Technology and Feminism: Rethinking our Digital Tools

June and July have been busy months so far for the Greenfield Digital Center. Rather than a slowing of activity, the departures of students and faculty members from campus have left us free to reach out and connect to broader communities of feminist and digital scholars. I have recently attended several events and programs, including the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, British Columbia, Philly DH at Penn, and the “GLAM Day Out” LGBTQ Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.

GLAM_Day_Out_poster_SmallerThere have been equally exciting developments happening closer to home, as well. Our regular followers will recall that we are hosting summer intern Brenna Levitin with funding and programmatic support from the Tri-Co Digital Humanities Initiative, and, of course, we welcomed Monica L. Mercado as the Digital Center’s new Director on July 1st.  The last two months have brought a flood of new ideas, people, and potential research.

With new projects underway and a new leader in place, this summer seemed like a perfect transitional moment to do some reflecting on theory and methodology. We have now been using the same tools (Omeka, WordPress, and a handful of others—for two years, and I felt it was time to renew my consciousness of the relationship between the technology we use and the content we produce. When I enrolled in Feminist Digital Humanities at DHSI, my interest in the course was inspired by the idea that it might help me ground a more thoughtful approach to how we use technology to further feminist and historical inquiries at the Greenfield Digital Center.

This line of thought is not new for the Digital Center: our previous director, Jennifer Redmond, used this space last year to reflect on the ways that the Omeka digital exhibit format can tell a “fragmented” narrative that helped her to illuminate important facets of her subject, M. Carey Thomas, in a feminist light. My desire to reassess was spurred by some small changes: in the last year, the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries have been de-centered in our work as we have begun to explore more recent experiences of identity and minority status on campus. Given the extension of our scope, I felt that a guided introduction to the history and theory of technology would help me more adeptly consider the implications of twentieth and twenty-first century technology for contemporary bodies and voices.

Tinkering with tangible technology: FemDH students programming an Arduino

Tinkering with tangible technology: FemDH students programming an Arduino

The DHSI class was built on the premise that feminists must trouble the theory of technology as disembodied and removed from the constraints of space, time, labor, and contextual meaning. Instead, our instructors—Liz Losh and Jacqueline Wernimont—encouraged us to consider technology as Material, Embodied, Affective, Labor-Intensive, and Situated (MEALS). Though each of those terms could fill a blog post of its own, I will summarize my interpretation of the overarching concept here: technology, especially the digital, is often conceived as divorced from materiality. The perception that technology is intangible seems to free it from implication in the social power structures that are imbued in physicality. (How often have you heard that digital interactions are post-racial by virtue of being anonymous?) However, this view is problematic because it elides the ways in which technology remains physical and plays out those same power relations out of sight: for example, while a computer may appear to reduce the labor of note-taking, it actually displaces that labor onto other people and systems of production. Clean and elegant design, by many definitions “good design,” makes for a smooth and pleasant user experience but also narrows the group of people who have access to what it offers. An important extension of this idea is that technology is never neutral: it is always situated in context, relationships, and history.

This has a direct bearing on the work that we are immersed in at the Greenfield Digital Center, interrogating histories of access, privilege, and digital modes of learning. As Brenna and I have plumbed the archives over the past two months with mixed success for traces of LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff, I have reflected anew on the archive as a technology: the gaps have come to seem like more than just as a hole in an otherwise-complete record; the things that survive are starting to look more like the anomaly to me. The challenge in Brenna’s project will be to document both the process of the search and her findings in a transparent manner such that the final exhibit emphasizes what was left out alongside what was recovered, without claiming to repair the damage. A feminist framework for understanding the role of technology in this task is a valuable foundation.

Throughout the rest of the month, these ideas developed across dialogues with diverse groups. Brenna and I attended PhillyDH at Penn, where we had an energetic conversation with the group that attended Brenna’s proposed “Visualizing Archival Silence” unconference session, who helped us think through both the mechanics and ethical considerations of repairing archival silence. The following week I went to the Chemical Heritage Foundation for their “GLAM Day Out” Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon led by Mary Mark Ockerbloom, where we discussed resources strategies for editing Wikipedia with special attention paid to LGBT subject matter. In these different venues and contexts, and with the help of some supplemental reading, we got some new ideas for how to use digital tools and analog methods to tackle the problem.

Given the inevitable failure of any single technological instrument to be a complete solution, the best compromise for us right now is to use tools in tandem. By leveraging various partial solutions, perhaps we can tell a story that resonates across many platforms and incorporates its gaps as a fully acknowledged part of itself. WordPress and Omeka will remain in our toolkit, but we are also experimenting with different modes of digital publishing that might work well in conjunction with them to frame our subject matter in a thoughtful way.

Watch this space for further updates on Brenna’s project and digital learning!


Further Reading: