about training workers for real-world employment, or risk becoming dead-end educators. There are predictable quotes from Mercedes engineers and Education ministers about modernising education. The shiny rewards here are slightly more exciting than Engineer Barbie:successful education programmes are offered the chance to create students who will design the next generation’s scenes of Death Eaters flying across the river Thames – this is, surely, enough incentive to cross art, design, and computational pedagogy? Jokes apart, this reminds me of critiques (such as Zelda‘s, or The Simpsons‘) of art-school graduates who are tracked toward sweatshop-design-labour, and also of the untimely death of truly experimental interdisciplinary programmes like ACE.

4.  Spot the Hollywood script !

Yeah, of course, Mark Zuckerberg features in this feel-good story. And there’s the predictable Brilliant-libertarian-geek-versus-Stodgy-Government accompanying story: “What governments don’t seem to understand is that software is the nearest thing to magic that we’ve yet invented.” Not far behind is the summons to change the world by coding it:  “All you need to change the world is imagination, programming ability and access to a cheap PC.” Voilå: ICT4D! Just 3 short steps from hollywood to academic script.

I could go on. There are, of course, good intentions and some nice ideas buried somewhere here, but for the most part, this is vacuous stuff. Party-game jokes aside, it’s depressing, and no laughing matter, that debates on science education in a supposedly progressive newspaper are still framed in such clichéd ways, when they could draw on years of critical work from STS, science education, and popular movements (ranging from the Levellers to Creative Commons). More food for thought for us : we’re in fields that are now becoming more interesting and complex in their insights on these questions, but, apparently, as our understanding improves, we grow more and more distant from the things that get called “real world pragmatics” – those issues that drive the apparent constraints of recession economics. We could easily pick holes in every term in the previous sentence. But also, more practically: I think that more public funding for these purportedly esoteric areas would actually result in measurably better results in many of the areas the Guardian cares about, as well as some of the areas we care about. But sketching that out is a difficult and challenging task (and not one that our careers easily allow time for).