Alex Haché, a cyberfeminist activist and member of the Donestech research group and the Fembloc project
The Congress of Feminist Economics took place on 16 and 18 March and was organized by the DIMMONS group from the UOC's Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and Barcelona City Council. One of the speakers was Alex Haché, a cyberfeminist and member of both the Donestech research group and the feminist helpline Fembloc, which provides support for the victims of online violence against women. In the interview, Haché spoke about the digital technology sector's debt to women and other minorities. The activist calls for changes to prevent the negative impact on women of technologies which are exclusively business-oriented.
What is feminist economics based on?
Feminist economics questions and analyses economic relations from an intersectional feminist perspective, related to productive work and reproduction. It means taking unpaid reproductive work into account, work that is traditionally carried out by women and other gender identities and is not financially rewarded. The traditional economic paradigm taught in universities is based on the models and assumptions of neoliberal theory. But non-orthodox economic theories also exist and need to be taken into account in economic policy.
What contribution does cyberfeminism make to the analysis of the economy from a feminist perspective?
My approach is based on a critical analysis of the digitalization of the economy from a cyberfeminist and ecofeminist perspective. Since its beginning, the industrial sector, which is based on the development of digital and communication technologies, has been founded on the growth of information science and cybernetics, fields that employed a great number of women. They were employed in order to pay them less, right from the start. There were many women in cybernetics departments. When IT emerged from the ghetto, and began to have economic power, with the potential for high-profile careers, because it was something that made money, then women were kicked out. In the 1980s, when the computer reached people's homes, the image of computing became associated with the nerd and the small-time hacker, and pressure to exclude women from IT grew.
Has the role of women in IT been covered up?
The technology sector has a historic debt to women and other gender identities for their contribution throughout its development. Women have been made invisible. The space has become occupied by white men, the military, or so-called lone geniuses in Silicon Valley. This is a very partial view of the real history behind the development of information science and the digital technology sector. The achievements of women, minorities and civil society have traditionally been undervalued. It is a historic debt of remembering. We need to dispel the myth of the expert and the lone genius inventing alone in his garage, because IT is a collective enterprise, based on networks and communities. Women have been excluded from these spaces.
And where does this lead?
Nowadays, in many IT jobs, in places where innovation and creativity take place, the established stereotype is that of the young, white, able-bodied man. But historically, and still today, in many countries, women are employed in the data extraction and production chain. Effectively, they are owed a lot.
Does this exploitation persist?
We are talking a lot these days about ChatGPT, focusing on the supposed achievements of artificial intelligence, but there is nothing artificial about it, it is based on poorly paid work by women in Kenya, employed via Amazon's Mechanical Turk. It is extremely precarious work, done mainly by women, who train algorithms and moderate content that we can't be bothered to review here. But we could also talk about the turbocapitalism created by companies such as Uber and Airbnb, which has had dreadful consequences for the working conditions that deeply affect women, who are at the end of the poverty chain. Women are also prevented from advancing up the decision-making ladder in technology companies, leading many of them to leave, so they are not retained by the sector despite being fully trained.
Should the situation be mapped in order to start working on the changes needed?
It has already been mapped by cyberfeminist activists and collectives. They do two things: the first is to understand the technologies and how to hack them in order to change them and improve them. This is a service that involves developing knowledge and making it available to other groups. The other thing we do is to analyse new technologies as they emerge, asking who they will harm and who they will benefit, who is behind them, who they will discriminate against. This should also be part of the work of public policymakers and academics. Companies should also take into account the impact of the technologies they develop.
This is not happening...
Take hate speech, for example. The people in the departments that implement the algorithms on platforms should be trained to design a product that takes into account the impact it will have, and not just thinking about the typical model of the white able-bodied male. They don't do this. Cyberfeminists have done the research and put the issues on the table, but there is no incentive for companies to change. They know full well what is happening and what the consequences are. With regard to hate speech, I'm not sure that the platforms should be censoring it, but I do know that developing technologies to make money from the sale of data is a business with very negative consequences on many levels.
What can public institutions do to help?
A portion of public money should be used to fund technological communities managed by cooperatives or non-profit associations. There are many small, non-commercial collectives and cooperatives that maintain open source technologies. But they are usually small and precarious. What would happen if we took money away from these platforms and redirected it to social enterprises without having to build this huge business that has such disastrous consequences for our democracies? I'm not saying that it would be an easy transition, but what we have now is not working. The only projects to prevent and mitigate online violence against women and hate content are not being developed by the platforms, but by feminist collectives and organizations set up to defend our online rights.
A study has recently come out about Tinder, saying that 22% of its users have been raped by a man they met on this app. What do you think of that?
I have seen the report. I haven't read it in detail, but it seems somewhat alarmist and abolitionist. I don't think it's right to tell women to stop exploring their sexuality, or to spread fear; this is what happens in societies that are still dominated by rape culture. We must work to make the platforms take responsibility for how they manage users' data and the reports they receive about people who commit acts of violence against women. The app enables people to meet, but how does it protect people who report abuses? There is also a job we are not doing in relation to masculine behaviour, and this is the problem, basically. Men do not understand what a consensual relationship means. We need better applications that guarantee safety, allowing women to report men anonymously, and excluding the perpetrators of aggression.
Should the education system also be involved in this work?
At school, in the workplace… we are the first generation to intensively use online tools in all aspects of our lives and we have not been educated to take a political or citizen-based approach to technology. At school they set up a Google account for you and you don't have the option to refuse. We need to look at the role of public institutions, which push people into using commercial tools in order to contact them. Technology should be collectively or politically appropriated more often.