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Alumna Mary Gray Named MacArthur Fellow Anthropologist Looks at the Hidden Side of Digital Culture

By Kathleen Holder on October 9, 2020 in University

Mary L. Gray, Anthropologist and Media Scholar | 2020 MacArthur Fellow

Quick Summary

  • 1992 graduate is an associate professor of informatics at Indiana University Bloomington
  • She researches the intersection of personal experience with technology and digital culture
  • Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and former graduate fellow at UC Davis, also named a MacArthur Fellow

Alumna Mary L. Gray, an anthropologist and media scholar investigating the ways in which labor, identity and human rights are transformed by the digital economy, has been named a 2020 MacArthur Fellow.

Gray earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from UC Davis in 1992, double-majoring in anthropology and Native American studies. Today she is a member of the faculty at Indiana University Bloomington, a senior principal researcher at Microsoft Research and a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.

As announced Monday (Oct. 6), Gray and 20 others comprise the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s newest class of fellows to be recognized for exceptional creativity and the promise of important future advances. The MacArthur awards are commonly known as “genius” grants, though the foundation avoids the term, saying it connotes one singular characteristic of intellectual prowess.

“The people we seek to support express many other important qualities: ability to transcend traditional boundaries, willingness to take risks, persistence in the face of personal and conceptual obstacles, capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and approaches,” according to the foundation.

No-strings-attached stipends

Gray tweeted soon after the announcement: “Still can’t believe that I’m in this mix. Am proud, humbled and honored beyond words (and a little freaked out).”

Another 2020 MacArthur Fellow has a UC Davis connection. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist, author and public scholar at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science, was a graduate fellow with the Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis in fall 2013. Watch Cottom’s video from the MacArthur Foundation.

Each fellow receives a $625,000, no-strings-attached stipend in installments over five years. The MacArthur Foundation describes the aim of the grants as enabling the recipients to “exercise their creative instincts for the benefit of human society.”

Ethnographic research

According to the MacArthur Foundation, Gray undertakes ethnographic research to explore the intersection of personal lived experience with technology and digital culture, building detailed and nuanced portraits 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) was a groundbreaking study of queer rural youths’ use of digital media to negotiate emerging identities and to find community.

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.

“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,” the MacArthur Foundation declares.

‘Technology cannot define us’

“Technologies have become de facto public squares that connect and envelop us,” Gray said in describing her research. “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.”

In addition to her double bachelor’s degree from UC Davis, Gray earned a master’s degree in anthropology from San Francisco State University and a doctorate in communication from UC San Diego.

Gray, who joined Indiana University Bloomington in 2004, is an associate professor in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, with affiliate appointments in the departments of Anthropology and Gender Studies.

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About the author(s)

Kathleen Holder Communicator Kathleen Holder is a content strategist and writer in the College of Letters and Science.

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