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Hacking Binaries / Hacking Hybrids: Understanding the Black/White Binary as a Socio-technical Practice

Version of Record: Forlano, Laura, & Jungnickel, Kat (2015). Hacking Binaries/Hacking Hybrids: Understanding the Black/White Binary as a Socio-technical Practice. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.6. doi:10.7264/N3XG9PFP

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2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Laura Forlano
Institute of Design
Illinois Institute of Technology

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Kat Jungnickel
Goldsmiths College
University of London

Abstract

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 This essay argues that hacking binaries as well as hacking hybrids – theoretically, methodologically and activist as well as in the practice of everyday life – especially around issues of race is an important agenda for feminist technology studies. Using examples from art, architecture, social theory and personal experience, and drawing on science and technology studies (STS), we argue that theoretical and methodological hacking around the Black/White binary is a pathway to the deconstruction of other binaries (as well as reified hybrids) such as digital/material, global/local, private/public, individual/community, open/closed and amateur/professional, which are central to understanding emerging topics in gender, new media and technology.

Introduction

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 4 In July 2014, New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development approved a separate entrance for residents of 55 affordable housing units in a 33-story luxury condominium on the Upper West Side. The inclusion of a so-called “poor door,” while criticized by some city officials, is one of many developments that continue to perpetuate the Black/White binary despite claims that we are living in a post-racial, post-human (Hayles, 2008) and post-digital age. The socio-technical systems that mediate and continue to proliferate the Black/White binary are composed of people and their personal characteristics such as race, class and gender, tools and technologies as well as buildings, neighborhoods and spaces.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 5 In line with critical, feminist new media and technology studies, this essay argues that we must engage in multiple practices of hacking – theoretical, methodological and activist as well as deeply personal reflective practice – in order to account for the agency of race and the Black/White binary as a tool. Furthermore, the Black/White binary as one site of hacking will allow us to better understand the significance of other binaries that we continue to encounter in Western society such as digital/material, global/local, private/public, individual/community, open/closed and amateur/professional, which have been central themes in our earlier studies of hacking and socio-technical practice and the ways that their affordances shape socio-economic divides that are underscored by digital inclusion/exclusion (another hybrid!). The constant invoking of the hybrid as a stand -in for the complexity, the mess and the complications of everyday life has itself led to a reification that requires hacking of its own. So, it is not a matter of replacing or moving beyond binaries (Smith 2006) but rather, drawing on Science and Technology Studies (STS) to understand how we might simultaneously harness and hack the hybrid as a tool that serves to open up new lines of inquiry.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 We are interested in hybrids as ways of seeing, critically interpreting, making and gaining new understandings of re-combinations and configurations. We are informed by a range of hybridized interventions in theory and practice that hack at the general and conventional around us. We identify as hybrids living in a binary world. First, as interdisciplinary scholars and makers we are constantly negotiating and navigating different communities, discourses and value systems. Second, as women studying what are often very male technological practices, we are very aware of our own ability to participate and/or be excluded from gendered conversations and practices. (What IS the appropriate response to, “Dude, I almost blew my load when I saw those servers.”) Finally, based on many online exchanges and a few face-to-face conversations over the two years, we, through a patchwork of technologies and the negotiation of time differences, coordinated the collaborative and distributed writing of this essay as itself a hybrid activity that followed our own trajectories around the world, with Forlano in New York and Jungnickel in London and then Sydney.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 2 Our earlier research documented the ways in which the socio-cultural and socio-technical practices of technologists are globally disseminated and, at the same time, locally constituted and embedded in physical places such as neighborhoods, communities and urban environments. At the same time, we discuss the ways in which digital technologies such as WiFi or hardware hacking in particular are not necessarily tools of global dissemination, and, similarly, material practices are not only locally embedded. Our studies also illustrates the ways in which these practices integrate notions of ‘do it yourself’ (DIY) and homebrew practices, which might be likened to those of amateurs, as well as those of high-tech professionals. These socio-technical practices complicate earlier dichotomies of global and local (‘spaces of flows’ and ‘spaces of place’ as Castells has argued (Castells, 1996)), digital and material, and amateur and professional. Rather, our research points to the ways in which hybrid categories such as the globally local, the digitally material and the amateur professional become a lived reality for members of specific kinds of communities and organizations as well as contribute to the development of digital culture more broadly.

Hacking Theory and Method

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 4 From a theoretical perspective, one way of hacking these persistent binaries, as well as the reified hybrids, is to create new terms, vocabularies and lexicons that allow for new combinations, understandings, tools and devices. These new units of analysis enable us to combine and recombine traditional ideas in new ways. Feminist new media scholars of color have engaged in theoretical hacking around the hybrids that we have encountered in our own studies as well as additional hybrids including the digital/material, online/offline and virtual/real (Coleman, 2011); open/closed, inclusion/exclusion and freedom/control (Chun, 2008; Nakamura & Chow-White, 2013); individual/community, private/public and global/local and amateur/professional (Davidson & Goldberg, 2009; Hong, 1999). Specifically, Coleman and Chun argue that race can be thought of as a tool, and this sociotechnical understanding suggests that theories from STS may be useful unpacking the politics of racial binaries as well as racial hybrids.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 Adding to feminist new media and technology studies by women of color, we have adopted examples of hybrids from STS, which posits that mundane everyday life is comprised of complex inter-relations of humans and non-humans. The Cyborg (Haraway & Teubner, 1991), Hudogledog (Michael, 2002) and the Citizen-Gun (Latour, 1993) are just a few examples that attend to the idea that seemingly unremarkable artefacts and systems make explicit the familiar and taken for granted ways in which people make sense of and operate in everyday life. Broadly speaking, these studies hold that a close examination of the messy and entangled nature of binaries and dichotomies that are otherwise embedded in the background of everyday life can be can be brought to the surface and investigated.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 2 Michael’s (2002) example of the Hudogledog, an interweaving of a human, dog lead and dog, provides a god example of the role of hybrids in socio-technical contexts. Anyone who has walked a dog knows the practical usefulness of a doglead or leash. Michael outlines the practical as well as symbolic value of this artifact when viewed in context of a human at one end and dog at the other, such as how it operates as a connection between the dog and human, enabling both to control direction and speed while clearly demarcating the power dimensions of who is ultimately responsible should the dog do something non-social such as biting someone or veering into the path of a fellow road user. It represents to others that the dog is owned and in control. It is also part of much larger scale associations with industry, culture, consumption practices and more, ‘It serves as a channel or conduit of communication in several senses; tactile, kinesthetic, aural and visual’ and ‘is enabled by the wider nexus of associations – representational, institutional, legal, commercial, veterinary and so on’ (2001:129).

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 2 Critically, the Hudogledog manages to remain simultaneously three separate entities as well as a hybrid. As Michael discusses, it is not single or fixed construct. It is fluid and situated. Importantly, the Hudogledog has a ‘pulse’. Michael situates the Hudogledog in relation to a temporal dynamism, a rhythm. The use of the dog lead on a dog by a person is not constant. The hybrid of the human-doglead-dog is present when they are walking. It is absent at other times. What the Hudogledog reveals is the complexity, flexibility and relationality of the hybrid.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 Another example by Michael (2004) reinforces the potential of hybrids as a unit of analysis. He recounts the story of the ‘disastrous interview’ whereby a conversation between two humans was interrupted and diverted from an expected trajectory by the presence of a cat who interfered with the tape recorder, a dog that took a liking to the interviewers feet and an interviewee who had different ideas about the content of the interview. Drawing on Serres (1982), he proposes multiple modes of analysis, which do not seek to eliminate the ‘parasites’ from the fieldwork episode. This includes a number of co(a)gent hybrids such as the ‘pitpercat’ – a pit bull terrier, person and cat and the

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 2 the ‘intercorder’ – interviewer and recorder. Michael suggests several implications of this approach, one of which is pertinent to the task of hacking binaries. ‘In trying to incorporate nonhumans into sociological analysis in a way which does not have recourse to entrenched dichotomies, it is necessary to alter the unit of analysis’ (2004, p. 19). What this and other hybrid STS examples present us with are methods of looking at new combinations of co(a)gents of humans and non-humans that we would otherwise overlook or ignore.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 2 From a methodological perspective, feminist new media theorists have argued for the creation of hybrid methodologies (McPherson, 2008) that cross disciplinary boundaries.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 3 In recent years, social scientists have become interested in engaging in the hands on creation of artefacts that defy binary categories. Examples include inventive methods (Lury & Wakeford, 2012), public ethnography (Gans, 2010) as well as the creation of artifacts (Belman, Flanagan, Nissenbaum, & Diamond, 2011; Jungnickel, 2014), performances (Orr, 2006; Watts, 2012), tactical and locative media (Cardenas, Carroll, Dominguez, & Stalbaum, 2009), exhibits (Latour & Weibel, 2005; Townsend, Forlano, & Simeti, 2011) and constituencies through workshops and events (Greenspan, Lindtner, & Li, 2014; Loukissas, Forlano, Ribes, & Vertesi, 2013). Moreover, the engagement in alternative formats for scholarship is itself a feminist approach as the FemTechNet community has espoused. For example, Micha Cardenas’ performance in Second Life seeks to overcome binaries such as mind/body, real/virtual and self/other (Cárdenas, Head, Margolis, & Greco, 2009). Furthermore, there is a long history of the importance of art and music in cultivating activist identities and communities such as ‘hip hop feminism’ (Durham, Cooper, & Morris, 2013).

Immutable Binaries

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 3 Despite the theoretical and methodological interventions that acknowledge the blurring of discrete binaries and dichotomies, we cannot deny that, for the most part, our societies are still organized around the separation of these categories, and often in brutal and immutable ways similar to the architectural example of the ‘poor door’. What follows are a series of examples from everyday life and artistic practice that illustrate the persistence of the Black/White binary.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 1 A few years ago, I (Forlano) was filling out a United States census form for my household. After filling out my own information fairly easily (since I seem to fit into the Black/White binary), I moved on to my husband’s information. I was puzzled by the question on race since the form stated “for the purpose of this census, Hispanic is not a race.” Currently, race is defined as: White, Black, American Indian, Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Native Hawaiian, Guamanian, Samoan, Other Pacific Islander, Other Asian or Some other race. The “Some other race” category is new. Since my husband is Mexican American of Spanish and Mayan descent, he did not fit into any of the traditional categories. These categories have been modified slightly in the current version of the census but they are still problematic. In another census question, “Is this person Spanish/Hispanic/Latino?” it is possible to answer: No, Mexican, Other, Puerto Rican or Cuban. However, the question still stands, how should I report my husband’s race. I left the question blank.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 When polling his family at a get together in the Bronx, his sister reported that she had checked White because “Mommy always said that we were White.” However, his uncle, a middle school Spanish teacher, had also skipped the question on race since it did not make sense to him. This example illustrates the ways in which the technologies of the census form, the survey questions, national and ethnic identities, the social and family context create a complicated juxtaposition of issues around the Black/White binary. Specifically, the navigation of the Black/White binary can differ even within a single family.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 1 In 1994 and, again, in 2003, I (Forlano) was sexually assaulted. While the circumstances surrounding each incident were incredibly different, the ways in which the police and law enforcement make assumptions about both victims and perpetrators of crimes continues to reify binary categories about race (as well as other socio-economic factors. In the second incident, it was after midnight on a Sunday, and I was followed into my building lobby. A neighbor heard me scream, the man ran out the front door and, soon after, we heard police sirens outside. My neighbor and I walked towards a police car where the man was being arrested. Before we could get more than 10 feet from the police officers, they yelled “Turn around, turn around, turn around.” I did. My neighbor explained that I had been attacked. “Was he Black or White, Black or White,” the police office retorted. Without going into too much detail, this example serves to illustrate the ways in which binaries are often inescapable and stubbornly present categories.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 1 Yet, in some ways, these binaries have replaced earlier categories that were more nuanced for the purpose of racial subjugation. For example, in an exhibition “Color Bind: The MCA Collection in Black and White” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the artist and philosopher Adrian Piper presents a video installation called “Cornered” in which she affirms her black identity. Alongside the video are her father’s birth certificates: on one of them he is categorized as white while on the other he is 1/8 Black or octoroon. Then, in September 2012, she creates a digital self-portrait “Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment,” which declares:

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Dear friends,

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 For my 64th birthday, I have decided to change my racial and nationality designations. Henceforth, my new racial designation will be neither black nor white but rather 6.25% grey, honoring my 1/16 African heritage. And my new nationality designation will be not African American but rather Anglo-German America, reflecting my preponderantly English and German ancestry. Please join me in celebrating this exciting new adventure in pointless administrative precision and future institutional control.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 2 While this declaration of retiring from one’s race may seem ironic, there is much sociological research on the fluidity of racial categories overtime, which illustrates that life events and socio-cultural contexts may have an impact on the ways in which people and those that they interact with perceive their racial identity (Penner & Saperstein, 2008; Saperstein & Penner, 2012).

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 In all of these examples, we can see the ways in which socio-technical systems composed of protocols, forms, certificates, skin color, historical precedents, government officials, homes and families work together to either reinforce a particular, hierarchical Black/White binary and how the lived experience of race lies at the crossroads of this terrain, sometimes defying it and other times reinforced by it.

Living Hybrids

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 In the DiY (do-it-yourself) communities that we have studied in the United States and Australia, hacking was a common practice. Activists climbed on rooftops to create their own communication infrastructures that embedded their own socio-political ideas about equality, access and freedom. For example, they aimed to intervene in issues around the digital divide through the building of low-cost, community-controlled infrastructure (L. Forlano & Powell, 2011). Hybrids for these groups were an important site of socio-technical practice, material assemblages and technological imaginaries. In our respective fieldwork, we noted how these groups both break away from conventional ideas about large scale industrialized practices and established ways of knowing, offering instead new ways of exploring through doing new patterns of hands-on, open source, diverse community engagement. They bring to life new entities in the form of hybrid socio-technical organizations that complicate traditional binaries of digital/material, open/closed, amateur/professional, individual/community as well as many others. In our scholarship, we have argued for new theoretical and ontological categories to include different kinds of practices that challenge existing binaries in order to replace the nondescript and unspecified notion of hybrids.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 1 DiY communities also hack these hybrids, indelibly shaping them according to cultural contexts, local environments, the weather, and available materials, producing deeply local, richly cultural customized communications networks (Laura Forlano, 2008; Jungnickel, 2013). On the other hand, while hybrids advance the promise of new technological imaginaries, they can also become reified and imbued with conventional discourses. As such they reinforce existing social relations and, only fleetingly put forth other potential ways of being. In our practice as designers and maker, we have engaged in alternative modes of investigation such as participatory design, clothing design, exhibitions and the creation of artifacts. Like the hackers that we have studied, we have embraced the notion that alternative socio-technical systems can be designed and built for the purpose of exploring emergent lines of inquiry, raising different questions or experimenting with different ‘rules of the game’.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 1 Specifically, Tara McPherson’s has written about the functionalist nature of discourses around innovation and the reliance on “technology as a quick fix that will fuel creativity, learning, and imagination,” “historical discourses about America’s uniqueness” and the belief that “simply using the right tools will get the job done” (McPherson, 2008). ‘Mirror-tocracy’ Mitch Kapor, argues, is narrowly defined cultural codes and norms that blinker ways of thinking and forms of participation, and as a result define who gets to participate and who is excluded. It reflects and reproduces one structure at the expense of other socio-technological imaginaries. New technology communities can reflect and as a result re-produce many of the same binaries that underpin conventional technology practices – white, male designers hiring ‘people like us’ which leads to narrow ideas about what technology is and can be used for. As Bueno has written: ‘After making such a show of burning down the bad old rules of business, the new ones we’ve created seem pretty similar’ (2014). Critically, this matters because these are large-scale industries that risk producing increasingly narrow forms of technologies. Moreover these are not insulated systems but highly influential cultures that many copy and replicate globally around the world in their own locals.

Conclusion

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 2 This essay has argued that we need to critically hack the Black/White binary as a tool or technology in order to re-examining emergent hybrids that are important to feminist new media and technology studies. By drawing on science and technology studies, we hope to contribute to theoretical hacking across discourses about race, gender and class as well as those around technology, new media and socio-technical systems more broadly. Through our own scholarship and making, we also advocate for the continued exploration of alternative methods and formats for interrogating complex constructs in line with feminist new media and technology studies in order to create new artifacts and objects through which to advocate for racial, gender and socio-economic equality.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 1 The hybrids have a very real pulse. Rather than accepting them as such, we must continue to hack at them in order to create new, more nuanced definitions that in turn can create new logics and ways of thinking, making and understanding. As sociologists, and designers, we know that reality is much more nuanced than the dichotomies that define our language, behaviors and ways of thinking but one cannot deny that the binaries (and race itself) as technologies whose affordances continue to structure everyday life through architectures, institutions and governments. Despite the socio-technical barriers that continue to separate people such as the census categories, the ‘poor door’ or the re-seggregation of neighborhoods and schools, there is much evidence that a post-racial, post-human and post-digital world is possible. In order to bring about genuine change, we must continue to build feminist tools that embody alternative forms of knowledge and integrate the values of diversity and pluralism (Escobar, 2012).

Bibliography

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32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Bueno, Carlos. (2014). Inside the Mirrortocracy.  Retrieved from http://carlos.bueno.org

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Biographies

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 Laura Forlano is an Assistant Professor of Design at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology. Her research is focused on the intersection between emerging technologies, material practices and the future of cities. Forlano is co-editor with Marcus Foth, Christine Satchell and Martin Gibbs of From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen (MIT Press 2011).

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 Kat Jungnickel is a sociologist, cyclist and maker. She is a Sociology Lecturer at Goldsmiths College at the University of London. Jungnickel studies new and old technologies in urban and rural contexts with a focus on gender relations and grassroots hands-on DiY and DiT (Do-It-Together) cultures and practices. She is the author of DiY WiFi: Re-imagining connectivity (Palgrave 2013).

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