This is the second part of a two-part article. See the first part here.
The impact of new network technologies on women at different levels
Perhaps the most striking evidence of these changes moving in the direction of cyber-physical systems is the growth of the “femtech” sector (technology allegedly created by and for women). Let's look at some examples. “Lioness” is a vibrator designed specifically to help you "learn about your body" by sending data about your sexual responses (mainly vaginal orgasms) to an app (that is, to a large number of third parties). Another example is MyFLO, a period tracking app that has the option of sending information to your sexual partner about what you would like, depending on the current stage of your menstrual cycle. Keep in mind, however, that it's not just your partner who receives this information, but also the company that sold you this little toy or the supplier of the app.1 It's not hard to imagine the problems that might arise with this kind of product. And these are just two examples of technologies made "by and for women", imagine! We could continue to list countless disturbing examples, but the reality is that these technologies already exist and will continue to proliferate and extend their reach over time.
Another example of the inherent sexism and danger posed by these new "smart" technologies is evident in a recent report published by UNESCO on digital voice assistants which, it says, reinforce the stereotype of women being “obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers."2 Another serious problem involving these virtual assistants is that you have a kind of corporate spy inside your home sending a flow of personal and intimate information to Amazon and Google servers, listening to everything around you, processing it according to these companies' market and monitoring algorithms, and making it possible to associate your comments with your location, your internet searches and a whole series of data relationships that can generate new vulnerabilities. Google has received several complaints about sexual harassment from female employees. Behind the soothing, docile voice of a virtual woman are (mainly white) men leading some of the world's most powerful online businesses, harvesting personal and private data from inside our homes.
Behind the soothing, docile voice of a virtual woman are (mainly white) men leading some of the world's most powerful online businesses, harvesting personal and private data from inside our homes.
If we look beyond the body towards geopolitics, we can also observe how 5G has been positioned as a pawn in the commercial and cyber war between China and the West. To analyse this situation, it is useful to start from the basis of the fundamental questions raised by academic Cynthia Enloe as to how masculinities and femininities are experienced in international politics and how people with power try to shape international politics according to these perspectives.3 In this case, it is clear that the conflict is occurring in a masculinised fashion and is emerging in a manner similar to the belligerent discourses of traditional warfare in which military (or in this case technological) force and the capacity of a state are associated with their degree of masculinity.
While men threaten and strut their stuff on the international stage, what are women doing, where are they to be found in this technological Cold War? One answer is that women are the army of cheap, invisible labour used to build electronic components in sweat-shops and to take minerals out of the ground. To give a well-documented example, approximately 80% of workers in the electronics industry in Vietnam are women. Moreover, these women are working on the lowest rung of the ladder: the assembly lines. In interviews with 45 women in a Samsung factory in Vietnam, the workers reported that:
"… exhausting working conditions include alternating day and night shifts for periods of 4 days; standing for the entire 9-12 hour shift; and high noise levels regularly exceeding Vietnamese legal limits. Pregnant workers stand for the entire shift but are permitted to take breaks. However, most of them try to not take breaks because if Samsung thinks they are taking too much time off, the company deducts money from their wages. Time is controlled to such an extent that workers have to request 'toilet cards' to be able to go to the bathroom in order to maximize time on the production line…The women workers in this study reported a variety of health impacts. All 45 women reported fainting or feeling dizzy at work – though it was described as a 'normal' consequence of shift work. Miscarriage was reported to be 'very normal if they are young.' Other reported problems included eyesight damage, nosebleeds, 'big legs,' changes in beauty, and aches in the stomach, bones and joints.”4
The extraction of minerals needed to manufacture electronic devices is also a low-paying and dangerous job performed by women, especially African women.5 Hyperconnectivity, as mentioned above, is characterised by the deployment of billions more connected electronic devices than exist today. 5G networks, according to their technical specifications, should be capable of supporting a thousand devices per square metre. Someone will have to remove the minerals for these devices and someone else will have to assemble them, and it is almost certain that these jobs will remain dangerous, poorly paid and mostly done by women and children. In other words, the excesses that will benefit telecommunications and digital companies are built on the exploitation of women.
While men threaten and strut their stuff on the international stage, what are women doing, where are they to be found in this technological Cold War?
As we see, we are facing digital technologies that, on the one hand, are based on the control of bodies and precarious conditions in the lives of the women who do the work that is essential for their production and, on the other hand, on an individualistic devotion around access to comfort and the consequent romanticisation of the relationship with these technologies. An example of this is the marketing narrative used to sell technologies like the Lioness vibrator, the MyFLO app or the Looncup menstrual cup with a tracking system for data generated from the menstrual cycle. All of these technologies offer us the illusion of facilitating and empowering women's lives. But they do nothing more than promote individualistic consumption practices at the cost of depriving us of the capacities for self-knowledge and self-determination over our lives and bodies, our rightful inheritance of ancestral and communal knowledge.
How do we raise awareness about these new phenomena?
As we commented in the first part of the article, we are proposing two conceptual approaches to address these issues: psychosocial and feminist.
The psychosocial approach contributes to the strengthening of social subjects in contexts of socio-political violence: in this case, surveillance and mass manipulation through network technologies. The psychosocial approach allows us to understand that digital technologies do real damage that not only has consequences at a personal level but also at a collective and environmental level. A fundamental aspect of the psychosocial approach is that it not only focuses on identifying and assessing the impacts of these technologies, but also seeks to identify the coping mechanisms that we employ at the individual, collective and social levels.6 It is interesting, important and urgent to understand the marketing mechanisms that companies use to introduce these technologies into people's lives. Scientific arguments and positivist rationality play a fundamental role in the proliferation and legitimisation of digital technologies. Therefore, in order to raise awareness about these phenomena, it is essential to unpack these mechanisms of normalisation and make their impacts visible. That is, to introduce a psychosocial approach to the analysis of these phenomena that will help us understand how the mechanisms of normalisation are directly linked to the dynamics of power within society.
The psychosocial approach allows us to understand that digital technologies do real damage that not only has consequences at a personal level but also at a collective and environmental level.
Feminist thought is another fundamental tool to understand how to face the new wave of excessive connectivity and to understand how this will penetrate and transform every aspect of our lives, from the most mundane to the most intimate.
Feminism has already turned its attention to the digital sphere and has the necessary theoretical tools to address current and future issues, such as mass and individual surveillance, control over bodies and territory, and online gender-based violence. Feminism also constantly questions hegemonic structures, a necessary task in the face of the homogenisation of meaning and feeling imposed on us by digital technologies. An excellent example of feminism's contribution in this sense, to name but one, is a group of around 100 activists who since 2014 have been developing the Feminist Principles of the Internet, which take into account new realities and contexts to redesign the digital environment.
Without a doubt, the future envisioned by the telecommunications industry is worrying due to the level of social control it will exert over bodies and minds, especially those of women. Furthermore, in order for this future to materialise, millions of women, especially in the global South, will be physically exploited. Not to mention the environmental costs of building and maintaining this industry. In our view, we need to deepen the dialogue between digital rights activists and feminists in order to formulate joint proposals, prioritising the voice of affected people in order to build a sustainable and just long-term alternative that takes diversity into account.
It is time to question our relationship with digital technologies designed to inject meaning into the mental structures implicit in the expression "machín to machín", because we are fomenting destructive practices based on extractive and heteropatriarchal capitalism. We need to eradicate microsexism from our technological communities and think of solutions based on community rather than individual needs. We need technologies that do not prioritise the comfort of human beings over the environment and other species. We need technologies that do not sacrifice the lives of some women for the enjoyment of privileges of those who have access to them as consumer goods. We need to dream of and design technologies of the future that are not oppressive to other forms of life. Let’s dare to imagine, from a community-oriented mindset, technologies that allow us to exercise the freedom to defend and protect ourselves and to move forward collectively.
Let’s dare to imagine, from a community-oriented mindset, technologies that allow us to exercise the freedom to defend and protect ourselves and to move forward collectively.
- 1. See: https://chupadados.codingrights.org/en/menstruapps-como-transformar-sua-... and: https://deepdives.in/data-bleeding-everywhere-a-story-of-period-trackers...
- 2. Information available on: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000367416.page=1
- 3. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/155109/Theory%20Talk48_Enloe.pdf
- 4. https://ipen.org/documents/electronics-workers-vietnamese-women-report
- 5. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/small-drc-mining-town-women...
- 6. Taller de Comunicación Mujer. 2020. Diagnóstico de Violencia de Género Digital en Ecuador. Primer Edición. Quito. Ecuador.