Dialogues: Feminisms in design

XXVII.6 November - December 2020
Page: 42
Digital Citation

Feminism as a design methodology

Alex Ahmed, Lilly Irani

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Feminism involves so much more than gender equality. And it involves so much more than gender. Feminism must involve a consciousness of capitalism (I mean, the feminism that I relate to. And there are multiple feminisms, right?). It has to involve a consciousness of capitalism, and racism, and colonialism, and postcolonialities, and ability, and more genders than we can even imagine, and more sexualities than we ever thought we could name. Feminism has helped us not only to recognize a range of connections among discourses and institutions and identities and ideologies that we often tend to consider separately. But it has also helped us to develop epistemological and organizing strategies that take us beyond the categories "women" and "gender." And, feminist methodologies impel us to explore connections that are not always apparent. And they drive us to inhabit contradictions and discover what is productive in those contradictions. Feminism insists on methods of thought and action that urge us to think things together that appear to be separate, and to de-segregate things that appear to naturally belong together.
— Angela Davis [1]


Alex Ahmed: When I need a more hopeful perspective, I take inspiration from Angela Davis. I love that she talks about feminism as a methodology, and I aspire to using it that way in my work.

Lilly Irani: That quote creates such a rich set of pathways for making knowledge and organizing change that, in some ways, interaction designers have long been about. When I think of the history of this field, I don't think of the killer demos and light pens. I think of feminist anthropologists and sociologists like Lucy Suchman, Jean Lave, and Susan Leigh Star challenging what counts as intelligent action and who gets to design work for whom. These interventions changed how we make knowledge about people, computers, and design. Shaowen Bardzell's paper on feminist HCI raised a banner to inspire and reinvigorate researchers for whom feminism can be a resource. But as governments and companies suffuse homes, cities, and institutions with computing, I want us to highlight the question Davis raises of "organizing strategies"—especially ones that "take us beyond the categories 'women' and 'gender'" [1].

In San Diego, the mayor's staff championed an installation of 4,000 smart streetlights that gathered video of us moving through where we live and converted it into data for civic tech hacking and the police. They did this without a strong understanding of the technology and contracts—it turns out that the streetlight company owns a copy of all streetlight-acquired data about us. And they did this without consulting people already surveilled and even harassed because of their race or country of origin [2,3].

I learned about this technology years ago because the Design Lab at UCSD would get recruited to participate in hackathons related to the technology and related smart city initiatives. I saw the problems but I didn't have the relationships with community groups that ought to have known about the program. Lucky for me, in 2019 organizers with Black- and Muslim-led community groups found out about the technology and asked Tech Workers Coalition (TWC) members to help them interpret what the tech can and might do. I got involved through TWC. (It's worth noting that they chose to go to a tech community group rather than academia.) They organized a 30-group coalition led by those who had the most at stake. Over the past year, we've been working toward a new city ordinance that mandates community input into surveillance technology. That input, in the form of an advisory commission, would include those most affected by surveillance as well as law, technology, and data experts. As a data expert, there's still so much relevant that I don't know. I might be able to look at the APIs and sensor technologies, but Jamie Wilson of Pillars of the Community is a mother turned activist who knows that the SDPD was stopping young men, including her son, and gathering their DNA without warrants as part of their surveillance practice [4]. The coalition assembled people with diverse expertise to understand what this San Diego smart city proposal really was and could become—the good and the harms.

It takes coalitions and collectives to match the scale of the systems we are confronting and working to shape.— LILLY IRANI

Is the coalition doing HCI? They are analyzing technologies and community needs and creating a policy framework that demands the space for meaningful, democratically governed systems design. Concepts of anti-Blackness helped us understand how discriminatory police attention is systemic [5]; carceral capitalism helped us understand the private investments in systems of jailing, surveillance, and punishment [6]; and gendered hypervisibility helped us consider the intersectional discriminations faced by hijab-wearing, Black East African San Diegans targeted by a government that often sees both Blacks and Muslims as dangerous but targets them in different ways shaped by gender, race, and class [7]. Ramla Sahid of San Diego's Partnership for New Americans had her eye on all of this already when I met her at a community forum about the streetlights. She was, in some sense, an unrecognized HCI expert. I added perspectives on how innovation and entrepreneurship dominated the narrative of these technologies and how the coalition might convert tech business people from opponents into allies. All of this analysis was necessary to forge and maintain a coalition and argue for smart technology governance that addressed complex but historically evident community needs. I hope these collaborations begin to address the kinds of complex intersectionality called for by computer scientists Yolanda Rankin and Jakita Thomas here in Interactions [8], an intersectionality rooted in histories of how Black women have theorized power to organize across difference and undertake collective action for liberation.

I'd like to see feminists in HCI take very seriously the calls by Black scholars in our community to assess what we call scholarship and what we call service, what we call research and what we call activism. A rigorous technical practice that engages with computation out in the world can't make a difference by restricting itself to social science, lab, or design methods that place all their bets on individuals and teams. It takes coalitions and collectives to match the scale of the systems we are confronting and working to shape.

AA: OK, first of all, I love this work and it definitely reminds me why I admire and look up to you so much! It's the kind of "doing work in the world" that I want to do: plugging into movements and organizations that already exist, not to mine them for data, but to actually uplift, support, and drive resources toward those groups while creating new knowledge that furthers our collective interests and fights back. This methodology has teeth, in that it's actually interested in fighting rather than just documenting, analyzing, producing, and publishing results.

LI: And your work does plug into existing movements. Your dissertation on trans voice engaged existing communities of trans friendship and support. Those lasting relationships are not always visible in the CHI paper, nor do we want to put them on display for credit. But I know you have them and you've been accountable to them.

The kind of feminism that "won" in the academy and in the corporate world is this kind of milquetoast, middle-ground "liberal" feminism.— ALEX AHMED

AA: Thank you, I try. I'm thinking about the prompt for this dialogue: What is feminism doing to/for design? In order to actually answer this question, we have to look at the history and various strains of feminism, right? If we are going to say that any feminism worth its salt is a feminism that fights for something, we also have to ask, what is being fought for and why? There were prominent and powerful suffragists back in the day that were only interested in gaining voting rights for white women in America. There are prominent and powerful "feminists" today who see trans women as monsters and sexual predators. It's clear that the kind of feminism that "won" in the academy and in the corporate world (which are the same beast anyway) is this kind of milquetoast, middle-ground "liberal" feminism that isn't overtly hostile to minorities, but is still firmly entrenched in the status quo. The type of feminism that's like, "We're going to put glossy photos of our 'diverse' students and faculty all over campus and on our website, but we're still going to charge a massive tuition, hire mostly white male faculty, bust unions, and fuel gentrification by expanding into the neighborhoods around campus." It's the same as this milquetoast "antiracism" that leads universities to sponsor Robin DiAngelo to lead a "white fragility" session but refuses or ignores student-led demands to defund and disarm the campus police. My worry is that if we fixate on feminism as something worth pursuing, we are kind of stuck because powerful institutions have already co-opted it.

LI: I think it is important for people who read your call-in to try and understand where we're coming from and how we might reproduce these weaknesses, sometimes unintentionally. You're doing brave work by naming these problems—you wouldn't do it if you weren't invested in design and computing. My parents came from Iran, a country whose politics have been structured through the imperial geopolitics of oil grabs, CIA coups, and U.S. sanctions. My family and friends end up on no-fly lists because, while the census categorizes us as white, we are not perceived as such publicly or even in policies. My friend had cancer and her aunt, an Iranian British citizen, couldn't get a visa to visit her in the U.S. We pose a racialized threat. I don't need a feminism that wants to liberate women and queers in the Middle East and South Asia as a cover for imperial geopolitics. I need a feminism that undoes racism and imperialism. That's why my feminism can't stop with diversity. I just saw the announcement of a new batch of CI Fellows proudly hailed as 52 percent women. And the CRA podcast advertised right next to it was on the computing challenges of the intelligence community. Intelligence practices are woven into criminalizing communities of color, as Brendan McQuade documents [9], and targeting places for drone strikes that kill civilians. That's why my feminism includes tech workers saying no to making killer robots, cloud-computing services for human rights violations, and AI for drones [10]. My feminism has to fight the many ways in which capitalism perpetuates harm and hierarchies of difference. And I know I'm not alone in tech or in the HCI community. Some might call this activism and use the term dismissively, but to me it is a rigorous accounting of what computing for human flourishing needs to address.

AA: I really like your framing, of not abandoning feminism but insisting that, in fact, these are feminist issues and these are issues relevant to computer science. Unfortunately, I feel that the vast majority of CS departments and graduate programs wouldn't agree. But all of this makes sense because universities tend not to be collectively run or geared toward the common good. Many are run by hedge-fund billionaires in bed with the military-industrial complex.

back to top  References

1. Davis, A. Feminism and abolition: Theories and practices for the 21th century. Lecture. The University of Chicago, May, 2013; https://beyondcapitalismnow.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/angela-y-davis-feminism-and-abolition-theories-and-practices-for-the-21st-century/

2. Davis, K. SDSU researchers watered down the police racial-profiling study. Voice of San Diego. May 30, 2017; https://www.voiceofsandiego.org/topics/public-safety/sdsu-researchers-watered-police-racial-profiling-study/

3. Chanin, J., Welsh, M., and Nurge, D. Traffic enforcement through the lens of race: A sequential analysis of post-stop outcomes in San Diego, California. Criminal Justice Policy Review 29, 6–7 (2018), 561–583; https://doi.org/10.1177/0887403417740188

4. ACLU. ACLU sues city of San Diego, demands SDPD change policy allowing DNA collection from minors without parental consent. ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. Feb. 15, 2017; https://www.aclusandiego.org/aclu-sues-city-san-diego-demands-sdpd-change-policy-allowing-dna-collection-minors-without-parental-consent/

5. Dancy, T.E., Edwards, K.T., and Davis, J.E. Historically white universities and plantation politics: Anti-Blackness and higher education in the Black Lives Matter era. Urban Education 53, 2 (2018), 176–195; https://doi.org/10.1177/0042085918754328

6. Wang, J. Carceral Capitalism. Semiotext(e), South Pasadena, CA, 2018.

7. Partnership for Advancement of New Americans. Origins Of Surveillance: A Deeper Look Into CVE In San Diego. YouTube. Jul. 20, 2020; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GySZJbiLc3k

8. Rankin, Y. and Thomas, J. Straighten up and fly right: Rethinking intersectionality in HCI research. Interactions 26, 6 (Nov.–Dec. 2019), 64; https://interactions.acm.org/archive/view/november-december-2019/straighten-up-and-fly-right

9. McQuade, B. Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Supervision. Univ. of California Press, Oakland, CA, 2019.

10. Open letter in support of Google employees and tech workers. ICRAC; https://www.icrac.net/open-letter-in-support-of-google-employees-and-tech-workers/

back to top  Authors

Alex Ahmed is a postdoc at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Her dissertation project was a mobile app for transgender voice training. In her spare time she likes to sing with friends, play video games with her mom, and watch Star Trek. alexahme@andrew.cmu.edu

Lilly Irani is an associate professor of communication and science studies at the University of California, San Diego. She also serves as faculty in the Design Lab, the Institute for Practical Ethics, and the program in critical gender studies, and sits on the academic advisory board of AI Now (NYU). She is author of Chasing Innovation: Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India (Princeton Univ. Press, 2019). lirani@ucsd.edu

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