Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Feminist IT: Legacies (Leigh Star, Beatriz da Costa, and Anne Friedberg)

The Feminist IT conference devoted time to celebrating the legacies of three feminist scholars who represented the group's commitment to doing interdisciplinary work and the interpersonal networking that supports such field building.  Since members of this assembly do research that crosscuts "STS (science and technology studies), film and media studies, sci-art, digital humanities, informatics, and critical media practice" it was also important to emphasize exemplary thinkers who worked in the different traditions of ethnography, media arts practice, and archival criticism represented at the conference.  (In my opening I noted that it was an assembly both in the sense of representing multiple delegations and in the sense of the term "some assembly required.")

Leigh Star was remembered by Adele Clarke and Martha Lampland.  Clarke noted how Star was a polymath who worked on neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and ecologies of knowledge, but she also humanized her by describing her personal struggles and by showing her at leisure in photos interacting with different types of environments, including a palm tree oasis. Ever the responsible pedagogue Clarke provided a handout and began by providing context for Star's work in Ecologies of Knowledge. She argued that Star rewrote the narratives of scientific discovering by presenting scientists as "citizens neither villains nor heroes" and asked fundamental questions like "Who is doing the dishes?" or "Where is the garbage going?" or "Who owns the means of knowledge production?" This focus on everyday practices, organized what Clarke called her "work commitment."  She also spent some time trying to demystify the "boundary object concept" that was a critical part of Star's intellectual legacy.  She showed its roots in pragmatist philosophy, in the Chicago School, in And in Anselm Strauss's theories about social worlds and arenas, and in the Everett Hughes classic, The Sociological Eye.  Star's conception of workplace as a site of "cooperation without consensus" continues to be extremely influential, and -- as Les Gasser notes -- two thirds of the citations of Star's work actually come from computer science.   Clarke also cautioned that Star's seminal work on "Institutional Ecology," which looks at negotiations among professional and amateur communities working with taxidermy specimens in museums, appears in science studies readers in abridged form.  Often overlooked was the fact that boundary objects are "loosely structured in common practice" and "a sort of arrangement that allows different groups to work together."  She also pointed out that her work on "boundary infrastructures" in Sorting Things Out (co-authored with partner Geof Bowker) was important to consider.  Clark said that "interpretive flexibility" tends to get more attention than structuring and processual dynamics.  She also remarked on the role that "lack of fit" played in creating new boundary objects.  She then focused on the importance of the concept of "torque" in Star's work as a "twisting of time lines."  Clarke closed by returning to the diversity of experiences that Star's life represented, which included "the importance of  writing poetry and fiction" as well as the fact of "being allergic to onions" in a life of "drinking and dancing" as well as "mentoring and loving." In the slide above we see Clarke citing Star on how "forming a scientific self entails a peculiar kind of pain and of joy that remains almost unspeakable" (Star 2007: 76).

Lampland began her remembrance by emphasizing how Star engaged with "fighting for social justice" in ways that recognized the complexity of causes and consequences.  For example, the SAT could be both the test that allowed Star to attend Harvard University without class connections and a potentially discriminatory gatekeeping examination.   Lampland, who co-edited Standards and their Stories with Star, admitted to occasional disagreements and also asserted that Star's method of quickly being able to identify commonalities did not necessarily contradict an engagement with sustained empirical research.  She also emphasized the "mistake of championing transparency" that "could hide what doesn’t fit."

Antoinette LaFarge, who described herself as fortunate to benefit from colleagues in the UC Irvine "brain trust" who have been part of FemTechNet, then remembered critical sci-artist Beatriz da Costa in a talk called "Less Dismal Science" that made a number of implicit connections to the previous discussion of Star's work by noting the role of "standards," "tools," and situations" in her art.  Beatriz da Costa co-edited Tactical Biopolitics with Kavita Philip, one of the PIs for UCFemTechNet, and she was part of conference planning until her untimely death from cancer.

In unpacking the art practice of "Shani" (the name she preferred to Beatriz), LaFarge described how da Costa's projects were often designed around hands-on workshops and situated in a participatory ethos from her beginnings in Critical Art Ensemble.  LaFarge chose to analyze da Costa's work in relationship to Nietzsche's The Gay Science and Carlyle's The Dismal Science to consider science as an end not a means and critique science's "offer for radical truth," which Avital Ronell also challenged in The Test Drive in questioning the ostensibly sovereign presence of truth in science, politics, and religion and the compulsion to dis-identify and deny attachment.  LaFarge also argued against scholars "strip mining Nietzsche" without attention to his chauvinistic remarks about how women are weak, conniving, and characterized by disgusting natural functions and his ideas about the present moment as a time of virility.

In an oeuvre that included microbes, biodiversity, air pollution, RFID tracking, and genetically modified food, da Costa engaged in a series of public actions oriented around expanding the notion of citizen science in ways that were mutually positive for creators and participants.  For example, LaFarge pointed to her work in Invisible Earthlings with CO2-sensing yeast colonies and in Pigeonblog undertaking a "collaborative endeavor between homing pigeons, artists, engineers and pigeon fanciers engaged in a grassroots scientific data gathering initiative."  Like other speakers, LaFarge acknowledged the presence of disagreement among feminists, and the fact that her friend and colleague thought that LaFarge's interest in "computer games was a complete waste of time."   The difficulty that Beatriz da Costa addressed was described by LaFarge as "how much has to be left out in order to make an argument" and "how test results are used to conceal a lie."  Visitors to the conference were encouraged to visit an installation of da Costa's Dying for the Other in the Consume show at the Calit2 Gallery, which interrogates the relationship of the dying artist to the mortality of laboratory animals. 

The final tribute was devoted to Anne Friedberg.  Co-organizer Lisa Cartwright actually had Friedberg as a teaching assistant and recollected being given names like Irigaray, Cixous, Althusser, and Mulvey by this early mentor.  Heidi Rae Cooley gave a tearful and moving remembrance of Friedberg that drew upon the memories of Sheila Murphy as well.  She emphasized the radical rewriting of four centuries of the history of perspective that Friedberg undertook that went far beyond how the work of film historians was traditionally constituted.  (See her digital companion for The Virtual Window for an interactive version of her argument.)

Friedberg founded both the UC Irvine Ph.D. Program in Visual Studies and the IMAP program at USC and launched the careers of many interdisciplinary students.  Cooley pointed to Mark Sample's essay "When Service Becomes Scholarship" to explain the depth of Friedberg's contributions and how she made public and circulated the work of others, even "taking in freeway fliers" who were normally outcasts at the university or sitting on information technology committees.  She also discovered talents by recommending people for one-year contracts that later developed into long term institutional presences, as she did for Daniel Herbert who chronicled the rise and fall of the video store.

A particularly beautiful and lyrical moment in Cooley's talk came when she described how Friedberg made homemade temporary tattoos with "SCMS" for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies when the "media" part was still new.  Friedberg also took on DIY with gusto by making her own pamphlets for an improvised MIT Press booth, since she was not one to hold herself above others, according to Cooley.   As in the case of the other founding mothers remembered, we learned much about the details of Friedberg's passions worthy of remembering: Gil Sans as Friedberg's font of choice, Conan Doyle on camera, stuffed Furbees speaking Furbish, writing about the Aibo robot dog, and Vaucanson's infamous duck.   Although Friedberg changed theories of "windowed visuality" and the mobile virtual gaze, she also recognized the temporality of the apparatus and the impermanence of institutions.

Note that attendee Wikipedia maven Adrianne Wadewitz periodically reminded conference participants that they could improve these three women's entries on Wikipedia.

(Photos from Lisa Parks)

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Friday, April 19, 2013

Feminist IT: Infrastructures

The Feminist IT conference devoted to "Feminist Infrastructures & Technocultures" featured a number of prominent feminist scholars of technology in the morning sessions, which were devoted to questions about infrastructures and legacies.  With over three decades of scholarship to draw upon and a strong concentration of work done in the University of California, this conference tried to facilitate more conversation between people doing interdisciplinary work, specifically those who might be positioned in either the Society for the Social Studies of Science or the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

In my opening welcome I pointed to the work of fellow organizers and panel moderators who approach questions about mediation from the perspective of material culture, the study of the apparatus and embodiment, and engagement with particular communities of practice, such as Lisa Cartwright on 3D printers that can produce guns, Lisa Parks on drone vision, and Kelly Gates on the truth claims of facial recognition technologies and surveillance footage, which have been much in the news this week in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.  I also noted that the particular context of public institutions devoted to big science provides affordances as well as constraints for this work on "making science, designing culture, shaping the technological imagination, sorting things out, and determining 'the right tools for the job.'"

The UC FemTechNet group is a regional research offshoot of the larger and more distributed FemTechNet initiative currently archived at the FemBot Collective and slated to move to new space at a FemTechNet site at The New School.  Many of its members use the UCFemTechNet Facebook page as a site for cross-campus coordination and introductions, although there is also a mailing list for announcements.

The opening panel featured a dialogue between Anne Balsamo and Chandra Mukerji about infrastructure that focused on their shared scholarly interest in uncovering women's roles in the labor force of expert knowledge workers who played a key role in shaping the technocultures of the modern administrative state.  Balsamo famously wrote about how her mother was a "computer" or person who performed mathematical communications, a topic that I also wrote about in the last chapter of the Virtualpolitik book and that was memorialized in N. Katherine Hayles' classic text My Mother Was a Computer.  To commemorate the occasion, we included a non-human participant on the panel, "Nancy," the actual type of comptometer that Balsamo describes.  (The machine is literally labeled "Nancy," presumably with the name of its former operator.)

The first question posed by disability activist Louise Hickman asked "How can we slow down time to shape participation in discussions?"  Mukerji, who does research on how female engineers played a vital role in hydrology projects in Bourbon France, laughed about the fact that mostly she lived in the 17th century and was well aware of how time functioned as a technology as well, particularly when the cyclical time of women's labor differs so radically from linear time.  Balsamo talked about how members of the FemTechNet initiative struggled to coordinate with each other and talked about how to align schedules at professional scholarly conferences in order to gain critical mass.  Balsamo also recast Marx with feminist temporality, by pointing out that women make the present and the future, but not under conditions of their own making.  Temporality has also been a concern for the panel's third moderator, Lilly Irani, whose recent work on hackathons looks at the bias toward action in the compressed time of such events.

In addressing the main topic of infrastructure, which Mukerji defined as the "structure of impersonal rule," panelists discussed how even social infrastructures, such as laws and regulations, had connections to material culture, in that they were written down.  Balsamo acknowledged the work of Leigh Star and many other feminist scholars who published important work on infrastructure, as as way to think about the challenges and opportunities of feminist networking.  As Mukerji pointed out, the actions of largely female staff members in human resources charged with the Weberian task of the maintenance of files, played a more important role in implementing affirmative action than any piece of legislation or judicial decision.  Codes of politeness that allow flexibility in infrastructure that make continual function possible are also infrastructural, as I noted, where women's labor also mattered.  Such codes are also important to FemTechNet, as are the peer promotion practices of those who might be maintaining tenure and promotion files, but the object-oriented character of the panel was also emphasized with Mukerji's object, which was also passed around, a rock and leaf to demonstrate the laundry techniques that she argued were important for understanding the cultural innovations associated with daily life.  (She is famed for arguing that the Canal du Midi is much more than the sole achievement of Pierre-Paul Riquet, a tax farmer and entrepreneur, because it was also the product of collective intelligence, depending on peasant women and artisans--unrecognized heirs to Roman traditions of engineering--who came to labor on the waterway in collaboration with military and academic supervisors.)

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Monday, April 08, 2013

Day of DH

Today for Day of DH I thought it worthwhile to write an actual blog post for the first time in many months.  Like others who have switched over to short format postings on platforms such as Twitter, most of my blogging activities have been suspended in recent years, although I still write for DML Central and a few other places.  Since becoming Director of the Culture, Art, and Technology program at UC San Diego during a time of devoting myself largely to conventional print publications, it has been difficult to find time for even one posting despite having written over a thousand such entries in previous years.

Of course, blogging has been important for expressing solidarity with a distinctive kind of digital politics, even if -- as Geert Lovink points out -- so often that politics only merits a "zero comments" response.  On Wednesday, Lovink presented a talk about "Wikileaks beyond Julian Assange" at UC Irvine, which raised a number of interesting questions about how anonymity and celebrity function as part of particular algorithmic rhetorics.  The talk also reminded me why I continue to argue for more "hacktivism" in the digital humanities, as I do so here in the Debates in the Digital Humanities collection.

Lovink noted that Wikileaks was made possible by the confluence of the decreasing costs of maintaining a megabyte of data and the increasing strength of technologies for anonymous encryption, such as those documented by Andy Greenberg in This Machine Kills Secrets.  However, Lovink argued that Assange had fallen prey to the "hacker as hero as trap," and that photo ops with Lady Gaga Issue detracted from online advocacy desperately needed for the pending court case against famed Wikileaks informant Bradley Manning.   Although Harvard Professor Yochai Benkler may make the argument for leniency publicly in "The Dangerous Logic of the Bradley Manning Case," what Lovink calls the "global fallout" of this particularly Wikileaks case, primarily involving the release of diplomatic cables, has been featured in news coverage in India, Zimbabwe, and many other countries.  (To understand the narrative of stakeholders, Lovink recommended Wikileaks: The Secret Life of a Superpower from the BBC.)

Like any Internet meme Wikileaks has spawned many imitators.  As Lovink observed, websites with leaked documents now range from the Al Jazeera-sponsored The Palestine Papers to Porn Wikleaks, which is devoted to providing the real names of actors in adult films located from an HIV/AIDS testing database, to the GuttenPlag Wiki that locates plagiarized passages in the dissertations of German political leaders.   Some links are now defunct among Lovink's list of copycats, such as the now defunct Murdoch Leaks website.  Yet, as Lovink also pointed out, the work of Wikleaks continues with The Syria Files, even after the defection of Daniel Domscheit-Berg.  Wikileaks also clearly inspired The Afghanistan Papers, Balkan Leaks, and Global Leaks.

Although Lovink appreciated the aesthetic gesture of works like "Delivery for Mr. Assange," he was concerned that the narrative of the cyber-outlaw obfuscated the work of coalition building and the importance of how Wikileaks once functioned in a larger ecology of free software and online activism.  For example the temporary allegiance between Wikileaks and Anonymous,  Lovink argued, indicated that tensions between journalism (the supposed mission of Wikileaks) and activism (the supposed mission of Anonymous) and that leaking information and mining information to leak could involve two very different kinds of user practices.

Having taught a course on Digital Journalism, I know that major news stories often depend on affiliations with media organizations that are well-financed enough to fund lawsuits that force information to be released.  With media conglomeration and free culture norms weakening newspapers and broadcast news, investigative journalism is rapidly becoming defunded, so anonymous submission of leaked material becomes the only way to break big stories.

What does this have to do with the digital humanities?  Large corpora of documents that are not carefully curated -- such as those on leak sites -- invite intrepid digital humanists to do creative data mining, and

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