Reflections on the Critical Data Studies Symposium & Future Directions for Critical Data Studies

I am so proud to have been a part of the first symposium on Critical Data Studies at the University of Minnesota, an interdisciplinary initiative that was made possible by the Institute for Advanced Study and Informatics Institute.

Thursday’s keynote by Dr. Ruha Benjamin was a fascinating look at the ways that science, technology, and medicine are political. Biotechnologies and genomic research, she argued, are designed with discriminatory frameworks and result in findings and technologies that perpetuate the marginalization and oppression of people along racial and gendered lines.

One of my favorite lines from the talk: Our biopolitical imaginary recalibrates existing social difference (e.g., race/ethnicity) as genomic difference.

Note: I will post a video of the presentation Dr. Benjamin gave when it is available, but for now you can watch her excellent TED talk From Park Bench to Lab Bench – What Kind of Future Are We Designing? below:

On Friday those of us who received the summer fellowships each gave a five-minute “lightning talk” that introduced our research projects. IAS recorded those presentations as well, and they can be viewed below:

06:25 Emma Bedor Hiland, Communications Studies
(En)coding Inclusiveness in Smartphone Applications for Mentally Disordered Users

12:32 Lars MacKenzie, Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies
Accounting for Change: Big Data, Gender Transition and Financial Surveillance of Identity

18:13 Deniz Coral, Anthropology
Markets with Many Faces: The Role of Screens in the Financial Imagination

22:35 Katelin Krieg, English
Victorian Data Analysis and Visualization

27:52 Alexander Fink, Social Work
Locating Human Possibility and Aspirations in Social Service Mass Data Collection Systems

33:50 Madison Van Oort, Sociology
Well-Dressed Data: Workplace Surveillance in the World’s Top Retailers

39:35 Amelia Hassoun, Anthropology
Big Data, Big Futures: Imagining the Singaporean Smart Nation

45:14 Stephen Savignano, Anthropology
Interaction / Machination: Thinking Machines through Interactive Computation

49:40 Link Swanson, Philosophy
User interfaces and the epistemology of the new computational cognitive revolution

Following these lightning talks, pairs of fellowship recipients gave 10-minute, more-in-depth presentations on their research and findings to symposium attendees. Lars Mackenzie and I were a pair as our work shared the theme of In/Visbility, and we discussed our findings with faculty, graduate students, and University staff.

Toward the end of the symposium, everyone in attendance agreed upon the importance of continuing these conversations about the human in the data. I am hopeful that we can all continue to meet and discuss our work and activism.

In her closing remarks, Dr. Benjamin encouraged us to refuse to be relegated to the sidelines when it comes to science, technology, and big data practices. Do not become an addendum to the work that is already underway, she argued, demand a seat at the table during the beginning of these projects instead.  It was an extremely positive and inspiring experience, and one that the University staff, researchers, and students have likely been changed by.

Upcoming Keynote and Workshop on Critical Data Studies

It’s here! It’s finally (almost) here!

The University of Minnesota Informatics Institute, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the Minnesota Population Center are sponsoring two events this week that examine the intersections of informatics and the humanities. I am so excited to have been selected as one of this summer’s Critical Data Studies Fellows, and to present my work on mental healthcare smartphone applications on Friday.

Thursday, Sep 29, 3:30-5:00, Northrop, Crosby Seminar Room: This is the keynote for the Friday workshop. Professor Ruha Benjamin from Princeton University will present a talk titled, “Can the Subaltern Genome Code? Envisioning Innovation & Equality in an Era of Personalized Medicine.” More info available here.

Friday Sept. 30, 9-12, Northrop, Crosby Seminar Room: Workshop “Where is the Human in the Data?” showcasing the work of the ten graduate students who summer research analyzed the human elements of data research and smartphone applications. This workshop is meant to facilitate the beginning of more conversations about data and research design. More info available here.

See you tomorrow (and Friday)!

(Revenge) Pornography, Sexting, and a New Journal

I am so excited to have my work on revenge pornography published in the brand-new journal Screen Bodies. 


An interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed journal, Screen Bodies publishes work addressing the intersections between screens (broadly defined) and the body. As noted in its Aims & Scope,

“The journal considers moving and still images, whether from the entertainment industry, information technologies, or news and media outlets, including cinema, television, the internet, and gallery spaces. It investigates the private experiences of portable and personal devices and the institutional ones of medical and surveillance imaging. Screen Bodies addresses the portrayal, function, and reception of bodies on and in front of screens from the perspectives of gender and sexuality, feminism and masculinity, trans* studies, queer theory, critical race theory, cyborg studies, and dis/ability studies.”

The article I published, “The Politics of Revenge (Pornography),” briefly traces the emergence of revenge pornography websites during the 2010’s and contextualizes them within broader discussions of postfeminism, neoliberalism, theories of the gaze, and pornography. For those who are unfamiliar with revenge pornography, it is the distribution of intimate photos without the consent of the individual who is pictured, often with the intent to humiliate said person.

While it’s encouraging to see how many states are passing legislation intended to curtail and prevent revenge pornography, what continues to disturb me is the amount of victim blaming that goes on when it happens. As Dr. Amy Adele Hasinoff* notes in her fabulous book Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent, our cultural attitudes about sex and sexuality far more punitive for members of historically marginalized groups (women, people of color, non-heteronormative persons, etc.) than for white, cis, heterosexual men. In my own research for this project, it was shocking how many women are featured on revenge pornography websites compared to men. It was probably tens of thousands versus mere hundreds.

Although Dr. Hasinoff writes about teenaged sexting and not revenge pornography per se, I would argue that our cultural response to both can be understood as a moral panic: the fear that something (often related to sex) threatens the well-being of a society, a fear that is often compounded and exacerbated by media coverage.

Examples of moral panics: AIDS, sexting, and pornography

Without fail, every year my students tell me that the unit I teach on sex, pornography, and the Internet is one of their favorites. The ways that digital media are changing sex and intimacy are important and worth discussing. It does far more damage, I think, to dismiss activities like sexting and perusing revenge pornography as something only “bad” or “immoral” people do, when digital intimacy is actually an increasingly normative part of contemporary relationships.

* Dr. Hasinoff also maintains an excellent blog that is worth checking out!

Summer Fellowship: “Critical Data Studies: Where is the Human in the Data?”

This has been an exciting year! In addition to receiving an IDF for next year, this summer I am one of nine graduate students being funded by the University of Minnesota Informatics Institute.

This year the competition’s theme was “Critical Data Studies: Where is the Human in the Data?” My project uses interviews with developers of smartphone applications and websites intended to provide mental health support to respond to that question.

I am honored and excited to have received this support, and looking forward to presenting my findings in the fall at an event co-sponsored by the University’s Institute for Advanced Study.

Catalyst Wedding Magazine: Redux

When I first learned about Catalyst Wedding Magazine I was skeptical: too many times I have seen rhetoric from feminism’s first and second waves co-opted and used in advertising, marketing, and PR campaigns. Therefore the idea of a “feminist wedding magazine” seemed to be the pinnacle of feminist-chic: using feminism and its rhetoric to appear trendy, cool, but not feminist.

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Rhetorics of female freedom and empowerment are now commonplace in our consumer culture, wherein women are encouraged to attain freedom not through activism, but by purchasing.

I was then contacted by Liz Susong, Catalyst‘s Editor-in-Chief, and asked whether I would be interested in writing a piece about weddings, particularly whether or not it is possible to have one that is feminist.

 serves an important function in our culture (one where the average cost of a wedding is upwards of $26,000, and one in which queer persons and people of color are noticeably absent from the industry): it aims to represent people of from varying religious traditions, sexual orientations, gender identities, and ethnicities in their pages.

And the Catalyst team certainly works hard at what they do, for in addition to publishing a magazine, they host {un}conventions for those who are – or would be – considered “disruptors” of wedding traditionalism.

Although when I wrote the piece I did not believe a that a feminist wedding is possible (and, honestly, I still don’t), I’ve enjoyed seeing the ways that Catalyst both critiques the wedding-industrial complex and works to change it from within. Their work is valuable and important, not just for persons who are getting married, but in facilitating discussions about commitment, love, marriage, traditionalism, religion, sexual orientation, and more.

Learn more about Catalyst Weddings (and order their beautiful magazine!) on their website.

You can read my published statement (why I do not believe a feminist wedding is possible) here

Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship Awarded

This morning I received some wonderful news: I was awarded an Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship (IDF) to fund my dissertation writing for academic years 2016-2017.

Conducted through the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics, my project involves writing a history of telemedicine (particularly telepsychiatry), and the ways that its practice has fostered the development of mental health applications for smartphones.

More information on the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship program, including past winners, can be found here.