On the Emancipation of Technology or: Who is teaching the machines – and why should feminists?

Justyna Dziubaszewska, ‘We are the revolution’, Manifa 2019

When in the 1970s Polish philosopher Józef Bańka developed his proprietary concept of eutyphronics [eutyfronika], his reflections were the result of a fear for human beings: what can be done to protect civilisation from the disastrous impact of developing technology, and protect human nature from the dangers it entails? In this reflection, there are visible influences from Heidegger’s approach to technology – that, in his view, should be taken over and controlled. Bańka proposes a new interdisciplinary field of science, which, from today’s perspective, could resemble quite a strange combination of psychology, cognitive science, philosophy of technology, and cybernetics. Its postulate is to remain straightforward and level-headed in our relations with machines, not to let them alienate us too much, to “defend personal, purely human qualities of life against technologisation” (Bańka, 1976). And then: “A technological man, according to this concept, should strive to become the unquestionably privileged party in the deal between humans and machines”.

Doesn’t it remind you of something? For many years a similar perspective was applied to nature, earth, women, and people socially excluded for various reasons: age, gender, sexual orientation, background. Who applied it? This is – obviously – a rhetorical question.

The God of Technology – we just call him GOT – is a patriarchal, masculine god. Healthy, strong, without any imperfections. Cold and logical. Mathematical and objective. He wants to be seen as a god for everyone, but we already know that not all of us come from him. He wants to be seen as politically neutral, but his views reflect the way in which he wants to rule the world, and what he wants to do with those weaker than him, and his goal is defined by an unrestricted technological progress and money, both real and virtual.

Feminists have sensed that something was going on a long time ago.  That, if we stay in the eutyphronics perspective, technology does not threaten everyone equally. Let’s take one more step back: does it threaten anyone at all? Who? Why would it? What type of order does technology strive to abolish, that the greatest philosophers were afraid of it? Let’s try to answer these questions from an emancipating and empowering perspective; one that is post-humanist, yet based on hard data. Tools available in the framework of feminist critique and postmodernism let us capture the not-quite-objective and “natural” view of modern technology.

Let’s then start from the beginning. For centuries, technology constituted mostly an opposition to nature and was situated as close to civilisation and culture. Along with the industrial revolution, and then the digital revolution, it constituted a component of the development of homo sapiens, set its directions and pervaded from the military and political spaces to everyday life, adjusting its form to the social conditions (or – which is a strictly philosophical issue – adjusting social conditions to its form. I recommend the excellent works of Canadian philosopher Andrew Feenberg on this subject). In the 1980s, in what could become a milestone of technological feminist thinking, Donna Haraway, as one of the first philosophers, decides to face the vision of technology that is imposed on us within the patriarchal trend in thinking about technology, one that is correlated with the army and other controlling institutions. She recognizes the strength in hybridisation of technology, which is the first step to acknowledging its subjectivity. The perspectives developed in the following years, such as cyberfeminism, hacktivism, or virtual communities based on decentralised protocols, bring us closer to such an approach to technology – which includes less conventional, so far unheard-of experience – thereby striving for equalisation and politicisation of technological discourse as one of the most important building blocks of social reality.

Justyna Dziubaszewska, 'Femifest', 2018

Justyna Dziubaszewska, 'Femifest', 2018

I can already hear the moaning of the silicon cowboys, that feminists are nit-picking again, and that technology is the most objective space for human activity – there is no place for political ideologies. If that is the case, dear cowboys, let us remember two facts.

Fact 1: technology derives from military space – an indisputable fact. What were supposed to serve as tools in the fight, today can be used in the kitchen or everyday communication. War is, in itself, political. At war, you form alliances and exterminate your enemies. This is the purpose for which technology is used at war. For the victory of our people, our cause. Technology is designed by the winners. And winners are those who are the best trained, and who formed the most beneficial alliances, have the best resources. The defeated are left with no technology, or it is taken away from them.

Fact 2: Technology serves the great socio-political systems, and the form in which we know it today is at the service of a specific capitalist, neoliberal Western world. The development of technology is linked with the development of capitalism, one facilitates the other, and, more and more, one is dependent on the other. Silicon Valley and other such places are the worlds dreamt up by the technocrats, a field of activity for the ‘technocratic cowboys’, in which the law of the more powerful, better equipped, and cleverer dominates. These are the cradles of the new conservative, not infrequently a reaction to what Bańka, in his works, warned against: a technocracy whose aim is for the extremely qualified managers and experts to take power, and for the “ordinary men” to uncritically submit to them. The GOT sends his people to manage technology, and presenting it in such a way that it is associated with a familiar hierarchy of control, an authoritative power, and turning a blind eye to the problems of technological privilege.

These are the facts. Is this why philosophers were afraid of technology’s influence on man? Combining these two worlds, as Haraway writes in her manifesto, gave birth to the Cyborg – an illegitimate son, with no beginning, no history, created as if on the side, hybrid-like. In her reflections Haraway showed other researchers how to carry out an in-depth, emancipatory analysis of modern technology and post-humanism, and how to find cracks through which an emancipatory thought might pass.

Justyna Dziubaszewska, 'Femifest', 2018

This emancipation should come by way of at least two paths of reflection. First of all, it should come by way of the participation of women, queer people, and those excluded on the basis of race or background, in technology design. Even though the situation is improving, we are continuously being reminded about how far behind we still are by the relatively low number of girls in classes with mathematical or technical profile, as well as at the technical universities, which is supposedly a result of their lower ‘natural’ predisposition to study science. Although behind the big IT projects that changed the world there is often an invisible work of hundreds of different affiliations of women: human computers, programmers, coders, and logisticians, all the credit goes to gifted boys and gentlemen, usually white, usually middle- or upper-class, those who learned how to use a computer faster than how to use a fork. Especially in recent times, many actions are being taken, at a grassroots, activist level, as well as the educational and global levels, not only to recognize and appreciate the invisible work of women within technology, but also to encourage people to enter the technological world on their own terms, usually opposing patriarchy.

Second of all, what our feminist minds should be concerned with is a question I posed in the title of this article. Even though it is directly associated with the process of deep machine learning, I’d like it to be understood broadly, and lead us to an answer not only to the questions of who teaches machines and how they are taught, but also, what is behind – and what are the consequences for us?

At this point silicon cowboys have a chance to moan again: ‘what do you mean, who is teaching? They learn themselves, that’s the whole point. They learn from the data found in huge databases, and those contain completely politically-neutral content, provided by web users’. This argument is refuted well by Caroline Criado Perez in her book Invisible Women Data Bias (2019). Not only through the use of data that is visible to the naked eye or sensed almost intuitively, but also through the in-depth analysis of huge databases (big data), Perez points out that the data the machines learn from is dominated by the male perspective, which makes the education of the machines, as well as their reasoning and its consequences, derive from the thought dominated by male-centred, standardised point of view. In a chapter titled One-Size-Fits-Men she points to the examples of seemingly neutral technological developments that, when you look closely, perpetuate, reflect, and stabilise the cultural, social, and political, not infrequently sexist, power of the male subject. From the obvious prejudices against the women’s experience, stemming from chauvinistic and sexist motives of Silicon Valley’s residents, to the realistically life-threatening consequences for individuals not fitting the forced, privileged male standards (for example, in the context of cars designed to be controlled by voices with characteristically male timbres, or omitting specific accents of English – or even other languages – in the communication between humans and machines), Criado Perez laboriously analyses cases from various fields of technology and design, removing the veil of gender and political neutrality. The size of the smartphones, the arrangement of the keys on the keyboard, the size of smart watches, or even the shape of car seats that are standardised to an average male size – when we look deeper at technology, we can see it is designed mainly for men (and by men).

Justyna Dziubaszewska, ‘Camp for Climate’; ‘Coven Berlin, Dziewczynstwo’, 2018

Why do Siri and Alexa have female names and speak female voices? Is the work they perform, of assistance and (somehow) care, culturally and socially closer to the roles assigned to women? The author points out that the first versions of Siri were designed in a way that the programme was able to find the services of the prostitutes or liquor shops nearby, but it did not know where and how to find abortion clinics or how to help in case of being raped. It did not even know what it meant “to be raped”, even though it had in its database information on heart attack, cerebral haemorrhage, and steps need to be taken in both cases: which hospital, or even which department should be called. This error was noticed and fixed after some time, but the issue of what data is available to the machines to learn from remains open.

Serious philosophers, afraid of the dangerous influence of technics and technology on human life, postulated for humans to take a step further and take control over technology. The willingness to tame technology is analogical to the willingness to tame nature and women. Is technology, then, the lost sister, which has to be pulled from the snatches of patriarchy, considered as an ally in the fight for emancipation, and protected, just like nature? In a few years, is cyberfeminism going to become a tool similar to the tools we have today, in times of drastic climate changes – ecology and ecofeminism? I take the stand that technology should be incorporated into feminist activities as widely as possible, not only through the increasing of participation of women, queer, trans, and non-heteronormative people, those unprivileged and excluded from the visible technological work, but also through consistent re-building of the existing databases, challenging the status quo and imposing your own, or hacking patriarchal technological systems, which try to organise our everyday lives under the guise of political neutrality.

Technology is still ripe for a takeover. Its continuous evolution, hybridity, and instability are qualities close to the feminist thought. After we realised it is us who are the Cyborgs, the time has come to care for each other and build a technological world on our – cyborg – terms.

Anka Adamowicz – PhD student at the Faculty of Philosophy of Adam Mickiewicz University, cultural anthropologist, feminist, trade union member Inicjatywa Pracownicza. Apart from writing for the RTV Magazine, she published in Avant. Magazine of the philosophical avant-garde, Time of Culture, Culture at the Base. Member of the artistic collective “Sandra Art Gallery”.

Justyna Dziabaszewska – graduate of the University of Arts in Poznań, student of Interactive Media and Performances at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań; visual artist, works in narrative media, mainly drawing, graphics, painting, animation, video. In art she values social and environmental sensitivity; participant of many exhibitions and artistic projects in Poland and abroad, winner of a scholarship from the Minister of Science and Higher Education and the Minister of Culture and National Heritage. Intersectional feminist, enthusiast of plant nutrition and low emission transport.


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