My book project interrogates the problem of opacity and inequality in modern technology through examining practices that involve reuse, through recycled materials or upcycle practices and which intersect with contemporary digital culture through platforms and the gig economy. This project extends my dissertation which focused on gendered and racial embeddings within electronics design and gaming culture to issues of labor precarity in gendered economies online and algorithmic governance.
I look at the complex mediation of practices that involve reuse, whether through recycled materials or upcycled crafts and which intersect with contemporary digital culture through e-commerce platforms like Etsy, gig economy jobs such as TaskRabbit, and informal craftivist networks like the Pussyhat Project. I examine these practices because they have become endemic to major modes of production and have brought about changes to labor, materials, and distribution, particularly in relation to gender. By investigating these practices, I draw an intricate web of relationships that bring together issues of technoliberal ethos and labor precarity with forms of authenticity and performance, and aesthetics and nostalgia.
The first chapter draws from practices that involve some form of material re-purposing, such as upcycling and creative reuse, and I examine case studies wherein objects or materials have gone through material, commodity and digital remediations. For example, the use of old typewriter keys for earrings sold on Etsy. I use these examples to engage the relationship between complex environments and materialism of original object as well as complex environments and materialism of repurposed object and interrogate what that translation process does. Thus, I argue that the upcycling or creative reuse process acts as a further rematerialization process that reiterates gendered norms and values thereby affecting the cultural, social and economics values associated. I argue that what occurs is ‘transmaterialization,’ which I define as the consistent negotiation of materialization, performativity and deconstruction of discourses & norms, cultural practices, and social relations in the repurposing of objects, elements, and infrastructural component.
In the second section of the book I weave together critical readings of erased women’s computing histories with sociohistorical and contemporary practices of knitting and sewing, exposing not only the gendering of labor, its normalization and concealment but critical technocultural infrastructures – both material and discursive – that inscribe these gendering practices in social, economic and technical relations. From female migrant workers in Chinese electronic manufacturing plants to Navajo women in microchip assembly factories in the United States, gender and gendered bodies have played and continues to play an essential function in media industries, specifically those of communication and knowledge producing technologies. I turn to contemporary practices, specifically the hidden redistributions of labor on women of color in current recycling efforts in high fashion. In doing so, I engage with the gendering of precarious labour, not only within the media, but through the materials and practices themselves and illustrate the normalization process.
The third chapter delves into the problematic idealizations of the hacker, crafter, and the inventor and their relationships to embedded inequality and precarious labor. I articulate the technoliberal imaginary and its persistent refusal of social injustice by working across algorithmic media as well as pop culture and STS and digital economy scholarship. This includes an intense focus on discourse and the patriarchal nature of technical literacy.
The last chapter explores issues of creative labor, user agency and political engagement across networks through material practices and digital design. Thus I turn to contemporary feminist and racial justice movements such as the Pussyhat Project and BLM and trace critical intersections with materializations through hand-sewn goods on Etsy, and digital design through algorithmic personalization in contemporary DIY media. While these movements engage in making with feminized and racialized labor, the labor itself is represented and visible throughout the transmaterialization process and in fact, shape the network itself.