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 If only it were out of date.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).
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?