Category: STS

Why Should We Care About The Failure of the British Computing Industry?

Recently I gave a talk at Data & Society, a think tank in NYC that focuses on issues of social justice and technology. The talk was about how the history of computing of our closest historical cousin, the UK, can help us learn things about the past and present of the US–things that we may be blind to, or perhaps just resistant to seeing. The half-hour talk is an overview of what happens when countries build discrimination into technological order, rather than seeking to make equality a core goal of technological progress. In it, I address how the current state of affairs in the US relates to this, and I offer some advice on solving the problems of underrepresentation in STEM fields today. Watch the talk here.

 

The Women of Woomera

Recently I was on National Radio Sydney in Australia talking about women in computing. I didn’t actually get to go to Australia–the show was taped via phone–but I did get a taste of some fascinating Australian history of computing. The show’s producer shared records about the women computer programmers who worked at Woomera missile testing range in the 1950s and 1960s with me. Woomera was a joint initiative set up by the UK and Australian governments to give Britain a place to test its long-range weapons. Women there did a lot of similar computer work as women in the UK and the US who worked on ballistics research by computer. Listen to the full interview here.

Article from the Canberra Times, July 30, 1964

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.

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.

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

Applying STS theories to contemporary issues

In this course, we’ve talked a lot about how to use qualitative evidence and sociotechnical theories as tools for further intellectual insight into large, complex, systems that span both the technical and the social realm. In order to think about how technical artifacts work with and within political, cultural, economic, and environmental spheres, we’ve tried to systematize ways of looking at power and agency when it comes to technology. No two technological case studies are exactly alike, but there are enough historical similarities for us to apply past evidence to present situations.

In an essay of 400-600 words, discuss one issue or theory that you found most important and useful to your intellectual development over the course of the semester. Apply this knowledge to a contemporary issue in order to show what you’ve learned. (Note: this contemporary issue should not be the same topic that you’re focusing on for your final paper.)

In your essay, make an argument that is new and original–in other words, one that we wouldn’t already agree with before reading your essay and seeing your evidence. If your argument seems like something most people would agree with without seeing your evidence, then you need to go back to the drawing board and revise your argument–we

Amusingly(?) heteronormative 1940 ad for another essential tool for IIT students, from the IIT News digital archive, IIT Archives, Galvin Library

don’t need to prove the obvious. The emphasis in this essay is on showing us something new and backing it up with evidence from the course readings and lectures. Think historically and make comparisons. Try to put things together in an original way that represents your particular take on the course materials.

Due by 5pm on 4/20. Post your essay in a comment and remember to leave an extra line between paragraphs for formatting reasons. As usual, your essays will not show up immediately–I will approve the best ones after the deadline has passed.

Racism, Community, and Healthcare

This week my STS students read Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, by Alondra Nelson. Professor Nelson, who teaches sociology at Columbia University, delves into the history of healthcare reform through the healthcare initiatives of the Black Panther Party–with fascinating results.

Prof. Nelson’s book cover (image from her website)

Below, the students in the class have aimed to summarize the salient points of this important new book, while adding their own insights and questions.