“Easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the family”: a review of Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now

In this guest post, Susie Jolly (Institute of Development Studies Associate) reviews Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (London: Verso, 2019).

9781786637291

Sophie Lewis will be speaking at Sussex this Tuesday at 12:00! 

The vision

Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now is a book about the politics of surrogacy — but it’s not like anything you’ve read before. Lewis starts from a critique of the industry’s exploitation, yet ends by championing surrogacy’s potentially revolutionary agenda: that reproductive labour can be redistributed even from conception, and that people can connect and support each other in radical new ways. Lewis writes:

Surrogates’ struggle is a challenge to the logic of hierarchical ‘assistance’ and a premonition of genuine mutuality; it is an invading mode of life based on mutual aid

(pp.167-168).

And:

There is a simple but infrequently noted kind of beauty to the fact that the gestating body does not necessarily distinguish between an embryo containing some of its own DNA and an embryo containing none

(p.156)

This far-reaching vision implies the end of capitalism, the end of the family as we know it, and in their place a world of “queer polymaternalism” (p168) and — the words with which she ends her book — “the promise of the reproductive commune” (p168).

She declares her aim “is to use bourgeois reproduction today (stratified, commodified, cisnormative, neocolonial) to squint towards a horizon of gestational communism” (p.21), “what babymaking beyond blood, private coupledom and the gene fetish might one day be” (p.20). This invitation to envision is also a call to action: “Let us build a care commune based on comradeship, a world sustained by kith and kind more than by kin. Where pregnancy is concerned let every pregnancy be for everyone” (p.26).

The full surrogacy of the title is “not the ‘full surrogacy’ of the rich that sees wet nurses, nannies, ayahs and mammies serving upper-class children as full-time ‘second mothers’ while leaving their own children in the care of several already overburdened others” (p.150). Instead, Lewis explains the concept as follows:

We are the makers of one another. And we could learn collectively to act like it. It is those truths that I wish to call real surrogacy, full surrogacy.

(pp.19-20).

If full surrogacy may seem like faraway dream, Lewis points out that it is already being practiced:

Despite capitalism’s worldwide hegemony many people on earth are putting something like ‘full surrogacy’ into practice every day, cultivating non-Oedipal kinship and sharing reciprocal mothering labors between many individuals and generations. In particular trans, black, sex-working, migrant, and queer communities have historically survived thanks to their skills in this sphere (sometimes called ‘kinning’).

(p.147)

Full surrogacy is an ecological concept as well as a social one. The book’s final chapter is entitled ‘Amniotechnics,’ which Lewis defines as “the art of holding and caring even while being ripped into, at the same time as being held. Amniotechnics is protecting water and protecting people from water in the spirit of full surrogacy” (p163). On a more concrete level she explains that “[r]eproductive justice and water justice are inseparable” (p164), not because of any essentialist ecofeminist connection, but because water safety, access to clean water, and prevention of water pollution, all impact on reproductive and child health.

The surrogacy industry and its opponents today

On the way to get to her vision, she spends some time analyzing and critiquing the surrogacy industry today, including a scathing and in-depth attack on the surrogacy empire of Dr. Nayna Patel, the self-proclaimed feminist who appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show in 2006 (“Women helping women!” declared Oprah, “I love it!”).

Lewis argues that a non-exploitative surrogacy business would be run by surrogates themselves, ensuring their rights as gestational workers, and a just distribution of the profits. Although this has nowhere been realized, Lewis points out that surrogates themselves are not calling for an end to the industry, and instead better conditions and more control may be an interim goal.

Lewis also declares herself “anti-anti-surrogacy” (p.51). She analyses opposition to the surrogacy industry, in particular by “surrogacy exclusionary radical feminists” or SERFs (p.81). Although there are a variety of currents, as Lewis’s coinage suggests, she finds significant overlap with “transgender exclusionary radical feminists” and “sex worker exclusionary radical feminists”. In practice, they are often the same people. And conceptually, they share a common “fixation with the insides of women’s bodies” (p.53), and an understanding of these primarily as sites of violation. “It is assumed that the ‘inside of a women’s body’ cannot work, it can only be defiled, exposed, and ceded” (p.82). Some try to rescue women from situations they never asked to be rescued from. Some fear that gender affirmative surgery, and violence around sex work and surrogacy, will lead to “the erasure of the female” (p.53). In these respects and others, their agendas sometimes converge with those of right-wing religious forces.

Compared to what?

Lewis charges anti-surrogacy advocates with failing to ask the crucial question, Compared to what? “Pregnancy is not something society as a whole tends to question. Surrogacy, on the other hand, is hotly contested.” Lewis finds surro and non-surro pregnancies have a great deal in common. Pregnancy is gestational labour regardless whether it’s surrogate or by an intended future parent: it’s all hard work, although only the surrogate is paid. Pregnancy may be alienated labour whether the child to be birthed is ‘one’s own’ or someone else’s. Both kinds of pregnancy may or may not result in a sense of alienation from one’s gestating body and from the baby, or an absence of bonds. Both kinds of pregnancy entail health impacts and risk of death. Gestators of any kind may have material motivations for birthing a child. A surrogate may be paid upon handing over that child. A non-surrogate may be paid in currencies such as family status or the hope that children will look after them in old age in the absence of pensions. In short, almost all of the arguments against surro-pregnancy — quite apart from their individual merits — also apply in some form to non-surro pregnancy.

And what about the children? Who should they belong to? Lewis argues that children should belong to themselves, and neither to their parents, nor the person who birthed them (whether these are the same or different). Furthermore, Lewis emphasises, people are never created only through pregnancy, but also through sociopolitical processes:

a ‘surro-baby’ is no more or less natural(ized) than any other. All babies are the effects of a ‘politically assisted procreation technology.’ This is because normative parenting, or normative kinship, according to a foundational intervention by Gayle Rubin, makes bodies not only (or not even primarily) through procreation but also through the process of gendering them male or female

(p118)

Surrogacy is not new

This is not the first time people give birth to children which “belong” to other people. Black women under slavery could make no claim to the fruits of their gestational labours, and at some points unwed proletarians also had the babies they birthed taken away whether they wanted it or not.

Furthermore, Lewis argues, surrogacy is currently simply an extension of existing class-based divisions of reproductive labour. The elite no longer need wait until birth to give their child to a nanny to look after. The point at which labour can be contracted to look after the kids is now at conception.

What is commercial gestation surrogacy…? It is a means by which capitalism is harnessing pregnancy more effectively for private gain, using — yes — newly developed technical apparatuses, but also well worn ‘technologies’ of one-way emotional and fleshly service — well beaten channels of unequal trade

(pp.17-18).

Conclusion

So surrogacy is not new, and it’s not so different from other kinds of pregnancy. In fact, commercial surrogacy addresses some of the problems of other kinds of pregnancy by making gestational labour visible and remunerated. Lewis shows how a struggle for a just surrogacy industry would take us some way towards her vision of the reproductive commune.

At some points in the book, especially the long critiques of Dr. Patel’s clinic, and of SERFs, I hankered for less focus on the problems, and more on the vision of what should come in its place. Later in the book, Lewis does outline her vision, but it remains a little abstract. I felt frustrated not to have more details about the reproductive commune and how to get there. But having said that, Lewis intended “a rhetorical disruption” (p.145), philosophy rather than road map, and this is exactly what she has given us. Lewis surmises, “[i]f it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it is still perhaps easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the family” (p.119); yet this book succeeds in taking the reader on a journey to an imagined place beyond capitalism and beyond the family as we know it. That’s already quite a feat — and maybe it’s too much to ask for this imagined place to come with all its structures already built in.

Elsewhere:

Two SF CfPs

Two science fictiony CfPs: a conference (which I am pretending to co-organise) and an edited collection (no special Lab connection, but looks interesting) — Jo

CfP: Productive Futures

Bloomsbury, London, 12-14 September 2019

Keynote speakers: Dr Caroline Edwards, Dr Joan Haran
Guests of honour: Aliette de Bodard, Zen Cho, Tade Thompson

The history of science fiction (SF) is a history of unreal economics: from asteroid mining to interstellar trade, from the sex-work of replicants to the domestic labour of the housewives of galactic suburbia, from the abolition of money and property to techno-capitalist tragedies of the near future. Read the full CfP.

LSFRC invites abstracts of 300 words, plus 50 word bios, addressing economic themes in SF, and/or exploring how SF can help to widen and evolve our sense of the economic. We encourage submissions from collaborators across disciplines and/or institutions. Please submit to lsfrcmail@gmail.com by 31st May 2019.

CfP: Technologies of Feminist Speculative Fiction

Edited by Sherryl Vint and Sümeyra Buran

In 1985, Donna Haraway’s massively influential “Cyborg Manifesto” reoriented feminist thought in her call for women to engage with science and technology, to recognize in them and the new worlds they might make new resources for female emancipation and feminist critique. Now, over thirty year later, technology has remade much of the social world, from communications to reproduction to work. Our anthology seeks to bring together cutting-edge scholarship on the contemporary status of feminism and technology, as reflected in speculative fiction. We invite papers for an edited collection on intersections between contemporary technology and both feminist and queer readings of speculative fiction.

We are interested in both works that imagine the future of sexuality and gender in which biological reproduction is policed or controlled as a technology of social reproduction, and those that imagine futures in which women’s bodies are changed or controlled via new biotechnologies. We are interested in articles that explore anxieties about changing demographics, changing gender roles, or the placidity of the body from feminist and queer points of view. Although the examples listed below emphasize print texts, we are open to papers addressing works from any medium. Similarly, our examples focus on recently published work, reflecting our view that this topic is of substantial interest to contemporary writers, but we are open to proposals that address similar themes in earlier texts.

Possible topics include but are not limited to:

  • Works about how fertility is imagined as a scarce resource in dystopian futures premised on massive sterility and the oppressive control of reproductive women, such as Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, Meg Ellison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North or Carrie Vaughn’s Bannerless.
  • Explorations of dystopian texts which project futures of authoritarian policing of gender and sexuality, that is, compulsory heterosexuality imagined as a police state, such as Maggie Chen’s An Excess Male, Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, Jenna Glass’s The Women’s Waror Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army.
  • Speculations about the future of assisted reproductive technologies such as cloning, IVF, parthenogenic reproduction, inter-species reproduction, ectogenesis, or machine reproduction, such as Carola Dibbell’s The Only Ones, Mur Lafferty’sSix Wakes, Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time, Jane Roger’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yoursor Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.
  • Works that explore how gender relations are manipulated and/or changed by a changing environment, whether this be new technologies used to control women, as in Christina Dalcher’s Vox, new developments in human morphology, as in Naomi Alderson’s The Power, or gendered experiences of artificial beings, as in Louisa Hall’s Speak.

Please send paper proposals of 500 words to Sümeyra Buran by June 15, 2019. Proposals will be reviewed and full papers invited by August 1, 2019.

Publishing Your Research Data

Everyone is talking about the season finale. Tomorrow at 3pm in the lab, Sharon Webb and Anna Maria Sichani will be giving the last in this run of Digital Methods Open Workshops, on the topic data modelling. All are welcome, and there are still places available.

Meanwhile, maybe it’s worth a quick catch-up? So here are few no-nonsense notes from Sharon Webb and Adam Harwood’s absolutely brimming SHL Open Workshop in April, on the topic of creating and publishing research data.

What is research data?

Sharon started us off. Who should think about publishing research data? Everybody! Yes, you humanities researcher. Data is not just numbers. Of course, what counts as research data varies considerably across different subjects, methodologies, topics, backgrounds, and habits. Some classic examples of research data-sets might be a set of measurements, or interview recordings and transcripts … but it’s also worth thinking more imaginatively and speculatively about what constitutes your research data.

One working definition of data might be all the relatively raw information you generate as a researcher in your processes of abstraction and categorization. Formally, that might include text documents (PDF, Word, RTF), spreadsheets, databases, posters, slide decks, sound recordings of field interviews, online lectures, recordings of engagement and knowledge exchange events, podcasts. That might include software, art, music. That might include metadata — data about data.

It got me thinking … do I have research data I don’t even know about?

Why publish it?

What do you encounter, and what processes do you follow, that might be useful to preserve and document for future research? Where might there be opportunities for citation, for citizen research, for collaboration, for audit and validation? What new research might it make possible? What new research might it inspire? Even, perhaps, what creative and artistic interventions? There is a slightly subversive and democratic aspect to all this: making the data public benefits independent researchers. This was one of the real revelations of the workshop for me: just how much fascinating information is already publicly available.

There is of course a slightly more straightforward and pragmatic aspect to all this: the UKRI funding bodies now ask for a data management plan. For example, an AHRC standard route grant will require a data management plan “for grants planning to generate data (3 A4 pages maximum).” The AHRC have recently done away with their technical plan requirement. Other funders (e.g. Marie Curie) ask for a technical plan, and there may be an assumption that any data management considerations will be included there. 

Funders don’t generally accept the sentence, “My data is available on request.” Of course, there may be legitimate reasons for not making data available. Researchers should be aware of GDPR and the Data Protection Act. “Personal data” means any information relating to an identified or identifiable living individual. DMP Online structures the process of writing a data management plan, drawing on the specific guidance of the chosen funding bodies.

And, fwiw, Sussex also has a policy — “research data should be made freely and openly available with as few restrictions as possible in a timely and responsible manner […] regardless of whether or not the research is externally funded.” That said, there isn’t an actual Research Data Management Police Force roaming campus, as far as we’re aware.

How should I publish it?

One thing to consider is when you will deposit your data. Around grant writing proposal stage, it’s good to build in some time to actually prepare and deposit it. It can be a big chunk of work to get research data ready to be ingested by repositories. It’s not all mindless/mindful gruntwork either: there can be thorny questions around how to curate your data to make it useful for others and for long-term preservation. I can imagine there might be some interesting cross-disciplinary issues arising, and questions about how the framing of data blurs into its analysis and interpretation.

And where to deposit data? “Figshare Sussex probably,” seems to be the short answer. More broadly, it depends who you are affiliated with, and what their policies are. The Research Data Management service (a work-in-progress) may also answer some questions. There are institutional repositories, big generalist repositories, and domain-specific repositories, and there are different governance and funding models (i.e. public vs. commercial). Here are some handy links:

  • UKDataArchive, funded by the ESRC, is “the UK’s largest collection of digital research data in the social sciences and humanities.”
  • re3data.org is a database of repositories (incomplete, but filled with good starting points).
  • FAIRsharing is another database of repositories, with more of a sciences and medicine emphasis.
  • The Journal of Open Humanities Data features peer-reviewed articles describing data and methodologies with high re-usability.
  • Zenodo is an open-access repository from CERN and the OpenAIRE program, with some similarities to Figshare. It runs on open source software (also called Zenodo).
  • Then there’s Figshare, of which Figshare Sussex is a part.

All Figshare content will be assigned a DOI; CC BY 4.0 is the default license. Figshare also allows you to create and share ‘Collections,’ bringing together relevant datasets (whether or not they’re yours). What you upload to Figshare Sussex will get sucked up to Figshare mothership, which is indexed by Google. 

You can also put on an embargo, a fact that for some reason gave me a lovely frisson of melodrama, “My data shall not be available … for ONE HUNDRED YEARS,” etc., and you can generate private links to share VIP access to embargoed data.

Your data will be backed up to Arkivum, which meets another common funding requirement, that the data will be preserved beyond the lifetime of the project. Arkivum keeps your data in three separate geographical locations. It doesn’t do file format shifts yet, but as part of The Perpetua Project (ominous energy), it eventually will do file format shifts as well.

Further background

The RCUK Concordat on Open Research Data explains precisely what open research data is, and what researchers can do to make their data open and freely accessible. It’s a long document, and Adam picked out a few key bits. The Concordat asserts the right of the creators of research data to reasonable first use. Support for development of appropriate data skills is recognised as a responsibility of all stakeholders — the university has a responsibility to provide useful services (which in our case is Figshare Sussex, as well as the emerging Research Data Management service).

Adam also touched on the FAIR Data Principles, originally intended for the sciences, but now with much wider adoption. Data should be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Re-usable. These are criteria you can measure your data against toward the end of a research project.

We ended with a whirlwind tour of metadata from Sharon. ‘Metadata is a (love) letter to the future — it makes explicit how “things” can be used.’ Anne Gilliland: ‘In general, all information objects, regardless of physical or intellectual form they take, have three features — content, context, and structure — all of which should be reflected through metadata.’ We had a little look at the Dublin Core standard, on which Figshare is based (if you’re going to add fields of your own, it would be best practice to align them to Dublin Core) and a case study, the Re-animating Data Project (70+ interviews carried out in 1989).


I left with a grateful heart and and a brimming brain, forgetting to sign in again. And also a vague unease. I got to thinking about all the data exhaust I leave behind, in the course of my research and my “research,” all the behavioural surplus I scarcely control and could never deposit, and yet which is deposited somewhere in the marketplace of personal data.

And I was thinking about how data at scale tends to disclose more than ever intended. Data analytics discover patterns that can be used as knowledge, and whose status as knowledge is often undecidable in the contexts in which they are used. I was thinking of those robots and researchers who can gaze hungrily at the “About Me” section of your social media profile, seeing not your attempt at self-expression, but only trait correlation with lemma term-frequency–inverse document-frequency (or whatever). Tech giants have learned the art of growing tall and fat on data crumbs; what will they do with data feasts?

 

 

Game Studies Event

Last week the Sussex Humanities Lab played host to a pretty special experiment. Alex Peverett and Andrew Duff assembled over twenty gaming systems, spanning over forty years of gaming history.

In attendance, says Alex, were such marvels and horrors as a Sinclair ZX81, Atari 2600, Colecovision, Vectrex, Sinclair 128k, Commodore 64, Atari 800XL, Acorn BBC Model B Microcomputer, Windows/Dos Laptop, Nintendo 64, Super Nintendo, Nintendo Gamecube, Sony Playstation 2, Sega Megadrive, Sega Dreamcast, Nintendo Gameboy, Sony PSP, Sony PS4 and PSVR, and a Speak and Spell … that he can remember.

I am fairly sure there were at least one or two systems from a parallel universe’s timeline (but my memory is a bit blurred by vast steam clouds billowing from the polished brass and stained glass Sega Steamcast, so maybe not). 

Tim Jordan, Professor of Digital Cultures at Sussex, kicked things off with a highly suggestive, whistlestop tour of issues in gaming from a broadly media studies, sociological, and cultural studies perspective. Tim used the example of a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game to illuminate at least four themes. First, there was the negotiation of meaning and identity in gaming, especially thinking about race, gender, and sexuality. Second, the co-production of games by players, not only through their in-game behaviours, but also through player co-operation outside of games, and the modification and changing of games by players. Third, there was the media archaeology of games, both in regards to the glittering array of stand-alone games surrounding us, and on the servers of discontinued MMORPG. Some digital ludic worlds have an uneasy, precarious existence, liable to have the plug pulled by the owners of the IP. Then Tim wrapped up by looking at some issues around gaming and the digital economy more generally. The older consoles in the room were built with the expectation that players would purchase and fully and permanently own each new game; more recently, gaming has been reshaped by the economics of free-to-play games (with in-game purchases), subscription models, and so on.

Then we played. I tried out a VR game for the first time (and am presumably still in the game, which was Moss). It wasn’t nearly as immersive as I’d been led to expect by commercial hype and popular culture portrayals of VR, but it was fetchingly unsettling. I liked the way sometimes an invisible object or person in the “real” world got in your way, and you just had to push it or them over to pursue your in-game objectives.

I drew some eldritch granite water lilies up from the deep, and helped my heartbreakingly brave protagonist (a needle-wielding champ with a real Reepicheep / Mattimeo vibe) hop across the water. In the background, the mountainous gloom shifted … it was a deer, stooping to drink.

But although I was there for almost the full three hours, I probably only spent ten minutes on the gizmos, because I just kept having nice chats with people! We talked about gaming — video games, board games, tabletop RPGs, gamification, art with game elements, worldbuilding and storytelling across games and other forms of culture. Networking was part of the event’s rationale:

This event will not only be a chance to explore SHL’s media archaeology resources, reflect on media archaelogical theory and practice — and play some games! — but also an opportunity to meet others across the university involved in gaming, game studies, and game design, and to take stock of the state of the art and the future of game studies at Sussex. […] What are we already doing around games at Sussex? How can we bring together existing research and teaching around gaming to share resources, projects, ideas, and opportunities?

We were here to shoot zombie Nazis, but more fundamentally, to shoot the breeze.

For some reason, I did start to think of Sam Ladkin, Senior Lecturer in Critical and Creative Writing (English), as a sort of console. “You should give this one a go,” I told everyone. “It’s really weird.”

Among other things, Sam and I discussed the new elective undergraduate module he’ll be launching, Video Games: Critical and Creative Writing. It sounds like a really fascinating and exciting mix, which will look at games as both technical and cultural objects, will allow students to be assessed through creative work and/or their critical studies of games, and will place politics at its very heart.

With the launch of Video Games: Critical and Creative Writing, along with what’s already happening on the Games and Multimedia Environments BSc and elsewhere, and the outlines of SHL 2 beginning to wobble on the horizon, we could well be at the dawn of a golden age of game studies at Sussex.

(But then again, maybe I’m still in the game).

JRA Opportunity

Junior Research Associate opportunity: Digitising SF Fandom History

This is a call for current second year students at Sussex who are interested in applying to be a Junior Research Associate over the coming summer. You can find a description the JRA scheme here. This is a paid scheme, aimed at students who hope to pursue postgraduate research. This could be for you if you have an interest in the history of science fiction fandom and/or digital archiving and preservation. The deadline for the first round is 4pm Wednesday 10 April.

VECTOR

Vector is the magazine of The British Science Fiction Association (BSFA), established 1958 and still publishing today. As the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia slightly snarkily puts it, “Vector has appeared variously as an association newsletter, a typical fanzine, and something like an academic journal.”

The BSFA currently have about two hundred issues of Vector scanned as PDF. It’s likely that the core of the project will be learning to use to learn to use the AtoM system in order to prepare these as a digital collection, ready for deposit into an institutional repository. You will explore what makes these materials valuable and unique, research and implement appropriate metadata practices, build upon existing (patchy) fan-curated record catalogues, including the ISFDB’s catalogue and Mike Cross’s catalogue, and begin to investigate some of the legal complexities of creating an archive.

We’re looking for somebody who wants to work in an independent and exploratory fashion, defining your own objectives, priorities, and research strategies within the project’s overall remit. So you’ll have the opportunity to shape your own research agenda, with the support of your supervisor. For example, you may want to look at reaching out to institutional holdings and fan communities to try to uncover missing issues; and/or explore the data of the collection using text analysis; and/or come up with novel ways of enriching the digital resource. The JRA could also be a great chance to learn more about the Sussex Humanities Lab and grow more involved in its research culture.

Continue reading “JRA Opportunity”

Beyond Numbers: Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day at the Brighton Digital Festival 2018

By Ioann Maria and Sharon Webb.

Held annually on the second Tuesday in October, Ada Lovelace Day recognises the accomplishments of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), while also celebrating Ada Lovelace herself as a pioneer of computing science. The overarching aims of the annual event are to increase the profile of women in STEM, and to create and to highlight role-models, so that we can encourage diversity and representation in computer science, in software engineering, and in the sciences more broadly. In 2018 the Sussex Humanities Lab celebrated Ada Lovelace Day with an event called Beyond Numbers.

adabeyondnumbers_sharon&ioann
Ioann Maria and Sharon Webb

Ada Lovelace was born in 1815. She was encouraged by her mother, Annabella Byron, to study arithmetic, music, and French. It’s been suggested that Ada’s strict study regime was a deliberate attempt to suppress Ada’s imagination, since Ada’s mother was fearful of her ‘dangerous and potentially destructive,’ imagination given the eccentrics of Ada’s estranged father, Lord Byron (Essinger, 2014).

By the time she was thirteen, Ada Lovelace had already designed a mechanical bird. At the age of eighteen Lovelace formally met Charles Babbage, who would later be heralded as the father of computing science. She became intrigued with Babbage’s proposed “Difference Engine.” Over the years Ada Lovelace studied and translated the maths associated with both Babbage’s Difference Engine and its sequel, the Analytical Engine, as well as the Jacquard Loom. In 1843, translating and annotating Luigi Menabrea’s paper on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, she developed a formula for computing Bernoulli numbers. On the basis of this work — a program to be executed upon machine that did not yet exist — Lovelace has been hailed as the world’s first computer programmer.

But unlike Babbage and Menabrea, who only saw the number-crunching potential of this machine, Ada Lovelace also proposed that if a machine could manipulate numbers then it could do so for any type of “data.” Indeed, the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’ (as Babbage is credited with describing her) stated that the Analytical Engine ‘might act upon other things besides numbers,’ and that for instance, it might ‘compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.’

The Beyond Numbers event, organised by Ioann Maria and Dr Sharon Webb, coincided with Ada Lovelace Day. It was specifically interested in exploring the potential identified by Ada Lovelace for machines to ‘act upon other things besides numbers.’ The aim of the event was to celebrate women, non-binary, and transgender scientists, artists, musicians, researchers and thinkers whose works are based on scientific, technological and/or mathematical methods. 

The event opened with Sharon Webb’s historical overview of the role of women in technology, entitled “When Computers Were People,” which also called out the current gender gap in computer science. She was followed by a session from Kate Howland (University of Sussex, Lecturer in Interactive Design) entitled “Talking Programming,” in which Kate gave an outline of her research on designing voice user interfaces for end-user programming in home automation. Cécile Chevalier, Lecturer in Media Practice at the University of Sussex, spoke on “Automata, Automatism and Instrument-Making Toward Computational Corporeal Expressions.” In thinking of the body, technology and expression in computational art, Cecile offered a retrospective of her own artwork. Brighton-based audio-visual artist Akiko Haruna gave a talk on A/V and electronic music scene touching on “Self-Value in the Face of Ego,” where her focus was on encouraging all women to explore the world of electronic music and audio-visual art. She spoke of her personal experiences and the many ways in which digital sound as a medium has liberated her work. Estela Oliva, London-based artist and curator, spoke of “Hybrid Worlds, New Realities,” presenting her new project CLON in which she interrogates the possibilities of new spaces enabled with virtual and immersive technologies such as gaming, 3D video, and virtual reality. Irene Fubara-Manuel in her talk “An Auto-Ethnographic Account of Virtual Borders” presented her piece “Dreams of Disguise” (2018), a traversal of the virtual border through racialized biometric technologies: a project that blurs documentary truth with science fiction to reveal the ubiquitous surveillance of migrants and the rising desire for opacity. The event closed with Ioann Maria’s “Contra-Control Structures” talk on hacktivism, cyberactivism, and women, with an outline of her first-hand experience in creating physical DIY creative spaces.

The day was a fusion of science and creative arts. It reached beyond the “numerical” and provided a friendly space for the local community to find out about one another — a space to share, to engage, and to collaborate.

adabeyondnumbers_artwork

As a direct result of Beyond Numbers and the positive feedback this event received, FACT///  (Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology Network) was established by Cécile Chevalier, Sharon Webb, and Ioann Maria Stacewicz. In keeping with the aspirations and goals of Ada Lovelace Day, FACT/// Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology Network seeks to promote dialogue, collaboration, and support diverse voices in transdisciplinary computational thinking and environments. The first FACT/// forum was held on Thursday, 7th March at the Sussex Humanities Lab. For more details see fact.networkFACT/// is a CHASE Feminist Network Award and also supported by the Sussex Humanities Lab.

#AdaBeyondNumbers on the web:

About Sharon:

Sharon Webb is a Digital Humanities Lecturer in the Sussex Humanities Lab and the School of History, Art History and Philosophy. Sharon is a historian of Irish associational culture and nationalism (eighteenth and nineteenth century) and a digital humanities practitioner, with a background in requirements/user analysis, digital preservation, digital archiving, text encoding and data modelling. Sharon also has programming and coding experience and has contributed to the successful development of major national digital infrastructures.

Sharon’s current research interests include community archives and identity, with a special interest in LGBTQ+ archives, social network analysis (method and theory), and research data management. She holds a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award 2018 on the topic of community archives and digital preservation, working with a number of community projects, including Queer in Brighton.

Sharon is currently running a twelve-month project funded by the British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award (2018), ‘Identity, Representation and Preservation in Community Digital Archives and Collections’. This project is an intervention in three important areas: community archives, digital preservation, and content representation. For more details see www.preservingcommunityarchives.co.uk.

About Ioann Maria:

Ioann Maria is a new media artist, filmmaker, and computer scientist. Ioann’s work is focused on hacktivism, electronic surveillance, computer security, human-machine interaction, and interactive physical systems. In her solo and collaborative projects she explores new methods in real-time audio-visual performance.

Ioann is co-founder of the Edinburgh Hacklab, Scotland’s first hackerspace. She was formerly an Artistic Director of LPM Live Performers Meeting, the world’s largest annual meeting dedicated to live video performance and new creative technologies, and a Research Technician in Digital Humanities at the Sussex Humanities Lab, University of Sussex, which is dedicated to developing and expanding research into how digital technologies are shaping our culture and society.

What are the digital humanities?

By David M. Berry

Digital humanities are at the leading edge of applying computer-based technology in the humanities. Initially called ‘humanities computing’, the field has grown tremendously over the past 40 or so years. It originally focused on developing digital tools and the creation of archives and databases for texts, artworks, and other materials. From these initial uses, and as computation developed, computers offered increasingly sophisticated ways of handling and searching digitised culture. For example, with recent advances in digital imaging, it is now possible to produce very high-quality reproductions of books and artworks that can transform our ability to study them.

Pianist Shin Suzuma uses a digital score app for ensembles
Pianist Shin Suzuma uses a digital score app Syncphonia for ensembles powered by Sussex University research funded by AHRC

The key to understanding the digital humanities is to reject the idea that digital technology is invading the academy. Computers were used for humanist ends from very early on in their history, and not only, as one might expect, as mere storage for large libraries of text. Computer networks, particularly the internet, have also enabled digital files to be used from almost anywhere on the globe. This access to information has had a tremendous effect on the ability to undertake research in the arts and humanities.

Digital humanities incorporate key insights from languages and literature, history, music, media and communications, computer science and information studies and combine these different approaches into new frameworks. More recently, the disciplinary focus has widened to include critical digital studies, as well as fields more commonly associated with engineering such as machine-learning, data science and artificial intelligence. Indeed, as early adopters of technology, digital humanists were prescient in seeing that computation would have an increasing centrality to research in the humanities.

As part of their work, digital humanists have developed new methods, such as computer-based statistical analysis, search and retrieval, topic modelling, and data visualisation. They apply these techniques to archives and collections that are vastly larger than any human researcher or research group can comfortably handle. These methods enable ambitious projects to be created with large interdisciplinary teams that are brought together to work on difficult or complex projects. Digital humanists are transforming the idea of what a humanities research project can be, giving us new ways of seeing past and present cultures.

These new collections of historical or literary artefacts are often publicly available on the web or in digital databases, and the material they contain is more openly available than previously possible with print. They increase the ability for humanists to combine data sets, social media, sound, web and image archives and also to move between them with greater ease. Equally crucial has been the creation of software for analysing, understanding and transforming these digital materials. Digital tools can also be freely accessed over the internet so they can be easily incorporated into other projects, enabling the rapid diffusion of new methods, tools and ideas across disciplinary boundaries. These digital technologies open up exciting opportunities for connecting the humanities to a wider public culture.

The social network Facebook has authorised giants like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and Microsoft to access the personal data of its 2.2 billion users, according to the 'New York Times'. Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images.
The social network Facebook has authorised giants like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and Microsoft to access the personal data of its 2.2 billion users, according to the ‘New York Times’. Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images.

However, with the greater diffusion of digital technologies into our lives, new concerns have arisen about the capacity these technologies have to spy on their users, about digital bias and discrimination, and the emergence of ‘fake news’. Companies such as Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google use our data in very intrusive ways, making collection of both public and private data a public matter of concern. Here too digital humanities, with its expertise across many knowledge areas, can help us understand these problems and provide critical interventions and policy insights.

The academy is now much more comfortable with the use of computation across disciplines. It has brought new powers of analysis, comparison and understanding to a range of research areas. The digital humanities have been exemplary in transferring digital techniques and methods into the humanities and by doing so have laid the ground for a golden age of humanities research in the 21st century. In a digital age, the humanities need to communicate humanistic values and their own contribution to public culture more than ever. The humanities continue to ask the important question: what is a life worth living? The digital humanities are part of this tradition, helping us to reflect on this question and expanding our understanding of human culture in a digital world.


David M. Berry is Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Sussex. He writes widely on the theory and philosophy of computation and algorithms. His most recent book is Digital Humanities: Knowledge and Critique in a Digital Age (with Anders Fagerjord). His forthcoming British Academy-supported research is concerned with the idea of a university in a digital age.


This post originally appeared on the British Academy blog.