Machín 2 Machín (I): A critical feminist and psychosocial perspective on new digital networks

Let's start this reflection by explaining the title (this article was written in Mexico and has been translated from Spanish). When we find ourselves in spaces where the technical and regulatory aspects of telecommunications are discussed, spaces that are mostly male and boring (perhaps for this very reason), inside jokes tend to arise. In Spanish, when we talk about communications between machines – which is an important issue in discussions about next generation networks (for example, in 5G and the “internet of things”) – we almost always say it in English: machine to machine (M2M). But when a Spanish speaker says it, it sounds like "machín to machín" (a variation of the word “macho”, pronounced mah-CHEEN) – that is, man to man, or "let’s see who’s more macho", in Mexican slang.

The joke invites us to delve deeper into a critique, from a feminist and psychosocial perspective, of these new networks that are emerging with the abovementioned rushed transition to 5G. This article is an attempt to break down some issues where we believe that these perspectives could contribute to the discussion around these new networks. We do this with the intention of sharing our observations, in the hope that they will add to the debate on network technologies and their relationship with different populations in situations of vulnerability and, in this specific case, women.

Different schools of feminism refer to the concept of microsexism or micromachismo to refer to subtle behaviours that are mechanisms of normalisation of oppressive gender dynamics within a community or society. The expression "machín to machín" as a joke is one of these mechanisms that should be understood in relation to its context, as proposed by the psychosocial approach, in order to reveal the “soft”, subtle violence that underlies the expression and that aims to perpetuate the status quo of power relations in the capitalist and hetero-patriarchal system. The expression as a joke has a symbolic meaning involving what Mexican philosopher Sayak Valencia describes as "colonial psycho-politics”,1 referring to the psycho-affective colonisation of our relationship with technology, which is cross-cut by our gender identity. On the other hand, this expression also reflects the symbolic meaning intrinsic to the design of capitalist digital technologies as proposed by activist and academic Sasha Costanza-Chock.

The expression "machín to machín" as a joke is one of these mechanisms that should be understood in relation to its context, as proposed by the psychosocial approach, in order to reveal the “soft”, subtle violence that underlies the expression.

It is important, before we delve into this more deeply, to share another reason why we are interested in the subject. A few years ago, as part of our work in Rhizomatica, we would meet with large groups of people in indigenous communities in Oaxaca to discuss the creation of community cellular telephony projects (which we continue to support today). The introduction of new communications technologies in rural and indigenous communities always generates a degree of uncertainty and even concern among local people. They worry about how social relations will change and how the boundaries between the public, private and intimate spheres will be redrawn. Reflecting on these aspects is positive and necessary, because in cities we almost never collectively ask ourselves these questions or discuss the possible impacts of technology.

During these meetings, which took place in different indigenous communities, the same question always arose from the men: "What if another man calls my wife while I'm away?" This concern on the part of men that their control over women could be undermined, although it shows a worryingly high degree of sexism, is relevant and illustrative of how these men grappled with technological changes, while at the same time being a call to question the unequal relations between men and women. On the other hand, in many communities, we have observed that women are interested in having cell phones. Not necessarily because it would make it possible for them to have more contact with a supposed lover, as some men believe, but rather because it could make it easier for them to resolve everyday issues, strengthening the bonds of "comadrazgo" or "godmotherhood”_—_the web of relations of care among women that are fundamental pillars of community life.

The introduction of new communications technologies in rural and indigenous communities always generates a degree of uncertainty and even concern among local people. They worry about how social relations will change and how the boundaries between the public, private and intimate spheres will be redrawn.

But the men in the community, after realising that they would not be able to actually control who called whom, then generally asked: "is there any way to know who called?" Their doubt morphed from the idea of direct control to one of surveillance. It is important to recognise that surveillance mechanisms in rural and relatively small towns are developed and controlled by specific people locally, so the introduction of a new system of interpersonal communication, such as cell phones, is potentially disruptive.

After being present at these discussions and having the opportunity to observe how local communities confront and appropriate technology, many questions arose for us about how technological systems manifest themselves in different ways in social relations, and specifically in terms of gender, and about how people address them, depending on their positions and privileges in society. Now, after thinking so much about 5G and next generation networks in recent months, we find it useful to return to the subject.

What are the challenges posed by the new network technologies?

In the discussion on what we face with the latest generation of digital networks, a key point in order to understand the challenge is to look at the impact these new technologies have on the body-territory, particularly of women. To begin with, 5G networks are proposed as cyber-physical networks. This implies the erasure of the boundary between the network and the body.

Currently, if you connect to a network, you do so through a device, such as a mobile phone or a computer. That is, something outside your body, which maintains a certain physical and psychological distance between the device and the network on one side and your body and your private and intimate space (your ‘life’ or vital space) on the other. Although existing technologies already have a strong psycho-emotional impact, the trend towards completely breaking down the barriers between technologies and our bodies will become even more accelerated. And this will have impacts, especially for women, who already experience constant invasions of their privacy and intimacy both online and offline.

To begin with, 5G networks are proposed as cyber-physical networks. This implies the erasure of the boundary between the network and the body.

What we are talking about is not only possible, it is probable. It is quite clear that there are already companies building the foundations of this new cyber-physical reality. Today, there are numerous problems with networks in terms of surveillance, for example generalised physical tracking through one’s mobile phone, applications for spying on what your partner is doing (spouseware), the algorithms used by large platforms like Google and Facebook to invade your privacy and carry out profiling, or online violence against women, which has become a common ocurrence.

In this sense, the future of networks and applications with regard to women's bodies (actually the bodies of anyone "different" – in other words, not a white man) is worrying because it allows men, who to a great extent develop and market these technologies, to access new "data", now feeding their algorithms with women's emotional and psychological states and biorhythms, with the potential of becoming a mechanism for actually controlling and manipulating these psycho-emotional and bodily states. For example, we can ponder the impacts of access to the biological reproductive cycles of working women to boost productivity or the possibility of manipulating people's moods according to the interests of their employers, partners, fathers, etc.

On the other hand, the telecommunications industry, with this new generation of networks, such as 5G and the internet of things, is selling us the idea of "hyperconnectivity". This hyperconnectivity implies the interconnection of millions of devices to the network, ones inside our bodies, as well as in our homes, vehicles, public spaces, and other places. We can understand this phenomenon as a colonisation of space by telecommunications, seeking to incorporate our most intimate data into the circuits of capitalist and patriarchal accumulation_— an accumulation that is only possible thanks to dispossession, in this case of our privacy, social relations, bodies, emotions and ‘life’ space. In the digital realm, the private becomes data that can be used against us, or commodified to predict our preferences and make us consume within ‘their’ system, thus strengthening it.

The term "hyperconnectivity", so beloved by the telecommunications industry, says it all. "Hyper" means in excess. This ‘excess’ of connectivity has to be absorbed somehow by society. But, if those of us already connected have our needs for coverage, access to information and entertainment covered, what else can we absorb? The only answer is to increase our capacity of absorption, crossing the personal-intimate boundary, connecting our bodies and minds to these new network forms. It is a paradigm shift: instead of extending networks to reach places where there is currently no connectivity in geographical terms, connectivity that already exists will be deepened, penetrating into areas of life where it was not possible before, or even imaginable. While we demand the right to connectivity as something basic, we have to be vigilant about how we handle the over-connectivity that is on the rise in cities. And we must be aware of how this logic and lifestyle is imposed as a homogenising factor.

It is a paradigm shift: instead of extending networks to reach places where there is currently no connectivity in geographical terms, connectivity that already exists will be deepened, penetrating into areas of life where it was not possible before, or even imaginable.

An important challenge that we face as a society is to understand that the companies that dominate the design and development of digital technologies that today are building this new reality are directly linked to a colonial, capitalist and hetero-patriarchal logic. Therefore, it is necessary to decolonise our relationship with technology and consequently with the science, politics and capitalist logic that support it. We are facing a homogenising technology that threatens difference, reproduces structural inequalities and spreads trends such as personal comfort as defined by the standards of the white men of the industrialised North who design them.

The challenge is avoid romanticising these technologies based on what they try to sell us or what they appear to be: a way to ‘simplify people’s lives’ – and instead question their extractivist logic, ranging from the mining of personal data, to the raw materials for their construction, with its consequent social and environmental impacts.

  • 1. Valencia Triana, Sayak. “Capitalismo Gore y Necropolítica en México Contemporáneo”. Relaciones Internacionales, núm. 19, febrero de 2012. GERI – UAM