Amy E. Slaton
is a Professor of History in the Department of History at Drexel University. For more information on her scholarship and research, see the “About” page or download her CV. For information on her teaching, please visit her official university Web page. She is also co-Editor-in-Chief, with Tiago Saraiva, of the international quarterly journal, History+Technology.
Race, Rigor, and Selectivity is now available from Harvard University Press.
Now airing on BBC Two, Series 2 of “The Big Life Fix” in which “The UK’s leading inventors create ingenious new solutions to everyday problems and build life-changing solutions for people in desperate need.”
As a historian of science and engineering interested in equity, I’ve been watching the BBC program, “The Big Life Fix” with a steadily growing number of questions. The program, now in its second series on BBC2, features a team of British scientists and engineers (pictured above) who weekly devise means to facilitate the mobility, safety, employment, or other experiences of disabled people. In each episode, three different disabled people are visited by materials experts or industrial designers who ultimately provide them with innovative means of transport, recreation, physical security, self-expression, or work. The extensive resources of university labs, hospitals, materials suppliers and service organizations support the experts’ efforts and in Series 1 and the first episode of Series 2, at least, the outcomes are universally successful: A disabled snowboarder experiences his sport for the first time since an accident dramatically reduced his muscle control; an aspiring hairstylist whose hand has limited ability to grip conventional combs and scissors receives a collection of custom-designed styling tools; a young photographer who cannot grasp conventional equipment receives a camera well fitted to his precise sort of dexterity; and so on as children and adults with a wide range of physical disabilities encounter the team.
The twitterverse has found the series to be “awe-inspiring” and “lip-wobbling.” But despite some maudlin PR language (see the BBC-supplied caption above), the show’s actual portrayal of disabled people’s physicalities doesn’t obviously pivot on pathos in the way of, say, footage used in the old Jerry Lewis Telethons or newer Paralympics promotions. Though one was pitying and the other is routinely venerating, those narratives have objectified disabled bodies by casting them as either needing fixing or fixed (ascriptions to which Eli Clare and other disabilities scholars would lend equivalence, of course). Here by contrast the tech experts remain meticulously attentive to their clients’ voices as they go about their design work. In other words, what requires repair or constitutes an improvement is never determined by the experts alone. But what might disabilities activists and critical scholars say about this project of bringing the bespoke products of tech ingenuity to disabled users? Besides offering viewers an intriguing opportunity to watch designers and engineers solve complex technical problems, demystifying the steps involved in the design process if not (tellingly) the nature of design genius itself, why make and broadcast such a program? Why watch it? What is “The Big Life Fix” fixing, exactly?
I’m wondering about the show’s potential to change perceptions and wider experiences of disability with its uplifting recipe of technical ingenuity and good intentions. Possibly, in bringing mechanical and material innovations to the needs expressed by some disabled people, and with a concertedly dialogic approach to defining those needs, “The Big Life Fix” is doing enough. After all, foregrounding the complex, indeterminate character of bodies for audiences is no small goal for television. The show makes the point clearly that we cannot know a priori what anyone’s experience of disability might be, or what disabled individuals might desire in terms of functionality or comfort that they do not yet have. In this way, the program could disrupt some of the objectification and condescension that often surround disability in English and American media and society.
But the program’s implicit aim to offset ablist sensibilities with near-anthropological story telling—that is, to recast the disabled among us into people who are, if not familiar, then at least worth both meeting and helping–ultimately makes the us-and-them construct of the show feel inescapable. The scientists and engineers seem brilliant and modest; their interactions with their clients track as engaged technical exchanges rather than as charitable service. But the program adds up, through its suspenseful narration, editing and overall arc each week, to just such a story of rescuing the deserving. We watch the inventors overcome baffling design challenges as they struggle with what come across as intractable metals, plastics, and, it must be said, bodies. The narratives of “inventing the impossible” (a BBC tagline for the show), ultimately feel like celebrations of extraordinarily dedicated inventors, not a series of balanced collaborations, and what’s more, like a collection of humanistic triumphs over human deficits. So: Heroic science meets disabled people in “desperate need” of “fixing”…hardly a new or transformative framing of either party despite the demonstrable value of the invented devices to those who will use them.
The sense of science-as-savior that comes through makes the line between abled/expert and disabled/client (patient? subject?) far starker than one imagines the featured experts might with or intend. But if we don’t want that message of otherness and rescue to prevail for viewers, shouldn’t we ask: Where are the disabled engineers and designers in “The Big Life Fix,” or the activists and policy makers, or for that matter, the disabled people for whom the proffered mechanical device might be an appreciative improvement to functionality but no significant answer to political or economic exclusion? No meaningful counter to systemic injustice? I am curious to know how these communities might see this program.
I‘m looking at this program from the vantage point of a historian of science and equity, and I already have some evidence that “The Big Life Fix” is powerfully inspiring to young scientists and engineers who chafe at the idea of state or corporate applications for their developing knowledge. But to see the featured fixes as confronting inequities—whether we are talking about discriminatory cultural dispositions towards disability or the concrete lack of affordable health care, housing, transport and daily support in the UK and US—feels inappropriate. So, I think we could ask more of the BBC. As currently framed in the program, social structures and state policies—notoriously unsupportive of disabled people in austerity-focused England and increasingly cruel in the U.S. under Trump– need no ingenious interventions, no redesign. This is much the same way that tropes of inclusion often work, as I keep harping on about: casting solutions to injustice as a matter of earnest encounters and good feeling. Viewers might want to ask why the show’s more welcome initiatives—its open-ended inquiries into the experiences of disabled people; its garnering of resources for individuals often left without resources; and its staging of respectful conversations between STEM and non-STEM folks—could not be put towards a real transformation in our thinking about disability.
For those interested in critical studies of technology and disability, I recommend Aimi Hamraie’s Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability; Bess Williamson’s Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design, as well as writings by Liz Jackson, Beth Robertson, and others.
A white engineering professor jokingly suggests a white alternative to the National Society of Black Engineers. What this can tell us about the comfort and security of being white in the American academy:
If we’re going to face up to the continuing advantages offered by white identity in the American academy, we need to think about how completely naturalized those advantages are. We can start by looking at the places where identity seems least likely to play a role, like Engineering. The quantitative, calibrated nature of engineering disciplines suggests to many of us a sort of machinelike mode of work, a setting firewalled—unlike, say, the arts or humanities–from political or social ideologies. A recent “joke” offered by a white engineering professor at SUNY Binghamton, on his departmental Listserv, gives us a chance to see just how off the mark that image is.
As described by Colleen Flaherty in InsideHigherEd:
Last week, the National Society of Black Engineers chapter at the State University of New York at Binghamton sent out an invitation to a fund-raising dinner on an engineering department Listserv. In response, Victor Skormin, distinguished service professor of electrical and computer engineering, wrote, “Please let me know about a dinner of the National Society for White Engineers.”
Prof. Skormin later told Inside Higher Ed that his comment was “intended strictly as a joke,” one of many “funny and sarcastic statements” he has made over time to help students “’recharge’ their attention mechanisms” and thereby “enhance the learning experience.”
We cannot know much if anything about Prof. Skormin’s considered beliefs about race relations in America from his joke or his brief comments about the joke. But we can ask about his choice of topic FOR a joke, and I think that can tell us about the conditions of being a white academic in the US, a group to which I also belong.
So let’s ask, with as much care and precision as we can muster so as not to ascribe intentions that are not there: What beliefs or attitudes would a white professor have to hold in order to propose, even light-heartedly (especially light-heartedly), a National Society for White Engineers?
- A sense that the rising level of violence against black people in America, Trump’s racist rhetoric, and events like Charlottesville are issues easily minimized by the people hearing his joke
- A sense that the decades of public discourse regarding ongoing racial inequities in America, including in mainstream media, do not refer to serious social matters, that the concerns of such discussions are not for the likes of Prof. Skormin’s audience
- And very possibly a sense that an invocation of white neglect and marginalization will strike some people (that is, let’s be clear, people other than the students in NSBE) as right on the money.
In short, I’m suggesting that we get beyond the clumsy, un-funny nature of Prof. Skormin’s repartee to see what it conveys as an attempt at humor.
Note: I’m not saying there are things that we “shouldn’t joke about.” In my book it is never “too soon.” But jokes have meanings and convey messages. The meanings and messages of Prof. Skormin’s joke contain absolutely no reflection on white privilege, no whiff of take-down of the security and ease with which white academics function compared to others. We cannot know if Prof. Skormin intended his joke to valorize that ease and security, but it does exactly that if only because his “humor” arose from just those circumstances.
Can there be jokes about white grievance? Absolutely. It is a darkly ironic aspect of today’s “democratic” America badly in need of parody. I also believe that deeply cutting humor about ourselves can be very funny indeed. Definitely nothing like it for puncturing self-importance and revealing the mechanisms of power and privilege. But that is definitely not what Prof. Skormin has offered us.
December 2017 cover of Prism, the magazine of the American Society for Engineering Education.
The huge wealth disparities and widespread racism, homophobia and ableism that help drive homelessness in America are not mere background conditions against which engineers may decide to take up more and less “caring” design projects. They are injustices to which we can instead be fully accountable. As a close look at one recent magazine cover shows, the familiar formula of Sympathy plus Technology does not necessarily add up to Change…
We can probably agree that we are not doing as much as we can to address poverty in America today. Federal lawmakers and executive orders are gutting health care and education provisions that have previously helped support the less well-off in our nation, and cities struggle with the results of those cuts. The concentration of wealth at the top increases, and the very definition of a “healthy national economy” includes corporate reliance on outsourcing; automation; and temporary, uninsured, low-wage workforces. Women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals and other minorities suffer disproportionately in this economic landscape as do veterans, disabled people and the elderly. We are living in an era of deeply inhumane governance and pronounced discrimination, and it seems important to us to ask about the difference between mere concern regarding this growing economic and social violence, and real accountability.
We are thinking about these questions in the context of engineering because Prism, the magazine of the American Society for Engineering Education, has put the matter of homelessness on their December 2017 cover, shown above. (The cover features a person seen from the neck down, with dirty hands, seated directly on the pavement before a tin can holding a crumpled dollar bill and a small American flag.) This cover implies a relationship between engineering and poverty that we find unsettling, and perhaps reflecting on the image can help us move from concern at least a bit closer to accountability.
First, let’s talk about Prism’s cover headline, “Design for the Down & Out.” That description of homeless persons may induce a jolt of sympathy among readers but it is in fact discriminatory, ascribing to those without homes not simply the experience of being excluded from economic opportunities but also a naturally low status (“down”), marginal community positions (“out”) and above all, personal ineffectuality. Like many charitable projects in American history, this is a sympathy that marginalizes its subjects.
We are not talking about insincere approaches to helping the poor; we are talking about how unreflective sincerity can itself reproduce discrimination. Unlike earlier forms of elite charitable judgment that explicitly blamed the poor for their lack of resources (attributing poverty to individuals’ weak morals, weak genes, or both), Prism’s imagery gives no obvious indication that the homeless deserve their discomforts. That little flag definitely strikes a note of deserved need: The steadfast patriotism of the pictured homeless person demonstrates their good faith in the democratic project that is America. The article inside, by Jennifer Pocock, actually mentions some significant political causes of homelessness. Yet let’s think about what comes across in the public face of Prism, a cover that is meant to incite engineers to open the magazine and think about poverty. There is no way that someone seeing this cover would imagine that homeless persons contribute intellectually, materially and socially to any context. Instead, we are asked to picture the impoverished as passive and ineffectual, literally waiting for the mercy of generous passersby.
Of course, as things stand many homeless people in the U.S. will not be able to obtain food or shelter without donations from the better off, and many are urgently in need of the care of others. Assuredly life on the street is often difficult and dangerous, and deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill famously expanded the ranks of homeless in America by leaving many unwell people with no real medical resources. But it is still inappropriate to characterize homeless people as this cover does as diminished individuals in need of intervention.
So why do so? Perhaps because this characterization of the poor fits the idea that engineering naturally has only a narrow sort of social responsibility. This idea that technologies can unto themselves be caring leaves to other professions the address of structural issues such as depleted public housing, healthcare, and education, or increasing corporate greed; as well as racism, homophobia, and xenophobia, that have helped create this impoverishment. Consider the “staggering” levels of poverty and health inequities found among transgender Americans, including high rates of homelessness among transgender youth forced by their families to leave home. Our point is that these are not merely background conditions in light of which engineering can select its problems, more and less humanely; these are conditions to which engineering must be accountable. The “helping” modality so common in engineering service projects today not only puts the technological fix front and center as generous gesture but erects technological innovation and caring innovators as a screen that can hide an unjust society. Students deserve a fuller and less self-consoling picture of their world.
The cover’s other bit of text notes that engineers can choose to “help or hinder America’s homeless.” And the contents of the article indeed contrast sleep-preventing city benches to engineers’ more positive material interventions in the lives of the poor: ways to “alert” unemployed homeless people to job opportunities (smart phone applications); help them “keep clean” (affordable ultra-hydrophobic menstrual cups); and otherwise assist people to “get out of poverty.” But each of those assisting technologies, while likely to bring physical or psychological relief to users, cast the experience of poverty as somehow based in individual bodies, not in the economic structures and collective decision-making that currently render suffering inevitable in America. While some of the educational programs described in the article grapple with legal or policy deterrents to reform (say, city policies that have prohibited the construction of permanent housing in lieu of temporary “squatter” communities), the overall sense given by the pathos of the cover and the celebration of design-as-caring serves conservative arguments against economic and social reform.
In reality, the most effective actions an engineer can take to end homelessness more likely lie in lending their time and talent to local citizen political action. To address the immediate crisis, engineers and others should advocate that resources be directed to housing first, and not housing alone but also a range of services that support physical and mental health. To address the root causes, engineers should work toward the goals of groups like the Poor People’s Campaign, addressing living wages, health care, immigration reform, and voting rights.
The aim of making engagements with impoverished communities attractive to engineering students and impressive for their future employers is not antithetical to real change, to accountability. We are excited that the ASEE sees value in covering these issues and about the prospect of STEM educational programming critically engaging with social justice issues. But whoever is crafting headlines and designing covers for Prism needs to see how highlighting “the problem posed by America’s half-million homeless” defeats such purposes. The homeless do not pose a problem. Our acceptance of homelessness does.
Educational models, Bergen School Museum, Norway; undated. Photo: Amy E. Slaton, 2016.
How can we vigorously defend the nation against rising anti-science sentiments and policies while remaining deeply critical of the violent, racist history of science? A first step might be to stop letting the right set the terms of debate as pro- vs. anti-science.
Within a day or two of Trump’s outrageous assertion the other week that Nigerians upon visiting the United States would be unwilling to return to “their huts in Africa”—part of his profoundly racist case for restricting US immigration — I visited the Whipple Museum at Cambridge University to see “Astronomy & Empire.” That small but incisive exhibition has a lot to tell us about such imagined huts, occupied by “natives” across the “Dark Continent” and other colonially envisioned landscapes. In the 19th century, images of these supposedly crude dwellings were part of the backdrop for Victorian astronomical expeditions to distant colonial outposts. When British amateurs, scientists, and military personnel traveled to observe eclipses and other astronomical events with their trunks full of charts, scientific instruments and silver tea services they exploited the labor and knowledge of indigenous people; disdained those skills while deploying them; and generally treated non-British, non-white people as irredeemably backward.
It’s old news that Trump maintains 19th century Eurocentric beliefs about race and nationality, about non-white people as innately backward and non-compliant. He and his followers shun knowledge that contradicts these and other bigoted notions, casting science and intellectual effort in general as the mere trickery of elites. But my not-so-coincidental encounters with an imagined Africa last week (could worry about the UK’s own recent anti-immigrant zeal have inspired the Whipple’s curators?) also reminded me that we need to be cautious in saying that scientific observation and the veneration of empiricism naturally counter racism and racial violence. One point of the Whipple’s presentation, garnered from postcolonial scholarship, is that racialized imperial attitudes were not regrettable side notes to British astronomical investigations but integral to those scientific efforts, constituting a world that promised white, European thinkers mastery over natural phenomena and colonial subjects alike. Cutting-edge science was essential to past racial conflict and oppression. It is also, as many recognize, not remotely innocent today.
The complex critical literature on race and genomic sciences makes clear that fearsome scientific engagements with race have persisted into the present day, well beyond eugenics, not to mention beyond the brutalities of early gynecological research on enslaved women and the horrors of Tuskegee. Traditional IQ testing and new facial recognition software that “detects” sexuality are two among many examples of sciences involved today in making other sorts of pernicious human distinctions. But it is not merely certain episodes of scientific work that remain discriminatory in the 21st century. Rather, there is a general character lent to science that we may need to challenge if we are to confront racism, homophobia, sexism, and ableism; that is the incipient notion of science, engineering, mathematics and other technical enterprises, and social sciences when done honestly and expertly as naturally serving democracy. Historians and STS scholars have of course shown that this is not so, have shown that where empiricism goes so go politicized subjectivities, sometimes liberatory and often not. So we need to insist now on wider terms of debate regarding our thinking about nature than simply whether that thinking is “’evidence-based’ or not”—these are terms that the right has set for us.
For example, the White House appears to have issued a prohibition against that particular term and six others appearing in CDC materials. On hearing this I instantly rage-ordered a t-shirt.
The latest in rampart-wear.
But here’s the problem with my t-shirt: When we declare evidence and facts as a protected class of knowledge, even in trying to defend democracy, we are letting Trump and his followers foreclose deep reflection about power and knowledge. Their crass invocations of hut-dwelling Africans or opportunistic denials of climate change are hugely selfish and willfully naive. In our attempts to contend with such vile rhetoric, we face binaries of fact/non-fact, evidence/no evidence, science/no science …and the temptation to associate an emancipatory sensibility with the former. Understandable. But these seemingly actionable binaries we construct in our anxiety and rage are problematic if we are hoping to bring change. As my friend Tiago Saraiva has put it, while Marching for Science we need to be clear for which Science we are marching.
The British astronomers’ systematic observation of nature, instrumentation, and calibration—and not least their embrace of precision—promised them intellectual mastery and those commitments do no less or more for us today. The knowable, findable features of nature are the stuff of science but that has historically been a nature that suits that purposes of the epistemically/racially dominant (see my last post, below). So we need always to ask not just “mastery of what, and thereby of whom?” but also, “why mastery?” Even adhering to the “rigorous/non-rigorous-science” binary can obfuscate power and keep us from asking: What voices and institutions can be imagined as rigorous in scientific and technical situations? Are or are not Flint citizens, Grenfell Tower residents, Haitian public health researchers, disabled or transgender people, eligible for ascriptions of observational credence?
Robyn Wiegman has helped articulate how white supremacy achieved its cultural robustness in the US through a combination of universal claims (naturalizing a categorical system in which all humans have a place: ie, a race) and particularity (being white has meant claiming exemplary traits and access to restricted experiences). I would say that such simultaneous attention to the monolithic and the local, the production of theories and evidence, has also made empiricism and scientific inquiry uniquely powerful cultural instrumentalities for those seeking domination over others. Whether and how these instrumentalities can serve other purposes—empowering marginalized communities, inciting reflection and reform among the dominant—seems an important question in the age of Trump. In short; Let’s keep marching for science in 2018, against censorship and defunding and racism, but be accountable to the history of science as we march.
Eight years ago, I started posting at that url about issues of discrimination in American science, technology, engineering and mathematics, looking at education and labor from the perspective of attaining greater “STEM equity.” Racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism are more visible in the United States than ever but I no longer see that pairing of terms as a productive one. Neither alone nor together do these two words represent my goals as a historian and educator. It is time for a new framing, and a new url.
The Problem with STEM…
For one thing, I no longer think ending discrimination in schools and workplaces can happen without deeply problematizing “STEM” as we know it. I’ve come to see the delineation of STEM learning and work from other cultural projects as itself a highly efficient instrument of discrimination. Contradicting nearly every day-to- day invocation (including in the context of STEM diversity initiatives), we need to recognize that scientific knowledge, technological activity and mathematical interpretation are not techniques for understanding the world but rather means of making particular worlds for particular social ends.
Some of those ends are humane and generous, many are not. Historical study helps us see that opportunities to treat this sort of world-making as if it has no social origins and impacts have been built into ideas of legitimate STEM conduct, be it study, research, experimentation, discovery, calculation, design, building, assembly, production or maintenance.
For example, in school or at work, a teacher or manager’s authoritative assessment of an individual’s technical skill seems merely to detect that individual’s abilities. But such judgments are actually producing what shall count as meaningful technical conduct in particular times and places—the math problem solved quickly enough, the new drug with sufficient market value, the efficiently cleaned cleanroom. Those doing math slowly, developing low-profit drugs, or advocating for less physically demanding custodial work do not register as talented. The meritorious objects of STEM are almost never made strange, never treated as contingent upon social structures ranging from ideas of race or gender difference to class privilege to labor relations to geopolitics, by those declaring their value. Inclusive impulses expressed in STEM settings may well be authentic, but there are no words of welcome warm enough or scholarship funds great enough to offset this selective blindness to power.
…And the Problem with “Equity”
“Equity,” as that term is generally used, can also poorly serve the cause of democratic reform. Since the Civil Rights era a lot of inclusive educational and employment programming—often centered on achieving racial, gender, ethnic or other forms of diversity– has been based on unreflective, essentialist ideas of human difference. Unintentional as it may be, these ideas sustain formulations of race, gender, disability and other categorizations in ways that preserve social privilege. In 2017 America, certain commitments to identity politics—such as the claiming of collective minority identity—can assuredly drive crucial democratic reforms. But at the same time, in the hands of a culturally dominant white majority, ideologies of diversity and meritocracy lend one another a gloss of fairness they do not deserve.
Seeking a more inclusive profile for American engineering firms or chemistry doctoral programs, even when entry is achieved for some individuals who might previously have been excluded from such opportunities, will not radically remake these settings or dominant majority ideas about human difference. The scale of demographic change will be limited and access alone will not end the chilly climate faced by many minority students and practitioners within STEM settings. Nor will diversity programming in schools and workplaces counter widely circulating predictive notions of the innate intellectual inferiority, fragility, deviance or distastefulness of minority persons and women. It will instead help naturalize those distinctions and the metrics that are devised to confirm them.
In short: As it now functions, STEM diversity is a false consolation. Our embrace of inclusion-as-equity is the problem.
I dare not write “inclusion” here without attaching the “-as- equity” for fear of misappropriation by those now asserting white, male, Christian, heterosexual and American superiority. White grievance has fueled anti-affirmative action protest for decades but deeply biological and violent expressions of such grievances are growing and now find legitimacy in the White House. Critiquing liberal agendas albeit from the left is fraught with the risk of uptake by the right. But if we do not test our familiar tools of reform, their historically limited utility will go unchanged. This website, amyeslaton.com, will ask questions about the things we have done historically and do today to correct racism and homophobia, sexism and ableism, in places of science and technology.
I’ll do this by paying attention to the relational nature of science and engineering knowledge, and of technological skill and talent. All of these relations involve the constant making of knowable students and employees by those with influence: White, not-white, black, brown… male, female, pathologically-neither…sexual, asexual, abnormally sexual…abled, disabled…All of these “kinds” of bodies are required to make up the differences that diversity invokes. Intersectional, queer, crip and other scholarship makes it clear that every one of those ascriptions is arbitrary and socially instrumental. As well, critical sociology, history and anthropology have described ontological work ongoing wherever culture is experienced. That scholarship has instilled still greater awareness of the profound indeterminacy at work in the identification of human difference. We learn with these perspectives that technical merit is not something that inheres in individuals or groups; it inheres in that identification process.
Put differently: Two more “kinds” of bodies– capable and incapable STEM actors– are also being produced in our culture and that production process demands our critical attention. As I leave STEM equity behind I plan to bring these more complicated, fraught and generative framings to bear on how Americans enact human difference in sites of technical education and work. I’m especially pleased to be able to do all of this with a new website that is ADA compliant; through the efforts of web developers at TechBear, all materials now added to amyeslaton.com will meet standards for accessibility. I’m very excited about all of these changes and hope you’ll stay tuned.