Liz Losh Digital Dialogue at MITH | October 6, 2015

A Woman's Touch: Manual Labor, Pink Collar Workers, and Feminist New Media Origin Stories

  1. On October 6, 2015, English Professor Liz Losh from College of William & Mary kicked off our Fall season of Digital Dialogues with a PACKED house! We had to open up the doors at the back of the conference room to fit everyone in.
  2. She began her talk by acknowledging the work that has informed her research, specifically naming FemTechNet, Anne Balsamo (also a former Digital Dialogues speaker), Alex Jusahz, Lisa Nakamura, Sharon Irish, Lisa Cartwright, Beth Coleman, Celia Pearce and Jacqueline Wernimont.
  3. After relating some key theoretical touchstones in her research, Losh discussed the need for any feminist collectives that rely on online organizing not to unintentially reproduce the work conditions of oppression, citing the now-defunct Undercurrents listserv:
  4. Some time was spent on discussion of FemTechNet, an online collective of scholars and artists discussing and incubating projects related to feminist engagement with technology.
  5. FemTechNet was originally formed in 2012 in the wake of the Year of the MOOC (Massively Open Online Courses). Despite the fact that women have traditionally had a long relationship with open, non-traditional learning technologies, MOOC promoters often downplayed that history.
  6. Thinking about initiatives encouraging women to learn how to code, Losh emphasized that questions also needed to be asked about historical moments when women were discouraged from coding, and why.
  7. She points out that the word 'computer' used to be a noun referring to someone (most often a women) responsible for jobs involving computation and the creation of printed tables at minimal cost. Anne Balsamo's phrase 'My Mother is a Computer,' originally included in her 1996 book Technologies of the Gendered Body, which was intended to unpack some of these histories, was also expounded in Katharine Hayles' 2005 book which takes the quote as its title:
  8. Losh moved on to discuss how early seminal computing and digital culture texts seemed almost reactive in nature, revealing a desire to remove the gendered body from tech work environments, with 'girls' comprising primarily unskilled labor. She cites an example from Vannevar Bush's 1945 Atlantic piece "As We May Think:"

    "Such machines will have enormous appetites. One of them will take instructions and data from a whole roomful of girls armed with simple key board punches, and will deliver sheets of computed results every few minutes."
  9. Unlike the Bush piece, Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver's 1998 book The Mathematical Theory of Communication posits women's labor as a crucial component of the tech labor force.
  10. Losh then provided an overview of different instances of women in tech labor over time, expanding on the particulars of each as they relate to the trajectory of labor representation:
  11. This also included a survey of different social media sites dedicated to uncovering hidden women's tech labor histories. No Bro Computing, Linnea Rothin's Pepp board on Pinterest, etc.
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