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A review of the panel ‘Revisiting the Future: Technofeminism in the 21st Century’

20/11/2019
Chiara Di Leone

This article reflects on the hopes of Cyberfeminism in response to ‘Revisiting the Future: Technofeminism in the 21st Century‘, a panel discussion between Mindy Seu, Cornelia Sollfrank, Judy Wajcman, and chair Marie Thompson. This conversation took place on the 5th of October 2019 at the Barbican Centre in London, UK, as part of New Suns: A Feminist Literary Festival.

BIG DADDY MAINFRAME

“What’s so special about Lisa? Oh, I’ve had a lot of computers, but my Lisa is different: she works the way I do”

Apple Lisa, video infomercial, 1983

Men, like gods, have always had a thing for creating entities in their own image. Gods create men, men will gods into existence. Men create tools, tools make men in turn. But what if the creator of technology is often a man, and a very specific kind of man? What are, then, the ways in which gender and technology construct one another?

Since the dawn of computation, men found it appealing to automate away the predictable and repetitive labour, often embodied and performed by women. In other words, technology has contributed (among a lot of other things) to the automation of traditional “women’s work”, and it did so on men’s terms [1]. From the Girl-less, Cuss-less Phone, the first automated dial system (1892), to Lisa, the first personal Apple Computer (1983), to Siri and Alexa, digital assistants, (2011 and 2014), the designs of and designs for the pater ex machina have set the bar for the height of technological progress.

Cyberfeminism is a feminist genre that addresses questions of gender and technology while bringing their implications to the fore. Automation is not the only nor the central theme of Cyberfeminism: academics, activists, hackers, artists, women, and non-women tied to this genre, engage with broad questions of gender and technology based on the assumptions that:

  1. Computation is not neutral and
     
  2. Technology is highly gendered [2]

Largely, grounded in Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, Cyberfeminism as a movement was formally articulated in 1991 by the Adelaide based artist collective VNS Matrix. VNS designed a billboard titled “A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century” depicting horned bodies, psychedelic vulvas and reciting: “[…]we are the virus of the new world disorder rupturing the symbolic from within; saboteurs of big daddy mainframe; the clitoris is a direct line to the matrix.” That said, the origins of the genre can be traced more accurately as a decentralised global emergence. Cyberfeminism has come to life more like a granular collection of scattered raw data, and less like a single revelation happened at a defined point in time.

In the panel Revisiting the Future: Technofeminisms in the 21st Century, Mindy Seu, Cornelia Sollfrank, Judy Wajcman and Marie Thompson discussed the state of Cyberfeminism today.

ATTESTING TO THE REVIVAL

Chair Marie Thompson points out how, in the past decade, there seems to be a reinvigorated tendency for questions of Cyberfemnism. The increased mainstreaming of concerns around gender and technology in institutional contexts such as Girls Who Code, Women in Tech Festival, and countless diversity initiatives in tech companies are clear examples. To Thomson, the main question is “why should we struggle for Cyberfeminism now?”

“Silicon Valley can do [diversity inclusion campaigns]” says Judy Wajcman, “that’s fine, but what is the kind of big-scale change that must occur at institutional level?”. Wajcman emphasised how important it is to embed inclusion into the fabric of tech companies’ culture rather than it remaining a CSR exercise, or better, rather than supporting and reinforcing existing liberal frameworks.

According to Mindy Seu, Cyberfeminism revival is largely due to the need of big institutions to accumulate cultural capital which is often articulated in superficial measures such as cosmetic diversity initiatives. For Seu, similarly to Wajcman, the main question is ”how can we see feminist values embedded in the ethos of companies?”. Seu also points out how the ascension of women in big cultural (and tech) institutions are often not only hindered by the notorious “glass ceiling”, but also deliberately sabotaged through the so-called “glass cliff”. A glass cliff is a term used to describe a situation where a woman is nominated head of an organisation which is already crumbling. The intention is to signal externally that this organisation is making efforts to get back on track, or make amends for its corrupted past by hiring someone with a perceived higher ethical value. By doing so, the board actively sets up this woman (or anyone, really) to fail, because the organisation has larger structural problems that no person alone can solve (see recent board allegations concerning MIT Media Lab).

“It is as if nothing has happened in between the 90s and now,” Cornelia Sollfrank says. “This means that things [gender inequality within the tech industry] are staying the same, and maybe getting worse… These, mostly young, very young, women do not understand the historical precedents of Cyberfeminism.” While she seems to partially dismiss this revival as a fashion statement, her book ‘The Beautiful Warriors. Technofeminist Praxis in the Twenty-First Century’ sets out to counter this trend by connecting up the insights and practices of 90’s cyberfeminism with new techno-eco-feminists as part of an ongoing social and aesthetic activism.

RE-MAKING THE INTERNET

“This is not a book about women and technology. Nor was this book created for women. Throughout these pages, scholars, hackers, artists, and activists of all regions, races, sexual orientations, and genetic make-ups consider how humans might reconstruct themselves by way of technology. What is a woman anyway?”

Intro from Cyberfeminism Catalog 1990-2020, Mindy Seu, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, 2019

One strategy to challenge the dominant narrative of men as sole creators and geniuses, argues Seu, is to incorporate women’s voices in the history of computation. As she puts it: “We are taught to focus on engineering, the military-industrial complex, and the grandfathers who created the architecture and protocol. But the internet is not only a network of cables, servers, and computers. It is an environment that shapes and is shaped by its inhabitants.” In her Cyberfeminist index, Seu traces a detailed and precise overview of the diverse body of today’s practices.

Across the panel, there seemed to be a shared awareness of differences in terms of references, strategies, culture, and visual cultures among current activists and academic groups and across generations. One example that stands out is the South Korean Cyberfeminist group Megalia whose main strategy for activism has been online trolling. Looking at their logo, a hand making the gesture to indicate a man’s penis size, it is not hard to understand their style of communication. Megalia could be dismissed as a funny and naive case, but there are deep reasons why South Korean women have implemented such a strategy. For instance, feminism has only entered the public sphere less than a decade ago.

As Judy Wajcman points out, the dominant narratives in feminist discourse are set up by Western standards. For instance, in South America, she notes, Donna Haraway is not as strong an academic reference as in the West. Wajcman also argues that Haraway’s texts, despite advocating for socialist feminism and having strong political agendas, often lack the clarity and simplicity to be accessed by anyone who does not belong to the hyper educated Western academia elite. Seu points the attention towards the fact that Haraway supposedly decided to use contrived language intentionally (as a hack), in order to be deemed interesting and relevant in academic context.

THE OTHER

Cyberfeminism is relevant today more than ever when addressing topics of responsibility, agency, materiality, care, and anthropocentrism. In this sense, Cyberfeminism today transcends identity politics: it becomes an essential cultural tool with respect to survival, equality, and sustainability.

Cyberfeminism can be defined as “a genre of contemporary feminism which foregrounds the relationship between cyberspace, the Internet and technology.” [3]

To foreground is the action of pushing objects that are necessary in the background to the fore. That is bringing the hidden, compounded, interchangeable, opaque to a position that is close enough to the viewer to be observed. In other words, turning the distant and neglected “other” into voices and materials that can be seen, heard, interrogated.

To bring the back to the fore is, on the one hand, to question men’s protagonism, self- importance, and arrogance, thus attempting to dismantle not only the centrality of men as male humans, but that of humanity as a whole. Anthropocentrism has been at the core of technological developments. Humans have predominantly designed for human comfort (with the standard for “human” being effectively set up by men) narrowing down the possibilities of what technologies could be or do.

Complimentarily, foregrounding is also the practice of exposing the material and toxic aspects of technological progress and production both in terms of human labour and ecological implications, from e-waste to amounts of energy voraciously consumed by computational tools and infrastructures, to labour-heavy mining of rare earth minerals.

In stark contrast with the early days of eco-feminism which was expressively anti-technology, the panel maps out emerging strands of (techno) eco-feminism that critically engage with questions of gender, cyberspace, and ecology from a holistic perspective. This approach is not in opposition of technological tools, but rather in conversation with them. In this sense, techno-eco-feminism is close to the Haraway’s idea of questioning scientific methods not with the goal to invalidate them, but rather to ask “what are ways in which science can be used for emancipatory purposes?”

Featured Image:
Artwork by Cecilia Serafini

from New Suns Festival 2019

Header Image:
Screenshot of Siri by Chiara Di Leone

The English tranlsation of The Beautiful Warriors. Technofeminist Praxis in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Cornelia Sollfrank. Can be found here – http://www.minorcompositions.info/?p=976 and all decent book retailers.

1 Sadie Plant, Zeros Plus Ones, 1998

2 Both assumptions have been lined up by Judy Wajcman during the panel discussion 3 VNS Matrix, A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, 1991

3 Cyberfeminism in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberfeminism

Chiara Di Leone is based in London. Her design practice looks at the tensions between the individual and the collective by exploring the ways in which men, tools, and environment make one another. She has done design and curatorial work for BBC R&D, Tate Exchange, and Goldsmiths University, among others.

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1 Sadie Plant, Zeros Plus Ones, 1998

2 Both assumptions have been lined up by Judy Wajcman during the panel discussion 3 VNS Matrix, A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, 1991

3 Cyberfeminism in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberfeminism

Chiara Di Leone is based in London. Her design practice looks at the tensions between the individual and the collective by exploring the ways in which men, tools, and environment make one another. She has done design and curatorial work for BBC R&D, Tate Exchange, and Goldsmiths University, among others. Share: Twitter Instagram Facebook