Archive | April, 2014

Making! The Other Story: Robot#10, Twins Separated at Birth, and Hacker Mama

Silvia Lindtner

Silvia Lindtner

Amelia Guimarin

Amelia Guimarin

Editor’s Note: (@yunnia) and (@femhacktweets) round out the March-April theme on makers, hackers, and engineers with this post that shares three stories of hackers and makers in China. Their observations complicate the celebratory story of hacking/making, giving us a richly detailed look at some of the real challenges and triumphs in this very active space. Silvia Lindtner (@yunnia) is a postdoc at the ISTC-Social at UC Irvine and at Fudan University Shanghai, and is the cofounder of Hacked Matter. She researches, writes and teaches about maker culture and its intersections with manufacturing in China. Drawing on her background in interaction design and media studies, she merges ethnographic methods with approaches in design and making. This allows her to provide deep insights into emerging cultures of technology production and use. Amelia Guimarin (@femhacktweets) is a independent producer and researcher at UC Irvine.  She has a background in anthropology and documentary filmmaking and focuses on issues of identity, labor and sustainability.  She also runs, a showcase of DIY strategies for females with a hacker attitude.

“Making” is envisioned as a new mode of engaging the world, empowering citizens to turn from passive consumers into active participants in economic processes, state affairs and technological innovation. It is heralded as the saviour of broken economies and educational systems, across developed and developing regions alike. This vision of the rising maker is a powerful one. Indeed, it has attracted significant corporate investment (from places like Intel), drawn the attention of governments (from Obama to China) and mobilized money and people across regions (enabled in part by the set-up of new hardware accelerators like HAXLR8R). Making gets people excited (again). It is the story of adventure and of conquering unfamiliar territory to reinvent how technological futures are made today — at its heart it is a vision of technological and social progress. Journalists, scholars, and makers alike have been busy telling this story, joining in on the promotion of making as the harbinger of an industrial revolution (Anderson 2012). What has fallen through the cracks, however, are other stories of making that do not neatly fit the maker story of linear technological progress, of the Californian culture of cool and of embarking on a bold adventure. In this blog post, we focus on telling this other story of making — of those makers who are rarely thought of as makers and whose stories are less often told. Earlier this month, we traveled to Shenzhen to attend China’s first featured Maker Faire. Both of us came to the Maker Faire predominantly as researchers, although with different vantage points. Silvia lives in China and has been conducting ethnographic research with China’s maker scene and its intersection with manufacturing since 2010. Amelia lives in California, where she has been working as a documentary filmmaker and researcher on the topic of hacking and education. We recently embarked on a collaborative project of producing a documentary film on China’s makers, with a particular focus on what is going in the Southern parts of China, where small scale maker entities are forging new connections with manufacturers. There is both a power and responsibility that comes with holding paper, pen and camera – a topic that has received much attention in the discipline of anthropology. The ethnographer makes her fieldsite – she choses whose story to capture and how to tell it, co-constructing the sites she studies through the narrative that emerges from her work. It was in the evening of the last day of the maker faire, when it occurred to us that there was another maker story to be crafted here; it was the end of two exhilarating days filled with workshops, panels, and product showcases with presenters ranging all the way from small-scale start-ups to large corporations like Intel and Foxconn. We were about to head back to the hotel to drop off the equipment, when we paused. Something had changed. The streets that were filled, just hours before, with thousands of enthusiastic makers and visitors were empty, aside from a group of workers, who were in the midst of tearing down the large tents that had protected the booths of gadgeteers from the heavy rain of southern China. It was quiet, aside from the shouts of the workers who in a coordinated effort disassembled the tent. A few hours later – while the makers partied, drank, danced, talked, and celebrated their successful event – the tents were dismantled and loaded onto large by-standing trucks, with no sign left of a big event having ever taken place. A woman with a broom made out of twigs swept the street of the faire’s last remains.

Shenzhen maker faire tents being torn down

Shenzhen maker faire tents being torn down

It was in this moment that it became clear to us how much attention is paid to the making of the thing, while the work that goes into sustaining and enabling making the thing is rarely appreciated or lauded as equally cool and valuable. Who builds up and tears down (literally and metaphorically) the maker tent? Who performs the work of organizing maker faires and conferences, of raising money, of building important social connections to promote and engage makers and consumers? What other modes of making are there? What alternative models of collaboration and open-ness do we overlook? This post will not be about the loudest, boldest and coolest projects at the Shenzhen Maker Faire. It will be about those who work more quietly, and perhaps with more sincerity, than their noisy counterparts on stage. Read More… Making! The Other Story: Robot#10, Twins Separated at Birth, and Hacker Mama

Engineering obsolescence

Marisa Cohn

Marisa Cohn

Editor’s Note: Marisa Leavitt Cohn writes to us from Stockholm, where she is a postdoctoral scholar studying the politics of software systems and computing work practices.

In this contribution to the series on Hackers, Makers, and Engineers, she tells us about her research on relationships to technological change in a long-lived NASA-ESA software infrastructure project. Her research considers how people live alongside technological change, inhabit the temporal rhythms of computing work, and approach concerns of legacy, inheritance, and survival of computational practices as they contemplate the end of life of the mission.

Marisa has a BA in anthropology from Barnard College and a PhD in informatics from UC Irvine, and she’s joining ITU Copenhagen as a professor in the fall. She’s a member of the ISTC-Social

Ethnographers have often been positioned in the technology field as translators between the worlds of technology use and design. When I first began my fieldwork with an engineering team at a NASA space science mission, I thought I might be able to trouble this dyadic concept of translation work between design and use by examining a case in which a complex set of translations took place between a diverse set of organizational actors, from scientists to engineers to managers. Indeed, I observed the engineers on the team working on a weekly basis to turn hundreds of observation requests from scientists all across the globe into commands that can be executed on a spacecraft over a billion kilometers away. This complex translation work was supported in turn by hundreds of software tools that had been developed over the years to, as one engineer described it, “turn scientists’ dreams into vectors.”

Yet when I presented early versions of this work to the social computing research community, I found that the relevance of my work was often challenged. The engineering project I was examining was deemed a “one-off,” a bespoke system that served a single purpose, and which was ultimately “disposable” since the spacecraft would be destroyed in space once it had run out of fuel and completed its mission. Not only that, the software tools that I was studying in organizational contexts were now decades old. They were written in FORTRAN and some of the earliest graphical interface programming languages, tools which have largely been abandoned by the engineering community – reaching end of support, dying out, or even being actively petitioned into retirement.

These make great bookmarks now. Image courtesy of

These challenges begged the question – what is to be gained by studying the work of engineers maintaining a space robot from the 90s? What is the role of the ethnographer in studying the so-called technological “dinosaurs” – the old-timers who are stuck in engineering methods and tools of the past? What relevance do these obsolete software tools and engineering practices that go along with them have for understanding technology today? Even to many of the engineers at the mission, my interest in their software tools seemed a bit odd. As one responded to my research,

You think our software is interesting?! It’s not Google or anything.

Legacies of a 90s space robot

These questions put me on the defensive about my contribution to the study of sociotechnical systems and my role as an ethnographer in the field. What was my role, as a translator or participant or otherwise? One of the roles I was enlisted into at the mission organization showed that this defensiveness was a part of my informants’ reality as well. I was asked to help with their work towards a final mission report, to help preserve some of the stories of their engineering accomplishments for the historical archive. The archive of scientific data was already assured, but what about the engineering knowledge gathered over the course of the mission? Might the work they have done over the past two decades be of any use for future outer planets missions? What if there is not another mission of this kind for another 50 or 100 years?

Read More… Engineering obsolescence

Ethnography as Diaspora

Lilly U. Nguyen

Lilly U. Nguyen

Editor’s Note: Lilly U. Nguyen (@deuxlits) tells us how in her own work on the ethnography of software in Vietnam, she both studies and embodies “diaspora” – and she shares the insights that diaspora has given her. She is a postdoctoral scholar at the ISTC-Social at UC Irvine. She studies race, labor politics, and information technology in Vietnam and among the Vietnamese diaspora.

Lilly’s post continues the March-April edition focusing on ethnographies of makers, hackers, and engineers.

In my work, ethnography takes on diasporic dimensions.

These qualities touch on several of the questions raised in previous posts in this blog series, such as the distinction between self and other and the Cartesian coordinates of studying up and down in Nick Seaver’s post and the disciplinary shifts as described in Austin Toomb’s post. For those of us who study decidedly contemporary phenomena like algorithms, hackers and (in my case) software, ethnography allows us to study people who are neither entirely like us nor entirely unlike us.

Many of us who do this kind of work find a home in the field of science and technology studies (STS). This field has a long tradition of people who have professional training in scientific fields only to then move into the humanities and social sciences. In a similar kind of move, I find that many of us who study technology have had some kind of professional experience with hackers, algorithms, or software. In my case, I previously worked in a non-profit organization in Silicon Valley that worked to promote openness in educational institutions. This included building online portal systems to encourage teachers to share pedagogical materials as well as promoting data-based decision-making among education administrators and faculty. This professional experience shaped my research by providing insight into the challenges and limits of promoting openness and freedom through technical artifacts like databases and software.

I suspect that the biographies of many of us who do this kind of ethnographic work might be similar: previous degrees in computer science, degrees in other technical and scientific disciplines, professional experience in industry. And then a fork. A catapult into new terrain … or probably something more subtle, but a change nonetheless onto a new trajectory. A pivot, perhaps.

Pivots, turns, and forked paths. Courtesy

These pivots, turns, and forked paths carry with them diasporic qualities. Diaspora, in and of itself, is a tricky and complicated thing. In the inaugural issue of Diaspora, Tölölian (1991) writes that the term initially referred to dispersed populations exiled from homelands who were then forced to live among strangers. In these early formulations, diaspora comprised a history of dispersal, nostalgia of homeland, alienation in host countries, desires for return, and a collective identity importantly defined by the tenuous relationships between home and the displaced here.

Read More… Ethnography as Diaspora