Five principles for a feminist approach to technology
‘Any tool is a weapon if you hold it right’ – Ani DiFranco, singer-songwriter
When most people think about women and technology, the two things may seem incongruent: a cartoon visualisation of a woman struggling to use the toaster; a joke about women drivers; female executives calling in ‘the IT guys’ to fix their computers. At best, the relationship of women to technology is seen as one-sided – something that men have created and continue to shape, and that women (with difficulty) use.
In response to these myths and misconceptions, the APC Women’s Rights Programme developed some feminist practices and politics of technology which were shared at the EROTICS India Workshop by Jac Sm Kee:
Recognise women’s contribution in shaping technology
Women have been instrumental in developing different technologies, but we hardly ever get to hear about them. As a result, it’s widely assumed that technology is an entirely male field, when it’s not. Ada Lovelace was the founding-mother of modern computing in 1843. ‘She was a visionary,’ said Jac. ‘If it wasn’t for her, a computer would just be a glorified calculator…She conceptualised the binary system.’
Another important figure – known across the world for her theatrical rather than her mathematical performances – was Hedy Lamarr, who (in addition to her acting fame) was an accomplished mathematician, and co-founded early broad spectrum – the key to wifi connections. Closer home, Kamla Devi was the first woman barefoot solar engineer, and trained countless illiterate women to use solar panels in Indian villages that did not have access to electricity. Kamla Devi’s success speaks volumes about the potential of technology. ‘We think of technology as just the tools of the rich, [but] it has the power to transform lives…’ said Jac. ‘What matters is who controls and shapes it.’
Understand feminist theorising of technology
How do women understand and relate to technology? In 1985, sociologist Donna Haraway published ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ – a seminal text that spoke about how rather than living on the edges of a privileged hierarchy that excludes them, women are deeply entrenched, exploited by, and complicit in networked systems of power. Writes Haraway: ‘[We] are all chimeras, theorised and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism: in short, we are cyborgs. This cyborg is our ontology: it gives us our politics. This is an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction.’
Decades later, Haraway’s words still ring true within the interactions and contradictions of virtual spaces. In 1991, Maria Suarez Toro pioneered FIRE – Feminist International Radio Endeavour – across Latin America. Her writings and talks on how the feminist movement relates to new technologies are useful for women across the world. She says, ‘[Technology] has to [be] approached with a high degree of what FIRE calls interactive autonomy. Computers have their own intelligence, but they do not have the self-organised common sense that we need to have a feminist movement: no one will do for us what we do not do for ourselves and each other.’
Ground technology use in women’s realities and experiences
Finding ways to use and adapt technology does not need to take place in a high-tech, largely all-male laboratory. A great example of this principle are the D-Net Ladies. The well-meaning government of Bangladesh increased the number of cyber cafes in the country in an attempt to give more people access to the Internet, especially in villages. But given that large numbers of women were unable to leave their housework and families – and cyber cafes are perceived as being associated with pornography and immorality – most of the users ended up being men. To increase women’s access to information, the D-Net ladies were given bicycles, mobile phones and access to a resource centre. Using these tools of technology, they go from door-to-door asking other women what sorts of news they would like to know more about. Perhaps it’s less hi-tech than a cyber café, but this innovative use of technology has allowed countless women across the country to have access to news and information that matters to them.
Value shared learning and creation of knowledge and building women’s capacity in technology
Technology is often a male-dominated space, and girls are rarely given encouragement to pursue learning of or even involvement in ‘techie-matters’. Women who do venture into technology-related fields are often made to feel like they are entering a space that isn’t theirs. So finding spaces for women and girls to share information around technology is important in enabling more gender-equal participation.
Check out LinuxChix – an online ‘community for women who like Linux and Free Software, and for women and men who want to support women in computing. The membership ranges from novices to experienced users, and includes professional and amateur programmers, system administrators and technical writers.’ Similarly, within Wikipedia, where the majority of editors and contributors are men, Wikichix is a group that tackles issues of gender differences.
Connect women’s rights and technologies
There are many common feminist concerns across the world, including the right to bodily integrity, sexuality rights, public participation, and freedom of expression. The fights for these issues take place on various platforms and in different ways, and as more of the world’s population gains access to new technologies, it is important to ask, ‘How does technology connect to these things, and how does it inform our advocacy?’
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