Alumna Anthropologist and Media Scholar Receives MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant

Portrait photo of UC Davis alumnus and MacArthur fellow
Alumna Mary Gray, an anthropologist and media scholar who studies how everyday uses of technologies transform people’s lives, is a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. (Photo © John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation - used with permission)

UC Davis alumna Mary L. Gray, an anthropologist and media scholar who investigates how labor, identity and human rights are transformed by the digital economy, has been named a 2020 MacArthur Fellow.

Gray (B.A., anthropology and Native American studies, ’92) is one of 21 fellows announced Oct. 6 by the MacArthur Foundation. She is an associate professor of informatics at Indiana University Bloomington.

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

An investment in originality and potential

Gray is the second College of Letters and Science graduate to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, joining 2016 fellow José Quiñonez (B.A., Chicana/o studies, ’94). They are among five UC Davis alumni who have been granted the “genius” grant. Three UC Davis faculty members — all in the College of Letters and Science — have also received the award.

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.

Selected for exceptional creativity and promise for future advances, the 2020 fellows will each receive $625,000, a 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.”

Technology and humanness

Gray researches the intersection of personal experience with technology and digital culture, and how it impacts the lives of nontraditional users and marginalized online communities.

“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.” — Mary Gray

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.

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.

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

At Indian University Bloomington since 2004, she is an associate professor in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, with affiliate appointments in the departments of Anthropology and Gender Studies. For the past eight years she has also 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. 

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