Feminist by Design: How to build a feminist internet and why it matters

Author: 
Namita Aavriti Malhotra, Tigist Shewarega Hussen and Mariana Fossatti
Publicado por: 
APRIA (ArtEZ Platform for Research Interventions of the Arts)

This article was originally published as part of the "Feminist by Design" issue of the APRIA journal. APRIA (ArtEZ Platform for Research Interventions of the Arts) is an online platform that curates a peer-reviewed journal and publishes high-impact essays, image and sound contributions that examine art and interventions of the arts in relation to science and society, and that encourage dialogue around themes that are critical and urgent to the futures that we will live in.

Feminist by Design is ambitious in its title and aims. The journal showcases research journeys, findings and feminist intentions, bringing together a diverse group of researchers from around the world who were part of the Feminist Internet Research Network (FIRN). FIRN focuses "on the making of a feminist internet as critical to bring[ing] about transformation in gendered structures of power that exist online and onground." [1] As part of that work, its members "undertake data-driven research […] to drive change in policy and law and in discourse around internet rights," with the broader objective that women and gender-diverse and queer people are considered in discussions around internet policy. [2]

Some of the research question that the project has been grappling with are:

  • What are the contextual and intersecting forms of discrimination that women and gender-diverse and queer people face because of political, economic and social changes driven by digital technology and the internet?

  • What are the challenges and opportunities in policy, infrastructure and socio-cultural norms for the making of a feminist internet?

  • How does the feminist internet research project contribute to methodological, theoretical and ethical shifts that will impact research on the internet?

The field of internet research draws on various research methods, analytical and digital tools, interdisciplinary perspectives, as well as experimental and artistic enquiries. However, there remains a gap in the knowledge production and imagination of how complex the internet is. It is still unclear how it intersects social fabrics or affects social and economic inequalities, andro-centric technological innovations, the functioning of democracy, and heteronormativity.

The field of internet rights activism has always taken software and coding as central to their concerns – and from the beginning has centred questions on open-source software. This ability for people to determine and see (quite literally into the hardware of) our own machines was very central to realising our rights. The machines, the internet, and, in particular, the relationship between data, design and algorithms have become increasingly complex since the early 2000s. These are political and social issues, as evidenced by research in relation to data, algorithms and societal impact. [3]

The civil society sector that has relied on a discourse of ICTs for development, and then later for digital and internet rights, now understands that power in the digital domain has concrete and real impacts on people’s lives from across society.

As such, as an extension of FIRN’s work, the core intention of Feminist By Design is to infiltrate methodological frameworks – which are often considered scientific – by creating a platform for diverse learnings and reflections about feminist internet research, mainly from the global South.

Why Do We Need Feminist Internet Research?

Considerable scholarship from feminist science and technology studies (as well as other streams) has looked at the role of gender in relation to the design of technology, revealing that software development is a socio-technological process of negotiating and constructing meaning. [4] It is clear that technology is not a neutral space where gender is played out. Rather, as Donna Haraway and other scholars point out, it is co-constructed along with gender.

Particularly in the context of artificial intelligence and growing datafication, research shows that software—its designs, processes and institution—are built around the inclusion and exclusion of certain people and groups. [5] This shows up in, for instance, the automatic captioning of images, [6] predictive policing in United States that targets people of particular races or backgrounds, [7] how rating and filtering systems in platforms for women domestic workers perpetuate caste and gender inequalities, [8] and mapping software that ‘learns’ from people’s behaviour to mark out ‘good’ and ‘bad’ neighbourhoods. [9]

It is also seen in online application forms for most varied identity documents (passport, driver’s license, college application forms, visa application forms, etc.), which often limit to a gender binary, even in contexts where self-identifying of gender is accepted under law. Reflections and research on the same are also taking place in particular hegemonic contexts of knowledge production and dissemination. As a result, there needs to be purposeful and reflexive ways in which we re-design the world that we live in.

Feminist epistemology centres perspectives, standpoints and experiences of women and people of marginalised diverse races, sexualities and genders, as these have been consistently overlooked or excluded. [10] The uptake of feminist methodological inquiry and feminist ways of knowing highlights partiality and situatedness of knowledge, [11] and challenges an all-encompassing objectivity of knowledge, especially in relation to science and technology. From this perspective, knowledge from the standpoints of those excluded promises transformational accounts of the world.

We argue that these reflective works and methodological analysis are stepping stones to making a feminist internet. To reiterate from the feminist principles of the internet, [12] ‘a feminist internet works towards empowering more women and people of diverse and marginalised sexualities and genders—in all our diversities—to fully enjoy our rights, engage in pleasure and play, and dismantle patriarchy.’ Research and knowledge towards realising and making a feminist internet calls upon, critiques, hacks and invents research methods within the sub-field.

How To Build a Feminist Internet

FIRN in particular has been designed to emphasise the role of feminist methodology and ethics as the building blocks for research that can form the solid foundation for policy recommendations and discourse. Hence, from questions of security of research data to how power imbalances emerge during the research process, our objective has been to centre these contradictions, the messiness and difficulties of doing research, rather than to remove them from the field of view. Similarly, rather than remove the context of the relations that do exist within the network and between the researchers to create a supposedly ‘neutral’ space, we decided to use the network itself as a learning space to reflect on openly.

FIRN has also explored the subversive use of existing formats and tools to communicate feminist ideas and research, such as a friendly bot answering questions on online gender-based violence. [13] We also used other formats that were phone-friendly or accessible on low-bandwidth internet, printable posters and images etc. as forms in which research outputs can be shared. An important trajectory for FIRN partners to explore has been the (re)designing of infrastructure, particularly in the context of community network projects that seek to establish diversity, accountability and particularly ownership of technology by the people in that specific context and who are collaborators and partners. [14]

Visuality, design and aesthetics are not seen as separate but as embedded within feminist research and research design. They also raise questions around the domain of design, data visualisation, and even art from a feminist perspective. From the initial stages of FIRN, there has been a particular investment in the visual journey of the network. Contrary to the branding logic that dominates even civil society spaces, this journey has led us to several designers and thinkers. The visions have always expanded and branched in different directions, while drawing a line to the initial inspirations, thoughts, and visuals.

Feminist Designs on the World

Discourse around gender in society has been shifting considerably. Ideas around performativity and gender that were seemingly radical and relevant fifteen years ago, such as those by Judith Butler, [15] have been critiqued, salvaged, questioned and re-opened. In particular, scholarship by transgender scholars and writers on gender and gender expression adds further layers to the question of how gender is constructed through processes of design.

Perhaps it is correct to say that the objective of feminist designs on the world is to ‘work towards technology designs with less normative materializations of gender.’ The operative word here is less. The partiality of our perspectives is not only about location and perspective, but also across time. Even though such a teleological assumption is obviously fraught, we are hopeful that as marginalised people and groups are able to speak and share their realities, the design of technology should also shift.

This is not only about gender stereotypes and gender expression. Historically, the design of technology has also relied on invisibilising women’s labour [16] and the first computer in the USA (the ENIAC, which was used for computations during the Second World War) was powered by two hundred young women who were human ‘computers,’ [17] and similarly in the UK computing was considered a feminine job dominated by women. [18] This is perhaps mirrored now in the widespread use of the labour of women in poorly equipped ‘sweatshops’ of the electronics and computer industry where hardware is made, and also how people located in countries in the Global South are often deployed to simplify difficult-to-navigate systems in business process outsourcing. [19]

It is also worthwhile to consider the emotional and care work that is part of these systems in work places, as well as perhaps the division of labour and unpaid and invisibilised domestic work as the woman’s domain as the cornerstone of capitalist economies. [20] For all of these reasons, then, design is a significant question. In the current context of social media, the platform economy, and inequities of attention and resources, design has the power to silence movements and opposition, invisiblise communities, unfairly redistribute labour, maintain the status quo around gender hierarchies, determine gender and sex, and so on.

The design of technology could oppress people or enact violence around gender. It results in discrimination and the invisiblisation of the lived experiences of many people. However, in such an understanding, we lose the sense of technology and gender as co-emergent. This is not to deny in any way the realities of how algorithms organise and exclude people, and in particular that this causes and accentuates inequalities and inequities. The most recent example is the processes by which vaccination programmes have been rolled out in different countries and how access to technology and the internet has meant a different experience of the pandemic and lockdowns. [21]

However, seeing technology and gender as co-emergent through the process of design foregrounds questions of accountability, in particular our accountability. And that seems a good place to start because it allows for change to be possible through our actions, designs, research and processes. It pushes us to realise that we are not only making software and technology or knowledge around the same, but that we make the world we want to live in. We remake, redesign, break and define gender. Every time.

When put like that, the responsibility in the processes of design and feminist designs (for all of us) become emphatically real and also overlap. To have feminist designs on the world is to design, to hack through everyday practices, to subvert, to make, and to build from scratch platforms and technology.

Articles in this Journal

The articles in this journal explore several strands in relation to feminist ways of knowing and epistemic approaches. They explore feminist research practices and processes, what happens when our designs on the world—or rather feminist intentions—are the springboard for building infrastructure. What are the possibilities of more accessible research outputs and what could be the trajectories of feminist intersectional investments in digital media in the times of anti-gender and anti-rights discourse?
There is considerable focus on feminist practices of reflexivity that intentionally explore the messiness of feminist research and research design. This means looking closely at feminist methodologies, feminist ways of knowing in the field of internet research, highlighting questions and concerns around what complications are introduced by the field of the internet itself. It also means translating feminist intentions into building infrastructure, doing participatory research, and exploring the contradictions of standpoint theory and power imbalances inherent in research.

In this vein, Nyx McLean looks at how feminist internet research is messy. This is a critically reflective article on the author’s experience conducting a meta-research project on the feminist internet research methodologies and ethical frameworks of the seven FIRN research projects. McLean reaches the conclusion that conducting meta-research of this nature is even messier.

Horacio F. Sívori and Bruno Zilli engage with how complexly intertwined the relationship between digital technology is with social media and various kinds of mobilisations via the internet. The authors look closely at how the amplification of homophobic speech as a political code was afforded by Twitter’s design and algorithmic architecture. Yet, they also reveal how resistance also took place on these platforms through the mobilisation of varied publics by means of memetic images in defence of public health and of sexual diversity.

Through their project of interrogating of digital labour and platformisation, Aayush Rathi, Akash Sheshadri and Ambika Tandon focus on to research processes and practices by looking at how dissemination practices around research have often privileged communications to external audiences, particularly for the purpose of policy reform. They explore what it means to make research and outreach more participatory, translating academic knowledge into more accessible forms, and how this could outline the potential for research to produce radical change and translate knowledge across communities.

Centring feminist network infrastructure, Bruna Zanolli and Débora Prado look at the challenges of translating feminist intentions into building infrastructure and digital networks while doing participatory research. Through their two-year action-research on community networks and feminist infrastructure in a Brazilian traditional black community (quilombo), their gaze has shifted from the technical infrastructure to the social interactions with autonomous infrastructure and networks that are crossed by discussions, conflicts and negotiations.

And finally, Nadège’s visual piece departs from a close examination of the contributors’ texts. It is marked by a close relationship with APC’s [22] Women’s Rights Programme (WRP) in various other spaces and forms of activism that we engage in. It envisions WRP as located within a glass library and touches on concerns related to data and artificial intelligence not directly dealt with in this journal. The visual also creates a space of knowledge creation, production and thought that is marked not only by the franticness of the pandemic years; the necessities of raising resources for this work; and the instabilities of the personal, professional and other myriad realities of the people. But it raises that possibility that what we do could be a space of rest and work if informed by politics, care, and a particular vision.

Conclusion: Wrestling with the Beast

As feminists, we have been developing a particular sensitivity to try to be aware of who creates knowledge and how. We are not only concerned with who creates that knowledge or who is the author of a text (usually a white, Western, middle-class, educated man). We also learned to question the idea of a universal subject of knowledge and to criticise that subject’s position as colonial and patriarchal. It is necessary for us to decode, in a feminist way, who is the subject of knowledge embedded in the discourse and how that subject is positioned.

For instance, an important topic that we wished to explore but could not within this space is how research funded within the civil society space does obviously take place within hierarchical structures, and that those often determine the existence, and sometimes validity, of organisations and groups in the Global South. Even as we operate with an understanding of messiness as inherent in research processes, of the need for ethics, of the centring of communities and other feminist principles and ideas around research, we also have to understand our role as APC WRP—i.e., the organisation raising the funds to sustain it from funding organisations, holding the network together and in contact with the research partners but not directly conducting research. We are here both an entity that is reported to and reporting on activities and processes, and hence somewhere on a high-tension wire between the power that we do hold and the power that we lack. We are, after all, a group positioned in an international NGO that has a specific role as a mediation structure between donors and founders from the North, and the organisations, collectives and activists situated in different local realities of the Global South.

If we want to dismantle these colonial and patriarchal power dynamics, we must make visible the feminist work that underlies the production of knowledge. We need to unveil and make visible the myriad tasks around feminist knowledge production, including the messy work of care, conflict, crisis management and timing negotiation. As researchers, it takes time to outreach to those communities and participants we work with, seek and negotiate consent or anonymise our sources if they ask for it. It takes time to make sure we link and credit each contributor and idea because mutual recognition is always an essential feminist practice. [23] It takes time to check the variegated meanings of the vocabulary we use in different parts of the world, the slippery ways in which images translate and are understood, the naming practices according to our politics and feminist policy. As editors, as knowledge production coordinators, it also takes time to get the resources to set up online platforms for knowledge sharing keeping the content free, accessible, inclusive and open without (sexist and invasive) advertising for our readers.

So, if you want to find knowledge built with a feminist perspective instead of the usual ways of researching, consider not only the content, but also how that knowledge is produced and gets online. We, as feminists, can claim to have historic training (shared undoubtedly with other communities and people who have been marginalised) in detecting underlying power dynamics, especially the material conditions of knowledge production. And not only of knowledge production, but also of the social reproduction of the bodies that produce that knowledge.

The articles that are included here sketch out different stages and moments of knowledge production from a feminist perspective. In Savori and Zilli’s article about online homophobia, there is a nuanced understanding of the communities that are vulnerable to hate online. From that starting point, the authors see how the architecture of the internet accentuates their vulnerability, even though it also gives space for them to network and build connections with each other. The other articles are more focussed on the process of research itself as a space within which knowledge can be gleaned. Rathi, Tandon and Seshadari explore specifically the relationships with the people and communities who can be seen as ‘subjects’ of the research. However, in Rathi, Tandon and Seshadari’s design, they were equal collaborators and the research process is one by which there is growing awareness of their own rights for the communities involved, especially when a complex digital landscape of platforms is becoming part of the everyday life of workers.

In Prado and Zilli’s article on community networks, they shift their focus from the pragmatic concerns and considerable travails of bringing technology to a remote region (especially during the Covid-19 global pandemic) towards the conversations around race and exclusion that must happen among researchers and communities. All the articles connect to Nyx McClean’s findings based on interviews with the FIRN researchers about the messiness of the research process. The final packaged form of research as an article or a book conceals inevitably the myriad and complicated negotiations, compromises and even perhaps undoings of the project of research or knowledge production itself.

In an initial iteration of this editorial, we were mostly beset by doubt of our claim of difference, of politics, of whether there even is a feminist method. But here we choose to make a claim on the basis of the investigations, musings and analysis of the researchers included here, in FIRN, and more broadly in the field of feminist internet research. There are feminist designs, as blueprints for the future, that exist in the current moment and as the roots and ways of knowing that we come from.

Notes

[1] https://www.apc.org/en/project/firn-feminist-internet-research-network

[2] FIRN works along the following thematic landscapes: The mapping study (engagement with feminist internet researchers from the Global South) is a continuing mapping study that looks at substantial work done in building the field in the last decade. The study uses an intersectionality lens, which understands multiple forms of discrimination that impact on a particular issue or section of society as a first principle, rather than an add-on. The meta-research (feminist ways of knowing from the Global South) project critically explores methodological processes and ethical practices of the eight research projects that FIRN is coordinating at the moment. The rationale behind this is the recognition of the need to document our partners’ experience in engaging with feminist research on the internet. The outcome of this project produces a context-specific learning of feminist research on the internet to record progress and shifts in feminist research principles, and to challenge gaps that exist in our feminist thinking, methodological and ethical practices. GenderIT (a platform where feminist knowledge from the Global South is published) is our primary space for publishing content and making the FIRN's knowledge production accessible. Feminist research ethical principles (collective design of internet research ethics). FIRN’s first gathering, designed to engage with the eight selected FIRN partners to determine a collective understanding and criteria of feminist internet research and work towards a collective agreement on the ethical conduct of a research project.

[3] For an overview of field, see Nicole Shephard, Big Data and Sexual Surveillance (Johannesburg: APC, 2016).

[4] Els Rommes, Corinna Bath and Susanne Maass, ‘Methods for Intervention: Gender Analysis and Feminist Design of ICT,’ Science, Technology, & Human Values 37, no. 6 (2012): pp. 653-662.

[5] Sasha Constanza-Chock, Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need (MIT Press, 2019).

[6] Steve Lohr, ‘Facial Recognition Is Accurate, if You’re a White Guy,’ The New York Times, February 9, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/09/technology/facial-recognition-race-ar...

[7] Clare Garvie, Alvaro Bedoya, and Jonathan Frankle, The Perpetual Line-Up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America (Georgetown Law, Center on Privacy & Technology, 2016).

[8] Aaysuh Rathi and Ambika Tandon, ‘Platforms, Power, and Politics: Perspectives from Domestic and Care Work in India,’ The Centre for Internet and Society, https://firn.genderit.org/research/platforms-power-and-politics-perspect...

[9] See The Oxford Handbook of Ethics of AI, edited by Markus D. Dubber, Frank Pasquale and Sunit Das (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[10] P.H. Collins, ‘Some Group Matters: Intersectionality, Situated Standpoints, and Black Feminist Thought,’ in Feminist Frontiers, eds. Laurel Richardson et. al (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004), pp. 66–84; C. Mohanty, ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,’ in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, eds. Mohanty, C., Russo, A., And Torres, L. (Indiana University Press, 1991); Sandra Harding, The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies (New York and London: Routledge, 2003); Uma Narayan, ‘Westernization, Respect for Cultures and Third-World Feminists,’ in Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions and Third-World Feminism (New York and London: Routledge, 1997); Sharmila Rege, ‘Dalit Women Talk Differently: A Critique of “Difference” and Towards a Dalit Feminist Standpoint Position,’ Economic and Political Weekly 33, no. 44 (1998).

[11] Donna Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,’ Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): pp 575-599.

[12] The feminist principles of the internet are a series of statements that offer a gender and sexual rights lens on critical internet-related rights. They were drafted at the first Imagine a Feminist Internet meeting that took place in Malaysia in April 2014. The meeting was organised by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and brought together 50 activists and advocates working in sexual rights, women’s rights, violence against women, and internet rights. The meeting was designed as an adapted open space where topics were identified, prioritised, and discussed collectively. A group of volunteers from the meeting drafted version 1.0 of the principles. This was then subsequently brought to different workshops and events, local and global, and then to the second Imagine a Feminist Internet meeting in July 2015, where a new group of 40 activists discussed, elaborated, and revised the set of principles. The new version was published online on this website in August 2016, where anyone can expand the Principles by contributing resources or translating the Principles. Currently there are 17 Principles total, organised in 5 clusters: Access, Movements, Economy, Expression, and Embodiment. Together, they aim to provide a framework for women's movements to articulate and explore issues related to technology. Read more here: https://feministinternet.org

[13] Neema Iyer, Bonnita Nyamwire, and Sandra Nabulega, Alternate Realities, Alternate Internets: African Feminist Research for a Feminist Internet (Pollicy, 2020), https://www.apc.org/sites/default/files/Report_FINAL.pdf

[14] Sophie Toupin and Alexandra Hache, ‘Feminist Autonomous Infrastructures,’ in Global Information Society Watch 2015: Sexual Rights and the Internet, ed. A. Finlay (Johannesburg: APC/Hivos, 2015).

[15] Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[16] Maja van der Velden and Christina Mörtberg, ‘Between Need and Desire: Exploring Strategies for Gendering Design,’ Science, Technology, & Human Values 37, no. 6 (2011): pp. 663-683.

[17] Light, J. S., ‘When Computers Were Women,’ Technology and Culture 40, no. 3 (1999): pp. 455–483.

[18] See Dubber et al. 2019; Marie Hicks, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost its Edge in Computing (MIT Press, 2017).

[19] R. Gajjala, ‘Editorial: The Problem of Value for Women’s Work,’ GenderIT.org edition: Gender, Labour, Technology (2017), https://www.genderit.org/gender-labour-technology

[20] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: The Body and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004).

[21] https://www.genderit.org/tags/covid-19

[22] APC is an international network of civil society organisations founded in 1990 dedicated to empowering and supporting people working for peace, human rights, development and protection of the environment, through the strategic use of information and communication technologies (ICTs).

[23] Sara Ahmed, On Being included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Duke University Press, 2012).

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