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Untold internet histories: A research partnership between SFU and the London School of Economics

September 18, 2020

By Tessa Perkins Deneault

Cait McKinney, a professor in our School of Communication, is collaborating with Dylan Mulvin at the London School of Economics and Political Science to develop a methodology for studying marginalized internet histories—starting with the connection between HIV and network computing. 

McKinney and Mulvin will build on their research in Bugs: Rethinking the History of Computing, which outlines how HIV/AIDS discourses influenced the domestication of computing.

Their new project, HIV and the network society: developing a methodological toolkit for marginalized internet histories, which recently received a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, will provide a toolkit for studying the histories of marginalized groups and their relation to the development of the internet. 

In order to do this, their work will involve studying the history of AIDS activists and their involvement in early network computing. They plan to research the archives of AIDS activist organizations in Silicon Valley, Vancouver and London, including the open access No More Silence dataset of more than 700 groups of records digitized from three San Francisco based archives.

Through this research they will uncover how AIDS activists understood and used network technologies in their work, identify key figures who did the work of digital translation for the AIDS organizations, and discover the ways that knowledge transfers between activist and technology communities. 

“We’re looking for AIDS activist organizations that were using computing, and technology organizations that were interested in AIDS outreach,” explains McKinney. 

Those areas of overlap are where the two communities became inextricably linked. While their previous research focused more on the discourse analysis and common metaphors of infection and virus that made their way into computing lingo, this project moves beyond that to trace the history in a methodological way that could be replicated for other marginalized histories. 

Wendy Chun, professor and Canada 150 Research Chair in our School of Communication, is a collaborator on this project and will facilitate a workshop with other critical digital studies scholars and her research lab, the Digital Democracies Group.

With most physical archives closed, the project has been somewhat slowed, but COVID-19 has also provided new relevance to the research as our lives move increasingly online and we become more aware of the importance of understanding previously marginalized histories.  Ultimately, this research will raise awareness of how principles of inclusion can be better implemented in technology sectors and enhance public discourse about digital networks.