«Children& CENTER Technology The Maternal Voice in the Technological Universe CCT REPORTS Issue No. 6 May 1996 Prepared by: Margaret Honey This report ...»
The Maternal Voice
Issue No. 6
This report previously appeared in
Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey & Meryle
Mahrer Kaplan, Eds. (1994) Representations of
Motherhood. Yale University Press: New Haven.
CCT Reports / No. 6 May 1996
When I think about the world of technology, I think about a world that is rigidly gendered; that is, a world that is the exclusive province of men and is governed by a form of logic that is abstract, calculable, and depersonalized. To my way of thinking, the technological universe is characterized by a type of rationality that in certain schools of thought is known as instrumental, in which the means are divorced from the ends or the ends from the means and there is a preoccupation with issues of domination and control. These are the negative images I have. I also have images that might be characterized as envious and somewhat desirous — in this respect, the technological universe is powerful, tough-minded and strong. People who have entered this universe have the goods; that is, they have something I don’t have, but I want. As a result, they are decidedly different from me — they have succeeded in gaining access to a world that remains attractively Other.
There are other domains that are similar to the world of technology. For example, sports — I place games like football and basketball in this same category — the military is another example, or the world of high finance, and I could probably go on and on. I tend to think of such worlds as phallic universes — this is my shorthand and it means something quite specific. They are worlds that systematically exclude the maternal, they are indifferent to personal needs, and they banish values such as nurturance and care to the privatized domestic world of the home. The phallic universe is characterized by a slippery amalgam of means and ends — winning is everything and yet when victory is not realized the means are quickly accorded their own triumphant status. And yet, as I’ve said above, these phallic universes also signify power, potency, and prestige and in this respect they remain a source of envy.
Background Historical approaches to the study of women’s involvement with technology have focused on the ways in which women have been at the mercy of technology rather than being empowered users or creators of technology, or contributors toward technological change (McGaw, 1982;
Wright, 1987). During the 1970’s and 80’s, however, women entered the skilled end of the computer industry in increasing numbers. As of 1990 women held 32.4% of the systems analysts jobs, 41.1% of the jobs in operations and systems, and made up 35.7% of our nation’s mathematical and computer scientists (Frankel, 1990). Despite these in-roads, computer science continues to be a professional arena which is perceived and experienced as hostile to women (Pearl, et. al., 1990).
For the past several years a group of us at Bank Street’s Center for Children and Technology1 have been doing research on adult technology experts.2 Our inquiry was designed to counter traditional deficit model
In her research on programming styles, Sherry Turkle has written extensively about the ways in which the dominant computer culture — the world of culturally produced meanings — supports and legitimates a certain way of appropriating technology which she characterizes as “hard mastery.” As Turkle (1984) describes it, “Hard mastery is the imposition of will over the machine through the implementation of a plan. A program is the instrument of premeditated control” (p. 104). For the hard master, there is a perfect fit between the cultural promise of technology and its personal realization, and it is this fit that allows for the articulation of personal desires that are more often than not divided along gender lines.
Soft mastery, on the other hand, is more like the “give-and-take” of conversation, rather than imposing ideas on the machine, ideas emerge and evolve through the process of interaction. As a cultural practice, however, this kind of conversation with technology is not privileged; and as Turkle’s work documents, when women attempt to appropriate technology they more often then not find themselves in situations of conflict. Hence, the woman who assumes that if she does something wrong with her computer it will explode in her face.
In a different but related domain, Carol Cohn (1987), a feminist scholar and peace activist, writes about the discursive culture of defense intellectuals — those individuals who articulate the theory that both informs and legitimates America’s nuclear arms policies. Cohn was one of a group of college teachers who attended a summer workshop on nuclear weapons, nuclear strategic doctrine, and arms control. Her involvement in the summer institute led her to undertake an analysis of the language of this culture — a language she calls technostrategic. Cohn not only documents the obvious and expected aspects of this culture, such as the use of phallic and gender-laden imagery (long discussions took place on the relative value of different “penetration aids” or how to “get more bang for your buck”), but she also analyzes the more subtle and less transparent role that the language of strategic defense analysts plays in masking the
reality of nuclear death and devastation. As Cohn writes:
In the ever-friendly world of nuclear weaponry, enemies “exchange” warheads; one missile “takes out” another; weapons “marry up”; “coupling” is sometimes used to refer to the wiring between mechanisms of warning and response, or to the psychopolitical links between strategic (intercontinental) and theater (European-based) weapons. The patterns in which a MIRVed missile’s nuclear warheads land is known as a “footprint.” These nuclear explosives are not dropped; a “bus” “delivers” them.
(1987, p. 698)
would sound like, we were fairly certain they would not sound like women. We thought we would hear them engage in a kind of hyperlogical talk; we imagined they would stride efficiently through our interviews in a clean and concise manner. We were thus surprised when we began to hear echoes of a different kind of discourse — one that was distinctly maternal in tone.4 The Research We conducted 28 in-depth interviews with women (17) and men (11) who were deeply engaged in computer related activities. The interviews were carried out with programmers, computer engineers, computer scientists, and aerospace engineers. They worked in industry and in private and public research and development centers, as well as for hardware manufacturers and software development houses. The women ranged in age from 21 to 44, and the men from 27 to 39.
One of the questions that we explored in-depth with our interviewees was what excited or compelled them about the nature of their work. Both the women and men talked about deriving pleasure from the processes that their work involves. They described their enjoyment in the routines of their work, the problem-solving, and the detail work that computer programming often entails. However, when the women spoke about being compelled by the process of work, they also spoke about getting pleasure out of problems or processes that circled around someone else’s enjoyment, involvement and delight. Their orientation was distinctly interpersonal — the pleasure they found in their work came from embedding technology in the larger context of human relationships and human interactions. The men, in contrast, were much more likely to talk about the immense enjoyment they derived from the technology itself.
They described the pleasure they got out of working on particularly complex technical problems — problems that moved them further away from the user toward the technology itself.
My colleague, Jan Hawkins (1990, 1991), first called attention to these distinctly different perspectives in terms of the what she called the aesthetics of understanding. Drawing on the work of aesthetic philosophers, she has characterized the difference between men’s and women’s orientations as opaque and transparent, respectively. In her interpretation, the men tend to get arrested by the technological devices themselves, whereas the women tend to see through the objects to the larger context of human interactions.
In this paper I will explore this issue from another perspective — one which is grounded simultaneously in an analysis of the discourse of technological culture and the work of psychoanalytically oriented feminist
people. What is compelling about the computer-based technologies with which they work are the possibilities for communication and exchange between people that they can facilitate. Words like exciting, thrilling, and fantastic are used to describe the technologies’ capacity to bring people together. Metaphors that have to do with creating and fostering
connections are also used to describe their enjoyment in their work:
building, interfacing, and hooking are the capacities of the technology that are talked about. Encountering the unexpected is also a source of pleasure, particularly when it leads to an unanticipated exchange between individuals.
The portrait that these women paint is expansive in tone, and we are left with an image of technology as possibility — as something that can expand and enhance the range of communicative activities among people.
There is a surprising absence of “tech talk” — there is no mention of file transfer protocols, satellite hook-ups, internet access, or TCP/IP connections, or any number of terms that role off people’s tongues when they are talking about telecommunications technologies.5 Rather than calling attention to their knowledge of complicated and sophisticated technical undertakings, these women choose to emphasize the communicative and relational capacity of the technology.
My day to day activity is much more focussed on how do we get the technology into our place. And that is not as driven with the technology being an exciting part — it’s the capability that it brings to you, I mean, getting that machine in, the new machine in, is very exciting, because it has additional capability. It’s not
satisfaction. These women talk about making technology less hard. Their goal is to make technological objects friendlier and more conversant with peoples’ needs. And they derive genuine pleasure from witnessing other people’s satisfaction in their work. The impression one gets is that these women want to turn technological objects into companionable partners — helpmates that will genuinely improve the quality of human life.
In terms of the things that are most satisfying about my job, they’re probably more people things than technology things, in that, like I really enjoyed running the conference I ran, this week. I like being the person who sees what things fit together and which groups of people should talk to each other. I like having a sense of what the technology’s good for, but in fact don’t get tremendously turned on by making that be real, myself. (40, computer scientist, software company) Hmm, there’s a lot of things that I like, to narrow it down to one would be hard. I guess off the top of my head one thing I enjoy doing — something that I’ve been doing today — and that’s at the initial conception of a concept, of an idea, try and find the different people I need to talk to and gather the information necessary. I enjoy that — I also enjoy on the other hand, once there is a problem sitting down and actually stepping it out — how logically does this problem get solved — not as much in the big picture at that stage, but more of the specifics of sitting down and saying, ‘OK I need to read from a file, how do I do that.’ So I like the broad picture when it’s with people and I like the very specific picture when it’s with the computer. (26, knowledge engineer, industry) I guess that I think of them in two categories. One is things that I actually physically myself do at the computer. So, for example, I kind of like debugging software. If a programmer says “okay, here’s a new version, try it out,” and I have a data set that I’ve been working with and I try it out and something works a little bit
ever actually done this task. It’s sort of like I go into it knowing it’s possible, and then kind of spending enough time with the information until it sinks in — what would be needed to get done, and then have it be done and be able to feel the difference between when I thought I would never figure this out and then when I have.
I mean, I think that’s why I’ve succeeded at this stuff, at some point along the line I succeeded at some point, and understood that if I spent long enough figuring it out, I would get it. (43, programmer, software company) Anytime my program doesn’t work, it’s a problem I enjoy solving.
And I get particular satisfaction when I’ve worked really hard on a problem and gotten discouraged, and wanted to get help, and I didn’t get help, and I ended up solving it myself. That’s very satisfying to me. So it isn’t so much any particular kind of problem, cause all the problems I work on seem to be, I mean, they’re similar. (36, programmer, software company) It’s like the flow physics is what I get into - what I’ve been working on is like vertical take-off aircraft. The harriers that take off from - straight up. What I’ve been doing with this is, there’s a specific part, the lift jets, that I’ve been looking at. And instead of putting in a whole aircraft, you put in one very, just the lift jet and a flat surface that sort of resembles this plane, and look at just like the physics that make this things work, that nobody really understands all the small-scale features of this flow, we really don’t