TechnoFeminisms is an intellectual tradition that investigates the power relationships among our bodies, communities, environments, and labor, and how these power relations are embedded into technologies (Wajcman, 2004). Although technofeminism is deeply committed to critique, I also see this tradition as a creative and hopeful practice. Judy Wajcman located her theory between the critique of feminist studies of technology and the, at times, utopian promises of cyberfeminism. The promise of technofeminism, according to Wajcman, is that it offers a way of understanding our politicized, technological world "as well as a means of making a difference" (p. 130). It is this means of making a difference that I seek to explore, especially how interface design may afford opportunities to make a difference for feminists in rhetoric and composition.
If feminists demand the opportunity to build our own tools, innovate technologies by and for women, and design interfaces that reflect feminist purposes, we may be able to redraw the power dynamics encoded into our technical landscape. We may be able to find more spaces for diverse bodies, communities, labor practices, and feminist practices. Feminists in the fields of rhetoric and composition have taken up technofeminism as both a line of critique of gendered technologies and a space to negotiate more empowered relationships with technologies (Beck, Blair, & Growoski, 2015; Frost & Haas, 2017; Reilly, 2004). The pioneers of computers and writing were especially poised to take up this work given that their early work was informed by feminist foundations as well as their interest in the possibilities of emerging information technologies (Beck, 2013). Personally, technofeminism has inspired my design and writing processes and given me the intellectual space to reconsider what defines good interface design.
Wajcman (2004) wrote that technofeminist critique would make visible the networks of people, tools, and choices that compose a technology. These networks include power dynamics over bodies, communities, classes, races, genders, and sexualities. By making these networks visible, we also make visible various power dynamics enacted on bodies. Design theories and practices are one particular location in which these power dynamics can be seen. Cheryl Buckley (1986), a feminist scholar of art and design, critiqued universal principles of design when she identified:
to legitimize this process of cultural coding, the language of design is presented as a universal truth. Exclusive definitions of good and bad design are constructed, based almost entirely on esthetics. These definitions serve to isolate design products from the material and ideological conditions of production and consumption. Inevitably, these definitions also serve the interests of the dominant group, which attempts to disguise its interests with the mask of universality. (Buckley, p. 12)Buckley explicitly critiqued design standards within art and architecture. At the same time, her critiques of standards for “good” design parallel conversations in composition and rhetoric that critique definitions of “good” writing: both of these traditions are marked by patriarchal, colonial standards for good composition and those standards of good composition are taught as natural, universally accepted standards of writing and design.
In "The Politics of the Interface" Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe (1994) demonstrated that the designs of interfaces are not natural or common sense, but rather these design standards represent one very specific community: "middle-class, corporate culture; capitalism and the commodification of information; Standard English; and rationalistic ways of representing knowledge" (p. 494). Interface design, then, represents and reinforces the cultural norms of these communities. These politically designed interfaces are
"fundamentally dependent on an hierarchical representation of knowledge… associated with patriarchal cultures and rationalistic traditions of making and meaning… linked to a positivist value on rationality and logic as foundational ways of knowing that function to exclude other ways of knowing, such as association, intuition, or bricolage" (p. 491)Anne Frances Wysocki and Julia Jasken (2004) built on Selfe and Selfe to show that, while it is commendable that composition textbooks include design practices, the instruction on design teach to the values of "getting work done—efficiency, easy to use, and transparency — over other possible human activities and relations" (p 38). This is problematic because these ways of designing interfaces limit the ways of relating between designers and users. Users are passive and unthinking. They engage solely to get work done. Wysocki and Jasken concluded by encouraging "we can also try to see the [interface] as describing not the border between computers and us but the border between us and us: The interface, screen or paper, is where we make ourselves visible to each other using the strategies available to us" (p. 45). Building on this call, Kristin Arola (2010) argued that rhetorics of design can be modes of not just composing texts but also of composing ourselves. She argued that we need to continue to practice and teach rhetorics of design that allow for individual design choices because “making choices about the composition of a page or screen, helps individuals think through the ways in which design functions to make meaning and produce selves” (p. 7).
As a graduate student, I was taught the Universal Principles of Design (Lindwell, 2010). I learned to design websites that were clean, balanced, and professional. These are obviously useful skill sets. While useful, these design standards also disciplined me: offering me one particular set of values as the only values that could define good design. I felt dissonance between my design practice and my feminist practices as a writer, teacher, and scholar. Now, I have more experience designing, especially while editing and designing two collections of feminist, digital scholarship for Peitho (Fishman & Fancher, 2015; Fishman & Fancher, 2015). I also have more experience enacting feminist pedagogy in multimodal composition classrooms. In this web text, I explore how technofeminist theories inform my design practice, with a focus on how this design practice connects the different facets of my intellectual life:
This web text is an exploration of the challenges and opportunities that arise by practicing this technofeminist design. I would like to move a bit closer to you, and I hope you’ll feel closer to me.