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Could we imagine and prototype human life in the post-pandemic world? Will geeks rule in the emerging social conditions of the new normal, or will they simply become extinct in the digital mainstreaming of daily life?
Associate Professor Christina Dunbar-Hester is a faculty member of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, and holds a PhD in Science & Technology Studies from Cornell University. Christina is the author of “Hacking Diversity: The Politics of Inclusion in Open Technology Cultures'' and “Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism.” Her writing and research centres on the politics of technology in culture, especially media and tech activisms, infrastructures, and envirotechnical sites.
Christina recently participated in a University of Melbourne Faculty of Arts webinar titled “Geeking” and Prototyping in the New Normal.” Christina Dunbar-Hester sat down for a Zoom chat with Dr Andi Horvath.
I love a philosopher of science and technology, that’s why I wanted to chat with you. Christina, are you kind of like an anthropologist of the cultures and the communities that are involved in the digital era in technologies?
Yeah, that’s a really good way of thinking about it. I have – I tend to focus on communities of people and how they mobilise around and interpret technologies. And so I had one project that was about activism to promote and build community radio stations and then another project that was about contestations over diversity and inclusion and hacking and open-source communities. And yes, I go in there as a participant observer who is not a member of the communities and hang out and talk to people and do interviews and try to do interpretive analysis of what’s at stake for these people in these activities that they’re undertaking and often why engagement with technology is so important to them.
So you’ve immersed yourself in these communities and no doubt you’ve come to understand the social dynamics and the politics. Let's talk about the hacking one. Firstly, how did you go in there? Did you go in there with just an open mind or were you searching for certain elements of political and social discourse amongst that community?
Yeah, that’s a great question. There’s actually a kind of thread between my first project, which was the radio project and the second one with the hacking communities. The radio project was about people who in really around the turn of the millennium, were advocating for building radio stations. So that, at the time, they knew seemed kind of like an anachronistic undertaking perhaps but they were somewhat sceptical of the emancipatory digital utopianism; just go on the internet, it’s a brave new glorious world there.
So they were actually, I argued, they weren’t just sort of nostalgic people longing for an age of radio, they were very sophisticated and had concluded that radio better served some of their values around electronic communication than some of the internet communication. But the thread is – so that brought them into contact and sometimes some degree of conflict with hacking communities and people who were more advocating for internet communication, so that was community wireless and some streaming radio, those kinds of technologies.
But the other sort of thread between the projects is the radio activists had a really finely developed set of practices for building a utopian relationship to technology and that meant actually building technology itself. So they wanted to democratise communication and one of the ways they wanted to do that was teaching people how to build and work with electronic artefacts. So tune an FM radio antennae or build your own transmitter board as a sort of demystification and levelling of expertise.
One of the things that I argue in that project that was something of an unanticipated sore spot for them was they had this very radical egalitarian set of ideas, but when they tried to promote electronics practice and electronics tinkering, that could wind up running afoul of the democratic and feminist ideals that they had because the people who were most likely to be knowledgeable about or enthusiastic about electronics were likely to be men and often from more elite backgrounds.
So they were kind of in this double bind promoting this egalitarian liberatory activity on the one hand but running into historical patterns of exclusion on the other. So as I said, they were working through some of that and it was actually through some of those activitists that I found out about activity in software communities and hacking communities where they were really attempting to address some of these problems that also plagued computing hobbyist communities really head on. And so this was, at this point, about 15 years ago, where activists were confronting their hacking and computing enthusiast communities and saying, if on the one hand there’s this free culture element and these are supposed to be meritocratic and spaces for fun and problem solving and community building, why is it that the rates of participation by women, for example, are so low?
And so in the radio project, that was the sort of one little slice, it wound up being about a chapter in that book, but the hacking project, when I approached those sites as an anthropologist, I already knew I was looking at these questions of inclusion and what was at stake and why people felt passionate about these issues and also what they were trying to do practically. So it wasn’t looking at the entire milieu of hacking or of open source, but it was looking at these communities specifically trying to address these problems or questions, issues of concern in their communities.
So you approached that FM community, which in the US is basically community public radio. The FM community wanted to ensure their place in the world, so started to gather the troops, so to speak, but at the same time excluded certain communities in the attempt to try and make their community strong. This is really fascinating. The hacking community, though, that, while still a male-dominated area, did it have any capacity to create feminist hackers?
Yeah, so that’s one of the things that I think is so interesting. First it would depend on where you’re drawing a boundary around what hacking even is, but if we take a fairly conventional view that it has to do with computers, programming, hardware, the sort of longer trajectory in North America and Europe was actually that women were some of the earliest professional programmers during the war effort in World War II. And when programming was a new occupation, it wasn’t gendered and computers weren’t gendered.
But over time, women wound up being sort of gate-kept out of particularly the more prestigious parts of the occupation and even the situation in academic computer science, for instance, there were more women in academic computer science in like the 1980s than there were by the turn of the millennium. And then open source itself was much, much more male dominated and the research that I again draw on and that my people that I was studying and working with were drawing on, there was an EU study that was published in about 2006 I think, that showed that the rate of participation by women in open source was something like 1.5 per cent. It was like really shockingly low.
And so in my research I argue that that statistic coming out actually galvanised people to have internal conversations about well why is this the case? There’s also a genealogy of what could be called cyberfeminism and was at the time and some of that more sort of utopian thinking about playing with or leaving behind certain aspects of social identity and looking at computers and particularly networked computing as a space to which women and gender non-conforming or non-binary people were sort of going online and playing with identity in those spaces.
So it wasn’t that there were no women or non-masculine identified people, it was that open source was particularly masculine and also that some of these kind of tracts of communities didn’t necessarily intersect all that well.
I’ll also add that I wasn’t looking at women particularly. I was looking at the sort of mobilisation of different categories of identity and what was happening throughout my research was people kind of started with women as the first category that they were looking at, but then that sort of brought them to raise other things, like as I said, non-binary and trans and gender non-conforming identities, but also to start thinking about race and ethnicity and nation and global positioning, because a lot of this, my research, takes place in North America and Europe, but there are traces out into other places on Earth and working through a lot of that, which again, started with women, but didn’t end there.
So how does power and politics play out in these communities? Is it the same in these small communities as it is in, say, large corporations?
So that’s a wonderful question, because one of the things that I was sort of sorting through in all of this was what companies and workplaces had to do with what I was looking at. Because what I was looking at was really voluntaristic formations and so communities were people were coming together electively, not on the clock as part of their jobs. But at the same time, of course there is a very strong interest in promoting the inclusion of folks from different underrepresented or gate-kept-out groups in computing, in industry and in education and higher ed.
And so one of the things that I found I guess sort of perplexing and had to kind of sort through, is to what extent was some of the activity that I was seeing in voluntaristic organisations directly mirroring workplace ideas about why it was important to have people from underrepresented backgrounds come into their communities and to what extent was that distinct or separate? And one of the things that I argue in the book was that diversity is this pretty slippery word, where people were using it to mean a lot of different things and usually to mean that was positively valenced, we want to move towards this or have more of it. But it didn’t really mean the same thing and sometimes it was about having a wider range of people configured for workplaces for all the reasons that companies are interested in this, usually having to do with representation and market shares.
But sometimes it really wasn’t and it was about a more elemental belief that working with these technologies has something liberatory to offer and that to do it is to find a certain kind of liberation and joy and a higher sense of self that is not about the workplace at all. So one of the things that I was having to tease out was these different threads and how they were and weren’t related to each other. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of the discourse in the voluntaristic spaces mirrored discourse that you would find in industry and higher ed.
And I think that sometimes that was really kind of doing a disservice for the people who were trying to promote more elemental emancipatory and more radical values and goals, because fundamentally some of what the more radical strands of this activity are devoted to is actually not really compatible with some of the goals of capitalism and to have all of that kind of discursively mixed up or why are you doing this on the weekends and the easy answer is to say, you know, because I love it. But why should other people get brought into it if you’re just doing it as a sort of effective passionate pursuit?
It gets sort of tricky. An answer people would sometimes give is to sort of help people get configured to get good jobs but, to me, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
What are some of the surprises that emerged and misconceptions that you sort of reversed from your research?
So one of the really interesting things that came up in a few different ways in that research was if you’re teaching people to program and hack because it’s fun, where does that lead? And I had spoken to people who were saying, well, you can wind up working for Silicon Valley and a lot of their contracting work, as we know, not all of it, but a lot of it might have surveillance or military implications and where does the line get drawn between, oh you’re really enjoying solving this technical problem and your responsibility for an application for it?
And this was also, I would add, during the sort of aftermath of the financial crisis in the US and globally and so there was interest and support coming into hacker spaces and educational spaces for activities that as municipal budgets were being decimated, like DARPA, which is part of the Department of Defense, was offering to fund hacker spaces. And it was the sort of blue skies thing, it wasn’t, oh you have to then build a missile or a surveillance regime, but the question was really how much does that, as a funding source, or openness to the fact that there might be weapons or surveillance implications for this kind of work, how much of that is something you can bracket out?
So I was finding all kinds of really interesting data about this. It was also during the period of Edward Snowdon’s revelations and the fact that the NSA was spying illegally on American telecommunications. So I was having people sort of come out on all sides of this issue, but basically I think one of the most important things was just to have the conversation about we need to bring this out into the open and debate it as a community. So I was hearing from some people and some hacker spaces, oh yeah, it would be really fun if you want to come to our hacker space and, you know, 3D print or prototype a gun. Whereas other people were saying, no, we really have to make sure that we have a strong political consciousness and not be okay with building facial recognition or working on making drones operate better just because it’s like a cool technical problem.
So that was something I thought was really interesting and important to sort of bring out, was the kind of tacit association between a lot of tech work and militarism and empire.
So Christina, you’re really putting out a call to say we need to become more sophisticated consumers in these sort of technological spaces.
Yeah, I don’t know if I would put it as consumers. But I think I would go, exactly what you said, I think there’s a sophisticated and nuanced knowledge of the, you know, history and present of participation in these fields of work and also fields of leisure or sort of hobbyist spaces that over time really could not be separated from the maintenance and reproduction of elite social power.
So again, if you're talking about sort of like, well what about diversity? It’s not – and this is not me making this point originally, but I would certainly endorse it – it’s not a question of just adding new kinds of people to the same culture and expecting it to either turn out differently or be kind of unproblematically reproducing the values that it had. There’s really a longer trajectory here, which is that tech fields have been used to, again, essentially gate keep sort of access to not only technology, but also the sort of social status that we assign to technologists.
And so the sophistication and sort of nuance there isn’t to say, oh this is all terrible, but it’s also not to say, oh we can just sort of add women and stir or add new people and stir and we’ll unseat the sort of power dynamics here that have been reproducing themselves for a long time. And so I think the challenge is to think about this both within and outside these fields, to sort of think about the power status that they have and why that’s been assigned to them and what it would mean if there is a commitment to more democratic practice around these kinds of technical pursuits, what that would really look like and where the levers of power are.
Also I think another important thing to note is we tend to grant technology and technologists so much power and sort of assignments as a special status in society that we think, oh, if we want to change society, we need to change who the technologists are or we need to open that seat up to new kinds of people. And that may well be true and I have nothing against it, but the other thing that I would again ask us to maybe step back and think about is how did that segment of society come to be so powerful in the first place and is that really what we want.
I know this is on the agenda in Australia as it is here, what are the implications of that, those fields having so much power for how we assign resources in education, for example, what does that mean for history and social science if we’re deciding that the economy of producers is all going to be coders or academicians of engineering or computer science. There’s some really deep and elemental questions, I think, lurking behind my hobbyists pressing for inclusive practices in hacker spaces. One of the things that I argue is that ironically it can’t actually be solved in the hacker space.
So how do you inspire your students to rethink those spaces? What sort of activities do you get them doing?
Well one of the things that I really like to do and comes up in the book, but even sort of think about the boundaries around who is a tech worker, for example, we would have easily to hand a stereotype of a Mark Zuckerberg or a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or something. But you know, what are all the material forms of work that go into producing these kinds of products and that certainly involves not only electronics engineering, by the way also is worth noting that the US government has funded a lot of the basic research that has then gone into these consumer products that we then attribute to being the products of these genius companies.
But to step further and further and further back and kind of zoom out on these commodity productions, because it’s not, again, just a software suite on a shiny electronic device, there’s also, where was that circuit board assembled. The fact that Apple products come with the – I’m probably going to mangle this a little bit, but they say like designed in Cupertino and manufactured in China, often. Sort of taking a step back, there are strong patterns of race and gender around who we’re assigning as the powerful important technologists in the sort of pipeline of bringing our electronics to us. But really there is skilled assembly work and before that there’s often very environmentally and, in terms of personal safety, hazardous mining work.
And thinking about sort of that long commodity chain and the power relations in it is one of the things I try to do in teaching. I teach communication students – often I think people think that I – if I say I teach in communication, they think that I’m teaching how to do what you’re doing or do production some of kind, media production and I don’t do that. But the sort of sedimented and often invisibilised history of labour in the internet is one of the big things that I try to do, to get us thinking about the sort of longer histories of labour and materials and to sort of start to look at their consumer electronics products in a totally new way, for them, a lot of the time.
So next time we look at our mobile phone and we marvel at it and we’re glad we found it because we thought we’d lost it, what would you like us to think about?
I mean there’s a few things, one is like if we’re talking about technology, right, why is the phone or the laptop, like the little shiny electronic device, the thing that we’re calling technology, that shows a lot of sort of bias towards novelty. And again, sort of assigning power and even sort of genius and maybe even almost a certain divine providence or something to these little things and why are we marvelling so much more over your electronic device than over the electrical grid, which fundamentally your device wouldn’t really do anything for you if it weren’t able to be connected to a power source. So that would be one question.
And another and I don’t know if this is going to go anywhere very interesting, but just the sort of naming convention. Like what is that called your phone and not your computer? I think that one answer we could give is that the technology history is not just a history of, again, the object, it’s a history of use and conventions and social expectations. And so I think the reason you’re calling something a phone, even though you’re hardly talking on it like a telephone very often, probably has to do with the legacy of it being a more personal and intimate technology that you’re using for one-to-one communication a lot.
So I think both of those would be things that I’d want you to think about and they both point to a sort of deeper material history and often sort of conventional to the point of invisible, invisibility, sort of social convention around what this object is that is on the one hand totally ubiquitous and mundane, but on the other hand has this often more unremarked upon material history and set of social conventions and expectations that run through it.
Associate Professor Christina Dunbar-Hester, thank you.
Thank you for the invitation to have me.
Thank you to Associate Professor Christina Dunbar-Hester from the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California. And thanks to Dr Andi Horvath..
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights - was made possible by the University of Melbourne. This episode was recorded on November 17, 2020. You’ll find a full transcript on the Pursuit website. Production, audio engineering and editing by me, Chris Hatzis. Co-production - Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath. Eavesdrop on Experts is licensed under Creative Commons, Copyright 2021, The University of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this episode, review us on Apple Podcasts and check out the rest of the Eavesdrop episodes in our archive. I’m Chris Hatzis. Join us again next time for another Eavesdrop on Experts.
“I tend to focus on communities of people and how they mobilise around and interpret technologies,” says Associate Professor Dunbar-Hester, from the School of Communication at the University of Southern California.
Her writing and research centres on the politics of technology in culture, especially media and technology activism.
“If we take a fairly conventional view that hacking has to do with computers, programming and hardware, the longer trajectory in North America and Europe was that actually women were some of the earliest professional programmers during the war effort in World War II. And when programming was a new occupation, it wasn’t gendered and computers weren’t gendered,” Professor Dunbar-Hester says.
She says another of the really interesting things that came up during her research was that if you’re teaching people to program and hack because it’s fun, where does that lead?
“I had spoken to people who were saying, well, you can wind up working for Silicon Valley,” Professor Dunbar-Hester says. “And a lot of their contracting work, as we know, not all of it, but a lot of it might have surveillance or military implications. Where does the line get drawn between when you’re really enjoying solving this technical problem and your responsibility for an application for it?”
Professor Dunbar-Hester says an important thing to note is that we tend to grant technology and technologists so much power and special status in society that if we want to change society, we need to change who the technologists are, or we need to open that seat up to new kinds of people.
“And that may well be true and I have nothing against it, but the other thing that I would ask us to maybe step back and think about, is how did that segment of society come to be so powerful in the first place and is that really what we want?”
Episode recorded: November 17, 2020.
Interviewer: Dr Andi Horvath.
Producer, audio engineer and editor: Chris Hatzis.
Co-producers: Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath.
Banner: Getty Images