#rp18-Speakerin Wendy Chun: Discriminating Data – Individuals, Proxies, Neighborhoods

December is a month full of anniversaries: There’s the birthday of pioneering computer scientist, Grace Hopper, as well as that of Ada Lovelace, author of the very first algorithm and the first ever programmer. Sadly, there’s also the anniversary of the “Massacre of Montreal”, in which 14 female mechanical engineering students were gunned down at the École Polytechnique in 1989. In a letter, the gunman justified his misogynist deed with his hatred for feminists who were striving for social change and wanted to strip men of their social privileges.


This resistance to the participation of non-stereotypical groups in what is, literally, the construction of the world – and, with it, “power” – was the catalyst for Wendy Chun to expand her scope of studies beyond engineering, to encompass further academic fields so as to understand which roles technologies, and the discourses of power that are connected to them, play in our society.


Professor Wendy Chun is currently Chair of the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. She has spent 2016-17 researching as a Guggenheim Fellow, among other things, has been a member of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. Before this, she was a visiting Professor at the Copenhagen Business School, the University of Oregon, NYU, Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany, and a visiting Associate Professor at Harvard.


Besides her Ph.D. in English, Chun spent her academic formation combining the study of Systems Design Engineering with Literature. She researches the relationship between socio-cultural formations and machines, between theoretical concepts in the humanities and technological disciplines, as well as between popular concepts of technology and technological protocols – all with the aim of finding answers to questions that aren’t found in technical textbooks:


What kind of effect and influence do control technologies have on mass media? What made the internet, a communication network that had been around for years, such a “new” and “extraordinary” medium in the mid 90’s? How does the concept of “memory” differ in the disciplines of engineering, biology, the humanities and social sciences?


She began a new project on data bias during a scholarship in Berlin, which she will be presenting at the re:publica: Chun studied the continuity and transformation of “ethnicity, gender, class and sexuality” and, in doing so, moved close to the work being done by fellow #rp18 speaker Safiya Noble, who we’ve already presented to you.


According to Chun, technologies are at their most formative and impactful when they are no longer “new”, when they have crossed over from the innovative to the every day. Rehearsed acts “stick by disappearing from consciousness”. We are constantly being encouraged to seek out new behavioural patterns – but only habits make us into equals within a group, marking our belonging and place within society, for example through social class. We become recognised through our competence, presence and poise within a field.


In her research, Wendy Chun explores the effects that the slow appropriation of conscious and unconscious habits through technology are having on the differentiation between public and private spaces, memory and storage, individual actions and social systems, as well as how our habitual use of media expresses itself in the standardization and regulation of social and economic life.


In her new book ’Updating to Remain the Same’ she elaborates on ideas concerning the effects of physical and digital networks on the experiences and expectations of today’s society, ideas which she began in the first two editions of her trilogy on the emergence of the internet as a personalised mass medium.


Look forward to plenty of insights in: Discriminating Data – Individuals, Proxies, Neighbourhoods!


Twitter: @whkckun 

Website: vivo.brown.edu/display/wchun