[SIGCIS-Members] History of gendered terms, e.g., "motherboard"

Luke Stark luke.stark at nyu.edu
Wed May 24 16:49:46 PDT 2017


Hi folks,

On the matter of connectors I strongly second Laine: at this point, scholarship in sex, gender, sexuality, queer and trans studies distinguishes between the anatomical characteristics of human organs (to which I take it Dag is referring) and a person's gender, sex, or sexuality — all four characteristics are separate elements of a person and all four are *also* performed as social, cultural, and ideological constructs in particular embodied contexts. As Mara rightly observes, this is a incredibly rich, complex field of scholarship spanning multiple disciplines (and around which scholars in the aforementioned disciplines of course have disagreements themselves) — but a field of scholarship that seeks to adequately represent and explore the reality of these diverse, heterogeneous aspects of our lives as embodied material and social beings. 

So it follows that I also strongly second and add myself in with the folks who’ve written in support of SIGCIS as an organization exploring the intersections of sex, gender, sexuality, queer and trans studies with computing, given that computing cuts across myriad aspects of lived experience. Happily, I know many, many people doing that work who’ve not chimed in on these threads, and that goal has been espoused, in one form or another, by almost all the folks who’ve commented here. 

What’s disheartening for me, as it is for others here, is a sense from some folks that there’s a “right” answer about how to direct these intellectual and professional efforts, and by extension that expertise and judgement - what we as trained historians profess we have, at least in some limited way — are not being accorded equal weight depending on the type of expertise being brought to bear. Brian, your work on PLATO engages with a particular set of evidence via a particular flavour of historical method; Joy’s engages with another set with a related by different flavour of historical method.  Can we really expect anything else in a field as messy as history? Isn’t that okay?

The poet Robert Lowell wrote that “History has to live with what was here/clutching and close to fumbling all we had.” The gap between “what was here” in all its complicated and sometimes contradictory weight and the histories we as individual historians produce is always a challenging one, but it’s especially challenging when it becomes clear that “all we had” is much, much more than we had traditionally thought. I make this point with all due regard for careful and methodical historical work - but also with the sense, to second Gerardo’s point in an earlier message, that the participants in historical events only have one subjective perspective on them. I’d add that our embodied positions (not just around sex, gender or race, but also age, status in the profession, financial security, etc) place us at different points in a hierarchy of received expectations around authority that determine how and in what ways we interpret evidence and present it, and even what emotions we can engage in when we respond on this list (politely, angrily, ironically, etc) — and I say that with profound awareness of being a very junior scholar weighing in among  eminent and senior ones. I’m all in favour of confronting these professional and intellectual hierarchies head on in ways that recognize the fruitfulness inherent in how much more scholarship on these topics there is to do.

Best to all,

Luke



> On May 24, 2017, at 4:04 PM, Laine Nooney <laine.nooney at gmail.com> wrote:
> 
> Dag, I get where you're coming from. But naturalizing the relationships between technical componentry and biological form is offensive and problematic to many of us who spend our academic careers trying to deconstruct the "obviousness" of these relationships, and the discrimination and heteronormativity they perpetuate. There's a whole different discourse gender studies folks are appealing to here, one that is painfully under-read within the history of technology. (And the fact that it can be under-read, that many don't feel obliged to be well read on these subjects, is part of the systemic problem).
> 
> I imagine I don't just speak for myself when I suggest that the past few days have been trying and exhausting for many of us, participants and lurkers alike. I don't want to make appeals to civility or generosity, but I am honestly at a loss for how to engage this listserv any further at the moment. 
> 
> -L
> 
> 
> 
> On Wed, May 24, 2017 at 6:26 PM Dag Spicer <dspicer at computerhistory.org <mailto:dspicer at computerhistory.org>> wrote:
> "There is nothing obvious or literal about the metaphor of “female” and “male” connectors- they are indeed ideological referents.”
> 
> Really?
> 
> Look up "male + female connectors" on Google images and see if you can figure it out.  Completely obvious.  Completely literal.
> 
> BTW, to call Paul Edwards ‘uninformed’ is pretty rich.
> 
> Respectfully,
> 
> Dag
>> Dag Spicer
> Senior Curator
> Computer History Museum
> 1401 N Shoreline Blvd
> Mountain View, CA  94043
> 
> On May 24, 2017, at 3:17 PM, pne at umich.edu <mailto:pne at umich.edu><mailto:pne at umich.edu <mailto:pne at umich.edu>> wrote:
> 
> Yes. Scholars should be respectful of each other.
> 
> Sent by my iPhone. Don't blame me.
> 
> On May 24, 2017, at 18:15, Sweeney, Miriam <mesweeney1 at ua.edu <mailto:mesweeney1 at ua.edu><mailto:mesweeney1 at ua.edu <mailto:mesweeney1 at ua.edu>>> wrote:
> 
> This response speaks for itself. It certainly would be great if more women felt as if they could chime in. But only if they are properly respectful (i.e don't proffer critiques). I have nothing more to add here.
> 
> -M
> 
> 
> 
> 
> 
> Sent from my iPhone
> On May 24, 2017, at 4:58 PM, Paul N.Edwards <pne at umich.edu <mailto:pne at umich.edu><mailto:pne at umich.edu <mailto:pne at umich.edu>>> wrote:
> 
> All, in response to Miriam’s post:
> 
> I did not say that mammals have gender. My post could certainly have been clearer about the difference between sex (the relevant metaphor in the cases I mentioned) and gender as a social construction.
> 
> Anyone who knows my work will realize that I am one of the many people, of all genders, who have worked tirelessly for the last 35 years to promote attention to gender studies, to women, to race, and to LGBT issues in the history of computing. So I am hardly “uninformed” on this subject. If anyone is curious, I will be happy to provide a long list of bona fides offline.
> 
> This thread started with Caitlin’s query about gendered terms in engineering. It was a question seeking answers. The replies on this thread may have come mostly from men, but all were courteous, friendly, and clearly intended to be thoughtful contributions to a scholarly discussion.
> 
> I apologize if something in my post was offensive, but I reject the idea that men commenting on gender issues is somehow out of line. Of course it would be great if more women would chime in.
> 
> Let’s please return this discussion to its previous respectful tone.
> 
> Best,
> 
> Paul
> 
> On May 24, 2017, at 11:58 , Sweeney, Miriam <mesweeney1 at ua.edu <mailto:mesweeney1 at ua.edu><mailto:mesweeney1 at ua.edu <mailto:mesweeney1 at ua.edu>>> wrote:
> 
> Hi Folks,
> 
> Two thoughts here:
> 
> Firstly, mammals don’t have gender (a socially constructed concept reflecting ideas about masculinity and femininity). There is nothing obvious or literal about the metaphor of “female” and “male” connectors- they are indeed ideological referents.
> 
> Secondly, I can’t help but read this thread in direct contrast to the thread criticizing Rankin’s talk.  I note that on the latter thread a woman scholar is being taken to task for presenting informed research on gender in computing, while on this thread we have male scholars hazarding uninformed guesses about gender and computing metaphors with no pushback whatsoever.
> 
> Reading these threads side by side has definitely given me pause on the state of the field and the challenges we continue to have for fully integrating cultural studies, gender, and race perspectives into information and computing studies.
> 
> 
> Miriam E. Sweeney
> 
> Assistant Professor , School of Library and Information Studies
> 
> The University of Alabama<https://www.ua.edu/ <https://www.ua.edu/>>
> 527 Gorgas
> Box 870252
> Tuscaloosa , AL
> office 205-348-1522 <tel:(205)%20348-1522><tel:205-348-1522 <tel:(205)%20348-1522>>
> mesweeney1 at ua.edu <mailto:mesweeney1 at ua.edu><mailto:mesweeney1 at ua.edu <mailto:mesweeney1 at ua.edu>> | https://slis.ua.edu/ <https://slis.ua.edu/>
> 
> 
> 
> 
> On May 24, 2017, at 9:51 AM, Paul N. Edwards <pne at umich.edu <mailto:pne at umich.edu><mailto:pne at umich.edu <mailto:pne at umich.edu>>> wrote:
> 
> Interesting discussion. OED does not speculate on this connection; first use of “motherboard” it lists is 1965.
> 
> It’s worth noting that some of the gendered terms in engineering are very clear and literal metaphors, not specifically human though definitely mammalian.
> 
> “Mother ship,” like “motherboard,” refers to a larger thing from which smaller, but similar dependent units (smaller ships, subsidiary circuit boards) are launched, to which they are attached, and from which they draw sustenance (fuel, electricity).
> 
> “Female” and “male” connectors refer to sockets and plugs respectively, also quite literal, also not particularly human but mammalian.
> 
> This is not to say that such metaphors aren’t sometimes deployed in objectionable, human-oriented ways, but it would be silly to ignore their value as readily understood descriptors of physical structure and/or relationships.
> 
> Best,
> 
> Paul
> 
> 
> On May 24, 2017, at 9:43 , mike willegal <mike at willegal.net <mailto:mike at willegal.net><mailto:mike at willegal.net <mailto:mike at willegal.net>>> wrote:
> 
> My guess is that the term, Motherboard, was derived from the term Mothership, which is still in common usage by the general population, and according to several online dictionaries originated in the 19th century.  Note that when techs and engineers refer to Motherboards, they normally use the gender neutral pronoun, "it".
> 
> cheers,
> Mike Willegal
> 
> On May 23, 2017, at 1:51 PM, Mark Priestley <m.priestley at gmail.com <mailto:m.priestley at gmail.com><mailto:m.priestley at gmail.com <mailto:m.priestley at gmail.com>>> wrote:
> 
> Hi Caitlin,
> 
> I'm not sure if this is the sort of thing you're looking for, but some CS pioneers were rather keen to use the master-slave metaphor to talk about human-computer relations. Eg:
> 
> Jack Good reported that: "Turing used to refer jocularly to people who are forced to do
> mechanical operations as slaves."
> 
> Bardini quotes Engelbart: "Think ahead to the day when computer technology might provide for your very own use the full-time services of a completely attentive, very patient, very fast symbol-manipulating slave who has an IQ adequate for 95% of your today's mental tasks."
> 
> And there's this<http://markpriestley.net/pdfs/Huskey.pdf <http://markpriestley.net/pdfs/Huskey.pdf>> unfortunate Newsweek caption about Harry Huskey.
> 
> I think probably links back to earlier tropes about robots: eg in Capek's RUR, the rebellious robots are precisely slaves. I've got an unpublished conference paper I wrote a few years back about this which I could dig out if you're interested.
> 
> Cheers,
> Mark
> 
> 
> 
> 
> On 23 May 2017 at 18:29, McMillan, William W <william.mcmillan at cuaa.edu <mailto:william.mcmillan at cuaa.edu><mailto:william.mcmillan at cuaa.edu <mailto:william.mcmillan at cuaa.edu>>> wrote:
> Caitlin, this is an interesting study!
> 
> I'm not sure, though, if "today's engineers" would very readily coin gender-specific terms for parts of computers.  These terms go back a long way.
> 
> The "master-slave" terminology has going for it that the relationship between, say, a bus arbiter and connected devices is, in truth, a master-slave relationship.  The other connotations make it hard for me to use the terms in class, but it's difficult to find synonyms.  Controller-controlled?  Decider-doer?  Kind of awkward.  (Suggestions welcome!)
> 
> In contrast to the gendered terms, in describing the tree data structure, the relationship between nodes has always been parent-child, back at least to Knuth's volumes, not father-son, mother-son, or the like.  Same with object/class hierarchies.
> 
> - Bill
> 
> ________________________________
> From: Members [members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org <mailto:members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org><mailto:members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org <mailto:members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org>>] on behalf of Wylie, Caitlin Donahue (cdw9y) [cdw9y at eservices.virginia.edu <mailto:cdw9y at eservices.virginia.edu><mailto:cdw9y at eservices.virginia.edu <mailto:cdw9y at eservices.virginia.edu>>]
> Sent: Monday, May 22, 2017 8:11 PM
> To: members at SIGCIS.org<mailto:members at SIGCIS.org <mailto:members at SIGCIS.org>>
> Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] History of gendered terms, e.g., "motherboard"
> 
> Dear all,
> Do you know of any studies of gendered language in computing? I’m intrigued by the way today’s engineers throw around words like “motherboard” and “daughterboard”, and also “master” and “slave”, without being aware of how those words sound to non-engineers (like me). I’d be interested in learning about historical or sociological studies.
> 
> Thank you!
> 
> All the best,
> Caitlin Wylie
> _______________________
> Caitlin D. Wylie, Ph.D.
> Assistant Professor
> Program in Science, Technology and Society
> University of Virginia
> wylie at virginia.edu <mailto:wylie at virginia.edu><mailto:wylie at virginia.edu <mailto:wylie at virginia.edu>><mailto:wylie at virginia.edu <mailto:wylie at virginia.edu><mailto:wylie at virginia.edu <mailto:wylie at virginia.edu>>>
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> —————————————————
> Paul N. Edwards
> Professor of Information<http://www.si.umich.edu/ <http://www.si.umich.edu/>> and History<http://www.lsa.umich.edu/history/ <http://www.lsa.umich.edu/history/>>
> Distinguished Faculty in Sustainability, Graham Sustainability Institute<http://graham.umich.edu/ <http://graham.umich.edu/>>
> Senior Fellow, Michigan Society of Fellows<http://societyoffellows.umich.edu/ <http://societyoffellows.umich.edu/>>
> 
> Starting July 1, 2017:
> 
> William J. Perry Fellow in International Security
> Center for International Security and Cooperation
> Stanford University
> pedwards at stanford.edu <mailto:pedwards at stanford.edu><mailto:pedwards at stanford.edu <mailto:pedwards at stanford.edu>>
> 
> Terse replies are deliberate<http://five.sentenc.es/ <http://five.sentenc.es/>>. Here's why! <http://emailcharter.org/ <http://emailcharter.org/>>
> 
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> —————————————————
> Paul N. Edwards
> Professor of Information<http://www.si.umich.edu/ <http://www.si.umich.edu/>> and History<http://www.lsa.umich.edu/history/ <http://www.lsa.umich.edu/history/>>
> Distinguished Faculty in Sustainability, Graham Sustainability Institute<http://graham.umich.edu/ <http://graham.umich.edu/>>
> Senior Fellow, Michigan Society of Fellows<http://societyoffellows.umich.edu/ <http://societyoffellows.umich.edu/>>
> 
> Starting July 1, 2017:
> 
> William J. Perry Fellow in International Security
> Center for International Security and Cooperation
> Stanford University
> pedwards at stanford.edu <mailto:pedwards at stanford.edu><mailto:pedwards at stanford.edu <mailto:pedwards at stanford.edu>>
> 
> Terse replies are deliberate<http://five.sentenc.es/ <http://five.sentenc.es/>>. Here's why! <http://emailcharter.org/ <http://emailcharter.org/>>
> 
> University of Michigan School of Information<http://www.si.umich.edu/ <http://www.si.umich.edu/>>
> 4437 North Quad
> 105 S. State Street
> Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1285
> (734) 764-2617 <tel:(734)%20764-2617> (office)
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> _______________________________________________
> This email is relayed from members at sigcis.org <http://sigcis.org/><http://sigcis.org/ <http://sigcis.org/>>, the email discussion list of SHOT SIGCIS. Opinions expressed here are those of the member posting and are not reviewed, edited, or endorsed by SIGCIS. The list archives are at http://lists.sigcis.org/pipermail/members-sigcis.org/ <http://lists.sigcis.org/pipermail/members-sigcis.org/> and you can change your subscription options at http://lists.sigcis.org/listinfo.cgi/members-sigcis.org <http://lists.sigcis.org/listinfo.cgi/members-sigcis.org>
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> _______________________________________________
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> _______________________________________________
> This email is relayed from members at sigcis.org <http://sigcis.org/>, the email discussion list of SHOT SIGCIS. Opinions expressed here are those of the member posting and are not reviewed, edited, or endorsed by SIGCIS. The list archives are at http://lists.sigcis.org/pipermail/members-sigcis.org/ <http://lists.sigcis.org/pipermail/members-sigcis.org/> and you can change your subscription options at http://lists.sigcis.org/listinfo.cgi/members-sigcis.org <http://lists.sigcis.org/listinfo.cgi/members-sigcis.org>
> -- 
> Laine Nooney
> www.lainenooney.com <http://www.lainenooney.com/>
> 
> DM <http://dm.lmc.gatech.edu/> @ LMC <http://lmc.gatech.edu/> @ GT <http://www.gatech.edu/>
> Assistant Professor
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