A Broken Machine is Not Your Tool
Facilitated by Sarah Sharma
Amazon recently made a statement in response to widespread concern that their virtual assistant AI Alexa was a passive woman. In “The Alexa Personality” Amazon claims that Alexa is a persona and not a person, “Amazon avoids reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes by designing content that is not overtly male or female. Amazon does this by giving Alexa a wide range of interests and opinions, including a love of STEM, space, sports, cats, music, pop-culture, and science fiction.”1 Nonetheless, it remains hard to figure out if she is an all-round perfect technology or all-round perfect girl. Perhaps these are one and the same under patriarchal capitalism. What is a feminist to do with Alexa? Some have argued she be given feminist attributes like shutting down in the face of misogynistic treatment. Others argue Alexa should be given a new voice. To me, Alexa is the perfect straw man for a different sort of techno-feminist take.
That technologies under patriarchy could be seized, re-appropriated, and harnessed for better or more feminist ends has always given me pause. But it is especially hard to reconcile a feminist hope that technologies are tools that can be wielded for feminist ends when I think of how so many people are forced to endure life in terms of their utility to others. Dominant systems of power - whether of neoliberalism, white supremacy, or patriarchy – have at their core an understanding of entire populations that seem to exist only in terms of their use. When the tools (non-abiding populations) are no longer working well and they begin showing signs of wear and tear they will be offered repair, upgrades, hacks, quick-fixes, and workarounds. If all else fails then broken machines are subject to discard, cast aside as refuse. It becomes even harder to remember if we are talking about machines or women when you consider that one of the most popular neoliberal feminist solutions to the exhaustion of living under patriarchal structures of power is to actually make women even better machines. Well-working women are a population that must continue to optimize their capacity to be of good use. How often are women told to take time for rest, repair, and proper maintenance? Moreover, what do we make of the fact that the institutions that do the breaking also offer in-house repairs. It is not just women but rather a growing cohort of the non-normative and non-abiding. The tool repair industries of racialized techno-capitalism include things like DEI courses, DEI leadership hires, wellness at work and mandatory unconscious bias training. These are all forms of getting sharpened and rebooted to fit better as a response to feminist and anti-racist calls for structural change. The problem is that this re-tooling, the sharpening and rebooting of one’s batteries, occurs whether you work in social justice or a company that makes missile ballistics.
But there is a feminist alternative. One could be a Broken Machine and stay with the breaking. I suggest that feminism must actively depart from a tool based notion of technology while it takes up its designation as a broken tool under patriarchy as it intersects with racialized capitalism. The Broken Machine accounts for the differential experience of being positioned by patriarchy as a technology that does not work properly while enlivening and generating new forms of machinic resistance. I want to pick up this broken machine and consider it speculatively but also as a lens and a perspective where feminized machines can rebel and continue to refuse to work well.
Being challenged by the machine world is one of the patriarch’s and white male sovereign's deepest fears. Patriarchy is a technological phenomenon which means that techno-feminism must be technologically strategic. Why opt for repair when you could work well at not working well – short circuiting patriarchal, capitalist, and racist network connections.
We must begin with the premise and the knowledge that new technologies will not just simply redistribute power equitably within already established hierarchies of difference. The idea that they will is the stuff of utopian naivety or what we might refer to as the type of technological determinism that got us here to begin with. The broken machine is not to be understood as a newer technology or a subject position but rather a critical line of feminist thought and activism that relies on a sense of technological power rather than technology as tool.
In order to illustrate this let me turn to two popular gender struggles that will be familiar to almost anyone in contemporary North American techno-culture.
The Broken Machines know that the gendered and raced roll call currently going on where businesses, faculties, panels, advisory boards, and executives convene and conference in a frantic wave of inclusion is too often about showing good face. Broken Machines snicker a little as the fear of the accusation of an all-white or white-male panel plagues the tech world’s planning activities. But Broken Machines know this won’t solve much because the real problem is the way these institutions treat “diverse people”. In fact, diverse peoples are treated as files sent in order to be ready at hand, on the table. But people are already information in the context of the distribution of justice. It isn’t just that justice is unevenly distributed and received in a way that creates hierarchies. Justice is what is determined when people are treated like legible information: categorized, sorted, filed, removed, retrieved, saved, and deleted. When it comes to popular discussions of representation and diversity, the status of the file surreptitiously emerges and reveals itself. The institutional practice of file retrieval is suspicious and the broken machine recognizes that to represent is also to be filed away.
Perhaps what is shocking about #MeToo is not just the number of women who have been assaulted. In fact, this is a truth most women already know and have little in the way to share in terms of shock. Instead the power of #MeToo was that it revealed that this whole time perpetrators of sexual violence really didn’t think their women - as machines in relatively good working order - would talk amongst themselves or turn against them. What greater threat to the abuser than to learn that women talk to other women, that victims would talk to other victims, or in other words, that their machines would talk to other machines. You can almost hear the haunting sound of the ominous machines taunting the patriarchal order. The sound of the true new machine learning went something like this: “Me too, Me too, Me too”.
The broken machine’s discarded status is energetic and alive. It does a type of work for techno-feminism by refusing to be repaired or included. The broken machine has the power to inhabit patriarchy's misogynistic and racist techno-logics and could inspire further thinking on the medium-specific techno-logics of how power operates in culture. Almost any gender struggle offers the opportunity for broken machine interventions. The point is to find where the relegation to the status of the machine becomes an opening to toy with the machine logics that different technology portend. Doing feminist technology work means generating the capacity for more broken machines to do the good work of not working well.
Sarah Sharma is Associate Professor of Media Theory at the ICCIT/Faculty of Information and Director of the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto. Her research and teaching focuses on the relationship between technology, time and labour with a specific focus on issues related to gender, race, and class. She is the author of In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics (Duke UP, 2014). Sarah is currently working on a new book on the topic of gender, technology and escape tentatively titled Broken Machine Feminism. At the McLuhan Centre, Sarah directs interdisciplinary research and public programming concerned with navigating and understanding the complexities of contemporary digital life. Her edited volume (with Rianka Singh) MsUnderstanding Media: A Feminist Medium is the Message is currently under contract with Duke University Press.This volume highlights programming at the McLuhan Centre since her directorship in 2017.