The Fabric of Interface: Mobile Media, Design, and Gender

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Mobile touchscreen media have become integral to everyday life, producing new modes of human interaction and engagement. In The Fabric of Interface, Stephen Monteiro argues that these draw heavily on gendered forms and practices often derived from
  PROPERTY OF THE MIT PRESSFOR PROOFREADING, INDEXING, AND PROMOTIONAL PURPOSES ONLY  InIn Introduction Contemporary digital media appear to have little in common with those of only a generation ago. In addition to transformations in their content, infrastructure, and application, our interactions and physical engagement with the digital media object have changed fundamentally. Encounters with digital networks and media frequently occur through handheld, elec-tronic devices that accompany us through the day, carried in our back pocket or handbag. We turn and tilt these small plastic or metal frames with our hands and arms. We stroke and tap their glass screens with our fin-gertips. Through these physical interactions with the object and its surface, we make things: images, links, sites, networks. Our ability to effectively and efficiently identify patterns and build connections in this bodily per-formance, to bind the material of networked digital culture in new ways—whether it be in a game or on a social media platform—may earn us money, points, credit, followers, or some other desired quantitative reward.Digital media’s most unassuming components and operations are not self-evident or neutral entities, but cultural artifacts forged from long-standing social and ideological forces. As manual dexterity, patternmaking, and linking have risen to the forefront of everyday digital practice, our media interactions have taken on traits common to textile and needlec-raft culture. Our smartphones and tablets share much with the handloom, the needlepoint hoop, and the lap-sized quilting frame. Each of these rep-resents a portable platform, upon which one can create patterns, images, and other potentially meaningful visual configurations. Historically, looms, hoops, and quilting frames have been tools of the home, but they also have served as a means for greater social interaction, as with the communal func-tions of pattern sharing, fabric exchange, and quilting bees. Likewise, with the advent of the networked platforms for personal data and information 10633_000z.indd 15/22/2017 3:13:40 PM  PROPERTY OF THE MIT PRESSFOR PROOFREADING, INDEXING, AND PROMOTIONAL PURPOSES ONLY  2 Introduction sharing known collectively as social media, our portable electronics have become tools for a variety of interactions with others through the digital material that we access and its relation to our everyday circulation through the social sphere.How may a handheld screen function like a loom, visual data function like swatches of fabric, and tactile interfaces function like needlework? What can such affinities tell us about communicative technology’s adapta-tion of popular cultural codes? How does this create new ways of thinking about digital media’s relationship to labor, identity, space, and the senses? Such questions frame the perspective and scope of The Fabric of Interface . Through its sustained exploration of weaving, fabric manipulation, and needlecraft as fundamental to historical and contemporary digital frame-works and interfaces, this book identifies important connections between contemporary networked media and practices often construed as alien to media technologies. It contends that social distinctions and gender divi-sions are reflected not only in what is made and circulated on digital devices and networks—as has been argued elsewhere 1 —but also through the imma-terial and material forms, structures, and requirements of these devices and networks as they play out in electronic and physical actions and exchanges.In their study of digital interaction design, Jay Bolter and Diane Gromala assert: “If we only look through  the interface, we cannot appreciate the ways it shapes our experience. … If we cannot also step back and see the inter-face as a technical creation, then we are missing half of the experience that new digital media can offer.” 2  Stepping back to examine the correlation of digital and textile performativity in haptic and visual interface is significant for two reasons, both of which have consequences far beyond digital inter-activity. First, it brings to the surface elements of computing’s historical dependency on textile design, its production methods, and its labor mod-els. This story is buried in computing’s material past and scattered across its global sites of hard- and software manufacture and assembly, where women regularly have been responsible for the manual labor of weaving memory, threading hardwired programs, and integrating circuits. Second, the reification of this relationship in contemporary interface design and user practices raises vital questions about the relationship between gender and bodily interface in mobile media at a moment when such technolo-gies would seem to transcend the issue. When considering ways an iPhone might be gendered, for example, one may be prone to begin and end with 10633_000z.indd 25/22/2017 3:13:40 PM  PROPERTY OF THE MIT PRESSFOR PROOFREADING, INDEXING, AND PROMOTIONAL PURPOSES ONLY  Introduction 3 obvious marketing maneuvers such as the introduction of a pink (or “rose gold,” according to Apple) back cover. “Are you man enough for a pink iPhone 6s?”  Esquire  asked its readers when the cover was introduced, refer-ring to the result as a “powder-puff smartphone.” 3  Yet such overt gestures toward the most conventional methods of coding gender in the everyday imply that these devices and their functionality are otherwise gender-neu-tral platforms upon which such codes may be added. In fact, the availability of colored covers or the production and use of deliberately gender-specific apps or language represent diversions that effectively obscure far more per-vasive, but less easily identifiable, gendered characteristics of mobile media.The look, feel, and function of contemporary media devices and their supporting software derive from deep-seated patterns of cultural practice, social structuring, and technological hierarchizing. This reflects Lisa Gitel-man’s contention that media are “muddy” entities requiring consideration of how they are formed through social protocol as much as how they func-tion technologically. “Media include a vast clutter of normative rules and default conditions, which gather and adhere like a nebulous array around a technological nucleus,” she states. 4  The approach of this book differs from Gitelman’s, however, in its emphasis of the technological nucleus itself as constructed from normative rules and default conditions. In other words, socially constructed rules and conditions not only form around a technol-ogy, but also contribute significantly to that technology’s formation in the first place. Any medium, any technology, is already muddy when it comes out of the box.This book explores the muddy roots of networked digital media’s forms and practices in emphasizing their historical, cultural, and aesthetic depen-dency on gendered embodiment and labor forms. Making the link between sewing, weaving, and quilting and contemporary technologies gives access to new ways of conceptualizing hardware and software design, sensorial experience, and personal networked media practice. It contributes to an alternative historical narrative of digital interactivity—one centered on the relationship between gender and interface aesthetics. Recent changes in the screen as an interactive object and tool represent a critical turn-ing point in this story, producing new physical and ideological relation-ships between user, device, and digital production. Any consideration of the material design and functioning of media—in this case, the hardware of portable touchscreens and wearables and the software that guides and 10633_000z.indd 35/22/2017 3:13:40 PM  PROPERTY OF THE MIT PRESSFOR PROOFREADING, INDEXING, AND PROMOTIONAL PURPOSES ONLY  4 Introduction brings meaning to our actions upon them—must be informed by these long-established gendered discourses of social differentiation and power imbalance that they reify and sustain. 5 Producing such an alternative narrative sharpens our understanding of the ways contemporary digital media may represent new modes of social production and interaction, and in what ways they merely adapt and redeploy modes already embedded in the history of computing and digital communication. Specifically, this narrative challenges the perceived breaks between industrial (or commercial) computing and personal com-puting in the closing decades of the twentieth century, and personal com-puting and social media in the opening decades of this century. Bridging these shifts is digital culture’s continued reliance on textile and needlecraft practices, techniques, and methods drawn from spheres alternately labeled as feminine, private, and domestic. In this way, qualities of intimacy and engagement seen as novel to today’s touchscreen media devices are in fact attributes already present in earlier conditions of digital production, where manual gestures common to home handicrafts played a fundamental role in the manufacture of mainframes.In attempting to uncover the little-explored material, ideological, and social links between networked, mobile media practices and textile and handicraft culture, however, it is important to recognize clues that have long hovered near the surface. In particular, metaphors of textile and craft permeate the history of computing and communication networks. We do not have to reflect long before they spring to mind. Software developers and engineers “weave” code that includes “threads,” such as bulk calls, to subroutines and threads of execution. Internet administrators and users “weave” the “web” with “threaded” discussions and by “linking” (a term for joining knitted fabrics). Data structures—from lists to trees—can be “zip-pered,” and when files are compressed and uncompressed they are “zipped” and “unzipped.” Problems in existing programs and their underlying soft-ware code are repaired with “patches” made from additional code. Digital images are “stitched” together or “quilted” by image-editing programs to produce larger images, such as landscape panoramas and game environ-ments. All of this material is guided through the distributed network of the Internet via nodes of gridded circuits known as switch “fabrics.” 6  The prevalence of textile metaphors conceptually marks digital practices in ways that distance them from other crafts. Although links might be drawn 10633_000z.indd 45/22/2017 3:13:40 PM  PROPERTY OF THE MIT PRESSFOR PROOFREADING, INDEXING, AND PROMOTIONAL PURPOSES ONLY  Introduction 5 to scrapbooking, modeling, or other methods of object making, the imagi-nary of computing (from its earliest history, as we shall see) is fashioned from processes surrounding the making and assembling of cloth. 7  Despite the presence of so many examples of the language of textile crafts in dis-cussions of computing and digital media, however, they rarely have been treated as emblematic of deeper connections between digital communica-tions and what has been called “homecraft” or “women’s work.”Apart from these linguistic clues, contemporary digital media’s intersec-tions with textiles and crafts may be most evident in the success of online crafting communities and marketplaces. Jack Bratich and Heidi Brush, two scholars who consider this trend, identify a convergence of craft and digital culture that they call “fabriculture.” These observations are noteworthy and valuable, pointing to the way very old and very new media have harmo-nized and contributed to each other. 8  Another pair of scholars, Stella Mina-han and Julie Wolfram Cox, adopt the term “Stitch’nBitch” to identify this trend, a name that emphasizes the relationship between collective needle-craft and interpersonal communication through and around digital net-works. “ Stitch’nBitch  may be an example of a new way of connecting that is based on material production using traditional craft skills and yarns as well as the optical fibre and twisted pair cable used for telecommunications,” they explain, representing “a local and global phenomenon in which pro-duction and consumption of gender, technology and society collide.” 9  In addition to traditional forms of meeting to assemble textiles, virtual bees have sprung up, in which a quilter will send other members of the bee her fabric choices and suggestions for styling the block. Members will then sew the pieces into blocks and return them to her for final assembly. 10  Bratich mentions “peer to peer textiling” as a way to describe an evolving craft culture that combines online and off-line group communication, meetings, and exchanges of information. 11  While online marketplaces specializing in such handmade objects, including Etsy and Cargoh, also have thrived, digital networks have been the place to organize and promote craftivism, which seeks to expose and confront social injustice and inequality through craft. 12  Kirsty Robertson has argued, however, that craftivism’s dependence on these global networks for organization and promotion may undermine the power of its anti-neoliberal message. 13 Conversely, the design and operation of digital devices, interfaces, and networks have informed the aesthetics of crafts and hand production--from 10633_000z.indd 55/22/2017 3:13:40 PM
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