Payal Arora is Professor and Chair in Technology, Values, and Global Media Cultures at Erasmus University Rotterdam, Co-founder of FemLab.Co, a feminist future of work initiative, and Editor of the Communication and Media section of UC Press’s journal Global Perspectives. Rumman Chowdhury is a data scientist and social scientist and works as the director of the Machine Learning Ethics, Transparency, and Accountability (META) team at Twitter. Together, their special collection of articles, Cross-cultural Feminist Technologies, will be published in Global Perspectives.
UC Press: Congratulations on the launch of the Cross-cultural Feminist Technologies collection!
PA/RC: Thank you. We are excited to release the first essays from our collection and will be following up with the rest of the papers and our introductory essay in the coming months.
UC Press: What are cross-cultural feminist technologies, and what made you want to dedicate a collection of articles to deconstructing them?
PA/RC: We both come from different disciplines and sectors – Payal is a digital anthropologist and an academic and Rumman is a data scientist working in the tech industry. Moreover, Payal’s work has long focused on the ‘next billion user’ group, the vast population from low-income communities in the Global South who have come online for the first time due to cheap mobile phones and data plans and are shaping and being shaped by emergent digital cultures. Rumman has been an industry practitioner since 2013, and focused on responsible and ethical technology for the last five years. Her background is working with influential c-suite clients who are integrating cutting edge technologies and ensuring they are done responsibly. In her role at Twitter, she leads a team dedicated to considering and addressing social and ethical implications of AI and ML.
What brings us together is our ongoing research and activist pursuits on how to design and deploy equitable, ethical, and empathetic technologies that center the voices and values of marginalized groups and cultures. One such approach that is appealing as much as it is confounding is the feminist approach. In recent years, there has been much momentum in the demand to inscribe “feminist values” in design as a response to the chronic misogyny that has structured everyday communication online. For instance, a recent New York Times article made the case that smart home devices need a “feminist reboot” rather than reproduce traditional gendered work. From China, Nigeria to India, we are witnessing the rise of feminist data manifestos, movements, declarations, and calls for a feminist internet.
Here’s the complexity that is evident in our series. There is much debate on what constitutes feminism in these data-driven times and how that translates to code, design practice, and institutional reform. Over the decades, we have seen the spawning of a wide spectrum of feminist groups: Black feminists, White Western feminists, techno-feminists, postfeminists, radical feminists, savarna (upper caste Indian) feminists, Chinese feminists, intersectional feminists, and the list can go on. You can slice this cake in terms of identity, culture, and capital, each yielding their own discourses and agendas. These groups at times clash radically in their perspectives around notions of difference, identity, justice, neutrality, universalism, embodiment, and more. So, through this special issue, we want to provide a platform that unpacks these different viewpoints, stay with these tensions, and build a critical engagement around questions that need to be answered if we are to take on a feminist approach to construct future technologies.
UC Press: What can readers expect to find among the articles that make up this collection?
PA/RC: Technology is created to transcend borders and cultures; is there a universal feminism that can do the same? In this special issue, we ask if there are intrinsic values of tech communities that can be at odds with feminist values. In doing so, we embark on a journey to define whose feminism is encoded in building a digital space that is inclusive of women across borders.
In the forthcoming series, the authors tackle a wide range of valuable questions – Is technological feminism simply an extension of western feminist ideals, reflecting the global imbalance of technology influencers? If so, how can feminist technologies be decolonized and what values are missing? Is it possible to build a feminist technology in a contextual vacuum? If not, then how can we create localized context for products that are generalized by design? Can feminist technologies address online hate and misogyny? If so, how? Is feminism a primary pathway for the most inclusive of future technologies, or are there other intersectional identities that should supersede feminism?
What is exciting about the first set of essays is that we have academics and technology practitioners who are leading the field in translating feminist values into design. For instance, Charlotte Webb has shared some compelling ideas based on her experiences as the co-founder of Feminist Internet and founding director of Even, a consultancy providing creative approaches to tech equity. Her essay ‘Only Possible Feminisms’ argues against notions of neutrality as revealed through the different impacts that algorithmic and pandemic systems have had on marginalized populations. Another essay, ‘Decolonizing the Internet by Decolonizing Ourselves’ is by Whose Knowledge, a team of academics and activists who call themselves “pragmatic revolutionaries.” In this piece, they share practical knowledge of how they use the existing digital tools at their disposal to remaster and reclaim knowledge making for an inclusive internet as they work on and with underrepresented groups. Anna Lauren Hoffmann, an assistant professor at the Information School of the University of Washington in her essay ‘Even When You Are a Solution You Are a Problem: An Uncomfortable Reflection on Feminist Data Ethics’ offers a provocative thought piece on the limits of data ethics. She maps the nuanced discussions around plurality, othering and normative feminisms and proposes instead a “universal feminist value” as a way to “cut across cultures, generalizable to the struggles for gender justice regardless of the particular details in particular contexts.” Finally, we have an essay by Galit Ariel, an expert in augmented reality and founder of Future Memory Inc., a speculative design agency. In her work titled ‘Free the (Virtual) Nipple,’ she playfully teases out the space between the infinite possibilities that immersive technologies can provide o get us to ask ourselves on what does it take for this digital playground to be “both safe and experimental, outside technology’s dull, standardized, and self-celebrating monetization loop.”
These four essays are the first of the series we will be releasing over the coming months. We hope the readers will be as excited as we are about this collection!
UC Press: Payal, along with Media, Migration and Nationalism and Datafication and the Welfare State, this makes the third special collection to publish in your Communication and Media section in just a short time span. Any other new collections in progress that we can look forward to?
PA: Absolutely. Terry Flew, Professor of Communication in the Creative Industries Faculty at the Queensland University of Technology and GP’s Communication and Media Section board member has taken leadership of a timely issue on ‘Trust and Digital Platforms.’ Along with Sora Park, Associate Dean of Research and Professor of Communication at the Faculty of Arts & Design, University of Canberra, they have brought together a superb collection of papers that are currently in the pipeline.
Their special issue is driven by questions such as if trust or distrust as a concept is empirically measurable? Are there lessons from earlier ‘social capital’ debates about how to understand relations of trust, and what is the relationship of digital technologies to trust issues? Can government regulation address the power of digital platforms and contribute to better relations of trust between platform users and providers? They propose to address these kinds of questions and more through their collection. Given that there is a documented decline in trust in social and political institutions coupled with a rising distrust of the media, this issue comes at an opportune time.
UC Press: Thank you both!
About Global Perspectives’ Communication and Media Section
The “global turn” in communications, advances in mobile technologies and the rise of digital social networks are changing the world’s media landscapes, creating complex disjunctures between economy, culture, and society at local, national, and transnational levels. The role of traditional mass media—print, radio and television—is changing as well.
In many cases, traditional journalism is declining, while that of user-generated content by bloggers, podcasters, and digital activists is gaining currency worldwide, as is the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on communication systems.
Today, researchers find themselves at important junctures in their inquiries that require innovations in concepts, frameworks, methodologies and empirics. Global Perspectives aims to be a forum for scholars from across multiple disciplines and fields, and the Communication and Media Section invites submissions on cutting-edge research on changing media and communication systems globally.
About Global Perspectives
Global Perspectives is an online-only, peer-reviewed, transdisciplinary journal seeking to advance social science research and debates in a globalizing world, specifically in terms of concepts, theories, methodologies, and evidence bases. Work published in the journal is enriched by invited perspectives that enhance its global and interdisciplinary implications.
Editor-in-Chief: Helmut K. Anheier, Hertie School and Luskin School of Public Affairs, UCLA