Below is an idle thought I had on gender, labour, and value. I thought of it while doing some groundwork on a new research project.
Why is an industrial job more highly-valued than a service job? One comparatively obvious answer is gender. Another comparatively obvious answer is education. Administrative work (bank teller, secretary, etc.) that doesn't require specialized education has traditionally been thought of as pink collar work--women's work. Manufacturing work that doesn't require specialized education has traditionally been thought of as men's work—appropriately, blue collar work. In a patriarchal society, men are seen as the breadwinners. They're the ones who are supposed to need a job that pays enough to keep a family safe and comfortable. Women have historically been seen as supplementary earners, bringing in the little bit extra that the family needs to do things like buy the second car, take the vacation, get the kids a VCR for Christmas. That's how 500 manufacturing jobs leaving town becomes a bigger deal than 2600 jobs at a university or 1300 jobs at a hospital being in town (I'm thinking here of the city I grew up in, where the hospital and the university are both major employers, but 500 jobs disappearing at a cigarette factory were a very big deal). That's how reactionary politicians score points for giving major concessions to manufacturing companies in order to keep a few hundred factory jobs in a community. The honour of the man who doesn't really think his wife should be going out to work at all makes the manufacturing job more politically important than the administrative or medical or other service job.
When I was about four years old, one of the other kids at daycare hit me—right between the eyes—with a small, plastic shovel. It bled like hell. The scar has gotten smaller over the years, but it's still there, even if it's tiny. But I was very pleased to notice a few days ago that, in addition to the two vertical furrows I get between my eyes when I frown, there's also a pronounced horizontal wrinkle just below—right on the little shovel scar.
When I was 21 and finishing my very practical design degree, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. I took full advantage of the career counselling services offered by my university (Thanks, Concordia!). I took the whole damn battery of career preference tests they offered. But the results of those tests weren't the thing that told me what I really wanted. Because those tests told me I should be a lawyer or a journalist. I often remember the results of those tests, because they told me that I shouldn't be a teacher, probably because I said that I didn't want to work with children. I don't. And, as far as I know, professor isn't really an option on the Strong Interest Inventory. At the very least, I don't remember seeing it on my results. But I realized, when I thought about what I actually wanted from my working life, that my biggest interest was chasing ideas. I wanted to be able to hunt out new knowledge, and research the things that interested me. And it occurred to me that one of the only ways to do that would be as an academic. So I went to grad school, with the plan of doing a PhD after my Master's. And I did. And I have done. And I have the damn PhD now. And I did spend the four years of my PhD chasing ideas that interested me. And I wrote a dissertation that I'm proud of. And I published articles in peer reviewed journals, gave lots of presentations at conferences. The whole bit.
And now I'm out the other side, with PhD in hand, on the job market and looking for the chance to chase ideas for the rest of my life. For a living. Because it's damn hard to chase ideas if it's not your job. I joke that I'm doing a self-funded post-doc right now, or taking a year off to work on a book. It's only four months since I defended my dissertation, and already, I miss the institution. I miss the institution that made it possible for me to chase ideas, even if it was often a frustrating instituion. It is truly amazing how much hustle it takes to fund idea-chasing, to feel safe enough to chase ideas. And one of the joys of the huge academic institution is how much of the hustle it absorbs. The salary alone, the promise of not having to worry about where the rent will come from, the ability to feel a little safe, suddenly seems so important for generating and chasing ideas. I spent four years grumbling about how my scholarship barely covered rent, and (I think rightfully) begrudging the amount of it that was not a bursary but was, in fact, tied to teaching. And I don't think I was wrong to grumble. And I don't think graduate students are wrong to fight for better compensation for their work. But I do now miss knowing where the money will come from. I miss knowing that I'm on payroll somewhere, and that, if I work, the money will turn up in my bank account. That's a certainty that doesn't exist when cobbling together bits of freelance work. It's amazing how the little normalcies of the institution make it easier to not worry. And how having less to worry about makes it so much easier to think. It is amazing how much of the hustle the institution absorbs. Even if academics have to hustle still, apply for grants, spend time chasing funding for bigger, more expensive projects. The base level of security that comes from knowing that there will be a paycheque, knowing that some things will just turn up on schedule, is something I appreciate all the more for not having it, something that seems precious when viewed from the vantage of precarity.
A doctor, an airport security screener and a tailor walk into a bar. The barman says "Doctor, thank god you're here! I've got a terrible case of body dysmorphia." The doctor replies "Seriously? No. You're not asking me that. This joke isn't going anywhere. It's far too heavy-handed."
I remember a couple weeks when I was about 20, in the summer, back at my parents' house, home from art school for a couple months. Or maybe I was 17, and it was before university. But it was a summer, regardless. And it was a summer in my childhood room, where I made so many messes, sewed so many things, tried to paint (but was never very good), and screen printed. I remember thinking that I'd try to isolate myself from all creative stimuli. No reading, no TV, no radio, maybe even no music. I remember wanting to find some purity in my creativity, trying to find something that was just mine, not informed by anything else. I gave up eventually, of course, because I realized that it wasn't possible, and that it was pointless. Why try to isolate myself from all existing creative stimuli? Other things would still get in. And my observations of those other things would still be coloured by all the other art and media I'd consumed before. Nice realization, really, to come to the understanding, by myself, that all of the understandings I come to are not, in fact, made just within myself, but within the broader context of my whole life and the world around me.
I've been thinking lately about how we model behaviour and norms for others. Or, to use a phrase I don't like too much, but which says it more succinctly: role models. I've been thinking about role models because of two conversations I've had in the last month. One conversation was at a kind of symposium, with a young woman who mentioned appreciating the talk I'd given because it provided a little confirmation that you don't have to be normative to succeed. (Or at least, that's how I'd synthesize the longer conversation we had.) The other was with a guy I sat next to on a plane, with whom I had a conversation about not subscribing to boundaries and stereotypes. The major example was high school: when he was a teenager, he was both a football player and a member of the chess club, the only one in his school who crossed those boundaries.
I was lucky as hell when I was a teenager. I grew up in a city that had a university, and that university was pretty progressive, not least of all because it had a really solid women's studies program. So, when I was fifteen and got a job washing dishes at the local vegan restaurant, I met loads of people who were older than me, studying at the university, living lives that didn't conform to the same norms and fit inside the same boundaries I might have otherwise had reinforced among my peers at school. I learned that there were other things to be, and other ways to be, and that fitting into the high school social life boxes didn't actually matter. It helped me ignore social hierarchies that I might otherwise have respected, if I'd thought they were the only options. And it meant that, like the chess-club-football-player I sat next to a couple weeks ago, I got to feel like I could do and be whatever I felt like doing or being. It meant that I could be into whatever I wanted to be into, be good at whatever I wanted to be good at, care about whatever I wanted to care about, dress however I wanted to dress, and not feel constrained by social norms I might otherwise have been constrained by. I was lucky as hell to have people who could model other lives for me, and lucky as hell to see a world outside of the little norms that grow in a place like a high school.
I think because I had those positive formative experiences pretty early, I often forget that there was ever a moment when I didn't think I could flout some norms. And I think that those of us who are lucky enough to have experiences that help us not struggle with norms often forget how easy it is to feel constrained, and to not recognize that there are other options. I think we often feel as if our ability to break norms comes from inside ourselves, as if having others model different ways of being is just a nice extra. I've definitely felt that way. And it's conversations like the one I had with the young woman at the symposium that make me remember that there does need to be that moment when we see someone else doing something different from what we've previously experienced, the moment when we realize that we can do other things. It takes new experiences to highlight the contours of your old ones.
So I've been thinking about those moments of difference, and thinking about the people who show what's possible. I've been thinking about the people who don't model the typical norms, and who succeed. As I hit the stage in my life where other people can look at me as an example of doing well outside of typical norms, I look up at the people who are farther along, and who model the same thing for me. I look at women doing brilliant work in Free Software, a community hugely dominated by men. And I look at more mainstream examples of, in my case, women who don't model typical norms of femininity, and who succeed and thrive. It sounds a little silly, but I look at Sue Perkins (beloved by anyone who has ever gotten unreasonably emotionally involved in competitive amateur baking), who shows, in the profoundly mainstream context of TV, that a woman with short hair and a love of the suit jacket and jeans combo can not only do just fine, but can be at the top of her field. And that matters so much. It matters, at any age, and at any point in your life or career, to be able to see someone else who looks like you. It matters when, even if you fit into some easy categories (for example: I'm a white Anglophone, which makes it way easier to find people in power who look and sound like me), the dominant images you see still don't look right. It matters when the career advice you get asks you to look like a norm you don't want to subscribe to or don't feel comfortable adopting. Seeing proof that it's possible to be you and to succeed matters. It matters the first time it happens—expanding your idea of what you can be—and it matters every time after, affirming that the first time wasn't just a fluke.
I wrote this while thinking through an abstract for a talk I'm going to give in December. It's necessarily unfinished, but forms the preamble for a larger argument about customization and normativity.
There's a game I like to play with myself. I like to look at charts of average height in countries around the world and see how much taller I am than the average woman. Of course, the data isn't perfect. A lot of the available information is old, since most countries don't make a habit of doing mass-scale anthropometric studies of their people. And average is average. Short of looking at charts that show percentiles, all the average tells me is how tall I am compared to some notional woman, made up of the aggregate of a representative sample of women in a given country. But bearing the limitations in mind, I find it fun to look at those lists, and try to figure out how totally non-normative I am in a given country. So I play that game. And I win. The only average woman who even gets close to me is Miss Bosnia and Herzegovina, who comes in at 171.8 cm, about a cm shy of me. Take that, world.
There's a second game I play when I'm looking at those charts. I play the "am I the average man?" game. And sometimes I am. I'm the average man in Brazil, based on two studies, but taller than him in two others. Likewise, I'm the average man in Hong Kong, sometimes. Ditto Iran and South Korea. And Portugal, too. In Spain and Turkey, I'm the average man in some studies, and shorter than him in others. But I am the average man in the UAE, at least. I have the average man beaten for height in Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bolivia, Cameroon, Chile, China (except Beijing), Colombia, Cuba, Egypt, Gambia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Iraq, the Ivory Coast, Japan, North Korea, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Malta, Mexico, Mongolia, Nigeria, Peru, the Philippines, Qatar, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Uruguay, and Vietnam.
All of this may give the impression that I'm obsessed with my height. I'm not, really, except inasmuch as my height, compared to the average woman, effects my quality of life. Buying clothes is a bastard. I'm a solid 10 cm taller than the average Canadian woman, and 11 cm taller than her American counterpart. Which you'd think might be fine, given that models are all tall, too, taller than me. But I'm not a model, and that's not how clothing retailing really works. I'm a relatively proportionate adult woman, a little bit over weight, if you go by my BMI, but pretty average. Just kind of giant. Which is why the average woman fascinates me. Governments collect anthropometric data in part for public health reasons. It's useful to know where your citizens are at in terms of risk indicators. But there have historically been other reasons to collect that data. In the United States, the longest-running anthropometric data collection project is run by the military, because uniforms that fit, cockpits and other body-adjacent user interfaces that work with the bodies of your soldiers, and some kinds of procurement of standard items all depend on knowing the body measurements of the military body.
I wrote the following while working on a cover letter for a job application. The position has a focus on data, and this was an attempt to explain to myself how my focus on mediated and informated bodies fits into the intersection between data as we currently use the word, and the world of information scholarship I'm coming from. It's also fed by the unease with which information scholarship often sees work that focuses on things instead of "pure" information and by the question that's often asked of me about my research: "how is this information?"
Buckland, in his 1991 article "Information as Thing," asks if an antelope is a document. His ultimate answer to that question is that an antelope is a document when it stands in for the concept of antelope, or is somehow representative of other antelopes. So an antelope on display in a zoo is a document, but an antelope gamboling in the veldt is not a document.
So when is a human data? Arguably, we are data when we are being represented. We're data when our vital signs are taken and tracked in a medical charting system. We're data when we communicate over platforms that store everything we've said. We're data when we purchase things and those purchases are logged, either in aggregate for the purposes of logistics, our individually, thanks to a store loyalty scheme. To take a term from Zuboff, our lives are increasingly informated, with actions and attributes being recorded and tracked as we go about our daily lives. All of this informating means that basic activities are now producers of data. Listening to music on a streaming service like rdio or Spotify produces a trail of information. So too, though, do your actions and movements in your house, if you own a smart TV or networked thermostat. The array of objects and actions that can be thought of as digitally-mediated is expanding at a hugely rapid pace. When a refrigerator can be a participant in a botnet, it's time to think about data and information as artefacts of not just screen-based media, but as exceptionally valuable traces produced by our least actions.
Not just on our smartphones or tablets or laptops or other things that clearly resemble computers are we being tracked and informated, but also on the computers we barely even realize are in our lives. In dribs and drabs, we know that this is happening. Every story about a court admitting data from a fitness tracker, or an automative financing company installing remote kill-switches in cars (to name just two recent examples of a growing trend), all of these are symptoms that we see, and might even cluck at, in the moment. They are all part of a larger process of informating both our actions and our bodies. Beyond Facebook monetizing your leisure time, the wholesale informating of life--rendering as data minutia like the temperature of your fridge from moment to moment or what colour you like your LED lightbulbs to be--is both lucrative and problematic.
And I think we do get that a bit, but we talk about it wrong. We come up with very instrumental either-or positions where that informating is either good (because it saves energy or helps us meet our health goals or whatever) or terrible (because it tracks us or is a cunning kind of social engineering or, likewise, whatever). Playing those two positions off against each other isn't terribly useful, because it pits the people building the technologies and the people interested in using them in direct opposition to people who are concerned about them and, often, pits the idea of progress (that rhetorically useful concept!) against a public which apparently just doesn't get it, is misinformed or badly educated. That position really cedes all power to the people building the technology. They get to be, all at once, both the experts and the mad scientists bringing our nightmares to life. By ceding expertise and agency, the public (in its broadest form) takes the position of powerless bystander, in part because opposing something seems a less definite position than building something, and in part because of their apparent inability to speak the language that the builders of the technology speak.
Let's take my pet example: the use of millimetre wave scanners in airports. Most people don't actually understand how the scanners work. Instead, they're aware of a set of talking points which position the scanners as potential risks to their health or privacy because of, respectively, radiation and the possibility of someone seeing a representation of their naked body. When the talking points on risk are that limited and are founded in second- or third-hand knowledge, they can be easily assuaged and, thus, silenced. We see this in the scripts that security personnel at airports now learn: it's not a scanner, no one will see you naked, it emits less radiation than you'll be exposed to during the flight you're about to board. Job done. Public concerns assuaged. When we focus on thinking of something as either good or bad (in this case, good because it improves safety, bad because it poses a health or privacy risk), easy solutions are possible, and the side with more cohesion or ability to address the relevant, simple concerns gets to win. That win turns it from--to use Latour's terms--a matter of concern into a matter of fact. It shuts down meaningful dialog and positions public concerns as yet another problem to be surmounted, rather than as a valuable input. It turns responsibility to the public into a game and dehumanizes legitimate concerns. From the other side, it also dehumanizes the motivations and perspectives of the people building the technologies.
Allow me a mini-rant on the way the public sees higher education. There's an editorial in a major newspaper this morning about the crisis in universities. In essence, it's calling out the Janus face of the university, which shows itself as excellent and innovative when trying to get money or recruit students, and far poorer when actually teaching those students. In particular, it highlights the precarity of sessional course instructors and refers to graduate student teaching assistants as "struggling young grad students who are still trying to figure out the education game themselves." That characterization is precisely what many teaching assistants I know fight against. Yes, we are graduate students. We spend much of our time learning how to write successful articles, how to get grants, how to build research agendas, and how to generally get along in the broader academic context. At a research university, teaching is, though important, a very small part of that mandate.
Questioning the professionalism and teaching skill of graduate teaching assistants doesn't do any good and is, in many cases, pretty inaccurate. We teach undergraduate students. For those of us doing doctorates, undergrad is a game we figured out years ago. Speaking personally, I've been in post-secondary education for ten years. Six of those years have been as a graduate student. In the four years of my PhD, my TA work has given me 120 hours of sole-responsibility classroom time with students. In the first three years of my PhD, I ushered something in the neighbourhood of 350 students through the required first-year courses in the program I do my work in. I taught them how to write a real, university-level academic paper. I taught them time management skills. Many of the students whose first year of undergrad coincided with the first year of my PhD (and thus, my first year as a TA) are about to graduate. I couldn't be prouder of them. When I see them, we chat, and we talk about what a great time they're having in a course taught by one of my colleagues, a doctoral candidate in my department who works as a course instructor, and who happens to be an excellent teacher.
It does so little good to position graduate educational workers as unskilled or uncertain. It's entirely possible that, in a given week, the one thing we do feel certain about is our teaching. It's one of the few places where we get immediate feedback and can adjust accordingly. Unlike a grant application, which gets toiled over for weeks and then rejected or accepted with little or no comment, teaching is real and concrete. We do it. We improve at it. We watch our students succeed and feel some stake in it. In large classes, students may never even talk to the eminent professor at the front of the room, but they do talk to us. And cry in our offices. And ask for advice.
I'll grant that editorials like the one that's gotten me all irritated may well have their hearts in the right place. They argue for education that serves undergraduate students, that lets them get close to the cutting-edge research taking place in universities, and to the professors doing that work. To a lesser extent, they argue that it's exploitative to devolve teaching work to the sessionals and teaching assistants who live precariously and earn comparatively little. By all means, argue for a tenured teaching stream. By all means, argue for stronger protections for precarious education workers. But don't throw us under the bus by suggesting that somehow, the teaching work we do is worse, less skilled, or less valuable than what could be done by professors. Don't argue that teaching assistants are unskilled and exploited thanks to their credulousness. We're exploited by systemic problems. We're not star-struck youngsters getting dragged along. Instead, we're adults, professionals, good teachers, invested in the success of our students as well as our own. We live precariously because the university places little value on our other work. When half of our funding package is tied to teaching work, the one thing you can say for us is that we've had to become good teachers. What it says about the university is that, just like the editorials, there is a profound misunderstanding of what we do every day, and what we contribute to the university other than our teaching labour.
I think we all need to be a bit more honest about our feelings, especially our feelings about ourselves. A few times, people I know have told me that I'm a role model. For who, I don't know. I feel awkward that people think that of me. Most days, I don't feel anything like that. Most days, I feel like I'm working really hard just to stay in one place, or to progress very incrementally. I feel precarious. And, in all honesty, as I think many people finishing their doctorates feel, I have no idea what will come next in my life, whether or not I'll succeed in my chosen path. No past successes matter in my estimation of that potential success. No evidence that I can accomplish things makes me feel any more as if I will succeed again, and succeed enough to become less precarious than I currently am. Most days, even though I get on with getting on, and even though I do actually accomplish some pretty cool things, I worry about my future.
This is why I think we all need to be a bit more honest. I can objectively recognize that I've done some pretty cool shit. I can even recognize that what I've done may be useful for other people. I can recognize that for women who want to get into F/LOSS or tech or whatever, my comparative success at digging in and getting things done, especially as a non-programmer, might well be a good example, a little more proof that things that seem tough are actually doable. I can recognize that the work I've done in the last few years, and especially the stuff with 3D-printed prostheses is pretty amazing, maybe even world changing, if I'm lucky. But most days, I don't feel that. I don't feel it at all. And I think that's a pretty common feeling. But we don't spend very much time publicly acknowledging those feelings. The people I look up to don't spend much time admitting that, a lot of the time, they feel uncertain, or that they worry. Or that sometimes, they cry, just because life seems pretty tough and expectations--both our own for ourselves and the ones that others put on us--are high.
When we don't talk about those feelings and those worries, we promote the false impression that succeeding at things can be done without huge amounts of fear and uncertainty. When we don't acknowledge that sometimes we feel terrible, but we keep on, we leave out one of the important bits. We leave out all of the emotional work it takes to do the cool shit that we do. And we propagate the idea that maybe, just maybe, the people who do cool shit are somehow different. No. They're not different at all. And if the people who do cool shit want to be any kind of useful model for others, we need to cop to those weaknesses, those bad feelings, those uncertainties. That we can feel that way, feel uncertain, feel worried, feel bad, and still do impressive things or useful things, that's important. And this is my start at acknowledging it.
A few months ago, I was involved in a discussion about appearance. My interlocutor was of the opinion that, when someone compliments him on his appearance, it's not a compliment he can take pride in, because appearance isn't a matter of merit or achievement, it's a genetic crapshoot. Off and on, in the intervening time, I've been thinking about that position. I have some complicated feelings about it. My feelings are complicated by a number of factors. The obvious one, the one we're used to talking about, is that women are disproportionately encouraged, in the world I live in, at least, to take great pains to look polished and attractive. We're trained to look after our appearance and to make sure we're, at the very least, presentable, and preferably, good-looking.
In recent years, men have started to see some more of that pressure. But it's still been a socially-acceptable position to mock men who over-groom, who try too hard to look nice. That's not the case for women. When we level criticism against women for their appearance, it's often because they don't seem, for our tastes, to be trying hard enough. Or, when we do form complaints about women trying too hard, it's because they've overstepped the bounds of what we think of as good taste. But we don't criticize women for plucking their eyebrows, shaving their legs, wearing makeup, or taking great pains to wear flattering clothing. This might be the first problem I have with the position that appearance isn't an achievement: perhaps, for some men, being complimented on appearance is purely a judgement of an intrinsic trait, if only because men are not required, as a social norm, to work at their appearance.
But that's actually the easy critique. I think we all basically already know that women are judged more harshly on appearance than men are, and that attractiveness for women involves a burden of work and consumption. That's not news. And it's not particularly complicated. The place my complicated feelings come from is far more personal. Before I admit to it though, I need to do the requisite hedging. I need to hedge--before I take any time to talk about my own appearance being important to me--that I, of course, take my other achievements more seriously than my appearance-based ones. Of course, the things I work hard at are what we think of as intellectual, merit-based, career progression, whatever, all these other kinds of achievements and learned traits that we construe as truly valuable. Basically, before I even admit to caring about my appearance, I feel as if I should be listing off some of the highlights from my CV. That feeling, in and of itself, is a problem. It positions something we see as feminine (the obligation to work on one's appearance) as un-valuable. But this is a huge digression.
I do care about my appearance, and I do work on it. The sheer amount of money spent on grooming products, cosmetics, clothing and appearance-related services speaks to the fact that lots of people care about how they look. I care about how I look. I care for personal reasons and social reasons. And my appearance, though partially determined by heredity, is also determined by other things. The way I get my hair cut, the clothes I choose to wear, and my decisions about whether or not to wear makeup are all choices determined by a complicated relationship between me and the society (and subcultures) I live in. Even my body, regardless of the clothes or other accountrements I apply to it, is, at least in part, under my own control. The definition of the muscles in my legs speaks to the importance of cycling in my life. The choice to adhere to government standards about what constitutes a healthy Body Mass Index is, in my case, just that, a choice. It's a choice and a struggle, as I compare my own body against an apparently objective standard of health and attempt to revise my lifestyle to meet it. My ability (or not) to lose weight successfully may well be part of my genetic inheritance, but the desire to do so (whether successfully or not) is absolutely a response to a social pressure. My body is the way it is because of the choices I make in the face of the world and norms around me.
We can dislike the role society plays in making us think about our appearance, but we can't really discount it. Making the choice to opt out of fashion is difficult, because clothing is still necessary. Short of sewing your own perfectly shapeless jumpsuits (which, itself, is a very potent statement), even the clothing available for you to wear is determined by fluctuations in taste and trend. It's impossible to say that a judgement on one's appearance is a judgement of intrinsic traits, rather than choices and responses to social norms and trends. Yes, there are some things that are more malleable than others, but that does not discount the malleability of other things, or their status as choices and earned traits. My weight is an earned trait, my muscles are an earned trait, even the simple cleanliness of my clothing is, in its own small way, an earned trait. For better or for worse, almost everything involved in what others see when they look at me (and what I see when I look at myself) is a complex bundle of social and personal pressures and decisions. I won't argue that we need to like it, or that we need to spend disproportionate amounts of time adjusting ourselves to the social pressures levelled against us. What I will argue is that we need to recognize that appearance is not a fully inherent trait, that, for many people (if not most or all), there are elements of effort, work and choice going into their appearance and, as such, the factors that lead others to deem them attractive or not.
Indulge me for a second while I talk about biking. Or really, why becoming a more deliberate cyclist has been important to me as I write my dissertation. It's going to be a bit "Shop Class as Soulcraft," which isn't my normal style, but that's life. Doing a PhD feels a lot like running on a treadmill. You run and run and run and seem to get nowhere. It's a lot of effort for a really nebulous goal. You keep going, but it can be really hard to feel that you're actually achieving anything. There aren't a lot of measurable goals. For me, biking has been filling that measurable goal void. I bike four mornings a week, on a trainer, with a heart rate monitor and a directed set of goals about things like cadence and form and what my heart rate should be at what point, and for how long. At any given moment in a ride, I can see whether or not I'm meeting my current goal. If I'm not, I can throw some more effort at the problem, change my posture, tense some muscles, go a little faster, whatever. I can do something about it and immediately see a change. At the end of a ride, I know I've accomplished something. I can tick a box and say to myself "That's done." In a structured training plan, each one of those box ticks means feeling one measurable step closer to actually being done something.
I'm at a really big university. The biggest in Canada, actually. It's a big institution, within a big structure, and with a lot of the things governing it passed down from yet bigger institutions, namely the provincial and federal governments. The rules by which I'm governed aren't things I can immediately change. If I'm unhappy with, say, the benchmarks I need to meet in order to gain my PhD, the only way to make a change is through collective action. Enough other people need to see the same problem, and then we'd all need to work together to lobby either our faculty or the university. Those are long term things that rely on a lot of different people working together. Funding is similar. If I were to apply for a fellowship, most likely to an agency of the federal government, all of my effort would be up-front. I write an application and then effectively throw it off into the ether. Whether I get the funding or not is an opaque process in which I can't intervene.
This is why biking is important to me. In a position where I have little control, and only sporadically, over what I get to do and what kind of institutional support I have in doing it, the feeling of being able to set a goal and immediately meet it, or change course in order to do so, is precious. Doing something immediately accomplishable feels good. Doing something that only relies on me, and involves no negotiation or collective decision-making. Being able to set goals, own them, and meet them. It's a feeling that does exist in the PhD process, but isn't available on tap. And it's why I bike. To feel in control, and to feel capable of accomplishing something, righ now, tomorrow, the next day. To remind myself that I can set goals, and meet goals, and own my accomplishments for myself and by myself.
I was having a discussion a few weeks ago with a colleague from Spain about every-places, those places that feel like they could be anywhere. We were walking in Brussels, in a newer neighbourhood, near the EU headquarters. Admittedly, it was a shinier, more North American looking neighbourhood than what you might normally see in Brussels. We were walking down a street lined with shops in the ground floors of mid-to-high-rise, square blocks of modern-but-not-exciting buildings. All the shops had big plate glass windows. I can't precisely remember the comment that started conversation, but it was something about not feeling like we were in Brussels, which led to the conversation about the idea of the every-place, or the no-place. I think my response to the initial comment was that, to me, it still felt like it was more Brussels than not. But eventually, we got to the discussion about California, which is what I want to write about here.
To me, California is the ultimate every-place. Sure, it's got some distinctive features, like the weather and the ocean and all that, but so does everywhere. Unless you plunk a city down in the middle of nothing and don't let any plants grow, something will make it feel a little bit local. But California is still the every-place to me, thanks to its exports. There are the movies and TV shows, sure. They make living in a small town somewhere in California look like the default for North American teens and people in romantic comedies. But that wouldn't make it the every-place if things elsewhere looked radically different. What makes it the source of every-placeness is the export of infrastructure and ideas for social organization, those things that make a place really take shape. The car culture pioneered in LA in the 1950s, with highways everywhere, is a good one. In any city designed for fast cars and little else, there's a little bit of mid-20th century California. In any place where you see cul-de-sacs full of identical houses, you've got a little bit of the classic North American every-place.
It's really about Modernism, though, and globalization and the flattening of distance. What's remarkable about the United States and Canada is that, in two geographically huge countries with radically different geographies and climates, there's such a major degree of sameness. The cul-de-sacs and the avenues that feed into them are all the same. So are the highways that feed out into the avenues. It's remarkable, but it's not at all surprising. Being a country means needing a certain degree of sameness. If building highways is a federal job, it's no shock that they'll look the same across the country. Once people start travelling and moving goods across a country, there's some impetus to make some things the same in different places. And when companies look to expand and find their local markets saturated, it's no surprise that they move progressively farther afield, looking for other viable places to operate, causing yet more sameness. And because it would be a hassle to have to figure everything out from scratch every time you set up in a new city, there's yet more impetus for geographically different places to homogenize, where possible.
So, in the 20th century, North America did a great job, for better or worse, of figuring out how to make a bunch of vastly different places exceptionally similar. This isn't to say that we were the only ones doing it. So many things that make global sameness possible and increasingly common aren't North American inventions, or are multi-lateral collaborations between governments and companies and miscellaneous stakeholders from a variety of places. Sweden did a solid for global homogeneity by incubating IKEA, which has gone such a long way to make the houses of the world all look remarkably similar on the inside. Maybe the United States did a good job of owning the global cultural dominance game in the last decades of the 20th century, but the shift now is to the global every-place, based on multi-lateral agreements and multi-national entities, all tacked on top of whatever local infrastructure is present.
We teach language as a key literacy because people need it to function in their day-to-day lives. You basically can't do anything if you don't competently speak, read and write the language that dominates in the place where you live and work. We tend to argue that the same goes for math. Without basic numeracy, it's tough to function in the day-to-day commerce that people tend to require in order to live.
So I have this question about code literacy as a basic literacy. We require basic language competency in order to live, work and consume. From a work perspective, language is a transferrable skill that applies in every industry. It's a basic skill that then gets supplemented by the more specific skills and abilities needed in given industries. My question about code literacy, then, is what we think it represents and what it gives to the people who have it. Basically: Is code literacy a skill that people will require in the functioning of their day-to-day lives, or is it a specific skill that allows people to do certain, job-specific things?
The best I can do at starting to think about the above question is to offer a metaphor. A hundred years ago, when mechanization took the world by storm, would we have considered the understanding of mechanical apparatus to be a basic skill? In the same way that we can argue that the world today is run on code, the world of a hundred years ago began to be run on machines. As code does now, machines then formed both the backbone of industry and something that performed a decisive role in the changes taking place in society. But, despite the fact that our society has had machines playing an integral role for well over a century (really, more like three), we don't think of machine literacy as one of our basic, foundational literacies. Instead, different people learn it on different levels. Some people learn to use machines, some people learn how to design machines, some people learn the basic physics by which the machines work, and some people learn almost nothing at all about machinery.
What's different about the way we think of code as a structuring force in our societies? What makes code something we think should be both learned from a young age and understood by everyone? Will it be the kind of literacy we need on a day-to-day basis, as an integral facet of everything else we do? Or are we proposing a new paradigm of literacy, where a specific skill gets elevated to a core literacy?
A thing about people who study F/LOSS communities, find they don't live up to their expectations, and then either abandon them or go around slagging them off:
We, whether we're academics or artists or activists or whatever need to work a little harder at treating the communities we parachute ourselves into with at least a modicum of respect. We spend so much time problematizing the assumptions and practices of the people we brush up against that we forget to treat them as equal human beings with practices that they've grown themselves. This happened with the academic gold rush on open source, where researchers piled on, extracted all they could, and now go around dismissively saying things like "Oh yeah, I studied open source, back in 2005. I've moved on."
It's happening now with capital-M Makers. They build communities. We find those communities interesting. We jump in, seeking to learn more about them. And then, having gathered what we can use, we go back to our own circles and talk shit about the people we've just been spending time with. We trade on all the faults we can find. We talk about how naive these people are (these people!), how apolitical, whatever. Basically, we fail to respect our informants. We fail to respect the communities we involve ourselves with and, frankly, extract value from. For some reason, as we, social scientists, artists, activists, engage ourselves with communities that we feel are privileged, we fail to exercise the same sensitivity that we'd exercise if we thought they were at risk. In short, we treat them like shit. We extract value from them in exchange for very little. They give of themselves, and we give them nothing back.
There's an idea I've been skirting around for the last several months, maybe more than a year, I don't know. But it's this idea of a perfect digibody. A perfect digibody is what happens when you routinely submit yourself to biometric and anthropometric analysis. It's the composite body made up of all of the data about your body, its functioning and its trajectory over time, held by others.
If we were to take my favourite example of the potentials of 3D body scanning, the scanner in the mall that you walk into and get told where you should shop, that's a good basis for the idea of the perfect digibody. In that scenario, if you get yourself scanned every time you go shopping, so that you then don't even need to try things on to know whether or not they fit, maybe you'd be getting scanned once every six months, once every three months, whatever. Say the service were really attractive. Doesn't cost anything, you just need to answer a couple questions about yourself, just little demographic things, things about your age, education level, interests, whatever. You even get an account, so that you can access your data later, at home, say, when you want to buy something online. Of course, what that actually means is that the company that runs the scanners has not only those little nibbles of demographic information about you, but also has detailed 3D models of your body over time. And, thanks to those models and the service they provide, the company also knows pretty well where you're going to be buying your clothing. They know how your body is changing over time. If you go in the scanner before you go off to buy your maternity clothes, they also know when you're pregnant. They know how often you shop. They know a hell of a lot about you and your body.
What's crucial here, though, isn't necessarily the behavioural stuff, or the other information they're extracting from you. What matters is that body scan data over time. That's where the perfect digibody comes in. With reference to Mary Flanagan's (2004) articulation of the digibody as a kind of human-shaped embodiment of data, I'm thinking of the perfect digibody as a composite digital representation of your body, used in your absence as a model of you, your history and your potential. Maybe the behavioural and demographic bits do matter, actually, since they contribute to the use and analysis of your digibody. But the perfect digibody itself is, I think, this artefact over time that maps and tracks your body and its changes in minute detail. It's perfect because it's not just a snapshot in time, but is instead a personal, individual, longitudinal model of you. Model in both the 3D and the virtualization of a real-world phenomenon senses of the word, obviously.
Anyway. That's my start at some scattered thoughts on the idea of the perfect digibody.
Two days ago, I led another edition of my Gendered Turing Tests/Strategies for Concealing and Identifying Gender Online workshop. This one was held as part of Pink Screens, a queer film festival which takes place annually in Brussels. Around 30 people joined me in the very ambient and relaxed basement cafe of Cinema Nova.
Following what has become the normal format of the workshop, we started with some brief background: What is a Turing Test? Why does gender matter online? What are the problems with believing that we can make facile assumptions about the gender identities of others? After that introduction, we broke up into groups, devising strategies, before re-grouping to play through a Turing Test based on the strategies the groups had devised.
As ever, doing the workshop has made me think about how to improve it and do a more effective job of getting people talking about assumptions around gender identity. I've especially been thinking about two elements: how to guide people as they make the strategy cards, and how to scaffold the Turing Test so that it does an effective and fun job of both using the strategies and bringing home the discussions that have taken place in the previous portions of the workshop.
On guidance for devising strategies, I've spent the last almost-a-year going back and forth about how prescriptive to be. One of the issues I see over and over again is that many groups come up with very specific strategies that will only work in certain contexts. On both the concealing side and the identifying side, it's really common to see specific questions (or specific responses to specific questions). Those strategies tend to fail when they're played in a Turing Test, because their specificity means that they're unusable unless the perfect circumstance comes up. So, unless the identifier asks "A/S/L," a concealing card offering a way of dealing with that question isn't very useful. To deal with this issue, I could provide an instruction at the start, ruling out specific questions and asking for generalizable strategies that can be interpreted by the user. But that seems like a problem for two reasons. For one, it's kind of prescriptive and limiting. I've seen some really hilarious specific questions that do a great job of getting points across. Preventing people from using specific questions as strategies would curtail a lot of possibility. Beyond that, I worry that asking people to come up with generalizable strategies might paralyze them a little. I've found that lots of people come to the more general strategies through the specific ones. In the workshop two days ago, one group came up with a whole pile of very specific strategies, before realizing that they really all fit into three categories. So I'm still conflicted on how to position the kinds of strategies people are meant to be devising.
As far as scaffolding the Turing Test goes, I wonder if it might be time to adhere slightly more closely to the formulation laid out by Turing in his original paper. There are three things I've done so far that diverge from his formulation. The first is that my version only has two players. I don't think that needs to change. But the second difference, and a possible change, devolves from that. In Turing's version, the identifier is talking to both a woman and a man, both of whom are acting as the same gender. So there might be a woman (A), presenting herself as a woman and answering the questions of the identifier truthfully. In that scenario, the man (B) is pretending to be a woman, answering questions in the way he thinks a woman would. One of my differences is that, in effect, the concealer is allowed to play as either A or B, representing themself, or representing some role they've chosen to play. This is another one of those things that I've gone back and forth on. In favour of having the concealer play as A is the idea that having someone play themself could make for a more nuanced portrayal and prevents the concealer from engaging in obvious stereotypes. On the other hand, it does kind of reify the idea of "natural" gender differences or, potentially, introduces some areas of sensitivity. It invites both the identifier and the audience to judge the gender identity and presentation of the concealer. I worry a little bit about how taking out the layer of performativity might make the Turing Test a little less funny and a little more uncomfortable. The third difference, and something I think I might actually have an answer for, is the introduction to the purpose of the conversation taking place in the Test. In Turing's articulation, the express purpose of the exercise is for the questioner to find out the gender of the people being questioned. Up to this point, I've positioned the exercise as a chat, with the underlying idea that the identifier is trying to make a guess at gender, but not with that explicitly stated as the goal. I think that's going to change, but I need to think about how to do it with an appropriate level of sensitivity.
Aside from those takeaways, the workshop was excellent. Very good crowd, very engaged, and very up for discussion. Having done the workshop a few times, now, I think I need to devote some time in the future to carrying out the next step, which is figuring out what kind of online presence could be used to both distribute and expand the workshop/game a bit more.
Every blog needs a hello world post. I suspect I'll have something to say later on today, or maybe tomorrow or the next day, but for now, I do feel that anything with any pretensions to the style of blogging needs that first hello world, the sort of statement of intent to start.