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.
Throughout the book I develop my idea of data materialism – the notion of data as a living practice that extends beyond numerical representations and institutionalized standards. Data materialism sees Data as lived materialities/matter-realities, wherein data is material objects and artifacts, human bodies, experiences and sensations. Data materialism conceptualizes data as both a process and artifact of sense-making and of sensing, and is co-influential in the structuring and production of social worlds, material forces, and human experience
Beginning by addressing public claims of the revolutionary nature of eco-friendly and digital technologies, the introduction poses a series of questions about what practices are included in these public narratives and how they have been discussed in contemporary scholarship. It then uses an image of a Google Book scanner operator’s hand to discuss the book’s themes of invisibility/visibility, labor precarity, gender and racial inequalities in technologies, and materialist interventions. Along with an outline of the book’s structure, this chapter provides a short overview of new materialism, media studies, feminist technoscience and digital economy studies and situates the book by discussing its connections and various contributions to these fields.
Part I: Materials Matter
This section consists of two connected chapters that focus on three case studies of creative reuse on several major e-commerce platforms, such as Etsy, Uncommon Goods, Amazon Handmade, and Folksy.
The first chapter details the world of online craft marketplaces and explicates the process of creative reuse through three examples of available goods, specifically, wallets made from computer circuit boards, earrings made from typewriter keys, and bracelets from telephone parts like cords and tokens. This occurs through an intensive, comparative examination of the sociocultural histories of the original objects (typewriters, circuit boards, telephones) to contemporary forms of capital, labor practices, and discriminatory norms associated with the goods (earrings, wallets, bracelets). The analysis also extends to listings themselves and incorporates a discourse analysis of the visual and textual rhetoric of item listings and shop homepages and provides critical commentary upon the gendered identities invoked.
The second chapter continues to focus on creative reuse while turning to issues of platformization through the concept of personalization. It traces personalization on the platforms through: the economic relations – ordering a personalized item; the production process – engraving an item (like initials on a ring); the distribution network – postal service (mailing an item); and the algorithmic network – personalized recommendations, results, etc. This chapter reveals the multiple levels of labor in personalization and exposes the exploitative practices of search result optimization and subscription fees by these platforms. It critiques the ways in which platforms obscure these exploitative and biased acts by utilizing postfeminist and popular feminist rhetoric and positioning themselves as champions for women and people of color. Furthermore, it illustrates the notion of data materialism as a method for interrogating the underlying connections and modes of production in technoliberalism.
Part II: Common Threads of (re)Laboring
Bringing together critical readings of erased women’s computing histories with sociohistorical practices of knitting and sewing, the third chapter draws its methods from media archaeology and new materialism. It builds on the first two chapters by analyzing the concealment of exploitation through popular/postfeminism and discusses this tactic in conversation with environmental discourse. This argument is extended to the erasure of the redistribution of labor on women of color in the use of recycling and eco-technologies in high fashion. Therefore, this chapter involves a discussion of the association between nature, green discourse and womanhood as well as race in the production and naturalization of contemporary textile labor.
In chapter four, the focus shifts to the redistribution and recirculation of care in the ‘revolutionary’ platform economy. Therefore, this chapter examines the outsourcing or redistribution of often gendered labor like donation services or assistant work on platforms and the ways in which this shift renormalizes and conceals issues of embedded inequalities, power consolidation, and problematic affects. It traces the transformation of these norms across culture from historical examples on the changes to domestic labor due to electrification in the home to contemporary cases of Google Book scanner operators. Thus, it not only brings into question the revolutionary claims, but explores the complex entanglement between material practices and discursive regimes.
Part III: Activism in Algorithmic Networks
Continuing the discussion on discourse, the fifth chapter delves into the problematic idealizations in common representations of hackers and crafters and their continual recirculation. Engaging with concepts such as toxic geek masculinity and popular/postfeminism, and pop culture examples like HBO’s Silicon Valley and tech-centric subreddits, produces a delineation of the intricate relationship between hacker/crafter representations, gender/racial bias, and the precarity of labor. In response, this chapter turns to examples that challenge technoliberalist discourse. Specifically, I look to: (1) feminist ROM hacking and (2) non-Western counternarratives of repurposing in the Agbogblo.Shine Initiative, a non-profit organization that uses scrap and e-garbage from Ghana’s infamous Agbogbloshie dump to create high-end furniture. Through engaging with these examples, issues of bias and discrimination at the level of design are both illustrated and subverted.
Issues of creative labor, user agency and political engagement frame the sixth chapter, which focuses on contemporary feminist and racial justice movements such as the Pussyhat Project and the Good Trouble Cowel for Black Lives Matter. These movements constitute critical intersections of materializations – through hand-crafted goods – and digital activist networks – through social media groups, craft community websites and strategic hashtag use. While these movements engage in feminized and racialized labor, the labor itself is made visible and in many ways comes to shape the network and activism itself and I examine these phenonmena through data materialism. Because of possibilities these movements offer, their characteristics and practices are analyzed and used to re-imagine remaking practices in intersectional and material ways. I also turn to the use of upcycled trash and e-waste in the Chinese high fashion industry by designers such as Wan Yunfeng as another example of visualization that engages in counter-activities.
The final chapter focuses on delineating specific future directions for remaking practices and returns to the notion of the revolution. Ultimately, it argues that current practices not only remake labor inequalities but conceal these inequalities through discursive and technological strategies. Because of this, many of the revolutionary aspects of the green and digital revolutions are in fact reiterations. As such, this chapter concludes by arguing that we must rethink what remaking means, and it outlines future directions that draw from the intersectionality and reimagination of networked craftivist, feminist hacking movements and technofeminism.