For me, the term “technology,” within the context of feminist media studies, is inextricably tied to problem(s) of the body. In other words, technologies—in all their multiplicities—form, manage, or alter the body. Instead of thinking of technology as an enlightened machine, hurling civilization toward progress, feminist theory that informs feminist media studies has insisted that technology is, first and foremost, a discourse and a way of thinking about the world. Technology is invariably tied to already existing systems of power and inequity. In other words, technology might mean progress for some, but not necessarily for others.
For example, while mobile phones signify advances in mobility and access to information, digital device production is mired in terrible working conditions and labor violations in factories around the world. Moreover, as Jennifer Daryl Slack argues in an essay similar to this one, technologies are not “things,” but rather “complex ideological, political, economic, and environmental arrangements that constitute social and cultural life.”1 In short, technology, as a practice, shapes all aspects of life. A feminist approach to the study of technology excavates relations of power and markings of differences, which foregrounds accounts of progress. This is a uniquely genealogical project because it starts with the present day to trace back power assemblages that shaped our current interactions and understandings of technology. Here, and throughout this essay, power is defined as a discursive apparatus that informs all cultural interactions. To study how technologies are used to classify and manage bodies, therefore, we must first understand how particular discourses and statements about technology emerged as authoritative statements of truth, and which bodies are absent from those statements altogether. Here, I outline the parameters of such feminist media studies subfields as surveillance studies, digital technologies, imagining technologies, and cyborg studies. This is by no means an exhaustive list and cannot encompass the entirety of great scholarship on the topic. It is my hope, however, to provide a bird's-eye view on the work that feminist scholars are doing on the role of technology in everyday life. It is also my hope that technology studies will remain an important focus of current feminist scholarship.
Much of feminist media studies’ current work on technology centers on feminist surveillance studies and critical approaches to digital technologies. Feminist surveillance studies specifically examines how surveillance technologies are shaped by systemic gender, race, sexuality, and class inequalities and prejudices. In their 2015 anthology on the topic, Rachel Dubrofsky and Shoshana Magnet argue that “the study of surveillance is, of necessity, a study of power relations” and that algorithms and data collection are not neutral enterprises, but rather “incorporate the prejudices of ‘domain specific’ expertise and historical patterns.”2 To them, therefore, surveillance technologies are not only implicated in already existing relations of power, but also actively work to obfuscate these relations through the supposed neutrality of algorithms and data collection. They argue, for example, that even though information aggregated through digital technologies that enable surveillance “remains unavailable to viewers, this information nevertheless helps to shape their understanding of the surrounding world.”3 As a result, surveillance is often portrayed as a neutral technological apparatus designed to guarantee public security and safety. Feminist engagement with the topic, however, brings attention to how surveillance functions as a system in which racial and gendered bodies are disciplined, classified, and often punished.4
Feminist media studies also considers how digital technologies and media obfuscate relationships of power inherent in any system of representation. Lisa Nakamura, for example, writes extensively about how race and ethnicity is communicated and contested in online environments enabled by digital technologies. For her, digital technology, and online spaces, perpetrate the fallacy of color-blind society while simultaneously highlighting racial inequalities through digital practices that privilege whiteness.5 As she powerfully argues, “The Internet is a place where race happens.”6 Furthermore, she writes, technology is what enables race to happen; it is what constructs and communicates this particular system of difference. In my own work, I examine how digital tech industry practices and ideologies affect social bodies, fears, and desires.7 I theorize disruption as a discursive strategy of tech industry practices that serves to individualize and personalize solutions to complex, systematic issues of inequality.8 For example, mobile health apps, which are billed as disruptive innovations to improve public health, individualize the problem of health by positioning health tracking apps as solutions to public health crises such as diabetes. Amy Adele Hasinoff examines how ideologies and discourses of tech industry practices are related to moral panics about sexting and child monitoring devices.9 In her work on technological solutions to child safety, she argues that family location-tracking apps, for example, reinforce individualized solutions to complex social issues of public safety and reinforce problematic expectations about interpersonal surveillance mechanisms as a way of guaranteeing child safety.10
Another influential subfield of feminist technology studies has been the study of medical and scientific imaging technologies such as X-rays, ultrasounds, and DNA samplings. In this subfield, scholars look at how these function as visual technologies and cultures as they render the body—and specifically the female body—visible. This regime of visibility is imbued with often-hidden power relations that privilege certain types of knowledge and expertise over others. In a defining text on the topic, The Visible Woman (1998), Paula Treichler, Lisa Cartwright, and Constance Penley persuasively argue that “visibility is not transparency. Rather … visibility is itself a claim that must be carefully examined: in acknowledging what is seen, and newly seen, we need to be equally vigilant about what is not seen, or no longer seen.”11 Here is a critique of claims that technology neutrally represents, studies, and knows bodies while technology is always affecting and affected by bodies. For example, Carol Stabile argues that fetal photography, enabled by ultrasound technologies, effectively erases the maternal body by prioritizing the well-being of the fetus over the needs or desires of the mother.12 In other words, a technology used to protect pregnant women's health has also been effectively used to erase the female body from legal or medical decision-making processes. Disability scholars have also taken up a critique of imaging technologies. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson has written extensively about how medical technologies are used to define, classify, and manage exceptional or unusual bodies. She argues that “the development of techniques that produced, reproduced, and disseminated images within the popular media such as photographs, television, films, and digital imaging separate the viewer from the viewed by virtually producing the staring encounter.”13 As a result, technologies absolve the starer of the responsibility of staring and withdraw the agency from the person looked upon. In this work, feminist scholars specifically examine the intended and unintended effects of techno-scientific and medicalized management and classification of difference.
In her influential work on the political potentiality of cyborgs—a cybernetic organism, or an assemblage of the technological and the organic—Donna Haraway forcefully argues against the patriarchal appropriation of technology as a vehicle for progress at any cost. That cost often includes the lives and well-being of those who exist on the margins of patriarchal society—the gendered, racial, and exceptional other. For Haraway, the cyborg subverts the duality between man and machine, with all its gendered implications. Cyborgs are “the illegitimate offsprings of militarism and patriarchal capitalism” that are “often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins.” It is in that boundary crossing that the cyborg offers a way of thinking about the world that decenters the search for progress and truth and “all claims for an organic or natural standpoint.”14 It is through that decentering that the technological is embraced, examined, and criticized by feminist scholars. And while the cyborg is not an origin story, it is, according to Haraway, our ontology, or our way of being in the world that does not want us in it. Feminist engagement with technology is therefore a necessary political stance. We need to understand the technological not as separate from the human, but rather as deeply and profoundly intertwined in our relations, systems, and apparatuses of power. Feminist media and technology studies specifically can address the role of technology not as an agent of the future, but rather as an assemblage that shapes, and is shaped by, the apparatuses of power in everyday life. As a result, I hope, we can further develop theoretical tools to conceptualize our cyborg existence.