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“The Translation of Cyberfeminism”: A Talk with Mindy Seu

Cover page of

Featured image caption: Front cover of The Cyber Feminism Index by Mindy Seu, designed by Laura Coombs.

By Juniper Johnson

The NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks in collaboration with the Digital Scholarship Group recently hosted Mindy Seu to discuss her project and forthcoming book, Cyberfeminism Index. Seu is an Assistant Professor at the Rutgers University Mason Gross School of the Arts and Critic at Yale School of Art. In her presentation “The Translation of Cyberfeminism,”Seu discussed the history of this project during her time at the Berkman Klein Center for the Internet & Society and Harvard Graduate School of Design, how it has changed over time, and the importance and role of the ways that we access media and information. Seu’s entire presentation and lecture notes can be found online on her website, as comments in the HTML of the website.

Seu began her presentation exploring the relationship of containers and tools with design, starting with the basket as opposed to the spear in hunter and gatherer societies, drawn from Ursula Le Guin’s “A Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” The basket, a symbol of gathering instead of violence, is a useful concept as it reframes technologies from an individual to a “we”. To explore the relationship between containers, community, and identity, Seu outlined three important containers for the Cyberfeminism Index: the spreadsheet, the website, and the publication. 

For Seu, Cyberfeminism Index is a project underscored by gathering, or the act of collecting items thoughtfully and intentionally over time. Starting with a spreadsheet, Seu demonstrated her collection process, taxonomy, and metadata field for the project, focusing on how even the act of tagging items with topics became an intentional practice of how and why something is described in a certain way. Even by using multiple tags to describe an item, Seu noted that it was not as flexible as desired, the design of data collection necessitating discrete choices when such rigidness might want to be resisted. Looking at the history of spreadsheets and the invention of Excel as a GUI in 1985, Seu discussed how spreadsheets allowed functional programming for the masses but, in turn, perpetuated confined structures for regularity.

Seu continued down this thread to look at ways that designers, engineers, and technologists created early-internet websites and technology that resisted certain forms of regularity, instead formatting citation and reference in their design. In particular, Seu explored the theory and design of Ted Nelson’s project Xanadu, one of the first hypertext projects. Inspired by the structure of the Talmud, which centers primary source and scholarly discourse together on a single page, Nelson’s Xanadu explored multi-directional connection with two-way linking that built citation and annotation into the very structure and working of the interface itself. 

Nelson’s work, to Seu, highlights a few important questions: how do we visualize citations? How do websites age? What design decisions are needed to preserve functionality over time? Exploring these concepts, Seu demonstrated several websites that, though built almost 25 years ago, are still functional today because of the purposeful and intentional use of CSS and HTML in their design. Amidst an internet where websites have an average shelf life of 3 weeks, Seu’s point underscores the importance of design choices for containers that can support sustainability, community, and continued usage. 

Seu then turned to explore the cyberfeminism websites, outlining several of the intentional design decisions. For example, the Cyberfeminism Index interface for users is centered on inter-linking and association. As you click through the index, your “trail” is displayed on a window on the right and can be downloaded as a PDF for future reference. Here, Seu emphasized that the website does not collect and store this information, but this function works locally on your computer individually. In a world where access and preservation of data is a political act, Seu wanted users to have the ability to preserve this information themselves as a key functionality of the project itself. 

After discussing the project website, Seu outlined the process of turning the index from an online source to a print book, detailing the process of downloading, annotation, citing, and editing the index from Google Sheets to Google Docs. By color coding the text, Seu was able to create structure that, when paired with Laura Coombs design template and Lily Healey’s scripting, led to the print edition. Throughout the discussion of the print text, Seu explored the interesting ways the text replicates certain multimodal elements of the artifacts they describe. For example, Seu tagged all images as image targets so users looking at the text with an overhead camera can interact with the text in an additional AR (assisted reality) component. In the end, Cyberfeminism Index is an exciting, innovative project that catalogs and preserves the work of artists, scholars, activists, and more on cyber feminism, a collection that spans 30+ years across the globe. Visit the Cyberfeminism Index website to learn more about the ongoing project.

A recording of the presentation is available through Northeastern’s Digital Repository Service.

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