“Please Read the Article”? Please Cite Women Academics.

I’m not an expert on cyber warfare, nor do I play one on TV—or on Twitter for that matter.

I have, though, published academic research about the cultural claims to legitimacy that policymakers have historically used when responding to perceived threats of youth hackers—work, I should note, that popular journalists have covered and properly attributed here and here.  And as a Faculty Associate with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, I’m well aware of thoughtful scholarship on how popular culture and technology policy directly and indirectly shape one another.

In doing that historical work on youth hackers, I was thankful for the heavy lifting done by communication scholar Stephanie Ricker Schulte in her 2008 article “‘The WarGames Scenario:’ Regulating Teenagers and Teenaged Technology (1980-1984)” in Television & New Media, as well as her 2013 book Cached: Decoding the Internet in Global Popular Culture, published by NYU Press.  Schulte argues that the 1983 movie WarGames was more than just fun cinematic fare and a box office smash; it also had serious cultural implications for U.S. internet policy during the Reagan administration.  Schulte makes the claim in both the article and her book that WarGames made certain images of cyberwarfare more salient and set the stage for particular solutions to alleged internet security threats.  For her work, Schulte received coverage in press outlets such as CNET, won the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ 2010 Dissertation Award, and garnered rave reviews in top communication journals.

I say all this to preface the fact that on the morning of February 20, when I read a New York Times article that UVA media scholar (and think piece aggregator extraordinaire) Siva Vaidhyanathan had posted to Facebook, entitled “‘WarGames’ and Cybersecurity’s Debt to a Hollywood Hack,” I was alarmed both by the author Fred Kaplan’s claims to covering entirely new ground on the topic—that ground being WarGames’ cultural influence on U.S. internet policy—and by the glaring omission (at least, glaring to internet and society scholars) of Schulte’s work.

I went to Twitter to bring this oversight to Kaplan’s attention, and also to alert fellow scholars who’ve been down this road before.  Loose recycling of academic research into trade books and pop journalism—and the tendency for the academics in question to be women and for the journalists to be men—is a serious and systemic problem with professional and political implications.  I wrote about the issue in 2014 when tech journalist Evgeny Morozov penned a New Yorker article on Chile’s cybernetic system under Salvador Allende that heavily minimized the contributions of Indiana University professor Eden Medina and her award-winning MIT Press book Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile.  (Professor Lee Vinsel also helped here and here to describe Morozov’s failings, as well as document additional cases of similar behavior by other journalists.)  I couldn’t help but read Kaplan’s piece without wincing—keeping in mind both Schulte’s arguments and this troubling trend of rendering invisible women’s academic labor, specifically critical research about male-dominated fields like computing and gaming.

In response, Kaplan chastised me to “Please read the article, not just the headline”— a response I found belittling, an attempt to undermine my critical literacy skills and dismiss the validity of my objection to the piece.  In other tweets, Kaplan claimed “my book has nothing to do with hers (which I hadn’t heard of till now).”  Not having heard of Schulte’s book says more about Kaplan though, and his failure to do his research before publishing a piece in the Gray Lady, than about the significance of Schulte’s own.  I also never said, as Kaplan insinuated, that he was “sexist” and never once used the term “plagiarism.”  Those kinds of responses quickly foreclose meaningful engagement with difficult issues like the public attribution of ideas online.  But when someone claims that a book is “completely different” from their own, without having actually read said book, I can’t help but find such an answer, well, incomplete.

To repeat, my read of Kaplan’s thesis in his NYT article is that WarGames was culturally influential to the Reagan administration’s cybersecurity policy.  Why would I identify that as Kaplan’s primary claim, besides a cursory glance at the headline?  The lede paragraph of the article reads, “Movies rarely influence public policy, but Washington’s policies on cyberattacks, computer surveillance and the possibility of cyberwarfare were directly influenced by the 1983 box-office hit ‘WarGames.’”  In the conclusion, Kaplan restates the idea that WarGames “sparked the first public controversy over the tensions between security and privacy on the Internet, as well as the first public power struggle about the subject between the N.S.A. and Congress — a debate and a struggle that persist today.”  Even the subtitle on the WarGames film still that accompanies the article reads, “The film led to the nation’s first directive about computer security.”  Kaplan may be the first person to write on the topic this week (a week with heightened anxieties about cybersecurity due to tensions between Apple and the FBI over unlocking the iPhone of the deceased San Bernardino shooter), but timeliness should not be conflated with novelty.

One could go deeper, reading Kaplan and Schulte’s work side-by-side.  For example, Kaplan writes that in 1983, “The first laptop computers had barely hit the market; public Internet providers wouldn’t exist for another few years.  Yet [national security decision directive] NSDD-145 warned that these new machines—which government agencies and high-tech industries had started buying at a rapid clip—were ‘highly susceptible to interception.’”  Schulte similarly frames her story in relation to the general populace’s experiences, or lack thereof, with personal computers and the internet at time.  She writes on p. 489 of her Television and New Media article that, “Although home computer ownership surged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, modem use did not.  As a result, in the early 1980s most Americans learned about the internet through popular culture, like WarGames, and news media outlets, before they experienced it personally.”

When a thoroughly researched and well publicized treatment of a narrow topic exists, I believe that anyone writing on the topic—be it a tech journalist or a historian of technology— is obligated to acknowledge the existence of that source.  (As a helpful reference, MIT student J. Nathan Matias has written a blog post on acknowledging other scholars’ work for a public audience, and worked with Atlantic staff writer Adrienne LaFrance to analyze gender bias in tech reporting too.)  In a highly visible forum like the New York Times or the New Yorker, where one stands to financially profit from plugs for an upcoming mass-market book (as is the case with Kaplan), supplementation of prior work should be made transparent for readers, who are unlikely to come across academic press titles like Schulte’s while mulling about the airport book kiosk.  Even if Kaplan’s own primary sources led him in the same direction as Schulte, she scooped him.  And in journalism, if you’ve been scooped, you give proper credit to the original reporter.  Yet it’s usually well-established men with wide readerships and banked up cultural capital who stand to benefit the most from ambiguous journalistic standards.

In short, the next time I get implored by a male journalist to “please read the article,” I will kindly suggest please citing the work of women whose fascinating and creative scholarship clearly precedes them.


Considering the overall gender problems of “WarGames,” with Ally Sheedy mainly resigned in the movie to looking over Matthew Broderick’s shoulder as he types on the computer (as pictured here), this photo is particularly apt for a discussion of systemic gender bias in source referencing.




VIDEO: UC Irvine Talk (10/24/2014)

I had the pleasure of visiting UC Irvine’s Department of Informatics on October 24, 2014 and delivering their weekly Friday Informatics Seminar.  The title of my talk was, “Augmenting Communication for Non-Speaking Youth with New Media and Popular Culture.”  Thanks to Gillian Hayes for being a wonderful host, and to the faculty, students, and guests for being a receptive and engaged audience.


The language of “deficit” dominates popular conceptions of disability, as well as discussions of children’s recreational media use.  The deficit model of disability emphasizes what people with disabilities are thought to lack, and this absence becomes their defining trait.  In the deficit model of children’s recreational media use, popular culture is defined by its lack of value for children.  In this talk, I discuss the limitations of both of these models, based on my fieldwork with parents of children with significant communication impairments and developmental disabilities (most of whom are on the autism spectrum).  Parents spoke at length about how recreational media and technology use helped their non-speaking children reveal a side of themselves that the scientific, medical, and educational communities did not acknowledge.  I propose an asset model of non-speaking children’s engagement with media, and discuss broader implications for understanding the role of communication technologies in the lives of historically marginalized youth.

“Borrowing” Shiny Intellectual Bicycles: Thoughts on the Morozov-Medina Affair

When I first read Evgeny Morozov’s New Yorker article, “The Planning Machine,” it seemed to me as though Morozov had metaphorically “borrowed” Eden Medina’s shiny intellectual bicycle—her award-winning book, “Cybernetic Revolutionaries” (2011, MIT Press). In “The Planning Machine,” Morozov largely summarizes Medina’s summary of Project Cybersyn, a socialist project undertaken by the Chilean government in the 1970s to distribute decision-making among factories via computers.

“Cybernetic Revolutionaries” is a bicycle that was built to last—built by Medina—and the envy of young and old scholars alike. Morozov rode it around, and liked it so much that he decided, like a petulant child or neighborhood bully, not to return it. I’ve always been the kind of person to chase down the bike stealers. Twitter is a really great tool for rallying friends to challenge people, like Morozov, who really mean “take” when they say “borrow,” so I’ve been speaking out on that platform.

Yet, it seems to me that Morozov stripped the bike and left much of the good stuff intact. He completely glanced over the important issues that Medina raises in her book about how Project Cybersyn was inherently gendered and classed.

For example, take the very first line of Morozov’s article: “In June, 1972, Ángel Parra, Chile’s leading folksinger, wrote a song titled ‘Litany for a Computer and a Baby About to Be Born.’” On p. 134 of her book, Medina also discusses the song, but does so in order to highlight how it was inherently problematic to describe Project Cybersyn as a “pregnancy” (Parra, qtd. in Medina, p. 134) when women had very little power to make decisions effecting Chile’s future.

Medina is not mentioned in Morozov’s “The Planning Machine” until paragraph 10.

Take another line that appears in Morozov’s article, in paragraph 4: “Beer was building the future, and it had to look like the future.” Throughout her book, Medina discusses the politics of designing the “future” through technology, and lead project architect Stafford Beer’s role in that design. On p. 138, she draws attention to the values associated with particular futures, futures largely planned by men. She writes, “The design of the [Project Cybersyn] operations room reveals gendered limits of power distribution on the Chilean road to socialism and how preexisting ideas about gender and class restricted the way historical actors imagined the future, even when their visions bordered on science fiction.”

Medina is not mentioned in Morozov’s “The Planning Machine” until paragraph 10.

When I read Morozov’s article, not only am I reading a piece that poorly attributes ideas from Medina, but I’m reading the absence of Medina’s well-researched arguments about the history of power differentials in knowledge production and distribution.

Finally, in paragraph 10, when Morozov does mention Medina, he merely writes, “As Eden Medina shows in ‘Cybernetic Revolutionaries,’ her entertaining history of Project Cybersyn, Beer set out to solve an acute dilemma that Allende faced.” When challenged by other academics to explain Medina’s erasure from the piece, Morozov posted on Tumblr, chronicling how he scoured the internet for material on Project Cybersyn, as well as rare library books and archives housed in the Global North. Medina spent a decade traveling the world (especially Chile), interviewing members of the international cybernetics community. Unlike Morozov, Medina tried to find Chilean factory workers who might remember Project Cybersyn. Considering the project’s socialist ideals, one might think that factory workers played a significant role. Medina found few who remembered the project—and she insists that this silence is itself meaningful. Writes Medina (p. xi), “That the project is remembered by technologists, not factory workers, is historically significant.”

In short, when I read Morozov’s article, not only am I reading a piece that poorly attributes ideas from Medina, but I’m reading the undercutting of her feminist and anti-colonial work.

Reimagining the Good Life With Disability: Communication, New Technology, and Humane Connections

Today, I’ll have the pleasure of chairing and participating in a panel at the Annual Conference of the International Communication Association with Gerard Goggin (University of Sydney), Elizabeth Ellcessor (Indiana University), and Katie Ellis (Curtin University) on the topic of “Reimagining the Good Life With Disability: Communication, New Technology, and Humane Connections.”

Goggin is speaking on “‘Oh Brave New World’: Disability, Media Justice, and the Question of Technology,” Ellcessor on “Hidden From View: Closed Captioning, Digital Labor, and Ideologies of Ability,” Ellis on “Power Games: Disability and Digital Television,” and myself on “Reconsidering Theories of ICT Adoption: The Case of Tablet-Based Augmentative and Alternative Communication Devices”

Below is the abstract of our panel:

Many deeply cherished notions of the “good life” are based on limiting notions of humans, things, and their environment. In particular, the good life is often imagined as a realm beyond illness, impairment, and especially, disability. With contemporary communication and new media, disability is even more seen as an impediment, barrier, or tragedy, to be overcome with digital technology. Regrettably, the very widely shared experience of disability, and its complex relationships with communications, is only rarely seen as a resource for how we achieve the good life, in our own lives and societies, now and in the future.

Indeed while various divisions within ICA increasingly engage with questions concerning marginalized populations—including issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and diasporic populations—the study of disability and its relationship with social, cultural, and political life is stagnant. New media are often hailed as a great “equalizer” for people with disabilities. Such arguments though tend to obscure the complex ways in which disability and technology intersect for better and for worse in the lives of people with various disabilities from diverse backgrounds. However, with the rise of new social movements, disciplinary formations, and theories—such as critical disability studies—communication studies is slowly engaging with the challenges and new conceptual possibilities disability offers.

Accordingly in this theme panel, we take up pressing yet sorely neglected questions of disability and communication—in order to illuminate how we might see the good life in much more enabling, humane, and democratic ways. To do so, firstly, the panel discusses the state of the art of communications and disability research and theory. Secondly, the panel focuses on the ways in which contemporary information and communication technology shapes and is shaped by notions of disability and ability. Thirdly, the panel will identify and debate the lessons from disability and communication studies that help us to rethink the good life, especially in the new media environment.

Disability and Defamiliarizing the Smartphone: A Class Activity

(Originally posted on HASTAC.org)

In Spring 2013 and Fall 2013, I was the TA for “Cultures of New Media,” an undergraduate class in the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism taught by Prof. Kathi Inman Berens.  The course focuses on how ubiquitous computing has contributed to a cultural shift in practices around privacy, storytelling, branding, and commerce.  In the latter third of the semester, the class focuses specifically on mobility and everyday life, critically reading works by Jason Farman (The Mobile Story, Mobile Interface Theory) and Sherry Turkle (Alone Together) among others.

Each semester, during this unit, I’ve incorporated a disability studies lens into a 90 min. guest lecture on mobility and mobile media.  Both times that I’ve taught it, I’ve regretted not having more time to go into the nuances of disability theory and models of disability.  Many students I’ve encountered have difficulty understanding technology as anything other than something that “liberates” or “revolutionizes” the lives of people with disabilities.  Most have never spent much time with assistive or adapted technologies (low-tech or high-tech, hardware or software).

In order to defamiliarize their smartphones and better understand the relationship between disability and communication technologies, I lead a simple activity at the end of the lecture in which I ask students (in a class of about 30 – but I think it could be done with a larger lecture class) to explore the accessibility options on their own phones.  (Anything that connects to the media and technologies that students regularly use seems to be a good entry point to critical or complex concepts.)  To be clear, this activity is not a voyeuristic or essentializing experiment whereby I ask them to “imagine” what it would be like to have a disability.  Rather, I want them to understand very concretely that the tools they use every day have certain politics – values, beliefs, and ideas reflecting positions of power and agency – and that these politics are reflected in what can and cannot be done with their phones in different contexts and under different circumstances (also known as affordances and constraints).

The following activity takes about 20-30 minutes:

Disability and Defamiliarizing the Smartphone

1. Break students up into small groups of 4-5.  Make sure that each group has a mix of make and models of phones (by brand, by generation, by smart or feature phone).

2. Ask students to find the accessibility settings on their own phones and play around (10-15 min).  They will inevitably ask you to show them where those settings are. Do not.  Instead, encourage them to spend a bit more time looking or ask someone in their group for help.  Move around the different groups if you can, getting a read for what they’re finding/not finding, discussing/not discussing, etc.

3. If they haven’t discovered it on their own, I particularly like to spend a few minutes showing them that one can hear the description of Apple’s emoji keyboard symbols if you type the emojis (e.g. in a text) when VoiceOver is enabled.  For anyone who has ever wondered what some of the more abstract emojis are supposed to mean, this is pretty cool.  It is also good way to get students to think about the design and coding of apps – namely, that VoiceOver reads the labels attributed to particular buttons.  Buttons that are unlabeled or mislabeled are not helpful if someone who is blind or visually impaired is using VoiceOver in order to navigate their phone.

Some prompting questions (10-15 min. discussion)

Have you ever used any of these settings before?  For what purpose? (I’ve found that a number of students have used various accessibility settings when their phone breaks down in some manner.  A common occurrence is when the “Home” button on the iPhone fails to work.  This has ended up being a natural way to introduce the notion of universal design).

Did playing around with these settings make you uncomfortable in any way?  How?  (Some students have expressed anxiety about accidentally getting their phones “stuck” in a certain setting and potentially “breaking” their phones.  This has evolved into conversations about invisibility and transparency in the design and functionality of communication technologies).

What did you learn [about these technologies, about disability, about mobility] in a public, group setting that you might not have learned if you’d played around with these settings alone or in private?  (This gets into a conversation about public and private uses of communication technologies, and able-bodied privileges.  Each session, a number of people mention that they feel exposed or violated when they turn on the VoiceOver setting and they open up their text messages or Snapchat, and that the others standing around them can hear what they are reading).

Does something from this activity remind you of the material you read for today or what we covered in this lecture? (A good concluding question to congeal some main ideas/key topics: the design and coding of apps; the politics of universal design; infrastructure, invisibility, and transparency; public/private; ableism)

Feel free to borrow this lesson – and I’d love to hear any ideas for modifications or suggestions for improvement in the comments section!