Beki Grinter

Susan Leigh Star

In computer science, social media, women on March 25, 2010 at 10:17 am

(I wrote this yesterday, but before posting I wanted an opportunity to read and review it. I do that with most of my posts, but with this one it seemed especially important.)

I’ve just heard that Susan Leigh Star has passed away. I’ve been reflecting on her contributions, and especially how she influenced my own thinking. I know I am not alone. And I wanted to write something, because today, Ada Lovelace Day, has been a day focused on women in computing. But, I wish that I was not also writing it in this context.

I’m in New Orleans. I’ve been coming to New Orleans regularly ever since Hurricane Katrina. I come to give to the economy. The first time I came, less than a year after the hurricane, New Orleans was struggling. People kissed me to thank me for being here. The restaurants that were opened were using plastic plates, the hotel we stayed in did not offer daily room service… with the mass evacuation there’d been a loss of the people-labor infrastructure that makes a service economy work. Infrastructure then, in the Star sense, was a living experience. It was not invisible, but raw and our expectations about it, and about how it works, were being renegotiated. It was all at the surface, not hidden away, not busy making things work. We were all openly in it together…

There was also a pride, fighting pride, one that expressed itself in a myriad of ways, including new businesses. One of those new businesses was in jewelry, one that was an expression of New Orleans pride. Some of it was the Fleur-des-lis, but far more interesting to me were the water meter covers. The first time I was here I remember we walked to the Garden District, the trolley was not yet running again, out to a jewellers on Magazine street that was selling what I thought was a beautiful and original souvenir. Made by a local artist it was a sterling silver copy of the old water meter cover. And so here I was, in addition to negotiating and being reminded of the invisibility of infrastructure in most of my life, purchasing jewelry of infrastructure. Water meter covers, not just places where your water meters get read, but now incorporated into jewelry.

Four years later (Katrina was in 2005, but we did not visit until 2006), in 2010, water meter jewelry is everywhere. Water meter images are also everywhere, t-shirts, pictures… and there’s also a market in the real covers. So people are logging where the originals are still in the ground. So today, I was out with my camera to take pictures, but also to log where the covers are, to participate in another social media event. I was actively looking for infrastructure. Infrastructure once again the subject of study. And so I was thinking about Leigh Star. She taught me much of what I know about infrastructure. Her insights about it frame my thinking about it. I think about it professionally, but I was thinking about her yesterday because of the water meter covers.

That’s recent. My first introduction to Susan Leigh Star was in 1994. I was a graduate student at UC Irvine. I’d attended my very first conference. And it was absolutely the worst experience of my professional life. I was solicited. I declined. And then I was threatened. It was explained to me that if I didn’t submit that this person would tell my advisor, Rob Kling, that I was a terrible student, an embarrassment to UC Irvine, etc… basically doing what he could to get his way with me. And so having steadfastly refused, I returned to Irvine in a state of some combination of fear and embarrassment. I decided that I needed to tell Rob, before this person might. So I did. Rob gave me a lot of good advice, but he also decided to ask a few other faculty members to give me their advice.

One was Susan Leigh Star. She was perfect. She took her time to answer all my questions, and indeed to help me find ones to ask. I was sufficiently shocked and confused by this experience that I didn’t even really know what to ask. She had a way of drawing that out through a combination of listening and asking… and she also helped me to understand that this might happen again. She helped me with my confidence to believe that it would not happen of my own making. It did, and I was far better prepared (actually I was quite feisty, something I’m still rather proud of)…

Susan Leigh Star gave me deep insight into ethnography of infrastructure, I will continue to draw on that in my own work as I have for years. She also gave me a sense of self that undoubtedly helped me to navigate the early years of Computing. With regard to the latter, if I have done anything for others, Susan Leigh Star was one person who gave me many of the tools.

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  1. […] not only a brilliant thinker, but also a human who was there for other humans (and non-humans). (Beki Grinter writes about how Leigh touched her.) This journey through graduate school, both for me and at least three other people I know […]

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