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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