A Cyborg Story: Study WeChat Users and Practices through Feminist Theory and STS

(Note: This short essay is my final piece of homework for the class Feminist Theory and STS, taught by Dr. Anne Pollock. I tried to draw connections between my research on WeChat and what I learned from this class. It was a great mental exercise for me to think about my dissertation, and I hope you enjoy reading it as well.)

To be able to engage with feminist theories and STS in my own research projects is one of my major purposes of taking this class. In this essay, I will talk about my prospective dissertation topic and discuss how feminist theories and STS will shed light on it from various angles.

Recent years, social networks start booming more than ever. The fast development of the Internet and the widespread of smartphones make it possible for people to connect with each other at nearly any time and anywhere, and social networks are the foundation for this connected virtual “web.” With an interest in culture, technology, and social networks, I’m eager to learn how culture and technology affect each other in the shape of social networking, and what a “cultural” social network means and possibly looks like. For my Ph.D. dissertation, I will take one single technology as a case to study: WeChat. WeChat is the most popular mobile instant messenger in China. However, different from other instant messaging tools such as WhatsApp or Line, WeChat is not only a mobile instant messenger but also a social network. In fact, being an instant messenger or a social network is only a small part of it; it is a huge mobile platform that almost encompasses everything, including money transaction, news subscription, online shopping and many more (Lawrence, 2016). WeChat users often find themselves spending most of their time interacting with WeChat, without the need to switch to other applications. Besides this most outstanding characteristic, WeChat is mostly used by Chinese people, unlike Facebook, whose users come from various countries. This relatively coherent user base in terms of nationality and the powerful functional integration of WeChat attract me. How do people use WeChat, if they are all Chinese but have diverse life experiences and coming from different backgrounds (e.g., gender, age, education, occupation, etc.)? How are people’s lives influenced, if any, by WeChat? In addition, I want to know if people’s use of WeChat influences WeChat itself, in some ways. All in all, I would like to study the co-construction of WeChat and its users in the context of contemporary China.

Having conducted two studies on WeChat, I’m currently at the stage of planning my next study and thinking about the overall story to tell in my dissertation as well. Reflecting on what I learned throughout this semester, I believe I can see several possibilities for my next steps, inspired by feminist theory and STS.

First, feminist theory and STS can offer me new places to start from. Feminist theorist and philosopher Sandra Harding criticizes the common, conventional understanding of “objectivity” (which usually relates to absolute truth, fairness, and equality) of not being truly objective. Instead, she argues for a “strong objectivity,” where studies of our world should originate more from minorities and those who haven’t been heard of in the past (e.g., the poor, the oppressed), so that our knowledge will be more complete, and thus achieves the strong objectivity (Harding, 1993). Thinking about this call of starting from women’s lives, I remember interviewing rural Chinese villagers a year ago. To my surprise, female villagers tended to know much more about information technologies than their husbands or brothers. This was because “sticking to the phone all the time is perceived as ‘not doing formal business’ and also ‘a waste of (men’s) time’ and thus only women will do that,” explained one of my female interviewees. However, such a technology proficiency, together with the design of WeChat and the stable nationwide Internet connection, in fact, turns out to support female villagers to earn spare money through WeChat and hence gain more freedom and say in their families that they couldn’t expect before. Indeed, as Wajcman says, “the materiality of technology affords or inhibits the doing of particular gender power relations” (Wajcman, 2010). A promising next move could be continuously digging deeper into female WeChat users’ lives and learn how they use WeChat to fulfill their needs.

Second, feminist theory and STS can also be my powerful analytic tool. Apply feminist epistemology to a case or phenomenon to gain insights is an old trick in feminist theory and STS. For instance, by describing black women’s experiences at American airports from a feminist standpoint with particular attention to these women, the preconceptions and discriminations imposed on them become more evident (Browne, 2015). I can map the same technique to one of my previous studies where I researched how Chinese people sent emoji on WeChat. I could ask questions such as what are the emoji used more by female users, what is the consequence of sending erotic stickers to women, and how do female and male WeChat users understand the same emoji differently. By examining my past study from a refreshing feminist lens, I hope to uncover some implicit gender dichotomies and underlying discourses in the emoji world, just as what Emily Martin does to contrast how people talk about the egg and the sperm differently (Martin, 1991).

Third, feminist theory and STS push me to imagine alternatives, both for future and for technology. The question that I keep asking myself in the course of studying WeChat is, what is the alternative form of WeChat? In the context of feminist theory and STS, I can ask, is it possible for WeChat to be feminist and what does a “feminist” WeChat look like? In her book Reinventing Hoodia, Laura Foster describes the roles played by the plant Hoodia in different communities, including the San people, the South African scientists, the drug companies, and the Hoodia growers (Foster, 2017). By putting forward these distinct and sometimes conflicting roles of the same object, we can easily see the flexibility and also the diverse possibilities of Hoodia. Similarly, Nakamura tells the story of the company Fairchild Semiconductor building its plant on Navajo land and discusses how parties such as Fairchild executives, Navajo leaders, and the media all had their own understandings of this project, which again addresses that the project itself was never neutral or independent but subject to interpretations and changes coming from all directions (Nakamura, 2014). To envision alternative WeChats, I can learn from this method and describe what WeChat means to people who are younger, who are older, who are disabled, who invest money in it, who spend their time to develop it and more. Different images of WeChat will emerge from different people’s views, and altogether they will reach a feminist collection of WeChats.

Taking a step back, the projects I listed above seem to reflect a common theme: cyborg. Cyborg, in feminist theory, is a concept raised by Donna Haraway to contest the singular and dominating understanding of identity. In her A Cyborg Manifesto, she challenges widespread dichotomies (e.g., human vs. animal, culture vs. nature) that people rely on to describe (and categorize) themselves and the world (Haraway, 1991). She believes the fixed, homogeneous view of identity should be shattered, and cyborg is the alternative “identity” she comes up, in which humans are not pure but mingle with animals, technologies, and other objects or concepts that people traditionally will not think of. Coming back to my own project, I am convinced that nobody and no object will be left innocent in the world of social networks. Cyber, but not virtual, identities consciously or unconsciously established by every single WeChat user are instances of cyborg. An unchangeable identity is rendered impossible because everybody is a cyborg. On the other hand, WeChat, even usually seen as a passive technology, could also be a cyborg because it exerts power but receives power from users (and/or non-users) and other societal forces too. Cyborgs are the basis of the fluid WeChat world. In the end, I strive to avoid any dualism because there will only be connections and networks in a cyborg space. With the lead of cyborg, I hope the pieces in my dissertation will all come together and shine illuminating lights.

One of the last pieces I read for this class is Sara Ahmed’s Bringing Feminist Theory Home. In that chapter, she says feminism matters everywhere and “feminism is homework” (Ahmed, 2017). By homework, she means that feminism should be the kind of homework that we voluntarily assign to ourselves not only inside academic setting but also outside in our daily lives. With this essay, I hope I successfully complete one of self-assigned feminist homework, marking only the beginning of more homework, as both a woman and a feminist STS scholar.

 

 

References

  • Ahmed, S. (2017). Bringing Feminist Theory Home. In Living a Feminist Life (pp. 1–18). Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1353/qui.2012.0008
  • Browne, S. (2015). “What Did TSA Find in Solange’s Fro”?: Security Theater at the Airport. In Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (pp. 133–159). Duke University Press.
  • Foster, L. A. (2017). Reinventing Hoodia: Peoples, Plants, and Patents in South Africa. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.
  • Haraway, D. J. (1991). A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (pp. 149–181). New York: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.2307/2076334
  • Harding, S. (1993). Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What Is “Strong Objectivity”? In L. Alcoff & E. Potter (Eds.), Feminist Epistemologies (pp. 49–82). Routledge.
  • Lawrence, D. (2016, June). Life in the People’s Republic of WeChat. Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-06-09/life-in-the-people-s-republic-of-wechat
  • Martin, E. (1991). The Egg and the Sperm : How Science Has Constructed a Male-Female Roles. Signs, 16(3), 485–501.
  • Nakamura, L. (2014). Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture. American Quarterly, 66(4), 919–941. https://doi.org/10.1353/aq.2014.0070
  • Wajcman, J. (2010). Feminist theories of technology. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 34(1), 143–152. https://doi.org/10.1093/cje/ben057

To Be a Cyborg or Not?

Being a cyborg is hard for me to imagine. Why would I want to be something else instead of me? But one can question, aren’t you already a cyborg? Indeed. With a Fitbit band on my wrist and an iPhone constantly held in my hand (I don’t feel secure enough if it’s in my pocket), I can hardly deny that I am a cyborg. Anyway, isn’t a cyborg a human plus machine/technology? In fact, in her A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway shows that a cyborg can mean more than that. A cyborg can be human plus machine, but it can also be animal plus machine, or all of them mix together. What is important is that clear boundaries now disappear, and what has been guarded behind the boundaries – identity – will shatter as well. An alternative world Haraway visions is constructed via affinity, not identity. Affinity is not fixed. Unlike identity, affinity is not an inborn quality. Instead, one can choose with free will or even build an affinity. It is fluid, flexible, possible to be deconstructed and then reconstructed. With multiple affinities, there emerges cyborg.

Thinking about such an understanding of cyborg and then look at both Haraway’s and Hammonds’ chapters on race is helpful. What these authors are both trying to say is that race, as either an idea or a belief, is constructed, even though it is commonly taken as part of one’s identity. Haraway believes that race as an identity quality (that people believe) should be shattered, and new affinity connections should be built (e.g. she talks about vampire). Technology is able to delineate a dream by visualizing a woman’s face with multiple racial backgrounds, but this will only re-emphasize the masculine power which existed on racial differences, based on Hammonds’ understandings. If our present world is inevitably racist, then building affinities and becoming cyborgs will lead us to another future.

However, as “a woman of color,” I have to say that the chapter that I resonate with the most is Moya’s. It is not simply because her postpositivist realist theory of identity is something that I can operate, but more because she admits, and accepts, as a woman of color herself, the history and the reality (and everything carried by them) which made us who we are. Affinity is beautiful, and cyborg is also fantastic – but aren’t they dreams too? We, no matter as a white woman or a woman of color, need a way to achieve these dreams. To me, the first step is to accept who I am, where I am, and the things that build me. Then, maybe little by little, I will have the courage to question my identity, to even deconstruct, and build a new “self” from numerous affinities. Before being a cyborg, I desperately have to see my historical identity.

There is one last thing that I want to share: I have never seen myself as a woman of color before reading A Cyborg Manifesto.

Imagine Alternative Sciences and Identities

Science and identity are perhaps two of the most commonly mentioned terms in the field of Science, Technology, and Society (STS). How does science shape our identities and how do our identities affect the process of developing science? To examine the relations between science and identity, this essay will delve deep into the following papers: Situated Knowledges [1] and A Cyborg Manifesto [2], which are both written by Donna Haraway, an outstanding feminist scholar. I will first introduce these papers briefly and then put them into dialogue to see how they contribute to the understanding of science and identity together.

Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective was originally published in Feminist Studies in 1988. Essentially, it is a paper that heavily criticizes traditional science and the kind of objectivity it represents. Instead, it advocates a new vision of objectivity: feminist objectivity. Haraway starts off by claiming that the present science is an arena of masculine power that awes abstraction, universality, and pure objectivity, while denigrating specificity, particularity, and subjectivity. There is a clear line between these two categories. The former is pursued and the latter is avoided. Those who believe in this image of science are in fact the ones who know less about science. These people believe the so-called scientific objectivity is valuable and convincing because it will not be contaminated by human cognition or perspective: it is absolutely true and is not subject to change. However, she argues, even though this is what science has been shown in the textbook, it is not real – scientists know quite honestly that science is socially constructed; it relies on human beings and the knowledge it produces is “manufactured knowledge (Page 577).” But the way people worship scientific objectivity cannot promote real understanding or real knowledge. To offer an alternative, Haraway promotes a “feminist objectivity” that emphasizes the situatedness of knowledge, addresses connections and relations, and embraces resonance but not dichotomy. It blurs the boundary between objectivity and subjectivity. Here, she points out that all knowledges are situated within particular contexts and can only be viewed from certain perspectives. Therefore, there is no singular or universal understanding of knowledge. Knowledges must be plural. Under this feminist objectivity, human identity is welcomed, because identity actually assists us to gain true understanding. What she also mentions is that feminist objectivity does not equal relativism since relativism negates contexts or perspectives so that responsibility also disappears. One can only know by committing to a situation, to a standpoint, to a perspective. Genuine feminist objectivity is formed by numerous partial perspectives; it calls attention to an alternative science.

Three years after Situated Knowledges was published, in 1991, Haraway wrote another influential piece: A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism. To set the context, Haraway spends half of the paper criticizing the dominating belief of abstract individuation, “a man in space (page 152),” and the embedded dichotomies it includes are men vs. women, humans vs. animals, humans vs. computers, etc. Haraway challenges the understanding of these dichotomies by stating the boundaries they draw and the separations they produce are not constructive to our society and ourselves – these dualisms inevitably split people further apart and yield conflicts. In addition, as a human being, one has been forced to begin knowing oneself from one’s body and it is exactly because of the power assigns to one’s body that we must develop an alternative way to construct identity. Hence, as its title entails, Haraway comes up with an alternative identity – the ironic cyborg, which is opposite to “a man in space.” It is ironic because it is meant to confuse, to challenge, and to amuse. Because the cyborg has no historical origin in Western cultures and does not belong to any of the existing categories, there is no way to refer it to any classical concept or even talk about it based on our current language. It is, in fact, a fusion of all categories and all concepts. It emphasizes on connection and affinity, not separated distinct identity. Haraway relies on this imaginary cyborg to disclose the political issues in society. For instance, none of race, class, or sexual orientation naturally exists to define identity. Cyborg informed politics should also bear its characteristics. She goes on to talk about an example of how a woman survives as a cyborg at different locations, such as home, market, and school, to show the importance of not framing woman’s identity through man, but as a cyborg that affiliates with animals, machines, and other artifacts. Therefore, to destruct the current identity also means creating new possibilities. Haraway offers one of them.

These two papers share plenty of commonalities. First of all, they both imagine alternatives on fundamental concepts: one on science, the other one on identity. Haraway approaches these papers similarly by setting out to criticize the status quo and then constructing other possibilities, both through a feminist epistemology, which is the second commonality. Her feminist epistemology embraces partiality, particularity, plurality, ambiguity, and situatedness, almost on the other end of absolute objectivity, as shown in both papers. The purpose for imagining alternatives is to create a more inclusive and thus more understanding reality by deconstructing and reforming the present world. Haraway believes that human, science, and technology all need to participate in this process, because human produces science, science is included in technology, and science and technology together influence human. They are all connected and related.

Nevertheless, there are also quite a few differences between Situated Knowledges and A Cyborg Manifesto. In Situated Knowledges, Haraway only confronts science and scientific objectivity. She challenges science as an entity but does not mention human identity or how it can be affected by science. Certainly, what lies behind her argument of situated knowledges is feminist epistemology. Manifesto is based on Situated Knowledges, but instead of solely looking at science, it problematizes the whole idea of identity, including the identity that results from scientific development. Moreover, Manifesto goes one step further – it sits upon feminist ontology, whose embodiment is the ironic cyborg. Therefore, this paper is not only questioning how people think (i.e. epistemology), but indeed more deeply on what make them think this way (i.e. ontology). In Situated Knowledges, Haraway talks about objectivity through science. In Manifesto, she points to subjectivity through identity. While discussing objectivity is similar to looking around at the world outside of ourselves, examining subjectivity is reflecting on our own honestly. She draws connections between identity and science in Manifesto by implicitly asking these two questions: Is our subjectivity truly defined by ourselves as free human beings? Or is it still somewhat or even completely structured by the scientific objectivity? Of course, the reality falls into the latter and this is why she fights for alternative science and identity. They can actively shape each other on multiple levels.

Why are science and identity important? Because they both speak to power. Power is the overarching theme that affects science, identity, society, and all of us. Unequal distribution of power and even the existence of power are the causes of numerous social and political issues. To provide alternative ways to think about and then construct science and identity is to disclose different power relations and to be aware of them. Can we balance power and solve all the problems? Haraway does not give us an answer. It is certainly an ambitious goal to erase all the boundaries in our world, but it does not hurt to imagine what if they don’t exist and what the world will then look like. Imagination is good. To imagine alternatives is even better.

In this essay, I briefly introduce two seminal papers by a famous feminist Donna Haraway: Situated Knowledges and A Cyborg Manifesto. I then discuss how they both relies on a feminist epistemology that emphasizes plurality and particularity, while Manifesto goes a step further to inform a feminist ontology. Both papers speak about how science and identity can influence each other and how it can be problematic when they are based on ideas such as separation, objectivity, and so on. Haraway, therefore, imagines alternative sciences and identities that aim at destructing the present understanding of them and reconstruct new connections that focus on affinity and situated perspective. These alternatives, hopefully, can disclose a clearer view of power relations and hence help create an inclusive world.

References

[1]  Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14.3(1988): 575-599.

[2]  Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.