Maria Farrell admits that comparing smartphones to abusive men (they try to keep you from friends and family, they make it hard to study or go to work, they constantly follow you and check up on you) might seem to trivialize domestic partner violence, but, as she points out, feminists have long been pointing out both the literal and metaphorical ways in which tech replicates misogyny.
In the same way that patriarchy extracts "emotional labor" from women, tech extracts "attention labor" from users.
Farrell asks us to imagine what a phone that worked for its users (rather than corporations) would look like and how it would perform: "It wouldn't share our data with random companies that want to exploit or manipulate us, or with governments whose acts can harm us. It would tell us in plain language what it's doing and why. It wouldn't run background software on behalf of organizations that don't work for us, and it wouldn't hide what it was doing because it knew we wouldn't like it. It wouldn't be pockmarked with vulnerabilities that hostile agents exploit and sell to the highest bidder. It would give access to our data as and when we wanted, but also not bug us too much with opt-ins. That's because it would use machine-learning to understand and enact what we want, instead of to manipulate us into serving others first."
It's a vision I share, and, as Farrell reminds us, "Everything is impossible until it's inevitable."
Farrell's feminist lens brings many of the questions of surveillance, control, and late-stage capitalism into sharp relief.
Here are some of the ways our unequal relationship with our smartphones is like an abusive relationship:
* They isolate us from deeper, competing relationships in favour of superficial contact – 'user engagement' – that keeps their hold on us strong. Working with social media, they insidiously curate our social lives, manipulating us emotionally with dark patterns to keep us scrolling.
* They tell us the onus is on us to manage their behavior. It's our job to tiptoe around them and limit their harms. Spending too much time on a literally-designed-to-be-behaviorally-addictive phone? They send company-approved messages about our online time, but ban from their stores the apps that would really cut our use. We just need to use willpower. We just need to be good enough to deserve them.
* They betray us, leaking data / spreading secrets. What we shared privately with them is suddenly public. Sometimes this destroys lives, but hey, we only have ourselves to blame. They fight nasty and under-handed, and are so, so sorry when they get caught that we're meant to feel bad for them. But they never truly change, and each time we take them back, we grow weaker.
* They love-bomb us when we try to break away, piling on the free data or device upgrades, making us click through page after page of dark pattern, telling us no one understands us like they do, no one else sees everything we really are, no one else will want us.
* It's impossible to just cut them off. They've wormed themselves into every part of our lives, making life without them unimaginable. And anyway, the relationship is complicated. There is love in it, or there once was. Surely we can get back to that if we just manage them the way they want us to?
Feminism explains our (toxic) relationships with our smartphones [Maria Farrell/The Conversationalist]
(via Crooked Timber)