Dirty computers – On the sociocultural implications of the computational

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School of Arts, Design and Architecture | Master's thesis
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Master's Programme in New Media
160 + 20
Recent critique of algorithmic decision-making stands in conflict with the common notion that computer technology would be a neutral carrier material without own agency. Often times, the cure to biased digital systems is seen in teaching minorities and women how to code, hoping that their presence in the professional field of computer science alone would mean the end of biased technology. However, such approaches are not tackling the underlying presuppositions baked into digital technologies. The starting point of this thesis is the finding that computer technology (like all technologies) is never merely a technical solution to a posed problem, but always an assemblage of social, political, cultural and technical aspects. The text aims to contribute to the sociocultural analysis of computational technology and examine the sociotechnical digital infrastructures that determine everyday life as much as the overall organization of society. I seek to lay bare some of the underlying assumptions of binary code, programming languages, the internet, network science and algorithmic software and show that in many cases, the sociopolitical implications of these components of digital infrastructure are historically inscribed. The first part of the thesis is therefore dedicated both to the history of the computational, from binary code over computers to the internet, and to the history of theoretical discourses formulating critique towards it, beginning with 1990s cyberfeminism and eventually leading to critical code studies. The second part illustrates the sociocultural origins and impacts of specific parts of computational technology, condensed into ten images that each contemplate one particular scene of negotiation. The images center around binary code, algorithmic categorization, body politics, labor and care divisions and the role of language in the digital realm. Combining critical thinking from the fields of queer, feminist, postcolonial and posthuman theory with code and media studies, I read media artefacts and digital technologies through the lens of critical code studies. In the same way the text questions unambiguous categorization and binary thinking as two main features of the computational, it aspires to also liquidate the boundaries of academic writing and artistic practice. Hence, narrative bits of text are woven into supposedly academic segments, implementing ideas from artistic research methodology. In the end, this thesis claims that in order to imagine new, emancipatory usages of digital technology, we need to politicize and denormalize the computational and look behind the technologyness of technology. Dreaming of radical networks of care, I insist that a livable future for all will require a change of direction in how we approach digital media technology and infrastructures.
Díaz-Kommonen, Lily
Thesis advisor
Peters, Kathrin
critical code studies, feminist technology studies, internet history, computer history, media archaeology, machine-learning, programming languages, queer studies
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