Dead to Rights

by Henry on December 11, 2013

Jillian York has a piece in the new Democracy which starts by criticizing my earlier article on tech intellectuals, before going on to say many good things of her own. As she notes:

If all you had to go by was Farrell’s piece, your image of the tech intellectual would be of a mid-to-late-career male, likely occupying the world of academia, with one foot deep in Silicon Valley. Farrell’s essay is conspicuously missing tech intellectuals of a certain stripe—namely, women. Apart from Rebecca MacKinnon, whose work is revered but whose profile was already prominent due to her prior career in journalism, Farrell fails to recognize the valuable and often-dissenting contributions made by women technology intellectuals.

… Even in areas where both men and women have something to say, men somehow crowd out the women in the popular discourse. In his piece, Farrell looks beyond pop-culture tech intellectualism and into the spaces where the dark side of technology is being debated. Evgeny Morozov is surely the best-known voice on the subject (and Farrell spends a lot of time on him). Meanwhile, only a fraction of the publicity goes to prominent women like MacKinnon (whom he mentions but doesn’t discuss) as well as emerging voices such as lawyers Marcia Hofmann and Jennifer Granick, academic Biella Coleman, and journalist Quinn Norton who offer a look at the digital threats facing the world today. When it comes to the intersection of technology and policy—the space inhabited by Larry Lessig—women like Pamela Samuelson, Susan Crawford, Latanya Sweeney, and Kate Crawford provide valuable insights through their public speaking and writing. And in the mainstream media, women like The New York Times’s Jenna Wortham, The Wall Street Journal’s Julia Angwin, and Forbes’s Kashmir Hill assume the role of public intellectual when, for example, they dissect the surveillance state or the ways in which large tech corporations track their customers. And yet when one thinks of a tech intellectual, a white male is invariably the image that comes to mind.

Jillian is absolutely right. I can make two pleas in mitigation – that the article did, acknowledge, in passing, the overwhelming white-maleness of the dominant tech intellectuals, and that I did apologize in a follow up blog post for not giving MacKinnon’s excellent book the central role it deserved. But they are at best pleas in mitigation. As an explanation – but certainly not as an excuse – I only realized after the piece had been published (and I started getting well deserved grief on Twitter) that my operating definition of a tech intellectual was one which took a certain self-referential status hierarchy (in which men have tended systematically to do better than women) as a given. As a first approximation, a proper discussion would have looked at how this definition of who ‘counts’ as a tech intellectual is itself part of a tacit power dynamic. It would then have gone on to look at how this and other definitions are being contested between different groups with different definitions, and used this as a springboard for a much broader discussion, which would have included many of the women that Jillian mentions, as well as many other people too. If I’d tried to do this (and obviously, I would surely still have gotten lots of things wrong, opened myself up to useful criticism and pushback etc) I think it would have been a better and more useful article. I’m sorry that I didn’t – but I’m very glad that someone else has started this broader conversation (and done a much better job of it than I ever could have).



bill benzon 12.11.13 at 5:46 pm

I’d add Nina Paley to the list of women in the public sphere who address technology issues, especially intellectual property. Much of this work is in connection with her film, Sita Sings the Blues, which has won prizes and has been exhibited around the world. She is artist-in-residence with Question Copyright; she writes for their blog, and other blogs, has produced animated videos (“minute memes”) on IP; and many many of her Mimi and Eunice cartoon strips address IP – some of the strips have been translated into various languages. And she’s given presentations all over the place. Here’s her blog post about her most recent talk, Make Art, Not Law, in Champaign, Illinois.


bob mcmanus 12.11.13 at 5:47 pm

Article authors in a book recently finished:

Susan J Napier, Sharalyn Orbaugh, Livia Monnet, Kotani Mari, Hiroko Chiba (?), Naoki Chiba. Kotani Mari is the author of Techno-Gynesis:The Political Unconcious of Feminist Science Fiction , as an example. I also like the somewhat less techno but still critical work of Dani Cavallaro.

I also grab anything with cyborg, cyberfeminism, or post-humanism in the title or synopsis, usually written by women. Haraway and Napier were among the leaders. I don’t claim to know or understand much yet.

There is more work done by young women (and LGBT) in Japanese studies, anime and cultural studies than I have time to read. Interdisciplinary? Off-topic?

I suppose it might depend on what you believe are and will be the most effective sites and means of resistance. That could be an interesting topic.

(Also Gilbert Simondon and Thomas Lamarre)


bill benzon 12.11.13 at 5:49 pm

Hey! I’ve got a comment (about Nina Paley) stuck in moderation, probably because it has links in it.


Henry 12.11.13 at 6:02 pm

Nina’s work is wonderful, and from my one encounter with her (conversation during a shared car ride), she’s a wonderful person too.


clew 12.11.13 at 7:10 pm

Ellen Ullman, at a slant.

One of the effects of -ism is to forget all the marked people who are not newcomers. Then the well-meaning can say `look at all the up-and-coming marked people!’, with a strong undercurrent of `How enlightened we have become!’ If those up-and-comers never become elder statesmen, or anyway aren’t listened to, the process can repeat forever.

It can repeat forever anyway; Jameco recently linked to a near-retirement woman’s reminiscences of a career in (I think) chip design, and one of the themes was being `the first woman’. Except one of her most important teachers was also a woman. The rock never stays at the top of the hill.


maidhc 12.12.13 at 12:41 am

I think this is the first time I have encountered the term “tech intellectual”. It appears to mean someone who discusses the impact of technology, rather than someone who creates technology? So the chip designer mentioned by clew, and people like Grace Hopper and Marissa Mayer, would not be considered tech intellectuals?


Jillian C. York 12.12.13 at 5:11 am

Thanks Henry, not least for inspiring me to tackle this topic.

@maidhc – One might argue that Marissa Mayer falls within this category (I sure wouldn’t, though), but yes – Henry’s original piece defines the tech intellectual as a commentator on the impact of technology.


Anarcissie 12.12.13 at 6:35 pm

A lot of ‘tech’ people are quasi- or pseudo-intellectuals, that is, they read, they write, they know stuff, they have semi-intelligent theories about things, but on the other hand are not legitimated by institutions or credentials, other than maybe a job or a following. The phrase might need better definition, lest further errors of categorization be fallen into, with dire results, at least on Twitter.


bianca steele 12.12.13 at 6:42 pm

The definition of “intellectual” here seems to be someone who has a theoretical grounding and sees the facts through the lens of theory. This does seem to be true of both Morozov and Ullman, who don’t have solid positions within “official” institutions but who are to a degree legitimated by the connections they do have with those institutions.


Western Dave 12.12.13 at 8:18 pm

Audrey Watters for tech ed

Feminist Frequency on gaming

Audrey Watters

Jane McGonigle on gaming.

Audrey Watters.

Hey did I mention Audrey Watters yet?


Nine 12.12.13 at 8:42 pm

“A lot of ‘tech’ people are quasi- or pseudo-intellectuals, that is, they read, they write, they know stuff, they have semi-intelligent theories about things, but on the other hand are not legitimated by institutions or credentials, other than maybe a job or a following.”

I assume this is sarcasm ?


Doug K 12.12.13 at 8:58 pm

what a decent apology..

I am glad to see Jillian mentions Zeynep Tufekci, a very astute observer.

From recent @zeynep,
When people suggest Twitter put a lady Clinton on the board for “diversity”, I bristle. The point isn’t the ladybits, it’s the experience.
Diversity as a value isn’t about powerful people of similar experience w/ different pigmentation & bits. It’s about experience, perspective.
Marissa Mayer is a great example of why diversity cannot just be check boxes. Powerful, privileged life.

I never hear better sense from any one than @zeynep..


Anarcissie 12.12.13 at 9:12 pm

Nine 12.12.13 at 8:42 pm:
… I assume this is sarcasm ?

Sarcasm is too blunt an instrument for my taste — usually. There is a certain amount of irony from past grindings of the term intellectual sprinkled on it; but I do mostly wish to convey the square meaning of what I said. I guess mentioning Twitter was snotty, although yesterday I received an email from a scientist suggesting that he and his peers and interested bystanders could discuss one of his new theories on Twitter and I was wondering — how do you do that? So it was on my mind.


bill benzon 12.12.13 at 10:01 pm

@bianca steele: The definition of “intellectual” here seems to be someone who has a theoretical grounding and sees the facts through the lens of theory.”

I realize that you aren’t necessarily endorsing that position yourself, just stating it as what seems to be the operative position. But I don’t think that will work.

Nina Paley never finished college, by choice, and tends to be fiercely skeptical of the institutions of higher education and research. And, for all I know, there may be a personal element of family dynamics and early history here. But, whatever, that’s what she is.

She’s also a gifted artist, very smart, reads enough for her purposes, but is not a systematic thinker nor does she aspire to be one. But – and I’m speaking from extensive personal contact with her and her friends – she’s not really a chip-or-your-shoulder roll-your-own autodidact either. She is intellectually serious in a non-institutional way.

She might in fact cringe a bit at being called a public intellectual. But that’s what she is. Why? Because she does the work. Her legitimacy rests on her reputation as an artist. She doesn’t need an academic post, or a gig with some Big Media House, for that.


bianca steele 12.12.13 at 11:30 pm

@bill benzon: Yes, I was writing in connection with the OP, not so much with what had been said in comments more recently.


Belle Waring 12.13.13 at 5:26 am

Ergh, nothing worse than feeling like you legitimately screwed this sort of thing up, sorry Henry. That was the kind of apology, explanation, and not-defensive engagement with a critic one wishes one would see more frequently, though! When people criticize me justly, I throw things at them till they stop, like chairs and plates and things; your approach is the one we should aspire to. I would also say that while it might seem stupid to look to io9 or (stupider still) to Kotaku for anything intellectual, their writers much better than their readers would lead you to believe. So, Annalee Newitz, as both editor and writer, actually puts out a lot of good stuff at io9, maybe not all relevant to what you were discussing, but I find her excellent. She got a PhD in English at Berkeley before turning to analyzing class issues (she wrote a book called White Trash, about class and race intersections) and now information technology etc. for Wired, SciAm, etc in addition to being editor-in-chief of io9.


Ed Herdman 12.13.13 at 11:09 pm

@ Doug K:
There’s a problem with getting stuck on individual cases. To actually make diversity of experience a fact of life – so that education and diversity become as simple as going out into the world – “check boxes” work fine. If “put a female Clinton on the board” as all diversity is thought to require, yeah, that’s probably only a slight change. But you’re “check boxes” can mean diversity targets, or whatever you’d like to see as a standard, to get other sources of diversity as well. So just go a bit further in your analysis and add diversity targets for low-income, low-privilege members as well.

Otherwise, you’re really throwing out the baby with the bathwater; your argument here looks basically like “selecting for females doesn’t select for underprivileged persons,” which is expecting the selection to select for something it doesn’t, by design. So just design it to select for something else too – done.

By the by, I think that programs, scholarships, and internships targeting members of underrepresented groups are more promising because obviously you don’t (in LBJ’s words) just put a person at the starting line of a race after they’ve been shackled in chains for a long while, and say “good luck.” It is not in the interest of any business to make diversity targets that preclude aggregating sources of “privilege” (i.e., personal contacts and soft power) when it means hiring less effective employees. But an internship program could go a long ways towards correcting this problem.

@ Japan, feminism, and cyborgs:

I’ll have to go speak with this lady sometime:

There’s basically nothing about her work on the web, but she’s got a flyer up for an upcoming course about women, cyborgs, and Japan. Reminds me of a course her colleague Jeffrey Angles did a few years back about modernism and cyborgs. I’m not sure that the exact focus is but it’d be interesting to find out!


Pierre Corneille 12.14.13 at 1:39 pm

I should say I know almost nothing about this subject and haven’t read the article in question. However, I’ll second Belle Waring’s comment above. It’s rare to see people actually engage criticism and accept it when accepting it is called for. I wish more people in academia would do that. (Heck, I wish I would do that.)

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