Sunday, March 04, 2012

Gender. Coding. Libraries. Digital Humanities. And Timelines

Gender. Coding. Libraries. Digital Humanities. Where to begin?

Let's start with a Timeline.

Yesterday, out of nowhere really, I came to a particular insight to why Facebook was transitioning its users to the Timeline profile format. It suddenly became clear to me that users will eventually find it very difficult to leave Facebook once they realize that a significant portion of their lives and the lives of their friends and family have been so well captured and expressed and - I suspect - made unexportable -- by Facebook.

I think of leaving Facebook myself from time to time. So I thought I should make my own Timeline outside of Facebook now in the present, so I could kill my Facebook self off in the future without losing the digital artifacts of my past. I remembered that Peter Rukavina had written about Timelines some months ago and went off to investigate whether the software that he recommended was out of closed beta...

This morning I received an unexpected email from memolane of a picture that I took five years ago. A surprise from my past from my personal timeline of pictures and words. It felt good.

At this point I'd like to point out something obvious: digital photography has completely transformed the nature of photography. In doing so, it has transformed how we represent ourselves and others, and you could arguably make the case that it has transformed who we are.

I like to say, "we are all librarians now"  but maybe it's a more powerful statement to say, "we are all archivists now."
Meanwhile, both Katherine Harris and Lauren Klein show how archives are often silent when it comes to the representation of minorities, and Lauren (in one of the most powerful instances of topic modeling I’ve found in recent criticism) shows how digital technology can think through those silences. 

The quote above is a quotation from a post titled, DH, Archival Silence, and Linked Open Data., a post that is begins with this:
I’m thinking through many of the interesting conversations occurring around Twitter and the DH blogosphere recently. First, Miriam Posner had a really powerful post about learning code and gender, where she argues that the broad exhortation to code covers up gender and diversity inequity. 

This post you are reading is, in essence, another response to Miriam's post but it didn't start with it. I've been thinking about re-visiting gender and technology ever since last week when a couple tweets and posts from libraryland struck a discordant chord within:


The "important blog post" referred to above exhorts librarians to be more like engineers in a start-up. While others evidently have critiqued this post using the lens of gender, my more immediate concern is that it guilelessly reduced the profession to "identify problem, test minimal viable product, find product-market fit, validate business model, grow."

So.... illiteracy === opportunity!!!

The best response I have heard to this line of thinking comes from Bret Victor and he addresses the paucity of problem solving in engineering/computers/design in this recent keynote:


Bret Victor - Inventing on Principle from CUSEC on Vimeo.

If you are unable or unwilling to spend an hour on this remarkable video, here's the short version from Bret Victor's bio:

"There is no 'Technology'. There is no 'Design'. There is only a vision of how mankind should be and the relentless resolve to make it so. The rest is details."

(Mankind? Who uses that word anymore? Ah, yes, let's get back to the matter of gender, technologies, libraries, and digital humanities.)

Bethany Nowviskie wrote a wonderfully humane post called "don't circle the wagons" partly in response to the outpouring of response to Posner's "Some things to think about before you exhort everyone to code".

I bring attention to that humanity, because these days when the conversation turns to technology and libraries,  it's not always there :

At this point I'd like to point out something obvious: digital text has completely transformed the nature of libraries. In doing so, it has transformed how librarians represent ourselves and others, and you could arguably make the case that it has transformed who we are. 

While the tensions within/betwixt /between the humanities and the digital humanities are real and worth concern, I would make the case that they are, dare I say it?, are academic compared to what is currently being played out within libraries and librarianship. Simply put, we may not survive.

Or, on the other hand, we might be at the beginning of a golden age of librarians.  Even so,.

But what I fear it represents is a sense that we cannot stop doing all of the things that our librarians are currently doing in order to address the challenges of dealing with digital materials, so we are going to create one position and get some smart and energetic librarian who can handle everything associated with digital. And then the rest of us can continue doing the essential jobs that we are doing and not have to worry about all that weird stuff.

But if we are not all thinking of ourselves as digital services librarians, we are in trouble.

We are in trouble. Too many of my colleagues think that you can just hire and boss around a programmer to do all the necessary grunt work to support and visualize their theoretical aspirations. But, as Bethany Nowviskie has repeatedly had to point out: digital work is theory in manifest.  Also,

DH is slightly uncomfortable territory for programmers, as I've written in the past, at least it is for people like me who mostly program rather than academics who write code to accomplish their ends. I speak in generalities, and there are good local exceptions, but we don't get adequate (or often any) professional development funding, we don't get research time, we don't get credit for academic stuff we may do (like writing papers, presenting at conferences, etc.), we don't get to lead projects, and our jobs are very often contingent on funding. All this in exchange for about a 30% pay cut over what we could be earning in industry [Scripto Continua: A spot of mansplaining].  

On a local listserv, a colleague from another university asked a question that has been sitting with me like a splinter beneath the skin, "Are those with web skills obliged by management to do the digital work of colleagues with no skills?" (my paraphrasing).

My friends, this is the crux of what I am trying to reconcile.

Do I exhort my colleagues to learn how to code? Do I tell them, it's a program or be programmed world? Do I tell them that it's our responsibility to create online services and spaces that embody and extend the highest values of our profession and of citizenship? Do I try to make the case that we need to pass on a proficiency with tools that handle data deluge rather than paper-bound scarcity? Do I warn them that general purpose computing is at stake? That those without their own server space will be forever be second class citizens of the web?

No, I do not.

Sometimes I find - especially when the conversation turns to gender, or class, or race and culture, that speaking in generalizations just isn't useful. Sometimes I find times when conservations need to leave the level of abstraction and to come honestly from the individual and the personal.

Let me tell you why I am learning how to code.

I want to learn to program because of people like Peter Rukavina. I'm inspired by his civic data projects, by his PEI Wind Energy Dashboard, and for his experiments in curiosity such as "How much do I cost the health system"?  There are so many other people I know and respect who also have a relentless resolve to understand, to celebrate, and to make the world better. They share a generosity of time and spirit and I want to live up to their examples.

I want to make it clear that gender issues in relation to computing and relating to power is very important and it's still very important to me.

It's still on my Timeline.

2 comments:

Lisa said...

This post is your best argument yet on this topic, I think. I also think the thing is, so much of the time librarians are exhorted to learn to code or build digital objects not because of the fascinating social and cultural reasons you enumerate above... but because it will serve some instrumental purpose of the neoliberal university and also, make one look Innovative! So often the question is which technology should we use, rather than what are we trying to accomplish? And the technologies themselves are often talked about in the most instrumental ways... "learning objects" are not compelling to me. Teaching is. And so it becomes difficult to not be cynical and to not see the push to become more technologically adept as another aspect of corporatization in the workplace.

So I like how you reframe this conversation. It's compelling. Thanks.

I also wonder if you've read that Drucker article on humanities approaches to computing? She has some good insight into the whole problem of thinking about interfaces in engineering terms, of thinking about readers as users even. She'd ask you to change your job title. I thought of it when you mentioned that Tennant tweet.

Mita Williams said...

Will read the Drucker article ("Humanities Approaches to Interface Theory" http://ur1.ca/8lksx) and report back.

Writing about gender and technology is never easy for me and I sometimes I intentionally keep things vague. I may have been too vague in my last post so just to be clear I would like to explicitly state:

Do I think every librarian has to learn code? No. But I do think librarians should be aware of and use software in a way that is in line with our values.

I'm not against hiring or bringing a coder onto a team. But if a coder is employed then that programmer or site builder should be part of a team -- a co-creator who's intellectual work is recognized and given credit and is a true collaborator to that project and not just some sort of tech-monkey, That's the alt-ac part part of DH that sometimes applies to librarians and sometimes to programmers.

When I didn't see the open source and open access side of computing, I wasn't really interested in it. To overstate and generalize the matter, that's the gender angle: women tend to use tech to make a particular ends better. There is a small percentage of men, however, who love tech for the sake of tech, and they tend to drive most of its direction.

I haven't worked all of these ideas out. Among other problems I'm still grappling with is the common response of "but I am not interested in computers - that's what you are interested in".