Thursday, May 7, 2015

Women and the Technological Revolution

By Reihana Mohideen

We are told that women may soon bid farewell to existing methods of birth control and welcome a new type of contraception in the form of microchip implants. An MIT start-up backed by the Bill Gates Foundation plans to start pre-clinical testing for the birth control chip this year and pave the way for a possible market debut in 2018.
The fingernail-size microchip implant -- measuring 20 x 20 x 7 millimetres -- holds enough 30-microgram daily doses of levonorgestrel—a hormone already used in several contraceptives—to last for 16 years. Women who receive the implant under the skin of their buttocks, upper arm or abdomen would also get a remote (wireless) control that allows them to halt or restart the implant whenever they like. The technology includes secure encryption to prevent outsiders from blocking or reprogramming the implants wirelessly. As an added precaution, the remote control can only communicate with the microchip implant across a distance equivalent to skin contact.
Can this new application for microchips potentially revolutionise the level of control women have over their reproductive functions? Or is this another example of intervention and control over women’s bodies, by what has been considered by many feminists to be a “patriarchal”, that is a white male-dominated scientific establishment?
Has the optimism among some feminists, influenced by the dawn of the digital age and the development of information and communication technology, with its potential to empower women and transform gender relations, been realised? Thirty years since the publication of Donna Harroway’s Cyborg Manifesto, in 1985, it will be important to assess the gender ramifications of technological development in the last few decades.

‘Disruptive technologies’
Do some technologies have the potential to disrupt the status quo and change entirely the way people live and work and even think? An area of study has emerged, which assesses the potential of certain technologies and their development over the next 25 years, to do just that. These technologies are described as “disruptive technologies”.
Computer performance that underpins many of technology system advances has progressed according to Moore’s law[2] for around 50 years and recent materials technology advances such as graphene pave the way for a further 10-20 years of exponential increase in performance and exponential reduction in size and cost. Integrated circuit technology, relentlessly following Moore’s law, resulted in a high-performance computer in the mid- to late 1960s (occupying many tens of cubic metres volume, drawing many kilowatts of power, and costing several million dollars) being transformed by 1980 to the size of a thimble, drawing just a few watts of power, and costing a few dollars while achieving similar computing performance.
DNA sequencing is on the path to becoming an everyday tool in life-science research and medicine. Institutions are beginning to sequence patients’ genomes in order to customise care according to their genetics. Instead of costing hundreds of millions of dollars and taking years to sequence a single human genome, a population-scale sequencing platform has been recently created that can sequence more than 18,000 genomes per year at a cost of approximately $1000 per genome. Sequencing is no longer something only big companies and international consortia can afford to do. Now, thousands of bench-top sequencers sit in laboratories and hospitals across the globe.
The technology pioneers describe the potential of 3D printing to create a total self-producing environment, using recycled materials, printing out its own energy sources, linked to food production at one end and system production at the other. Not only the creation of a self-contained production loop, but an entire system that lives off recycling of surplus products, such as plastics and other materials.
Renewable energy has been identified as having the potential, at least, to be a “disruptive technology” due to the following general characteristics.
A rapidly advancing technology: since 2000 the growth in solar photovoltaic and wind generation has grown 19-fold and the price of a solar PV cell has decreased by 85% since 2000;
The potential scope of the impact is broad: it can change the quality of life, health and environment and if coupled with developing energy storage technologies (also identified as potentially “disruptive”) can provide energy access to millions of poor people;
Economic impact which could dramatically change the status quo: renewable energy technologies can potentially change the comparative advantage of developing nations, such as the case of China and India with ambitious plans for solar and wind adoption that could further enable rapid economic growth while mitigating negative environmental impacts.
The “convergence” of disruptive technologies have the potential to have profound societal impacts.
Renewable energy sources + sensing + networking + analytics + extensive distributed energy sources = green power (smart grid)
Extensive sensing + analytics + networking = improved quality of disaster response, enhanced with robotics and drones
In the context of Third World countries they can enable them “leap-frog” stages, by using less capital intensive, centralised systems and technology, with important welfare benefits and improvements in the quality of life of women and men. In Nepal, which has one of the lowest per capita consumption of electricity in the world at approximately 119 kWh (compared to OECD averages of over 8000 kWh), micro-hydro-based mini-grid systems are key to providing electricity to households in remote areas (where electrification rates are a staggeringly low 34% of households). In some villages, this has contributed to significant improvements in maternal and infant mortality rates, within a space of a few years.

Feminist approaches
A theoretical position in science and technology studies is that technology is not purely technological. It is shaped by the social circumstances within which it takes place. Technology is treated as a sociotechnical product, and not simply a product of rational technical imperatives. Over the last two decades, feminist writing within the field has theorised the relationship between gender and technology as one of mutual shaping -- described as technofeminism – arguing that gender is integral to this sociotechnical process. The materiality of technology affords or inhibits  particular gender power relations. Drawing more women into design—the configuration of artefacts—is not only an equal employment opportunity issue, but is also crucially about how the world we live in is shaped, and for whom.
We live in a technological culture and so the politics of technology is integral to the renegotiation of gender relations.
Feminist theories in the 1980s shifted the discourse from asking how women can be equitably treated within and by science, to the question of how science can be used for emancipator ends, given its historical evolution as a distinctly masculine project. Feminist analyses of technology shifted from women’s access to technology to examining the very processes by which technology is developed and used. Feminists who studied the relationship between women and technology, through the prism of the labour process and the technology of production, brought an important historical perspective to bear on the relationship between gender and technology. This literature provided a compelling critique of technological determinism, arguing that, far from being an autonomous force, technology itself is crucially affected by the social relations of production.
Contemporary theories are influenced by the dawn of the digital age, with the development of information and communication technology (ICT). Feminist approaches of the 1990s and today are positive about the possibilities of ICT to empower women and transform gender relations. The optimism of this post-feminist literature is best summed up by Donna Haraway’s (1985, 1997) cyborg metaphor, conveying the idea that technology is an aspect of our identity and fully part of all of us. Conceiving of ourselves as cyborgs provides a tool for challenging traditional notions of gender identity and transforming the gender relations of technoscience and the relationship between women and technology. Terms such as “cyborg” and “cyberspace” found usage in the English language due to the influence of “cybernetics”, a transdisciplinary approach for exploring regulatory systems, their structures, constraints and possibilities, pioneered by Norbert Wiener (1950, 1965). The influence of cybernetics is evident in the post-feminist literature on technology by Haraway and others.
I believe that the post-feminist views on the relationship between gender and technology are overly optimistic. The possibility and the fluidity of gender discourse in the virtual world are ultimately constrained by the gender relations actually experienced in the material world.
Others theorise that technology must be considered in an anthropological and historical way, and that its study involves not only material things, but also people. Technology shapes gender and gender shapes technology at every level. Some technologies can be read as codes for gender, such as ovens and cook stoves, for example. But this then begs the question: Are cook stoves “feminine technologies”? Some feminists do argue that feminine technology are those associated with women by virtue of their biology. Therefore kitchen utensils, bras and IUDs are all “feminine technologies”.
A biologically determinist approach that describes certain types of technology as feminine technologies can tend to reinforce traditional sex roles and gender stereotypes.

As in the example of further developments in reproductive technology, which poses the essential and key question of the need for women to control their own bodies, this is posed in a more general sense in the case of technological change and advancement: it requires popular control, community control and for society to understand, plan and determine its overall development, purpose and use.
Technologies have no power of their own. Human beings make these technologies and human beings choose to use them under specific socioeconomic circumstances. While there is no technological fix to the massive environmental-socioeconomic problems we face, existing technologies and trends in future technological developments, within the next three decades for example, do provide actual and potential solutions.
What is preventing the flourishing of these technological developments from realising their full potential in addressing the critical environmental-socioeconomic and gender issues of our times is that these technologies and the R&D programs that spawn them are controlled by capitalist corporations and institutions.
Even when they are the inventions of individual scientists, they are very quickly subjected to and controlled by capitalist market relations. Marx’s dictum of the underpinning contradiction of capitalism, on the fetters placed by capitalist social relations of production, based on exploitation and oppression, thus preventing the full development of human beings in harmony with the environment and technological development, rings more true than ever. The studies around “disruptive” technologies demonstrate that these contradictions are infinitely large today.
While the ambiguous nature of technology change needs to be acknowledged, such as trends towards reduced privacy, the impact of robotisation on employment, or the “weaponisation” of technologies, we can also aspire to an alternative future: a child in a slum has her environment transformed by 3D printing, has access to complex medical treatment provided by a low-cost robotic surgical machine, available at the local health clinic, powered by very efficient solar systems. The possibilities are endless and the means do exist to chart a future course towards such ends as these. In this sense, the 21st century is one of a transition towards socialism. Despite what the pessimism of the moment might suggest, we have far more going for us, to believe in the possibility of change for the better.

[Reihana Mohideen has completed PhD research on renewable energy and it's societal and gender impacts. She is the chairperson of Transform Asia Gender and Labor Institute, Philippines.]

Bijker, Wiebe E. and Law, John, eds, 1992. Shaping technology/Building society, Studies in socio-technical change. The MIT Press.
Haraway, D. 1985. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s”, Socialist Review, vol. 80, 65–108
Lerman and others, eds, 2003. Gender and Technology, A Reader, edited by. The John Hopkins University Press. Baltimore and London.
McKinsey Global Institute, 2013. Disruptive Technologies: Advances that will transform life, business and the global economy
Rundle, Guy. 2014. A Revolution in the Making. Affirm Press, Melbourne.
Wacjman, Judy, 2010. “Feminist theories of technology”. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 2010, 34, 143-152.
Weiner, Norbert. The human use of human beings – Cybernetics and society. With a new introduction by Steve J. Heims. Free Association Books, London, 1989.
[1] This article is a summary of the introductory chapter to the author’s upcoming book, Gender and the Technological Revolution.

[2] Moore’s law famously states that computing power doubles in size and halves in price approximately every 18 months and has been a basic business model for the semiconductor industry.

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