It was so good to be in Macau and Shenzhen recently in my role as a member of the Advisory Board of the United Nations University Computing and Society Institute. During my visit, colleagues at the Institute had arranged for me to participate in Teledifusão de Macau (TDM)’s prime time Talk Show with Kelsey Wilhelm. This was a great opportunity to share some of my current thinking about the interface between digital technologies and humans, and Kelsey made sure that it was a lively and fun half hour discussion – really grateful to him for this!
The show is now available on YouTube, and begins with an overview of the current state of ICT for development, before going on to discuss
- ways through which people with disabilities can be empowered through the use of technology,
- the importance of new technologies being inclusive, because otherwise they lead to new inequalities,
- working “with” the poorest and most marginalised rather than for them,
- the role of new technologies such as AI and blockchain in serving the interests of the rich rather than the poor,
- cyborgs and the creation of machine-humans and human-machines, and finally
- some of the ethical issues that need to be discussed if we are to balance the benefits of new technologies whilst limiting their harm.
I very much hope that what I have to say is thought-provoking and interesting. We need much wider public debate on these issues!
I have long pondered about writing on the gendering of language in the field of ICT for Development (ICT4D), but have always hesitated because of the sensitivity of the subject matter. However, I feel that the time is now right to do so following the recent launch of our initiative designed to change the attitudes and behaviours of men in the ICT/tech sector (TEQtogether). This post may offend some people, but I hope not. It is an issue that needs addressing if we are truly to grapple with the complexities of gender in ICT4D.
The way we use language both expresses our underlying cognition of the world, and also shapes that world, especially in the minds of those who read or hear us. My observation is that in the ICT field most writers and practitioners have been blind to this gendering of language, and thus perpetuate a male-dominated conceptualisation of ICT4D. Four very different examples can be used to highlight this:
- The gendering of electronic parts. For a very considerable time, electronic parts have been gendered. Take, for example, male and female connectors. This is summarised graphically in the populist but communal Wikipedia entry on the subject: “In electrical and mechanical trades and manufacturing, each half of a pair of mating connectors or fasteners is conventionally assigned the designation male or female. The “female” connector is generally a receptacle that receives and holds the “male” connector … The assignment is a direct analogy with genitalia and heterosexual sex; the part bearing one or more protrusions, or which fits inside the other, being designated male in contrast to the part containing the corresponding indentations, or fitting outside the other, being designated female. Extension of the analogy results in the verb to mate being used to describe the process of connecting two corresponding parts together”. Not only are different electronic parts gendered, but such gendering leads to an association with heterosexual intercourse – mating. Interestingly, in digital systems, it is usually the male part that is seen as being “active”: keyboards and mice (male) are the active elements “plugged into” a female socket in a computer. Yet, in reality it is the processing power of the computer (perhaps female) that is actually most valued. Moreover, the use of USB “sticks”, often phallic in shape, can be seen as a clear example of this male/female gendering associated with heterosexual sex. The use of such sticks to infect computers with viruses can also, for example, be likened to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in humans. The shift away from the use of such male and female connectors to the increasingly common use of WiFi and Bluetooth can in turn perhaps be seen as one way through which this gendering might be being broken down, although much more research needs to be done to explore the gendering of all aspects of digital technologies.
- The use of language in ICT4D. Far too often the language associated with the use of technology in international development carries with it subconscious, and (hopefully) usually unintended, meanings. In the light of the above discussion, the widely used term “Internet penetration” is, for example, hugely problematic. The “desire” to increase Internet penetration in poorer parts of the world can thus be interpreted as a largely male, north American and European wish sexually to “penetrate” and “conquer” weaker female countries and cultures. Whereas normally countries are “seduced” into accepting such Internet penetration, the forceful and violent approach sometimes adopted can be akin to rape, an analogy that is occasionally applied to the entire process of imperialism and its successor international development when considered to be exploitative of “weaker” countries or economies. The implication of this is not only that great care is needed in the choice of particular words or phrases, but also that the complex subconscious and gendered structures that underlie our understanding of technology and development need to be better understood. For those who think this too extreme a view, why don’t we just talk about the spread of the Internet, or Internet distribution?
- Digital technologies represented by male nouns. At a rather different level, languages that differentiate between male and female nouns often consider ICTs to be male. Thus, a computer is un ordinateur in French, ein Computer in German, un computer in Italian and un ordenador in Spanish. Likewise a mobile phone is un téléphone portable in French, ein Handy in German, un cellurlare in Italian, and un celular in Spanish. Not all ICTs are male (it is, for example, une micropuce for a microchip in French), but it seems that in languages derived from Latin the majority are. The implications of this for the mental construction of technologies in the minds of different cultures are profound.
- Computer code: bits and qubits. Computer code is usually based on a binary number system in which there are only two possible states, off and on, usually represented by 0 and 1. Binary codes assign patterns of binary digits (or bits) to any character or instruction, and data are encoded into bit strings. The notions of male and female are similarly a binary distinction. However, it is now increasingly realised that such a simple binary division of gender and sexuality is inappropriate. The recognition of LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning) identities challenges the traditional notions of binary distinctions that have long held sway in scientific thinking. In particular, it can be seen as being closely isomorphic with many concepts of quantum computing, most notably the use of quantum bits (qubits) that can be in superpositions of states, in which any quantum states can be superposed (added together) to produce another valid quantum state. This fluidity of gender, paralleling new notions in quantum computing, is particularly exciting, and may be one way through which the traditional maleness of ICTs and digital technologies may be fragmented.
These are but four examples of how the language of ICTs can be seen to have been traditionally gendered. They also point to some potential ways through which such gendering might be fragmented, or perhaps changed. For some this will be unimportant, but let me challenge them. If a largely male ICT or digital world is being constructed in part through the way that it is being spoken about (even by women), is it surprising that it is difficult to engage and involve women in the tech sector? If we want to encourage more women into the sector, for all the undoubted skills and benefits that they can bring, then surely we can all rethink our use of language to make the world of ICT4D less male dominated.
Finally, it is good to see that some of these issues are now being considered seriously by academics in a range of fields. For those interested in exploring some of these ideas further, I would strongly recommend that they also read papers on gendering robots such as:
See also the following interesting article from a UK civil service (Parliamentary Digital Service) perspective on gender and language:
And thanks to Serge Stinckwich for sharing this interesting link from the BBC: