Technology and the Social World 5

Technology and Feminism

One argument that follows on all the observations we have made about is that the ones to blame are men, or more particularly, patriarchy. Technology is about control, which is a major characteristic of patriarchy. Take the Freudian feminist picture, for instance:

Freudian feminist philosophy of science: The issue, in part, concerns the psycho-sexual metaphor for technology and science. Science is part of the personality development that comes from our innate drives. The story goes like this: Our early maternal environment, coupled with the cultural definition of masculinity (that which can never appear feminine), leads to the association of the female with the pleasures and dangers of merging, while it associates the male with the comfort and loneliness of separation. This leads to the ideal of male knowledge, which is objectivity, and a commensurate devaluing of female subjectivity.


Now, separation comes with the values of autonomy, which manifests its power relationship as mastery or competence. But for Freud, separation also has an element of alienation. So, the question is: does control/mastery/domination come as a result of that alienation, or is it the natural result of competence?

Good question. Keller claims it can be both. And, she turns this into an analogy for science. Under what circumstances is scientific knowledge sought for the pleasures of knowing, for the increased competence, for the increased mastery over our own fate (whether real or imagined), and under what circumstances is science actually trying to dominate nature? Can there be a distinction?

The two basic impulses here are aggression and eros. The notion of aggression gives the ideals of power, control, and domination of nature, while eros gives the ideal of union with nature. The first is fueled by the metaphor of nature as "she". Bacon expresses the promise of science as "leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave". This is done by means that do not "merely exert a gentle guidance over nature's course; they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations."

So, science is a kind of Oedipal project, coming out of the dialectic between aggression and erotic impulses. But Keller argues that there are two sorts of science, that of control and domination, and that which is a conversation with nature. This can have an effect on the kinds of theories that are proposed. Take the genome project, for instance. One geneticist described two sorts of theories in political terms:

Two concepts of genetic mechanisms have persisted side by side throughout the growth of modern genetics, but the emphasis has been very strongly in favour of one of these... The first of these we will designate as the "Master Molecule" concept... This is in essence the Theory of the Gene, interpreted to suggest a totalitarian government... The second concept we will designate as the "steady state" concept. By this term... we envision a dynamic self-perpetuating organization of a variety of molecular species which owes its specific properties not to the characteristic of any one kind of molecule, but to the functional interrelationships of these molecule species. (D. L. Nanney, "The Role of the Cyctoplasm in Heredity," in The Chemical Basis of Heredity, ed. William D. McElroy and Bentley Glass (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957), p. 136).


Soon after these remarks, the debate was foreclosed by the synthesis provided by DNA. With the success of the new molecular biology, steady state (egalitarian) theories lost interest for almost all geneticists. Today, they may be coming back. It means that the genome is part of an overall organism, and functions only in the environment in which it is found. There is no single control.

The point here is that the male metaphor of domination and hierarchy forestalled another metaphor, one of cooperation, for no other reason than that it was a male metaphor, and it resonated for male scientists.

Now, this can all be equally applied to technology. The result of the control impulse by, especially, Caucasian men, is that they solidify their hold on power, which means that the first victims of the technology are women, children, and non-Caucasian men.

Technology, then, can be seen as driven by the need to control. That need to control can, feminists argue, be seen as the result of a patriarchal understanding of relations in the world - relations of distance and objectivity rather than closeness and cooperation.