Archive for July, 2007

I am a nerd

Friday, July 20th, 2007

People who know me well, know this about me. But for those of you (well, most of you I suppose…) who think I am ultra cool, know this: I like coins.

Now, I’m no coin collector, if that’s what you’re thinking. I don’t like all coins. In fact, I don’t like most coins. What I like, and maybe this makes me even nerdier, is Canadian quarters. As a kid, there were only two kinds: the regular kind (moose head) and the “fancy” kind (mountie). As I recall there was also a “fancy” dime – some sort of bird – a tern perhaps? (feel free to correct me, anyone). That’s about it.

Whenever I came across one of these special quarters, I would feel a little thrill. And then tuck it away, to be spent only when I ran out of allowance and wanted a junkfood fix from Tucker’s corner store. But that habit of saving these coins, even if only briefly, stayed with me. When they changed all the bills, back when I was a late teen/early twentysomething, I saved the old ones too.

So you can imagine I was in heaven when the new “province” series of quarters came out. I began collecting with diligence that only (or often or sometimes) comes with early adulthood. Infrequently, but then with increasing regularity, “they” (that would be the mint, I suppose) began releasing more and more “fancy” quarters. This made them a bit less special. But I still stowed them in my old jewelry box – the one my dad brought me back from Egypt when I was 10, and which I have carted around with me from apartment to apartment, and from house to house, ever since.

I can’t say that I have saved them all. But certain ones did get me excited. Like the colourized ones – the breast cancer one, or the poppy one, which caused a great spy kerfuffle south of the border. I also liked the Terry Fox one, and the recent hockey one I’ve seen (though I’m not an especial fan of the sport) but have yet to hang on to. Now I tell myself I’m saving them for my kids; my son, already, shows sure signs of nerdiness. He is a gearhead, and also enjoys simple, repetitive actions, like digging and planting in the garden, or packing and unpacking the camping cooler.

All of which brings me to a news story on CBC radio I heard at suppertime. There is a new $20 coin which is the world’s first coin with plasma effect (to create the “blue hues and capture the frigid essence of the Arctic”) and which, ok, didn’t interest me too much at first. As I say, I like quarters. But then I heard the story behind it. The coin is meant to honour polar exploration, and so on it is 16th c. explorer Martin Frobisher, as well as an Inuit man paddling his kayak. But, “as it happens”, this juxtaposition evokes a dark moment in Canadian history. This Frobisher dude actually kidnapped some Inuits, on two different occasions, and brought them back to England as proof of his successful voyage to the “new world”, and where they promptly died. So that was a drag, to say the least, and a poor choice by the folks at the Royal Canadian Mint.

Goddessforbid anybody do a little fact checking never mind learning a bit of history.

Either way, I’m still a nerd.

Marx vs. the Machine

Sunday, July 15th, 2007

I’m going talk more about Marx’s contribution to the study of technology, as well as his ideas on the relationship b/w sociological and economic analyses of technology. But I’m going to do this with the help of Donald MacKenzie. Just so’s you know…

MacKenzie, in chapter 2 of his book Knowing Machines, details Marx’s account of the way the machine was made stable, highlihgting how social relationships (within which production occurs) impact production technology – indeed are a major factor in the shaping and success or failure of technical systems. This jives with Marx’s insistence that, when analyzing markets, one must remember “capital is not a thing, but a social relation b/w persons which is mediated thru things.”

One of Marx’s big ideas is this: with the advent of large-scale mechanized production, social relations molded technology, not vice versa. The determinist reading of Marx views the forces of production as technology itself. But the forces of production also include labour power, people, skills, knowledge. Indeed, Marx always afforded agency to workers, stressing that what was specific to human work was that it was conscious: people as much as machines make human history.

Marx defines the machine as “a mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs w/its tools the same operations as the worker formerly did w/similar tools.” With the machine began the Industrial Revolution: it undermined the basis on which manufacturing workers had resisted emergent capitalism. Whereas in manufacture, the organization of the social labour process was purely subjective (a combination of specialized workers), the machine system of large-scale industry was a totally objective organization of production, which appears to the worker as a pre-given material condition of production.

The machine contributes to valorization via “relative surplus value”; the reduction in labour time required to produce the equivalent of the worker’s wage generates an increase in surplus value accruing to capitalist. Thus the machine liberates capital to accrue absolute surplus value; by undermining skilled workers, by drawing new sectors into the labour market, by threatening/generating unemployment, the machine “is able to break all resistance” to lengthening the working day. Alienation of the collective and intellectual aspects of work achieves its technical embodiment in the machine. Further, the machine embodies the power of the capitalist: science + natural forces + mass of social labour converge in the system of machinery, which represents the power of the “master”. Thus, capitalist social relations achieve technical embodiment in labour process

For Marx, the “conditions of work” represent the means of production in their social form as capital; the means of production therefore employ the worker instead of the worker employing the means of production. This was the goal under manufacture and handicraft labour BUT its only w/machinery that this inversion acquires technical reality. Not surprisingly, then, the worker regards the machine is a direct threat; it is capital’s material form. Indeed, the connection b/w class struggle and technical innovation was part and parcel of the Industrial Revolution in 19th c. Britain. Skilled labour, especially, stubbornly resisted the discipline of factory work. Marx links worker recalcitrance directly to technical innovation, which was a response to and a weapon against working-class revolt. New machinery did not always increase efficiency or profit but DID reduce the capitalist’s dependence on highly skilled and paid labourers with minds of their own. Marx thus concludes that Luddism was, in fact, a working class critique of machinery.

Marx’s account of the machine is an attempt to theorize the social causes of organizational and technical changes in labour process (how perfect for a “social shaper” like MacKenzie!). For example, technical changes in the steam engine resulted from shifting relations b/w capital and labour as a result of new labour legislation that shortened the working day. While machines were more efficient than human muscle power, there was still the need to squeeze more from the worker during the shortened period

Again, Marx stresses that capital is not a thing (e.g. not a sum of money or commodities) but comprises social relations b/w persons mediated through things. Thus the relation b/w capitalist and worker consists of wages, hours of work; the law and the state; supervision discipline, culture, collective organization, power, conflict and so on. Here MacKenzie points out a weakness in Marx’s understanding of this: the social relations of production (w/in which technology develops) are not just b/w worker and capitalist but also worker and worker. That is, relations b/w men and women workers, older and younger, workers, and likely immigrant and native workers must be accounted for.

He lists three ways the split b/w male and female workers influences technological production: 1. New machinery caters to highly unskilled and low-paid worker, always women (and children), who initially displace the highly skilled male workers (left over from days of manufacture). 2. Some skills, like sewing, were considered women’s work, and learned at home. There was no need, therefore, to automate this process. Such work was entirely unregulated and devastatingly underpaid and because in the home, isolated, with little to no chance for workers to organize. 3. Skilled, all-male unions marshaled their power to keep at least some control over the new technology and defensively keep women out of their organizations.

At this point, MacKenzie asks a Feenbergian question: Does the design of machinery reflect the social relations w/in which it develops? Marx equivocates on this, he says, sometimes treating machines as victims of capital and not in their design inherently capitalist. Nonetheless, a specifically capitalist form of production emerges, including at the technological level. This is a rather orthodox interpretation, then, one that accepts that social relations impact the pace of technical change (e.g. mechanization was spurred by valorization-imposed needs to displace skilled workers and their power to resist) BUT denies that those relations influenced the design of technical artifacts.

If technology is neutral, and the system of social organization corrupt, then progressive social change will occur simply by changing how society is organized. No need to worry about the technological infrastructure, which can, apparently, be coopted, adapted and reconstituted. Substitute a workers’ government for the capitalist’s government, add water and presto! A workers’ utopia.

MacKenzie’s social shaping self concludes by suggesting that understanding how social relations interact with technical design turns on the contingency of design, and the need to identify where and how things could have been different. This leaves only one (albeit burning) question: why one design was chosen over another. Indeed.

So… is this enough Marx for you?

Gettin’ it strait

Sunday, July 15th, 2007

My Friend informs me (with a certain amount of smugness) that it is the Georgia Strait, or more preferably, the Strait of Georgia. Not to be confused with the Georgia Straight and its hippie-freak origins, whose biggest claim to fame, as far as I’m concerned is that Bob Geldof did a stint there in the 70s.

I’m not from here. What do you want? I’ve always liked homonyms anyhow…

Which reminds me of a t-shirt I saw on this guy during my first Gay Pride Parade, when I was all of 20 tender years. It read: I’m so gay, I can’t even think straight.

Oh how I digress… But seriously, back to Marx.

Communing with nature

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

Tonight I saw the sunset.

The temperature was much warmer today and I went outside seeking relief from the heavy heat inside. This time I had no blanket, but was not cold. The wind was flirtatious, at times coming on strong, massaging my whole body, then withdrawing to nothing but a light tickle about the face and neck.

The sun was a low, ill-defined orange ball. It was the same sun I’ve seen set many times over various bodies of water – Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Superior, the Detroit River (you can tell I’m from Ontario…) But I haven’t seen it go down over the Georgia Straight, while sitting on a bench, caressed by the wind, reading Marx’s Capital Vol. 1 (Ch. 15). It was nice.

An aside: last night I dreamed I was blogging. Let me clarify: I wasn’t dreaming about blogging; I experienced my dream as if I were writing a blog post. I dreamed through the device or act of blogging. So far, I’ve dreamed “in game” – again, unconscious experience mediated through metaphor of gaming. Also I have dreamed I’ve been instant messaging someone – communication twice removed (first through IM, second through the dream, or vice versa). Now it is the blog that is enframing my unconscious self. Goddess help me.

Parksville or bust

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

I am sitting on a log, on the beach, looking upon the ocean. Well, the Georgia Straight. Same diff. It is sunset. I came out just to catch it, because the house I’m staying at in Parksville overlooks this vista, and it seems like something I should do. Also, my kid was out here last night, and I wanted to see what he saw, if that makes any sense.

When I first came out, in my jams, with my tea (Twinings Earl Grey) and an afghan wrapped around my body, I immediately went back inside. I was looking for the camera because I figured, if I was going to see this ocean sunset, and it was going to be as beautiful as everyone would have imagined, I should take a picture of it. You know, preserve the moment etc. etc.

But I couldn’t find it. So I grabbed the next best time-freezing technology, my iBook. And here I am, now sitting on a log, casting the occasional glance out to sea and the setting sun. On the horizon, mountains meet ocean; some clearly snow-capped. Oceanside sounds surround me: the white noise of the ever-moving mass of water before me; the raspy shifting of sand grasses; the occasional distant honk from a flock of geese; the worried cheeping of the Sandpiper who has a nest around here somewhere (saw the babies on the beach when the tide was out yesterday).

We spent most of the day on the beach. The kids had a blast – we barely moved 50 feet from the backyard. What with the tide pools (too many crabs to count), fresh water stream complete w/tadpoles, all those geese (I counted 96), a blue heron, terns, the aforementioned sandpiper and brood plus sand, all manner of rocks, driftwood logs, shells — well, the kids are in heaven. Their needs are so simple, really. A picnic of peanut butter sandwiches, fruit and juice and we were set.

It smells good out here; reminds me of northern Ontario, when my dad would take us kids camping to Lake Simcoe. OK, not so north, but out of the city, cottage country anyhow. For this city girl, it might as well have been Temagami (never mind Fort Severn!). I vaguely associate this outdoors smell with bug repellent, though it’s clear to me now that referent was misplaced.

So it was a good day, in all. The worst is trying to keep the children from destroying this nice house we’re staying in. It’s full of all these nicnacks and artwork from Indonesia or some such place. Already the daughter’s (non-exotic) fairy statue has been dropped and chipped. Not sure what to do about that one…

As I look out at the mountainscape, it appears that I missed the sunset. It’s just a diminishing line of dull orange, sinking deeper and deeper behind the mountains, and also into the sea. Gawd. I need to commune with Nature more.

An aside: I haven’t had wireless access. This was a rude shock, and has taken some adjustment. Have I become spoiled? As my friendly acquaintance Derek said the other day, what did I use my computer for before the Internet? Crazy (shaking my head). Obviously, there is a bit of a time lag with this post…

Learning to love Latour

Thursday, July 5th, 2007

Bruno Latour is a funny guy. At least in his very cheeky essay, “Where are the missing masses”. Now he may be (along with Michel Callon and John Law) the innovator of Actor Network Theory and a very famous French sociologist of science. But this is also a dude who insults his own colleagues and profession, not to mention myriad others – engineers, technologists, feminists, believers, novelists, the French. He lies, berates, misleads, tricks and teases throughout, yet still comes off as someone you’d like to have a beer with.

Calling himself a “mere philosopher”, Latour reserves most of his feigned disdain for sociologists, who have too long ignored the role of “non-human” actors in social life. When I first read Latour, I thought he was crazy. But a few years later, and a more considered reading (including Science in Action) of him has me reconsidering. I think, in fact, he might have gone crazy, but I haven’t touched his later works. At any rate, Latour insists that to “balance our accounts of society” we must pay some attention to non-humans, the “hidden and despised social masses who make up our morality.” I love it.

As quirky and irreverent as this sounds, Latour is really saying something rather simple. The social world has a material foundation with which humans necessarily interact. It is sensible, then, to consider how these material artifacts, techniques, devices interact with their human users, non? We must consider the fonction (Latour has no qualms about leaving French words untranslated in his English writings) of these non-human artifacts beyond the performance of their obvious, immediate task.

One of the major concepts in this essay is translation. In his case study of the automatic door-closer or “groom”, he defines translation as the transformation of a major effort into a minor one. It is this reversal of forces (the type of David and Goliath tale of which the moralists, er, sociologists are enamoured) that the sociologists should examine to understand the social construction of artifacts, “and not a hypothetical social context they are not equipped to grasp” (ouch!).

Other classic ANT concepts discussed here are delegation and prescription. Humans (engineers, mechanics) delegate to non-humans certain tasks that translate a major (human) effort into a minor (technical) exertion. In many instances, an unskilled non-human (door w/powerful spring mechanism) presupposes a skilled human user (knows how to get through the door w/out receiving a bloody nose). This, says Latour, is an example of prescription – the moral and ethical dimension of mechanisms. We have been able to delegate to non-humans not only force (closing the door) but values, duties, ethics.

Latour anticipates the cries and charges of anthropomorphism by admitting it and throwing the question back at his accusers: “Are they not our brethren?” he says of non-human actors? He gives 3 reasons why the groom is, indeed, anthropomorphic: 1. It is human-made (constructed); 2. It substitutes for actions of people (it is a delegate that permanently replaces humans; 3. It shapes human action by prescribing certain actions (e.g. what sort of people should pass through the door … the hydraulic door closer discriminates against the weak: children, the elderly etc.)

Instead of differentiating b/w humans and inhumans (as the sociologists say), Latour sees only actors – some human, some non-human, some skilled, some not – that exchange their properties. The divide b/w human/non-human actors is “untenable”, he says, with what I imagine to be a flourish.

Things get a bit tricky when Latour describes the attribution of the roles and actions of human and non-human as a choice. So far, I have not understood this idea. He talks about how builders and users are inscribed in a mechanism; how a mechanism prescribes certain behaviours and qualities. In other words, technologies both prepare their users for a certain interaction, and at the same time anticipate this interaction. Think of a traffic light. The red signal prepares the driver (or walker) to stop, but it also expects that she will, indeed, stop. However, there is nothing to stop her from not stopping. Chances are, not wanting to get into an accident, she will stop. “There might,” Latour concedes, “be an enormous gap b/w the prescribed user and the user-in-the-flesh…”

Latour goes on to explain the problem here: sociologists (damn them!) confuse the human-nonhuman divide with the differentiation b/w figurative and non-figurative actors. In a text, the choice of granting actors figurativity is up to the author; a character is more or less personal, depending on how framed. It is the same for techniques, where engineers are the authors. The label “inhuman” applied to techniques overlooks translation mechanisms (e.g. door-closer to groom) and the many choices that exist for figuring/defiguring, personifying or abstracting, embodying or disembodying actors.
It follows that the “enunciator” (the author of a text/engineer of a mechanism) is free to place (or not) a representation of herself in the script (texts/machines)

At the end of his mirthful narrative, where he recounts self-deprecating stories (I like the one about him screaming to his toddler who, unrestrained, would not stay seated in the back of the car: “If I brake too hard you’re dead.”) and heaps scorn upon all who’ve come in contact (however peripherally) with his topic, he concludes.

Technical translation, delegation, shifting out is the claiming of a once-human competence. In this way (says Latour) what we define as our social relations is silently prescribed back to us by non-humans. “Knowledge, morality, craft, force, sociability, is not a property of humans but of humans accompanied by their retinue of delegated characters. Since each of those delegates ties together part of our social world, it means that studying social relations w/out non-humans is impossible.”

And there you have it: Latour in a half a nutshell. Corrections and comments are most welcome.

Looking for geeks at Wired Woman

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2007

I forgot to write about Wired Woman. This is a social networking group for women working in various aspects of technology; there are two chapters – one in Toronto and one here in Van. They had their “summer splash” event at Subeez last week and I signed up. So far, my research into free software/open source development, as well as tech activism, has found a largely male dominated arena. Although this has been explicitly identified as problematic within Indymedia (the techs have all the power b/c they have the code, Sherri Herndon, co-founder of Seattle IMC, once told me), no formal critique has been forwarded (that I’ve seen, anyhow). I thought a look at the local scene might be a helpful, and interesting, counterpart to my feminist readings on technology (for example, today’s reading, Judy Wajcman’s Feminism Confronts Technology)

I wasn’t certain what to expect – I’m not a professional and I’m not used to hobnobbing, eating canapés and passing about my business card (possibly because I don’t have one). On the Facebook group, a number of men well known in the local tech scene had rsvp’d so I wasn’t sure how woman-focused this would be. A friend told me about a similar event in Montreal, and about half of the people who showed up were dudes; apparently it was a topic of discussion at the event itself.

But there were hardly any guys – except this totally cheesy politician, BC’s Minister of Small Business and Revenue, who was all red in the face and smarmy. He presented Wired Woman w/one of those oversized cheques – for 10K. Not too shabby. I was at the back of the group during the speechifying with another friend, who wondered aloud if we were allowed to heckle. While the politician was blathering on about how he and Premier Campbell were such supporters of women in technology, how important this was, we were snickering, wondering if their “support” extended into the realm of daycare and mental health care access for women. A bit more fundamental to women’s day-to-day existence, I’d venture.

Anyway, while I did appreciate the spread (including wine bar), I didn’t meet too many women actually working in the tech sector. There was a life coach, a real estate developer and some sort of recruiter. But very few (of those I met) were programmers or IT peeps or what-have-you. But I bought a membership and I’ll check out their next event. It was fun, and I am, typically, a glass-half-full kind of person. Hope springs eternal etc. etc. And of course, there were the usual antics concerning Air, KA and a parking metre.