Technology Inspired by Feminist Theory
Feminist technoscience is an established research field in Sweden. To learn more about it, we have talked to three researchers who study design, network technology and power in technological development.
The three researchers have different focus areas within the broader field of technoscience but share an ambition to include more and smaller actors in the technological development. They are searching for alternative solutions to established ideas and are striving to identify and implement sustainable methods.
The interviews are divided into three parts and centre around feminist design, unconventional IT solutions and what happens when technology is given priority over everything else.
New Solutions to Old Problems
Lena Berglin, senior lecturer and head of the textile technology programme at the Swedish School of Textiles in Borås, has a background in traditional technology research and obtained her PhD from Chalmers University of Technology after writing a doctoral thesis on interactive textile structures.
In her experience, too much research is based on speculation instead of real needs.
– When I started studying feminist theory, I became convinced of the importance of basing things on real problems and pursuing research related to people’s daily life.
Instead of working with a technology-driven research team, she started collaborating with other researchers and actors from various professions (such as nurses, Sami people, experts from the humanities etc.).
This was also the time when she decided not to let her position as a researcher in a male-coded academic environment determine what she chooses to study.
Today, she involves a wide range of people and areas of expertise in her research in order to find solutions to future problems together.
– Technological development is largely focused on problems constructed by a small homogenous group of people who define certain focus areas, such as cars, robots and medical technology, as more important than others. Technofeminism has an incredibly important role to play in this respect.
Prime Example of Feminist Design
Berglin thinks that she would probably have cared more about technological advances than the actual need for them had she continued her journey on the conventional technology path. In her present research project, she lets the observed needs decide which technology should be used.
As a concrete example of when the quest for people’s rights drives the technological development, she mentions Karin Högberg’s menstrual poverty project. Because of her research in Africa, a very real problem that affects millions of women has been identified.
By means of a technofeminist perspective and interdisciplinary research, Berglin has developed a female sanitary product that can be extremely beneficial to women in some areas. It is a reusable sanitary pad made of a material that dries quickly without absorbing fluids and therefore is easy to clean with a small amount of water, which is a necessity in poor areas with limited water supply and no possibilities to throw wet laundry into an electric dryer.
Feminist perspectives are not just about women and men but also about small and large actors. To dare to involve more people.
– The product is a prime example of feminist design. Basing it on the needs of women and creating something that harmonises with the environment is a feminist act. Feminist perspectives are not just about women and men but also about small and large actors. To dare to involve more people, says Berglin.
Reduction Better Than Recycling
According to Berglin, overconfidence in recycling leads to unchanged consumption levels, when what we really need to do is change our consumption patterns. What is important is to reduce the use of industrially produced material rather than recycle it. She points out that the available resources simply are too limited to continue producing plastics, and stresses the importance of a change in attitudes.
– Everybody seems to think that electric cars will solve everything, but electricity is not an unproblematic energy source. And of course it’s better to buy organic cotton, but that doesn’t mean it won’t deplete the soils. The problem is that we keep wanting so much of everything. I think feminist research can make important contributions by challenging established ways of doing things.
At the same time, Berglin is interested in the recycling of resources and describes with fascination how the Sami people do not let anything go to waste when slaughtering reindeer. She speculates about how other animal tendons could be used for extraction of fibres.
Another project that she is carrying out in a Sami community together with Maria Udén, professor at Luleå University of Technology, is centred around industrial extraction of fibres from animal tendons, which has a long tradition in Sami handicraft.
– In contrast to a textile medical product, an industrially produced tendon string could reach more actors and also be as environmentally friendly as any production ever gets. The craft would generate a lot of money, to more and smaller actors.
At the end of the interview, Berglin talks about the great potential of the new national platform for researchers in the field of feminist technoscience, which she considers a possible graduate school for future PhD students. She is no longer interested in running projects at a traditional research institution or in having PhD students involved in what she calls ‘downpipe’ research, or highly specialised research that digs deep into a subject without sufficiently considering relevant conditions, observations and findings in adjacent fields.
Her goal for the future is to help ensure that feminist research will not just point out problems, but that technofeminist researchers will also stand up and take the lead by identifying solutions.
Given Truths Replaced with Criticism of Prevailing Power Structures
Already as a teenager, Samo Grasic began building and distributing Wi-Fi networks in his home community in Slovenia, where people still did not have access to internet. His early interest in network technology eventually led to university studies in computer science.
In a next step, the studies took him to Sweden and Luleå University of Technology, or more precisely the Division for Gender and Technology, where he was awarded a PhD after writing a doctoral thesis on the DTN (delay tolerant networking) technology and its use in the Arctic wilderness.
– I wasn’t interested in gender and gender equality when I first started. To my surprise, the perspective ended up being of critical importance to me, both professionally and privately.
It was not until he had started studying at Gender and Technology in Luleå that he realised how narrow his previous training had been. He came to realise that technological development is not something that follows a given path, but that it is determined by historical and political factors. Around the same time, he was also introduced to theories about norms and power.
I wasn’t interested in gender and gender equality when I first started. To my surprise, the perspective ended up being of critical importance to me, both professionally and privately.
– Technology is often portrayed as a neutral, apolitical field characterised by given truths, but the truth is that all technology is created based on distinct interests. Although the field truly is political, political aspects are never discussed in technoscience. I believe that feminist theories can help analyse and discern who and what groups in fact are in charge of the technological development.
Unconventional Technology beyond the Realm of Big Corporations
Grasic’s studies in the Padjelanta and Sarek national parks show that technology that can handle delays can work as a communication tool in areas characterised by a harsh climate and lack of access to mobile networks. One of the presented solutions concerns reindeer tracking and can be used by reindeer keepers.
Grasic currently works as a technology developer for the Dálvvadis co-operative society, a collaboration platform for the Sami communities in Jokkmokk in northern Sweden. As a developer, he helps reindeer keepers in remote areas gain access to the internet, which among other things can make it easier for them to track their reindeer.
– It’s an important job, in my opinion. It feels great to be able to help craft a solution that is tailored to the needs of the Sami communities. It’s important that the technological development occurs together with, and not just for, future users.
Grasic believes it is important go beyond the prevailing norm, beyond the arenas of the big corporations, and create something else, more robust. He wants to contribute to sustainable technical solutions that make it easier to live a life outside the cities. That can help people and their livelihoods survive.
– Conventional IT technologies can’t be used everywhere. This makes it important that technology developers don’t just follow contemporary trends but also try to find alternative solutions for example for people in rural areas who can’t always benefit from the technologies that are used in the cities.
Influence on the Conversion of Society
Åsa Johansson has two master’s degrees – one in mechanical engineering and one in gender studies. As a doctoral student at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, she combines feminist technoscience with feminist organisational studies.
Her upcoming doctoral thesis will explore understandings of influential tech areas, areas that are often hyped as being critical to the way people will live their lives in the future.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a good example of these disruptive technologies. In fact, AI is often described as the world’s most important technology at this point in history. In Sweden, billions of Swedish crowns are currently being invested in AI (Ny teknik 22 February 2018).
Johansson’s research aims to find out what is happening in the current era of conversion and what actors are driving the development, which is predicted to affect all people in all countries. Her main study will focus on power and influence, inclusion and exclusion.
‘Who gets to participate in the formulation of technological visions? What ideas and understandings of technology are the planned advances based on? By exploring how power is made and what actors are driving the development, I hope to find answers to these questions.’
Technological visions for the future have materialised consequences, says Johansson and mentions the time around the turn of the millennium when IT companies without much substance were heavily overvalued at the same time as new masculine ideals swept gender equality under the carpet. She likens the period to a type of martial law that seems to apply when technology is given priority over everything else in the middle of a hype.
Technology That Recreates Power Imbalances
The development of artificial intelligence brings attention to many interesting questions, in particular the one about how science views human beings and their creation of knowledge. Research and the development of artificial intelligence have long prioritised the brain. The field has still not fully absorbed the criticism from feminist research that learning occurs in an interactive intertwining of the brain, the body and the environment.
A feminist perspective may concern demarcations as to what should be defined as technology, or the appreciation of women’s interest and contributions in the field of technology.
– When technology-related activities continuously reflect men’s experiences and coincide with perceptions of masculinity, there will always be consequences for women active in the same fields, who must then compromise their identities and make personal sacrifices in order to fit into those environments.
According to Johansson, by applying a feminist perspective, you enable female researchers to participate on the same terms as men, but it is also a way to ensure that the products, artefacts and services that are created target more people than just men.
– If those who develop new technology belong to a homogenous group, there is a big risk that important user groups will be ignored, which in turn recreates the imbalance in power.
Finally, Johansson emphasises that all research needs a core subject in order to reach an impact. It is important that feminist technoscience continues to work interdisciplinarily, but disciplines also need their own environments in order to evolve.
– The goal is to transform other fields through feminist technoscience.
Photo Samo Grasic