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Technically Female: Women, Machines, and Hyperemployment
Femininity, Technologies, Work
In an advert for Recognition Equipment in 1966, a young woman with a charming smile places an arm around her male colleague’s shoulder, and rests her head gently against him as he tries to read some very serious and important paperwork. The tagline declares, ‘Our optical reader can do anything your key punch operators do. (Well, almost.)’ It’s limitations? The copy informs us that the machine ‘can’t use the office for intimate tête-à-têtes’ or ‘be a social butterfly’. All it can do is its job, reading and computing data at the rate of ‘2400 typewritten characters a second’. Another, published a year later, and quite clearly a sequel to the first, uses the same tagline, this time accompanied by an image of a heavily pregnant blonde. Unlike this woman, we are told, Recognition Equipment’s office technologies ‘can’t take maternity leave. Or suffer from morning sickness. Or complain about being tired all the time.’ It should be clear to the viewer which of these things is more useful to have around the office.
A contemporaneous advert for Optical Scanning Corporation’s Digitek 70 takes a similar approach to hawking workplace kit. The top half of the page is taken up with black and white photographs of women’s body parts – slender legs sitting or standing (presumably around the office), and female mouths in the act of talking. The copy asks the reader, ‘What has sixteen legs, eight waggly tongues and costs you a least $40,000 a year?’ The answer, of course, is eight female workers, who can be conveniently replaced by a single Digitek 70 optical reader. A slightly earlier example further reinforces this message: in a 1962 advert for General Telephone, we see an illustration of a bespectacled executive presenting his telephone answering set with a bouquet of roses. The tagline above informs us that ‘He’s in love with his Electronic Secretary’. There are various other promotional texts that perform a similar rhetorical maneuver. These adverts point particularly to the trouble with female employees – their errant embodiment, their capacity to distract and be distracted, their irritating habits of sociability and maternity. They also point toward the idea of the clerical worker (typically white, cis-gendered, and middle class, not to mention female) as an unsophisticated device for saving male managerial labour – a device that is liable for upgrading and replacement by newly available office technologies. In these adverts, the new technological apparatus assumes (often in quite literal ways) the position of the secretary. Technology becomes her.
The histories of machines, femininity, and waged labour have long been understood as deeply entangled and mutually constitutive. This merging of woman, machine, and work is taken in a new direction in the twenty-first century, with the advent of the “digital assistant”. These applications are knowledge navigators, available as part of various operating systems, which recognise natural speech, and use this ability to help answer user’s queries and to aid in organizational tasks, such as scheduling meetings or setting reminders. Perhaps the most famous of these is Apple’s Siri – now widely recognised as the voice of the iPhone – but there are several others, including GoogleNow and Microsoft’s Cortana, all of which perform similar functions with varying degrees of efficiency. The connections between these digital assistants and the conventions of low-status clerical work are obvious; Microsoft even went so far as to interview human PAs whilst developing Cortana, and a reviewer from Wired magazine declared that using Siri is: ‘kind of like having the unpaid intern of my dreams at my beck and call, organizing my life for me’ (Chen, 2011: n.p.). These apps represent, in many respects, the automation of what has been traditionally deemed to be women’s labour.
Feminized Labour, Technologized Labour
A recent billboard ad reads: ‘Meet Cortana. She not only learns and remembers what you like, she can also provide reminders based on you location and contacts. All you have to do is ask.’ Even if one is aware of the campaign’s intertextual reference to a videogame character – the feminized AI from Microsoft’s Halo series – this use of pronouns is still likely to register as highly conspicuous. Such gender markers associated with Cortana and other apps further emphasise the association with the so-called “feminized labour” of clerical and service work. Though various voice settings are available – including a much overlooked man-bot version of Siri – digital assistants are usually advertised with female voices. They are often referred to as ‘she’ in consumer reviews, technology blogs, and marketing materials.
On the one hand, we can view this gendering of the digital assistant as being very much on a par with wider trends in the contemporary sonic landscape; as Nina Power has pointed out, the contemporary city environment in particular is full of ‘often-pre-recorded, disembodied, sometimes rather robotic, recognisably or attributably female’ voices. We hear them on urban transport systems, we hear them on the self-checkout facilities at the supermarket, and so on. Power calls this ubiquitous aural tick the ‘logical vocal daughter of the switch-board operator’, and points to a negative correlation between the rise of these recordings of female voices and the representation or recognition of actual women’s interests in the public sphere. In other words, her work suggests that there is a tension between different ideas of what it means for a woman’s voice to be heard – the literal and over-heard femmebot voice versus an under-listened to political voice. Indeed, the entanglement of disembodied female voices with issues of exclusion or under-representation may be more direct than Power suggests; some commentators have claimed that the use of female voices in, for example, navigation devices ‘dates back to World War II, when women’s voices were used in airplane cockpits because they stood out among the male aviators’. Women’s voices have historically been used to issue instructions, then, precisely because women themselves have not been around to be heard.
In some ways, to point out that digital assistants are gendered is to make a very obvious point – many of us are more than aware that Siri, for example, is feminized, and many of us are likely already acclimatized to the gendering of virtual service work. Indeed, in her discussion of an earlier generation of ‘virtual assistants’ (specifically, the customer service bots on early noughties websites), the critic Eva Gustavsson notes a demonstrable preference for feminized avatars. She dismisses this as ‘the unreflecting result of an ambition to mimic circumstances in offline service realities’; help-bots are portrayed as young and female, in other words, because customer service workers in general are young and female. However, she also makes some pertinent comments about the role of expectation here – comments that work to foreground the notion of so-called ‘feminized labour.’ Gustavsson suggests that the preference for this kind of gendered avatar is ‘rooted in the stereotyped image of women as being, by nature, more suited for service work’ and emotional labour than men are. She also claims that ‘The stereotyped image of female service providers has its basis in the stereotyped image of female qualities. […] Such a stereotypical female image of caring, empathy and altruistic behaviour has become a standard component in a service script’.
By this account, service work is positioned as feminized labour (and service bots become femmebots) not simply because women make up the majority of the workforce, but because the image of the sector is itself feminized; that is, it is associated with qualities traditionally coded as feminine. Indeed, this is not just true of customer service; many contemporary understandings of feminized labour gesture towards trends in the global labour market that can be linked to the dominance of a socially gendered skill set – a compelling but problematic idea that we will be revisiting in further detail as this essay progresses. Both service work and clerical work, then, have conventionally been designated as feminine, and this distinctive gendered history has arguably been part of the reason for the prevalence of femininized digital assistants. We are witnessing the protocols of femininity being programmed into machines, as ‘feminized labour’ becomes technologized labour. Many of us are at home with the idea of women in these kinds of roles, and as such think nothing of it when we encounter technological interfaces that are clearly coded as female. But it is important to remember that the presence of these feminine machine voices – their proliferation to the point of near cultural invisibility – was never a foregone conclusion.
In fact, when we look back to the earliest moments in the development of these technologies, we encounter very different ideas about how best to programme them. The company behind the original Siri app, for example, seriously debated the possibility of a gender-neutral voice, whilst Apple’s early visions of knowledge navigation systems sounded very different from the digital assistants we know today. In a work of speculative corporate advertising from the late 80s, for example, Apple’s knowledge navigator is given a male voice and avatar. The ad, which looks forward to 2009 in order to imagine the intelligent assistant of the future, shows this technology in the hands of an eminent white male professor in an expansive, mahogany-clad office. This professionalized version of the digital assistant acts as a research assistant, an academic librarian, and an information manager, rather than as a personal secretary. The avatar even features that classic signifier of nerdy expertise, the bow tie. This masculinised software is shown performing some clerical and organizational tasks (giving the professor phone messages from his students and his mother, locating old files, managing his diary and so on), but the shift in emphasis between this vision of a twenty-first century workplace technology and today’s more multi-modal knowledge navigators is clear.
Whilst Siri, Cortana, and GoogleNow are marketed as tools for both personal organization and interpersonal connection (reminding users to call their spouses, sending birthday messages, helping people to identify people they know in the street), the 1987 Apple Knowledge Navigator is flagged up as a protective barrier between the male professor and the domestic sphere. Indeed, whilst the digital assistant in the advert has both a masculine voice and a male visage, we encounter an early spectre of the contemporary re-gendered Siri lurking in the form of the disembodied mother. This is the lone voice from the forgotten space of social reproduction, which surfaces in the form of messages and reminders about a surprise family birthday party. Fortunately, the knowledge navigator manages to catch and screen these messages, better allowing the male professional to repeatedly ignore them and get on with the work of being a genius. The mother, and all that is associated with her, remains literally obscene (in the sense of being off-the-scene) for the duration of the commercial. What is clear, though, is the continuing affinity between woman and machine here. The professor’s mother – in calling to issue reminders, prompts, and guidance – performs functions aligned with those of the high tech Apple software. Yet, whilst proto-Siri is an example of human mastery over knowledge, the mother is little more than an annoyance to be managed.
So, this is one under recognised element of Siri’s genealogy; the phone call making mother (just as much as the switchboard operator, the workplace secretary, and the customer service bot) is part of the digital assistant mix. But to recognise this raises a number of issues; first of all, it is important to emphasise that the boundaries between the spheres of production and reproduction are not at all clear-cut. As materialist feminists have long been aware, the traditional care giving activities associated with domesticity are part and parcel of preparing the body and mind of the wage labourer for work. This may extend to things like personal organization, moral support, and even preparing documents. And conversely, the duties that have fallen to the traditional secretary bleed into those associated with social reproduction. The personal assistant frequently finds him- or herself conducting a form of corporatized care work, including providing for the sustenance of the body in the form of teas, coffees and lunch orders, as well as making dentists’ appointments, picking up dry cleaning, paying personal bills, and so on.
Indeed, in his classic study White Collar: The American Middle Classes, C. Wright Mills characterizes the senior personal secretary as follows: ‘She is the mature woman, efficient in her job, suppressing her love for her married boss, to whom she makes herself indispensable, doing the housework of his business’. It is interesting to note, then, that many of the ads for digital assistants show them performing the kind of personal services commonly associated with the hybridized figure of the ‘office wife’ – work at the impossible-to-maintain (non)boundary between production and social reproduction, waged labour and care work. We see the technologies flagging up birthdays and anniversaries, for example, or reminding the male user to buy flowers. Emotional labour that was once, amongst a certain class of the privileged, outsourced to both secretaries and wives is now outsourced to electronic devices.
Social Reproduction and Hyperemployment
This brings us to the topic of ‘hyperemployment.’ What do we mean by this term? Hyperemployment is an idea, advanced by Ian Bogost, which links contemporary technological developments with a qualitative and quantitative change in personal workloads. His argument is that technology – far from acting in a labour-saving capacity – is in fact generative of ever more tasks and responsibilities. As Bogost puts it in an article for The Atlantic:
It’s easy to see email as unwelcome obligations, but too rarely do we take that obligation to its logical if obvious conclusion: those obligations are increasingly akin to another job—or better, many other jobs. For those of us lucky enough to be employed, we’re really hyperemployed—committed to our usual jobs and many other jobs as well. It goes without saying that we’re not being paid for all these jobs, but pay is almost beside the point, because the real cost of hyperemployment is time. We are doing all those things others aren’t doing instead of all the things we are competent at doing. And if we fail to do them, whether through active resistance or simple overwhelm, we alone suffer for it: the schedules don’t get made, the paperwork doesn’t get mailed, the proposals don’t get printed, and on and on.
So, Bogost is talking about the unremunerated labour we are now obliged to take on ourselves, which other people once performed for pay. In some ways, this is a comment about the redistribution of clerical labour in the face of downsizing, cuts, or profit maximization for organizations, as well as increased workloads and suppressed pay for administrators. Activities that were once within the remit of specialized roles have now been spread across a wider spectrum of the population, as various services have been dismantled. And to be clear, Bogost’s discussion encompasses not just workplace email, but many other kinds of technologically mediated tasks as well – from electronic time cards and expense reports for our employers, to any online communication and organization we might need to perform for our households, to the mundane micro-labour associated with user-generated content for sites like Facebook and Twitter. When we take our own blood pressure at the doctors, or issue our own books at the library, or check out our own groceries – when we perform any of these newly individualized tasks, which would once have been undertaken by paid workers – all of this testifies to a state of hyperemployment. As such, we can be hyperemployed even if we are out of work (and indeed, the amount of form filling, appointment organizing, and self-assessment required from job seekers suggests that it is hard to be unemployed without being in a constant state of hyperemployment).
Despite the range of this discussion, however, it is the spectre of contemporary waged labour which looms largest over Bogost’s analysis, as reflected by his insistence that ‘we work increasingly hard for increasingly little, only to come home to catch up on the work we can’t manage to work on at work’. Waged labour – in the form of actual paid work or in the form of the dynamics of paid work – is infiltrating the home; work is weighing rather too heavily on the work-life balance, and information and communication technologies are increasingly enabling us to bring the office with us wherever we go – or, better put, preventing us from ever leaving the office wherever we go. The feminist Cristina Morini similarly gestures towards this idea, pointing to the ‘home office or the domestication of work which delineates the new home landscape of work’. For Morini, ‘Private life and working life are combined inside domestic spaces and the two environments are mutually transformed into hybrids’ prompting her to ask: ‘Does the house expand to encompass working arrangements themselves, or, conversely, does work invade an intimate and protected area?’ These comments are very telling, because they point to one of the limitations of this idea of hyperemployment.
It appears as if Bogost is assuming the existence of distinct spheres here, with the sphere of production sullying and encroaching upon the sphere of reproduction. For various reasons, however, this distinction – the existence of which is asserted in this implicit account of its breaching – does not hold. For some, the home has long been experienced as a place of work – namely, for working class women, minority ethnic women, and other socially and economically disenfranchised women. The home is also a well-established site of labour for women in full-time employment. The home is not so much a ‘protected area’, as Morini suggests, as an additional workplace and the backdrop of an unwaged second (or third, or nth…) shift. The concept of hyperemployment ‘extends beyond social media and e-mail and is really a form of housework and maintenance for our daily lives’.
As Karen Gregory notes, calling the ‘arrangement between digital technologies, data economies, and invisible labor “employment” runs the danger of side-stepping the deeper (gendered and racialized) antagonisms inherent in the distinction between what is considered labor and what is considered “care”’. Indeed, she argues, perhaps what ‘Bogost is drawing attention to has less to do with “employment” than with the uneven redistribution and privatization of the labor of social reproduction, an antagonism that feminist theorists have been writing about for more than thirty years’. It’s worth noting that a lot of the work Bogost refers to when outlining the idea of hyperemployment is labour that we might typically think of as performed by wives and mothers – a certain subset of whom may well, as a result of shifts in gendered labour patterns, now be engaged in waged labour outside the home when in previous eras they might not have been.
Of course, for those who can afford it, some second shift work can be outsourced and offloaded onto paid employees. Many elements of housework and care work have not been technologised but merely ‘redistributed on the shoulders of different subjects through its commercialisation and globalisation’. As the participation of women in waged work in the global North has increased, a portion of housework has been marketised and displaced onto low paid workers – often women from the South and from former socialist countries. The figures of the non-native cleaner or nanny exemplify this. We cannot forget, though, that the globalisation of domestic labour only shifts a feminist problem from one demographic to another, and can in no sense be said to mitigate the underlying issue. However, we must also note that some elements of second shift work evidently have been technologised – certain elements of certain activities can, under our supervision and with our input, be partially delegated to our devices. In Robin James’s words, what the idea of hyperemployment points to ‘isn’t a new phenomenon so much as a reconfiguration of an ongoing practice: […] our smartphones wake us up, not our moms, just as emails accomplish a lot of the relational work (scheduling, reminding, checking in, etc.) conventionally performed by women’. Again, this stresses that the home has never been sacrosanct: it has always been a workplace for many, but the work performed there has been largely invisible.
Gender, Technology, and the (In)visibility of Work
It is interesting that this disappeared labour is being made visible at the precise historical moment that some women are doing less of it. It is no longer being framed as social reproduction but as ‘hyperemployment’ – a term that emphasizes its onerous and often unwelcome character, as well as the sense of relentlessness that can adhere to the basic maintenance of our everyday lives. Of course, the fact that some women may now be doing less of (some elements) of this is exactly the point. These various obligations and micro-tasks have been transformed into ‘employment’ because technologies are now performing them, rather than women. When the knowledge navigator issues a reminder, it is akin to useful work; when your mother issues a reminder, it is bothersome nagging. This work was largely invisible until machines took it over. So, why might this be the case? As James asks, ‘Does digital technology […] resignify the gendered stigma conventionally attached to care work, affective work, and other sorts of feminized work that never quite counts as “real” labor?’
Well, of course, the first thing to note is that the individualisation of this labour has redistributed basic life-maintenance across different segments of the population. When I suggest that technologised processes are more likely to be recognised as work than feminised reproductive labour, I am of course downplaying the fact that human beings are the one’s programming and managing electronic devices – we have to set that alarm clock, input that reminder, and so on. So, it may be that we are culturally more alert to the value of these activities now that different kinds of people are more likely to be involved with them. The gender political implications of this are obvious; it is somewhat telling that Bogost frames ‘hyperemployment as a troubling encroachment on people’s lives, rather than a levelling of the playing field’. The other point to make about this, though, relates to the cultural framing of so-called ‘women’s work,’ and the various obstacles that are thrown up by the social imaginary in terms of recognising reproductive labour as effortful, purposive, and valuable. Work performed by gendered subjects in the home (particularly within cultural fantasies of a heteronormative family dynamic) has been naturalised – that is to say, it has historically been framed as an extension of naturally occurring feminine (and often, quite specifically, maternal) predilections, affects, modes of intimacy, personal preferences and so on.
Indeed, this is something that Kathi Weeks picks up on when she declares that ‘To the extent that the expression of emotion has been not only feminised but in the process also naturalised – as a spontaneous eruption rather than cultivated display – the skills involved in managing it successfully remain difficult to grasp’. That is to say, these skills remain invisible as work, both within the home and within the waged work place. Although emotion work lends itself particularly easily to the cultural erasure of effort, we can see the same processes in operation when it comes to things like housework as well – the idea of a feminine tendency to be ‘house proud’ and to have exacting standards, for example, takes what Angela Davis calls the ‘obstinate primitiveness of household labour’ and repackages it as a simple matter of “a woman’s touch”. The functions and activities performed by electronic devices are of course less available for naturalisation, and as such their usefulness and necessity are less likely to be obscured via the same means. Hence, in the examples we’ve looked at, machines become more visible as workers than women.
Whilst it may be somewhat galling to be confronted with the fact that the activities of Siri, Cortana, et al are more readily recognizable as work than similar activities performed by feminised human subjects, this may still afford interesting opportunities in terms of the progressive de-gendering of work. In Waldman’s words, ‘As shiny, trendy devices absorb some of the jobs we once delegated to lower-status humans, those jobs (still unpaid) have at least begun to shed stigma’. As feminised work becomes technologised work, it may come to be less culturally denigrated, and therefore more available to be taken up by different kinds of subjects. Those with choice and cultural capital, in other words, may be more willing to perform this labour if it is associated with culturally valued objects rather than with socially disparaged subjects – an extremely partial victory, of course, given that it assumes that the only way to dislodge stigma is to remove any associations with embodied women and those related to their sex class. This whole phenomenon is less a matter of ‘I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess’ and more a case of ‘I’d rather be an iPhone than a woman’.
The Feminisation of Labour versus the Degendering of Work
Both the recent gendering of digital assistants and the emerging male recognition of hyperemployment invite us to revisit and reconsider one of the more dominant trends in theorising the work force: namely, the so-called feminisation of labour. As we have seen, the term “feminised labour” is used to define, in Morini’s words, ‘not only the objective aspect of the quantitative increase in the active female population, around the world’, but also to underline ‘the qualitative and constituent character of this phenomenon’. It refers to new trends in the administration of labour – such as precarity, mobility, and low salaries – and it refers to the dominance of new types of working behaviours under late capitalism, including an emphasis on relationship building, emotional connection, communication work, and the propensity for care.
Indeed, Morini suggests that both the form and the content of so-called feminised labour draw on ‘the baggage of female experience’. Women are viewed as being well prepared for the demands of precarity and for the insistence that workers be flexible, consistently available, and dedicated to jobs whose working patterns may by unpredictable. This is the result, Morini suggests, of ‘a female tendency to transfer the modalities and logistics of care work, particularly in the context of the mother–child relationship which, practically, does not have limits of time and dedication, and to make them part of the person’s professional work’. The limits to this argument are immediately obvious: the tendency to put mother-child relationships at the heart of the lives even of those who remain child free, as well as the seeming implication that there is only one possible model of maternity and child-rearing, and that is dyadic, privatized, and all-consuming. Although Morini’s discussion is far more delicate and insightful then these specific comments might suggest, it is important to acknowledge that this argument risks naturalising and homogenising what it is and means to be a woman.
This, indeed, is one of the issues with labelling changing trends in the character of labour as feminisation. There has never really been a single “feminine” experience of work, given the myriad ways in which intersecting forms of oppression such as race, class, and able-bodiedness have affected the scope of women’s opportunities, and their ability to enter or withdraw from the labour force. To label any shifts as ‘feminisation’ is to foreground a particular narrative of how women work (and have worked) which subsumes all difference beneath a single banner of gender – we should not forget, of course, that when we speak of these late capitalist trends, we speak also of a distinctive ‘racialisation of work,’ amongst other things. What’s more, to call these contemporary tendencies and processes ‘feminisation’ is to assume the existence of a strict two-sphere model of the social world – production and reproduction, masculine/male and feminine/female (as hinted at in Bogost’s account of hyperemployment).
In implying a breaching or mingling of spheres in this way, ‘the feminisation of labour’ posits a radical differentiation between “men’s” and “women’s” work at the very moment this separation is supposedly compromised. This risks not only homogenizing but also essentialising and reifying particular ways of doing gender. As Paul B. Preciado so astutely points out,
Nothing allows us to claim that the new post-Fordist model of work is more “feminine” than the industrial model was. Is it possible that women didn’t work as slaves in the cotton fields? Is it possible that they weren’t the first to pack sardines on an assembly line, or work in the textile industry, or manufacture smart cards for Microsoft? Saying “feminine” to describe the progressive casualization of work implies a presupposed heterocentricity, a metaphysics of sexual difference, and the precondition of a “rhetoric of gender” according to which sure, stable, and permanent implies industrial and male, and flexible, changeable, mobile, and precarious implies postindustrial and female.
To label certain forms of work as ‘feminised’ risks perpetuating the idea that there is a stable and ongoing gendered dynamic to wage labour under cognitive capitalism, at a time when the stability of gender itself is increasingly being called into question. In the process of staging a contamination, in other words, it asserts a gender purity (albeit one from which we have already been alienated); the future terms of engagement around ideas such as emotion, touch, intimacy, sex – care in all its forms – are restricted by their funnelling into existing gendered paradigms. Indeed, this destabilisation of gender is something Morini herself vaguely gestures towards when she declares that, under contemporary social conditions, ‘the simple and binary dichotomies of production/reproduction, male work/female work lose their meaning to the point of pushing us to hypothesise a gradual process of the degendering of work’. Again, this assumes that the dichotomies once had a stable meaning – but the notion of ‘degendering’ may, nevertheless, remain a more useful figuration than ‘the feminisation of labour’.
In addition to this, describing changes in labour practices as ‘feminisation’ also suggests that women bear some kind of responsibility for facilitating the roll out of generalised precarity. More of certain kinds of women have entered the workforce, and around the same time, waged work itself has become more “feminine” – it is easy to view this as a cause and effect dynamic; just as, when women form a reserve army of labour, they are seen as somehow implicated in downward pressure on wages. Women’s changing role in the workforce, then, has – the notion of “feminisation” seems to imply – normalised women’s conditions and foisted women’s exploitation on “the rest of us.” So, in Power’s words:
When people talk about the ‘feminisation of labor’ … their discourse is often double-edged. The phrase is at once descriptive (work is generally more precarious and communication-based, as women’s jobs tended to be in the past) and an expression of resentment (‘women have stolen proper men’s jobs! It’s their fault – somehow – that we don’t have any proper industry anymore!’)
This set of implications is a further reason to be very wary of “the feminisation of labour” as a concept and a catchphrase, and also a reason to insist upon a set of caveats and qualifications whenever we might be tempted to use the term. The challenge is to acknowledge the important histories of women’s labour patterns, without turning “women” into a monolith, without discounting differently gendered forms of “feminised” work, and without providing further discursive support for the idea of a binary gender system marked by inherently feminine or masculine practices and abilities. This is no mean feat, of course, and it’s a delicate balance I have been struggling to sustain throughout this essay!
It is perhaps in terms of destabilizing some of the assumptions at the heart of “the feminisation of labour” that the automation of clerical, service, and care work can be considered most interesting or productive. This process of automation arguably troubles the idea of an innately feminine skill set or perceived causal links between particular bodies and particular social roles or attributes. It is clear that many of today’s apps and automated systems draw upon preexisting gendered assumptions, programmed as they are to be girlish avatars or feminised disembodied voices. They exploit our assumptions about feminised labour and our existing relationship to socially gendered caring and service behaviours, tapping into those elements of femininity that have historically enabled care-giving or service-providing subjects to better undertake specific obligations, activities, and tasks; so far, so unhelpful from a feminist point of view. However, the technological uptake of femininity and the automation of what was once coded as ‘women’s work’ can also be seen to denaturalize those gendered, socially expedient, and culturally programmed caring behaviours that are frequently brought under the banner of femininity.
In acknowledging that our devices or apps have to be actively programmed in order to mimic specific gendered behaviours – in recognising that their feminisation is neither neutral nor inevitable but the by-product of specific histories – we are invited to rethink the ways in which non-machinic gender might itself operate as an artificial and culturally programmed construct. When technologies “do gender” it is obviously not natural, but is instead visible as the product of deliberate choices about how best to relate, assist, or persuade the imagined technology user. As we have seen, femininity (understood here as a particular set of gendered expectations, associations, and behavioral norms) often plays a part in the developer’s toolkit. This foregrounds the idea of femininity as an admittedly problematic label for a mobile set of capacities, techniques or strategies, potentially available to machine and variously gendered humans alike, thereby undermining the idea of feminine behaviours as the product of an innately sexed skill set or as a spontaneous eruption. Contemporary apps exploit ideas about gender in their attempt to offer an effective service to users. With this in mind, then, can we position femininity as a technology that our technologies now put to use?
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