Tuesday 26 June 2018

Tara McPherson on UNIX, technical componentisation and Feminism

I came back from Berkeley with a haul of books, partly thanks to the wonderful Moe’s Bookstore, and to a recommendation from a Japanese biology professor for a book of essays about current work on "communicative musicality", which I didn’t know about. In answer to the topic of my paper in Berkeley, “Do cells sing to each other?”, the answer is yes, and we are only just beginning to understand the aesthetic dimensions of communication which underpin biological self-organisation, and knowledge about which will, I believe, transform the way we think about human communication and learning. I also picked up a copy of Tara McPherson’s “Feminist in a Software Lab”, which my wife drew my attention to in another bookshop window.

It’s a beautiful book. McPherson is one of the lead figures in the digital humanities, and her book concerns underpinning critical issues within the most basic technologies we use. Unlike a lot of critical work about technology, which tends to be written by people who are not so comfortable with a command prompt, McPherson understands the world of UNIX kernels, cron jobs and bash scripting from the perspective of a practitioner. She also understands the technical rationale behind people like Eric Raymond, mention of whom caused such uproar among feminist critics at this year’s OER conference. But because she understands the technics, she can see beyond the surface to deeper problems in the way we think about technology, and to where Raymond’s deeply unpleasant politics is connected to a rationale for software development which very few dispute. She cites Nabeel Siddiqui who, on a SIGCIS listserv exchange about “Is UNIX racist?”, says:
“Certain programming practices reflect broader cultural ideas about modularity and standardization. These ideas also manifest in ideas about race during the Civil Rights movement and beyond… Computation is not simply about the technology itself but has broad implications for how we conceive of and think about the world around us… The sort of thinking that manifests itself in ‘color-blind’ policies and civil rights backlash have parallels with the sort of rhtetoric expressed in Unix Programming manuals.” 
McPherson adds “this thinking also resonates with structures within UNIX, including its turn to modularity and the pipe.” With regard to education, she comments:
“Many now lament the overspecialization of the university; in effect, this tendency is a result of the additive logic of the lenticular or of the pipeline, where “content areas” or “fields” are tacked together without any sense of intersection, context or relation.” 
She quotes Zahid Chaudhury saying
“hegemonic structures tend to produce difference through the very mechanisms that guarantee equivalence. Laundry lists of unique differences, therefore, are indexes of an interpretive and political desire, a desire that often requires recapitulation to the familiar binarisms of subordination/subversion, homogeneity/heterogeneity, and increasingly, immoral/moral” 
This connection urgently needs to be made. The lack of diversity in tech is a problem – but it is underpinned by an approach to rationalist thinking which has gone unchallenged and which frames the way we think about science and software, pedagogy and the organisation of education – and, most importantly, diversity itself. Misogyny and racism are built into the genotype of techno-rationalism. This helps to explain how simply increasing diverse representation doesn’t really seem to change anything. Something deeper has to happen, and McPherson points to where that might be.

It is right to focus critique on the component orientation of modern software. We rationalise our software constructions as recursive aggregations of functional components; we replace one system with another which is deemed to have “functional equivalence”, all the time obliterating the difference between the village post office and an online service. Having said this, component orientation seems to help with the management of large-scale software projects (although maybe it doesn’t!), and facilitates the process of recombination which is an important part of many technical innovations. Yet McPherson also points to the fact that this separation and otherness is also a creation of boundary and distinction, and those distinctions tend to accompany distinctions of race and gender.
Through her Vectors project, McPherson has been probing at all this. She has enlisted the support of some powerful fellow travellers, including Katherine Hayles, whose work on cybernetics and the post-human is equally brilliant.

It’s rather easy these days to adopt a critical stance on technology – from the perspective of race, gender, sexuality, and so on. That’s because, I think, there’s so much injustice in the world and many people are hurting and angry. But critical intelligence demands more than the expression of outrage – that, after all, will be componentised by the system and used to maintain itself whilst it pretends to embrace diversity. Critical intelligence demands a deeper understanding of more fundamental biological, ecological, physical and social mechanisms which find expression in our technology.

McPherson is an advocate for making things – not just talking about them. If we all need to learn to code (and I am very sceptical about the motivation for government initiatives to do this), it is not because we all need to become workers for Apple or Microsoft. It is because we need a deep understanding of a way of thinking which has overtaken us in the 20th and 21st century. It’s about mucking-in and talking to each other.

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