Histories of Digital Labor (Guaranteed panel, MLA 2017, 5-8 January, Philadelphia, PA)

Marguerite Helmers's picture
Call for Papers
January 5, 2017 to January 8, 2017
Pennsylvania, United States
Subject Fields: 
Digital Humanities, Humanities, Intellectual History, Labor History / Studies, Library and Information Science

The MLA Committee on Information Technology invites abstracts on the history of digital labor for a guaranteed panel at the MLA conference in Philadelphia from January 5-8, 2017.

As labor-intensive projects continue to dominate the funding landscape of the digital humanities, scholars are beginning to ask important questions about the labor involved in such project. Who is doing this work? What are the working conditions? How are these labors credited or erased? By recovering stories and contributions by forgotten laborers—by insisting that students receive some compensation and that overseas transcription farms are recognized for what they are—digital humanists are beginning to attend to important questions of social justice.

This panel will apply these questions to the early history of digital technologies (with an emphasis on the twentieth-century before 1980). Papers will recover technological labors in the past that have been invisible, misunderstood, or underappreciated. Papers will theorize how stories from the past can revise our understanding of the relationships between digital labor, research, and making. Although arguments about well-known women/minority figures in tech history (Ada Lovelace; Grace Hopper; the six women of ENIAC) are certainly welcome, the primary burden or ultimate upshot of the argument should relate to broader patterns of labor practices.

Topics might include, but are not limited to:

·      Labor practices in early factories/data farms/technology companies (The Tabulating Machine Company, the Bundy Manufacturing Company, IBM, the Electromatic Typewriter Co., Bell Labs), including organized labor movements

·      Cultural histories of women as computers

·      Accounts of operators of technological machinery (secretaries, telegraphists, telephone switchboard operators, punch-card operators)

·      Fresh stories from or theorizations of the technological labor systems of war, whether intelligence (governmental departments such as Bletchley Park as well as factories) or material production (factories)

·      Institutional histories of university computer science programs, departments, and laboratories

·      Histories of governmental regulation of labor in the tech industry

·      New takes on Donna Haraway’s cyborg women of color

Preference will be given to proposals that construct or hypothesize a genealogy linking the digital labor of the past and present. Please submit 250-300 word abstracts by 1 March, 2016. All presenters must be members of the MLA by April 1, 2016.

Contact Info: 

Shawna Ross, Texas A&M University, Accepting Submissions

Marguerite Helmers, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Chair of MLA Committee on Information Technology

Contact Email: