Technology in Theory and Practice: "Hack This! Contesting Technological Neutrality at Technology in Theory and Practice”
Guest Writer: Mel Stanfill

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

[On April 2, 2012 the Unit for Criticism held its annual Graduate Student event. This year it was a panel of three graduate students on the topic of Technology in Theory and Practice. Below guest writer Mel Stanfill, one of the panelists, writes the second of two posts on the event.

"Hack This! Contesting Technological Neutrality" 

Written by Mel Stanfill (Institute of Communications Research)

The consensus was clear at the Technology in Theory and Practice graduate student panel: across the various disciplinary homes, theoretical frameworks, and methodological approaches of the participants, technology is not a neutral tool that can magically solve our problems without any input from us.

Mark Keitges (Education Policy, Organization, & Leadership) critiqued the idea that education can be optimized through carefully controlled design. In particular, he used Hans-Georg Gadamer's idea of “being pulled up short” to highlight the role of uncertainty and surprise in education. Because being jolted out of our complacency and worldview is a productive experience, “improving” designs to make the learning process  smooth isn't an improvement at all. Instead of “distributed cognition," in which some of the work of thinking is relocated into the technology, Keitges seeks recognition that the capacity for learning doesn't reside in the technology but in the interaction. He called for an “ill-structured design” that affords such moments of disjuncture.

Safiya Umoja Noble, (Graduate School of Library & Information Science) was similarly interested in disrupting narratives that claim that technology cures what ails society. Noble was concerned with the ways “black girls” appear when these search terms are “Googled,” finding that the results that appear first, far from ushering in a new era under Stewart Brand's slogan “information wants to be free,” operate entirely within the orbit of old stereotypes that reduce African-American women and girls to their sexuality. She was particularly concerned because Google search is typically presented as not only neutral but also a “public good” that improves life by making information available to the masses.

Noble was critical of the ways Google has at times specifically disclaimed responsibility and identified objectionable results as “the algorithm's fault”--even when such results are produced by gaming their system, as in neo-Nazis Googlebombing the word “Jew” or, to add a lighter example, Dan Savage's campaign against Rick Santorum.

My own presentation for the panel, which derives from my work in communications research may seem to diverge from these perspectives by arguing for the usefulness of data analysis software to critical research. However, my work nevertheless resonates with that of my co-panelists: like them, I believe that the software is only as good as what the user puts into it. With insightful interpretation on the part of the researcher, software can turn micro-level analysis into macro-level insight by showing patterns in how social categories are understood—in my case, sports and science fiction fans, but the principle is portable—across disparate cultural locations.

Within these three papers, despite their great variance with respect to topic and discipline, then, a number of commonalities emerged. Keitges and Noble are both interested in the ways that technology's design renders certain uses more or less possible in ways that then affect the world (as, in other work, is Stanfill). Noble and I want to expose and contest the ways in which certain ideas get produced as the reality of the categories in our research and how this helps perpetuate unequal power relationships. And, while Noble and I disagreed about the usefulness of data analysis software, ultimately our points are similar: analytical software is helpful when (and only when) researchers need to keep track of large bodies of things.

This combination of commonality—in seeing technology as an important site of interrogation—and divergence—in how the presenters approached it—formed the heart of the faculty response, provided by Ted Underwood, who identified the panelists as participating in a form of critique that he compared to “hacktivism”: Keitges was hacking design, Noble was hacking search, and I was hacking research.

In place of the disciplinary silo effect, or even inderdisciplinary silos such as the contemporary movement for Digital Humanities Underwood called on his listeners to hack scholarly communication itself. This starts, of course, with bringing such a panel and audience together in the first place.

However, Underwood also called for hacking scholarship by recognizing that the technologies that organize us as scholars are no more neutral and independent of human action than Google or educational interfaces or data analysis software. The academic publishing system, for example, is a technology, and recent activism to contest scientific publisher Elsevier's pricing practices, resistance on the part of academics to the Research Works Act, and broader initiatives for open-access publishing (and for recognition of open-access publications as legitimate) are also modes of hacking scholarly communication.

And indeed, Kritik itself is part of the hacking all of the panel's participants ultimately find necessary—in providing a public forum, this blog works to contest the common sense about what technology is for, how to use it, and what will be seen as a legitimate way to get knowledge about the world.

If, as the panelists argued, technology is only as good as what we do with it, let's do something with it. Hack this post. Remix it. Transform it.


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Ted Underwood said...

Thanks so much, Mel, for this sharp summary of a great conversation.

Just to extend my thoughts about disciplinarity a little: I actually don't object to "disciplinary siloes" as such. If a discipline supports the kind of inquiry you want to pursue, then I'm all for it. In cases where a discipline isn't working for you, I would say: just create a different community. That's how we got "the digital humanities," and I think moving outside existing disciplines was absolutely a useful move in that case.

I might also characterize DH as more "extradisciplinary" than interdisciplinary. To me, scholarship is interdisciplinary when people still feel institutionally based in English departments or what have you, but do intellectual work that crosses disciplinary boundaries. DH feels a little different in the sense that it's really building its own institutions and infrastructure, both on the web and in the more traditional form of journals and conferences, etc. But I don't think it's likely to become a "department" either. And it includes about as many academic professionals as it does faculty. In short, it's something kind of anomalous.

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