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.”