MLA 2017 Convention Panel: Histories of Digital Labor

MLA2017, Session 649

Saturday, 7 January

5:15–6:30 p.m., Franklin 5, Philadelphia Marriott

Presiding: Shawna Ross, Texas A&M Univ., College Station

As labor-intensive projects continue to dominate the funding landscape of the digital humanities, scholars are beginning to ask important questions about the labor involved in such project. Who is doing this work? What are the working conditions? How are these labors credited or erased? By recovering stories and contributions by forgotten laborers—by insisting that students receive some compensation and that overseas transcription farms are recognized for what they are—digital humanists are beginning to attend to important questions of social justice. This panel applies these questions to the early history of digital technologies (with an emphasis on the twentieth-century before 1980). Papers will recover technological labors in the past that have been invisible, misunderstood, or underappreciated. Beyond recovering important narratives of digital labor, this panel theorizes how stories from the past can revise our understanding of the relationships among digital labor, research, and making.

Paper Lineup

  1. “The Human Computer Project: African American Women at NASA, 1943–70,” Duchess Harris, Macalester Coll.; Francena Turner, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana
  2. “Early Histories of OCR (Optical Character Recognition): Mary Jameson and Reading Optophones,” Tiffany Chan, Univ. of Victoria; Jentery Sayers, Univ. of Victoria
  3. “Pan-American Made: Archival Work at the University of the Air,” David Squires, Washington State Univ., Pullman
  4. “Vital Work: Information Science and Invisible Labor in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman,” Madeleine Monson-Rosen, Loyola Univ., Baltimore

Abstracts

“The Human Computer Project: African American Women at NASA, 1943–70,” Duchess Harris, Macalester Coll.; Francena Turner, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana

The ultimate goal of this proposed work, The Human Computer Project, is threefold: (1) to present a detailed sociocultural history of the African American female mathematicians who worked at the NACA/NASA from 1943 through 1970, when the pools were integrated racially and then disbanded in favor of the integration of all women into engineering teams or support sections; (2) to continue to perfect a centralized online database of the Black women who worked as NACA-NASA computers (http://omeka.macalester.edu/humancomputerproject/about); and (3) to provide new insights into the points of intersection between the Cold War, the Space Race, the struggle for gender equality, and the Civil Rights Movement. By documenting a counternarrative of NACA-NASA’s early female professionals, we construct not a separate account of these women, but a fuller and more nuanced history of the American space agency. Specifically we discuss Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith and Barbara Holley’s experiences at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia. Most Americans have no idea that in the 1960s, a cadre of African-American women formed part of the country’s space work force, or that this group—mathematical ground troops—helped provide NASA with the raw computing power it needed to dominate the heavens. Using archival documents and oral histories, we show the ways in which these seven college educated middle class Black women, integral to American innovation and space exploration, experienced social mobility, gendered racialized othering, and the historical erasure of their labor.

“Early Histories of OCR (Optical Character Recognition): Mary Jameson and Reading Optophones,” Tiffany Chan, Univ. of Victoria; Jentery Sayers, Univ. of Victoria

Patented in 1919 by E.E. Fournier d’Albe, the reading optophone may be understood as precursor to optical character recognition (i.e., the automated conversion of page images into machine-readable text). The machine transformed print materials into electrical signals and then into sound. Although it never existed in a fixed form—and no stable, working version survives today—a common configuration involved operators placing books on glass. They then used a handle to move a reading head (or “tracer”) located below the glass, sliding it back and forth to scan pages. As pages were scanned, the machine would express the page as a series of audible tones. To listen, operators plugged telephone receivers into the device and wore them over their ears, like headphones. Positioning the reading optophone’s technical history as a cultural history, this paper addresses three things in particular about early optophonics. First, it underscores the fact that the reading optophone was an aid for the blind. By extension, it suggests that assistive technologies are central to both the histories and ongoing practice of digital humanities research. Second, it highlights how the machine’s “demonstrator,” Mary Jameson (who was blind), played a significant role in its development, even though she is frequently dismissed or ignored by historical materials and related scholarship. In fact, we argue that Jameson’s routine maintenance and repair of the reading optophone (for more than three decades) was ultimately more significant to early optophonics and OCR than innovations preceding it. We conclude by demonstrating how remaking early optophones with present-day prototyping techniques helps scholars better understand what Jameson contributed to early OCR, without assuming we can rehearse her labor or inhabit her embodied position in the past.

“Pan-American Made: Archival Work at the University of the Air,” David Squires, Washington State Univ., Pullman

This paper proposes an alternative history of archive-based digital humanities projects. Rather than beginning with digital media and screen-based texts, it considers radio broadcasting as a seminal form of electronic transmission that pioneered the unsustainable ideology of dematerialization now pervasive in our world of cloud computing. Tracing that ideology back to early educational radio-—known as “schools of the air”-—shows how electronic media historically has obscured both the materiality of information and the labor of transmitting it. In particular, this paper reconstructs the making of a radio play produced by poets Archibald MacLeish and Muna Lee for NBC’s Inter-American University of the Air. As Librarian of Congress, MacLeish conceived of the play as a PanAmerican outreach program to promote hemispheric solidarity during WWII. His vision of a single America depended on radio’s ability to share “scholars’ stone-quarries” full of primary documents with a transnational audience. Reimagining access to the Library of Congress in terms of broadcast, MacLeish prefigured contemporary calls to democratize library collections using digital media. As Roger Chartier famously put it in 1993, “texts are no longer prisoners of their original physical, material existence.” Despite the revolutionary charge Chartier lent to digital transmission as liberator of text, his formulation privileged collections over the people who maintain and circulate them by ascribing archival work to information technology itself. MacLeish makes an instructive precursor because his work with radio promoted his name on air while also marking its historical value in print. His collaborator meanwhile provided the research and materials that became The American Story. Yet Lee received no public recognition for her work beyond the acknowledgements section of MacLeish’s published transcripts, illustrating how gendered and ethnic paternalism obscured archival labor as a condition of possibility for new media experiments in education.

“Vital Work: Information Science and Invisible Labor in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman,” Madeleine Monson-Rosen, Loyola Univ., Baltimore

In a history of British computing, cyberneticist Irving Good describes the work at Bletchley Park, the secret center of Britain’s computing program during World War II, “The mode of operation was for a cryptanalyst to sit at Colossus [Britain’s first digital computer] and issue instructions to a Wren [Women’s Royal Navy Service] for revised plugging, depending on what was printed on the automatic typewriter. At this stage there was a close synergy between man, woman, and machine.” This “synergy,” ever the ideal in a posthuman, virtual landscape, suggests the ways in which the work of women undergoes erasure by means of a kind of naturalization. Synergy between man, woman, and machine eroticizes digital labor, while the products of that labor take on the character of reproduction. Computer programs are, according to cyberneticist John Von Neumann, like organisms, self-reproducing.

This process, by which work is eroticized and erased, and digital technology represented as emergent and autopoietic, is at the center of Angela Carter’s 1972 novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, which marks the ways in which the information technosciences had become, in the words of one science journalist in 1968 “part and parcel of contemporary sensibility.” For Carter, the production of bodies, human or machine, is, obviously, labor. Specifically feminine behaviors reflect the automatic qualities of machines and machinic work. Carter’s automata are women: biological and technological hybrids, “ideational,” and, often, less than human, not because of their mechanism, but because of their sex.

My paper reads The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman historically, as an instance of the ways in which the cybernetic technosciences construct themselves out of the vocabulary of print culture, and as a record of the ways in which those technosciences are founded on the erasure of specifically female labor. That erasure takes place by means of association with women’s invisible and affective labor. Women are the desire machines: producers and reproducers of the digital.

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