Race, Gender, and Technology: Why Definitions Matter

Trash it, change it, melt-upgrade it…

What exactly is technology? It isn’t a particularly difficult philosophical question, and if you’ve given the matter any thought you probably settled on a definition something like this one: Technology is any object, technique, or other construct which is used to manipulate the world for human benefit. This very broad definition appears essential as soon as you try to draw any sort of line between human activities which constitute technology, and human activities that do not. We would all probably agree that an electric stove is an example of a cooking technology. If this is the case, then surely a gas range must also fall into that category, as would a wood-stove, and even a fire pit. It is impossible to choose any point along this progression where it is reasonable to say that everything on one side is technology, and everything on the other side is not. My shoes, the International Space Station, and the naan bread I’m going to eat tonight must all therefore be understood as equally valid examples of technology.

This definition might be philosophically rigorous, but it isn’t exactly congruent with the popular definition of technology. The frontpage of the r/technology subreddit demonstrates what I mean by this. It currently contains nine stories about cars, five about consumer electronics, two about social media websites, two about software, one about internet infrastructure, two about internet piracy, one about robotics, one about gaming, one about spacecraft, and one about superconductors. If this is any guide, then it seems that our contemporary definition of technology excludes anything which does not involve an internal combustion engine, or digital electronics.

The word “technology” comes from the Ancient Greek “Techne”, and since we have yet to find any treatises by Aristotle on smartphones, it seems that it was at some point redefined. There is, it turns out, a strong argument to be made that this redefinition process was the result of nineteenth-century ideas about class, race and gender. During the industrial revolution, it was primarily the job of white men to run and maintain the machines of industry. Racial minorities and women, meanwhile, tended to be involved with domestic or agricultural labour. This gendered and racialized subset of technological knowledge thus came to dominate we currently understand to be technology. In fact, if you take the statistics cited in these articles seriously, technology as we understand it is still at least partially restricted to white men.

I’m not the first person to notice that high-tech employment is somewhat restricted to the privileged, of course. And campaigns to make technological careers more accessible are worthy of support. I think we should also consider the reverse, though: “low-tech” work that is sometimes reserved for less privileged groups should be afforded a greater amount of respect, and be seen as fields for exciting innovations in their own right. If I am right about this, then the definition of technology, far from being a purely etymological matter, actually holds profound importance for how we approach problems. It is becoming increasingly fashionable to search for fixes for major problems such as climate change or third-world poverty that fall within our narrow understanding of ‘technology’. If we restrict our range of potential solutions to only things with wires and chips and engines, then we are limiting our potential for useful action. Perhaps that’s why the US military is now developing this ridiculous thing, which is basically a really expensive pack animal with a limited battery life.

For a more a slightly more relevant example, consider Google’s self-driving car, which has already undertaken several road trips around California. This is definitely a neat trick, and it has been suggested that autonomous vehicles could have an important impact on carbon emissions. What many fail to realize, however, is that we already effectively have fleets of self-driving cars on streets all around the world. They are called buses. Of course, Google’s car has certain advantages of privacy and convenience over buses, which are also hampered by a certain social stigma, but buses still serve the same basic function of allowing people to go places without having to operate a motor vehicle. What if, instead of waiting for Google or somebody else to perfect a self-driving car, we found ways to make buses faster, more efficient, and more comfortable? Or what if we abandoned motor vehicles entirely and found ways to make pedal-powered transportation more feasible and more appealing for a wider number of people (e-bikes show some promise here, and this guy found a way to make bicycles of of cardboard). What if we considered ways to revolutionize and reinvigorate walking as a form of transportation? None of these things would attract much notice as examples of revolutionary technology, but they are all potential ways to solve a major problem, and they are deserving of consideration.

For another example, consider the tsetse fly and the sleeping sickness it inflicts on both humans and livestock. A bias towards high-tech and scientific thinking led to a decades-long and ultimately fruitless search for a vaccine for sleeping sickness. The low-tech approach of spraying cattle with insecticide turned out to be a far more effective use of the available resources. The Zimbabwe Bush Pump, meanwhile, is an important innovation for alleviating water scarcity in the developing world, yet contains no electronics and requires no fuel. The bush pump is hand-cranked, made of iron and concrete, and has a hinge made of wood soaked in oil. It is rugged, simple, and easily repairable with the materials at hand, and it has done more to get water to people who need it than contraptions like this one ever have.

My point here is that our narrow understanding of technology, constructed based on racism and sexism, limits the kinds of solutions that we can get excited about. If we limit the kinds of visions that can be compelling, to shiny electronics, big machines, and internal combustion engines, then we limit the kinds of solutions that are plausible. In solving the multiple severe problems our modern society faces, we should able to enthusiastically employ a complete arsenal of tools ranging from aerospace engineering to cooking, while recognizing the importance and value of each. If we change our understanding of technology to include all these things, it will help correct two injustices: It will eliminate a little bit of racial and gender discrimination from our vocabulary, and it might provide a few new options to solve problems as well.

Further Reading:

Lerman, N.E., 2010. “Categories of Difference, Categories of Power: Bringing Gender and Race to the History of Technology” Technology and Culture 51: 4. pp. 893-918.

Zylstra, F.D., 2011. “Whiteness, Freedom, and Technology: The Racial Struggle over Philadelphia Streetcars” Technology and Culture 52: 4. pp. 678-702.

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