50 Shades of Digitalization

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A few months ago I met my friend Jiga, an Israeli female electronic artist who played in punk bands as a bass player, before she joined Jino in 1997 to form Analog Pussy, a psychedelic Trance group; they also relocated to Germany and formed a music label. Currently Jiga has a different electronic band – Madlick – which combines metal, punk and electronics. Our meeting gradually became a conversation about the absence of female electronic artists. In that conversation she described her own experience in the electronic dance scene; Jiga argued that when talking about music with electronic artists (mostly men) she noticed that their discourse, terminology and topics focused around the technical side: which plug-ins to use, the sophistication of one computer over another and which new technological gadgets they have bought. She said that she always felt like an outsider in these conversations, because for her these issues didn’t matter that much. Her interests lied in the kind of emotions and feelings the tracks were led by and consequently generated in the audience. I also recognized, from my experience as a radio broadcaster and a journalist (of Electronic Dance Music Cultures), that indeed, the main topics of attention and discussion were focused on technology. These were highly emphasized by all the electronic artists I have interviewed throughout the last decade, 97% of them were men.

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This long intro is meant to serve as an allegory to my gendered experience at the Dresden Technische Universitate summer school. It points to the main question (at least from my point of view) that was raised throughout the week- Can digitalization be a facilitator to introducing multiple voices/narratives/options/versions? Watching some of the presentations at the summer school, it seemed to me that this guiding question, as important as it is, takes for granted the production processes, power relations, the rationale and the standards/categories of digitalization, especially when it comes to the Internet. Much of the discussions took for granted the tools that digitalization offer without questioning who designed these tools and for which purposes. If we take Jiga’s case as an example, we can think of the way in which, in fact, there are other options to talk about electronic music, but these are usually disregarded as unprofessional and unimportant/irrelevant. At the moment the technological musical discourse, which has been constructed by men, is being preserved and presented as the only possible way, the better way of course.

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In one of the panels, which consisted of only white privileged men, I intervened and talked about the book 50 Shades of Grey, as an example of several new options that have been opened to women thanks to the Internet – bypassing gatekeepers of taste (publishing houses) which did not deem the book to be ‘good’ enough or high ‘quality’ enough, bypassing tradition ways of reaching audiences (distribution by publishing houses), and last but definitely not least – discovering a new market for erotic literature made for women and written by a woman. Putting aside the fact that this is a book that encourages heterosexual conservative relations and of course the emergence of yet another market for capitalistic exploitation, it nevertheless provides an interesting case for the way digitalization can, in fact, empower different sections of society that have been silenced for too much time (women of course are only one example, there are also disabled people, poor people and people who are not white). Keeping that in mind it is still important to note that media technologies, since their very inception, were predominantly produced, financed and managed by white privileged men. It would, therefore, be naïve to think that the Internet, which has been developed and shaped by military and commercial aspirations (as with many other media technologies), is built in a neutral and objective sphere. As Carolyn Marvin has shown in her seminal book When Old Technologies Were New (1988), media technologies have always been a reflection their inventors notions – maintaining the control and superiority of the white, English speaking, privileged man. Marvin analyses electrical journals of the 19th century and shows, for example that when it came to the use of the telephone “[t]alkative women and their frivolous electrical conversations about inconsequential personal subjects were contrasted with the efficient, task-oriented, worldly talk of business and professional men” (Marvin, 1988: 23). However, these technologies, as the Internet itself, were always introduced as revolutionary, a-political, or responsible for annihilating politics:

The introduction of electricity was seen to have no political consequences, no winners or losers of power, or winners called to account for abuses of power, since politics would exist no more. The ominous meaning of the term ‘revolutionary’ was thus neatly transformed and appropriated (Marvin, 1988: 206).

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Thus, it is important for us as social science researchers to go back and question the mechanism we use, to reveal the standardization processes that made the different options available to us become invisible and taken for granted, the procedures that made it a naturalized truth as Michel Foucault would have argued. It is exactly these options that have included and excluded certain groups in society since the inception of media technologies. This indicates that the current discourse is only one way to talk about digitalization, that has managed to transform and appear as the only way. As the internet enfolds previous media technologies, such as electricity, the electric light, books, radio, television etc. there is no reason to assume that the forces that have produced these devices, will all of a sudden disappear and create a clean slate where everyone has the same EQUAL starting point. As Klaus Tochtermann argued in the closing panel about the necessity to ‘play the game’, one might argue – Yes, sure let’s all play, but who’s game is it anyway? After all, the game’s rules and design were conceived by men; therefore, it is somewhat hard for anyone who is not part of, or agrees with that group to take part in the game as naturally and conveniently. Or in other words – No, I will not play the game! My motto is – Rules are meant to be broken.

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When talking about gender in this context (and others) it is easy to slide into claims about what constitutes a ‘male’ discourse and what constitutes a ‘female’ discourse – which for many feels like we are boxed into the old notions of specific characteristics associated with a specific gender (A wonderful post about gender roles of female rock-pop artists can be found in Amanda Palmer’s letter to Sinead O’connor’s following the latter’s reaction to Miley Cyrus’ notorious MTV performance). Flagging gender problems, they might argue, seems to miss the point of trying to liberate us from falling into the trap of the traditional gender roles. However, as a society we have not been given the opportunity to see or experience our culture and society being made and managed by women. Heck, even the language and terminology we use has been colonized by men (e.g. – In Hebrew the default gender in language is the male one), and therefore we are, unfortunately, easily sucked into these divisions. Therefore, talking about media technologies from an a-political (and I consider politics to be a much broader concept, which is not restricted to the ghetto of government issues) standpoint is a privileged comfort zone usually preserved by those who are positioned at the top of the social hierarchy (as I’ve previously shown in my criticism to Evgeny Morozov’s ‘newly discovered’ phenomenon – solutionism). It is only after women and other excluded voices in society have equal access and mobility to the top of social and cultural structures AND be able to influence and shape them as they see fit – that we can start talking in a discourse that does not assign specific attributions to each gender. That awesome moment when we can actually judge people by who they really are rather than their birth-given sensibilities. Until that moment happens, and I honestly hope it will, we are just reinforcing the dominant (male) discourse while assuming that inequalities based on gender, race, class, and disabled people have vanished – they haven’t (even in more advanced Western countries such as Germany).

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In conclusion, as I argued in one of my interventions in the male-fest panel about the digitalization’s impact, where I was asked how the internet would look if women were to invent it, I repeat my answer – full of emotions and colours. And lots and lots of pink!

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About Pinkeee

Pinkeee is also known as Elinor Carmi, a PhD student at the Media and Communications department at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Author of TranceMission, part of the Radical Media Forum and an electronic music addict. Current research: iSpam – Challenging categorization of information on the Internet.

One thought on “50 Shades of Digitalization

  1. Thank you, Elinor, for this wonderful, very critical and also very stimulating post! It was quite a pleasure to read it, although I’m not sure if I would agree on some arguements.

    You are right, its not just the technology that determines the developments of the internet, its also – and maybe more – the people creating and using it. And where people are, there is discrimination, empowerment, disempowerment and wrongfulness. Just to name some of the failures of mankind. And of course the dynamics that occur because of people’s behavior (including creating the structures of media) – which includes e.g. politics – should be considered, if we want to understand digitization.

    But I am convinced, that especially new technologies – which also means that we don’t understand them yet – dominate our behavior, BECAUSE we don’t understand them yet. This has been the case with e.g. writing, books, radio, television and now it’s happening with digital media again (you can get a little impression about media revolutions – unfortunately in german – from Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger’s website http://bit.ly/AmJZVc; for Radio Orwell’s novel http://bit.ly/eQz9r9 is a very impressing example). We tend to be influenced especially by new things.

    More than that – no matter how creative people are with media, and they can do pretty amazing stuff, as you also demonstrated in your post – the medium or the technologies behind that are enabling and at the same time restricting what we can communicate. Maybe they are ‘male’, but maybe they are something else.

    From my point of view we have to understand the medium/technology, and only after that we can try to understand who built, controls or dominates it. And then – not before – we as scientists can argue if the internet is still a product from white privileged men, as you argued above. I am quite sure, that there are a lot of spaces in the digitized world, which can’t be assigned to ‘male’ or ‘female’ yet. And I – as a woman – veto the idea that the internet would be full of emotions and pink if women would have invented it – at least not if they have something in common with me ;) – sorry for the long answer, should have made a blog post out of it ^^’ –

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