Technology Beyond Binarism: He, She, or Cyborg?

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Biotechnological experiments that virtualize human identity see gender as a limiting constraint to our potential.

by Beatrys Rodrigues cover Bodai translated by Pronoia Tradutória

Leonardo Da Vinci, Graham Bell, Mark Zuckeberg, and Bill Gates. All invented technologies that are important to society today. What do they have in common?

They demonstrate a lack of diversity in technology

Even with the growing and progressive inclusion of women in the labor market, in addition to notable female contributions, the image associated with engineers, inventors and developers is still fundamentally masculine.

Women have always been associated with the creation of life, the biblical Eve, and nature. Even in Greek mythology, Hera, Hestia, Demeter and Persephone counterpose Hephaestus and Ares, who deal with the artificial, with that which is humanly created. While men are considered naturally rational, women are considered naturally emotional. While men are seen as dominant over nature, creating the artificial, women are associated with the natural and biological. It is not surprising that technology does not immediately evoke the “feminine”, because on a symbolic level, their connotations are opposed.

Jesper Hilding Klausen
Jesper Hilding Klausen

“A fundamental way that gender is expressed in any society is through technology. Technical skills and areas of expertise are divided between and within the sexes, molding masculinity and femininity.” — Judy Wajcman

The creation of technology also falls within this logic, favoring certain ideologies or representations and usually related to the majority groups that are part of their conception and use. Thus, those who create the devices used by much of the population are immersed in a technoculture that incorporates these dualistic values. This explains the existence of technologies that disregard the needs of women, or use derogatory stereotypes.

O Homem de 6 Milhões de Dólares, Robocop, Eu, Robo e O Homem Bicentenário: os ciborgues ficcionais mais famosos são figuras masculinas, duráveis, ágeis e inteligentes. Já robôs femininos como Rosie, realizam tarefas domésticas.
The 6 Million Dollar Man, Robocop, I, Robot, and The Bicentennial Man: all of the most famous fictional cyborgs are male figures; durable, agile, and intelligent. Female robots like Rosie perform household chores.

In his book The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, researcher Clifford Nass explains that people relate to their voice-activated personal assistants the same way they relate to other people. “Female voices are seen, on average, as less intelligent than male voices”. The choice of a female voice therefore makes the user more “forgiving” of possible deficiencies in the voice recognition system.

These assistants are like virtual secretaries: a role of subjugation, historically performed by women. In order to please a vast marketing system, they are designed to be as universal as possible - and this reinforces the hegemonic stereotypes of femininity.
Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Google Now possuem nomes, vozes e se comunicam usando pronomes femininos.
Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Google Now have female names and voices, and communicate using feminine pronouns.

Beyond dualism

Despite the predominance of sexism in the technological environment, growing connectivity and access to information technologies is opening space for experimentation, inclusivism, and questioners. Tools such as Oculus Rift and sensory chips, for example, make it possible to literally look through the eyes of another person or feel the sensations that they are feeling on your own skin.

BeAnotherLab, a group of students from Barcelona, have sought to emulate a “body swap” using virtual reality

“The Internet has become an important social laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of self that characterize postmodern life” — Sherry Turkle, researcher at MIT

These processes blur the lines between the real and the virtual, between cyber and human. In addition to the empathy provided by these digital practices, the ability to build completely new representations through 3D or virtual reality offers a way to break old dichotomous paradigms. Games such as Second Life, for example, enable people to experiment with different types of subjectivity, personification, and identity.

After all, how can a male over female hierarchy continue to make sense if it is possible to move between them so easily? In a connected world, traditional hierarchies are replaced by horizontal, diffuse, flexible networks.
3D fotorealístico do Lukas Hajka
Photorealistic 3D image by Lukas Hajka

In 1985, Donna Haraway proposed the creation of a cyborg – a hybrid of human and machine – as a new representation that would change current gendered perspectives. Old dichotomies would succumb to the new image of the cyborg: the natural and the artificial would be merged, creating a new being composed of organic and inorganic matter. It would be a way of thinking fictionally about a future without dualist impositions. Fiction, in this context, acts as a catalyst and a way of promoting different perspectives on the relationship between humans and science and technology.

“An emancipatory politics of technology requires more than hardware and software; it needs wetware – bodies, fluid, human agency.” — Judy Wajcman

With the use of computers that virtualize human identity, the capabilities of the body have increased, even enabling reproduction regardless of the sex of the progenitor. The multiplicity of human representation is increasingly strengthened through the use of technology.

The process of human-machine integration could allow humanity to acquire capabilities beyond what is biologically possible. We have already had the chance to observe this revolutionary potential through the increased agency of reproduction – which has been empowering. As a result of the exponential possibilities of biotechnological development, gender will come to be considered a limiting constraint on human potential, and we can imagine a future where gender ceases to be imposed upon us and becomes a choice.

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