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Loka Alert 6:6 (11 Nov. 1999)
From: Loka Staff
Sent: Friday, November 12, 1999 4:09 PM
Subject: Feminist Techno-Critics? [Loka Alert 6:6]

Please Repost Widely Where Appropriate

By Prof. Ellen Balka, Simon Fraser University

Friends & Colleagues:

In this Loka Alert long-time feminist technology activist and critic Ellen Balka reviews the history of
feminist engagement with many kinds of technology. But "where," she asks, "have all the feminist information technology critics gone? They've been seduced by the potential of the World Wide Web everywhere..."

This is one in an occasional series on the democratic politics of research, science, and technology issued free of charge by the nonprofit Loka Institute. To be added to the Loka Alert E-mail list, or to reply to this post, please send a message to <Loka@Loka.org>. To be removed from the list, send an E-mail with no subject or message text to <loka-alert-unsubscribe@egroups.com>. (If that fails, just notify us at <Loka@Loka.org>). IF YOU ENJOY LOKA ALERTS, PLEASE INVITE INTERESTED FRIENDS & COLLEAGUES TO SUBSCRIBE TOO. Thanks!

Cheers to all,
Dick Sclove, Founder & Research Director
The Loka Institute, 660 Pennsylvania Avenue, S.E. Suite 302 Washington, D.C. 20003 USA
Telephone: 301-585-9398
E-mail <Loka@Loka.org>, Web <http://www.Loka.org>


(I) Where Have All the Feminist Technology Critics Gone? By Ellen Balka .....................(4 pages)

(II) Internships at the Loka Institute...........(1/3 page)

(III) Recent Listserv Problems (FASTnet, pol-sci-tech, and CRN-list)........................ (1 paragraph)

(IV) About the Loka Institute................ (1 paragraph)

(I) Where have all the feminist information technology critics gone?

They've been seduced by the potential of the World Wide Web everywhere...
When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?

by Ellen Balka, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, School of Communication
Simon Fraser University, Canada

As a young feminist in the 1970s, I became fascinated by the possibilities of making the world a better place by making conscious choices about the technologies that filled my daily life, and the lives of other women and men. I became involved with a number of grassroots and change-oriented initiatives through the years that were aimed at challenging the adage that technological change will mean unmitigated progress for women. For many years I was filled with the sort of hope that accompanies the possibility of emancipatory change; I engaged in a range of activities aimed at assessing the impact on women of information technologies (everything from home computers to bar code scanners used in grocery store check outs), and I worked towards mitigating the potentially adverse effects of new computer technologies on women.

Now, some twenty years after my initial entry into critical debates about women, technology and social change, I find myself aware of a palpable difference in how feminists are responding to the increasingly ubiquitous computerization of our lives. It seems that the possibility of conducting sex-role impact statements (advocated by long-time U.S. community activist and feminist technology critic Judy Smith) or feminist technology assessments (advocated by the American Association of University Women in the early 1980s) about the impacts of information technology on women have given way to cyber-feminism.

For example, living in Canada I note that the introduction of new technologies poised to change the face of women's work (such as electronic airline tickets) now barely evokes a response from Canadian unions that two decades ago fought hard won battles for 'new technology' clauses in collective agreements. I find myself searching for meaningful forms of technology activism at a time when activism all too frequently means either fighting for access to technology or sending electronic petitions to one's electronic distribution list, rather than asking questions about how much technology we want in our lives, and how we want both our personal and work lives organized in relation to new technologies.

I wonder where all the feminist information technology critics have gone, and I fear the answer is that we've been seduced by the potential of the World Wide Web.

As a culture, we tend to have fairly simplistic views of technology and social change. Although we interact with technology from the moment our alarms ring in the morning to when we turn out our lights at night, for the most part, most people take technology for granted. As a culture, we tend to think of technology as inevitable progress or inevitable doom. We frequently combine one of these views with the notion that technology is neutral and value free and that the effects of technology reflect only the circumstances of use.[1] Though some of us might concede that a culture's values are reflected in the technologies it produces, most of us can't figure out how to intervene in the processes through which social biases are imprinted on technological systems. 

Our ability to think critically about technology seems to reflect both the technologies of the time, and issues that are obviously evident from the use of those technologies. Social movements may aid us in developing critiques of technologies, and moving those critiques into mainstream discourse, as was the case with the environmental movement of the 60s and 70s (which supported early debates about the scale of technological development and the need to conduct environmental impact statements), or the women's movement of the 60s and 70s (which encouraged us to question the nature of women's paid and unpaid work, and focused our attention on how technology contributed to our experiences as women workers). 

Although women's movements of the 60s and 70s contributed to the growth of feminist critiques of
male-biased health research, feminist critiques of new reproductive technologies took form only in the ethical turmoil that followed the birth of the first test tube babies (in spite of the publication of a well read and controversial feminist article about new forms of reproduction in the early 1970s). Unlike feminist environmental activism, and, perhaps to a lesser degree, information technology activism, activism aimed at regulation of new reproductive technology has only partially succeeded.[2]

However, popular critiques of technology seem to be bound by what is immediately obvious as a result of using and watching the use of new technologies. For many feminists, the environmental and women's movements of the 60s and 70s brought us face to face with alternative energy technologies at the same time that we were critically examining our paid and unpaid labor. Women who made choices to use alternative technologies did so at a time when debates about the nature of women's work were hard to miss.

The convergence of social movements in the 1960s and 70s supported feminist activists as they both utilized and criticized the technologies of the times. Many women were actively engaged with the creation and use of alternative energy technologies, and the activism of the time reflected that engagement. Our strategies reflected the level of engagement we had with the technology, and the insights that came from that engagement. We were able to see that along with the beautiful vistas of rural life came the constant call of food-producing vegetable gardens upon which our families depended. Our interaction with the technologies of the time allowed us to see both the possibilities of our choices, and their limitations. Although some technologies (such as transportation systems and architecture) were at times the focal point of feminist critique, these technologies became the topic of only limited feminist debate, perhaps because the effects of transportation infrastructure or building design on women were far more difficult to discern through casual observation.

In contrast, in the early 1980s feminist debates about technology revolved increasingly around the impact of information technologies on women. As computerization of large organizations began, we were able to see that the new technology was being deployed in sectors of the labor force dominated by women. Our debates centered around the threats of job loss and declines in the quality of our work, related to increased automation of tasks. For the most part, those of us taking a critical stance towards technology in the 80s saw it as a threat.

Some of us were lucky enough to gain exposure to Scandinavian concepts of participatory design in the 1980s (where workers and management work together to redesign workplace technologies to reflect democratic ideals and preserve skill content of jobs), which has kept the flame of hope alive as the rate of computerization of our lives has increased. Government funding in Canada, where I live, provided an impetus for trade unions and academics to collaborate in looking at the impacts of new technology on work, which led to a vibrant community of feminist information technology critics here in the late 1980s. We sought ways to influence the design of new technologies, in efforts to create more convivial outcomes while we encouraged our constituent groups to develop in-house expertise about the workings of the new technology. We dreamt of a world in which 'science for the people' was replaced by a 'science by the people.'

Fast forward (and change was fast!) to 1993 and the emergence of the World Wide Web. A significant proportion of organizations -- including change-oriented women's organizations -- had computers in-house. The emergence of the World Wide Web occurred at a time of cuts in funding of voluntary sector groups in Canada. (Unlike the United States, Canada has a women's movement that receives ample funding from the state.) The new Web-ready computers became the new Messiah as voluntary sector groups (including women's groups) saw the communication potential of the World Wide Web as a solution to the economic costs of organizing. Earlier enthusiasm about women workers and activists alike participating in the development of new technologies was replaced by calls for access to off the shelf systems that were supposed to meet our needs.

As Web-ready computers became more ubiquitous, feminists ranging from Sadie Plant to Dale Spender urged us (uncritically) to take advantage of the new technology, which they suggest, will extend women's superior (and for Plant, perhaps inherent) ability to communicate. Their call to embrace the new machines has been fueled by Web Grrrls (computer savvy women with attitude) who, enthralled with their entry into the previously boys-only domain of machines, are blind to the constraints many of their sisters still face in securing decent jobs and equal wages for the work they do alongside men.

As the 1990s draw to a close, post-feminist discourses that suggest women have achieved equality on every front, combined with the discourse of grrrls which attempts to distance itself from earlier feminist rhetoric (which they argue saw women as victims) finds many women sitting alone 
in front of Web-ready computers. As e-mail emerges as a new arena for activism, many of us who either must use e-mail for work or have been on-line for some time (and thus already have extensive electronic networks) find it increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff in our in-boxes. Just as we saw information technology as an absolute threat to jobs in the 80s, it is now seen as the absolute savior in the 90s -- a notion spread through the pervasiveness of the technology itself, which is used to spread the hype, making it more difficult to refute.

As economic globalization has overtaken social globalization, we communicate electronically with people from around the globe, but not our next door neighbors. Where once we went to seemingly endless collective meetings, got a bit of exercise at the occasional demonstration and shared the occasional pot-luck meal, we now read seemingly endless on-line postings. The machines on our desks require more and more of our time, while fitting into a larger system of increased expectations that has led to an increased cadence of work. Just as the evident disadvantages of technology in the 80s left us for the most part disengaged with the technology in our criticism of it as threat, the evident advantages of the Web now lull us into an equally uncritical stance.

Where have all the feminist information technology critics gone? We've gone on-line everywhere the technology has been available to do so, and in our enthusiasm for the technology, have lost that critical feminist perspective. What do we do about it? Though not large in number, there are several organizations engaged in critical perspectives of technology. Among them are:

  • The Institute for Women and Technology http://www.iwt.org/ exists to increase the impact of women on technology, in education, design, development, deployment and policy. To increase the positive impact of technology on the lives of all women. To help communities, industry, education and governments accelerate and benefit from these increases.
  • The Once and Future Action Network (OFAN) http://www.wigsat.org/ofan/ofan.html is an international consortium of gender, science and technology organizations which calls attention to women's contribution to people-centered and environmentally sustainable approaches to science and technology by raising public awareness, undertaking advocacy and lobbying activities at international policy forums and mounting visual and interactive demonstrations and presentations on women, science and technology around the world
  • Women in Global Science and Technology (WIGSAT) listservs http://gstgateway.wigsat.org/internet/listservs.html include international mailing lists on gender, science and technology (WIGSAT-L); and Women and Globalization List (Global-L) as well as collected women-related science and technology sites.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Ellen Balka is a long time feminist technology activist and critic. She is currently searching for meaningful ways to influence technological change from a feminist perspective and would welcome discussion of this topic (and other topics) on the Loka Institute's pol-sci-tech listserv. (To subscribe, just send a blank message to pol-sci-tech-subscribe@igc.topica.com.) Ellen teaches in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, which is located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. In spite of her cautions about on-line activism, she can be reached by e-mail at ebalka@sfu.ca. Her Web site can be accessed at http://www.sfu.ca/~ebalka.


[1]. For a discussion of these views, see C. G. Bush, "Women and the assessment of technology: To Think, to be; to unthink, to free," in J. Rothschild, (Ed.), Machina ex dea: Feminist perspectives on technology (New York: Pergamon, 1983), pp. 150-171. For a discussion of the extent to which these views are prevalent, see E. Balka, "Feminist Technology Assessment: Reflections on Theory and Practice," Atlantis, Vol. 22 , No. 2, (Spring 1998), pp. 112-122.

[2]. In Canada, a Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies was created in 1989 to assess the impact of new reproductive technologies on society. Canadian Royal Commissions are a mechanism for public participation as well as a vehicle for the collection of expert advice about matters under consideration. In the case of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technology, the Commission's procedures were widely criticized and the report was delivered several years late. The Commission's recommendations were set aside, and have yet to be legislated through government policies.


The Loka Institute has openings for volunteers, graduate and undergraduate student interns, and work-study students for February 2000 and beyond.

Interns' responsibilities include updating our Web page; managing email lists and listserves; conducting background research on issues concerning science, technology, and society; and helping with administrative work. Interns committing to a semester or more will have the opportunity to integrate independent research into their internship experience.

Candidates should be self-motivated and able to work as part of a team as well as independently. A general knowledge and comfort with computers is needed. Experience in Web page maintenance is preferable. Undergraduate students, graduate students, and recent graduates are welcome to apply. Loka is able to provide interns with an expense stipend of $35 per day for volunteering (or $700 per month full-time-equivalent).

If you are interested in working with us to promote a democratic politics of science and technology, please send a resume and a succinct cover letter explaining your interest and dates of availability to: The Loka Institute, 660 Pennsylvania Avenue, S.E. Suite 302 Washington, D.C. 20003, USA.
Telephone: 301-585-9398
We also are accept applications by e-mail to Loka@Loka.org.

(III) Recent Listserv Problems (FASTnet, pol-sci-tech, and CRN-list)

The Loka Institute manages several E-mail discussion lists, including FASTnet (the Federation of Activists on Science & Technology Network), pol-sci-tech (the international sibling list to FASTnet, which is North American-centric), and the CRN-list (for the Community Research Network). About 6 weeks ago we had to move these lists to a new server, and we have been experiencing various technical glitches ever since. We apologize for the disruption of normal communication, and we hope to have the kinks worked out very shortly. In the meantime, if you have recently sent a post to one of these lists which has not yet been distributed, please resend it to Loka@Loka.org, letting us know which list you intended it for. We will be sure to forward it to the appropriate list as soon as the technical problems are overcome.


The Loka Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making research, science and technology responsive to democratically decided social and environmental concerns.

Current Loka projects include:

  • The Community Research Network
  • Deliberative Citizens' Panels on Science & Technology
  • Identifying Democratic Technologies
  • Building a Constituency for Democratizing Research, Science & Technology

TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE LOKA INSTITUTE, to participate in our on-line discussion groups, to download or order publications, or to help please visit our Web page: http://www.Loka.org. Or contact us via E-mail at Loka@Loka.org.


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