Agnieszka Leszczynski: I recently read the conversation between Cary Wolfe and Donna Haraway that frames the re-issue of her two manifestos—one for cyborgs, one for companion species—in Manifestly Haraway (2016). This inspired me to approach you about having a conversation about your Cyborg Manifesto for GIS (Schuurman, 2002), published fifteen years ago in 2002. But I think that the moment for this conversation is also particularly ripe given recent organized efforts to “revisit” critical GIS in geography (Bergmann, Sullivan & Thatcher, forthcoming; Constructively Critical GIS, 2016; Speculative Critical GIS, 2016; Speculative Critical GIS). The outcome of these efforts is that we are instructed to “repeat” critical GIS, albeit “with a difference.” These injunctions to repeat critical GIS raise questions about what it is that we are being asked to repeat, at whose behest, what constitutes “difference” in these repetitions, and wherefore women and cyborg politics in these resuscitations of the critical GIS enterprise. Given the impetus behind your original Manifesto, how do you see a parallel revisiting of cyborg GIS as a means of articulating a feminist response to—and making an intervention in—these directives to revisit and repeat critical GIS?

Nadine Schuurman: “The cyborg is our ontology. It gives us our politics.” These are Haraway’s words. If we unpack them, we can get to: cyborgs don’t fall from the sky but are made; ontologies can be altered with a domino effect on politics. An injunction to revive a critical GIS that can be useful in the face of encroaching geosurveillance and other geo problems of the 21st century has to go back to Haraway’s fundamental truth that we created and can recreate the cyborg. If we can do so in a feminist image, then our very ontologies can be altered and the world (and politics) we exist in can be changed. There is a religious or—at the very least—deeply political overtone here about regeneration and regrowth.

AL: Or as Haraway would say, blasphemous! I remember reading your Manifesto for the first time as an undergraduate and it really was almost like a religious experience, a “come to Haraway” moment. It me see myself “in” GIScience. I think that this was part of your point at the time: you said that engaging GIS in both research and practice was an opportunity for feminists to shape both the technology and the disciplinary field, but that in order to do so, we first had to get women into GIScience. You identified that one of the obstacles to this was overcoming GIS’s public relations problem. For a few years there, I thought that we had moved past any notion that GIScience was somehow not for women, or that it was an exclusionary space. But now I’m not so sure. The rise of the spatial “brogrammers”[1]—and brogrammer academics, including those who identify with critical GIS— seems to be creating another PR problem all of its own. Do you see similar trends resonating?

NS: My undergraduate classes are my barometer and they very much male dominated. And, sure, there is a brogrammer culture in GIS. Ironically, I do not believe that the brogrammers themselves in GIScience or critical GIS have intention of creating or reinforcing that culture. Rather they simply live out their internal social programming to seek out guys just like them. Who doesn’t love to be with their own, to hear their idea reflected? To be with a group that sees the world with an inner eye that sights like your own? What comfort! But are we further ahead than 1984? Than 2002? Yes, but on the other hand, here we are having the same tired conversation. Plus ça change.

AL: Exactly—plus ca change. One of the things that I find striking about these recent efforts to revisit critical GIS is how male dominated they are compared to the critical GIS moment of the late 90s and early-mid aughts. If we look at the Revisiting Critical GIS workshop held in Friday Harbour (2014), six of the eight event organizers were male, and the two female organizers didn’t attend the workshop, which is telling in and of itself. Of 29 attendees, only five were women (Thatcher et al 2016). The groups of guest editors convening special issues on the topic are exclusively male (Bergmann, Sullivan & Thatcher, forthcoming). I think that part of this relates to there being something about these efforts that is about resuscitating­­ privilege by reconstructing critical GIS as a secure foundation from which to claim a critical positionality and epistemology. In your Manifesto for GIS, you write that one of Haraway’s key messages was that “one does not need epistemological unity” in this manner in order “to become more powerful”; “[i]nstead, one needs to recognize that the lines of power are shifting” (Schuurman, 2002: 261). So wherefore women in these efforts to revisit critical GIS? Is it the ways in which our being always-already on alert for shifts in the “lines of power” has made us (feminists) aware that GIScience/technoscience is once again in the process of being radically reconfigured, signalling to us that rather than devising how to repeat critical GIS, it is more important to build to new horizons? Is it that we are simply averse to attempts to control the conversation about how to be critical, where we (women) are merely ‘added and stirred’ only after the terms of discourse have been set? Or, is it that we don’t see ourselves represented in these reconstructions of critical GIS, for to do so would be to bemoan a loss of privilege that we never had in the first place? Do we—and more importantly, should we—still have any skin in this game?

NS: Or it is that we didn’t feel comfortable in that milieu? Which is much simpler. That tiny problem does not contradict the reality that critical GIScience and the technological scaffolding of our lives is being reconfigured. And it strengthens the push for us as feminists and all female cyborgs to engage.

The key ingredient here is participation. And that is profoundly lacking. Girls in technoscience are still very much a minority. We are struggling against culture and misogyny, but not biology. It is not as Lawrence Summers and others have argued that girls simply are not down for math and science? I am not arguing that this is true but stating what has been said as was “common knowledge” for millenia. Don’t shoot me—I’m just the messenger.

Seriously, I believe that young men are encouraged to be good at math and science and young women (and girls) are supported in their efforts to be “social” with everything that that entails. When girls who excel in STEM are interviewed, they frequently refer to their parents or grandparents tutoring them in math, talking about science etc. during their childhood.

Why are so many doctors (male and female) children of doctors? Because medicine, science and key concepts to their future training were discussed and emphasized during their childhood. DNA is not destiny as Steven Heine writes. Nor are culture and training but they are dammed important.

We need to be talking about how to change the culture of science (and GIScience) and it starts with culture. This is unpleasant territory to explore because it is not about women and men as they arrive at university but about the metier in which they are shaped. Big undertaking.

We also know that in the broader culture of programming, brogrammer culture is also very unwelcoming to girls and young women. In fact, many have argued that it is downright hostile. An interesting twist because just as “equality” between men and women is increasingly mandated legally and socially, the spaces of power (isn’t technoscience the home of modern corporate and now political power?) continue to exclude women.

We talk about participation as if it is voluntary but it is profoundly constrained. Very few of us can remain, let alone thrive, in a hostile environment.

AL: In his introduction to Manifestly Haraway, Cary Wolfe (2016) writes that the Cyborg Manifesto was “very much a product of its moment, and that is as it should be, for cyborgs… have no truck with timelessness” (Haraway and Wolfe, 2016: ix). In some ways, I think that this statement could also hold true for critical GIS—it too is of its time. You and I have talked about this before, voicing between ourselves the urgency of developing the necessary conceptual tools and theoretical frameworks to allow us to more effectively apprehend and intervene in the sweeping shifts signalled by the unprecedented pervasiveness of location data and technologies in the spaces and practices of everyday life. Cyborgs may not be immortal, but as you astutely note in your Cyborg Manifesto for GIS, Haraway’s cyborg is also a metaphor for a different way of doing politics. Do you think that it can still inform “where to move, how to move now” (Haraway and Wolfe, 2016: 202)? In other words, does the cyborg still have truck with a feminist politics for GIScience?

NS: The cyborg has truck, sister! Truck with time, truck with feminist politics. It is potentially a steamroller but implementation is stalled at the present moment. Asking if the cyborg has lost relevance is like asking if gravity is no longer applicable. As long as we interact with technology, we are cyborgs and the manifesto articulated by Haraway remains profound. Sisters are doing it for themselves is the name of the game.

AL: Cary Wolfe reminds us that the root of Manifesto is “manifest”—as in “to make …evident to the eye or understanding” (Haraway and Wolfe, 2016: xii). What do you think needs to be made manifest in these present calls to “repeat” critical GIS?

NS: I am not sure that I buy that interpretation of Manifesto. I rather think that DH used it as a play on “The Communist Manifesto” which was a statement of core principles. Let’s seize instead on “the word made flesh.” This was an interesting reference because—although it is rooted in religious and spiritual writing—it applies beautifully to the “cyborg problem” in Geography and the world.

To answer your question: we need to start not with the science, but with a fundamental examination of the culture of the cyborg in GIS. Which rests on the notion that we are first and foremost social creatures. We should be more closely examining the culture of GIS, not the science. Algorithms are artifacts of a culture.

Indeed, computing science scholars are increasingly recognizing that AI is not inherently biased. Rather, as Joanna Bryson notes, we are prejudiced and AI learns our biases (Devlin, 2017). In her book, Weapons of Math Destruction (2016), Cathy O’Neil methodically reveals the bias and exclusions contained in algorithmic analysis of big data. All the normal losers. Life doesn’t imitate technology, technology imitates life.

If we could accept that the social life of techno-science must be altered in order to ensure diversity and equality, for the cyborg manifesto to be enacted, then we would be on the journey to make manifest a new social and political order. This requires diverse tools of art, humanities, and social science (and preferably not post-structuralist theory). Ironically those tools are often denigrated by scientists. The problem encapsulated.

I find it slightly offensive that when we use the tools of art, social science, or psychology to study or represent something, it seems to have less social value than if we use tools of science and technology. But there it is. Algorithms are actually “the world made flesh.”

AL: I think you’re right that Haraway’s Manifesto wasn’t so much about rendering visible but, as you say, about making manifest a new world order. But this notion of Manifesto as rendering apparent does makes me reflect on things that I notice are happening in the critical GIScience space broadly defined, if we’re still talking about it as such. Crystallizing all-male co-authorship cabals. A resuscitation of white men as “canonical” critical spatial theorists. Proclamations that “there are no women working in digital cartography” tendered as an explanation for why a two-part AAG session had only one woman amongst eight presenters and discussants (Historicizing Big Data & Geo-Information I & II, 2015). And, a glaring dearth of citation to work by women in the field. On the basis of my cursory examination of a selective sample of papers, even where as co-authors, women are being cited at rates as low as 5%, but averaging closer to a rate of ~15%. This is where I think we do have immediate skin in the game, because this has material consequences for career progression (for early-career women such as myself), and also for our very ability to “be cyborg”—i.e., to shape the discourse. Are we being shut out, not even part of the conversation to begin with? What are the alternatives to these discursive exclusions? What would a cyborg do? Or, do we need a different metaphor—and how does it open up new possibilities for feminist GIScience?

NS: Culture is transparent to those enmeshed in it. Guys who cite each other, hire each other etc. are often self-declared feminists. And as I said above, they are not aware of the mechanisms through which they invisibly strengthen of bonds between each other.

What can we do? Keep teaching undergraduates that the goals of feminism have not been achieved. Invite them to take up the mantle. Cite each other. Talk about our culture, make it more transparent. All the while “leaning in” as Sheryl Sandberg advised. Lean in, not only for ourselves, but for our sister cyborgs. Let’s do it for each other.

 

Notes

[1] ‘Brogrammer’ is a portmanteau of ‘bro’ (heteronormative masculinist youth culture) and programmer. It signals the elevated social status of programming/coding as a mainstream male activity, which used to be associated with peripheral ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ culture.

References

Bergmann L, O’Sullivan D and Thatcher J (Eds) (2018; forthcoming) Speculative and Constructively Critical GIS. The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe canadien 62(1) (special issue).

Constructively Critical GIS (2016) American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting, San Francisco, 29 March – 02 April.

Devlin H (2017) AI Programs Exhibit Racist and Sexist Biases, Research Reveals. The Guardian, 13 April.

Haraway DJ and Wolfe C (2016) Manifestly Haraway. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Historicizing Big Data & Geo-Information I & II, American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting 2015, San Francisco, 21-25 April. Organized by Belcher O.

O’Neil C (2016) Weapons of Math Destruction. New York: Random House.

Schuurman N (2002) Women and technology in geography: a cyborg manifesto for GIS. The Canadian Geographer 46(3): 258-265.

Speculative Critical GIS (2016) American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting, San Francisco, 29 March – 02 April.

Thatcher J, Bergmann L, Ricker B, Rose-Redwood R, O’Sullivan D, Barnes TJ, Barnesmoore LR, Imaoka-Beltz L, Burns R, Cinnamon J, Dalton CM, Davis C, Harvey F, Jung J-K, Kersten E, Knigge L, Lally N, Lin W, Mahmoudi D, Martin M, Payne W, Sheikh A, Shelton T, Sheppard E, Strother CW, Tarr A, Wilson MW and Young JC. Revisiting critcal GIS. Environment and Planning A 48(5): 815–824.

 

 


Agnieszka Leszczynski is a Lecturer in GIScience in the School of Environment at the University of Auckland. Her current work looks at geolocation as a source of value and social disruption in the platform economy. Nadine Schuurman was her graduate advisor.

Nadine Schuurman is a Professor of Geography at Simon Fraser University where she works mostly at the intersection of health and GIS. This was one of her somewhat frequent forays into critical GIScience.


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