Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work

Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work

by Anne Balsamo

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ISBN-13: 9780822392149
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 06/28/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Anne Balsamo is Dean of the School of Media Studies at The New School. She is a co-founder of Onomy Labs, a Silicon Valley technology design and fabrication company that builds cultural technologies. Previously, she was a member of RED (Research on Experimental Documents), a collaborative research group at Xerox PARC that created experimental reading devices and new media genres. She is the author of Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women, also published by Duke University Press.

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designing culture

The Technological Imagination at Work
By anne balsamo

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4445-2

Chapter One

Gendering the Technological Imagination

In 2005 when Lawrence Summers, who was then president of Harvard University, hypothesized that women's lack of "intrinsic aptitude" was a plausible explanation for the imbalance in the numbers of men and women in high-level positions in science and mathematics professions, he demonstrated not only a peculiar disregard for the sensibilities of his audience (he was speaking at an invitation-only conference on women and minorities in the science and engineering workforces), but also a rather simple-minded analysis of a complex social, economic, and technocultural situation. While Summers asserted at the beginning of his speech that he was going to posit three possible hypotheses for the imbalance, by the end of his presentation it was clear that he favored two explanations: that women don't aspire to high-powered jobs (such as those in science and engineering); and that they lack intrinsic aptitude to do these jobs. In short, he put the blame on women for their lack of participation within these professions. In contrast, feminist researchers collectively demonstrate that such a seemingly simple question as why the profession of engineering remains male-dominated in the United States is actually much more complicated to parse, let alone answer. 28 one

When focusing on the issue of head count, it is important to tease out matters of history, opportunity, and preference from matters of discrimination and biological sex differences. Well before we agree that lack of "intrinsic aptitude" is a reasonable cause, we might want to consider the contribution of other factors, including social factors, such as

* the demographic distribution of faculty who teach in engineering programs (Hall and Sandler, 1982);

* the biological reproductive practices of women and men at different ages (Landau, 1991);

* the differing opportunities and life responsibilities taken on by men and women with professional engineering credentials (Rosenfeld, 1984);

* the availability of mentors and female-friendly guides (Rosser, 1990);

* gendered socialization patterns (Cockburn, 1985).

Add to these a variety of institutional factors, such as

* the financial remuneration of engineering faculty at all levels (Fogg, 2000);

* the classroom experiences of female students within engineering programs (Hall and Sandler, 1982);

* the institutional practices and policies that guide professional development in academic programs in engineering and sciences (Matyas and Dix, 1992).

Further, add in several technocultural factors, such as

* the historical creation of the professional engineer as a heroic man (Marvin, 1988);

* mass media representations of women and men in relation to technology (Balsamo, 2000a);

* the gendered narratives that circulate in engineering, science, and mathematics textbooks (Rosser, 1990).

To expand on one line of analysis, a feminist investigator might begin by interrogating the question itself: What is the timeframe of this question? How many women were eligible to be hired as professional scientists and engineers that year or in the immediately preceding years? How long have these professional options been available to them? How do women's aspirations, tastes, and preferences for particular careers manifest as, and within, actual employment situations? For example, during the late 1990s (the years preceding Summers's frame of reference), the growth of women-owned companies increased significantly: according to one source, the number of women-owned firms in the United States increased at twice the rate of all firms (14 versus 7 percent) in the six-year period of 1998–2003. This provides a slightly different context for the interpretation of the numbers of women in engineering positions. When we think about the expanding range of choices women now have for employment and possible career paths, the numbers may say more about the desirability (or lack thereof ) of engineering jobs compared to others. Feminist research into these questions rests on the assumption that some women want to pursue careers in these professions, while others—even those with the appropriate academic credentials—don't. Research in this direction would investigate how women's choices are realized, thwarted, or transformed through the process of professional employment. My point is that even as Summers claimed that his comments were intended to be provocative, by asserting that "you have to be careful in attributing everything to socialization," he failed to demonstrate a nuanced understanding, either of the question or the possible contributing conditions. In lieu of presenting a more complex account that correctly would have challenged the single-cause analysis, which attributes the imbalance solely to differential socialization patterns, he retreated to a more polemical explanation, locating the cause in women's innate inadequacies.

To be fair to Summers, the persistent gender imbalance, in terms of raw numbers, remains an exceedingly difficult phenomenon to understand, let alone to change. Many academic administrators across the United States have been proactive in seeking strategies to enroll more women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. The National Science Foundation (NSF) initiated its first programs to encourage the participation of women in stem research in 1991; by the time of Summers's remarks (2005), it is reasonable to expect that these program investments would have yielded increases in the percentages of women employed in engineering and science professions. During the same time, deans and educators were wringing their hands trying to figure out how to get more women, as well as people from racial and ethic minorities, enrolled in stem programs, and industries were spending considerable effort to attract women as customers, audiences, consumers, and clients of technological goods and services. During the 1990s, several technology makers and retailers shifted considerable marketing resources to focus on the female customer. The electronics industry giant Samsung figured out that the female consumer controls more than fifty percent of domestic electronics purchases. Other players jumped in to address this buying power: Best Buy formulated the "Jill Initiative" to enable the transformation of the working suburban mom into a big-time electronics buyer. The computer company Dell responded by offering device jackets in different colors. Several of the rollicking start-up companies of the 1990s focused their business plans on women as the target consumer for new technological goods and services; two of the more noteworthy included Purple Moon—led by Brenda Laurel—a company that built games for girls and was eventually acquired by Mattel, Inc.; and Her Interactive, Inc., an interactive entertainment company targeting girls of all ages. As efforts designed to address the gender imbalance in technology activities, almost all of these focus attention on the absent, under-consuming, under-producing, abstract female subject. The explanations for her absence vary: some continue to argue that, due to biological factors, women are ill-suited to the demands of technological professions; others assert that it's a consequence of poor socialization (mostly on the part of girls and women; sometimes they remember also to pay attention to the behavior of boys and men). Some posit that technologies don't have enough style. For the most part, though, the discussion fixates on the simple count of female bodies: if we can just get more women into contact with technology, the argument goes, all sorts of good things will happen.

Profit motive aside, the most difficult thing to note about these approaches is that they are not entirely misguided in their intended objectives. It would be interesting—and fair, in a democratic sense—to have more girls and women involved in technology use, development, and research. But their mere presence is not necessarily going to transform the technologies they experience: there is no guarantee that women will do things differently in their engagement with technologies, as consumers, players, or designers. Rather, this belief betrays a biological essentialism that contradicts the accumulated insight of twenty-five years of feminist theory, that gender is a social and cultural enactment. Moreover, this approach, when it is invoked as a way of transforming technology to be more empowering or democratic, ignores the fact that technologies are not mere tools of human agents. As I suggested in the introduction, technologies are not merely objects: they are best understood as assemblages of people, materialities, practices, and possibilities. To transform them requires the employment of a framework that can identify the complex interactions among all these elements. For feminist teachers and scholars, one of the most vexing questions concerns the appropriate posture to assume on the topic of technoculture writ large: how can we support democratic efforts to increase the participation of women, and other underrepresented agents, in the process of technological development, but at the same time avoid a naïve belief in biological, racial, or sexual essentialism?

The Technological Imagination: A Gendered Makeover

As a way to begin to address this question, I turn to a consideration of the technological imagination. As I described in the introduction, this is a mindset and a creative practice of those who analyze, design, and develop technologies. It is an expressive capacity to use what is at hand to create something else. This is a quality of mind that grasps the doubled-nature of technology: as determining and determined, as both autonomous and subservient to human goals. It understands the consequence of technocultural productions and creations from multiple perspectives. It enables a person to understand the broader set of forces that shape the development of new technologies and take account of how these forces might be modified or transformed. More critically, it enables a person to see how emerging technologies get won over to particular ideologies and systems of value, when they could be defined otherwise. Developing this imagination is a necessary step in shifting our collective world-view such that we can evaluate more clearly the path we're on and, more importantly, act ethically in developing the foundation of future technocultures.

As I have argued elsewhere (Balsamo, 2000a), feminists need reliable maps and innovative tools to navigate the technocultural terrain. It is especially important that these maps and tools remain attendant to the dual aims of feminist technoscience studies: to be analytically critical of the social and political consequences of the deployment of scientific knowledge, along with the technological logics and practices that emerge within scientific and technological institutions; and to be steadfastly supportive of, and encouraging to, the women who choose to pursue careers in these fields. The maps we create must be able to guide travelers through rapidly changing landscapes, identify rocky roads and smoother trails, and provide pointers toward destination sites of inspiration. More importantly, we need to provide women guidance in how to do things differently within this landscape. While I am keenly aware that this terrain is uneven and difficult for even the savviest traveler, let alone for those who have been actively discouraged and inadequately trained to use tools and methods, I am also firmly convinced that this territory is exactly where feminists need to venture. I invoke the metaphor of colonizing a terrain consciously and with more than a bit of irony. This territory is far from virgin land; it is, and has always been, populated by geniuses, hero-inventors, renegade hackers, and libertarian technologists. The assumed gender identity of these native inhabitants is male. Feminists know that women too have lived within this territory as geniuses, inventors, hackers, and technologists, but that they have often been invisible as members of the indigenous population. When surveying this territory, most people simply don't see the women who have been there, and are still there, creating significant inventions and innovations.

The first step in gendering the technological imagination is taken in recognizing the persistence of a dominant myth of gender and technology. This myth assigns different roles and values to men's and women's engagement with technology: men are traditionally identified as the idealized and most important agents of technological development, while women are cast as either unfit, uninterested, or incapable. In broad terms, it has been the class of white men who have enjoyed the benefits of formal institutional recognition as agents of the technological imagination. As Autumn Stanley has amply documented, women of all races and ethnicities have been systematically and overtly written out of the historical record of technology development since the mythical beginning.

In an interesting twist of logic, white men who are heralded as hero technologists are subtly degendered: the product of their imaginations is rarely considered to be the expression of a gendered, racialized, and class-based subjectivity or body. Gender, as many feminists have documented, has historically been an attribute of women's work, subjectivity, and bodies. One of the consequences of the degendering of men is that the technological imagination is considered to be without gender. This, of course, is not the case. Women do not bring gender to the technological imagination. Moreover, technology is not a new interest of women: they have always been involved in technocultural innovation, even when institutionally and legally prohibited from being recognized as such. The technological imagination has always been gendered, which is not to say that gender has always been recognized or fully explored as a source of imaginative inspiration.

The next step in gendering the technological imagination is to focus on how things are done differently with technologies, especially as these involve relations with other human beings. The process of doing things differently may be the work of women, but not the expression of essential feminine insight; it may seek different horizons, but not necessarily better ones; it may manifest different values, but not different outcomes. The gendered transformation of the technological imagination is not solely a matter of theory, but a matter of praxis. As much as we try, we will never be able to know in advance how this imagination will be changed by the participation of women (or anyone else, for that matter); its transformation will be evident in what gets enacted.

This is why I am so interested in the notion of designing in its verb form. Designing is a key process of technocultural innovation. It names the practices through which the technological imagination manifests most clearly in the negotiations among people who share an explicit objective of creating new technologies. To say that a given design is a consequence of social negotiations does not mean that technical principles or the material world are irrelevant. The matter of the world too is materialized through the practices of designing. As feminist philosopher and physicist Karen Barad (2003) asserts, "matter does matter." This is not only because the basic building blocks of any technology—what we casually refer to as raw materials—have properties that are non-negotiable, for example they transform at certain temperatures or show stress under certain conditions. Matter matters because the world is always already a plentitude. For any given technology, agency is manifested unevenly by the people who create the device, program it, engineer it, manufacture it, buy it, use it, abuse it, and eventually dispose of it. But agency—defined pragmatically as the ability to affect the technological outcome—is not an exclusive privilege of human beings. In the process of designing, the matter of the world also manifests agency.

While Barad's focus is not specifically on the site of designing, I borrow insights from her work to describe the nature of agency that constitutes designing practice. Before I turn to the implications of her thinking for a consideration of designing practice, let me outline some of her key theoretical moves. Drawing on an epistemology developed by physicist Niels Bohr, Barad elaborates a framework for understanding the nature of agency, materiality, and posthuman performativity that she calls "agential realism." This framework resists the traditional realist ontology that posits an essential distinction between subjects and objects (the material world). Her approach, in contrast to traditional realist ontology, argues that neither subjects nor materiality preexist the interactions that constitute them. Barad (1998: 96) coins the term "intra-action" to "signify the inseparability of 'objects' and 'agencies of observation.' " All distinctions, including those of human, non-human, matter, and materiality are constituted through specific intra-actions. There is no prior distinction between the object that is observed to "be an object" and the activity of observing: intra-actions are primary phenomena. According to Barad, it is through intra-acting that agency manifests, not as property bestowed upon subjects or inherent in their nature, but rather agency materializes through intra-actions that constitute boundaries, demarcations, and distinctions among elements of phenomena. Intra-actions are iterative; they build on one another. She argues (2003: 815) that "it is through specific agenic intra-actions that ... particular embodied concepts become meaningful," and further that "the material and the discursive are mutually implicated in the dynamics of intraactivity" (822), and "outside of particular agenic intra-actions, 'words,' and 'things' are indeterminate" (820). It is through specific agenic intra-actions that the distinction between words and matter is constituted and, presumably, continually reproduced through subsequent intra-actions. At base, she asserts, "matter is always already an ongoing historicity," and "meaning is ... an ongoing performance of the world in its differential intelligibility" (821), but she also insists more than once that "no priority is given to either materiality or discursivity" (825). Matter matters because it "plays an active role in its iterative materialization" (826). It is not the passive natural world that is brought into being through cultural practices. In this, Barad firmly refutes the nature/culture dualism that would posit the prior existence of one or the other: both nature and culture are constituted through agenic intra-actions. She suggests that technologies materialize through the "intra-actions of a multitude of practices."


Excerpted from designing culture by anne balsamo Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents of vii

Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Taking Culture Seriously in the Age of Innovation 1

1. Gendering the Technological Imagination 27

2. The Performance of Innovation 51

3. Public Interactives and the Design of Technological Literacies 95

4. Designing Learning: The University as a Site of Technocultural Innovation 133

Conclusion. The Work of a Book in a Digital Age 185

Notes 199

Bibliography 255

Index 279

Women of the World Talk Back: An Interactive Multimedia Documentary (enclosed dvd)

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