HuMANism through Machines: The Marginalization of Women in the Lab

Reading Stewart Brand’s The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T., I was really interested his notion of finding “humanism through machines.” I began focusing on how he creates this connection. This emphasis on the human goes beyond the continuous reminder that Nicholas Negroponte “would use computer technology to personalize and deeply humanize absolutely everything” (7). Brand himself highlights the person throughout this book. He persistently juxtaposes his descriptions of machines and programs with a human being who is either talking about the device or using it. For example, Brand’s description of Barry Arons and his computer secretary, his discussions of how future media will be impacted human behavior, and his account of the Hennigan School all demonstrate how machines can help aid our humanity by giving us more time, preference, and knowledge.

In addition to this theoretical association of human and machine, Brand literally inserts the human into his book with each portrait he includes. Notably, however, these portraits of very important people that are reasonably meant to add a human element to his discussion of tech are all white men. Where are the women in the Media Lab?*

Brand mentions women a few times. We get a brief look at two female graduate students in his opening to “Vivarium” (95). When discussing MIT programmers, he tells us that, “a number of them are female (one-third of the 1986 MIT freshman class were freshwomen)” (57). Last I checked Stewart, 33% wasn’t that big a number. He also mentions that, according to Seymour Papert, , “At Hennigan the girls play with computers just as much as the boys, unlike most schools, where computers are competed for, and the girls drop out of that game” (122). Papert also says that, “Girls find it easier, and they learn about gears quicker” (125). Otherwise, his mentions of women are few and far between.

I can’t help but see that both Brand and Negroponte’s vision of humanism through machines is really a vision of (white) man and the machine. If these are the people running the tech industry—if they think 33% is a good number of women—we need to work on how to make the lab a space for women too.

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*Obviously, I could also ask “where are the people of color in the lab?” and create an entire discussion on that topic as well.

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2 thoughts on “HuMANism through Machines: The Marginalization of Women in the Lab

  1. “Hackers used to be fat guys. This crowd tends to slimness, and a number of them are female (one-third of the 1986 MIT freshman class were freshwomen). They’re frequently told what to do, and they do it. But the hacker zest for headlong group exploration abides.”

    Of those 33%, how many are women of color? This is just… I don’t even know. “They’re frequently told what to do and they do it.” Don’t care about context. Don’t. Care.

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  2. I’m having similar frustrations with this, Cayla. It seems more like an apathy (which is never apathetic) more than a deliberate attempt to leave non-white, non-male individuals out. As if that’s someone else’s job.

    And on a slightly different, but adjacent, issue–I laughed out loud when Brand explains that 40% of those who purchased VHS pornography were women, as if that takes something away from the fact that a majority of those consuming this (at the time) new technology were men. As if we aren’t supposed to realize that this industry was built by exploiting female bodies—Of course, I am making a lot of assumptions regarding what type of pornography was purchased and the subjectivity/sexual identity of the audience.

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