In my thesis I propose methodological concepts to evoke a de-gendering of IT on the basis of a close analysis of gendering processes. My research identifies practices in technology design, which often lead to “gendered” artefacts. One of these mechanisms is the so-called “I-methodology”, i.e. the implicit assumption made by computer scientists and software developers that users of the technologies they design would share their own interests, preferences, competencies and abilities.
Several case studies (e.g. on smart houses, digital cities) have already shown that this assumption can completely fail, because the whole mindset of the designers is actually a specific one of a predominantly male homosocial group. Consequently, it tends to exclude certain groups of users or it takes them more effort to adapt to the technology.
"Developers often implicitly assume that users shares their own interests, preferences, competencies and abilities." (about the I-methodology)
Another class of gendering processes is based on gender stereotypes and the existing division of labour. In these cases, binary assumptions about women and men are not reflected or the (gender) politics of domain is ignored. Thus, the existing structural-symbolic gender order is inscribed into computational artefacts and will be reproduced by use. Furthermore, gendering is enforced by de-contextualisation, naturalization, the use of dichotomies and naïve realism. By abstraction, classification and formalization the two problems of incorporating diversity (or differences) and rupturing the reproduction of gender inequality in artefacts shift to the level of epistemology and ontology on which technological concepts are based.
In my thesis I discuss technology design methodologies that aim to avoid the gendering processes identified above. I now plan to apply this framework to semantic technologies.
What we can learn from gender studies is that there is a plurality of femininities and masculinities. On this basis we should take into account a variety of different ways (e.g. access and use of technology, learning, cognition etc.) without assigning each of these paths to one gender, class, race etc. instead of looking for an essential difference between women and men, since such a view tends to reinforce binary gender stereotypes and legitimizes social inequality in biological terms. De-gendering strategies, i.e. the attempt to avoid a gendering of artefacts, however, cannot escape the tension between drawing on existing (gender) differences and aiming to resolve the binary sex and gender system.
"Knowledge is always historically and culturally situated".
Another line of thinking about gender and the Semantic Web is feminist epistemology, which questions traditional approaches in pointing out that there is no “real meaning”. According to these findings knowledge is always historically and culturally situated. It also depends crucially on technologies currently in use. Thus, the claim for one “truth” is not innocent, but can be seen as a political attempt to establish a certain hegemonic view of the world. Some scholars, therefore, call for an epistemological pluralism and try to translate this notion into technology design.
Much critical research claims that meaning is always the result of a co-construction between humans and technology. In my future research I plan to explore how gender is involved in meaning construction processes around semantic technologies. I am convinced that the perspectives I tried to sketch here can contribute to build better semantic systems or even prevent them from failure in function or on the marketplace.
Gender stereotypes can be, for instance, inscribed into knowledge-based systems by categories and classification. In their famous book “Sorting things out” Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star point to the fact that telephone books with only husband’s name listed for married couples indicate a sexist society, while decades of activism and conflict lie behind a listing of the Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade under the annual events of a city.
In both examples societal structures are reproduced material-discursively. Though, some problems of knowledge representation become more clearly when applying an epistemological perspective. Alison Adam analyzed the well-known ontology CYC that was build to capture common sense knowledge from the 1980ies on. Her criticism focussed on the built-in assumption that we would all share a consensus reality: “…be it a professor, a waitress, a six-year old child, or even a lawyer” (Lenat and Guha 1990). She revealed that the knowing subject implicitly assumed by the system is a white, middle-class male professional.
"CYC's 'capturing common knowledge' project is problemantic as it allows the dominant voice to speak for everyone."
Hence, in contrast to its own agenda CYC ignores minority views, quieter voices, and allows the dominant voice to speak for everyone, which seems highly problematic. Other studies give more evidence for the highly problematic prerequisite of computer science modelling that rests on the Cartesian epistemology. Even the modelling concepts themselves should be questioned as Cecile Crutzen suggest, since e.g. the class concept and the inheritance concept lack to represent social processes, because of limited formal expressiveness for conflict, change and fluidity. Such an ontology abstracts from human sociality, situated action and real meaning construction processes.
All these examples seem to be good starting points to reflect about semantic technologies and should be further enhanced by feminist and critical thinking. As already proved in our recent bm:bwk funded research project “Sociality with Machines” on emotional software agents and sociable robots (2004-2006) such perspectives are fruitful for technology design.
To my mind “Sociality with machines” already comes into play when we press the start button of our computer. Psychologists claim that most people interact with machines as if they were human. Nevertheless, recent developments in computer science and artificial intelligence seem to reinforce a fundamental shift of traditional human-machine relationships. While users so far had to adapt to the technology, machines now appear more human-like, they adapt to the user, her preferences, interests, abilities and the environment. Information technologies seem to know us better than our best friends, and they act as perfect servants for us. Semantic technologies are pieces of this general vision.
With the use of the Internet we are already witnessing a radical change in practices of how knowledge is represented, stored and spread. In the future most of our work and life (in countries like Austria) will involve the manipulation and use of information. It will crucially depend on the epistemologies, concepts and leading metaphors of the Semantic Web, which direction the semantic “human-machine reconfigurations” (Lucy Suchman) will take.
Since I was trained in math and logic I feel a strong fascination by attempts to formalize the world. Particularly I am interested in technologies such as human-like machines, emotional interfaces and semantic technologies that might change how we will think, feel and interact socially. Feminist theory, however, taught me that we are all responsible in creating “liveable worlds” (Donna Haraway). I hope that I can contribute to this aim by exploiting my competences of translating between computer science and the humanities.
Corinna Bath is currently research fellow at the “Institute for Advanced Studies on Science, Technology and Society” in Graz, Austria. She did research and teaching in computer science, gender studies and mathematics at several German and Austrian universities, e.g. in the research project “Sociality with Machines” at the Department of Philosophy of Science at Vienna University, which explored the anthropomorphizing and gendering of software agent research and robotics (2004-2006). Her dissertation thesis at the Computer Science Department at Bremen University, Germany, investigates foundations of “gender studies in the computer science discipline”, i.e. it aims at theorizing and analyzing gendering processes of computational artefacts in order to propose “de-gendering” design methodologies. She is now preparing a new research project on “gender in infrastructures of the knowledge society: the of semantic and intelligent internet technologies”.