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Broken Metaphor: The Master-Slave Analogy in Technical Literature

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The use of the term "master-slave" is currently quite common in technical descriptions of control relation between two devices: automotive clutch and brake systems (master cylinder, slave cylinder), clocks, flip-flop circuits, computer drives, radio transmitters, and others. This essay describes the history of its technical use, dating from its origin in 1904, and the various relations between its technical usage and its racialized social connotations. We then examine various hypotheses for why a morally objectionable analogy became so popular, comments by African American engineers both for and against its continued usage, and some recommendations for altering its usage in the future.
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Volume 48 Number 2 (April 2007)
Copyright© 2007, the Society for the History of Technology
ESSAY
Broken Metaphor
The Master-Slave Analogy in Technical Literature
Ron Eglash
In November 2003, after receiving a discrimination complaint from a county employee, the Los
Angeles County Office of Affirmative Action Compliance sent a memo to all its equipment
vendors asking that they stop using the words “master” and “slave” in reference to computer
hardware and other equipment.{1} The memo read in part: “Based on the cultural diversity and
sensitivity of Los Angeles County, this is not an acceptable identification label.” The idea of
slavery in ancient Egypt or classical Greece did not carry the racial connotations that make it
such a hot button in the United States today. Even Hegel’s famous use of the master-slave
relationship to illustrate the dialectic, in 1807, has no real racial overtones, although Frantz
Fanon observed that if Hegel had had any experience with African or African-American life he
would not have made the progression toward synthesis seem so easy. But now things are
different.
And so, predictably, the Internet flared with invective following L.A. County’s decree. But I began
to wonder about the ubiquity of these terms. Why is it so common to see them used in technical
settings? How did the practice start? I recalled encountering them in my undergraduate electrical
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engineering textbook; it struck me then as an odd choice of words, though I got used to it. I
could see how a layperson might find such a casual use of the master-slave metaphor jarring or
disconcerting. And then I began to wonder what black engineering students, or even
professionals, thought about it. Much of my work as a social scientist has been in the area of
minority-student math and science education, working on pedagogies that help
underrepresented students aspire to technical careers. Did that figure of speech add to the
alienation these students often report?{2} Just how was it that a morally criminal social practice
became the metaphor of choice for a ubiquitous phenomenon in engineering?
A definitive history of the master-slave metaphor in engineering literature might make a nice
doctoral dissertation, but since I didn’t have time for that I settled for a briefer investigation. I
believe that even this sketch provides sufficient foundation for some conclusions, but readers
should feel free to consider excessive brevity grounds for dismissal after they review it. My
evidence came from technology historians, old encyclopedias of mechanical devices, old
commercial catalogs, and even some old engineers, but the best resource I found was patent
records. The master-slave metaphor is now quite common in patent descriptions that specify a
control relation between two devices: a Boolean search of U.S. patents since 1976 for “master”
and “slave” returned 19,708 items. These include automotive clutch and brake systems, clocks,
flip-flop circuits, computer drives, and radio transmitters. Although it is not possible to perform a
similar automated search of older patent records, I used the citation of previous patents for the
devices mentioned above, and citations in those patents, to trace these terms backward.
It turns out that the first occurrences of the master-slave metaphor in technical settings are
surprisingly recent, at least in print. I have not found any evidence of it before the American Civil
War, when chattel slavery still existed in the United States. The earliest use I have found dates
to a 1904 report by the astronomer David Gill describing a sidereal clock he designed for the
observatory in Cape Town, which “consist[ed] of two separate instruments[:] (a) a pendulum
(swinging in a nearly airtight enclosure maintained at uniform temperature and pressure) and
(b) the ‘slave clock’ with wheel train and dead-beat escapement.”{3} Although today we
associate South Africa with the racism of apartheid, at the time Gill wrote slavery had been
outlawed in the Cape Colony for over sixty years, and Cape Town itself had been the home port
of the Royal Navy’s West African Squadron, which was deeply involved in the suppression of the
slave trade in the mid-nineteenth century. Gill’s biography gives no indication that he had a
positive view of slavery, nor that he was a particularly enlightened colonialist when it came to
that.{4} His wife Isobel’s memoir of their time spent with primarily African staff on Ascension
Island similarly betrays no proslavery inclinations; on the contrary, it records her increasing
respect for the Kru sailors.{5} If Gill thought about the social echoes of the master-slave
metaphor, it would have been with disapproval.
Why then choose a morally negative analogy? Perhaps this language helped emphasize his
innovation. While many timekeeping systems used one main clock to control multiple secondary
dials (for example, in schools, where the clockfaces in many classrooms needed to show the
same time), Gill’s invention coupled two autonomous clocks: a free pendulum swinging in a
vacuum (the master), and another (the slave) that could keep time itself but was subject to
periodic corrections from the master.{6} Because the free pendulum did not have to power a
dial, there was no drain on its momentum, and hence a great increase in its precision. The
concept of a free master that did no work and a slave that followed the master’s orders made for
a vivid, if ethically suspect, technosocial metaphor.
In 1921, W. H. Shortt, a British railway engineer, developed a similar system with some practical
improvements. Shortt collaborated with Frank Hope-Jones, director of the Synchronome
Company, and over the next thirty-five years Synchronome produced nearly one hundred
“Shortt Free Pendulum” clocks, which it sold to observatories all over the world. In 1924 a Major
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Prince gave a lecture to the British Horological Society in which he referred to the old-fashioned
secondary dials as “slave clocks.”{7} Hope-Jones was in the audience and objected to Prince’s
use of that term, suggesting that it should be restricted to free-pendulum systems. He
recommended “electrically impulsed dials” as a better alternative. Prince replied that he had
decided on “slave clock” deliberately because he thought it was more intelligible to the ordinary
person. He further pointed out that there were only about six clocks then in existence that
matched Hope-Jones’s definition, whereas there were many thousands that matched his.
Hope-Jones was fighting a losing battle, and Prince’s usage for “slave clock” became increasingly
common.
The earliest U.S. patent I have found in which the master-slave metaphor occurs is number
2510461, a “Multistation Microwave Communication System” from April 1946. The previous
patents it cites use phrases such as “master oscillation generator” and “second oscillation
generator.” Surprisingly, none of the numerous patents for flip-flop circuits use the
“master-slave” terminology until number 3454935 in 1966. I was able to track down the
engineer on that patent, Bud Hippisley, who kindly reviewed his course notes and exams from
his undergraduate digital systems engineering course at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology in 1962. He reported that the master-slave metaphor never came up, though
flip-flop circuits were covered thoroughly. Hippisley also reviewed memos from Honeywell in the
early 1960s and noted that master-slave terminology was also absent from them, though he
recalled that engineers at Honeywell did use it in conversation, “especially when people with
asynchronous design experience came onto our . . . design team.”
The master-slave analogy is frequently used for hydraulic cylinders, as in automobile brake
systems. But of nine U.S. patents for hydraulic cylinders granted prior to 1959, none employed
that terminology; labels such as “main cylinder” and “receiver cylinder” and “servomechanism”
were used instead. Master/slave does finally become common in patents for hydraulic cylinders
after 1960. The oldest instance I have found is patent number 2882686, granted in April 1959,
and even there the author introduced the terms cautiously: “In such hydraulic systems the
actuating cylinder and piston assembly is generally called the ‘master’ and the actuated cylinder
and piston assembly is generally called the ‘slave.’” The quote marks and explanations seem to
indicate that this was not yet a common figure of speech.
The most controversial technical setting for the master-slave metaphor is in computing, probably
because the general public most commonly encounters it there (as in, for example, a screen
message during boot-up that refers to “master/slave bios”). The earliest usage here is probably
the Dartmouth timesharing system, created in 1964. As with Gill’s clock, it appears to have been
inspired by an innovative control relationship between two autonomous devices: “First, all
computing for users takes place in the slave computer, while the executive program (the ‘brains’
of the system) resides in the master computer. It is thus impossible for an erroneous or runaway
user program in the slave computer to ‘damage’ the executive program and thereby bring the
whole system to a halt.”{8} Gill’s social metaphor described not only a control relation but other
resemblances as well; recall that the master was a “free” pendulum that did no work. Similarly,
the creators of the Dartmouth system extended the metaphor beyond the control relationship,
describing the master computer as the “brains”—thus implying that the slave computer is the
“brawn,” despite the fact that it does as much or more calculation. It is interesting to note that
this extension of the metaphor makes the same error—conflating mastery with intelligence—that
human masters often make about their own slaves. And consider the phrase “impossible for an
erroneous or runaway user program in the slave computer to ‘damage’ the executive program.”
It is almost certain that there was no conscious intention to echo pre–Civil War discourse on
runaway slaves, but that still leaves the possibility of a metaphor operating at a subconscious
level.
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By comparing master-slave terminology with earlier usage in technical literature, we can start to
understand why it did not become common until after WWII. First, there is the issue of
autonomy. The terms “master clock” and “secondary clock” made sense when only the master
clock actually kept time and secondary dials merely reflected the master dial positions. When
Hope-Jones insisted in 1924 that the term “slave clock” should be reserved for systems such as
the ones designed by Gill and Shortt, he was making a distinction based on autonomy. Those
secondary clocks could keep time independently, but still had to obey the master clock’s
timekeeping corrections. Interestingly, at almost the same time a new term meaning “slave” was
entering the English language to describe an autonomous device meant to obey its master:
“robot,” from the 1923 translation of Karel Capek’s 1921 play “R.U.R.” ((the word robot having
been derived from a Czech word for slave, “robotnik”). As Hippisley emphasized, the issue of
autonomy was particularly germane in cases where synchronization was required, an increasingly
common situation in computing and electronics.
A second issue, closely related, is the difference that electrical signals make. Consider what it
meant to drive a car before power steering. You wrestled with the wheel; the vehicle did not
slavishly carry out your whims, and steering was more like a negotiation between manager and
employee. Hence the appropriateness of terms such as “servo-motor” (coined in 1872) and
“servomechanism” (1930s): both suggest “servant,” someone subordinate but also in some
sense autonomous. These precybernetic systems, often mechanically linked, did not highlight the
division of control and power. But electrical systems did. Engineers found that by using an
electromagnetic relay or vacuum tube a powerful mechanical apparatus could be slaved to a tiny
electronic signal. Here we have a much sharper disjunction between the informational and
material domains. And with the introduction of the transistor in the 1950s and the integrated
circuit in the 1960s, the split became even more stark.
This coupling of immense material power with a relatively feeble informational signal became a
fundamental aspect of control mechanisms and automation at all scales, including the factory.
Combined with changing human managerial systems, it allowed a greater split between skilled
and unskilled labor. One of the most vivid descriptions of this technosocial change can be found
in David Noble’s classic article on numerically controlled machine tools.{9} Noble provides
convincing evidence that digital control over lathes, milling machines, and so forth, beginning in
the 1950s, was just as strongly motivated by managers’ desires to reduce shop-floor control and
union power as by hopes for improving accuracy or efficiency.
But the wage slave of the twentieth century is not the reason L.A. County officials banned the
use of the master-slave metaphor. Its resonance with enslaved Africans of the nineteenth
century is what concerned them. Which brings us to the second question: How do contemporary
black engineers feel about it?
In December 2005 I sent e-mail asking this question to thirteen African-Americans who are
generally ranked among the nations’ top scientists and engineers. Even if I had received
responses from all thirteen instead of the four who did reply, it would not have constituted a
statistically significant result, but I was more interested in content than statistics. My query
provoked passionate statements both for and against ending the use of master-slave
terminology. One respondent who argued against restrictions wrote:
I have to admit that the first time I read a description of a master-slave flip flop
(1974) was a little unnerving. It struck me as strange that a term for a social
institution would be used as a metaphor for the operation of an electronic device.
After I got over my discomfort, I was forced to think about the social institution
of slavery in more abstract terms (separation of control and data [work],
autonomous execution of the components, asynchronous execution, control
points, etc.). So, in some sense, the use of the term was beneficial to my
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intellectual and social development. I think we must be careful about attempts to
formally control language usage because the side effects could easily outweigh
the intended direct effects. Richness of language and richness of thought are
intertwined.
The other side was equally eloquent:
When I first taught digital logic, around 1992, I did not recognize the
awkwardness of the term until I, one of the few African-Americans in the room,
was standing in front of a class of sixty students. I recall mumbling. For
flip-flops, the terminology makes little sense, since there is no amplification
taking place. The master latch is connected directly to the input and eventually
the slave latch acquires the value of the master. The master is commanded by
the inputs just as much as the slave is. Furthermore, in real implementations,
this master-slave arrangement is not apparent; cleverly cross-connected gates
achieve the desired result without independent latches.
The same correspondent later added:
[M]y first thought was to ignore your email as a complaint that engineering
terminology was not “politically correct.” Then I remembered my own misgivings
about the term “master/slave flip-flops.” After a little more thought, it became
clear that the term was not very descriptive. Your historical essay pointed out
that it was introduced only recently, long after the devices were in use. It has to
go.
When I began this research, I was pretty much in the same camp as the first correspondent. But
the second changed my point of view. It is one thing to hear objections from people who are in
the business of promoting ethnic sensitivity, quite another to hear them from hard-core geeks
who have devoted their careers to their love for science and technology. If the master-slave
metaphor affected these tough-minded engineers who had the gumption to make it through a
technical career back in the days when they may have been the only black persons in their
classes, what impact might it have on black students who are debating whether or not to enter
science and technology careers at all?
The second correspondent raises another question: why use the master-slave metaphor when
there is not a control relationship between two devices? This echoes Hope-Jones’s objection to
Prince’s use of the term “slave clock,” but since WWII this indiscriminate usage has become
widespread. In fact, the most common encounter we have with it, as the phrase “master/slave
bios” flashes onscreen when a computer boots up, is entirely erroneous. As the online resource
PC Guide puts it: “Note that despite the hierarchical-sounding names of ‘master’ and ‘slave,’ the
master drive does not have any special status compared to the slave one; they are really equals
in most respects. The slave drive doesn’t rely on the master drive for its operation or anything
like that, despite the names (which are poorly-chosen—in the standards the master is usually
just ‘drive 0’ and the slave ‘drive 1’). The only practical difference between master and slave is
that the PC considers the master ‘first’ and the slave ‘second’ in general terms.”{10}
Why use this terminology if it renders a less accurate technical description, implying a control
relationship that does not exist? There are several possible explanations. Some scholars would
see it as evidence of sinister ulterior motives—a racist desire to mark technology with white
privilege, or the Freudian emergence of a sexually charged pathology of dominance.{11} I don’t
doubt the existence of racism, or of sadomasochism (though I don’t think that the latter should
be considered either a pathology or a suspect in technosocial power grabs). I don’t doubt that
somewhere out there exist a few racist engineers to whom the “sinister ulterior motive”
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explanation applies. But I do doubt that they constitute a significant number. After all, William
Shockley’s ideas about race met with overwhelming rejection from his engineering
colleagues—indeed, made him a pariah.{12}
Another possibility is that the metaphor caught on because it ameliorates a tension between a
desire for more autonomous machines and a desire to retain human mastery. That tension is a
familiar theme in the popular imagination of technology: examples include Mary Shelly’s
Frankenstein, the African-American story of John Henry, and Capek’s “R.U.R.,” to name just a
few. It is sometimes expressed in terms of threats to job security. In his 1832 book On the
Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, for example, Charles Babbage described three levels of
mathematical thought: the first the realm of professional mathematicians, the second that of
applied technicians, and the third belonging to mere mathematical workers. Babbage suggested
that the third level could be replaced by his Difference Engine. Later he proposed the
construction of an even more complex device, the Analytical Engine, which would be close to a
general-purpose computer. Luigi Frederico Menabrea, an Italian engineer, published an article in
which he suggested that the Analytical Engine could replace the applied mathematicians at
Babbage’s second level. Ada Lovelace, who translated Menabrea’s article, felt compelled to
assure readers that Babbage’s idea would not threaten what we would now call white-collar
professions: “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do
whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of
anticipating any analytical relations or truths.”{13} By referring to a master/slave relation in
devices, professionals may reassure themselves that they will remain masters of machines.
A third possibility is that the master-slave metaphor became increasingly common due to
positive feedback: the more it was used in engineering, the more it had an engineering-like
sound to it—a kind of meme or slow-moving fad. By this theory any figure of speech would have
caught on, and it was sheer chance that it happened to be this one. But this begs the question,
because there were indeed alternative terms in use, such as “primary” and “secondary.” Positive
feedback may have played a role, but the selection still has to be explained.
The tendency of scientists and engineers to think of their professions in terms of opposition to
culture suggests another possible explanation. Sharon Traweek, for example, noted the curious
promotion of impolite behavior among physics grad students.{14} In a particularly illuminating
instance, she observed that one student was constantly stuffing bread in his mouth at
restaurants. His professors reacted with amusement, and encouraged him by telling the waiter to
bring him more bread. When she asked one of them about it, he explained that being
unconscious of social mores was a good sign for a future physicist, because physics transcends
culture. Perhaps this kind of emphasis on a technical identity is at work here, too, and the
master-slave metaphor is attractive to engineers because its free use “proves” that they inhabit
a nonsocial or culture-free realm, which is a matter of professional pride. That would explain the
vociferous objections in technical listservs to the 2003 L.A. County memo, which challenged any
conviction that the technological realm truly transcends culture.
Finally, I should mention one of the explanations proposed in the 2003 listserv traffic, which was
essentially that much engineering terminology is boring, and engineers themselves are
stereotyped as boring, so they would be attracted to the master-slave figure of speech simply
because it makes their work seem more interesting.
Hope-Jones’s objection to Prince’s use of the term “slave clock” in 1924 was not motivated by
the politics of race. He wanted what any good engineer desires: accuracy. In that spirit, perhaps
we can agree to get rid of the master-slave metaphor in cases where it is manifestly incorrect.
But it seems to me that in addition to accuracy there are three ethical issues at stake here. The
first concerns a point made by one of the African-American scientists quoted above on the risks
of trying to control expression: “Richness of language and richness of thought are intertwined.”
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Many others made similar comments in the listserv traffic sparked by the L.A. County memo,
often in hostile and inflammatory language. While I have little sympathy for those who use
accusations of political correctness as political ammunition, I have a strong commitment to free
speech and the promotion of open thought in public domains, which entails not only the
protection of legal rights but also the protection of a climate in which open conversation can
occur. Several of my colleagues in queer theory and allied disciplines have pointed out that
“master/slave” has sexual connotations that they would be perfectly happy to defend. So I think
that any solution to this problem needs to actively avoid restrictions on the free expression and
exchange of ideas.
Second, as a social scientist involved with efforts to increase the recruitment and retention of
underrepresented minorities in science and engineering, I cannot condone practices that further
the alienation of these students.{15} So I also think, echoing the African-American engineer
who concluded that “It has to go,” that the laissez-faire position is untenable. Note that this is
potentially in conflict with my first observation.
Which brings me to the third ethical issue. In many cases of culture clash—enforced veiling of
women in Islamic countries, for example—controversies arise over the imposition of First World
mores on Third World populations.{16} On the one hand, a practice may seem unethical from a
Western viewpoint; on the other, allowing the Western viewpoint to determine non-Western
cultural practices just seems like an updated version of colonialism. One solution to this dilemma
has been to work through indigenous opposition groups that can encourage change through
more democratic means, with Western support. In a similar fashion, I think that a change in
technical terminology can be brought about through professional technical organizations, which
are analogous to a legitimate indigenous voice in the postcolonial situation. External groups
(such as the L.A. County Office of Affirmative Action Compliance) could provide support (by, for
example, documenting a problem and raising public awareness of it), in a manner analogous to
the way that international civil rights groups operate. Taking such an approach would honor the
first two ethical issues while resolving their conflict. Of course, nonengineering users and
students who might go into engineering are also affected by the terminology used by engineers,
so leaving it up to the technical organizations does not allow all affected parties an equal voice,
but I think this approach should be the first attempted.
The variety of ways in which the same control relationship is described in other languages may
serve as an inspiration. While the Dutch have the term “slave clock” (slaafklok), for example,
they also use “daughter clock” (dochterklok). In Germany one finds Mutteruhr and Tochteruhr
(mother clock and daughter clock), and their equivalents in France as well (horloge-mere and
horloge-file). The Germans also use Hauptuhr (head clock) and Nebenuhr (next-to clock). One of
my African-American correspondents reported that in his digital-circuits class he has been using
“boss” and “worker.” Surely, between our cultural resources and our desire for technical
accuracy, we can do better than “master” and “slave.”
{1} Reuters, “‘Master’ and ‘Slave’ Computer Labels Unacceptable, Officials Say,” 26 November
2003, http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/ptech/11/26/master.term.reut/index.html (accessed 15
January 2007).
{2} See, for example, Gary Lee Downey and Juan Lucena, “Weeding Out and Hiring In: How
Engineers Succeed,” in Cyborgs and Citadels: Anthropological Interventions in Emerging
Sciences and Technologies, ed. Gary Lee Downey and Joseph Dumit (Santa Fe, N.M., 1997); Ron
Eglash, “Race, Sex, and Nerds: From Black Geeks to Asian-American Hipsters,” Social Text 20
(2002): 49–64; and Lois Powell, “Factors Associated with the Underrepresentation of African
Americans in Mathematics and Science,” Journal of Negro Education 59 (1990): 292–98.
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{3} The Gill report is quoted by clock inventor Frank Hope-Jones in a lecture to the British
Horological Institute on 19 April 1923. Hope-Jones remarks: “Here the same idea is well
expressed, but is based on a checked gaining rate instead of synchronization and the term ‘slave
clock’ first used.” I am indebted to James Nye, secretary of the Electrical Horology Group, for
this information.
{4} George Forbes, David Gill: Man and Astronomer (London, 1916).
{5} Isobel Gill, Six Months in Ascension: An Unscientific Account of a Scientific Expedition,
(London, 1878).
{6} Although timekeeping systems using a main clock and secondary clocks, as in a school, are
now called master-slave clock systems, that is a fairly recent development. The Standard Electric
Time Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, for example, lists these as “master” and
“secondary” clocks in their catalogs from 1887–90 and 1909. Jeffery Wood, an expert on the
history of Standard Electric, says the term “slave clock” came into informal use there after about
1945.
{7} Thanks to David Read for his account of this event.
{8} John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, “Dartmouth Timesharing,” Science 162, no. 3850, 11
October 1968, 223–68.
{9} David Noble, “Social Choice in Machine Design: The Case of Automatically Controlled
Machine Tools,” in Case Studies on the Labor Process, ed. Andrew Zimbalist (New York, 1979).
{10} http://www.pcguide.com/ref/hdd/if/ide/confJumpering-c.html (accessed 15 January 2007).
{11} Sally L. Hacker, Doing It the Hard Way (Boston, 1990).
{12} Joel N. Shurkin, Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the
Electronic Age (New York, 2006).
{13} Philip Morrison and Emily Morrison, eds., Charles Babbage and His Calculating Engines:
Selected Writings by Charles Babbage and Others (New York, 1961), 284 (italics in original).
{14} Sharon Traweek, “Uptime, Downtime, Spacetime, and Power: An Ethnography of the
Particle Physics Community in Japan and the United States” (Ph.D. diss., University of
California—Santa Cruz, 1982). In the transition between Traweek’s dissertation and its
publication as Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists (Cambridge, Mass.,
1988), parts of the section referenced here were cut.
{15} See, for example, Ron Eglash et al., “Culturally Situated Design Tools: Ethnocomputing
from Field Site to Classroom,” American Anthropologist 108 (2006): 347–62.
{16} Enforcement is really at the heart of this controversy, since many Islamic feminists have
made solid arguments that veiling itself is not problematic as long as the decision is up to the
individual. See, for example, Muslim Women’s League, “An Islamic Perspective on Women’s
Dress” (2006), http://www.mwlusa.org/publications/positionpapers/hijab.html (accessed 11
January 2007).
Ron Eglash holds a B.S. in cybernetics, an M.S. in systems engineering, and a
Ph.D. in history of consciousness, all from the University of California. A
Fulbright postdoctoral fellowship enabled his field research on African
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ethnomathematics, which was published as African Fractals: Modern
Computing and Indigenous Design (1999). He is now an associate professor of
science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He
thanks James Nye, Martin Ridout, J. E. Bosschieter, Robert Miles, George
Feinstein, Alexis McCrossen, Bud Hippisley, Mitchell Janoff, Burt Kassap,
Mildred Kassap, Martin Campbell, and Jeffrey Wood.
Copyright© 2006–2007, the Society for the History of Technology
... The earliest appearances of "master-slave" terminology in technical settings occurred in 1904 [26]. Since then, the use of "master-slave" terminology has increased substantially in describing engineered systems. ...
... In computing systems, "master-slave" terminology is frequently used to describe how flip-flops function. According to Eglash's research, many Black engineers felt that such terminology does not conceptually make sense as a descriptor [26]. Furthermore, from this research it was revealed that in real industry settings, the "master-slave" relationship is not even apparent according to those same Black engineers [26]. ...
... According to Eglash's research, many Black engineers felt that such terminology does not conceptually make sense as a descriptor [26]. Furthermore, from this research it was revealed that in real industry settings, the "master-slave" relationship is not even apparent according to those same Black engineers [26]. Highlighting this inaccuracy with "masterslave" is important, because academia should strive to use nomenclature that is accurate and comfortable for all students to use-not just white and/or male students who have the privilege to feel comfortable accepting the "master-slave" metaphor [1]. ...
Article
The CAR (confront, address, replace) Strategy is an antiracist pedagogy aiming to drive out exclusionary terminology in engineering education. “Master-slave” terminology is still commonplace in engineering education and industry. However, questions have been raised about the negative impacts of such language. Usage of exclusionary terminology such as “master-slave” in academia can make students—especially those who identify as women and/or Black/African-American—feel uncomfortable, potentially evoking Stereotype Threat (Danowitz, 2020) and/or Curriculum Trauma (Buul, 2020). Indeed, prior research shows that students from a number of backgrounds find non-inclusive terminologies such as “master-slave” to be a major problem (Danowitz, 2020). Currently, women-identifying and gender nonbinary students are underrepresented in the engineering industry (ASEE, 2020) while Black/African-American students are underrepresented in the entire higher education system, including engineering fields (NSF, 2019). The CAR Strategy, introduced here, stands for: 1) confront; 2) address; 3) replace and aims to provide a framework for driving out iniquitous terminologies in engineering education such as “master-slave.” The first step is to confront the historical significance of the terminology in question. The second step is to address the technical inaccuracies of the legacy terminology. Lastly, replace the problematic terminology with an optional but recommended replacement. This thesis reports on student perceptions and the effectiveness of The CAR Strategy piloted as a teaching framework in the computer engineering department of Cal Poly. Of 64 students surveyed: 70% either agree or strongly agree that The CAR Strategy is an effective framework for driving out exclusionary terminologies. Amman Asfaw first presented certain portions of this thesis at the virtual 2021 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Annual Conference and Exposition. The original publication’s copyright is held by ASEE (Asfaw, 2021); secondary authors included Storm Randolph, Victoria Siaumau, Yumi Aguilar, Emily Flores, Dr. Jane Lehr, and Dr. Andrew Danowitz.
... They have become just the terms we use-a classic case of dead metaphors. We may only notice them when it is pointed out that the metaphors themselves are distasteful or even offensive, such as recent discussions about the usage of the metaphors: abort, master and slave, whitelist and blacklist [35,50,80]. In these objectionable cases, it seems the dead metaphors arise from their graves to trouble us-perhaps becoming 'zombie metaphors.' ...
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We explore a range of different metaphors used for Voice User Interfaces (VUIs) by designers, end-users, manufacturers, and researchers using a novel framework derived from semi-structured interviews and a literature review. We focus less on the well-established idea of metaphors as a way for interface designers to help novice users learn how to interact with novel technology and more on other ways metaphors can be used. We find that metaphors people use are contextually fluid, can change with the mode of conversation, and can reveal differences in how people perceive VUIs compared to other devices. Not all metaphors are helpful, and some may be offensive. Analyzing this broader class of metaphors can help understand, perhaps even predict problems. Metaphor analysis can be a low-cost tool to inspire design creativity and facilitate complex discussions about sociotechnical issues, enabling us to spot potential opportunities and problems in the situated use of technologies.
... While it might seem strange that many digital platforms would enable the far right through their designs, it should be noted that issues like sexism and racism have since long been built into digital technology (Eglash, 2007;Noble, 2018). Moreover, it is important to recognise that most digital platforms are not freely provided communication tools for the general public, but for-profit organisations that base their businesses around ad revenue (Fuchs & Sevignani, 2013;Gillespie, 2010). ...
Thesis
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Background: This thesis explores the far right online beyond the study of political parties and extremist far-right sites and content. Specifically, it focuses on the proliferation of far-right discourse among ‘ordinary’ internet users in mainstream digital settings. In doing so, it aims to bring the study of far-right discourse and the enabling roles of digital platforms and influential users into dialogue. It does so by analysing what is communicated and how; where it is communicated and therein the roles of different socio-technical features associated with various online settings; and finally, by whom, focusing on particularly influential users. Methods: The thesis uses material from four different datasets of digital, user-generated content, collected at different times through different methods. These datasets have been analysed using mixed methods approaches wherein interpretative methods, primarily in the form of critical discourse analysis (CDA), have been combined with various data processing techniques, descriptive statistics, visualisations, and computational data analysis methods. Results: The thesis provides a number of findings in relation to far-right discourse, digital platforms, and online influence, respectively. In doing so it builds on the findings of previous research, illustrates unexpected and contradictory results in relation to what was previously known, and makes a number of interesting new discoveries. Overall, it begins to unravel the complex interconnectedness of far-right discourse, platforms, and influential users, and illustrates that to understand the far-right’s efforts online it is imperative to take several dimensions into account simultaneously. Conclusion: The thesis makes several contributions. First, the thesis makes a conceptual contribution by focusing on the interconnectedness of far-right efforts online. Second, it makes an empirical contribution by exploring the multifaceted grassroots or ‘non-party’ dimensions of far-right mobilisation, Finally, the thesis makes a methodological contribution through its mix of methods which illustrates how different aspects of the far right, over varying time periods, diversely sized and shaped datasets, and user constellations, can be approached to reveal broader overarching patterns as well as intricate details.
... Anti-Black ideologies are pervasive in computing education, dismissing the lived -and ongoinghistories of slavery and white supremacy. When the words "master" and "slave" are still an ordinary part of our computing vocabulary (Eglash, 2007), and when computer scientists at Google declare their excitement for "quantum supremacy" (Arute et al., 2019), CS education fails its students. It dismisses trauma, intergenerational and ongoing, and gives way to acceptance of language based on the premise of computing operating under neutrality. ...
Article
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Computer science (CS) education finds itself at a pivotal moment to reckon with what it means to accept, use, and create technologies, with the continued recruitment of minoritized students into the field. In this paper, we build on the oral traditions of educating with stories, and take the reader on two journeys. We begin with a story that leads us in thinking about where computer science education is, in the wake of slavery, under the New Jim Code. Within a BlackCrit framework, we shake the grounds of the computer science field, where technologies are often promoted as objective, but reflect and reproduce existing inequalities. In tune with maintaining current systems of power, efforts to broaden participation in computer science have been heavily driven by industry, government, and military interests. These interests ultimately push us farther away from sustainable relations with the earth and with each other, and risk the very lives of the same communities the field claims to help. However, we can rewrite the narratives of the role of technology in our lives. We present a second story in which we place abolitionist theories and practices in conversation with computer science education. In this paper we explore (1) In what ways does computing education support systems that enable Black death? and (2) How might integrating an abolitionist framework into computer science open up possibilities for world-building and dreaming in the name of Black Life? We imagine a different future where computer science is used as a tool in life-affirming, world-building projects. We invite readers to engage with this piece as a part of an active dialogue towards combating anti-Black logics in the field of computer science education.
... Many problems are associated with fixation on certain assumptions in HRI. First, envisioning the design and development of robots only in utilitarian terms, i.e., making robots primarily into servants and encoding particular norms around power structures, contributed to dull and repetitive interactions with robots [22]. This is shown in long-term studies where user engagement tend to decline with time of interaction, highlighting the challenge of maintaining high engagement over prolonged interaction times [1], [31]. ...
Conference Paper
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The word "robot" frequently conjures unrealistic expectations of utilitarian perfection: tireless, efficient, and flawless agents. However, real-world robots are far from perfect—they fail and make mistakes. Thus, roboticists should consider altering their current assumptions and cultivating new perspectives that account for a more complete range of robot roles, behaviors, and interactions. To encourage this, we explore the use of metaphors for generating novel ideas and reframing existing problems, eliciting new perspectives of human-robot interaction. Our work makes two contributions. We (1) surface current assumptions that accompany the term "robots," and (2) present a collection of alternative perspectives of interaction with robots through metaphors. By identifying assumptions, we provide a comprehensible list of aspects to reconsider regarding robots’ physicality, roles, and behaviors. Through metaphors, we propose new ways of examining how we can use, relate to, and co-exist with the robots that will share our future.
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Industrial, academic, activist, and policy research and advocacy movements formed around resisting ‘machine bias’, promoting ‘ethical AI’, and ‘fair ML’ have discursive implications for what constitutes harm, and what resistance to algorithmic influence itself means, and is deeply connected to which actors makes epistemic claims about harm and resistance. We present a loose categorization of kinds of resistance to algorithmic systems: a dominant mode of resistance as ‘filtering up’ and being translated into design fixes by Big Tech; and advocacy and scholarship which bring a critical frame of lived experiences and scholarship around algorithmic systems as socio-technical entities. Three recent cases delve into how Big Tech responds to harms documented by marginalized groups; these highlight how harms are valued differently. Finally, we identify modes of refusal that recognize the limits of Big Tech's resistance; built on practices of feminist organizing, decoloniality, and New-Luddism, they encourage a rethinking of the place and value of technologies in mediating human social and personal life; and not just how they can deterministically ‘improve’ social relations.
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Engineering education is often decontextualized, even as it is suffused with metaphoric language and sociocultural norms and beliefs. Efforts to embed social context and sociotechnical content in engineering education are often met with resistance. We contribute to conversations about how to change dominant knowledge regimes by detailing the process by which a team grapples with efforts to change technically-focused curricula and practices in engineering education – and faculty members’ values and beliefs about them – by invoking metaphors. Metaphors of war and revolution, conversion/evangelism, and care permeate faculty discourse as they interpret and attempt to enact change. We show how these metaphors are significant in the ways that they both enable and constrain possibilities for change.
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W filmach oraz grach cyfrowych dotychczas przeważały dwa stanowiska wobec rozwoju sztucznej inteligencji, portretujące ją jako zagrożenie tudzież obronę przed tym zagrożeniem. Celem artykułu jest ukazanie – na przykładzie gry Event[0] – narodzin nowego paradygmatu w kulturze popularnej, w którym sztuczna inteligencja staje się równorzędnym partnerem wymagającym szacunku ze strony człowieka. Posługując się metodą autoetnografii analitycznej, autor docieka możliwości pogodzenia w kontekście tej gry Heglowskiego, antropocentrycznego humanizmu z prądem posthumanistycznym. Rezultaty badań pozwalają dowieść zarówno postępu technologicznego sztucznej inteligencji w grach cyfrowych, jak i wyłaniania się nowego spojrzenia na relację człowiek-maszyna, pozbawionego protekcjonalności poprzednich dzieł kultury popularnej.
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Social Text 20.2 (2002) 49-64 The development of technological expertise requires not only financial resources but also cultural capital. Nerd identity has been a critical gateway to this technocultural access, mediating personal identities in ways that both maintain normative boundaries of power and offer sites for intervention. This essay examines the figure of the nerd in relation to race and gender identity and explores the ways in which attempts to circumvent its normative gatekeeping function can both succeed and fail. Turkle (1984) vividly describes nerd self-identity in her ethnographic study of undergraduate men at MIT. In one social event "they flaunt their pimples, their pasty complexions, their knobby knees, their thin, underdeveloped bodies" (196); in interviews they describe themselves as losers and loners who have given up bodily pleasure in general and sexual relations in particular. But Turkle notes that this physical self-loathing is compensated for by technological mastery; hackers, for example, see themselves as "holders of an esoteric knowledge, defenders of the purity of computation seen not as a means to an end but as an artist's material whose internal aesthetic must be protected" (207). While MIT computer science students might be an extreme case, other researchers have noted similar phenomena throughout science and technology subcultures. Noble (1992) suggests that contemporary cultures of science still bear a strong influence from the clerical aesthetic culture of the Middle Ages Latin Church, which rejected both women and bodily or sensual pleasures. He points out that the modern view of science as an opposite of religion is quite recent, and that even in the midst of twentieth-century atheist narratives, science (and "applied" technological pursuits such as creating artificial life or minds) continues to carry transcendent undertones. Noble's historical argument easily combines with Turkle's social psychology of nerd self-image. Normative gender associations are not the only restrictions that nerd identity places on technoscience access. In an essay whose title contains the provocative phrase "Could Bill Gates Have Succeeded If He Were Black," Amsden and Clark (1995) note that the lack of software entrepreneurship among African Americans cannot simply be attributed to lack of education or start-up funds, since both are surprisingly low requirements in the software industry. Rather, much of the ability of white software entrepreneurs appears to derive from their opportunities to form collaborations through a sort of nerd network—either teaming with fellow geeks (Bill Gates and Paul Allen at Microsoft) or pairing up between "suits and hackers" (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Apple). But if nerd identity is truly the gatekeeper for technoscience as an elite and exclusionary practice, it is doing a very inadequate job of it. First, while significant gaps are still present, there has been a dramatic increase in science and technology scholastic performance and career participation by women and underrepresented minorities since the 1960s (Campbell, Hombo, and Mazzeo 1999); yet during that time period nerd identity has become a more and not less prominent feature of the social landscape. Second, this change has been far stronger in closing the gender gap than in closing the race gap. For example, in the 1990s the gender gap in scholastic science performance for seventeen-year-olds was significantly lower, while the gap between black and white seventeen-year-olds remained the same. Yet Noble and Turkle portray gender/sexuality, not race, as the overriding feature of nerd identity (Turkle does not, for example, offer any reflections about the possibility of racial identity in her comments about "pasty complexions"). Finally, we might note that in comparison to, say, Hitler's Aryan Übermensch, the geek image is hardly a portrait of white male superiority. Indeed, the more we examine it, the more nerd identity seems less a threatening gatekeeper than a potential paradox that might allow greater amounts of gender and race diversity into the potent locations of technoscience, if only we could better understand it. Of course, to the extent that geekdom fails to create such barriers—to the extent that it allows women and underrepresented minorities to fully participate in technoscience without being nerds—one can simply...
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Ethnomathematics is the study of mathematical ideas and practices situated in their cultural context. Culturally Situated Design Tools (CSDTs) are web-based software applications that allow students to create simulations of cultural arts—Native American beadwork, African American cornrow hairstyles, urban graffiti, and so forth—using these underlying mathematical principles. This article is a review of the anthropological issues raised in the CSDT project: negotiating the representations of cultural knowledge during the design process with community members, negotiating pedagogical features with math teachers and their students, and reflecting on the software development itself as a cultural construction. The move from ethnomathematics to ethnocomputing results in an expressive computational medium that affords new opportunities to explore the relationships between youth identity and culture, the cultural construction of mathematics and computing, and the formation of cultural and technological hybridity.
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We have learned that success can result in an entirely new set of problems. Our original DTSS, which seemed much too large for a small campus with very few computer users, soon proved unable to handle the demands of the same small campus where everyone seemed to be clamoring for computer services. By 1966 we were planning the second DTSS. With the cooperation of General Electric, we opened in the fall of 1967 a time-sharing system, based on GE-635 hardware, which can handle over 100 users. The NSF has helped us provide computer services to 23 secondary schools and 10 colleges, as well as expanding the local capabilities. This fall we will launch phase II, a fully general-purpose, large-scale, time-sharing system for the GE-635. Like the first DTSS, phase II is again being written by a faculty-student coalition at Dartmouth. It will serve everyone, from the novice to the research worker who needs large production runs. We hope that with our much more powerful hardware we will be able to provide these extended services to some 150 users simultaneously without compromising our basic philosophy of making the system as easy to use for the inexperienced as for our original DTSS. The real test comes this fall. We are confident that the expert faculty user will be very happy. But will our students after a football game still take their dates to the Kiewit Computation Center to show off their prowess with computers?
Weeding Out and Hiring In: How Engineers Succeed
  • Gary Lee See
  • Juan Downey
  • Lucena
See, for example, Gary Lee Downey and Juan Lucena, "Weeding Out and Hiring In: How Engineers Succeed," in Cyborgs and Citadels: Anthropological Interventions in Emerging Sciences and Technologies, ed. Gary Lee Downey and Joseph Dumit (Santa Fe, N.M., 1997);
  • George Forbes
  • David Gill
George Forbes, David Gill: Man and Astronomer (London, 1916).
He is now an associate professor of science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He thanks James Nye, Martin Ridout
Ron Eglash holds a B.S. in cybernetics, an M.S. in systems engineering, and a Ph.D. in history of consciousness, all from the University of California. A Fulbright postdoctoral fellowship enabled his field research on African 8/10/2008 6:41 PM ethnomathematics, which was published as African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design (1999). He is now an associate professor of science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He thanks James Nye, Martin Ridout, J. E. Bosschieter, Robert Miles, George Feinstein, Alexis McCrossen, Bud Hippisley, Mitchell Janoff, Burt Kassap, Mildred Kassap, Martin Campbell, and Jeffrey Wood.