Getting to Know Your CMNS Faculty: Stephanie Dick

March 07, 2023

"Academia affords us the space to be free in shaping ourselves. It's less about the accumulation of knowledge and more about cultivating in one's self an orientation to the world, to other people, and to our existential conundrums."

Stephanie Dick is a historian of science. She focuses on the history of mathematics, computing, and artificial intelligence. From early into her academic career, Stephanie was drawn to learning. Right off the bat she wanted to see the origins of the paradigms we take for granted, recover old debates and controversies to see whose perspectives are "winning" and shaping scientific understanding and whose perspectives are being erased, written out, disqualified from the project of knowing the world and why. She's been pursuing the answers to these questions ever since!

We sat down with Stephanie to learn all about her journey.

Tell us more about your research.

I am a historian of science by training, and I focus in particular on the history of mathematics, computing, and artificial intelligence. So often, mathematical knowledge, and especially deductive proof are held up as our most certain knowledge. In fact, proofs are meant to establish, once and for all, that a given mathematical finding is true – in every possible instance, time, and place. My research is born out of the observation that, for all its claims to universality and to certainty, mathematical knowledge, logic, and deduction are full of controversy and historical change. What counts as a proof has changed many times in history and differs across cultures, countries, and even institutions. I am a part of a vibrant historical field that seeks to offer critical perspectives and deeper understanding of mathematics by shedding light on these contingencies and controversies. This is not to say that mathematics cannot offer us powerful tools for navigating scientific, social, and existential questions, but we must understand how those tools actually work, where they come from, and what decisions, contingencies, and controversies have been hidden from view in order to bolster those claims to certainty. My first book project, Making Up Minds: Computing and Proof in the Postwar United states, explores one particular set of controversies and contingencies that emerged in the history of mathematical proof when modern digital computers were introduced. Can computer produce proofs of theorems? How? Do we trust the computer in the same way we trust human mathematicians or in different ways? I look at the many different approaches to generating mathematical proof by computer in order to explore the nexus of computational and mathematical knowledge. I discovered something even more interesting than the controversies and contingencies that abound in the history of mathematics. I discovered just how central faith in mathematics and faith in computer-automation were for many researchers dealing with political and existential anxiety in the 20th century. So my book not only explores different early approaches to the history of automated theorem-proving, it explores why so many researchers in this field thought they were solving a hard political problem or a hard existential problem. For some, they believed that automated theorem-proving would serve the postwar imperial aspirations of the United States by taking decision-making power away from humans and their limitations, and reassigning it to automated systems. Others believed that databases of automated mathematics would cure the “deleterious effects of cultural relativism” – proposing that automated theorem-proving was a way of dealing with political disagreement and difference by monumentalizing universal knowledge. Still others believed that automated mathematics might offer a way to make philosophical perspectives and pure and abstract knowledge more useful and useable. So my first book explores this nexus of thinking about mathematical knowledge and computation, in the context of political and existential questions in the second half of the twentieth century United States.

One of the mathematicians working on automated theorem-proving in the 1960s and 70s was a Texan named Woody Bledsoe. I discovered in his archive that Bledsoe was also the designer of the first facial recognition algorithm in the United States and that algorithm played a central role in the vision of the first centralized law enforcement data bank in the US – the New York State Identification and Intelligence System. My second project has become an exploration of those earliest law enforcement databanks and the algorithmic tools – like Bledsoe’s problematic attempt at automated photo-matching – that informed its design and development. This project will be wrapping up as a collection of two or three journal articles that explore different dimensions of NYSIIS.

Finally, I am embarking on a new long-term research project under the umbrella of “Ritual and Algorithm.” In my studies of mathematical knowledge, algorithmic problem-solving and management, and AI in general, I keep encountering what might be called their “others.” The realm of the spiritual, of magic and the occult – domains that are traditionally seen as opposite and even hinderances to the rule of Reason. This dichotomy has a long history entrenched in colonial anthropology that sought to identify the “superstitious” magical traditions of “traditional” and tribal peoples in order to explain and justify the superiority of Western European “Rationality”. This dichotomy was also entrenched in the Enlightenment which sought to excise everything from emotion to spirituality from the production of knowledge – which was to be guided by sound logic, reason, and rationality and protected from what were seen as unreliable and threatening “emotions” and subjectivities, politics, and superstitions. But of course, like most dichotomies, spirituality and rationality, ritual and algorithm, emotion and reason, spill over into one another all of the time. In the early modern period, there was no controversy about it: mathematics was a religious undertaking, more oriented towards the cultivation of spiritual modes of interiority, knowledge of God and nature, and wisdom, than in the churning out of objective and certain results by mechanical and algebraic means. But what has happened to the religious dimensions of mathematical practice and knowledge in modernity? I will be exploring the modern history of intersections between spiritual and algorithmic or mathematical cultures. I will be applying for a big SSHRC grant to support this research agenda including supporting the investigation of AI-driven horoscopes, the surge in spirituality and witchcraft content on social media, debates about whether evolution by natural selection is an algorithm, and so on. Sometimes, when we are disciplined and follow rules it is called a spiritual practice – think of the Byzantine monks who structured their days down to the minute in order to pursue spiritual awakening! But sometimes, when we are disciplined and follow rules it is a deadening experience of being rendered machine-like, losing meaning, becoming alienated. How can tell the difference between different regimes of rule following? How do we account for the external similarities between undertakings that are so different?

Did you always know you wanted to be in academia?

I had never known an academic nor even anyone who had done a PhD before I was an undergrad! I was planning to study philosophy and then go to law school. I always knew I was interested in fundamental questions – in getting to the heart of things – but I didn’t really know what that even looked like, and I thought that the Law was the discipline asking questions about how we live together, about how societies work, and so I thought I should do that. I was a very serious debater in high school (I was on Canada’s national team in 2002!) and it was also a natural trajectory for debaters to pursue Law and often, eventually, politics. But I had a debating coach named Josh Judah who worked with our national team and told me he thought I would love a great books program that was on offer at the University of King’s College in Halifax, NS. I trusted Josh implicitly and so I applied. The program started with the Epic of Gilgamesh and ended with postmodernism in the second half of the 20th century, and read across history, philosophy, political science, literature, and science through that massive historical arc. This program blew the whole world open for me – and I learned there that it isn’t lawyers and policy makers who get to the heart of things, this what “academics” do and I finally knew that was a thing one could do! I was most drawn to the weeks in that course where our knowledge of the natural world was at stake. I was fascinated by the early modern debate about, for example, experimentation. Some philosophers thought the best way to learn about nature was to observe it in its “natural” course and model and theorize its laws that way. Others increasingly thought that the best way to learn about nature was to do experiments on it that drew forth phenomena and effects that could never happen on their own. I not only thought this was a profound and fascinating debate in itself, it also revealed to me just how recent and unsettled our commitments in science actually are.

What is your favourite thing about teaching?

I love teaching. I see it more as a collaborative affair than a top-down imparting of wisdom. I am here to help students ask their own questions and empower themselves to live in an increasingly complex world. As such, my favourite part of teaching is really when students make the work their own. I love to see students taking initiative, making connections to current events, connecting with other classes, asking their own questions. I fear that sometimes learning feels like a rote exercise in accumulating information and reproducing back on exams and in essays. So when a student has found their own way into the material, is thinking creatively about the material, is taking a risk with their argumentation, that is my favourite. It is also from this type of student initiative that I learn what new directions courses might go, what is of most interests to students these days, and how I can best help students find their way in the intellectual world of communication and STS.

What courses are you teaching next term?

In Fall 2023, I will be teaching CMNS 488: Living with Algorithms. This is one of my favorite courses I have ever taught. Each week, we explore a different algorithm or algorithmic system together with an eye to understanding how it works, why it works like that, and what it means to live with these systems from a social, political, intellectual, and existential perspective. The course is in four parts - Algorithms of the Self, Algorithms of the State, Cultural Algorithms, and Algorithms and the World – allowing us to explore algorithmic life and culture at different sites and scales. In Algorithms of the Self, for example, we look at algorithms that were thought to reproduce human reasoning in early AI, we look at algorithms and wearables for managing the body, we look at emotion recognition and dating algorithms to get us at how algorithms are introduced to our emotional lives. In Algorithms of the State, we explore how algorithms are introduced to policy, used in policing, used to manage and sort populations. In Cultural Algorithms we explore AI story-tellers and art generators, music recommendation algorithms, and so on. And in algorithms and the world, we look at financial algorithms, search algorithms that shape how the world looks to us, and even the significant environmental costs of our increasingly algorithmic lives. It’s a reading heavy course, and students write two papers targeted at different questions that cut across these sections, but my hope is that students come away with a better understanding of what algorithms are, how and where they are at work in our lives, and their costs and effects at different levels. In Spring 2024, I will be teaching CMNS 353: The Information Age. I am really excited about this course! The information age begins with the advent of the printing press in the 1500s and proceeds to the present exploring how central regimes of producing, gathering, managing, and interpreting information have been for science, politics, and society. This class has a lot of hands on elements: students will have the opportunity to “try out” different information regimes from history by trying out Morse Code, attempting to decrypt communications in the style of WWII era code-breaking, they will attempt to program a computer by “plugboard” as was done before there were programming languages, they will play the role of “human computers” from the 19th century by solving mathematical calculations together using only addition, participating in Turing Tests, and more.  Students will come away from this course with a deeper understanding of how “information” scaffolds our lives and with experience working in and engaging with different information regimes through history. I also teach CMNS 235 Digital Democracies. This course begins with the French Revolution and the particular blending of scientific and political aspirations that drove this early imagination of self-governance. It then proceeds to explore different entanglements of the vision and practice of democracy with technology over several centuries from social media-based misinformation to the history of the census to attempts to scaffold pluralism and democratic collaboration through machine learning.

What is your proudest achievement of your career so far?

This is such a hard question! There are so many different metrics according to which people measure their success. I think we are increasingly trapped in the academy by the emphasis on individual accomplishment, competition, and a sense of scarcity about both jobs and resources. These influences make it easy to celebrate our individual accomplishments like winning awards or publishing in prestigious journals or getting competitive positions. But I am actually most proud of the organizing and collaborating work I have done in my career. I had the profound honor and privilege of being a part of the team who organized the annual SIGCIS conference over the past five years. SIGCIS, for the Special Interest Group in Computing, Information and Society, is a sub-community at SHOT, the largest professional organization of historians of technology. SIGCIS used to hold a workshop on the last day of SHOT every year to give the computer historians time to connect. However, it tended to be both a very small and technical community, without a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds. Laine Nooney, a professor at NYU requested to take it over and invited me to join them. Working together over the last many years, we have transformed SIGCIS into what I believe is one of the most inclusive, vibrant, collaborative and exciting communities in the vast landscape of meetings devoted to our understanding of computing and information. We approached the building of this community as both a social and intellectual undertaking and invited keynote speakers, developed conference themes, and recruited participation in ways that created space for the conversations and the people we most wanted to hold space for, while also holding on to the more traditional forms of scholarship that SIGCIS has always supported. It was, for me, an experience of how powerful it is to make the communities you want to be a part of, and not to accept that they way things have been done is the way you must do them. In August 2022, Johns Hopkins University Press published a volume that I edited with computing historian Janate Abbate called Abstractions and Embodiments: New Histories of Computing and Society that brought together work from many scholars in the SIGCIS community. It felt like such a celebration of our scholarship and our community to see that volume come out.

What is the best part about your profession?

This is a hard question! There are many things I love about being a professor. I love working with students and hearing from them. I love working with graduate students and watching them remake the field with always updated questions and perspectives. I love collaborative work. I absolutely love research – I love to be in the archives, I love being there with my questions and watching where they lead me. But I think the thing that I appreciate most about being an academic is that it can be an exercise in making one’s self. I think there are a lot of scripts on offer in modern Western life, checklists for a ‘good life’ to work through, expectations and incentives that tell us what to do and how to do it, rules to follow both spoken and unspoken. It’s hard to know, in a life so scripted by expectations and institutions, where there is space to decide who you are and how you make meaning in your life. For a long time, in academia, I was very concerned about doing what I was supposed to be doing – but the older I get and the more confidence and clarity I have about my work, about the questions that drive me, and about the people I want to be in intellectual community with, I realize that academia affords us the space to be free in shaping ourselves. It’s less about the accumulation of knowledge and more about cultivating in one’s self an orientation to the world, to other people, and to our existential conundrums. I feel very privileged to have been able to decide what I want to spend my days thinking about and looking for ways to build community and energy around those questions. I wish that more people had the freedom to do this and that organized society held more space for that kind of self-determination beyond simply choosing a “career” that in turn defines many things about who you will be and how you will spend your time.

What is a key element that has shaped your success today?

The complimentary feedback that I have received the most concerns my investment in bringing people along with me. I think sometimes we hope or expect that the significance or stakes of our work will be immediately clear to colleagues but I have found this is not the case. I think we have to work harder than we expect to really get people to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it. This kind of work takes many forms. I was so incredibly grateful for my experience with public speaking from growing up as a debater. I think that being able to write and present compelling talks and lectures is often an under-developed skill that can really help us connect and be seen in our areas of research. Another way I have tried to bring people along with me is by learning to talk about the technical content of my work in many different ways – neither black boxing it as “i.e. you won’t and don’t need to understand this” nor getting into the weeds in a big way “i.e. I will begin with this differential equation” – that allow for engagement from people with different backgrounds. This is often easier said than done but I have invested a lot of time and work into presenting the technical elements of my work in ways that many people can engage with or appreciate even if they don’t understand all the way. For example, I often present “baby problems” that stand in for more complex ones – e.g. “it’s too much to explain in this talk about disjunctive series in the Gentzen formalism for predicate caculus are generated, so instead I’ll explain a baby version of the problem using simple logical statements like a -> b = true. I think that I have succeeded in bringing people in to discourses about mathematics and AI that might otherwise be alienating by investing in this work. Finally, and most importantly, I think passion and excitement are contagious – students, granting agencies, hiring committees, conference audiences, everyone in academia likes to be lit up and to sense that a researcher is really excited about what they are doing. I think sometimes we hide our excitement or our passion or our reasons for coming to the work in an attempt to appear “objective” or “neutral.” I think letting your passion and excitement shine, your love of the work, is a key to success and helps to bring other people along with you.

What strategies did you use to succeed in grad school?

I’m afraid my dominant approach to grad school is not to be recommended: I just worked all of the time and when I wasn’t working I was feeling anxious about not working. I think that a lot of us struggle in academia to find the right balance between our work, which is often passion driven and vocational, and the other parts of our lives! But the main strategy that I think saved me and that I would recommend to anyone pursuing graduate work is to find your people. Even in hyper-individualistic and competitive fields, or especially there, it is important to find people you trust and can be real and vulnerable with. Not only does this provide the support that we all need to make meaning and find purpose in research, but it is also the best guard against the burn out and alienation that scholarship can sometimes produce. The friends I made in grad school and the connections that came out of early conferences, works in progress sessions, and so on are now the collaborators with whom I am applying for grants, organizing workshops, and working to redefine and reshape the field in ways that meet our current moment and our own needs as scholars.

Less importantly, but still an essential strategy, is something to do with information management!! For scholars like me who are so driven by big intellectual questions, the daily practices of reading, writing, note-taking, managing archival documents and pdfs, etc. did not come easily or naturally. All of the time and work that I spent investing in thinking about how to learn, how to record information, how to keep track of where my ideas were coming from, has paid off ten fold in everything I have done since. I recommend all graduate students spend way more time than they think working out how best to manage the information they need!

What advice do you have for current CMNS students?

Make your education your own. Of course, every class comes with a set of rules and requirements and expectations, things you have to read and write, information you have to remember and reproduce, grades, deadlines, and so much more. I think it can be easy to imagine that there isn’t much space for you and your interests in the midst of all of those requirements! But this conundrum is a lot like life in general: there are all manner of things we must do from taxes to the endless navigation of bureaucracies, to the endless list of societal expectations that can feel so constraining. It is a deep question for all of us: how can we take what feel like rigid and rule-bound expectations and institutions and find in them the opportunity to be ourselves and to find out what that means?! How do we avoid feeling that we are just going through the motions of what is expected, almost mechanically, rather than charting our own path? Each of your courses offers a powerful opportunity to practice this difficult skill. How can you make each course you take your own? Does this mean writing a little poem each week that expresses your reactions to or emotional engagement with the material? Does this mean emailing your professor to propose an alternative topic for your final paper more in line with your interests? Does this mean approaching a professor about applying for an undergraduate RAship to work with them? Does this mean taking a moment after you finished a reading and asking yourself ‘what was the most interesting thing about this to me – what questions am I left with?’. I think often, students are so worried about looking for what the professor wants them to see that they don’t always ask that question! I think actively looking for ways to bring your course work and university experience in line with your questions and passions is really powerful and will set you up for navigating other versions of this tension between ‘meeting expectations’ and ‘meeting my own needs’ that pop up all over in our lives.

What has been your favourite SFU memory so far?

It has been such a joy to join the School of Communication, learn about our students and graduate students, and to get to know the institution a bit over the last year and a half! One of the things that really drew me to Communication is the field’s emphasis on collaborative research. History of Science and STS tend to be a bit more individually driven, oriented around single-authored books and articles, and I was so excited about the prospect of working in collaboration more often and more deeply. To that end, it has been a dream to join Wendy Chun’s Data Fluencies Mellon grant as a co-investigator on Stream Two: Experimental Algorithmic Futures. We held our first workshop in January, brining collaborators and scholars together from all over the world for two days to brainstorm together about how to rethink the validation and training mechanism for machine learning. At our dinner the first night, we had to each introduce another person who had spoken to earlier that day. The person introducing me was Rebekah Overdorf, a professor at the University of Lausanne. She made the observation that the phrase I had said the most at the workshop was “Well… in the 90s….” and I thought that was a hilarious caricature of what it is like to be a historian in the context of field more oriented towards contemporary issues and technologies. I consistently feel that, in collaborations such as these, and in CMNS classrooms when I am teaching, that my historical expertise and orientation has new value here. I love being able to contribute historical understanding to collective and collaborative approaches to our present and future. 

What project are you currently working on?

In addition to the research projects I outlined in Question 1, I will share one more collaborative ‘knowledge mobilization’ project I have underway that I am very proud of: The Beyond Knowledge Tarot deck. Each card in the Beyond Knowledge Tarot deck explores a different ‘way of knowing’, and I have assembled a team of around 20 historians of science and communication scholars to write little essays to accompany each card in a “guide book” that will come with the deck. Working with traditional Tarot helps people cultivate a sense of peace around the pluralism that constitutes the human condition: each card describes a subject position, an experience, a person, or some other aspect of the human experience that we all encounter or become or have to reckon with at some point in our life. The Beyond Knowledge deck seeks, in part, to do the same but for knowledge: to help people develop a more pluralistic understanding of what it means to know, and to resist the epistemic hegemony enjoyed by Western “rationality” and also to get beyond the oft-cited trifecta of ‘emotion’ ‘reason’ and ‘intuition’. The structure of the traditional Tarot lends itself quite well to this repurposing: the suit of swords corresponds with the air element, with language and communication, with the conscious mind, the view from a distance, reason, and so it is a good home for ‘ways of knowing’ like “deduction” “reason” “rigor” “objectivity” and so on. The suit of coins or pentacles is associated with the suit of earth, with labor and craft, with health and wealth and the home, and the cards in that suit pair well with “embodied knowledge” “tacit knowledge” “craft” “kitchens” and more. Similarly, we’ve mapped ways of knowing related to change and transformation – history, social science, engineering – onto cards in the suit of wands (fire, transformation and destruction, will and change etc.), and we have mapped ways of knowing related to emotion, spirituality, intuition, religion, the unconscious and so on onto cards in the suit of Cups which pertains to religion, emotion, surrender, the unconscious. And the major arcana host big paradigms of knowing, more like world views or orientations unto the world – the Emperor is “Control”, the Devil “Consumption”, the Tower “Unlearning” the Hierophant “Paradigm” and so on. We hope that this deck will help people cultivate an awareness of different ways of knowing that get beyond the ‘reason’ ‘emotion’ ‘intuition’ trifecta, and we hope that it will also help people develop a better vocabulary for navigating the treacherous landscape of misinformation, lack of faith in experts and technocrats, ‘alternative facts’ and so on that we all inhabit today.

What motivates you every morning when you wake up?

I genuinely love the work I do and don’t find it hard to get motivated, but I do find it hard to wake up sometimes. My cat, Sally, is a rescue from NYC and she has a lot of attitude and hostility as a result. But in the mornings, she is at her most sweet and snuggly – often it is her who gets me out of bed, first to feed her and then to get in some petting before she shifts into ‘repressed hunter’ mode for the rest of the day.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

Like many who come to Vancouver, I love to be in the outdoors. I hike a lot and regularly take books to the beach. I have a bit of an artistic practice around the creation of Ukrainian pysnaky. “Pysanky” is related to the Ukrainian word for writing and it is a way of using bees wax and vinegar based dyes to color eggs in layers using intricate geometrical patterns and symbolisms. I have been writing pysanky since I was a kid with my Urkainian aunts and mom, but I have made it more my own in adulthood. Currently I am working on reproducing artwork from Carl Jung’s Red Book, his experiential study of the unconscious mind, on ostrich eggs (which are very large!) using pysanky techniques. I have also written a comic book! It is inspired by my first academic book, and explores AI in a post-apocalyptic world in which humans have been extinct for centuries but have left behind the fully automated infrastructure of consumer capitalism just churning away – extracting resources and energy from the Earth, building and maintaining cities, ships full of empty shipping crates going back and forth across the sea. Through an accident of “object recognition” in AI, though, humans are resurrected back into this world, but do not know that they are descendants of the makers of this AI, thinking it more like a God. The comic book, which is currently in the hands of an artist in Ohio – Bren Perez – tells the stories of these resurrected people as a way of understanding our AI better. I am from Calgary originally and was so excited to come back to Canada after 13 years in the US and to be closer to my family, so I also spend time back and forth visiting family. I play a lot of video games as well, I like good stories and compelling platformers; I blend my own teas and dry my own herbs; and I have a cat named Sally who I spend a lot of my time with.

What book(s) do you currently have on your nightstand?

I try to read fiction every night before going to sleep – this as a corrective for nearly a decade of reading no fiction at all when I was in grad school and in the years following. I am currently reading a strange fascinating novel called Little, Big, by John Crowley that follows four generations of one family inhabiting a strangely enchanted modernity. It is a love story in which most people are ‘anonymous’ – which has a lot of meanings, but I think mostly that anonymous people don’t know themselves well enough and so no one else can know them – but in which people become more substantive, visible, identifiable, through love especially, but also through different kinds of intellectual, magical, and artistic work. It is about a house that sits on the border with another, magical, world, and reminds that we are always closer and more proximate to other possible lives and worlds than we realize.