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.