Thursday, August 12, 2021

Phil Agre and the gendered Internet

There is an article today in the Washington Post about the odd disappearance of a computer science professor named Phil Agre.  The article, entitled "He predicted the dark side of the Internet 30 years ago. Why did no one listen?" reminded me of a post by Agre in 1994 after a meeting of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. Although it annoyed me at the time, a talk that I gave there triggered in him thoughts of gender issues;  as a women I was very much in the minority at the meeting,  but that was not the topic of my talk. But my talk also gave Agre thoughts about the missing humanity on the Web.

I had a couple of primary concerns, perhaps not perfectly laid out, in my talk, "Access, not Just Wires." I was concerned about what was driving the development of the Internet and the lack of a service ethos regarding society. Access at the time was talked about in terms of routers, modems, T-1 lines. There was no thought to organizing or preserving of online information. There was no concept of "equal access". There was no thought to how we would democratize the Web such that you didn't need a degree in computer science to find what you needed.

I was also very concerned about the commercialization of information. I was frustrated watching the hype as information was touted as the product of the information age. (This was before we learned that "you are the product, not the user" in this environment.) Seen from the tattered clothes and barefoot world of libraries, the money thrown at the jumble of un-curated and unorganized "information" on the web was heartbreaking. I said:

"It's clear to me that the information highway isn't much about information. It's about trying to find a new basis for our economy. I'm pretty sure I'm not going to like the way information is treated in that economy. We know what kind of information sells, and what doesn't. So I see our future as being a mix of highly expensive economic reports and cheap online versions of the National Inquirer. Not a pretty picture." - kcoyle in Access, not Just Wires

 Little did I know how bad it would get.

Like many or most people, Agre heard "libraries" and thought "female." But at least this caused him to think, earlier than many, about how our metaphors for the Internet were inherently gendered.

"Discussing her speech with another CPSR activist ... later that evening, I suddenly connected several things that had been bothering me about the language and practice of the Internet. The result was a partial answer to the difficult question, in what sense is the net "gendered"?" -  Agre, TNO, October 1994

This led Agre to think about how we spoke then about the Internet, which was mainly as an activity of "exploring." That metaphor is still alive with Microsoft's Internet Explorer, but was also the message behind the main Web browser software of the time, Netscape Navigator. He suddenly saw how "explore" was a highly gendered activity:

"Yet for many people, "exploring" is close to defining the experience of the net. It is clearly a gendered metaphor: it has historically been a male activity, and it comes down to us saturated with a long list of meanings related to things like colonial expansion, experiences of otherness, and scientific discovery. Explorers often die, and often fail, and the ones that do neither are heroes and role models. This whole complex of meanings and feelings and strivings is going to appeal to those who have been acculturated into a particular male-marked system of meanings, and it is not going to offer a great deal of meaning to anyone who has not. The use of prestigious artifacts like computers is inevitably tied up with the construction of personal identity, and "exploration" tools offer a great deal more traction in this process to historically male cultural norms than to female ones." - Agre, TNO, October 1994
He decried the lack of social relationships on the Internet, saying that although you know that other  people are there, you cannot see them. 

"Why does the space you "explore" in Gopher or Mosaic look empty even when it's full of other people?" - Agre, TNO, October 1994

None of us knew at the time that in the future some people would experience the Internet entirely and exclusively as full of other people in the forms of Facebook, Twitter and all of the other sites that grew out of the embryos of bulletin board systems, the Well, and AOL. We feared that the future Internet would  not have the even-handedness of libraries, but never anticipated that Russian bots and Qanon promoters would reign over what had once been a network for the exchange of scientific information.

It hurts now to read through Agre's post arguing for a more library-like online information system because it is pretty clear that we blew through that possibility even before the 1994 meeting and were already taking the first steps toward to where we are today.

Agre walked away from his position at UCLA in 2009 and has not resurfaced, although there have been reports at times (albeit not recently) that he is okay. Looking back, it should not surprise us that someone with so much hope for an online civil society should have become discouraged enough to leave it behind. Agre was hoping for reference services and an Internet populated with users with:

"...the skills of composing clear texts, reading with an awareness of different possible interpretations, recognizing and resolving conflicts, asking for help without feeling powerless, organizing people to get things done, and embracing the diversity of the backgrounds and experiences of others." - Agre, TNO, October 1994

 Oh, what world that would be!