IU professor wins McArthur ‘genius grant’

EDUCATION

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) — Mary L. Gray, an associate professor of informatics at the Indiana University Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, has been named a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. Gray is the seventh recipient of the award from IU, and the first since 2003.

The MacArthur grant, often referred to as the “genius grant,” is a $625,000 no-strings-attached award to “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential.” Recipients are awarded based on their exceptional creativity, promise for future advances and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

Gray, an anthropologist and media scholar by training, focuses on how everyday technologies transform people’s lives in two primary research areas she cares deeply about: the worlds of contract labor and LGBTQ youth. While these areas may seem disparate, they are connected for Gray by the way she studies them. She focuses on the difference technologies make, particularly in terms of how people are seen and are able to have agency.

Her most recent book, “Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass,” co-authored with Siddharth Suri, explores the lives and challenges faced by often-hidden workers in the tech economy.

Gray was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation for “investigating the ways in which labor, identity and human rights are transformed by the digital economy.”

She plans to use the funds to take what she’s learned about contract labor and apply it to the COVID-19 work-world, with a particular focus on the digital economy and the potential to shape more inclusive digital futures.

“Everyone who is working from home now could learn from people who have been doing it for years,” Gray said. “I want to take what we know about the social and technical possibilities of managing and supporting others and apply it to areas such as contact tracing and beyond.”

Gray was one of 21 recipients of this year’s MacArthur Fellowships, which were given to leading minds in a diverse array of fields, including science, art, technology and social justice.

Like most recipients of the award, Gray was surprised by the news. Fellows are recommended by a constantly changing pool of anonymous nominators across the country and chosen by a selection committee.

In a tweet announcing the award, Gray said she “still can’t believe I’m in this mix.”

Both proud and humbled to receive this award, Gray added, “This is not anything I ever anticipated or dreamed of.”

She’s also proud to have her work connected to Indiana University.

“Indiana University, as a home, is one of the best places to be if you do interdisciplinary work,” Gray said. “The intellectual room to roam that IU has built over centuries is unparalleled.”

“Mary’s stellar multidisciplinary work on the invisible and vulnerable human workers at the heart of the biggest tech-driven companies is as humane as it is brilliant,” said IU Bloomington Provost and Executive Vice President Lauren Robel. “It was wildly prescient even before the pandemic made all of society utterly dependent on big tech. It is even more insistently compelling now. As a scholar, Mary is creating new fields. Indiana University is proud she is on our faculty.”

In addition to being a Luddy faculty member, Gray is a senior principal researcher at Microsoft Research and a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet Society.

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