Being the Change: Reflection on “My Mother was a Computer” Symposium

“My Mother Was a Computer: Legacies of Gender and Technology” was a detailed symposium that took place at William and Mary on Friday, November 2, 2018. Many came from near and far to take part in these enlightening discussions and to learn more about various people and their work. The day was filled with various different people coming together and not only talking about their expertise topics but learning and questioning other’s points that were brought to their attention. The day was split into four panels: Gender and Programming, Demo and Artists Talk, Gender and Gaming, and Gender and Online Community, and ended with the Keynote Speaker, Dr. Wendy Chun.

In the first panel, many of the speakers had similar points and not only did they talk about the past and give examples of history, but they took it one step further to claim it’s a social problem that needs to be addressed. Janet Abbate made countless points of the fact to rethink your opportunities and empowerment through programming. In her work, Recoding Gender, that we read and discussed prior to this symposium revolved around culture, history, and issues within the internet and coding, and it was prevalent that her presentation was centralized around this as well. She was arguing the point that opportunities are not objective, they are shaped by personal and cultural values and emphasized the fact that its more about “who you know” versus “what you actually know”. Not only did she just explain how these things have been in the past, she also explained what we would have to do currently to make this change and the current opportunities out there. Janet Abbate talked about the recent movement to teach girls to code and similarly, her work showed her passion for equal roles of gender in coding and taking the time to rethink the gender assumptions. She concluded the solution of just teaching kids to code is bad, that adults can learn too, and prior experience has had no advantage on anyone.

Janet Abbate had a strong profound quote “If you focus on training it blames women for lacking skills and lets tech industry off the hook for bias in recruiting, hiring, retention.”  Abbate truly highlighted the fact and question of, and then what? As a woman myself, I truly appreciated the stance Abbate took and her approach to make progress not only in her written work but as well as vocally to the world for women. On the other hand, Marie Hick also talked about women but focused more on how heterosexuality affects women in the workforce.

Hick and McLennan discussed the prior history and examples of NASA in their work. Both women are very adamant in making progress, and their prior work had showed. Hick talked about the past and how NASA handled certain things and how it simply was not fair the way women were treated for heterosexual relationships and being devalued, while McLennan focused on African American women and the differences within races. Hick is definitely a woman with a sense of humor, as she opened up her discussion with, “My mother REALLY was a computer”, as she was trying to depict the job and efforts her own mother put into programming. Hick’s work, Britain’s Computer Revolution.pdf, showed the advancements women made and the how they were successful at being trainers during this time. The gender and technology panel wrapped up with open discussion where all three speakers came together to agree that women have a lower opportunity for programming, but can contribute some of the greatest things possible to humanity and advancements.

Mattie Brice discussed her journey to her success through her games she created through the highs and lows and everything in between. She is a woman with a very strong sense of humor and can make a joke of just about anything. “If computers are mothers, I definitely have a lot of mommy issues.” – Mattie Brice. Getting to personally play her game, Mainichi, I fully was able to understand her words deeper and understand a topic I could personally relate to and not some foreign concept. She did not always know what she wanted, but she encourages people to just do it and give it a shot no matter what; as an activist herself wanted to use games as communication, even if it’s just to the player to give them answers they need in their lives. Despite the numerous barriers she faced throughout her work she overcame them and was able to be successful. She became empowered through her games, and the hardest part of Brice’s journey she quotes was her attitude of “I always had to ask myself do I leave or do I try to stay and change things”.  She was able to influence people’s lives through her gaming despite everything thrown her way, and I am very inspired at her indirect influence on people’s lives.

During the Gender and Gaming panel four people spoke about their backgrounds and experiences, and questions arose from who is considered a gamer: why is history not being created and being repeated and why representation and archives do not exist.  There is severe progress and regress with everything and with all these different views, it was concluded that anyone can be a gamer and being sloppy and glossy was a good answer to fixing gaming history and representation, to dig deep and make a mess and then worry about the gloss until after. Amanda discussed the difficulty of using games for different purposes than they were originally made for as well, “like for me I only talk to my brother over games.” I found this very interesting in the fact that representation is getting confused with the games purpose with a simple way of communication. One of the biggest points to be brought up was the use of sloppy scholarship, and how unintegrated history is documented. With this topic being brought up, one of my favorite arguments was that more gamer history detectives need to dig down below the surface and remind people to pay attention to the past and what could happen in the future.

Finally, the panels were concluded with the gender and online community segment. This segment was very intriguing and included very real-world examples. Joan Donovan talked about how data and society reports and how they end up with a sense of identity and appearing different online while Alice Marwick focused more on finding gender in the network and the harassment and privacy aspect on it. Marwick emphasized in her work, Chapter 2- Marwick.pdf, a three-word phrase, “talking, working, doing”, and how gender harassment and privacy needs to be in effect, not just talked about. Dorothy Kim emphasized the importance of discussing activism and how it affects mainstream media and Veronica Parades wanted to dig deeper in everyday network belonging; what kind of legacies are we making and leaving in gender and technology? Marwick stated, “I would hate it if people could go back to see what I put out there in high school.” This quote stayed with me for a while and made me think about things that get put out there, and even if there is only one bad thing, it will always overshadow anything good you put out there. We also read, “The Twitter Ethics Manifesto”, which showed the tragedies and negative effects people face on social media and the assumptions people make worldwide. Marwick also stated that women are much more likely to be harassed online and in the streets, and sometimes the scope becomes unbearable. Marwick’s writing is very descriptive and shows different aspects of harassment throughout, and to be able to hear her then talk in person allowed me to fully grasp her sense of personality.

In conclusion the keynote speaker, Wendy Chun, concluded the day with a discussion about her life and how her Korean background influenced her ability to be a keypunch operator. In her work, Updating to Remain the Same, she highlighted the phrase, “our media matter most when they seem not to matter at all”. She draws together a conclusion that through habits and everyday routines users become the medias machines.

As a whole, being able to read about each one of these authors; digging deeper into this topic and personalities and their pieces before, provided me with a sense of connection and deeper understanding of knowing who these people are. What they wanted to accomplish as a whole allowed me to instantly connect and not feel a sense of confusion with their change in topics.

Overall, this symposium allowed me to broaden my knowledge and truly think outside the box on these topics, and I am grateful I had the opportunity to attend an event pieced together so nicely.

Learning to Navigate a Digital World – Thoughts on the “My Mother Was a Computer” Symposium

On November 2nd, 2018, as part of the College of William and Mary’s yearlong celebration of 100 years of women in residence at the college, a one-day symposium entitled “My Mother Was a Computer: Legacies of Gender and Technology” was held. A day of discussion, revelation, and even laughter, it was the perfect excuse for us feminist nerds to talk about the state of the digital humanities and its future. For a Computer Science and GSWS double major like myself, missing it would be inexcusable. Professors and students alike moved through three panels on Gender and Programming, Gender and Gaming, and Gender and Online Community. In between panels was an artist’s talk by Mattie Brice, queer video game designer, activist, and artist. Later in the day, members of William and Mary’s Equality Lab presented on their research and work. To conclude the symposium, Wendy Chun gave a keynote speech on her history as an engineer and digital scholar.

The first panel of the day, entitled Gender and Programming, brought up the development between gender and emerging technological fields, from the early 20th century to today. Professor Abbate talked about the trend of teaching kids to code, especially targeted to groups underrepresented in engineering like young girls and Black communities. What seems like a well-intended solution at first is really like a bandaid on a broken bone; as the concept of a skill, in this situation coding, is a social construct, its definition and value vary based on context. Even if kids know some basic coding skills, those skills are not nurtured and the tech industry is not set up for them to be able to form the connections they need. Dr. Hicks, whose research connects the history of computing and gender, discussed how women were continually pushed out of tech sectors because of having to take care of the family and to let men be the breadwinner. Seen as “culturally necessarily,” in mid-20th century England this actually led to the destruction of a burgeoning technological sector. Finally, Sarah McLennan, who has collected numerous oral histories of women who worked at NASA, talked about how many women were reluctant to share their stories, and those who did honestly believed they didn’t have anything “important” to say. Likely stemming from the listing of “computer” as subprofessional, even a field entailing mainly numerical computation is not neutral or meritocratic. 

Next, artist Mattie Brice gave a talk on her work and activism. Having followed a complex path between games development, public activism, and running games conferences, Brice offers a unique insight on how games can be used for social change. Her video games include Mainichi, her first game about a transgender woman getting to a coffee shop; Eat, about a student in debt trying to eat; and Mission, about the impact of gentrification on restaurant prices. Brice uses games as empowerment. Comparing making games to “Punk zinesters,” an individual can use games for personal reasons, such as “love letters” to friends (like Mainichi), or even use them for greater social change. Her advice to people wanting to make games? “Just go out and do it.” She also has been in charge of creating the GDC counterconference Lost Levels and the Queer Games Conference (QGCON).  She believes that games can solve epic problems, and although there is not enough research being done into the power of games to solve social issues, she believes in everyone having the tools to make the changes that they want to see.

The next panel on Gender and Gaming was quite the spectacle, bringing in four lead scholars in the fields of video game studies. Game design professor Celia Pearce talked about the gatekeeping of what defines a video game, such as The Sims not being considered a “real game” since there is no win condition. Professor Adrienne Shaw talked about the representation and study of LGBTQ groups in games, mentioning the LBGTQ game archive website and The Rainbow Arcade exhibit at the Schwules Museum in Berlin. Professor Amanda Phillips talked about how games are structured by conflict at all levels, and the “pornography of death” that is so common in video games. Bonnie Ruberg talked about the erasure of queer bodies from video game history, saying “video games have always been queer.” They and Professor Shaw also discussed the Queer Games Studies anthology, which posits “queer game studies” as not just studying queer groups in games, but as applying the principles of queer theory to game studies. As a group, the panel and audience discussed the “myth of parallel cultures,” mentioning how parallel cultures and communities have always existed. Essentially, progress is not a one-directional phenomenon, and this truth is made more apparent when the stories that have been so long hidden or forgotten are made available. Finally, the idea of who is a gamer was brought up, which is even more complicated when the issue of representation is brought into play. Who is a gamer, who wants to be a gamer; as we all agree that games are a powerful medium for personal exploration and social change, the gatekeeping of games is a major issue for ensuring equal access and representation.

The last panel of the day, Gender and Online Community, was arguably the most overarching and contentious panel of the day. Joan Donovan discussed how one of the key characteristics of current digital culture is the anonymity of identity and lack of bodies; no one knows if you’re Black, a woman, gay, etc. She then contrasted this with “On the Internet, Everyone Knows You’re a Nazi,” talking about the appropriation of Fred Perry shirts by chauvinist groups like the Proud Boys. Dorothy Kim, having studying the history of indigenous/WOC online, talked about how alt-right groups are co-opting feminist praxis and theory to wage war on oppressed groups. Due to this, she posits that many white feminists are complicit in fascism, since they have done little to combat this. Referencing her and Eunsong Kim’s #TwitterEthicsManifesto, there is a massive problem with giving credit to WOC online, in academic research and on platforms like Twitter. Alice Marwick discussed the spectrum of harassment, ranging from basic catcalling on the street (everyday harassment) to outright stalking, physical harassment, and forced publicizing of personal assets. This harassment is often seen in the tech sector, especially with micro-celebrities who are forced to leverage privacy and public persona for some semblance of fame. This leads to the need for privacy work, but this is often futile as it blames the individual instead of tackling the social conditions that enable harassment to thrive (a common theme of the symposium). Finally, Veronica Paredes summed up the panel with the idea of legacy, detailing numerous organizations that exist to “reproduce social values and knowledge – for better or worse.” She mentioned groups like the Center for Solutions to Online Violence, the Digital Research Ethics Laboratory, SOLHOT, and Situated Critical Race and Media (SCRAM).

The symposium ended with a keynote by scholar extraordinaire Wendy Chun, who combined her personal history with a relevant political and social history to help us all reflect on our navigation as bodies in an increasingly digital world. She talked about her childhood and her mother’s job as a keypunch operator, positing it as a reason she wanted to become an engineer. Moving up through her college years at Waterloo University studying systems design, she points to the the Montreal Massacre as a major turning point. This tragedy pointed her towards the humanities, for the answers that engineering could not give. Connecting to her book Updating to Remain the Same, she stressed the importance of needing to actively work together to create public spaces where we can be vulnerable. Although Chun said this was a format she had never tried and may never try again, it was a risk that paid off in the end. Moving past the themes of violence, oppression, and destruction that undercut the day’s discussions, Chun wisely stated that “the past doesn’t ground the future, it gives us grounds for hope for the future.” As digital humanities scholars, and most importantly as just people, it is vital to keep working on making a better future for us and those after us. Despite the challenges that digital culture and innovation bring, no matter what change we may try or idea we may have, as Mattie Brice so aptly said, “Just go out and do it.”

Moving Forward Together – Reflecting on the Gender and Technology Symposium

During the 100 year anniversary of coeducation at William & Mary, the College has repeatedly put on events to celebrate women and share their perspectives. The one-day symposium “My Mother Was a Computer: Legacies of Gender and Technology” was a prime example of school administrators, scholars, and students coming together to share their own knowledge and lingering questions. Organized by Dr. Liz Losh, Director of the GSWS department, the symposium covered a wide array of topics. The day’s agenda featured panels on gender and programming, gender and gaming, and gender and online community. In between panels Mattie Brice delivered an artist’s talk and equality lab members presented their own work. The day’s events came to a close with Keynote Speaker Dr. Wendy Chun’s delivering an impassioned presentation.

Community and Connection

Throughout the symposium, there was one specific question that seemed to be on everyone’s minds: How do we move forward together? Numerous scholars discussed the discrimination, harassment, and exclusion minority communities have faced within the technological sphere. Obviously, these historical accounts are valuable and bring context, but we need to be able to take this knowledge and share it with others outside of our fields. In order to have important discussions where we create a society in which these mistakes are not repeated, all kinds of people need to be at the same table. Scholars and non-scholars alike must build bridges to other disciplines and the general public to construct a fair, intersectional system. Community must be built across difference.

Exclusion

Mattie Brice began her talk by pointing out that, “If computers are mothers, I have a lot of mommy issues,” highlighting the complicated relationship many scholars and designers have with technology today. Brice is popularly known for her creation of the role-playing game Mainichi, whereby players can get a glimpse of the everyday experiences transgender people face. She believes games can and should acknowledge those in the margins. Technology is its own language and creates a vocabulary that cannot be put to words. While Brice did touch upon this ground-breaking game, her talk highlighted her own struggles within the gaming sphere. During Gamer-Gate, Brice was repeatedly targeted and told that her work was not part of the field. This ultimately led her down a nonlinear path where she began to try her hand at community organizing and gaming conferences such as the Queerness and Games Conference. It was through these efforts that Brice was able to see the importance of a platform and bringing people together. Now, after taking some time away from social media, she has reemerged and is ready to engage and make history.

Representation

After attending the Gender and Gaming panel, it was abundantly clear that representation matters for future progress. Featured panelist, Dr. Celia Pearce noted that the way game scholars depict and describe content today will impact future scholars. This is also why she believed game scholars need to be more critical of the content they consume. Pearce has previously outlined the shift in play communities from in-person sport leagues and bridge clubs to new digital worlds in her book Communities of Play. Through her research she discovered the numerous ways online games create transcendent community. However, because these communities are often difficult to research and can often be outside the norm, scholars should reach out to other disciplines for their own lens. Along this line of thinking, Dr. Amanda Phillipsnoted that feminist work in video games has been happening all along, but no one has noticed because we are not working together. Dr. Adrienne Shaw discussed their collaboration with a German museum to depict what the past and future of queer games looks like. Co-founder of QGCON, Dr. Bo Ruberg, emphasized the importance of Shaw’s work because games as an industry, culture, and academic discipline is bad at history. If people are not aware of what has happened, history is likely to repeat itself. Ruberg and Shaw’s book Imagining Queer Game Studies highlighted how after years of marginalization, sexuality and gender were finally key subjects in the study of video games. Unfortunately, it will all be for nothing if we do let other people know. This belief likely lent itself to the discussion of why conferences and symposiums matter, as well as “sloppy scholarship.” The idea of perfection has kept game scholars isolated and prevented them from moving forward. As long as something is interesting and meaningful, we should not have to worry about the gloss of it all.

Intention

The Gender and Online Community panel featured a series of heavy topics that emphasized the importance of intention. Data and Society’s Dr. Joan Donovan who is well-versed on online hate, started the panel by displaying the far right’s adoption of punk on the internet today. Dr. Dorothy Kim on a related note told symposium attendees that in order to talk about the alt-right online, we first need to talk about the connected history of women of color online. Within her presentation she noted the importance of social media when building communities. This was a clear relation to Kim’s previous work, the “Twitter Ethics Manifesto”. In this article, she critiqued Twitter and the hostility that breeds there because it prevents the public from having productive conversations. In order to disrupt the system and transform the space, Kim notes that we must be good allies. As the next presenter, Dr. Alice Marwick shifted focus towards matters of privacy. Not only has she studied the ways in which people use technology to achieve and seek status in her previous work, but she has now learned how someone can remove another’s status. Forced publicity is when someone humiliates another in front of an audience, like revenge porn. A primary issue she identified was that there is no criminal way to deal with this because laws do not adhere to the experiences of women. As the final presenter, Dr. Veronica Paredes was neatly tied all of these panelists’ works together. She said that if we are not intentional about the legacies we are creating and who we create them with, the same values and knowledge will be reproduced. Paredes then highlighted projects that are intentionally focusing on visibility, legacy, and archive making like SOLHOT.

Intersectionality

Wendy Chun’s “My Mother was a Key-Punch Operator” lecture was the perfect way to wrap up the symposium. While the way in which she presented this information was quite different, the content related back to her book Updating to Remain the Same. Chun’s book outlines how connections and networks often make sense of the confusing and globalized world we live in. Networks allow us to cognitively map our relation to others. In order to discuss the complexity of legacies, Chun mixed the personal, political, theoretical, and historical. It was through weaving stories of her mother’s job with information about the Montreal Massacre, that she herself displayed her own connections. One takeaway I had from her discussion is that we do not understand each other when we are not connected. For this reason, we must include diverse, intersectional perspectives in order to change other people’s way of thinking, and continue forward. New scholarship, thinking, and design will inevitably inspire the next wave of innovation. More scholars need to take risks like Chun by stepping outside of the designated boundaries of their academic disciplines.