Katherine Buse (PhD Candidate at UC Davis) and Lauren Ruhrold (PhD Candidate at UMN) worked as graduate program associates for the 2020 Just Code Symposium. Conference organizers Jeffrey Yost and Gerardo Con Diaz asked them to reflect on their experiences attending the conference and working behind-the-scenes. Their participation yielded new insights about power, technology, pedagogy, and their own research.
Power and Inequality with a Procedural Valence
By Katherine Buse
For me, Just Code manifested what is unique about methods for the history and theory of technology. My dissertation project, Speculative Planetology: Science, Culture and the Building of Model Worlds, began as a cultural history of climate modeling. The topic expanded when I discovered that computational methods for rendering planets span so many different disciplines and scales, from IPCC reports amalgamating many studies to computer graphics that are used to visualize both imaginary and existing worlds. Just Code encouraged me to move from thinking about the epistemology of "the planetary" as a category to tracking how conceptions of the planetary came to be implemented in specific ways in different places.
Many of the presentations from Just Code manifested this kind of specificity and honesty. In Mar Hicks’ and Stephanie Dick’s keynote panel, detail was key. Prof. Hicks asked us to consider cases in the history of technology that resulted in neither success nor failure, but something in between. This call to examine moments that may not at first seem like ideal case studies offers a way of uncovering histories of technological resistance, as in the Administrative Staff College of India in Hyderabad in the mid-20th century. Prof. Dick's presentation about NYSIIS, New York’s computerized criminal justice information system, was similarly committed to working closely with evidence: it was grounded by memorable details from the documentation surrounding the system, such as flow charts showing the fate of different case files as imagined by the creators. These details showed how damaging the systems engineering paradigm can be, worsened by its creators’ insistence that they merely coordinated data, with no responsibility for the outcomes the system would drive.
Just Code's purpose was to examine the relations among technology, power, inequality, and political economy. But despite the big-ness of these terms, the focus was often on the "how?" rather than on the "what?". Kate Miltner's description of a code academy that aimed to improve access for underrepresented groups in the tech industry helped to illustrate why and how access to the world of Silicon Valley is unequal, engaging processes that sort people with “the right mentality” from those who cannot or will not sacrifice nights and weekends, their jobs, and so on. Similarly insightful about how technology shapes processes and problems was Theodora Dryer's presentation on environmental racism. Her analysis was powerful because of its specificity, grounded in the workings of an algorithm for water distribution affecting the lands of the Colorado River Indian Tribes. In the hands of scholars of technology, terms like power and inequality gain a procedural valence: through technology, diverse stakeholders and resources are drawn together into the same history, but each in different ways.
As a graduate associate for Just Code, I watched the Q&A function and passed questions on to the panel chairs. I saw so much generosity from attendees and speakers in this forum—instead of critiques or veiled attempts to guide the conversation towards a personal favorite area of research, the questions came from a place of curiosity, using the terms of the conversation started by the speaker. In return, many of the speakers specifically asked for a printout of the questions asked, so they could read and consider the ones they had not been able to address.
Redesigning Professional Spaces
By Lauren Ruhrold
In the last nine months the COVID pandemic has forced a new way of academic life. For many of us, the workday now unfolds at home and schedules are filled with an ongoing succession of Zoom meetings. CBI’s Just Code Symposium was likewise caught in this moment, postponing the original meeting from May to October and moving from an in-person to online format. While this moment is filled with many inconveniences and devastating hardships, it also provokes fresh thinking about our professional spaces and interactions. This was especially the case for those of us working the symposium from behind-the-scenes.
Audience members primarily witnessed individual presentations, but the behind-the-scenes space was a bit more social. Symposium organizers, presenters, chairs, and support staff gathered in a back Zoom room. This space proved to be, in some small but significant ways, markedly equitable. For example, faces were randomly assorted across the screen, with no preference or physical placement of any one person at the top or center of the room. So too, audience questions came in via the Q&A function. Many were submitted anonymously, void of any automatic value or status (which might typically follow the position of the question asker). Consequently, the Q&A discussions tended to be driven by questions that were asked most frequently. Off-air time between sessions was a space for collective meeting, debriefing, and reflecting for all those gathered in the back Zoom room. In these several small ways, the format of the symposium proved to be an unexpected workaround to some of the traditional imbalances that tend to plague in-person conferences. It’s an interesting and perhaps unexpected manifestation of symposium themes.
There are, of course, limitations to this sense of equity. The experience described above was specific to the behind-the-scenes crew. Many attendees indicated via survey that they longed for more opportunities for social engagement and interaction during the symposium. And while the meeting was designed to be accessible (through the use of captions and live broadcasting to people in various time zones across the world), there is work left to do in meeting the diverse needs of attendees. This delivery of equitable space is also underpinned by the reality that creating such space is not always quick, simple, or free work. Instructors have certainly been faced with this reality this year especially, reporting that designing inclusive and accessible online classrooms involves significant (and worthwhile) investments in time and energy.
The presentations given at Just Code teach us that technology has many potentials—to generate and reinforce, as well as to breakdown and deconstruct, hierarchy and power. Putting these themes to work in the present moment prompts rethinking about academic life beyond the page. Certainly for me, the symposium sparked thoughts about where there’s unexpected potential and what familiar tools can be used to redesign professional spaces and interactions to be more equitable. It’s exciting to see what was a plan B actually become a vehicle for change.