Unpacking technology - beginnings

Posted by Asha Achuthan at Oct 20, 2008 01:10 PM |
This is a work-in-progress that seeks to inaugurate a field of critical technology studies with the women-technology relationship as a unique entry point of investigation.


This is a work-in-progress that seeks to inaugurate a field of critical technology studies with the women-technology relationship as a unique entry point of investigation. To this end, it will

  • lay down the historical and geo-political contexts for the use of technology in India
  • engage with existing concepts like context, postcoloniality, organicity, and exclusion that have come into use with the critical responses to technology in India
  • offer a conceptual vocabulary that explains the tools being used to engage with the question, and
  • suggest strategies for testing of the hypotheses being set forward in the paper, as well as parallel modes of generating ‘critical debate’ on them.

This is in order to contribute, eventually, to a specific unpacking of the concept of technology that will in turn help evolve a more robust response to it than has been our understanding so far.

A few questions to begin with

What are the conditions that drive such an approach? Since the time of Nehruvian socialism, the language of the relationship between human and technological elements in India has changed considerably. While this has partly to do with more and more constituencies asking for attention in the industrial polity and development frameworks, it also has to do with changing perceptions of technology itself. Thus it is that strongly positive and dynamic images of technology (to be found in the Indian scientific and medical establishments) as well as strongly critical positions (anti-development stances, eco-feminist movements, postcolonial theorizing) reside side-by-side in the discourse around technology in India, in a manner that appears to be the particular characteristic of postcolonial societies today.

The effects or parallels of such criticality, however, are not limited to ‘civil society’ positions, meaning that it is not a simple state-versus-the-people problem. A cursory examination of development scenarios in the area of reproductive health, for instance, yields evidence of a situation where state population policy dictates, as part of infrastructural requirements, an increasing use of technology, while at the same time insisting on an attention to women as repositories of “indigenous systems” in order to “fill in gaps in manpower [that can access or use technology] at village levels” (National Population Policy 2000). The state also encourages discussions of increased entry of women as professionals into academic technological institutions. In cohort with the critiques, then, there are approximately four responses to technology that are in evidence today across state and civil society positions - presence, access, inclusion, resistance. The presence of women as agents of technological change, improved access for women to the fruits of technology, the inclusion of women as a constituency that must be specially provided for by technological amendments, and a recognition of technology’s ills particularly for women.

My central suggestion is of a connection between all of these seemingly disparate responses. For one, they espouse a vision of technology as discrete, bounded, and separate from the human, woman being a ‘case’ thereof. Following such a vision of technology as instrument or tool separate from human agency, and the necessary corollary of pristine humanness, in postcolonial theorization aggravated into empirical subalternity, the debates seem to hover endlessly over technology being beneficial, devastating, or a judicious mixture of the two. Complementarily, the pre-technological appears free of, or lacking in, the instrumentality of technology; “everyday technologies” seem to offer respite in the shape of an embeddedness in community; at the very least, they appear to possess the mythicity, the poiesis, that critics so wistfully regret the absence of in modern science. And these two – everyday technologies and the pre-technological, in their common possession of such poiesis, such anarchy, seem organically tied and a natural vantage point for a critique of the modern technological.

 What obviously happens to this understanding of technology, and to this version of critique, with the arrival of digital, particularly internet technologies? It may be stated fairly accurately that internet technologies are employed by state agendas on the same principle as the above, namely, as instruments of access, information, or development. In the case of internet medical technologies, however, once we shift our attention from the internet as medical data bases to systems like Immersion medical simulators, robotic surgical systems, or robot surgeons, we find a curious (some would say deadly) shift. Representation is no longer what is at stake, so that these technologies are no longer aiming at providing extensions or voice to the human. What is happening, rather, is simulation, in a movement, as Donna Haraway puts it, from old hierarchical dominations to a new informatics of domination. While the critiques have mostly hitherto concentrated on the question of access on the one hand or of organicity on the other, that is, asking for more (inclusion) or asking for less (withdrawal), therefore, an unpacking of the word or concept ‘technology’ itself has also somewhat forced itself to attention in this scenario. Old wirings of women-technology where one is independent of the other have become circumspect with evidence, at least on the surface, of overdetermined relationships of wo‘m’an-machine-nature.

 I see the surface complications brought in by these technologies as a symptom of the malaise of the old understanding rather than as a new development. And it is in this context that I propose a further, and more adequate, unpacking of the concept of technology through a specific understanding of internet technologies. More specifically, I would suggest an unpacking of the relationship of technology to its constituencies, of which I concentrate on one, namely women. What I am proposing, therefore, is the development of a field that I will tentatively call critical technology studies – a field that does not merely name each new technology as example, but brings back a study of each to enrich the originary understanding of technology. I begin from one node - women-technology. I start this investigation with a series of questions - once we give up on the wiring between women-technology that populates mainstream positions as well as the critiques, which also means a giving up on the representational relationship between women and technology, how does one speak at all of gender and technology? Of gender and science? Gender and development? Further, the relationship, of wo‘m’an-machine-nature, an overdetermined relationship, need not necessarily be a symbiotic one. Once this is taken into account, how does one talk of the difficulties of technology? The devastating effects? If we shift our expectations of technology from the beneficial or the symbiotic to the arbitrary, and moreover, once we have refused to talk of nature or pre-capitalism as pristine or prior entity, what of the critique?

Let us say, then, that I seek to investigate afresh the nature of the relationship women-technology that may help articulate a response to the ‘problem of technology’, without turning it into either a monster or a benevolent entity. This would involve understanding control strategies which, as Haraway puts it again, may have more visibility on border regions rather than as disturbing the integrity of ‘natural objects’ – women and their bodies among them. This would involve a shift from articulating better politics, and policies, of representation, to understanding simulatory strategies of new internet technologies. And this would involve, putting these two together, recovering not a pristine narrative of women’s experience – homogenous or varied, but an attention, instead to its possible aporeticity.


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Asha Achuthan

My disciplinary training is in medicine. Some of my questions about science and politics led me to a Women's Studies programme in Jadavpur University, from where I did an M.Phil with a focus on "women and development". I have recently submitted my PhD dissertation, "Feminist Standpoint Theory and the Question of Experience". I am also working as Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, on a project of curriculum revision in the natural and social sciences.