Feminist hacking, Feminist making, inclusion, intimacy.
By SSL Nagbot
This special issue of the Journal of Peer Production shows a growing body of work that brings together feminism with hacking and making. The growth of internet technologies and the pervasion of computer culture into everyday life has prompted a renewed interrogation of the gender limits within these information technologies and digital media. From the shiny glass screens on our mobile devices to the sprawling campuses of technology corporations, gendered configurations of power within technoculture have become the focus of attention in popular culture, media, and academic scholarship.
To date, feminist thinking has been taken up by hacking and making researchers to reveal the gendering of techno-labor, to facilitate emancipatory efforts, to cultivate alternative perspectives, and to make visible the infrastructural relations of technology. This combination of visualization with emancipatory alterity demonstrates the ways that feminism in hacking is largely based on a politics of visibility; that is, hacking and making serve the broader objectives of bringing to light the invisible infra/structures of power that render technological achievement possible.
In this special issue, we see that the extant forms of feminist research and practice critique gendered forms of marginalization in hacking and making in several ways. First, many feminist hackers and makers seek to redress the lack of gender diversity within these techno-communities through the designs of women, queer, and trans-friendly spaces for hacking and making or addressing women-centered concerns such as improving breast-pumps for nursing. Second, we also see that hacking and making comprise both a method and a framework to introduce new kinds of expertise, such as craft and care, into conversations of information technology. These configurations of hacking and making as a method and framework departs from the strict focus on technology associated with the masculinity of hacking. Instead, we find that the feminist inquiry and interventions within the essays in this special issue alter the very notions of hacking and making and thus introduce alternate values of inclusion and intimacy.
The articles in this special issue thus address timely concerns about the sociocultural limits and possibilities of hacking and making and represent the latest feminist scholarship on these issues. Among these scholarly papers, interviews, art projects, and personal reflections, we see that feminist approaches to hacking and making entail both academic research and interventional praxis. The feminist scope of these projects is largely women-centric. This represents a dramatic departure from the hegemonic masculine cultures of hacking and making more generally, however, also stops short of broaching a more expansive vision of gender that includes queer, trans, and intersectional configurations. The collection of papers in this special issue demonstrates the ways in which feminist thinking has come to inform hacking and making. This work clearly impacts the broader conversations around the sociocultural dynamics of information technology. Conversely, these conversations stand to benefit from more careful attention to the ways in which hacking and making can inform new horizons of possibility in feminist thinking.
The Terms of the Debate: Hacking, Making, and the Feminist Turn
Historically, hacking originated as a particularly Euro-American phenomenon that brought together university computer science departments, hobbyist computer clubs, with anti-establishment politics (Kelty 2008; Turner 2006). Coleman describes a hacker as someone who “is a technologist with a penchant for computing and a hack is a clever technical solution arrived at through non-obvious means” (Coleman Forthcoming, p.1). Her emphasis on “non-obvious” and “cleverness” reveals the affective pleasures and joys that form this community. Hacker subjectivity is thus largely shaped by notions of trickery grounded not only in technological acumen but, more importantly, in technological subversion (Coleman 2008). Hacking is guided by an ethics that attempts to eschew categories such as academic degrees, age, race, or position (Levy 1984). Instead, technological skill attempts to transcend these socially binding markers and hacker communities trade in technological trickery as the currency of status and recognition.
This understanding of trickery, and technological skill forms the basis of merit in hacker communities. Such merit is grounded in particular values of sharing, openness, decentralization, and free access as the grounds for world improvement (Levy 1984). The combination of techno-trickery and merit serves as a naturalizing logic that renders invisible the overriding homogeneity of hacker communities for the language of merit serves to justify social exclusion and inequities as the innate result of supposedly inherently occurring phenomenon. While previous research has demonstrated the diversity of hacker communities with respect to political goals, technological projects, and practices (Coleman & Golub 2008), nevertheless, such diversity is hewed together through a common language of merit-based technological acumen. Hacker histories and identities differ in their geographical origins across North America and Europe: libertarians, crypto-punks, transhumanists, nerds, geeks, pirates. Nevertheless, there exists a cultural constant across these geographies and techno-subcultures. The meritocratic tendencies of hacker culture run on the cultural codes of competition and transgression such that we consistently find that these communities are typically gatherings for Euro-American men. Previous research has shown how discourses of meritocracy in many other domains such as early online communities (Herring 1996), the scientific fields of engineering and mathematics (Bystyzienski & Bird 2006) and academia in general (Muzatti & Samarco 2006) often result in masculine domination. These discourses of merit calcify into invisible structures that bar non-conforming others from participation. The language of merit and openness is culturally situated in gendered histories that privilege a very narrow way of being. We see these same problems of equitable participation in hacking, created by these professed commitments to openness and merit.
In turn, hacking typically reifies the possibility of transformation through socio-technical practice; that is, among hacking communities, these socio-technical practices of soldering hardware, writing computer code, or building software applications are viewed as a force for not only direct technical change but more importantly for direct social change. This particular ideal of transformation occurs across the multiple variances of hacking discourses, deployed through both political and economic idioms. From a political slant, hacking embodies larger commitments to information freedom and privacy, undergirded by an overall anti-establishment ethos (Coleman 2012; Greenberg 2013; Levy 1984, 2000; Turner 2006). Change and transformation within this political idiom is often couched in specific terms of transgression: transgressions against governments, against surveillance and censorship, against all forms of informational and technological control. As a socio-political practice, hacking maintains a posture of defiance against authority and seeks to assert a moral high-ground in the face of wrong-doing. Wikileaks, as an international resource for government whistleblowing, embodies this political ethos of transgression and Julian Assange exemplifies the defiant hacker in the face of a more powerful government authority.
In its economic idiom, hacking also maintains an ethos of transgression, however, this is inflected through particular ideals of innovation. This is most clearly evident in Silicon Valley-inspired events with names that underscore disruption: “Disrupt SF,” “Disrupt NY,” “Disrupt Europe.” Here, hacking takes up the language of techno-revolution, depicting technological change as a chain of violent ruptures. Economic hackers in this vein imagine themselves as fomenting “movements,” (Kelty 2008) borrowing heavily from the language of political change to describe their endeavors. In this manner, hacking depicts innovation as series of discontinuous departures and violent breakages. This imagination of hacking reaffirms the idea of continual transgressions and it is these cycles of ongoing breaks that become the fuel for innovation, change, and economic development. Much like its political form, this economic manifestation of hacking poses similar problems of inclusion in spite of a professed commitment to openness. Additionally, hackers continue to be young heterosexual men.
Making and hacking are discursively distinct yet we see that many of the same practices are equally embraced across both domains. More recently, in the field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), making has emerged in counterpoint to hacking. Making consists of a do-it-yourself philosophy in which people are encouraged to open the “black box” of machines, technologies, and tools (Lindtner et al. 2014; Ratto 2011). Making, therefore, assumes as a point of departure the materiality of technologies and locates inquiry and intervention at the processes of design, engineering, and artistic production (DiSalvo 2014; Ratto et al. 2014). This emphasis on the physical production of technologies as a point of interrogation introduces a new lexicon of care and repair into technological praxis and reveals the formerly invisible work of technological production (Toombs et al. 2015). In turn, making differs from hacking through an ethos that draws from distinctly feminine configurations of invisible labor.
In addition, feminist technologists have explicitly taken up the discourse of making in direct response to the hegemonic masculinity of hacker culture (Toupin 2014). Nevertheless, efforts to politicize technological repair and care as forms of civic engagement run into gender trouble as a result of long-standing labor divisions between public and private spheres (Rosner 2014). In addition, the convergence of military and corporate interests within maker communities at sites such as Maker Faires has raised concerns about the political possibilities through making (Altman 2012).While hacking and making exist as distinct technocultural discourses, we see that they are very much in dialogue with one another, especially from an activist and feminist point of view. These more recent efforts around notions of making signal a broader feminist turn within technoculture more generally. Therefore, taken together, hacking and making might represent a gendered spectrum of technoculture, with transgression and masculinity on one side and care and femininity on the other. Rather than assert the differences within these discourses and practices, we prefer to underscore their continuity given that hacking and making practices often coincide and therefore bring together gender considerations in idiosyncratic and unsuspecting ways. To this end, we will refer to them as a compound entity, hacking/making, for the rest of the introduction.
Feminist Hacking/Making: Histories and Contemporary Developments
Feminism as an approach and a body of theory focuses on revealing and confronting unjust sociocultural systems that result from ideology and social norms, with an emphasis on gender. Feminists have emphasized gender in two ways: first, gender is viewed as a major locus of structural hegemony, and second, feminist activism is viewed as a model for critiquing other forms of injustice to pursue social intervention. Historically, this has evolved from an early focus on women’s issues narrowly construed towards a broader interest in all forms of structural marginalization. Earlier forms of feminism focused on women’s suffrage, broadening to other forms of injustice such as gender inequality in the workplace and violence against women, finally broadening to the marginalization of and discrimination against individuals and groups for reasons concerning race, sexual identity and orientation, and ways of life. Visible throughout this history has been the emancipatory tendency of feminist thinking which centers its agenda for change based on broadening and democratizing sociocultural participation (Bardzell & Bardzell 2015; Tong 2009; Waught 2006)
The following section outlines the wide-range of historical influences onto current feminist approaches to hacking and making and is organized into two phases: (1) early histories, which surveys indirect and direct ways that feminist thinking has influenced hacking/making, and (2) contemporary developments, which curates key feminist hacking/making research in design, human computer interaction (HCI), science and technology studies (STS), and cultural and media studies.
An Early History of Feminism and Hacking/Making
Research on hacking/making is highly interdisciplinary, reflecting design, craft theory, cultural anthropology, sociology, women’s studies, computer science, media and cultural studies, and more. Some of this research reflects feminist theory and methods. As a point of departure, we consider how researchers have employed a feminist approach to elucidate the study of domestic craft in relation to the early history of hacking/making. Situating hacking/making within this particular history reveals the ways in which women’s work has historically been disqualified as value-adding labor and therefore distinguished from masculine domains. We place the specific history of dressmaking in conversation with other histories that recover the place of women in the fields of design and computing. By looking across these divergent fields, we see that the early history of hacking/making contains consistent patterns of gender erasure made possible only by devaluing feminine skill and expertise.
Women’s World of Craft and Handiwork
In recent history in the United Kingdom and the United States, women’s work has been grounded in 19th century ideals of womanhood and domesticity. Crafts such as embroidery, dressmaking, and china decoration were deemed suitable for women, rather than the more physically demanding activities of metalwork and furniture making (Kirkham & Walker 2000). Books such as The American Girl’s Book and The Girl’s Own Book taught girls needle skills in preparation for this domestic womanhood and handicrafts were seen as necessary to keep women safe from idleness (Gelber 1990). Moreover, the decorative aspect of these crafts meant that they were seen as “idle labor which is unproductive, thus not considered work” (Salmon, cited in Gelber 1990, p. 169). In The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, Parker (1989) tackled the messy conceptualizations of the “lived femininity,” the “feminine ideal,” “the construction of femininity,” and the “feminine stereotype” through the history of embroidery. In this work, she drew from household accounts, women’s magazines, letters, novels, and the crafts themselves and observed that this embroidery was considered as an expression of an inherent femininity and therefore not seen as art. The skilled work of embroidery therefore “inculcated femininity in women, and it also provided a way to negotiate the constraints of the feminine role” (Parker 1989, p.4) and yet this understanding of female labor “sustains the dominance of masculinity and male art.” (Parker 1989, p.4).
This understanding of embroidery as a decorative and domestic craft serves as the foundational grounds for other kinds of women-appropriate work practices. In Technofeminism, Wajcman(2004), highlights the ways in which embroidery helped to sell typewriters to bourgeois women since these technologies were seen as a natural avenue for the delicate tactility of domestic craftwork.
In spaces where women were given labor autonomy, the devaluation of hand-based craftwork justified the use of machinery for automation. This automation stripped away any kind of economic and political independence women may have possessed and this is most evident in clothing production. In her account of home dressmaking in Jamaica between the 1940s and 1960s, Tulloch (2010) reveals how dressmaking was not only an economic necessity but an important way for women to assert their identities. The act of dressmaking was therefore rewarding not only as a form of economic livelihood but, moreover as a form of self-fulfillment. For these women, the finished garments were a medium that expressed their individuality. However, with the introduction of the sewing machine, this self-fulfillment was dramatically altered. Cheris Kramarae (1988) shows how the invention of sewing machines physically displaced the domestic labors of dressmaking and sewing outside of the home. In turn, these machines moved women into manufacturing sweatshops where they were then confined to stifling working environments and low wages.
Uncovering the Role of Women in Design
In the case of design histories, two anthologies in particular attempt to recover the importance of women. Pat Kirkham’s edited volume Women Designers in the USA 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference (Kirkham, 2000) celebrated under-acknowledged women designers in the United States. With this volume, Kirkahm sought “to counter the marginalization of women within design history, to emphasize the gendered nature of design practice, highlight the intersection of gender with other factors such as race, class, employment, and experience” (Kirkham 2000, p. 15). These women designers not only created objects of originality, but they also helped shaped design as a discipline, redefining the notions of “women’s work” and “women designers” to reveal what was and/or was not appropriate for women to design.
In addition, Bryony Gomez-Palacio and Armin Vit (2008) assembled an international anthology, Women of Design, that curated some of the most influential women in graphic design. The volume celebrates the history, processes, and achievements of women in design, while serving as a repository of inspiration and resources for future generations. The editors were motivated to assemble the book due to the underrepresentation of female designers at conferences and other public-facing events. The broad chronology of the book spans the 1960s to the beginning of the 21st century and highlights myriad women who have played important roles across the different periods of graphic design. The collection exemplifies the creativity of female graphic designers and shows how gendered ways of design intersect with technological advancements in their practices and delivery mediums. Such historical projects help counter the erasure of women’s contribution to design.
When Computers Were Women
In parallel to the histories of craft and design is the history of gender in computing. Contemporary computing culture is typically dominated by men, undergirded by a hegemonic masculinity common to many kinds of technoscientific communities in general. Previous scholars have shown how the dominant narrative of the history of technology has largely been associated with masculine values (Wajcman 1991, 2004). Computing, however, has had a varied historical relationship to gender and women have played important roles from the very inception of this field (Abbate 2012; Light 1999).
Feminist approaches to the study of computing show how early computers were, in fact, people prior to the development of machine computers during World War II. Following Grier’s (2005) foundational history of these human computers, other feminist approaches to computing history explore the dramatic changes in gender associations of computing. What was once seen as a routinized and clerical eventually became associated with creativity, idiosyncrasy, and individual genius. These same histories reveal how the work of computing evolved from complex adding and calculations to machine programming and logic design. These dramatic changes to the very definition of computing largely affected the gender proprietary of the work at hand.
The shift from human to machine computers took place during World War II, with the inventions of ENIAC in the United States and Colossus in the United Kingdom. Given the novelty of these machines, computing coding itself was largely unknown as a practice. The leaders for the ENIAC and Colossus projects originally envisioned a division of labor in which the men created the plans for computation and analysis while women were viewed as “simply” executing the codes and operations onto the machine (Ensmenger 2010). The reality of this division proved untrue as woman programmers were required to engage in wide range of both mental work and technical handicraft to ensure that the computers functioned properly (Abbate 2012). These women engaged in numerical analysis, program and logic design. They also worked to run the tape of the machines, plugged in wires, and replaced tubes. In spite of this, these women and their achievements were largely ignored. The work of computer programming continued to be associated with low-level clerical work while the more prestigious work of machine-building and hardware engineering was associated with masculinity (Hicks 2010).
At the end of the war, this feminization of computing dramatically changed. By the 1950s, computing had acquired a masculine identity, associated with idiosyncratic and creative genius (Ensmenger 2010). Programming skill was therefore seen as an innate ability that was then culturally codified through the use of aptitude tests and personality profiles. These tests and profiles inscribed gender into the professionalization of computer programming by screening for stereotypically masculine characteristics such as social detachment, egocentrism, excessive independence, to name a few (Ensmenger 2003). As the computing industries grew, these tests and profiles became important tools to hire and grow this new class of technology workers and thus formally established the masculine character of computer programmers more generally.
The association of masculine personality characteristics with inherent programming ability helped create an occupational culture in which female programmers were seen as exceptional or marginal. Only by behaving less “female” could they be perceived as being acceptable. Many women still did continue to be hired as programmers and other computer specialists, but they did so in an environment that was becoming increasingly normalized as masculine (Ensmenger 2003, p. 129).
What was once seen as a lowly clerical task was now elevated to professional status and technological expertise thus dramatically altering the gender character of the field.
Contemporary Developments in Feminist Hacking/Making
Cultures of hacking/making include a range of activities and social formations including do-it-yourself (DIY) collectives, craft circles, and hackerspaces among many others. These contemporary forms of hacking/making have become significant social phenomena in recent years and are increasingly the subject of academic inquiry. Making/hacking cultures are compelling due to the broad language of participation, sociotechnical access and inclusion, and innovation. Furthermore, contemporary developments at the intersection of feminism and hacking/making draw from the multiple histories of craft, design and computing for several aims. First, feminist hacking/making attempts to explain the gendering of labor by taking a more expansive view of technology work (Nguyen 2014) and by exploring the construction of feminist and feminine subjectivities in domestic space (Bardzell 2013). Second, feminist hacking/making facilitates emancipatory efforts (Adam 2003; Weibert et al. 2014) to critically examine digital divide issues (Ames 2014) and analyze hacking as a collective identity practice among under-represented groups (Sun et al. 2015). Third, feminist hacking/making supports the cultivation of alternative perspectives in several ways. It critiques assumptions about the relationship between neoliberalism and making (Ames et al. 2014), counters the dominant rhetoric of hackers and makers in research (Roedl et al. 2015), and critically explores analogous domains of inquiry, as in repair (Jackson 2014) and participation (Tanenbaum et al. 2012). Lastly, feminist hacking/making understands infrastructures as feminist, especially those that focus on space (Toupin 2014; Wuschitz 2014), software, hardware, surveillance (Dubrofsky & Magnet 2015) and social solidarities, among others. This understanding of infrastructure echoes what Star and Ruhleder have argued that infrastructure is “fundamentally and always a relation, not a thing” (1994, p. 253). Feminist infrastructure can be understood as a system of the artifact kind (computer, software, code, algorithm etc.) and as a cultural and historical system.
These multiple aims come together to inform the particularly salient sites of feminist hacking/making inquiry and intervention such as craft-based activism, gender access and inclusion, and feminist thinking in hackerspaces. In what follows, we review how feminism and making/hacking intersect at these particular sites.
Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards’ Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism (2005) and Betsy Greer’s Knitting for Good (2008) exemplify an approach to craft-based emancipation. These authors outline the ways in which handiwork can serve both personal and political change. Craft activities such as knitting and stitching are placed in continuity with other forms of creative artistry, such as film-making. In these two volumes, crafting and making are presented as a platform for activism and a tool for social impact. In particular, this kind of craftivism promises to foster a sense of “conviviality,” that is, a “meaningful kind of communication and engagement between people—people who are friendly, meaningfully connected, and alive in the world.” (Illich, cited in Gauntlett 2011, p. 167). This notion of “conviviality” plays on craft’s situatedness in everyday social life, from knitting circles to the exchange and display of crafted works among friends and family, which entails a different sort of circulation of ideas.
Access and Inclusion
Several research projects examine issues of gender inclusion and access among hacker/maker communities. One such project is the creation of LilyPad Arduino. This particular device is a hack, or a modification, of Arduino, an inexpensive microcontroller popular among the hacker/maker communities. It was Leah Buechley’s observation that Arduino seemed to resonate with men more than women, so she and her team built the LilyPad Arduino specifically for female artists, designers and hackers/makers. Indeed, the design team proactively cultivated relationships with young women and craft communities, encouraging these women to use the LilyPad Arduino for a range of e-textile projects. A study by Buechley and Hill (2010) compared the distribution and adoption of Arduino versus LilyPad Arduino, and they also compared the leadership of projects using Arduino vs. LilyPad Arduino. They found that 65% of LilyPad Arduino projects were led by women. This stands in stark contrast to the other Arduino projects of which 90% are led by men. Here, we have a technology that takes an existing technology and hacks it for fashion, a domain in which women have been traditionally more engaged. It is difficult to assess whether any individual factor—the pill-shaped vs. rectangular shape of the microcontroller, the traditionally gendered application domain of wearable computing as fashion, or the LilyPad’s outreach and marketing towards female artists, designers or makers—or the combination of all of them yielded the results, but the case of the LilyPad at least demonstrates that hacker/maker technologies are not inherently masculine.
Gender inclusivity was further taken up by Fox, Ulgado, and Rosner (2015) through a study of female hackers’ practices, activities, and motivations. They asked questions such as: What made these spaces “feminist”? How was feminism enacted through these spaces? What kinds of tools and work did these spaces encourage? They found that feminism was often used as a filter or framing tool by female hackers to make visible the tensions and ambiguities around inclusivity and control. The activity of hacking thus became a site for women to unravel questions regarding women’s values, gender identity, and their relationships with technology.
Feminist Thinking in Hackerspaces
Informed by feminist standpoint theory and intersectional feminism, Sophie Toupin (2014) traced the development of feminist co-working spaces to make visible the experiences, practices, and activities of the founders behind some of the most representative feminist hackerspaces. These spaces included Flux, Double Union, and Seattle Attic—all intersectional feminist co-working spaces created in 2013 in Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle respectively. Toupin explicated the ideologies at work to tease out the positions and experiences of female, genderqueer, and trans hackers working in these hackerspaces. In particular, she problematized the notions of openness and meritocracy typically associated with hacker culture and questioned the narrow use of the terms in current research. She argued that
feminist hackerspaces function as the spatial manifestation of a feminist hacker, maker and geek culture. The emergence of feminist hackerspaces furthers the visibility of feminist hackers, makers and geeks and seemingly helps cement a different social imaginary of feminist hacking practices” (Toupin 2014, p 1).
In addition, Toombs, Bardzell, and Bardzell (2015) used concepts derived from feminist care ethics to explicate the three forms of care in a hackerspace in a Midwestern U.S. college town: Overt-explicit care-in-action, overt-implicit care-in-action, and covert-implicit care-in-action. They found that acts of care are an effective and necessary part of community maintenance. These forms of care, however, existed in tension with the dominant ideology of libertarian egalitarianism commonly found in hackerspaces more generally. Hackers negotiated this tension by providing the diverse acts of care needed to function as a community but discursively played them down in their accounts to researchers and to each other.
The Toupin (2014) and Toombs et al. (2015) studies both reveal that barriers to entry are often structural rather than technical; that is, the problem is not whether a prospective hacker/maker has the skills to join to the community, but whether a culture that denies the significance of gender has the wherewithal to address those significances. Both studies show how the lack of gender access and inclusion is not located within individual skill, but instead can be attributed to structural patterns of exclusion that reify certain kinds of labor over others. This work thus shows the limits of supposedly open spaces and how hacker/makers produce gender exclusions, in contradiction to their professed claims.
Several synergistic efforts, running parallel to this special issue touch upon a number of core values of feminism (if not always referring to feminism explicitly)—fulfillment, agency, identity, equality, subjectivity, reflection, performativity, empowerment, and social justice. Edited by Johan Söderberg and Alessandro Delfanti, the special section for Science, Technology, and Human Values’ September 2015 issue focuses on the notion of recuperation as a theoretical lens to understand the life cycles of IT innovation through making and hacking. Edited by Andrew Schrock and Jeremy Hunsinger, New Media and Society’s forthcoming special issue on the democratization of hacking and making seeks to revisit common hacking/making terminologies, such as disparities of access and representation, barriers of entry for open-source and open-access environments, hacking in the Global South, and the politics of making, among others. Collectively, these parallel research initiatives give us a glimpse of some of the opportunities to integrate feminism more robustly into hacking/making research and practice moving forward.
Feminist Hacking/Making & Hacking/Making Feminism: From Representation to Method
The ensemble of papers presented in this special issue continues much of the contemporary developments in feminist hacking/making. In addition, the collection of these papers renews conversations originating from feminist technoscience in which the focus of inquiry shifts away from the question of women in technoscientific fields to include new questions of how gender is symbolically and materially encoded within technology. Moreover, these papers present an intentional praxis of subversion such that feminist hacking/making comprises an explicit method for encounter and engagement that will be explained further below.
Feminist hacking/making consists of a wide-range of scholarship and activities that seek to redress the gender representation problem in hacking/making. First, many feminist interventions into hacking/making seek to create new venues for women, people of color, and members of the queer and trans community to engage in hacking practices such as writing computer code or building and repairing computer hardware (Beaudoin, Fox & Rosner). Second, feminist hackers have also sought to bring the technical acumen of hacking to address specifically women-centered problems (D’Ignazio et al). These feminist interventions into hacking draw from recognition of the lack of diversity in hacking more generally (Dunbar-Hester 2010) and attempt to push the boundaries of the heternormative masculine culture of hacking.
In addition to addressing the representation dilemma, feminist hacking/making also serves as a method of encounter across divisions of difference and a method of engagement for self-care and discovery. Feminist hacking/making thus comprises a framework to challenge accepted norms, narratives, and systems. It also attempts to reposition other kinds of gendered expertise to elucidate alternative forms of hacking/making in traditionally female craft labors (Pederson). Feminist hacking/making also comprises various modes of engagement for bodily care (Forlano), for self-acceptance (Black), and for reprogramming nostalgia for self-discovery (Weill).
Across these forms, it is evident that feminist hacking/making entails the infusion of a feminist ethos of inclusion, intimacy, and openness into hacking/making and takes up the long-standing critique of hegemonic masculinity within technoculture more generally (Faulkner 2001; Mellström 2002, 2004; Wajcman 2009). However, feminist hacking/making reveals little about the ways in which these practices comprise new forms of feminism. Feminist hacking/making imports feminist thinking into sociotechnical domains yet it remains unclear how feminist hacking/making can incorporate sociotechnical reflection into feminist theory and praxis.
New Matters of Concern: Collectivities of Inclusion and Intimacy
Feminist hacking/making is clearly variegated and feminist hackers and makers equally so. Not only do we see gender and ethnic diversity among feminist hackers and makers, but more importantly, we find a broad range of expertise and ideologies among these feminist communities, representing an expansive epistemological range of artists, academics, activists, technical professionals, mothers, and handicraft laborers. Across the multiple projects, we see that feminist hacking/making is primarily configured as a space of interaction through the design of hackerspaces, makerspaces, hackathons or hacker/maker conferences. By bringing feminist concerns into these particular articulations of hacking/making, these interventions challenge hacking and making as an interpretive structure largely informed by masculine ideals of competition, individual autonomy, reason, and objects (Keller 1988). Instead, these efforts redress the gender singularity in hacking/making to open up new matters of concern such as inclusion and intimacy. Feminist hacking/making also involves the broader interest in alternative collectives more broadly and organizes such collectivities through idioms of care, care for oneself, and care for others (Toombs et al. 2015). D’Ignazio et al’s work on the organization of a hackathon for the redesign of a breast pump in this special issue exemplifies such a collective form of care-based intimacy and inclusion (D’Ignazio et al).
Feminist hacking/making therefore not only seeks to address the representational dilemmas that hacking and making pose but extends beyond concerns of women within these domains to include a gendered interrogation of hacking/making altogether. This distinction is important since the latter approach underscores the plurality of gender configurations within technology and further highlights how gender and technology are mutually forged in their perpetual interactions (Wajcman 2007). Therefore, the ensemble of these efforts towards feminist hacking/making go beyond those [questions] about the presence or absence of women…to a set of questions about how interpretive structures…are shaped by an unconditional acceptance of certain cultural values (or norms) as universal, natural, and inescapable (Keller 1988, p. 242).
In turn, feminist hacking/making opens up new lines of inquiry about the relationship between gender within technoculture more broadly. Feminist hacking/making follows similar trajectories within feminist technoscience in which we see a shift away from a singular focus on the presence of women in science and technology fields to a larger interest in feminism as a framework for asking new questions about how hacking/making, much like other fields of technoscience, uphold gender structures of power.
Historically, hacking has been configured as a distinctly masculine domain, similar to other technoscience domains, in which individual autonomy and competition are often valued (Kelty 2013). Hacking also comprises a new form of masculinity in which trickery, humor, and artful playfulness are defining cultural values (Coleman 2012). Hacking/making both reaffirms and alters hegemonic masculinity. Feminist hacking/making leverages the creativity and playfulness of hacking and tethers it to larger goals of inclusion through intimacy and collective struggles. Feminist hacking/making continues with interrogations of gender structures of power, however, also seeks out ways to subvert these very structures through this recalibration from competition to inclusion, from individual autonomy to intimacy.
Encounter and Engagement as Method
Feminist hacking/making does not reify the creation of new artifacts but instead presents itself primarily as a method for encounter and engagement. Feminist hacking/making is akin to what Kelty describes as “principle made material” (Kelty 2013), material neither in product nor process, but material in relations. Feminist hacking/making is therefore not simply a matter of inquiry of abstract ideas and theories but combines intellectual inquiry with ethical enactment and sociotechnical praxis. Feminist hacking/making includes not only teaching underrepresented groups how to do technical things like coding and soldering, but also includes the complex socio-cultural work of bringing technological experts into dialogue with non-technological others. This is clearly visible in the growing interest in hackathons and hackerspaces and makerspaces as a physical and conceptual site of feminist intervention. These spaces attempt to bring the uninitiated into the technological fold and also attempts to engineer encounters across socio-cultural divides and moves towards what Irani describes as the “slow construction of coalition across difference” (Irani 2015, p. 3). This reorients the stakes of hacking/making beyond the creation or destruction of artifacts but towards the more difficult work of initiating encounters and social relationships.
The feminist hacking/making approach to method also includes practices of engagement with oneself; that is, for self-care and self-discovery. Through idioms of bodily and affective intimacy feminist hackers introduce new grammars through which hacking becomes a personal practice for self-care in the case of disease management (Forlano), for self-acceptance with eating disorders (Black); and for self-discovery through a nostalgia for video games (Weill). Feminist hacking/making thus allows us to manage and quietly confront our bodily limitations. Feminist hacking/making also allows us to reach past our gendered histories and to speculate on the gendered selves that could have been. Through these subversions of intimacy, these accounts reveal how feminist hacking/making primarily serves as method to open new lines of gendered inquiry through practice.
Towards the Future of Feminist Hacking/Making
The call for papers for this special issue of the Journal of Peer Production generated great interest and resulted in a large quantity of submissions from researchers, technical specialists, activists, and artists. Among the thirty abstracts we received, we invited twelve groups of authors to submit full-length research papers and personal essays. Given the historical gender limitations of hacking, this special issue was motivated to not only offer a critique of hacking/making, but also to reflect on the possible gender horizons offered through these very practices. What possibilities do hacking/making afford given the gender constraints and histories of these fields? This ambivalence with hacking and making is reflected in the parenthetical (Un)- as part of the special issue’s title.
The papers in this special issue represent the latest feminist scholarship on hacking/making. From this work we see new possibilities for rethinking sociotechnical inclusion around ethics of intimacy. This stands in contrast to the existing politics of inclusion around publics among hacker/maker communities. Among the papers in this issue, we see how practices of hacking/making have evolved into sociotechnical methods in multiple ways. Feminist hacking/making allows for personal forms of self-discovery and for reconfiguring social relationships for novel engagements. Here, the hope and promise of sociotechnical change extends beyond the high-bannered politics of transgression and defiance but instead carries over to the deeply intimate relationality contained within technologies. We see then that feminist hacking/making is not only concerned with revealing the structures of gender power, but also works very explicitly to create new ways of relating to one another across technologies. In the process, hacking/making are being redefined to include modes of care, repair, and intimacy. This more expansive view opens up many new and exciting possibilities for imagining alternative forms of hacking/making for what does hacking/making come to look like when women-centered and gender diverse sites are mobilized more commonly?
The collection of papers in this special issue represent only the beginning of the effort towards this end. The majority of papers and essays in this special issue are centered within the limited geography of North America and Europe. Moving forward, we hope to see more work on feminist hacking/making that goes beyond these geographical regions. To do so, however, will require consideration of what hacking/making as a global agenda has to offer for those along the techno-peripheries. Moreover, this will also require reconciliation of the disjuncture between the hopes for hacking/making among those at the global techno-centers and the mundane realities for those everywhere else.
Feminist hacking/making to date comprises efforts to bring gendered sensitivities to these area. As this grows, future research will need to consider just how these sociotechnical practices shape how we can think of gender and feminisms in new light. For what kind of feminism is being enacted here? What does hacking/making, in fact, do for our understanding of gender and feminism? To this end, we cannot understate the importance of Donna Haraway’s scholarship (Haraway 1991) since many of these works draw inspiration from Haraway’s cyborg figure. In fact, many of the articles in the special issue position themselves as extending Haraway’s thinking into current understandings of hacking/making. These same papers have less to say about how feminist hacking/making alters, amends, or counters our understanding of trickster cyborgs or of feminist thinking more generally. Feminist hacking/making continues the hope of politics in technological action within hacking/making. The strength of feminist hacking/making resides in its challenge to hegemonic cultures of hacking/making by addressing the gender representation problem and by reconfiguring these very practices as a method for weaving collectivities and selves across the delicate threads of inclusion and intimacy. Nevertheless, it remains unclear just how can hacking/making can inform new kinds of feminisms.
In spite of these limitations, what remains clear is that feminist hacking/making entails novel kinds of sociotechnical possibilities. Returning to the original ambivalence with hacking/making at the onset of this issue, we see that the current body of feminist hacking/making work offers new possibilities for sociotechnical achievement. The papers in this special issue not only introduce new practices into the hacking/making repertoires, they also suggest new kinds of hope. Hope in this techno-feminist register is not one of overt and visible defiance but of a deep relationality, a drawing together through care, repair, and intimacy. Defined thusly, inclusion is no longer grounded in the hegemonic philosophies of meritocracy and freedom. Instead, these papers collectively envision the possibility of new forms of inclusion that are only just being explored.
Lastly, for this special issue, the editors decided to engage in our own ‘hack’ of academic authorship. Collaborative writing in academia often poses a dilemma of credit and authority. Much like other intellectual and creative endeavors, academic scholarship too is situated in structures of prestige in which credit and value are organized around notions of singular genius. To accommodate this, writing protocols are based on hierarchical ordering that rank the contributions of authors and signal thus so to readers. To challenge this enduring ideal of singular genius, we have created the pseudonym SSL Nagbot, inspired from two strands of feminist thinking. The first part of the pseudonym is a combination of the first letters of our first names, SSL. The second part takes the first two letters of our last name and scrambles them together to form a new word, nagbot. We initially drew inspiration from the feminist political economists, J.K. Gibson-Graham, who combined their names in this way to refuse the hierarchical ordering of academic authorship and therefore reinforce the idea of mutual contributions in writing. Our pseudonym was also created in poetic accord with Sara Ahmed’s (2010) idea of “feminist killjoys,” which underscores the importance of dissecting the everyday pleasures and happiness that are often undergirded by structures of oppression, violence, and domination. She defines a killjoy as someone who gets in the way of people’s happiness. In the same manner, as nagbots of hacking/making, we hope to reveal the forms of domination, oppression, and violence that are woven into the pleasures and happiness of hacking/making to imagine new kinds of techno-pleasures that embrace feminist principles.
About the Editors
Lilly Nguyen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her research explores the dynamics of ethnicity, expertise, and information technologies in transnational circulation. She previously received her Ph.D. in Information Studies at UCLA. Her research has been supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Fulbright Institute for International Education.
Sophie Toupin’s work explores the linkages between technology, feminism and activism through ethnographic studies and projects. She presently works for Media@McGill, a hub for research and scholarship on media, technology and culture at McGill University in Montreal. She is also the co-founder of FemHack a feminist mobile hacklab based in Montreal.
Shaowen Bardzell is an Associate Professor of Informatics at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing. Bardzell’s research explores the contributions of design, feminism, and social science to support technology’s role in social change. Recent research foci have included emancipatory and participatory social science, criticality in design, care ethics and feminist utopian perspectives on IT, and culture and creative industries in Asia. She is the co-author of Humanistic HCI (Morgan & Claypool, 2015) and co-editor of Critical Theory and Interaction Design (MIT Press, in press).
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