BCNM at 4S 2021

09 Dec, 2021

BCNM at 4S 2021

Amazing representation of BCNM presenting at 4S, the Society for Social Studies of Science! Check out their work below:

Jenna Burrell

The Preservation of Embodied Masculinity in Tech-Altered Workplaces

Tech sector work is often thought to represent a shift from an old regime that favors physical strength and capability to a new one favoring disembodied human intelligence. By contrast, the occupational values of traditional rural industries in the Western United States (including, logging, commercial fishing, and cattle ranching) persist in centering the laboring body. Rural work of this sort is celebrated and even mythologized as physical, perilous, embodied, and done in the outdoors. So what happens when the work worlds of high tech make inroads into rural places? How do communities respond when the livestock auction becomes Internet-connected and a Facebook data center becomes the newest employer in town?

Drawing from ethnographic work in Central Oregon and the Northern California coast, this paper explores how rural workers reconcile occupational values when disparate work worlds intersect in rural sites. A recent trend reclaims digital work from the realm of weightless ‘ephemerality,’ situating it instead in the material world, a world of brutal, embodied physicality. For example, in an interview for Outside magazine, Ken Patchett, director of the Facebook data center in rural Prineville, Oregon insisted, “The Internet is not a fake thing…it’s a very, very real thing made with hammers and concrete. And nails. And blood and sweat and tears and people” (Streep 2017). This study accounts for how tech work is made suitable and meaningful in rural sites through its connection to embodied masculine identity.

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Jacob Gaboury

The Computer is not a Visual Medium: Visual Methods for Computational Materiality

In his widely influential 2004 work “Continuous Paper,” Nick Montfort offers a critique of our tendency to privilege the visual experience of computational media in our analysis and understanding of the digital, naming this bias “screen essentialism.” In many ways this critique formed the foundation for a sea change in the field of media studies, a shift away from representational analysis and toward the materiality of computational technology in hardware, software, and code. Yet this wholesale refusal of the screen has produced its own restrictions, particularly as computational technologies come to re-engage visual experience in new ways, from the “discorrelated” images of post-cinema and computational photography to the adversarial networks that enable machine vision and artificial intelligence. How might we re-engage visual methods for the analysis of digital media without presuming the centrality of our phenomenal perception to the function of computational systems?

Taking up this task, this essay models visual methods for computational materiality through an analysis of the central role that computer graphics played in the development of the modern computer. Drawing on archival and materialist methods from my forthcoming book, I argue that while the computer is not a visual medium, computation itself has been shaped by a theory of relation that begins with the visual, and can be traced directly to contemporary applications in big data, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence. In pushing back against the critique of screen essentialism, my goal is to open up new avenues for visual methods in the study of computational media technologies.

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Anushah Hossain

The Case of the Missing Character

In late 2000, an email was sent out to the Unicode Consortium mailing list asking about the missing Bengali character khanda ta. The initial email regarding khanda ta received a reply saying it was an infrequently used symbol and could arguably be represented through complex combinations of existing symbols within the Unicode Standard. It was therefore unnecessary to include.

The missing character khanda ta would go on to become a decade-long discussion between members of the Unicode Consortium; Bengali-computing volunteers from Bangladesh, West Bengal, and the diaspora; and occasional institutional interlocutors from industry and the Bangla Academy. Using ethnographic and archival methods, I trace the symbolic importance of the khanda ta character to these stakeholders, and what it illuminates about the politics of nationalism and language in the digital age. While the character was an example of technical redundancy and mob-mentality for its detractors, it came to represent the need for preservation and completeness of the Bengali identity in the digital environment for its proponents. Eventually, khanda ta was encoded — a singular victory for Bengali-computing volunteers — but persists as a meme and mistake in the minds of Unicode members.

This project is ostensibly about Bangladesh, the Bengali language, and its script, but this case bears similarity to many post-colonial states who’ve sought to establish their national identity in the digital environment. More broadly, it engages with questions of how and whose values are embedded in code, and what factors can cause those values to shift.

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Elizabeth Resor

(Why) Does It Matter That I’m Also Here If We’re Both On Zoom?

In this paper I reflect on the locational and methodological shifts in my dissertation research necessitated by the pandemic. Instead of continuing an ethnographic project in Kenya, I shifted to a remotely conducted interview study in Oakland, California (where I currently live). The switch from site-based ethnographic methods to online and remote approaches forced me to consider more closely how I had addressed my positionality as a researcher with my initial methodological choices, and to acknowledge how daily life practices constituted acts of research and reciprocity that needed to be replicated or substituted with online and remote action. Despite these differences, this forced shift also illuminated how many of my commitments as a researcher have not changed, and in fact, that bringing in decolonial practices from my previous work can help me regain what I felt I had lost in moving away from ethnographic methods. Given that both projects relate to how understandings of place are expressed in online activity and information, there is also a secondary meditation on how place is expressed during online interactions – including those between researcher and research participant.

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Hannah Zeavin

Screening Mother, Coding Baby: Videography & the Pre-History of Emotion Recognition in the Clinic

For over a century, the tradition of psychologists and pediatricians performing infant observation has generated norms for diagnosis and screening of a variety of maternal and infant pathologies, along with corollary advice for parents on how to raise emotionally healthy babies. This art of “baby watching” changed radically with the advent of videotaping. Starting in the 1970s, this new medium and new evidential regime greatly enhanced the data-gathering capabilities of clinical psychologists’ clinics without removing bias.

The detail-oriented practice of coding the faces and behaviors of videotaped mothers and children did more than just render so-called invisible disabilities visible: new diagnostic categories and their criteria were developed out of this closer, pausable, and reviewable form of looking. Videography in the clinic allowed for the eventual coding and typing and pathologizing of “bad” mothers and “good” mothers, “sick” mothers and “well” mothers, “secure” infants and “anxious” infants (as in the studies of Ainsworth & Bell, Bebe, and Tronick).

“Screening Mother, Coding Baby” offers a pre-history of facial recognition, data coding, and diagnostic algorithms in the relationship between mother and child. I argue that the new diagnostic categories and screening capabilities resulting from clinical videography work in two ways. At their best, they still preserve definitional problems and offer diagnostic criteria so that caregivers can receive help—either for themselves or their babies. At their worst, they create the ideal image—literally—of mothering or infant states as well as stigmatized distances from that ideal. While beneficial for screening large numbers of mothers for, as just one example, postpartum depression, this way of looking at and recording mothers also creates an atmosphere of surveillance—mothers, once under care, are also at risk for social and state intervention, and unevenly so across intersectional lines. Even after the actual video equipment is put away, a visual comparative framework instructs that a good mother looks like x, not y. The sample populations of these videos are narrow: nearly always white, middle or upper class, neurotypical (a “normal” mother). As this surveillance paradigm has given way to the training of algorithms on mass facial recognition datasets, neuroimaging, and other high-tech solutions to the problem of screening mothers and their children, these formalized diagnostic criteria, and their pathological norming, have extended their reach, becoming a dragnet that further encodes racial and classed biases elaborated nearly fifty years ago.

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Kyle Booten

The Pleasures of the “External Brain”

“Personal knowledge management” may sound mundane, yet this seemingly unsexy technological concept possesses is the liturgical focus of a cult—the self-described “RoamCult,” a group of power users of Roam Research, one of the latest pieces of software to take up the mission of the Vannevar Bush’s Memex. The core features of Roam—a popular and much-hyped “note-taking tool for networked thought”—would not seem revolutionary to Bush: users can make bi-directional links between snippets of text or other media. A graph visualization allows the user to see their knowledge as a spider web of intersecting thoughts and images.

Why, in an age of much more complex technology, does a personal note-taking app still inspire passion? I propose a psychoanalytic exploration of the pleasure of building and possessing an “external brain.” As Benjamin Fong articulates, “there is more to why we think technology makes life better than technology making life better” since “technology gratifies a psychic need before it does material ones.” My primary archive will consist of Roam itself as well as public comments made by its creator and users. Additionally I will note how Roam echoes pre-digital visions of the external mind, including the “place-logic” of Ramus. Via Fong, I will consider the specific forms of “mastery” promised by the externalization and visualization of one’s brain. Via Robert Robert Pfaller, I will consider whether the charm of the external brain rests in the way it keeps one’s thoughts not handily nearby but rather at a safe distance.

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danah boyd

Time and Money: How Public Sector Agencies Resist Organizational Failure

This paper contributes to debates in the sociology of organizational failure by comparing the experiences of two governmental organizations in the United States: the Census Bureau and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Prior studies of organizational failure typically focus on the private sector with its particular arrangement of funding and stakeholders; assume failure causes such as poor environmental fit or exogenous shocks to a company; and assert that failure or low reliability is unintentional and undesirable. Our ethnographic examination of two public sector, politically-imbricated sociotechnical systems reveals novel causes and roles for failure. We observed two resource-constrained arenas in which complex sociotechnical organizations confronted significant risks: the contemporaneous production of the 2020 census and the Europa Clipper Mission. Examining the dual roles of money and time as socially constructed, relationally invoked, and politically executed constraints upon local action, we observe how complex, tightly-coupled organizations of the type Perrow associates with failure deploy time and money as buffers against risk. We analyze how relationships are renegotiated alongside competing views of the organization’s mandate, and how both time and money are co-constructed alongside powerful entities such as the Office of Management and Budget or Congress in addition to both internal and external stakeholders. Accounting for these socially-constructed “constraints” upon action enables us to articulate what actors do in contested terrain, to usefully reframe organizational failure for analysis, and to suggest implications for trust and legitimacy in public sector technical projects.

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“Filling in the Gaps”: Investigating Civil Society Organizations' Role in the 2020 United States Census

The decennial Census is among the most complex technoscientific projects undertaken by the federal government of the United States. Data collected through this process are not only the basis for the appointment of political power and the disbursement of federal monies but also inform the activities of many governmental and non-governmental agencies. But census data – like all data – are the result of social processes. Moreover, census stakeholders, from partisan agents to civil society organizations, are keenly aware of the contingency of census data and have often sought to shape the process (and its outcomes) to advance their interests, noble or not. For example, members of Census Counts – an ad hoc network of civil society organizations acting in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau – have played an active role in the 2020 decennial census, seeking, in their words, to deliver a “fair and accurate” count.

Drawing on participant observation and 42 semi-structured interviews with Census Counts and other census stakeholders, we describe (1) how these organizations understood concepts of “fairness” and “accuracy” and (2) how those understandings informed their attempts to remake, repair, supplement, and, in some cases, subvert the data infrastructure envisioned by the Census Bureau. In describing the complex, contested, and often contradictory relationships and imaginaries among Census Counts and the Census Bureau, we develop the concept of “gap work”: a dual process by which (data) infrastructural stakeholders construct an (as of yet) unrealized “whole” and then undertake efforts to fill in the perceived “gaps” in that whole.

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Kris Fallon, Margaret Rhee, Katherine Chandler

A Conversation on Drones, Robots and Mechanization of Politics: Unmanning and Research In-Progress

This panel examines contemporary scholarship devoted to drones, robots and algorithmic war, expanding on Katherine Chandler’s Unmanning: How Humans, Machines and Media Perform Drone Warfare (2020). It puts the book in conversation with four scholars who transform current research on drone warfare by foregrounding science and technology studies, critical race theory, gender studies and media studies. Unmanning considers failed experiments by the United States military to unman aircraft in the twentieth century. It analyzes how the drone’s human, machine and media parts are entangled with gender, race and nation. Through unmanning, political actions are disavowed as technological advances, while drone failures underline the limits of seeing from above. In response, Iván Chaar López will expand on the interrelation between the drone and nation, drawing from his monograph-in-progress The Cybernetic Border: Drones, Technology and Intrusion. J.D. Schnepf will discuss her work-in-progress, Drones and Domesticity: Women’s Work and the Maintenance of U.S. Imperial Culture, elaborating on themes of gender and US imperialism. Margaret Rhee will draw on her manuscript, How We Became Human: Race, Robots and the Asian American Body, to underline themes of race, technology and embodiment. Allen Feldman, author of “Of the Pointless View” in War and Algorithm (2019), will consider the visual culture of drone warfare.

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Kris Fallon

Mass-ive Protest: Petition, Assembly and Algorithmic Transparency

In their contribution to the recently revised Handbook of STS, Breyman et al. demonstrate the fundamental connection between STS and the larger social movements that arose alongside the discipline, what they describe as the “many activists, thinkers, and writers whose critiques of science and technology emerged in contexts of social struggle and conflict.” Indeed, STS positions itself at the nexus of science and technology on one hand and the society to which it applies on the other. At the center of this exchange lies the authority and institutional leverage of states, scientific disciplines and technology corporations against the collective, assembled power of everyday people. Recently, petition and assembly have been used to challenge state violence and the big tech corporations that enable it, protesting both immigration policy and policing in the US and pressuring companies to sever ties with the US government.

This paper will consider the role of petition and assembly as a fundamental tool for shaping both state and corporate policy as well as specific research agendas in computer science and engineering. Drawing on political theory and the history of rights of petition, I will argue that what I call massive publics are both essential and anathema to the development of computer vision algorithms like Amazon’s Rekognition tool. Such tools represent the state of the art in AI and computer vision (having trained on millions of images) and yet their use is controversial. Bowing to intense public pressure, Amazon temporarily barred police departments from using the technology, but in the absence of legal policy and sustained scrutiny, it remains unclear how lasting this victory will prove to be.

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Ryan Shaw

Critical Information Studies: A Roundtable on Sociotechnical Theories, Digital Objects and Institutional Practices

Critical information studies (CIS) is an empirical, political, and educational project. This CIS roundtable will unite and expand the field through an interactive fishbowl format. It has three goals. First, we will ground recent critical investigations of big data, algorithms, and misinformation in decades of research in library and information science. Second, we will discuss the evolution of iSchools as sociotechnical objects shaping these research problems. Finally, we will make space for the burgeoning cohort of STS scholars working in iSchools. In this way we will create a community for CIS within 4S, and support each other's CIS work in our own institutions.

For CIS, information is not natural, but constructed. We will discuss the common ties between research that addresses, for example, labor in information systems and the information ideologies that construct ‘users.’

CIS seeks to remake the power relations produced by and through information. Our roundtable will discuss the political possibilities of our work, how we can, for example, engage in anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles to preserve those institutional records that can support reparations and erase those records that serve as tethers of the carceral state.

Finally, CIS rethinks library and information science pedagogy. Our roundtable will discuss how to move iSchool education beyond training interchangeable information professionals who optimize access to information resources, and how to incorporate more critical dispositions from STS.

In a moment of institutional ferment, we hope to build models for creativity beyond entrepreneurialism, for abolition over inclusion, and for an information ethics that does not formalize power but redistributes it.

More here.