This joint seminar features two perspectives on how power relations have become embedded in computer technologies. Beginning with the early history of computers, Janet Abbate examines how computers were metaphorically described as “giant brains.”
Brain imagery encouraged the public to believe that computers had remarkable powers, while simultaneously obscuring the skilled labor of human programmers (often women) who did much of the actual work. This metaphor helped to devalue human labor and also fed the illusion that autonomous machines, rather than the people who controlled them, were responsible for the results produced by computers.
Abbate argues that in recent times the word “algorithm” has taken on the metaphorical role of the “giant brain” and performs similar ideological work, making human labor invisible while raising questions of accountability.
Fernanda R. Rosa explores power relations embedded in Internet infrastructure, revealing how Internet routers reflect and perpetuate global inequalities. She introduces an analytical technique called “code ethnography,” a method for examining code as a socio-technical actor, considering its social, political, and economic dynamics in the context of digital infrastructures.
Rosa focuses on the code for the Border Gateway Protocol and examines how this code is implemented at the internet exchange points (IXPs) that interconnect networks and allow the Internet to operate as a global infrastructure. Her comparison of the IXPs located in Frankfurt and São Paulo reveals inequalities between the global North and the global South and a concentration of power at the level of interconnection infrastructure hitherto unknown in the context of the political economy of the internet.
Both talks emphasize that an algorithm or an Internet router can only be understood in context: not only as part of a larger technological system, but also as an active element in social, economic and political power relations.
Time: Fri 2022-06-17 14.15 – 16.00 (Swedish Time)
Location: Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment, Seminarroom Teknikringen 74 D, 5th floor
Lecturer: Janet Abbate, Prof. & Fernanda R. Rosa, Ass. Prof., Science, Technology & Society at Virginia Tech
Dr. Janet Abbate is Professor and Dr. Fernanda R. Rosa is Assistant Professor, both at Science, Technology and Society at Virginia Tech.