WEEK 1: GENDER + PROGRAMING CULTURE
by Ali Rachel Pearl
Week 1 Threads:
Code and computer's creativity? hmmm… posted by Giuseppe Torre of his “AI Prison”
Axes by Margaret Hamilton posted by Mark Marino
FLOW-MATIC posted by Mark Marino
The first week of the 2018 Critical Code Studies Working group was led by Jacqueline Wernimont, Liz Losh, and Judy Malloy, and the first post by these discussion leaders clearly articulated the non-neutrality of code: “Although code purports to be neutral, its binaries speak to deferrals and differences marked by the power and privilege of gender.” The goal of this first thread was to acknowledge the many ways in which women’s labor and contributions get erased in histories of programming. The thread looked specifically at Margaret Hamilton and the Apollo 11 Onboard In-Flight Software. To complement this discussion, Judy Malloy provided a code critique of this software, the largest body of code to be examined in a CCSWG thread. As a result of these discussions, we have created a google doc with information about Women Programmers in Space Exploration, that can be viewed and edited here:
Code explorations have already touched on curious moments. Malloy pointed out "HERE IS THE PHILOSOPHY OF GUILDENSTERN” in the comments, leading to reflections on Hamlet and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Corinna Kirsch drew attention to the word “please” embedded in the code. Mark Marino points to a moment in the Apollo 11 code wherein two of the coders explained their naming of the one of the code’s routines:
Mark asks, “What do you make of this encoding of a racially charged catch phrase, linked to such a tumultuous set of social events?”
Some observations/questions that Kevin Driscoll asked later on in the week that feel relevant to framing some of these conversations are: “This thread has me buzzing with questions about how we define "programming culture." Is there a "programming culture" outside of the occupation of software developer? Or, is the activity of computer programming inescapably linked to programming-as-work? Is programming culture always subordinate to an industrial form like the military contractor or tech startup? Is there room for anti-utilitarian, inefficient, or counter-cultural code practices in how we imagine programming culture today?”
During a discussion of how we might uncover or highlight the work of women in technology, Nazua Idris leads us to consider these questions in a more global context, using her community in Bangladesh as a primary example of how traditional understandings of gender roles results in discriminatory and exclusionary practices: “I wonder how far the feminist intervention in critical code studies takes into consideration this persistent exclusion of women in tech-world outside US context?”
In a different part of the thread, @a11ykat’s explored issues of disability, masculinity, and tech culture: “While Asperger Syndrome and other forms of autism presents more symptomatically (causes more disorder) for men than in women, in many ways, there is a feminist/crip disability justice lens on programming that we may be missing when we fail to differentiate early men in programming from the more mainstream millennial Ivy League brogrammers who dominate Silicon Valley today. In what ways did programming provide an escape from a certain kind of masculinity, while centering other forms of marginality beyond gender?” These kinds of questions/considerations allow us to reflect on how discussions of gender often seem to imply discussions of non-dominant genders (women and gender nonconforming people). But considerations of how masculinity (especially when its toxic, as it often is) intersects with tech might aid us in sorting through how toxic environments arise and how understandings of gender shape those spaces. @a11ykat also asked: “How does linking computer programming with "geek culture" affect women in a different way than men, given the greater reliance that young woman have had on beauty for survival, validation, and power? And more on point, how did Margaret Hamilton and other women in similar engineering roles navigate the gendered conceptions of her day, both as choices and as constraints?”
A couple participants widened the lens of coding to include alternative contexts of “making.” @flam said: “I think it's also important to note the role of weaving and textiles in the developmental history of the Apollo project (and programming in general). In "Moon Machines", they talk about how entire programs for Apollo had to be sent to textile factories to be literally woven into rope core memory, and women were the ones doing that weaving work. They called it the "little old lady method" (which is problematic in itself and reduces the important work that these women were doing). Weaving is such a historically "female" activity, yet was instrumental in the successes of the Apollo project and is not recognized in the same way.” And in response, Brandee Easter asked: “What would a code reading, through the lens of weaving, look like? How could feminist making be an important lens for CCS?”
In the week’s General Discussion thread, Kathi Berens addressed sexist search algorithms, which feels very akin to Alexandra Juhasz’s work re: YouTube (as cited by Liz Losh in the thread) and Safiya Noble’s work on algorithms of oppression (as cited by Jacque Wernimont and others).
There were two other threads I’d like to highlight. One is Liz Losh’s thread about the portrayal of female programmers and code itself in motion pictures. There, folks explored The Net, Westworld (which led to a Westworld specific thread by Marino), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mr. Robot, and other works.
The second thread is about the working group itself, the “choice of topics and approaches to organization of the working group weeks, the application process, and the way that topics / categories and their intersections are made legible through the working group format and through the online forum.” Here, Miriam Sweeney referred to a remark Tonia Sutherland made in her introductory post in which she raised the issue of identity taxonomies: “I also want to talk about how, even for CCSWG18, I had to choose between the week on race and the week on gender to propose a discussion on Black women’s safety.” This comment began a discussion about how the software on which we’re running this group requires certain kinds of partitioning. As Jeremy Douglass pointed out: “CCSWG is using off-the-shelf forum software, and one of the things forum software does is divide and partition discourses into spaces -- that's its structural concept of how to facilitate conversation. In this case, perhaps that core concept of the forum software genre is pernicious, and/or the concept of these weekly topics isn't a helpful frame for that discussion -- a discussion on Black women’s safety should at the very least be cross-posted so that it is visible in both topics simultaneously.” Miriam Sweeney asked a series of pertinent questions regarding this issue that will hopefully lay a foundation for further discussion in the coming weeks. She asked, “how might a reorganization (or recasting) of these topics lead to new ways to understand the structures that we are trying to intervene in?”
These threads will continue as we head into Week 2: Creative and Critical Coding led by John Bell, Evan Buswell, and Margaret Rhee.