Coffeeless and cranky

April 23rd, 2008

I am cranky today. Was cranky yesterday. Hmmm… could it be because I decided on a whim to do the Wild Rose Herbal D-Tox diet (I say diet because I’ve forgone the supplements – no real flushing of the system for me)? And let me say I am not the type to diet or do cleanses or deprive myself in any way. I find life hard enough. But here I am, doing a spring “cleanse.”

I am cranky because I am exhausted. I am exhausted – or feeling my exhaustion – because all I’ve been drinking is green tea, and not my usual 2 large cups of coffee in the morning plus limitless cups of black tea throughout the afternoon, and then decaf black tea in the evening. This is all because dairy is forbidden on this diet. Tea is a no-no too. But not coffee – go figure.

I’ve realized my dependency stems from a combination of needs. The first need is the need to feel awake, alert. I have this need due to chronic and cumulative sleep deprivation, going on seven years now. This is simply the bleak reality for parents of young children without live-in nannies. Second is the need for comfort. I come from a family of tea grannies, and ever since I was a child, tea represented the immediate, if temporary, solution for almost all problems. Have a headache? A long day? Stressed out? Being evicted? Knocked up accidentally? A cup of tea goes a long way to taking the edge off. Things always look better after a hot cuppa – my mum or gram said something like that. And, of course, it’s tea with milk (not cream, as the Americans do) and no sugar. That warm mug of steaming, milky liquid is something I rely upon to take me through an afternoon of work at my computer, reading, writing, transcribing, thinking – whatever. The third need derives from what I can only describe as an oral fixation. I would be obese, I’m sure, if I wasn’t so vain. Instead of eating, I can drink endless mugs of tea (coffee does do a number on my system after 2 cups), and have the benefit of comfort and caffeine.

But I just can’t drink green tea – even caffeinated – in the same way. I was sick of it after 2 cups on my first day of this damn diet.  So today, I couldn’t hack it anymore. I broke down and had coffee. I said (to myself) fuck it and poured myself a cup, mixing in vanilla cream (oh yeah, no sugar on this diet either). Ah well, fuck it. I was never one for pointless self-discipline. Life is too damn short.

I feel better already.

Week 13 – Wrap it up already

April 1st, 2008

This is the last week in the semester, which has gone by both blurringly fast and painstakingly slow. Ain’t that always the way? The readings for this week are the final chapter in Judy Wajcman’s Technofeminism (2004) as well as the last chapter in Juliet Webster’s Shaping women’s work: Gender, employment and information technology (1995).

Wajcman and Webster are both hardcore scholars. I appreciate so much their rigor, and their steadfastness in the face of those relentless bastions of patriarchy: technology and the academy. Not only are they rock solid, they are the rock stars of feminist constructivist theory, though this may not – at first blush – appear such a sexy thing. Indeed, Wajcman doesn’t even have a page on Wikipedia, despite being a forerunner the field, and Webster seems to have fallen off the academic map completely, though her book had to have been a major contribution.

Wajman concludes her concise yet elegant account of the intersection of feminism and technology studies with her own updated offering. Thus far I had found the book extremely useful and, importantly, accessible to students who, although in fourth year, had had little contact with either academic tradition. In her typically simple yet masterful prose, Wajcman gently introduced them to the various strains of feminism, mapping the field and its evolving challenge to a thoroughly classed and gendered technoscience. By the time she got to cyborgs and cyberfeminism, students were ready and willing to travel with her to the frontiers of cyberspace: virtual reality, the digital divide and disembodied identity.

In her final chapter, Wajcman discusses her addition to the ever-growing body of feminist constructivist theory. She identifies the polarization in social theory between “metaphor and materiality” (the name of this chapter). Wajcman thus retains a materialist analysis, including an unflinching critique of capitalism while pointing of the need to avoid the technological determinism of socialist feminism. She praises Donna Haraway for surpassing the limitations of cyberfeminism, with its tendency toward essentialism, in her attempt to marry socialist and postmodern feminism(s). Remaining thoroughly in the constructivist camp, she says: “An emerging technofeminism conceives of a mutually shaping relationship between gender and technology, in which technology is both a source and a consequence of gender relations” (107).

Wajcman argues that new digital technologies differ in important ways from earlier technologies, as do the social networks in which they are embedded (108). “Whereas the key technologies of the industrial era were largely muscle-enhancing, information technologies are considered to be brain-enhancing” (109). While this prepares the ground for a subversion of sex-stereotyping in the digital era, women continue to be underrepresented among graduates in infotech and computer science (and of course engineering) – and therefore in these fields of employment. Thus Wajcman advises revisiting the liberal feminist program of equal opportunities and equal pay.

Missing from the debate is the fact that the absence of women in technoscience deeply affects how the world is made. The insight of technofeminism? “Every aspect of our lives is touched by sociotechnical systems, and unless women are in the engine-rooms of technological production, we cannot get our hands on the levers of power” (p. 111). We must see technology as a culture that “expresses and consolidates relations amongst men” in order to understand the connection between male power and technoscience (ibid).

Wajcman maintains the negative stereotype, proffered by Turkle (1984), of the hacker, the dominant image of the young, white, male nerd who works 16 hour days in relative isolation (p. 111). “The masculine workplace culture of passionate virtuosity, typified by hacker-style work, epitomizes a world of masterly, individualism and non-sensuality” (ibid). She does not stop there, however, stating that “Being in an intimate relationship with the computer is both a substitute for and a refuge from the much more uncertain and complex relationships that characterize social life” (ibid). Ouch. Now I haven’t done any empirical research on the topic, but the self-identified hackers and geeks that I know are a far sight more socialized than this and while they are predominantly (though not exclusively) male they engage in human relationships and in fact, have a highly developed social conscience. But enough of me and my work.

Importantly, Wajcman defuses the cyber-hype that surrounds the feminist project on the Internet. The appeal of digital virtuality for cyberfeminism is the chance to transcend the dualism of gender. “However, while escaping the corporeal body may be an appealing emancipatory strategy, it leaves untouched the gendered distribution of materials and resources that typically afford women less scope for initiatives in the workplace” (p. 115).

The key to renegotiating the cultural equation between masculinity and technology a technofeminist politics draws attention to the concrete sociotechnical practices of men and women. Women’s emancipation relies upon altering the “woman-machine” relationship to develop women’s capacity vis a vis technical work. It is not cyberspace or digital technologies per se that will grant women their freedom; they are not gender-neutral. In true constructivist form, Wajcman reminds that the Internet, and particularly the www, is flexible and full of contradictory possibility. She also cautions that the digital divide is being purposefully widened by corporate initiatives, such as the “throttling” policy of Bell and Sympatico, which limits their subscribers from downloading certain content and charging more for large bandwidth use. Find out more about the campaign to stop this here.

Wajcman concludes with an affirmation of the “frankly political agenda” of feminist technoscience. Technofeminism takes politics as an a priori feature of a network, “and a feminist politics is a necessary extension of network analysis” (p. 126). She reminds us of the critical observation that science and technology embody dominant (e.g. patriarchal, capitalist) values but that both endeavours have the potential to embody different values. The gig is not up. Indeed, the strength of feminism – and what draws me to it – is that it connects rigorous research and social analysis to a “political practice of making a difference”, to a goal of progressive social transformation (p. 127).

Having some time ago run out of reader indulgence, I will not go into the Webster text in any detail. Suffice it to say, she concludes that computer-based technologies have not had a uniform impact on women’s employment across industry sectors or countries. The benefits have mainly accrued to the employer (shocker). In fact, what she calls an “innovatory technology” has failed to help reduce inequalities between rich and poor countries. Neither has it aided in a restructuring of sexual divisions of labour, as was initially hoped. “The class and gender inequalities of capitalist societies remain in place and these are not threatened by the introduction throughout economies of information technologies.

In fact, Webster argues that information technologies have facilitated the double burden of paid and unpaid work that women carry. Overall, she paints a fairly gloomy picture. She raises – though not hopefully – the strategy of designing “feminist technologies”, grounded in a “rationality of caring” that considers technical design in the context of human health, environmental sustainability and collective security (p. 191). She wonders (and no wonder) about the likelihood of feminist systems design under capitalism, where the owners of capital and their managerial representatives are men, and where the main object is profit and control, not the development of human potential.

However, like Wajcman, Webster reminds us that feminist research into science and technology is an emancipatory project, with political engagement as the priority. It is also an incomplete project, and one that beckons.

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