Wendy Chun - Engineering, Networks, and Social Justice Across Disciplines

Moya Bailey 0:02
ICA presents. Hello and welcome to the Digital Alchemy podcast, a production of the ICA Podcast Network. My name is Moya Bailey. I am an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University and the founder of the Digital Apothecary Lab. For this episode, I've invited Dr. Wendy Chun to join me in discussing what Digital Alchemy is, and we will talk about its influence on her journey in the academic world, specifically in the humanities. A content warning before we get started. This episode contains mentions of a mass shooting and gender-based violence.

Thank you so much, Dr. Chun, for taking the time to talk to me. Your theoretical and critical approach to digital media draws on your training in both system design, engineering, and English literature. Dr. Chun is a member of the directorial team of the Digital Democracies Institute, which is made up of a collective of people involved with the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. She's the author of several books, including Discriminating Data: Correlation, Neighborhoods, and the New Politics of Recognition, as well as a trilogy that includes Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media, Programmed Visions: Software and Memory, and Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics. Thank you so much, Dr. Chun, for taking the time to be with us today.

Wendy Chun 1:50
I'm thrilled to be here with you, Dr. Bailey.

Moya Bailey 1:53
Thank you. So I wanted to start a bit with your background, because I think it's so important in terms of how you do this interdisciplinary work, what seems to me to be very effortlessly. But can you say a bit about what it was that happened, that moment that you talk about at the beginning of Discriminating Data, where you were thinking about mechanical engineering, and then moving into English?

Wendy Chun 2:23
So when I was an undergraduate at the University of Waterloo in December of 1989, the Montreal Massacre happened. And I'm not sure how many listeners know about it. In December of 1989, a man walked into an engineering classroom with a gun. He separated the men and the women, and he started shooting the women. I heard about the massacre the day after, when I was sitting down to write my physical systems exam. And I remember the boys behind me saying, "Oh, did you hear about the women who were killed in Montreal in the engineering classroom?" For me, it was just incomprehensible. I didn't think that could happen, so I told them to shut up and had to write the exam. And then when I realized that it happened, I was thrown for a loop, because even though from the outside, it's clear that the world of engineering is very male-dominated, misogynist, et cetera, when you're in it, it's hard to see it if only because you're so invested in this idea of being a class together. And so I was actively always trying to unsee the violence and discrimination around me. And then when it was so clear, I didn't have the tools to address what I was actually living through. And so I turned to the humanities, in part because I viewed, initially, the humanities as an escape. I had always wanted to do English and engineering. And I felt as though this could happen to me, so I should do this now. And as I went into the humanities, in particular, critical theory, and I was drawn by the parallels between complex systems theory and literary theory, a lot of things became clear. One, is that the humanities was no escape–

Moya Bailey 4:14
Not at all.

Wendy Chun 4:15
–for discrimination. I was completely naive. Going to Waterloo from Princeton is– unfortunately, it’s a way of learning about discrimination, but not perhaps the way I had meant to. And secondly, that the issue was how to fight. And what the humanities gave me was a way of engaging, and seeing, and addressing the world, those parts of the humanities that were already invested in taking on these issues. And so from there, I thought through, okay, there's something called control in engineering. My background was in control systems. And there's something called control in how people imagine information technology to work, or the “control society.” And those two don't line up, and neither does freedom or information. And so I started trying to understand both what made these parallels seem plausible and why they weren't, and through that, trying to understand the ways in which so many disciplines and systems of thought were already speaking to each other and mistranslating ideas in really fruitful ways. And so that started me off. And then increasingly, as I studied digital media more and more, it became clear that engaging engineering again was important to take on some of the issues that we were facing.

Moya Bailey 5:35
I think that's so important, and it has me thinking about just what different disciplines actually offer in terms of the tools and skills needed to do the research that we want to do. Do you have any thoughts about programs as they really battle curriculum and think about what is helpful for their students? Do you think that giving engineering students opportunities to engage the humanities through their coursework is useful? Or what do you think are some of the best ways to do that bridging, in terms of the skills people need to be the scholars we want?

Wendy Chun 6:12
I think it's important to have that opening so that students do take courses in other disciplines, that engineering students take courses in the humanities, as well as humanities students and social science students take physics, take statistics. Because I think that the more we engage with each other's fundamental questions, the more excited we get both about our disciplines and their discipline. And so I think having that opportunity is important. What I also think should happen is a lot more jointly offered courses, because I think that so many of us across disciplines are taking on the same fundamental issue. We could have a course on correlation. We could have someone from statistics, somebody from the social sciences, someone who focuses on psychoanalysis, all teaching this course together and trying to understand what is correlation, and how can we understand what that both opens up and closes down?

Moya Bailey 7:09
I think that's such a wonderful idea. And I'm wondering, do you see opportunities for that kind of co-teaching available at your institution, and through the work that you're doing in your lab? Are there opportunities for faculty to start doing that work?

Wendy Chun 7:27
The institute here is research-focused, so we have that opportunity for students who are working on research projects. But we don't have that at the level of teaching. And I do think that having that opportunity would be so key.

Moya Bailey 7:43
Completely, completely. And I do think that student researchers have really been some of the people who have been pushing this because they themselves are finding their experience limited by their particular discipline. And I see them reaching out across these barriers of schools and program in terms of the courses and research opportunities that they pursue.

Wendy Chun 8:08
When I taught at Brown, I taught a course called “Digital Media” that was a large lecture course, drew students from across disciplines from engineering to arts. And at the end, there would always be a certain group of graduating CS majors. And they would be intrigued by the topic, really invested in it. And they were terrified because they were about to go into Silicon Valley, and they were wondering, how could they hold on to their political and critical commitment going forward? And I think that one course isn't going to do it. But I do think if the university had a way of supporting these students, both through and after, that would make such a huge difference.

Moya Bailey 8:48
Oh, such a good point. I had the privilege of having Dr. Chun come to my class, and one of the things you said there was that as a Canadian professor, you have the opportunity, responsibility to also be involved in policymaking. How are you thinking about that role and the importance of being involved at the policy level in sort of changing the way that we do and imagine even business– what these tech industries are accountable to at the level of the government?

Wendy Chun 9:23
It certainly threw me for a loop, initially. I'm like, okay, so here I am. Here I am on a committee, led by the person who was once the chief justice of Canada and we have academics, and we have journalists, and we're going to sit here and think about what we need to do. And I have actually found that experience both daunting and wonderful, because you also see the efficacy of structures that you've been critiquing. You want to hit that sweet spot, where you speak to why certain structures should be in place, but also talk about how and why they should change. And some of it is finding that vocabulary to speak to other people. But what I find so amazing about the policy work I've done in Canada is that it's filled with respect. And the respect that we have for everybody in the room, no matter where they come from, and what their background is, and how they speak, I think is fundamental to something like this.

Moya Bailey 10:22
Absolutely. I think that speaks to something that also came up in the class, that students are feeling a little overwhelmed and a little sad. And that's such a heartening example of how people across different differences can come together and actually get to this place of respect. Do you think there's something specific about the Canadian context that makes that respect possible?

Wendy Chun 10:48
Well, Canada is a really strange place. It's also like the heartland of passive aggressiveness. You go from Canada to the US, and you're like, whoa, they just say what they think. And that's actually refreshing. And then when I moved back to Canada, I was like, oh yeah, I'd forgotten that. And I didn't have any naive dreams about Canada. I grew up in a neighborhood that was extremely racist. I had no ideas that Canada was somehow free of racism because it had embraced multiculturalism. And if anything, I would say that the racism in Canada has gotten worse. But what had always been important to me about Canada is the fundamental belief in equality, that there is a very good public educational system. In fact, there are no private universities. It has really good healthcare. And there's a sense that no matter what the differences are, we have to rely on each other. It has a colonial history. It's starting to deal with the whole atrocities and continuing discrimination against Indigenous peoples and trying to understand what it means not to simply be multicultural, but intranational, dealing with different nations. And these nations hold a lot of the natural resources. So I think that the respect that I find is a respect across differences, an idea that this only works if we try to respect each other, even when and if it fails.

Moya Bailey 12:18
I love that. That's a model for what could happen. Your words also have me thinking about the title of this podcast, which is Digital Alchemy. And Digital Alchemy is something I started thinking about when I was writing my dissertation. And when I talk about Digital Alchemy, I'm thinking about the ways that women of color, Black women in particular, transform everyday digital media into valuable social justice media that recodes the field scripts that negatively impact their lives. Digital Alchemy can shift our attention from negative stereotypes in digital culture to the redefinition of representations that provide another way of viewing our worlds. And I wonder if you see Digital Alchemy as something that is shaping the work that you do. Do you see it in the context of these, the respect and I think the reimagining that is happening at the policy level that you've been involved with?

Wendy Chun 13:20
When I think of Digital Alchemy, I think of your work. I think that, Dr. Bailey, you've inspired so many of us through your ways of engaging and thinking through things. So I had the privilege of being on an MLA panel with you in January. And the talk that you gave, in terms of rethinking our relationship to machines, in terms of what would this utopia– but that's not a utopia, because it's tangible, it's alchemical– look like was profoundly inspiring. I think that there is a body of work by so many people who have been trying to understand Digital Alchemy within a history of alchemical moves. I would have to say African American studies and Black studies, as well as Indigenous studies has been at the forefront of this, because it's the idea that what one lives with has to be alchemical in order for it to be something else. I think of Kara Keeling’s work here. I also think of Leanne Simpson’s work. I think of N.K. Jemisin. I think there are so many people who are trying to understand that when we hear something, we think that we're hearing a signal. I think I'm hearing your voice. But what we're actually hearing is so much more. And we filter out this noise in order to concentrate on what we think the signal is. But the noise is what's rich. And the noise is precisely where these other worlds already exist.

Moya Bailey 14:50
I love that. I think that connects to your own work, to bring it in, thinking about the gap and not the node, and not the network, but the gaps. I wonder if you could say a little bit about that, and how that might also inform your own sense of other worlds and other possibilities.

Wendy Chun 15:10
For the longest time, when I was thinking through networks, I was thinking that the network isn't the node and the connection, which is what you see on a graph, but it's actually that space. If you didn't have that space, you wouldn't have a network. You would just have a blob. And so if we think about everything that needs to be emptied out in order for these connections to emerge, a very different idea of networks emerges. And I think that what's so key about that, and what I've been trying to think through more and more, is that these spaces are spaces of indifference. They contain difference, their indifference. But also, they’re forms of infrastructure that enable a caring kind of indifference. I talk in the book about the housing study, which was key to the rise of homophily. And it was a biracial housing community. It was segregated within itself, either by building, or in one building, by floor. And it was studied in order to understand the impact of tenant morale on democratization and positive forms of social engineering. Long story short, they focused on the reaction of white residents, and friendship patterns of White residents in terms of three closest friends, irregardless of where they lived, whether or not they lived in the housing project, and their attitudes to living in biracial housing. Should it exist, and did they think it should exist? So what was important is that in order to come up with the term homophily, they took out all the responses of the Black residents. They actually took out the responses of the White ambivalents, which would be the largest category. But without the Black residents, the network of friendship would never have emerged, because the questions were all around the presence of the Black residents who were there. These gaps were people, they’re populated by them. What's interesting is you go back to the archive, in the interviews, the Black residents make it very clear that they are for biracial housing, and thus called liberals, not because of a bizarre notion of liberalism, but rather because they were being offered equal housing for the first time. And they said that these are the conditions under which we finally get good housing. And my attitude towards my White neighbors is one of indifference. You're here, that's fine. And this is how we're going to live together.

Moya Bailey 17:39
The last thing I wanted to ask you is what is giving you hope? In this context, what are the things that are actually providing you with a sense of, there is more possibility? And I love that you start the book talking a little bit about science fiction. That's another way that I find kindreds in our disciplines. You know, there's a way that sci-fi always seems to factor in. And I'm curious about sci-fi or other places where you feel like you see and feel a sense of joy.

Wendy Chun 18:15
I think that moving to Canada was, for me, a move based on I needed hope. I was very lucky to be at Brown. I had a wonderful teaching experience. It was the Department of Modern Culture and Media. It couldn't have been better for what I was doing. But it became painfully clear to me over time that if I was doing well, it was at the expense of somebody else. And so for me, it became important to live somewhere else, where I could look somebody in the eye and say, “Okay, you have health insurance, I have health insurance. We have a commitment to public education.” And for me, that was key to retaining hope that something could change. And that was just something that had weighed on me more and more as I was living in the United States. I don't think everyone should leave the United States. Some of my closest friends are there, and they're fighting the fight. They're doing things. But for me, I couldn't do that anymore. And so I think for me, living somewhere where you have more of a sense of equality is something that is driving this last part of my career and making this move towards interdisciplinarity, towards trying to come up with different ways of thinking about things and different solutions possible.

Moya Bailey 19:29
Thank you so much, Dr. Chun. That was fantastic. And thank you all for listening to another episode of Digital Alchemy.

Digital Alchemy is a production of the International Communication Association Podcast
Network. This series is sponsored by the School of Communication at Northwestern University. Our producer is Kate In. Our executive producer is DeVante Brown. The theme music is by Matt Oakley. Please check the show notes in the episode description to learn more about me, my guest, and Digital Alchemy overall. Thanks for listening.

Wendy Chun - Engineering, Networks, and Social Justice Across Disciplines
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