MacArthur Fellows Program

Mary L. Gray

Anthropologist and Media Scholar | Class of 2020

Investigating the ways in which labor, identity, and human rights are transformed by the digital economy.

Title
Anthropologist and Media Scholar
Affiliation
Microsoft Research
Location
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Age
51
Published October 6, 2020

About Mary's Work

Mary L. Gray is an anthropologist and media scholar investigating the ways in which labor, identity, and human rights are transformed by the digital economy. Gray undertakes ethnographic research to explore the intersection of personal lived experience with technology and digital culture, building detailed and nuanced portaits of the societal impacts of technology on the daily lives of nontraditional users and marginalized online communities.

Her book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (2009), is a groundbreaking study of queer rural youths’ use of digital media to negotiate emerging identities and to find community. Gray uncovers new insights into how these processes play out specifically in rural contexts and presents a powerful corrective to assumptions that the only viable option for queer individuals to live with visibility is in urban centers. She demonstrates that the multilayered strategies used by queer youth to organize, support, and build community with one another traverse online and offline spaces; the young people she observes not only consume media texts but also create and share media inspired by their face-to-face interactions and activities. In her most recent book, Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass (2019), co-authored with Siddharth Suri, Gray reveals the underlying human labor that seemingly automated systems require in order to function. She traces the historical antecedents of this gap between what machines can and cannot do—what she calls the “paradox of automation’s last mile”—from the piecework of the textile industry prior to the Industrial Revolution, to practices of outsourcing in the twentieth century, and, finally, to the invisible droves of individual workers undertaking tasks via on-demand crowdworking platforms. The work of this last category ranges from the mundane (tagging images of furniture to optimize search engine performance) to the treacherous and consequential (deciding if an image is pornographic). Gray and collaborators performed thousands of surveys and interviews with workers across the United States and India to gain a better understanding of their working conditions and motivations for doing this kind of work. She documents the ways in which workers are disadvantaged and exploited through minimal compensation, lack of support networks, and the impact of customer performance ratings on future job prospects. Recognizing that work of this nature affords some benefits, such as flexible scheduling and the ability to work remotely, Gray posits ten technical and policy recommendations for creating more cooperative, worker-centered platforms.

Through her timely examinations of the ethical and societal implications of technological advances, Gray sheds light on overlooked or intentionally hidden areas of the digital economy and on the potential to shape more inclusive digital futures.

Biography

Mary L. Gray received a double BA (1992) from the University of California at Davis, an MA (1999) from San Francisco State University, and a PhD (2004) from the University of California at San Diego. She joined the faculty of Indiana University in 2004; she is currently on research leave and holds a faculty position in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, with affiliate appointments in the Departments of Anthropology and Gender Studies. Since 2012, she has been affiliated with Microsoft Research, where she is a senior principal researcher. Additionally, Gray is a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Gray’s additional publications include the co-edited volume Queering the Countryside: New Frontiers in Queer Rural Studies (2016) and In Your Face: Stories from the Lives of Queer Youth (1999), as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters.

In Mary's Words

"How we account for one another and the planet is reflected in the technologies we design, build, and abandon."

Technologies have become de facto public squares that connect and envelop us. They shape how we see (or fail to see) ourselves and one another. But there is nothing about the nature of technology itself that can define us or foreclose our actions. How we account for one another and the planet is reflected in the technologies we design, build, and abandon. We animate and deploy technologies to express our social, cultural, political, and economic realities. Technologies cannot replace our humanness. They can only amplify and stifle what and who comes to matter.

Select News Coverage of Mary L. Gray
October 6, 2020
Mary L. Gray, Anthropologist and Media Scholar | 2020 MacArthur Fellow
Mary L. Gray is an anthropologist and media scholar investigating the ways in which labor, identity, and human rights are transformed by the digital economy.

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Please credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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