We perfect robots

fritz_woman(Fritz Kahn’s Mechanical Woman)

“As computing machines gradually took over, mathematicians often measured its computing time in “girl-hours” and computing power in “kilo-girls.” The computer itself is a feminized item. The history of the computer is the history of unappreciated female labor hidden behind “technology,” a screen (a literal screen) erected by boy geniuses.”

When I sat down to my weekly crawl through The New Inquiry, I came across an article that was eerily in sync with the last  two weeks of reading Haraway and revisiting the relationship between women and technology. (I was also just thinking about starting to watch Buffy again.) One of my resolutions for 2015 is that I’m going to focus all my reading on non-fiction, except the bits that are about science/speculative fiction. So here are some discoveries stitched together, which resulted in this resolution.

So the New Inquiry article starts with the story of a Google employee who was fired for interacting with ‘a different class of workers’. These workers, mostly women of colour (unusual on Google’s mostly white, mostly male campus), had restricted access to buildings on campus, started work at 4am and left at 2pm. He tried to talk to them and he was eventually fired for it. They’re the women who scan the books in for Google Books.  I was instantly intrigued and had to read on. Trying to do independent research and projects outside of academia or any other institutional setting in India, and getting access to books and journals, is pretty much impossible without Google Books (not that existing institutions have very good access to books and journals for anything outside of the sciences and professions). The article goes on to talk about the different ways in which two passionate lovers, capitalism and the internet, have obscured the labour of the humans who make it all actually work, what they call ‘the human API’.

These ‘microworkers’ manage forums, scan books, turk for Amazon and do all things we believe the click of a button is doing. Interestingly, a lot of work that human scientists and programmers cannot program a computer to do are done by people: identifying the tone in a piece of writing; transcribing audio to text; facial recognition; capturing the layers in a photograph. For a short time when money was tight, my sister supplemented her income by ‘creating content’ for a website that supplied answers to a popular search query many of us have used: ‘the difference between except and accept’ or ‘the difference between effect and affect’.

A lot of this casual, invisibilised labour happens within a legal gray zone. Companies love it because they don’t have the same legal responsibilities for workers  they are ‘independent contractors’. : “Press a button and lunch is ready, flowers are sent out, laundry gets done, the house is cleaned. It’s like magic… Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is merely the most literal and obvious manifestation of this trend. The actual magic trick is making the worker disappear.”

((Another connection: the New School in New York has played host this past weekend to a conference called Digital Labour .))

Many of these mechanical human workers are women, and the TNI piece goes on to explore how a chasm has been created between women and technology, a chasm, one that calls on gender essentialisms like “women aren’t naturally inclined to work with tech”;or  that obscures the labour that women are constantly doing, from mining the coltan to making the micro-chips to programming the chips to digital janitor-ing online.

Haraway mentions this in the Cyborg Manifesto as Gordon’s ‘home work economy’:  “work is being redefined as both literally female and feminized, whether performed by men or women. To be feminized means to be made extremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as a reserve labour force; seen less as workers than as servers; subjected to arrangements on and off the paid job that make a mockery of a limited work day; leading an existence that always borders on being obscene, out of place, and reducible to sex.”

Then last week in London, as part of the BFI’s Sci-Fi programme ‘Days of Fear and Wonder‘, I listened to the entertaining and happily nerdy Sophie Mayer talk about cyborgs and science fiction cinema’s history of female robots and programmed women from Fritz Lang and Margaret Atwood to Joss Whedon and beyond.There were some really juicy new films to add to the 2015 list, like Lynn Hershman Leeson’s ‘Conceiving Ada’, Peter Wollen’s 1970 film Friendship’s Death, staring Tilda Swinton, about an alien that joins the PLO, Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames ,the Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, to closer readings of pop culture favourites like Buffy, the Alien series, Bjork etc.

Starting with Maya Deren’s early work, Mayer talked about the recurring theme of women in early sci-fi as dolls, robots or statues, as mechanical objects,  reproduction/replication farms that have to be controlled. Later, there is a shift to  ‘hard-body’ warriors a la Sarah Connor, heedless Thelma-Louises who disrupt the patriarchal project and stick it to the system. But first not without  films like Demon Seed where an artificial intelligence tries to have sex with a woman and impregnate her. We will resist the twin evils  of God and the Father, the forces of family, religion, psychoanalysis that insist on telling us that we aren’t doing it right, what we lack, that our bodies hold us back, the boys are better at it. But first, we must run fast and far from rapacious artificial intelligences. Good grief.

“Though both are bound in a spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” is a way out and a way in; to think about how not to have a grand theory of everything, to accept that we are already-hybrid, already a synthesis of social taxonomies and personal aspirations, and also, as women and as workers, dominated by the industrialisation of the technologies we enjoy.

Can’t end any other way except with Bjork’s brilliant track (and video by Chris Cunningham featuring lesbian robots) All is full of love. And this final line from Haraway again: ” However, there is no ‘place’ for women in these networks, only geometries of difference and contradiction crucial to women’s cyborg identities. If we learn how to read these webs of power and social life, we might learn new couplings, new coalitions.”



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