Michelle is interested in the myths and mechanisms of new technologies

As an undergraduate studying anthropology and urban planning, I was interested in exploring how individual health and wellbeing is often determined by food landscapes, physical surroundings, and access to transportation. As a product designer working on contemporary tech products, I became curious about how to apply these frameworks to the digital products humans use on a daily basis. After working inside the industry and seeing larger impacts and cultural shifts stemming from the integration of new technologies into societal systems, I became more interested in the connection between the myths and rhetoric surrounding technology, the incentive and cultural structures that guide industry activities, and these end outcomes.

I am a PhD student in the Yale Anthropology department.

Areas of interest

These are little threads that I like to pull at. The notes below aren’t meant to be comprehensive or necessarily comprehensible, and may change over time.

Openness as a response to gatekeeping or perceived injustice

I’m interested in looking at the convergence of specific abstract concepts like egalitarianism, openness, collaboration, and connection with specific physical spaces or interactions and activities. As is often the case, even though these spaces and activities come to superficially represent egalitarianism or collaboration and are constantly held up as examples of social progress, they often fail to actually manifest this because beneficial change happens through intentionality and context.

The ambiguity that results in these “open” and “equal” spaces further obfuscates the very real, still existing power structures present, and often make it harder to identify, acknowledge, and fix inequalities in the system. As an added component, these abstract concepts are often used to raise the socially progressive image of a company’s activities, while often not achieving the actual social value and instead helping the company maintain or grow its power and wealth. This is a common foundational belief and outcome present in spaces and activities like:

  • Open source software
  • Open office layouts
  • Flat hierarchies
  • Open networks (social media, ex. twitter)
  • The tech industry (disruption theory, moving fast, etc)

The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman, 1972

The Proper Copy by Cori Hayden, 2010

Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure by Nadia Eghbal, 2016

My research round-up about open offices, 2017

Industry incentive structures → Outcomes

Despite the high level “making the world a better place” claims, the tech industry is largely composed of C-Corp, VC-backed, Wall Street influenced structures. I’m interested in drawing out these connective cultural tissues as a way to examine how they influence the way work is produced and the eventual end outcomes. This opens up space to explore sustainable, structural change and alternative models of technical development.

Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street by Karen Ho, 2009

Technocracy and the Tech Industry

Within a technocracy, there is an underlying and unexamined belief that any technological progress automatically results in social progress. This allows for the production of technology without attention given to consequences, and removes ethical responsibility from the participants creating these technologies.

Technopoly by Neil Postman, 1993 (my extensive notes)

Birth as an American Right of Passage by Robbie Davis-Floyd, 1992

Authoritarian and Democratic Technics by Lewis Mumford, 1964

Everything is a myth

If everything is a myth, we can start looking at the ruptures between the myth and our lived reality to better understand the structures we’re operating under. For example: if open offices are so bad for businesses and humans, what myths are compelling their existence, and who benefits from their continued use?

The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, 1988

Colonialism, Authoritarianism, and Computing

In what ways do new information and communication technologies embed colonial thinking in their production and deployment? What kinds of frontier myths are embedded in the discussion around growth and global “connections”? How does the deployment of technologies created by people in the West impact the people who access these services in other cultural and economic contexts? What kinds of authoritarian or democratic underpinnings influence how we create and deploy new technologies?

Postcolonial Computing by Lilly Irani, Janet Vertesi, Paul Dourish, Kavita Philip and Rebecca E. Grinter, 2010

Authoritarian and Democratic Technics by Lewis Mumford, 1964

“Data driven, objective” thinking vs. qualitative thought

What happens when you collapse complex human problems into a “quantifiable” metric? What happens if you treat everything that isn’t quantifiable as unnecessary? How does a focus on corporate growth impact social progress?

Individual autonomy rhetoric within structural constraints

The tendency to rely on or only advocate for the idea of individual autonomy as a solution to structural problems, where change is mostly made through structural adjustments, not individualized tactics.

The importance of quietness, privacy, thought before action

Quiet by Susan Cain, 2012 (TED Talk)





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