My New Book

My book, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Their Edge in Computing, has just been published by MIT Press, in their history of computing series. I’m enormously excited to be able to add to the literature in the history of gender, sexuality, and computing in this way, and I’m also glad to be giving several talks about the book around the country and in the UK in the coming months (see here for a schedule). If you’d like to read more about the book–including the full introduction–see the MIT Press page. In addition, I recently did an interview with ChicagoInno about it that provides a good overview of why we should care about the history of British computing, and how it’s a cautionary tale for the US in the 21st century.

What the Histories of Hidden Women Mean For Nations

I recently wrote a post for the MIT Press blog about the connections we can tease out between US history of computing and British history of computing. The two aren’t so similar as they may seem, and the things we can learn about the US from the British context might surprise you.

From the MIT Press Blog:

Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race has praised Programmed Inequality, saying, ”Marie Hicks’s well-researched look into Britain’s computer industry, and its critical dependence on the work of female computer programmers, is a welcome addition to our body of knowledge of women’s historical employment in science and technology. Hicks confidently shows that the professional mobility of women in computing supports the success of the industry as a whole, an important lesson for scholars and policymakers seeking ways to improve inclusion in STEM fields.” 

In this post, Marie Hicks explains why, even today, possessing technical skill is not enough to ensure that women will rise to the top in science and technology fields, how the disappearance of women from the field had grave macroeconomic consequences for Britain, and why the United States risks repeating those errors in the twenty-first century.

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Margot Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures is a masterpiece of history of technology. It shows how the struggles of black women impact technological advance in ways that we still don’t pay enough attention to.

The film based on that book takes things in a more feel-good direction, telling audiences an inspirational story about the triumphs of NASA’s black women mathematicians or human “computers.” At the end of the movie, the United States is coming from behind in the Space Race, and though Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson are all still being denied their civil rights in the wider world, they emerge as heroes, and as respected movers and shakers at work. All’s well that ends well, the film seems to say.

Despite not allowing black citizens to reach their full potential in any sphere, the US still manages to “win” the Space Race by putting a man on the moon. The book shows how critical the submerged, highly skilled labor of these women was—why it was instrumental to US success—and finds a place for them in the canon of technological greats. A skeptical reader, however, might be inclined to question whether the contributions of these women really did make a “make or break” difference. Was there really such a strong connection between their work and the US winning the Space Race? Is there another case in which we can see the flip side of this scenario, where a nation has failed on the global stage because it did not harness the power of women’s technical skill?

As it turns out, there is a very good example of exactly this kind of failure. It’s the subject of my recent book, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Their Edge in Computing. The twentieth century history of our closest historical cousin allows us to see very clearly what would’ve happened if NASA and the United States had done anything less than they did to leverage the skills of black (and white) women workers… Read the rest on the MIT Press website.

Getting your bearings if you were surprised

In the wake of an election that has chagrined many, I made up a list of 10 films for students in my “Disasters” course. My intent was to help them get a sense of why we are where we are today, in a way that wouldn’t require them to add to the mountains of reading and problem sets they already do for their courses.

The list is below–they’re mostly documentaries. But not the boring kind. I decided to leave it handwritten, rather than type it up, because I think we could all use traces of each other as human beings right now. Plus, that way you can see my “Depress-o-meter” rating for each film (in the margin). I did that so you won’t end up watching something terribly depressing when you’re already crushed, as my students seemed to be this Wednesday  when I saw them in class.

againstmeritocracy

Against Meritocracy in the History of Computing

Meritocracy is often taken for granted, even though when you look at it closely it’s pretty clear that it’s a pleasant historical fiction. The danger of this fiction is that it clouds our judgment of the past, present, and future. It makes us sloppy about ensuring that everyone’s civil rights are being respected and hurts our understanding of the social systems that we live and work within.

The high technology sector is still one of the worst offenders when it comes to indulging in this particular fiction. So when I was recently invited to write a piece on the topic for CORE, the magazine of the Computer History Museum, I jumped at the chance to talk about this issue in a publication that helps remind Silicon Valley about its history. You can read the article here (it starts on page 28): Against Meritocracy in the History of Computing.

Test pattern SMPTE_Color_Bars

The #SIGCIS #DH panel at #SHOT2015

I was very glad to be a part of the digital history and humanities panel at the SIGCIS Workshop (part of the 2015 meeting of the Society of the History of Technology in Albuquerque this year), As background to my comments, I’ve provided my Digital Labor Class syllabus, which was my main contribution to the digital humanities degree we recently set up at Illinois Institute of Technology.

Fall 2015 IIT Digital Humanities Speaker Series

Digital Humanities Speaker Series 2014-2015: Building Infrastructure Through Collaboration

In connection with the establishment of both a Digital Humanities Center and a Digital History Lab on IIT’s campus this year, this year’s series will focus on how infrastructure for the digital humanities, broadly construed, gets built, used, and apportioned–both at IIT and at other universities.

Fall Schedule:

All meetings take place on Tuesdays from 1:15 to 3pm in the Siegel 218 conference room (map). Faculty, staff, students, and visitors from other universities are welcome to attend.

1. September 9th: Katrin Voelker & Jillana Enteen, heads of the DH lab at Northwestern

“Jumpstart: Digital Humanities Projects at Northwestern University”

Jillana Enteen and Katrin Voelkner will share experiences and insights from recent projects at Northwestern that are designed to engage faculty in Digital Humanities debates and expand curricular offerings at the undergraduate level. Jillana and Katrin will address benefits and challenges of trying to jumpstart and sustain digital humanities projects and curricular efforts, such as such as NUDHL, MMLC, CSCDC and the AVD Summer Fellowship.

2. October 21st: Kevin Baker & Andrew Keener, graduate student co-conveners of the Northwestern DH seminar.

“How to ‘Do DH’ with Others: Digital Methods in Philology and Book History”

Andrew Keener will talk about collaborative digital methods in graduate humanities research through discussing the “Spenser Engagements” project and his work on a Humanities Without Walls grant that is registering Northwestern’s Special Collections holdings with a digitally accessible bibliographical catalog (the ESTC) for the use of scholars around the world. Kevin Baker will discuss his experiences as a co-convener of the Northwestern DH seminar and offer a critical view of the institution-building involved in Digital Humanities, using insights from the field of Science and Technology Studies.

3. November 18th: Lisa Massengale and Devin Savage from Galvin Library

“Structured Collaborations: How Libraries are supporting Digital Humanities Initiatives”

Devin Savage and Lisa Massengale will give a brief talk on how academic librarianship has sought to encourage and support research and teaching for Digital Humanities initiatives. They will then lead a discussion on how the Galvin Library might create local opportunities for collaboration across disciplines.

Cool Code, Bro: Brogrammers, Geek Anxiety and the New Tech Elite

Journalist Nick Parish recently published an e-book on privilege, sexism, and heteronormativity in high tech called: Cool Code, Bro: Brogrammers, Geek Anxiety and the New Tech Elite. In it, he discusses how the changing landscape of the American economy has helped shift the culture of tech.

Image by babyborg (Rene C.): http://i10.photobucket.com/albums/a122/babyborg/Miscellaneous%20pics/super-cool-story-bro.png

In the past three decades, we’ve seen the leading edge of the software industry go from privileging whiz kids to bad boys. In our attempts to come to grips with the new postindustrial age as workers and consumers, we’ve found that we’re becoming more and more wary of the hero stories coming out of Silicon Valley. What once seemed like boyish irreverence for social etiquette now seems an antisocial force that may be inimical to the very industry our economy relies upon. As the model of geek-chic has changed, so has the meaning. Or has it? Parish tries to figure all of this out, while giving a brief primer on how high technology and privilege interact in some disturbing ways.

His e-book is free to download today. Full disclosure: I was interviewed by Parish for this work and several of my articles are referenced within it, which how I know about it. You can read my writings on the subject here, here, and here. I’d also recommend the work of several others referenced in Parish’s e-book, particularly Kate Losse and Sapna Cheryan.

Presentations for STS Final Projects

Post a link to your prezi in a comment here no later than April 28 at 6pm. Make sure that your prezi is set to be publicly viewable.

Comic based on the book Cybernetic Revolutionaries, by Pooja Agarwal, using images from Medina’s book and ComicBook! iPad app.

You will hand in the paper portion of your final project on April 29 in class and give an oral presentation (using your prezi) in class. Remeber that your presentation must be no longer than 6-8 minutes. I will enforce this time limit in order to give everyone time to speak—so be sure to practice your talk before class and stick only to the most important evidence you have to present: your presentation should not just be a sped-up description of what you wrote in your paper. Rather, it should focus on one point that gives us a new insight into your topic.

Global English, Political Speech, and Public Humanities

One of my great pleasures over the course of this semester was being able to introduce undergraduates in my Filming the Past class to the amazing work of graduates in the Humanities Department’s Technical Communication program within the Program in Technology and the Humanities. My class not only teaches students through the medium of oral history and documentary film, but asks them to actively engage the public by creating in these mediums and sharing the products of their intellectual development. In that spirit, I’d like to highlight two “podcast-style” interviews students did with young faculty in the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Humanities Department.

One group of students interviewed recent Ph.D. and current Visiting Assistant Professor, Halcyon Lawrence, who works on speech intelligibility. Specifically, Prof. Lawrence asks the question: why do so many of our new, convenience-enabling technologies make life harder for the majority of English speakers? Speech recognition systems deployed worldwide, from Siri to your credit card’s voice prompts, are modeled on, and take for granted, American English or British accents as “standard English”–despite the fact that most English speakers today do not learn English in America or the UK. As English becomes our economic and technological “lingua franca,” how can we solve problems of speech intelligibility that are increasingly becoming embedded in our global technological infrastructure? Prof. Lawrence’s work offers a window into this fascinating problem and potential solutions:

Direct link to interview

Graduate Student Andrew Roback focuses on a different kind of speech: political speech on twitter. In particular, he asks, how do organizations wield 140 characters and what do they expect to get out of social networking? Though much lauded in the popular press for being a political game changer (cf. the conversations about Twitter in the “Arab Spring”), what exactly do we know about political influence on Twitter and about who has control and who doesn’t?

Direct link to interview