Beki Grinter

A Case for Feminist Studies of Technology

In computer science, empirical, research, women on March 1, 2010 at 12:08 pm

My colleague Henrik, who tracks many things Robotic, recently blogged about a man who has invented a (non walking) robotic female companion.

On reading the Daily Mail report, I think that this is a good argument for feminist studies of technology.

The paper reports Le Trung, the robot’s inventor as saying:

Aiko is like any woman, she enjoys getting new clothes,’ he said.
‘I loved buying them for her too.’

and later the paper reports that…

Aiko, whose age is ‘in her early 20’s’, is 5ft tall and has a perfect 32, 23, 33 figure

As a woman I find these statements very disturbing. What he has built, what he calls a woman, exhibits very strong stereotypes. Why, for example, doesn’t his robot share his interests, programming, problem solving, mechanics? She likes new clothes instead.

Her figure reinforces the worst of stereotypes about body image. With a 23 inch waistline, it was reported that Victoria Beckman was too slim. They add that that’s 11inches thinner than the average British women’s waist and it’s a U.S. size 0. It’s not average. But it is an image of woman that it is well-recognized has contributed to some people’s struggle with their body image  (Peggy Orenstein’s book Schoolgirls, is one good but depressing read on this topic).

But Aiko is always helpful and never complains. She is the perfect woman to have around at Christmas.

And what’s the implication here? One of subservience. An ideal woman never complains and helps out. Perhaps I’m being overly critical, but it is a design choice in this case. Someone thought it would be better to build a “female” robot this way.

For the last twenty years feminist scholars have been examining the expectations about women that are built into technology, and into the media that surrounds those technologies (and implicitly or explicitly situates women as having particular engagements with or to those machines, and ones that are different from male interactions). This is of course alongside a whole lot of other things… If anyone ever wondered why that research matters (and I am *sure* that people have), I would encourage them to consider this machine most carefully. What are the implications of designing robots that stereotype women, and in so doing continue to harm and repress as well as reject the real experience of womanhood? What role do these stereotypes, and their propagation through technological forms, do to continue to perpetuate notions of womanhood that are, for many *real* woman not accurate and potentially oppressive?

By building a robotic companion, he is also creating the opportunity to distance to remove himself from an actual relationship with a real woman that perhaps he would find educational with respect to the above. And this in addition to potentially exacerbating the above, raises other questions. What is the science of understanding what it means to design robots that allow people to retreat from human interactions, to replace them instead with robotic interactions? What will it mean if people chose to live with robots over living with people. What will the consequences for society be?

This is just the first experiment, but it’s one that raises important questions.

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  1. […] here: A Case for Feminist Studies of Technology « Beki's Blog (there's … March 1st, 2010 in blog designs | tags: expectations, explicitly-situates, feminist-scholars, […]

  2. I totally agree that feminist technology studies is necessary and should continue. I think technology, like any cultural space, will be a place for people to express both radically conservative (Aiko) and radically subversive (cyberfeminists stuff) cultural possibilities. It isn’t only about critiquing the designers of these technologies though. “Users” of Second Life (co-constructors in the social construction of technology frame), for example, seem broadly conservative in their attitude toward embodiment, choosing hypersexualized, hypergendered forms to play with. Butterfly wings, tiny wastes, big breasts, and lots of skin are the rule of the day. When I was trying to shop for an outfit in SL, I actually couldn’t find anything that didn’t seem anoerexic or hypersexual without moving into animals and abstract figures. I’d love it if someone did research on how, say, people in SL culture (who are really into SL and devote lots of time to it) think of bodies, dress, and the politics of appearance and action, and how the interfaces and APIs of Second Life interplay with that. Aiko was all about the design imaginary and SL here is more about the user imaginary. Both are about the interplay with the materiality of technology, which is what a good feminist studies of technology needs to do.

  3. […] Difference Engines googleyahoobing Subservient robot Aiko Monday, March 01st, 2010 | Author: Lilly Human-Computer Interaction professor Beki Grinter blogs about a Japanese man’s life project: RealDoll-style, subservient robot Aiko […]

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