Visionary Week One: Communication

On Communication

Dear Friends,

I am going to be wicked bored next week and spend a lot of time cleaning my house and looking at things. If you would like to hang out, go on walks, cook dinner, or just chat for a while, please call me. I won’t be on the internet or my computer very much. I will likely not respond to text messages. Phone calls are the best. Really.


By the time I got my phone back, post-op, the screen was a blurry, bright mess that was painful to look at. It was also displaying a full list of notifications, informing me that SOMEONE wishes me luck, or that PERSON wants to know how I’m doing. Two days later, I want to listen to podcasts while cleaning the kitchen. I open my computer and notice the e-mails asking me if I want to meet up. I get dozens of instant messages asking how I am going. Different people. The same again and again.

I try to bang out responses “I’m okay. Not really into screening. Call me if you want to hang out.” I see more messages and e-mails each time, from the same people. My phone does not ring.

The takeaway here is that we’re all so damned attached to not talking. That’s cool–I’m adverse to it as well. But man, we really hate talking.


At my wonderful job I was lucky enough to work on a 21A.350J. In non-MIT speak, this is a mid-level Anthropology course: Cultures of Computing. (MIT uses a numbering system for departments. All departments numbered 21 are humanities.) The J indicates that it is a cross-listed course (“joint”). It also appears in the course listings for STS (Science, Technology, and Society) and WGS (Women and Gender Studies). You can check out the course in full if you want.

When I started working on it, I had a few requests for the reading list. Here is an editorialized version based on nothing in particular. The complete reading list is available on the course ‘Readings’ page. The full readings page is divided into sessions, each of which has a theme or unifying topic. My list does not contain these.

Reading lists provide two things: a curated collection of (arguably) worthwhile readings on a topic, as well as a view into how a society-acknowledged expert believes the subject ought to be studied. (The readings by Jonathan Swift and René Descartes are good examples of this, as well as the concept of relevant and related content, like Ron Eglash’s talk.)

If you ever have any questions about OCW design, language, or use, please don’t hesitate to ask me or fill out a feedback e-mail. I am lucky enough to get to read them. Many of these, in addition to amazon links (which make us money!), link to abstracts, full text PDFs, and Google Previews.

All OCW content is released under a CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 license, and is exempt from my standard CC-BY-SA.

Amazon logo Channell, David. “The Mechanical World View: The Clockwork Universe.” In The Vital Machine: A Study of Technology and Organic Life. Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 11–36. ISBN: 9780195060409.

Descartes, René. Discourses 1, 2, 4, and 5 in Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences. Translated from the French by F. E. Sutcliffe. Penguin Books, 1968, pp. 27–44 and 53–76.

Amazon logo Swift, Jonathan. “A Voyage to Laputa.” In Gulliver’s Travels. Penguin Books, 1967, pp. 223–31. ISBN: 9780140430226.

Eglash, Ron. “Bamana Sand Divination: Recursion in Ethnomathematics.” American Anthropologist 99, no. 1 (1997): 112–22.

———. “Ron Eglash on African Fractals.” Recorded at TedGlobal 2007, June 2007. TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. Accessed June 12, 2012.

Daston, Lorraine. “Enlightenment Calculations.” Critical Inquiry 21, no. 1 (1994): 182–202.

Amazon logo Winter, Alison. “A Calculus of Suffering: Ada Lovelace and the Bodily Constraints on Women’s Knowledge in Early Victorian England.” In Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge. Edited by Christopher Lawrence and Steven Shapin. University of Chicago Press, 1998, pp. 202–39. ISBN: 9780226470146. [Preview with Google Books]

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic Monthly 176, no. 1 (1945): 101–8. Online:

Amazon logo Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1990, pp. 149–82. ISBN: 9780415903875.

Halberstam, Judith. “Automating Gender: Postmodern Feminism in the Age of the Intelligent Machine.” Feminist Studies 17, no. 3 (1991): 439–60.

Amazon logo Forsythe, Diana E. “Engineering Knowledge: The Construction of Knowledge in Artificial Intelligence.” In Studying Those Who Study Us: An Anthropologist in the World of Artificial Intelligence. Stanford University Press, 2001, pp. 35–58. ISBN: 9780804741415. [Preview with Google Books]

Amazon logo Helmreich, Stefan. “The Word for World Is Computer: Simulating Second Natures in Artificial Life.” In Growing Explanations: Historical Perspectives on Recent Science. Edited by Norton Wise. Duke University Press, 2004, pp. 275–300. ISBN: 9780822333197. [Preview with Google Books]

Light, Jennifer. “When Computers Were Women.” Technology and Culture 40, no. 3 (1999): 455–83.

Amazon logo Adam, Alison. “AI in Context.” In Artificial Knowing: Gender and the Thinking Machine. Routledge, 1998, pp. 34–68. ISBN: 9780415129633. [Preview with Google Books]

Amazon logo Wilson, Elizabeth. “Introduction: The Machine Has No Fear.” In Affect and Artificial Intelligence. University of Washington Press, 2010, pp. 3–24. ISBN: 9780295990477.

MacKenzie, Donald. “Computing and the Cultures of Proving.” Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 363, no. 1835 (2005): 2335–50.

Rosental, Claude. “Certifying Knowledge: The Sociology of a Logical Theorem in Artificial Intelligence.” American Sociological Review 68, no. 4 (2003): 623–44.

Pfaffenberger, Bryan. “The Social Meaning of the Personal Computer: Or, Why the Personal Computer Revolution Was No Revolution.” Anthropological Quarterly 61, no. 1 (1988): 39–47.

Coleman, Gabriella. “Hacker Practice: Moral Genres and the Cultural Articulation of Liberalism.” Anthropological Theory 8, no. 3 (2008): 255–77.

Amazon logo Kelty, Chris. “Inventing Copyleft.” In Making and Unmaking Intellectual Property: Creative Production in Legal and Cultural Perspective. Edited by Mario Biagioli, Peter Jaszi, and Martha Woodmansee. University of Chicago Press, 2011, pp. 133–48. ISBN: 9780226907093. [Preview with Google Books]

Amazon logo Wark, McKenzie. A Hacker Manifesto. Harvard University Press, 2004. ISBN: 9780674015432. [Preview with Google Books]

Amazon logo Miller, Daniel. “Preface,” “Marriage Dun Mash Up,” “Community” and “The Invention of Fasbook.” In Tales from Facebook. Polity Press, 2011, pp. ix–xiv, 3–27 and 158–63. ISBN: 9780745652108. [Preview with Google Books]

Amazon logo Papacharissi, Zizi, ed. “A Networked Self.” In A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites. Routledge, 2010, pp. 304–18. ISBN: 9780415801805. [Preview with Google Books]

Schleiner, Anne-Marie. Parasitic Interventions: Game Patches and Hacker Art. 1999.

Amazon logo Gershon, Ilana. The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media. Cornell University Press, 2010. ISBN: 9780801448591.

Stephenson, Neal. “Mother Earth Mother Board: The Hacker Tourist Ventures Forth across the Wide and Wondrous Meatspace of Three Continents, Chronicling the Laying of the Longest Wire on Earth.” WIRED 4, no. 12 (1996): 1–56.

Amazon logo Gabrys, Jennifer. “Shipping and Receiving: Circuits of Disposal and the “Social Death” of Electronics.” In Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics. University of Michigan Press, 2011, pp. 74–98. ISBN: 9780472117611. [Preview with Google Books]

Helmreich, Stefan. “Artificial Life, Inc.: Darwin and Commodity Fetishism from Santa Fe to Silicon Valley.” Science as Culture 10, no. 4 (2001): 483–504.

Sundaram, Ravi. Recycling Modernity: Pirate Electronic Cultures in India. 2001. (PDF)

Amazon logo Thacker, Eugene. “Biocomputing: Is the Genome a Computer?” In Biomedia (Electronic Mediations). University of Minnesota Press, 2004, pp. 87–114. ISBN: 9780816643530. [Preview with Google Books]


There was a thing on twitter about a video featuring a geeklist t-shirt. Deets are up on Storify. I’m not going to talk about this at all. Even though I want to. Especially the “you represent your employer, but someone we give approval to use out image is not someone who represents us” dichotomy. Instead, I am going to look at the apology letter Geeklist put out.

I’m going to do this in a random, haphazard way. Some of what I say will be based on my understanding of feminist rhetoric, but most of it will be based on my opinions about apologies.
At the heart of it, an apology is about acknowledging that something you did had a negative impact on one or more other persons. The trick about apologizing is that when you do it, you don’t actually have to understand why they’re upset (people don’t always have to be rational–i.e. their being upset doesn’t have to be based in rationality.) By apologizing, you are showing that you respect how someone feels.

A proper apology has three parts:

  1. The apology
  2. Taking responsibility for your actions
  3. Acknowledging that your actions caused trouble (emotional, practical, etc) for someone else.

There is an optional part four, that is not always actually necessary or accurate. In part four of an apology, much like in Confession, you say (and mean) that you will try not to do it again.

Examples of apologies:

I’m sorry I was late. I hope it didn’t cause too much trouble.

That one doesn’t include part four. This one does.

I’m sorry I killed your vampire boyfriend by driving a stake through his chest. I realize you must have cared about him a lot, and turning him into dust caused you pain. I’m going try really hard to not kill any of your boyfriends in the future.

The most important thing in the second apology is that the speaker isn’t trying to put the blame on anyone else. They don’t try to justify their actions. They don’t mention that the vampire boyfriend in question is a parasite who will bring only pain and suffering and death to the world around them. They didn’t say he attacked first. They say that they killed him. They say they recognize it hurt the person. They say they’ll try not to kill any more boyfriends (regardless of whether they are monsters who may or may not deserve non-existence.)

So now let’s look at the Geeklist apology.

Hi everyone. We never meant to offend any person and are very sorry as we clearly have.

This sentence is a pretty good start. I don’t think the word “clearly” is necessary, but nbd.

Geeklist is all about inclusion of every geek. Male and Female alike.

I recently had a conversation with someone about the use of the language “male and female” exclusively. I guess that’s because, incidentally, nearly every trans-person I know I know through geeky things. It would be nice if people (myself included) used inclusive language more frequently, but I’m not ready to talk about that now. I am more bothered by the capitalization of female.

We hope you’ll forgive the company and founders and use this as an opportunity to hire more women, support women in tech and their great achievements and promote a healthy work environment for all.

I’ll uhh assume this was just a poorly constructed sentence. I’ll happily use this as an opportunity to hire more women, support women in tech and their great achievements and promote a healthy work environment for all. Will you?

I like how this starts though. “We hope you’ll forgive [us].” It’s a great semantic way to push the power into the hands of the offended parties. It acknowledges, in a respectful way, that their feelings are of value.

We did not create the video at question.

Okay. Now the real problems start. In Apologyland (and in Offensiveland) this actually doesn’t matter. In general, in the conversation, blame is not placed on Geeklist for making it. Blame is placed on Geeklist for endorsing it (and non-comment is an endorsement of sorts), and for not visibly trying to remove it.

What makes this a particularly tricky is that the first thing Geeklist says acknowledges that the video isn’t ideal, and that they should do something about it. This is them saying that whatever they did was because of something someone else did. The seed of this whole argument (the video) is the fault of someone else.
Either Geeklist’s brand is under an free\/open (free or open) license, or the person who used it a) violated their IP or b) did so with their endorsement. I do my own stuff and then label it CC-BY-SA. At work, I do stuff and label it CC-BY-NC-SA. I recognize someone could take these materials and, you know, use them in ways I don’t find acceptable. Like to make fun of me, for example. But, unless they were violating the license, I couldn’t actually do anything (short of changing said license.) However, I am entirely capable of saying that I don’t approve of this reuse/remix. And I would do so. Alternatively, Geeklist could issue a cease and desist, sue, or just allow them to be arrested for a reported copyright (or trademark?) violation. Or, they endorsed the use of their brand. And, well, that’s what they’re apologizing for, right

Their website has an “All rights reserved” copyright note at the bottom. Let’s hear what Geeklist has to say about these copyright violators. (Or people they endorsed. Either way.)

It was created out of love for Geeklist by a great Woman entrepreneur at Design Like Woah for us.

Why is “Woman” capitalized? Anyway. This is the classic “X (who is part of the offended group) did it, so it’s okay. Or at least, you know, it’s not our fault.”

I get it. I really do get it. When an individual within a group makes a statement about that group, it’s easy to assume that it is okay. But, once you learn it’s not (and hopefully the objectification of women in geek culture is known by someone who is such self-professed geek), it stops being acceptable.
Regardless of that, this is a bad thing to do when apologizing. Don’t blame someone else. Srsly.

She makes shirts and made awesome ones for us. She also goes way out of her way to help us ship to our men and women alike globally who love our brand.

btws, you guys, men and women all over the world love our brand! On a real note, I don’t know why this is here. He blames her, now he says she’s great.

She is fighting to grow in a male dominant sector and marketing to her client. Please support her and buy her shirts.

Oh! I see. She’s just trying to be a woman in a man’s world. It’s not her fault either. You are all victims of circumstance. She’s doing what she has to do to survive in a man’s world. She didn’t mean for the video (that she, and not you, is responsible for) to be offensive, it was just, you know, what she had to do. And, if we buy her shirts, then she won’t have to do that anymore. Good to know.

[ Correction: Just spoke to Gemma, her videographer owns it and she is trying to contact him (thanks so much Gemma)]

“btws, you guys, not her fault either.”

As for our handling of the twittersphere. We could have handled it better.

This is one of those great opportunities to apologize that people often drop. Part of this is the language “we could have” carries an implication that there was an opportunity for something to be different (in this case better), but it was not. There is, again, no accepting blame. No one says “we should have done better.”

I know Shanley personally, have skyped and emailed her many times and interviewed her for a job at Geeklist. She is an awesome candidate that as a startup I was very sad the timing was not right to work together.

“Even though we said a bunch of awful stuff to her, we still think she’s good. I hope the internet doesn’t hold it against us forever that we threatened her job. In spite of the fact we think a person can’t have a private life and opinions outside of their employer, and that she was awful to her employer, we should have hired her and you can too.”

Of our 5 person team 2 are women and I am certain they can speak on our behalf as respectful gentlemen in the workplace who create a welcome environment for all. In my wildest dreams we would never wish to offend any woman [or anyone].

“The women I am in charge of at work, who I have the power of employment over (and I have already said that a company should get rid of people who publicly damage the company’s name), would agree that I, and my other co-founders, are respectful gentlemen in the workplace.”

Something we talked about at the FSF was that Amazon has done both good and bad things for the Free Software movement, and both of these should be recognized. In context, Geeklist might not be made of bad guys, but but they did a bad thing and we should treat that as it is. I think the fact he has a section on this idea is really deflecting from the point that something wrong was done. He doesn’t want to be responsible for his actions.

I also own a business with my wife where we have over 350+ women employees. I’ve built my career over 15 years working to make this world a better place for women, mothers, and children.

I’m skipping this as it’s more of the same. Also, I do wonder how he’s working to “make this world a better place for women, mothers, and children,” but that’s not relevant to his actual apologizing.

The initial request made sense and we were discussing finding Gemma to take it down, when we got taken off guard a bit by her continued comments. We handled those poorly. We apologize as well if our handling of the tweets offended anyone.

There are two points here worth looking at: response and blame. As Storify pointed out, which is a very valid comment, response time is SO important in PR issues. An immediate response, as I learned from The West Wing, is vitally important. This response can be as simple as “Hey, saw your comment, we’re looking into it now.” Instead, the language used at the time was an immediate response of “it was old and made by a friend, we need to update it with a less skintastic version.” When the takedown was requested (admittedly using the word “fucking”), the response from Geeklist was both immediate and reactionary, failing to address the issue.

If they were, in fact, “discussing finding Gemma to take it down” after the initial comments (within what I assume was a short span), then their response at that time should have said so. (Sorry, I know this is talking about the actual event, and not the letter, but I’m getting to that.) By mentioning their response, they are saying, again, that they’re not to blame for what happened. “We got taken off guard, we were just trying to be the good guys!”

After that, they again push the blame onto the “Twittersphere,” by saying that the people interpreting (reading) their comments are the ones who did it wrong by being offended. “If our handling” is a strong part of that. It’s like saying “If you happened to get in the way of my fist punching, I’m sorry you got hurt.”

In exchange, please direct this media attention to Gemma’s company and support her company by buying her shirts. A women entrepreneur in the valley who used our logo and the fact we wanted shirts to help promote her business to her clients too. Tech geeks.

As far as I can tell, this is them saying that they don’t like the bad press, so please pay attention to Gemma, who was involved in making the video or the shirts or something but doesn’t own the IP rights to any of these things. I actually just think this part is silly.

We are sorry.

The best thing said all letter.

The thing that gets me about this most of all (and sorry you had to read through two thousand words to get here) is that they never actually say what they’re sorry for in any way that doesn’t blame women. A woman made this, a woman used our logo, a woman was offended. They never really acknowledge that their actions hurt people in a way they were responsible for. “It’s your fault for interpreting this thing we didn’t do as offensive.”


At work we had a meeting where we were discussing how to get people to know about our big project. One of the bosses said:

We were thinking about doing something like ‘Can you survive the freshman year at MIT?’

I remembered a lot of conversations where my friends talked about advertising and what appeals to people of various genders. (One binary stereotype is that most women are more inclined to underestimate their abilities. A study about GSoC advertisements and applications, comparing gender to advertisement types, noticed the positive correlation between the number of applications from women and language focusing on things like “mentorship” and “learning.” There was a negative correlation between applications from women and language like “rockstar” and “world’s best.” I think this was Hanna Wallach, but I might be wrong.)

In the meeting I mentioned this. The majority of the women in the conversation agreed–some citing their personal experiences.

Today one of the bosses (the one who proposed the advertising in the first place) took me aside and showed me how our internal best practices and mission had been changed to state that while most users are men, we strive to reach out to all people (regardless of gender), and have our practices reflect that.

Sometimes I think it’s really cool to work here.


(This post explains why I donated to the FSF. Really.)

“Your entire life here is from MH and MM, isn’t it?”

One of my housemates asked me this over coffee. Well, she’s was drinking coffee. I had tea. I could not deny what she said. MH and MM, and the IRC channel they started, have led me to the life I have now. They suggested I visit. They suggested I move here. MM suggested an internship for the Free Software Foundation when I was trying to figure out how I to stay after the summer ended.

My internships (I also had one at OLPC), led me to an RA position at Berkman. The friends I made interning at the FSF helped me get the job I have now, by giving me both an understanding of free software, and general free as in freedom issues, and some pretty kick-ass references.

When I first got to the FSF, I wasn’t entirely convinced. I got the importance of free software (have access to your tools, own your tools, understand your tools, etc, etc, etc), but I thought a lot of the arguments I had been hearing where too ephemeral. I was going through a brief spat of rejecting the idea that “moral underpinnings” were what you needed for an argument–I thought needed practical points to even be worthwhile. (That phase ended pretty quickly.) I also didn’t buy that negative campaigning stuff, and I didn’t see what the Foundation had actually been doing.

In the fall of 2010, the FSF was in the financial red. Two people were laid off during my time there. Everyone else quickly became overworked. A significant portion of my internship shifted to helping with mailings, membership databases, and writing blog posts.

I started getting e-mails from people who read my blog posts. None of them declared undying fan-love, which was a bit of a downer (I thought my brief stint with semi-celebrity blogging was supposed to lead to fame, fortune, and cute nerds trying to sleep with me). Instead, I got thoughtful responses thanking me for bringing attention to issues or projects, or just explaining things in ways that were easy to understand. Not only did I feel good about myself, but I got that the FSF was actually reaching people.

Being in the community allowed me the luxury of thinking everyone thought the way I did. Everyone knew freedom was important, but just used Apple or Windows products because they were easy–they consistently worked without any effort. Once I left the FSF, understanding (though not entirely believing in) the arguments they had and used, I began to see the privilege I had had to work with people who got it.

Freedom is like health insurance. We want it to be there. What we have we think is good. But then, when pressed, we can see it isn’t actually good. Ferrett told me that you don’t know the quality of your health insurance until you have cancer. Similarly, you don’t know the quality of your freedom until it’s tested.

The freedom of software is tested when DRM content you purchased is removed with no recourse offered to you. When a single switch being flipped on or off restricts your operating system. When you’re using a piece of software and want it do something differently, but can’t change it because you don’t have access to it. Freedom in software is about agency, which is something we generally don’t have.

Software is something that is such an integral part of life, realizing you have no control over it is pretty scary.

Or comforting. Some people just don’t care about freedom. Caring about it is hard and depressing. Using what you’re given, what is functional, is easy.

Freedom, in general is important. There are a lot of great groups trying to help with freedom. The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild, Amnesty, Occupy Together, City Live–just to name a few.

However, in my financial support of freedom, I decided to become a member of the FSF during their membership drive.

[FSF Associate Member]

I have a button and everything. (Which you could click on to donate, should you so desire. Today is the last day of their membership drive, but one could join, or donate, at any time.)

Mostly I decided to give them money because of peer pressure. When you see the majority of the employees socially, it’s hard not to feel the expectation that, now you have a job, you’ll join. But I also support what they do and want to help them do more because they can do more. I like that they’ve been adding their voice against proposals like ACTA, PIPA, and SOPA. I like that they’ve restarted the GNU Education Project. I like that they take digital/electronic rights issues (like DRM), draw on the relationship of these issues to software we don’t realize we’re using and become involved. They need to be in a position to hire more compliance officers, to help people (student people, adult people, people involved with computers, and people not involved with computers) understand not just the insane role software has in our lives, but what it means to have no control over this software. They need financial help to be in a position to help change the way we interact with the things we own.