A Feminist Reminder in Times of Digitalisation
Socio-ecological and digital transformation share an underlying challenge: To avoid reproducing social inequalities and persisting power asymmetries, decision-makers must evaluate proposed action cautiously and critically. To make things more complicated, they need to successfully do so across demographics, across academic disciplines, and on a global scale. What would digitalisation look and feel like if it were centred on social and environmental justice? Too often, our analyses focus on only one isolated topic while disregarding others that are interconnected: social challenges of the digital transformation vs. ecological challenges; digital technologies as potential solutions for climate change vs. the societal impact of sourcing hardware and running software. Why is it necessary to consider (planetary and social) boundaries in times of digitalisation?
Feminist thought has created tools
to criticise power asymmetries
and inequalities of the dynamics
There is a rich treasure trove of feminist thinking and practice that already addresses underlying issues of digital transformation, albeit in different contexts. Feminist thought has created tools to criticise power asymmetries and inequalities of the dynamics of digitalisation. Too often, the digital transformation is presented as essentially new, its challenges so far unheard of. What can we learn from feminist heritage to respond to them?
Reproductive boundaries in times of spatial and temporal independence
Especially in times of transformation, it is important to be sensitive to the different individual impacts change might have. For digitalisation, this would mean addressing two questions: For ‹whom› does a digital transformation open opportunities, and ‹who› is able to compete within a paradigm of tech-driven effectiveness? Technical artefacts are mostly created from androcentric perspectives. These perspectives marginalise the fact that humans are not only social beings and thus embedded in a specific socio-ecological context but also limited through bodies that are not independent of others, get tired, get sick, and die. In other words: In times of a digital transformation destined for ubiquity, planetary and social limits must be considered. Those marginalised and invisibilised boundaries are topics of feminist research and activism. Yet the digital transformation is not the first tech-driven revolution that ignores power asymmetries and ecological limits. Many ecofeminists, such as Maria Mies (1986), Val Plumwood (1993), and Marry Mellor (1997) (to name but a few), started research on those topics decades ago. Their findings are highly relevant for today’s digital transformation. Human beings are ‹embedded› in social and also ecological circumstances; thus, social as well as ecological reproductive processes matter. Although, in times of digitalisation, there have been many ways to stay connected (e.g., social media) or to work remotely (e.g., working from home), social and ecological reproduction remain dependent on particular contexts: It is impossible to fast-up friendship or to plant a tree without using real soil; even though humans trade carbon emissions on the stock market, it is impossible to decouple those emissions from a specific temporal and spatial context. Simultaneously, we cannot externalise the costs of reproduction to the digital void; human existence and its messiness cannot be delegated to (server) clouds. Material-feminist questions of power asymmetries or intra- and intergenerational justice remain highly relevant, even, and especially, in a digital context. Recently several feminist projects and initiatives have emerged that build on these ideas and perspectives Big Tech tends to overlook. Groups marginalised in the tech sector have long understood that the main approach to opening the field is bound to fail: Add women1 and stir.
Women* means all people who identify themselves as women.
Simply hiring more women to change the system has not worked in other sectors: neither when fighting corruption (Sim et al., 2017) nor in foreign policy, where feminist values necessarily clash with nation-state interests (Guerrina et al., 2018). In tech, this approach comes with claims to open a financially highly rewarding field of work, while it is mostly intended to solve the labour shortage in programming and software development. All those endeavours share one underlying problem: They do not address root causes of inequity and do not take into account intersectionalities that exacerbate exclusion. This misleading strategy leads, at best, to limited access for some but not for all. Even if including women in the digital transformation is the most visible practice, it is not feminist. The criticism from Guerrina et al. (2018) is, thus, relevant: «Feminism should challenge social inequalities in which gender intersects with other dimensions of power (race, class, sexuality, different ability). Its purpose is to transform a system that reifies men, and masculinities, as the norm».
Instead of trying to make tech a little more diverse, feminist practitioners have chosen a different path: Building their own set of rules and guiding principles, and even their own tech. In 2014, a group of 50 people drafted the first set of ‹feminist principles of the internet›, with the goal to «provide a framework for women’s movements to articulate and explore issues related to technology», and created the necessary groundwork for criticism from outside tech’s current power structures. The organisation ‹Feminist Internet› explores new ways to advance equalities online, ranging from queering technologies to making discrimination and abuse visible. ‹Coding Rights› published a card deck, the Oracle for Transfeminist Technologies, to break open common tech narratives and reframe them from a feminist view point. In 2022, ‹SUPERRR Lab› launched the feminist tech principles, meant as a set of guidelines for tech policy-making and technology creation.
Ingredients of a future-ready and human-centred digitalisation
Our vision of a future-ready and just digitalisation needs ‹universal rights› instead of power for the few. Rights that enable participation and combat power asymmetries. In particular, remaining inequalities within decision-making processes are harmful for the vision of including a broad spectrum of perspectives and life realities.
Our vision of a future-ready
and just digitalisation
needs ‹universal rights›
instead of power for the few.
To date, especially, white cis-male (privileged) perspectives dominate decision-making within the digital transformation. So, there is a need for a feminist digital strategy. Feminist digital rights include a power critical and structural analysis of actual policy-making. We need to scrutinise critically who is (unconsciously) considered to be part of a digitalised, future-ready society and who is marginalised in this vision. Legal rights are essential for a just transition. To continue from a feminist perspective, ‹material resources› are needed: resources to enable individuals and marginalised communities to have their seats at the table. We ask for barrier-free access instead of exclusive circles or networks that reproduce (social) inequalities. These inequalities could also affect future generations as their opportunities to live a good life are limited by the resource-intensive lifestyle of recent generations. A decision by the German Federal Constitutional Court decreed that intergenerational justice must be included in current (climate) policy-making (BVerfG, 2021) to protect the life and physical integrity of future generations. We need to ask the following question: With whose resources are we trying to get digitalisation off the ground? This is also a question that includes intragenerational aspects of justice and responsibility. To frame ecological resources as proper material legal subjects is ‹one› answer of the Global South to growth-driven extractivism (by the Global North), as put forward in a referendum in Chile in 2022 (Diaz, 2022). Key to including those multiple perspectives are all relevant decision-makers. As gate keepers, they make a difference. Thus, implementing human-centred digital politics does not only mean meeting tech and sustainability goals. As far as the ‹representation› of women in tech is concerned, we see a constant gender gap, as well as other lacking representations of marginalised groups, which might explain rather tech-enthusiastic innovation politics. Instead of tech-only impact assessment, any such assessment should also consider societal and environmental embeddedness of digitalisation; bottom-up participation and top-linked civic involvement are key. These considerations require civic society being able to impact policy-making as activists, representatives, stakeholders, or citizens. Alison Powell suggests (urban) collective action and grassroot movements should be revived to share experience-based knowledge: «We should be able to retain rights and capacities to hybridize – to transform and evolve our ways of knowing as the world we inhabit continuously becomes less certain and less easy to narrow and optimize» (Powell, 2021). For policy-makers, this transformation implies providing the resources necessary for actual civic participation as well as making decision-making as transparent and explainable as possible.Next page