The Politics of Interface: Apple Edition

In “The Politics of the Interface: Power and Its Exercise in Electronic Contact Zones” Cynthia and Richard Selfe pen an early critique of the relationship between dominant power structures and computers. They write, “Our goal is to help teachers identify some of the effects of domination and colonialism associated with computer use so that they can establish a new discursive territory within which to understand the relationship between technology and education” (741). The piece appeared first in 1994. If only it were out of date.

Picking examples of colonialist technology is like shooting fish in a barrel, but I’ll reference three examples related to Apple. Remember, Apple is the world’s richest company, and if it were a country, would be the 55th richest country in the world (except that’s an incredibly misleading statistic).

Example 1. Emojis are handy little images commonly used in text messaging. They come standard in Apple iPhone texting keyboards (beginning in 2011). While most of the faces are colored yellow after the iconic smiley face and intended to indicate a nonhuman image rather than depict an actual person, some of the emoji characters do align with human skin tones. However, before April 2015 the vast majority of characters with skin-tone appear white. For example, the families, brides, princesses, angel, dancer, and runner all only had light skin tones. Many called this lack of diversity racist. And, as for all online controversies, a petition garnered significant support—“Diversity My Emoji.”

To its credit, Apple (after many months) released a new set of emoji and the April 2015 version has 285 diverse people, diverse family structures, and 198 flags (see Apple 2015 Emoji Changelog).

New diverse emoji, Apple.

Example 2. When the Apple voice recognition software Siri was released in 2011, many users reported the technology had trouble with particular accents including Indian, Southern, and Scottish accents. While the technology employed models for different accent groups, it did not include an exhaustive approach, once again exemplifying what Selfe and Selfe might suggest were “small but continuous gestures of domination and colonialism” (745).

Example 3. The Apple Watch went on sale last week and even before its release folks like Kevin Roose mark the pricing structure as designed to feed on “class anxiety.” According to Roose, for years Apple has subtly but systematically made Android users feel of a lower socioeconomic status by, for example, not allowing their text messages to appear in blue as do messages from other iPhones. With the Apple watch, however, we are entering a new era of class and technology since the new watch comes in three very different price ranges. The Sport runs approximately $350, the Watch runs $550-$1100, and the Watch Edition runs $10,000 up to a max of $15,000.

Roose suggests, with the advent of the Apple Watch, the company has moved from an expensive but ubiquitous approach, selling products to the middle class, to offering “devices you can’t afford, with features you’ll never be able to get.” $15,000 for a watch? The message around class and privilege is pretty clear.

So what? Selfe and Selfe suggest we might respond to these earlier realities by supporting critical awareness, a humanist contribution to technological design, and approach to revision. That’s well and good, but it’s not enough. I think it’s come time for a more social activist approach.

Flowing from Paulo Freire’s call for praxis, social activism in this sense might support students’ leadership in protests, petitions, boycotts, or social movements on campus to ban certain uses of technologies, or to protest using university money to purchase from certain companies. Ann George’s “Critical Pedagogies: Dreaming of Democracy” chapter in A Guide to Composition Pedagogies highlights the difficulties of enacting these political approaches, but the time is now.

The Selfe article is over 20 years old but it still articulates a potent critique of technology today. I long for the day when it’s out of date, but to help bring that about, it’s high time we move from critique to action. I don’t believe we’re doomed to live in a world in which the article is still relevant in 2050. Without social action, however, I believe we’ll be doing just that. Questions:

  • What would committed social activism to counter the effects of domination and colonialism in technology look like in the classroom?
  • What political leaders are addressing the effects of domination and colonialism the Selfes bring up? How can we encourage our students to add their voice?
  • Are we doomed to live in a world where this article is still relevant in 2050?
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3 thoughts on “The Politics of Interface: Apple Edition

  1. I am glad that you did not reach for the low hanging fruit in the full supply chain of the “Apple economy” and its colonial effects. In regards to the final question, the article by Selfe and Selfe will probably remain pertinent for years — decades even. The primary reason is disentangling materials from their underlying ideologies is challenging and, maybe, impossible. I would encourage reading “Who Owns the Future” by Jaron Lanier for a much more robust explanation of the problems.

    Regarding the Kevin Rooze position on class anxiety, I might further re-frame the argument as issues of fealty to expound the “information feudalism” model. That is, the moment a person clicks the link, a Facebook prompt appears. The moment a person clicks the Financial Times link, a registration screen appears (so the link might be pay walled). Hence, the impulse of people steering technology is to draw sharper and sharper boundaries for users. I do not subscribe to the techniuum arguments that “technology wants [insert]” because, as Richard Ohmann notes, this form of argumentation ignores that there are people fabricating the “wants” of technology.

    How do we as composition instructors address the issues raised by Selfe and Selfe? The use of critical pedagogy is a great start. However, it probably is insufficient because awareness without action is simply impotent.

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  2. 100% agreed that the article is not out of date. As you hear them talk about out of date tech, it sometimes feels like it might be, but the challenges are our challenges now. And the action (maybe less activism and more collaboration) I think makes a lot of sense is their suggestion that we should be part of the design teams for tech. Hire humanists to check your work for latent racism, sexism, etc. Broaden user experience testing. I’m kind of hoping the emergent training some get in code thinking might allow them to hack the tech and push against the narrow representations there.

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  3. As far as social activism to counter this problem, I feel that at least part of this could simply be related to having technology more built into the classroom spaces rather than having students bring technology into the classroom. Obviously, with any technology, there is a learning curve that those who own “outside of the classroom” technology will struggle less with, but the simple fact of having more tech-integrated classrooms could be helpful for reducing the stigma of not being able to bring tech with you to class. Similarly, more spaces like the IACC (QBB, whatever you wish to call it) that offer free seminars and workshops and tech that students can check out are incredibly helpful, but need to be better funded, promoted, and have a larger presence on campus in general.

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