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Inversions of Design: Examining the limits of human-centered perspectives in a feminist design workshop image
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This paper exposes tensions between mainstream design perspectives and feminist ideals. Drawing on workshops in feminist hackerspaces in San Francisco, CA and Seattle, WA, we argue that it takes more than good intentions to turn design exercises toward a feminist agenda. We expose the strength and subtly of normative expectations and "user" misconceptions underlying science and engineering developments within spaces of feminist thought.

Feminist Design, infrastructure, feminist hackerspaces, infrastructural inversions, space.

By Sarah Fox and Daniel K. Rosner


Mary Johnson and Christine Sanders stood at the end of a crowded table, holding an oversized post-it covered in sketches and writing. In this moment Johnson and Sanders were not only participating in a local hackerspace. They were driving the last stage of a “feminist design” workshop, an event collaboratively organized with our research team to explore what a mainstream technology might look like if reworked from a feminist perspective. Johnson and Sanders, new and old affiliates of the hackerspace, presented their ideas for re-designing the Tinder app, a popular social media platform for social matchmaking. They took issue with how often they perceived the current platform presented women seeking men with unwanted “dick pics,” images of male genitalia. Instead, they suggested adding filters to block profiles presenting “dick pics” for people not wishing to see those types of images, allowing further filtering of such content. Their resulting proposal broadened Tinder’s search filters in an attempt to make the Tinder app amenable to more women:

Using facial detection software […] we decided that you can select an option to say ‘I’m only interested in face pictures’ at least to start with and then the software will only allow you to upload a picture of your face as your profile picture.

To the mix of feminists and local engineers in attendance, the conversation took on a sharp rhetorical tone. While participants began to define a “non-dick pic test” (or the technical rules governing what the platform would classify as a “dick pic”), Johnson and Sanders pointed to tensions raised in facial detection techniques for different faces and particularly the faces of people of color. Even in reaffirming ideas of sexual normalcy, the women presenting began to highlight ethical difficulties of implementing a simple filtering mechanism. In doing so, they also challenged established limits to ‘user’ agency built into technical platforms. Who counted as a ‘user’ of Tinder? Who had the right to be seen? And who had the agency to see?

This paper examines these questions of design and agency that came out of a set of workshops resulting from conversations on feminism, hacking and technology cultures between our research team (Fox and Rosner) and the women organizing and participating in feminist hackerspaces at the time. Since 2013, feminist hackerspaces have served as gathering spaces for hundreds of women interested in challenging masculine claims to technical expertise and innovation. Through material production and therapeutic discourse, members contest widely understood forms of hacking and technology development, casting activities rarely associated with technology design (such as weaving) as technical work (Fox, Ulgado, and Rosner 2015; Rosner and Fox 2016). Alongside this production-oriented activity, members use these spaces as opportunities to accommodate alternative viewpoints and orientations within the male-dominated computing cultures many members are professionally affiliated.

By knitting together methods of intervention and inquiry, and specifically techniques of inversion (Bowker and Star 2000) and design workshops (Rosner et al. 2016), we show how feminist hackers like Johnson and Sanders are repurposing established design techniques to actively bolster the technological agency of marginalized groups. So doing, we argue these techniques help scholars of science and technology set forth a fresh agenda for design inquiry that grapples with the obstinacy of user-centered perspectives. While creating a “safe space for those who want it,” and “not imposing our morality onto somebody else,” in Johnson’s words — they still help us recognize deep-seated teleological assumptions built into design practice.

Design and Feminism 

Design and feminism may seem at first oppositional frameworks: design operating as normative change, and feminist theories oriented toward undoing normative, patriarchal views. Our motivation to consider the two rubrics in combination stems from an interest in histories of feminist intervention through technological development. In the section that follows, we describe work interrogating the built environment (housing and information technology, for example) and producing new models for design practice with feminist perspectives. In examining these projects, we build toward a view of inversion (Bowker and Star 2000) as an interventionist technique situated in the historical conditions and infrastructural arrangements of design.

But first, what do we mean by design? Design often exists within normative frameworks, making claims about technology in ways that reinforce longstanding cultural assumptions about the form human-technology relationships take. As a process of material production, design practices may sediment social hierarchies and reify social values (Wajcman 1991; Weisman 1994). In recent decades, feminist science scholars and design historians have sought to question the expectations and traditions stemming from design problems (Alhutter 2012; Bardzell and Bardzell 2011; Matrix 1984), consistently highlighting how the material world of objects, architectures, and systems delimits the ability of certain groups to act. Even when members of these groups have contributed to the work of design, it is not uncommon for their efforts to go unattributed or overlooked within traditional engineering environments (Allhutter 2012; Sefyrin 2010).

Architectural historians have traced contemporary feminist design back to the work of American progressive era material feminists who believed that women should have social equality and economic independence (Constant 1994, Hayden 1982). By forming housewives’ cooperatives, kitchenless houses, day-care centers, public kitchens, and community dining halls material feminists re-designed domestic spaces to promote a less isolated existence for women (Hayden 1982). These efforts to expose undercurrents of inequality reaffirmed through architectural form offer new interpretation of design history that recasts women as active influences on highly regarded planners and designers like Lewis Mumford and Ebenezer Howard or Le Corbusier, rather than passive onlookers.

A notable example of feminist design practice comes out of the Matrix, a British collective stemming from the socialist New Architecture Movement in the late 1970s. Their agenda took on multiple modes of execution, involving exhibition, practice based, and written work. Notably, the group wrote a book entitled Making Space: Women and the Man Made Environment, which offered critiques of current architectural design practices (Matrix 1984). These critiques highlighted how designs inhibit the movement of women through space, alongside records of some of their own design projects to ameliorate these concerns. Their practice-based work was done through publicly funded social projects and by offering advice through community technical aid centers.  Their research and design was intentionally focused on spaces that were typically overlooked by the male-led architecture industry like women’s centers and nurseries. These projects of design came out of participatory methods: “collaboratively defining how a space could be used, discussing how the space would shape people’s relationships with one another, sketching multiple designs, and sharing the sketches with local groups and at public meetings” (Matrix 1984).  With these participatory methods, they hoped to eventually influence the broader architectural community. In the meantime, they actively produced public projects that suggested alternatives for how the world was currently constructed.

Feminist approaches to design have more recently emerged within the fields of interaction design and human computer interaction, spearheaded by design and human-computer interaction researchers Shaowen Bardzell (Bardzell 2010) and Jill Dimond (Smyth and Dimond 2014; Dimond 2012). Bardzell identifies feminism as a “natural ally to interaction design,” pointing to shared commitments to equity, social justice, empowerment, and a capacity to reveal opportunities for intervention. She asserts, “feminist approaches can integrate seamlessly and productively in all stages of the design process, including user research, prototyping, and evaluation” (Bardzell 2010). Also concerned with processes of design, Symth and Dimond (Smyth and Dimond 2014) propose an Anti-Oppressive Design framework, inspired by scholarship within the field of social work (Burke and Harrison 2003). As a means for information technology (IT) developers to engage in discussions of oppression in its complexity, this process asks the designer to do the work of recognizing the structural barriers and privilege that might be at play before the development of any IT begins.

This view on technical criticality undergirds recent interventionalist work in Science and Technology Studies (STS). STS scholar Doris Allhutter offers mind scripting, a feminist decontructivist approach to software development (Allhutter 2012). Similar to the Anti-Oppresssive Design Framework presented by Smyth and Dimond, this approach offers designers a structured and tangible procedure to explore gender performativity as socially situated events. Aiming to support reflective work practices that investigate “processes of the co-materialization of gender and technology,” mind scripting invites participants to identify an issue central to the design process, write a short third person account of a memory involving that issue, and collectively deconstruct the texts, looking for indication of subjects, activities, emotions, and motivations.

Together these projects have helped scaffold a growing literature concerned with feminist framings of technology cultures, offering direct ways for researchers and practitioners alike to critically and productively explore alternatives to current design situations (Fox, Ulgado, and Rosner 2015; D’Ignazio et al. 2016). Building on this work, we explore feminist hackerspaces as sites where feminist design is currently taking place, both in the design activities members pursue and in the activities they choose to support.

In the following sections, we examine the case of a ‘feminist design’ workshop, a daylong event we held in the spring and winter of 2014 as part of our ongoing collaboration with feminist hackerspace members to reimagine their everyday environments beyond the hackerspace and typical realms of technical practice. Though we initially focused on finding alternatives to problem-oriented design practices through speculation (Dunne and Raby 2013), we became more interested in recent approaches to inventive methods (Lury and Wakeford 2014) that interrogate social orders and ontological framings, sometimes through the work of design. Through sketching and photo elicitation (photos prompting conversations before and during our workshop), we called on members to develop design concepts that relied on infrastructural inversions (Bowker and Star 2000): analyses highlighting the sociotechnical assemblages underlying local, mundane sites and everyday tools. Drawing on research exploring standards and protocols in information work, we focused on the ways invisible social and material (infra)structures shape and circumscribe social worlds beyond initial phases of technology design. We hoped the group would begin to direct their attention to social interactions often missed at first glance, but nonetheless affecting the way they live with and around designed spaces and technologies.

Operating a Designerly Inversion in a Feminist Design Workshop
We focus our study and ensuing workshops on feminist hackerspaces due to their recognition of women’s technical pursuits within predominantly male engineering cultures.

As collaborative workspaces oriented toward alternative histories of technology development, feminist hackerspaces open hacking ideals and discourses to a wider population — making room for practices that do not sit neatly within wider corporate or popular hobbyist technology cultures.  From weaving exercises to workshops exploring the shifting identities of new mothers, the activities absorbed within feminist hackerspaces break with conventional categories of hacking and technology development (Rosner and Fox 2016). Comparing feminist hackerspaces to conventional hackerspaces, Liz Hendry, co-founder of a San Francisco feminist hackerspace, notes that “ours is starting with a few extra values: intersectional feminism, support for feminist activism and strong respect for personal boundaries” (Hendry 2014). For Sophie Toupin, co-founder of Montreal feminist hacklab FemHack, members of these spaces share an intersectional ideal that involves “creating a space where agency, fulfillment, empowerment, diversity, and social justice is its core,” rather than centering themselves on a principle of uninterrupted openness (Toupin 2014). In this sense, members began to hack not only their existing spaces, but also a dirty and chaotic garage aesthetic long associated with masculine do-it- yourself culture (Gelber 1999).

Developing a feminist design workshop
Our workshops came about through an unexpected invitation. In preparation for a field visit to Double Union in San Francisco, one of the co-founders asked us to facilitate a design workshop in the space. Rather than designating a topic for the event, she encouraged us to choose whatever subject we felt most comfortable leading. In extending this invitation, she not only allowed us to develop our engagements in the space as more speculative, interventionist participation, but also prompted us to reflect on our position as academics housed within our own design and engineering communities.

Early in our fieldwork we learned that the hackerspaces had been purposefully designed to highlight values and competencies that contrasted with conventional hacking traditions concerned with engineering expertise (Fox et al 2015). Following feminist design explorations (Bardzell and Bardzell 2011; Matrix 1984), we decided to focus our workshops on issues of agency and infrastructural arrangements within technology design. We turned a notion of infrastructural inversion borrowed from Bowker and Star (2000). Through their study of the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Disease (ICD), Bowker and Star show that the development of the classifications stands as more than a story of passive list making, but rather as the splitting up of the world into useful categories. The designation of a patient’s cause of death on a death certificate, for example, might not reflect the actual ailment(s) leading to the patient’s passing, but a classification that might be more statistically or cultural acceptable. As social and technical infrastructure, standards and classification systems often go unnoticed, but make up the goings on of daily life — and exert power along the way. They shape how we act in the world and our ability to make decisions. Interested in this naturalization process, Bowker and Star argue a world is being built by the positive active forgetting. If one excludes the exclusions only part of the story is told: “the ways in which things get forgotten are not merely images in a glass darkly of the way things get remembered; rather they are positive phenomena worthy of study in their own right.”

For Bowker and Star, infrastructural inversion entails a reversing of this propensity to fade into the background. Through inversion, they imply an intentional “struggle against the tendency of infrastructure to disappear (except when breaking down)” (Bowker and Star 2000, 34). The purpose of the inversion they propose is to recognize “the depths of interdependence of technical networks and standards, on the one hand, and the real work of politics and knowledge production on the other” (Bowker and Star 2000, 34). Bowker and Star suggest a direct, interventionist approach that allows people to interrogate infrastructure at any time, rather than just when something unconventional happens to occur or some part of the established system breaks down. In choosing to use this approach as the framing device for our workshop we focused on how the design decisions around often-out-of-sight structures have the ability to guide and arrange social action.
Drawing on the concept of infrastructural inversion, the workshop exposed often hidden elements in everyday technologies that raised concerns for the people participating.  A week before the workshop, we distributed a series of questions in an open-ended survey format, asking people to describe a time when they encountered an idea they disagreed with that was reinforced in the design of a technology.

The resulting descriptions became compelling examples of intimate misalignments between people and their tools. A woman with a fashion design background took issue with the practice of designing tablets for children (e.g. Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 Kids Tablet) noting a belief that “business execs designed it to cater to the parental market to attract and capture greater market share and create brand-loyal consumers from childhood.” A former policewoman discussed the design of bodysuits, which inevitably did not fit a woman’s body, or her own. Through the course of the workshop, participants individually and collectively engaged in rapid re-design of the contentious technologies they had highlighted in their survey responses. This initial activity thus served as a basis for a subsequent reflection on the ways in which their initial technologies may overcome and shifts its problematic start. Below we describe some of the surprising relations that emerged through this encounter.

Interrogating the Gender Binary
Concerns for gender identity raised by participants’ chosen technologies became opportunities for troubling an established gender binary of male and female users. Examining a required gender survey question in the signup form for a newly established bike sharing service in the city of Seattle, Tim Smith, a male software developer participating in the workshop, explained that this question not only reinforced a gender binary, but also brought up issues of privacy. While presenting their “re-design” activity, he and his partner described how this question not only provides a interpretation of gender, but it also indicates importance, or what they called the “conventional order” of possible answers. It systematically presented the male selection first, thus implying its relative salience.  Smith noted that the pervasiveness of this organization is “so basic that I hadn’t even thought about it ” and that it “seems to imply some sort of precedence.”

While contemplating alternatives, the team mentioned regularly coming back to “just let people write in what they are.” They figured that there have been sufficient enough advances in text analysis software to handle interpretation of freeform responses. With its reliance on predefined categories, the two speculated, “[…] it’s a design that prioritizes the convenience of the people who design it and deal with the data afterwards,” rather than survey respondents. They strongly preferred making this question optional, unless it was asking something that directly informed service. If this were the case, they suggested being more forthright about what the service provider plans to do with the information:

 Depending on what they want to do with the data, they may care about sex more, they may not care about gender more; then they may actually care about both… whatever it is, if they spend the time to figure out why are we asking this question? What will we do with this information? And therefore does that change whether we should ask it, how we ask it?

The team advised the bike hire project to ask service-specific questions. Rather than inserting questions to infer something about the user (such as binary gender identity classifications), they suggested the organization ask the question it was “really” asking. If the hire service was concerned with making sure there were enough helmets or bikes of certain size, for instance, they could simply ask users to provide a preference. If there was interest in collecting demographic information for the purpose of tracking the user group, then the survey could feature descriptions of what the data would be used for and why (e.g. results to be included in an annual report or in a grant proposal).  The designers of the bike hire service might identify questions of female use relevant to fundraising activities. But in the re-design of the service, the group used the bike hire to highlight the sheer presence of a gender question, and eventually frame this question as a moral question – entangling their concerns for gender identity with the aims of state-run public services.

These challenges to a binary demarcation of gender identity — and the ways technical decisions surface at the state-level — continued on in people’s reflections on not only mundane technologies, but also the practices in which they’re embedded. Cindy Schoenberg, a PhD student in Education, took issue with the English convention of calling input ends of cables “male” and the corresponding receiving points “female:”

I think using these terms reinforces a gender binary, but also is a strange context in which to conflate anatomical references to biological sex with technological devices. Although it is a seemingly trivial example, I feel like it reinforces notions of dominance through the reference to and act of insertion and receiving.

Here a challenge to a colloquialism constitutes an inversion of metaphors commonly used to describe conventional electric cables. Through their association with the gendered nomenclature of ‘female’ and ‘male’, the instrumental features of ‘input’ and ‘output’ could help perpetuate a gender binary. The cables, Schoenberg claimed, did not work alone: they came into use as part of a complex and tangled web of human knowledge and interoperability familiar to Bowker and Star (2000).  The respective input and output mechanisms implied authority and passivity. By questioning the construction of this technological pattern, Schoenberg implicates the cable in a layers of assumptions, prespecifiying relations between sex, gender identity, and technical identify came. Her inversion exposes hidden consequences to the standardization of an input/output binary (the association of women with reduced agency).

Scaling the Design Intervention
Near the end of the workshop, an emphasis on immediate and localized change raised questions of scale. They asked whether design interventions might offer abrupt transformations in tools while overlooking the long-term practices and structural problems in which those tools lived.  A Seattle Attic member, Susan, and an engineer, Robert, took up the issue of navigability for people with vision impairments, proposing a new system of textured paths with audio cues. While brainstorming, they described rearranging traffic patterns or building pedestrian overpasses as implausible solutions. With what they deemed a more modest proposal, the team imagined variations in the groove patterns of the sidewalk and changes in sound effectively warning people unintentionally veering off the crosswalk.

Other workshop participants reacted enthusiastically to the concept, but questioned its implementation. One woman wondered how sensitive service animals would be to the groove patterns and another asked how the system might sit in relation to others already in place—asking how the team might make their system “more universal and accepted.” Robert said the team would be helping create a new system for Seattle, but that would not necessarily be used in even nearby cities like Spokane. Nonetheless, the intervention would require new machinery for laying down the marks and an institutionalized re-training of service dogs to recognize the marks’ meaning.

This recognition of broader structural change brought on by a seemingly stand-alone design intervention also developed out of a final project from Amanda and Jill. Both university students, Amanda and Jill reimagined paywalls, online mechanisms that prevent people from accessing certain information without paying a fee. They were specifically interested in systems that guard academic articles, seeing them as instances of inequality with respect to access to information:

Where I’m coming at from a feminist perspective is the whole equality regardless of gender, race, socio-economic class and paywalls definitely inhibit the flow of information for people who don’t have the money.

In re-designing the paywall service, they proclaimed they could not, “just rip out paywalls,” seeing a need to generate revenue somehow.  In place of having a fixed price on articles or a subscription to the publication, they offered a pay-what-you-can model for individuals and a tiered payment plan for institutions, where big universities would pay more than a small liberal arts college or community library. They also imagined different prices for lower quality scans and allowing for pay-per-section, a la carte style purchases. Another participant recommended that the system have a cap on the amount of profit it could make off any one article. A highly emphasized feature of their design was what they described as transparency. On the purchase page, they proposed publishing information like how many times the article has been downloaded, how close is it to the profit ceiling, and where the money is going (i.e. the author, publisher, website).

At stake in these designs is not only the decision of what will be visible or accessible, but also on what standards these definitions of visibility and accessibility rest. When tools such as a paywall establish categories, those categories necessitate the management of conflicting concerns. In the process, certain aspects of the system become more visible than others. In the case of the paywall, the team saw their re-design as an examination and reassignment of power within the “corporate” academic publishing industry. They aimed to provide less expensive ways of accessing the information locked away behind paywalls. However, without first dismantling the publishing industry, their proposal for cheaper and easier information access failed to move beyond a marginalization of the participating authors. Instead, it might reassert certain forms of marginalization. As the PhD student Cindy Schoenberg responded, “Personally, I feel really sad that someone could just take a page from an article that I published, which they’re already doing anyway. But to me the fact that it would be commodified as such would just make it so transparent.” Here, the transparency that the team sought to emphasize became a means for revealing the lack of power of the author. By couching their project in feminist narratives of equal access, they inspired other participants at the workshop to raise issues of control and autonomy in a capitalistic state, asking what the concept of equal pay might look like in a capitalist system.

The proposed designs relate to issues of practical politics, described by Bowker and Star (2000) as having to do with both how standards are negotiated across scales and levels of visibility. Approaching walkways as a structural problem (lacking safe throughways for people with vision impairments), the design team understood standards as running through the built environment. Through discussion and critique, people highlighted difficulties of intervention: how their system would fit within or without already existing infrastructural conventions within crosswalks or paywalls. This included challenges of scale: requiring changes to each publication firewall, service animal training curricula or street intersection within a city.

Feminist Dialogues through Feminist Designs
Stepping back from our workshop encounters, we find the confluence of design and feminist perspectives can yield some interesting fodder for understanding contemporary practice. At times, members used design interventions to express concerns for equality through difference. At other times, members produced technological imaginaries that redefined the actors, practices and institutional structures around them. The people participating in our event examined questions of visibility and change, from shifting notions of gender identity for survey users to the personal and political tactics of facial detection on Tinder. Still, human-centered and problem-oriented goals remained.

Prior design scholarship has construed feminist design as a process of harnessing feminist approaches in technology development. Artists, makers and scholars alike mobilize feminist epistemologies of equality, difference and intersectionality to reimagine existing relations to technology design and use (Alhutter 2012; Bardzell 2010; Bardzell and Bardzell 2011; Toupin 2013, 2014). Our workshop activities, on the other hand, complicated existing relationships to feminism. During discussions, sketches and brainstorming, people exposed multiple feminist legacies underwriting their projects. One woman in her mid-fifties connected feminism with a particular image of equality: “Today everybody gets equal pay. There are no barriers for women.” Another woman saw feminism as “the opportunity to be able to participate in a competitive market, in a safe and ethical fashion.” A third person held feminism as a two-part process: “first of all, equal pay, equal rights. Secondly, women have the right to choose what they want to do […] without the weight and judgment and consequences that men don’t have to pay.” Another woman disagreed: “I think of feminism as being much broader than being just about women, but about all folks. And about having the opportunity to participate and to define for ourself [sic] individually how we want to move through the world.”

These distinct perspectives on feminism introduced new challenges in our design process. Acts of dissolving categories entrenched in standards and classifications offered a response to human-centered accounts of technology development. When stability became less central, people explained technology development in terms of its developments, struggles, and interferences rather than the purpose it served for a person or social system. Through interweaving sometimes incompatible feminist perspectives with design, people participating in our workshops began to transform design’s very practice and purpose.

Yet these interventions also exposed a certain obduracy to teleological design perspectives. Despite highlighting hidden consequences of dating applications and paywalls, surfacing invisible assumptions could also reinforce conventional programs of technology development. Calling for algorithms to classify all faces, or asking Paywalls to make scholarly content visible through commodification emphasizes a distinct end goal (bolstering a user’s satisfaction) over a process of understanding and reimagining technology design (a feminist concern for difference). Returning to Bowker and Star, we find an another example of making visible in order to legitimate the work of marginalized groups like nurses. By increasing visibility, design tools and classification systems may also amplify surveillance or further regulate everyday practice, reinforcing an established order or hierarchy. Despite pressing our ideation toward new ideas of technology production, our inversions continued to live within a productivist imagination. That this conventional design logic became so difficult to overcome suggests a particular strength to the human-centered perspectives written into accounts of technology cultures.  Perhaps in drawing attention to these tensions we may identify alternative methodological pathways from which to grow new feminist encounters. Rather than dissolving dominant design logics, feminist design activities may both re-inscribe and question the strategies they aim to dismantle.


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