Many of us have seen the image. Black, Brown, Indigenous women gathered around a laptop or a computer or using a mobile phone, mesmerized by the promise of the sleek, modern-looking machine. It implies a story about technology providing new opportunities, knowledge, capital.
But there is more to this image. Much more.
In the summer of 2015, I traveled to San José, Costa Rica, to study the technology-focused organization Sulá Batsú. I expected to find depoliticized frameworks based on women’s “empowerment” and entrepreneurial talents, and visions and practices that centered technology as a magic wand that would cure all the world’s injustices. Yet what I found was quite the opposite: Caring relationships built on solidarity and tied to dissension, elastic organizational structures that accommodated feelings, an emphasis on collaborative design and process, and practices that were at once bound to technology while decentering it. Technology was not the magic wand. Relationships were at the center. And rather than being seen as a luxury or an afterthought, the quest for joy was a fundamental value. “We work to the rhythm of happiness, not capital,” one member told me during a rainy afternoon in San José.
As I looked at feminist digital activism in the global South, I was struck by how, in the face of online gender-based violence, the Association for Progressive Communications Women’s Rights Programme (APC WRP) centers the body and pleasure. Instead of calling on women of color, Indigenous, LGBTQI+, nonbinary, disabled, and so-called Third World individuals to be more restrained online, APC WRP calls for online disobedience, while acknowledging issues of harm, trauma, and safety. The emphasis on pleasure and play is a technopolitical feminist strategy between bodies, sexualities, and technologies. Amid increasing violence, APC WRP’s activists are reimagining the internet as a feminist space that enables different ways of thinking and being.
These are the seeds of this book.
Digital technologies are a major part of the agenda of a development industry that is becoming increasingly corporatized.1 Capitalist, white supremacist, and cis- and heteronormative interventions in technologies seem to have buried utopian dreams of a liberatory technological world. Data extraction for profit, state and corporate surveillance, algorithmic oppression, biometric data collection policies, online violence, proprietary knowledges, precarious labor, and electronic residues have progressively made our relationships with technologies fraught, to say the least.2 Activists and many oppressed communities have certainly appropriated digital technologies for advancing social justice, communicating, and feeling joy. Yet it seems more and more challenging to envision care in relationships with technologies.3
Over the past twenty-five years, state and transnational institutions, the private sector, foundations, and nongovernmental organizations have been in a race to include women and other marginalized communities in the digital society. The importance of integrating women as users, consumers, designers, and developers of technologies has become a global mantra against inequality. But this exciting future being constructed, in which women are considered key figures full of potential, contains in its fold subtle and not so subtle forms of violence. In this book I ask the following questions: How does development discourse couple women and digital technologies as a frontier of expansion and inclusion? What forms of feminist technopolitics are flourishing in certain regions of the global South? What kinds of compromises and negotiations have been necessary? I examine these questions by studying two organizations that focus on gender and technology in the global South—the transnational network APC WRP and the cooperative Sulá Batsú in Costa Rica—as well as analyzing reports, documents, and other publications from private foundations and technology corporations, from the UN and ECLAC (UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean), and from state entities, supplemented by organizational literature.
Drawing from online archival and ethnographic methods as well as interviews I conducted, this book makes two arguments. First, development discourse preys on care in producing an ideal Third World Technological Woman who combines technological dexterity and entrepreneurial instinct with caring qualities without addressing the histories that have erected the very barriers that these women are supposed to miraculously overcome. Second, feminist digital activists who are involved in development work mobilize a politics of care rooted in solidarity and pleasure in negotiating and defying technocapitalist paradigms of digital inclusion. Therefore, care is used in numerous ways, from making profit and furthering exploitation to building collaborative worlds. This book studies how care is mobilized in the inexorable path of digital inclusion: the ways in which it is both liberatory and urgent, as well as uncomfortable and entangled with violence. Thus the making and unmaking of a Third World Technological Woman lies at the crux of In Defense of Solidarity and Pleasure: Feminist Technopolitics from the Global South.
The implications of the ubiquity of digital technologies and of techno-solutionist discourses and policies for solving the complex problems inflicted on historically oppressed communities are at a critical juncture. Women, queer and gender nonconforming/nonbinary communities, immigrants, poor people, people with disabilities, Black and Indigenous people, and people of color are increasingly considered both threats to and instruments of social, political, and economic stability and prosperity. We must continue to examine both the possibilities and the challenges embedded in inclusionary practices and policies. The stakes are high for feminist politics, especially in times of growing injustices and ecological devastation.
Sugiero que el camino de la historia será el de retejer y afirmar la comunidad y su arraigo vincular. (I suggest that the path of history will be one of reweaving and affirming the community and the roots of its bonds.)4
—RITA LAURA SEGATO
In grappling with what I call a feminist technopolitics of care, I found myself immersed in numerous understandings, practices, and theories. Care as both liberatory and repressive. Care to flourish; care to discipline. Care as a collective force; care deployed as an individualistic strategy. Care as romantic and bucolic; care as pragmatic and raw. Care as vulnerable. Care essentialized and exploited as “women’s work”; labor that is essential for capitalism yet simultaneously decimated, unvalued, and unequally distributed along racial and class divides.5 Care as a vital feminist commitment and principle.6 Care as an indispensable force in building the worlds we want to inhabit.
Care flourished in my fieldwork as a political, ethical, and affective force—following feminist science and technology scholar María Puig de la Bellacasa—that moved activists.7 These acts kept reminding me of the many conceptualizations of care from the margins of US academia by Latin American, Black, Indigenous, queer, and disabled scholars and activists. The ways in which I use politics of care are indebted to this lineage. To foreground care and emotions as sites of politics interrogates the modern/rationality paradigm, built on objectivity and reason, and legitimizes other forms of being and knowing.8 For many communities, care—in the forms of love, protection, eroticism, rage, joy and pleasure, spirituality, solidarity, dissent, discomfort—has been embedded in their production of knowledge, an act of political resistance, of survival and protection, and of building coalitions across difference.9 These registers offer “visceral, material, and emotional heft to acts of preservation that span a breadth of localities: selves, communities, and social worlds.”10 Sociologist Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar says in her analysis of the recent feminist protests in Latin America: “We know that we need to reject, impede, inhibit, deactivate, confront, and blockade the multiple apparatuses of dispossession that attack our most intimate and decisive creations, everything that allows us to care for and regenerate life as a whole, both human and nonhuman life.”11 Care is the ultimate sustainer of life, always, but particularly during catastrophic times.
Care is all this, yes, but we must also “unsettle care,” following historian of science Michelle Murphy’s work and warning in her critical examination of the entanglement of feminist practices, empire, and colonialism with caring politics.12 Development has aimed to “care for” certain populations: mostly those marked as poor, marginalized, and forgotten. The state mobilizes the value of care so that it can be unburdened of the responsibility of caring for the most marginalized populations. Care has been embedded in discourses and practices of rescuing the “other,” of white saviorism, of waging war and causing death.13 Care is also too often associated with ideals of beauty and purity in a system that erases the ugly, painful, and exhausting work of care.14 Care is about “getting your hands dirty” in both literal and metaphoric ways. Care is hard.
In this book I use politics of care to understand how care gives meaning and value to life in relationship, human and nonhuman. It is vital to understand that concepts of interdependence, communality, and relationality, for instance, are prevalent in bodies of thought and praxes of numerous Indigenous peoples across the world—within their own specificities—that have been both undermined and exploited by Western/colonial thought.15 Hi‘ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart and Tamara Kneese explain that care is “a relational set of discourses and practices between people, environments, and objects.”16 I use care to understand how feminist digital activists relate to each other, to the communities they serve, to the principles they stand for, the technologies they live and work with, and the worlds and futures they are building.
I also use care to understand how development builds on tropes aligned with femininity such as nurturing and self-sacrifice in a race to include women in the “digital revolution,” as well as the complexities of feminist organizational caring politics. My use of politics of care is thus also attentive to power, governance, and control, as it borrows from the term politics of life attributed to Michel Foucault’s theories on biopolitics.17 It attends to the “vexation of care,” as Murphy says, by looking at its limitations as well as its possibilities. Development discourse on technology skillfully uses care as a mechanism to counter the cold, impassive, market-oriented prescriptions for the place of women in the digital society. In feminist digital activism, care is both liberatory and brimming with conflict and negotiations. “Relationality is all there is, but this does not mean a world without conflict nor dissension,” Puig de la Bellacasa argues.18
We want to create new visions, imaginaries, and narratives that open up the possibility of conceiving technology from another perspective and design futures that ensure life in community.19
Solidarity and pleasure do not inhabit separate silos. They are intertwined as parts of a politics of care, although my analysis might focus on one more than another in relation to activists’ priorities and work. They are not only ideas. They are also fundamental dimensions of economic, political, and social practices. Psychoanalyst, cultural critic, and curator Suely Rolnik argues that “our challenge is in overcoming the nefarious dichotomy between micro-and macropolitics, seeking to articulate them in all of the relational fields of our daily life and our collective insurrectional movements.”20 There is power and a tremendous capacity for transformation in micropolitical spaces and tactics. If we aim to “defend life,” to live life with dignity—human and nonhuman—amid the increasing precariousness of life, solidarity and pleasure anchored in our daily lives must also structure our politics.21 We have seen iterations of both throughout numerous bodies of social theory, starting from centuries of Indigenous thought. Solidarity and pleasure have been deployed as instruments to advance capitalist accumulation as well as to sustain life in the face of devastation and violence.
In the contexts I study, politically located in the global South, solidarity and pleasure are not only means of survival for activists but also subversive tactics. They are woven into the fabric of how they take care of each other and the communities they work with. As such, these bonds are a target of colonial and capitalist schemes. My definition of solidarity stems from the field, and by it I mean horizontal forms of collaboration, kindness, and a profound sense of integrity and justice. I employ solidarity not as a blind form of unity and harmony, but as what feminist theorist Chandra Talpade Mohanty describes as an acknowledgment of shared interests that centralize the value of difference.22 This is in line with political theorist Jodi Dean’s “reflective solidarity” that both recognizes common oppressions and individual specificity arising “through critique and discussion.”23
In this book pleasure is mostly concerned with sexual and erotic pleasure, but it is theorized expansively to include joy, desire, play, and experimentation expressed and enacted by historically oppressed and dissident communities.24 Pleasure is thus a collective tactic of defiance in the face of violence. But pleasure, and moreover sexual pleasure, is not meant to convey an unblemished form of happiness; pleasure is entangled with power, violence, and risk (as amply theorized by Foucault).25 In her deft analysis of sexual optimism, cultural theorist Maggie Nelson says that often the terms pleasure and desire exasperate her because they seem to presume a happiness that does not necessarily align with the realities of sexuality. And, yet, she argues: “No one wants the price of desire to be fatal disease or a life-shattering assault. Expanding the space for the practice of freedom means working to diminish the likelihood of such things for ourselves and for others.”26 “Expanding the space” for solidarity and pleasure is also a practice of justice.
Solidarity is akin to feminist anthropologist Rita Laura Segato’s “politics of connections.”27 I use Segato’s powerful framework of a “politics of connections” throughout this book to examine the politics of care of both feminist digital activist practices and global development discourse. Amid a world in which extreme violence—particularly against racially minoritized women and feminized bodies in all their diversities—and ecological destruction is rampant, Segato proposes a “politics in feminine key” that “reweaves community using the fragments that are left.”28 This politics in feminine key breaks away from the statist masculinist politics of a historically destructive public sphere, based on bureaucratization and the modern-rational paradigm, by extending the politics of domesticity and its “technologies of sociability and management.”29 Far from establishing binaries or essentializing women and women’s work, a politics in feminine key is a subversive and radical politics of transformation. It does not center identities but relationships. This re-politicized politics of connections is not instrumental, but a way of being. Segato counterposes a politics of connections to a “politics of things” and the “thing-ification of everything” produced by capitalism as the ultimate sign of happiness and success.30 The persistence of colonial practices exercised by modern states and corporate capital both targets and appropriates “connections” because these threaten their extractive and accumulative objectives, thus also “thing-ifying” these bonds.
The goal of a politics of connections is not to take over the state, but rather to be “amphibious” with inter-and extra-state projects created by the communities themselves. In other words, the objective is not to take over already established institutions but rather work with and beyond them. The objective is that communities with a shared vision for the future trace their own paths. The activists of Sulá Batsú and APC WRP take a similar approach with projects that target state and transnational institutions and others that center community building and autonomy.
Similar to solidarity, the disciplining and control of sexuality (and pleasure and joy)—of women’s, men’s, trans, and nonbinary individuals—have been central to colonial, modern, and developmental projects.31 These sexualities have historically been constructed as nonnormative in relation to a universalized and unmarked white bourgeois sexuality that represents heterosexuality, cisnormativity, restraint, and modesty.32 With practices and discourses on sexuality deployed to control and stigmatize marginalized communities across political geographies, the use of pleasure is particularly subversive. “The colonial-patriarchal-modern expression adequately describes the priority of patriarchy as the appropriator of the bodies of women, and the body as the first colony,” Segato explains.33 Pleasure thus disrupts colonial paradigms by centering subaltern bodies and sexualities deconstructing imaginaries of victimhood as well as of heroes and saviors.34 It unravels these tropes because pleasure is both bountiful and messy. Feminist development scholars have insisted on calling for scholarship that explores the complexity of sexuality and pleasure in the global South.35 Gender and development scholar Andrea Cornwall, for instance, argues that discomfort surrounding pleasure is precisely what is needed to disrupt development contexts: “Talk of ‘pleasure’ takes us beyond monochromatic representations of abjection, reminding us of the humanity of those whose lives development agencies would wish to improve. Pleasure-based approaches suggest more prospect of enhancing well-being and saving lives than current development models.”36
Pleasure and joy are central to anticolonial justice. It is impossible to think about the gendered body as a site of colonialism and struggle without delving into what theorist and activist Lorena Cabnal has argued about the body being a “central part of the decolonial project.” Cabnal calls for the “defense of the territory-body-earth” to enable emotional and spiritual healing as well as land restitution.37 In Latin America and the Caribbean, for instance, Black and Indigenous women are making a resounding call in defense of pleasure and joy as sites of resistance and re-existence. Leading to the 2022 historic victory of the Left in Colombia, the vice presidential candidate Francia Márquez—a Black woman, former domestic worker, single mother, and climate justice activist—raised the slogan Vivir sabroso (Live deliciously), which she explains has been used in the Afro-Colombian community for years, meaning “living without fear, living with dignity, living with a guarantee of rights.”38 Cabnal says that the key is “to vindicate happiness without losing our indignation.”39 And the words of the Honduran Indigenous leader Berta Cáceres, murdered for her climate justice activism, reverberate: “There is no larger act of rebelliousness than preserving happiness” (as remembered by her daughter, Olivia Marcela Zuñiga Cáceres).40 In a fascinating comparison, US Black feminists such as Audre Lorde have forged decades of scholarship and activism on the political significance of Black pleasure and joy.41
1. Moussié, Challenging Corporate Power; Adams and Martens, Fit for Whose Purpose?; Seitz and Martens, “Philanthrolateralism.”
2. Costanza-Chock, “Design Justice, A.I., and Escape from the Matrix of Domination”; Eubanks, Automating Inequality; Noble, Algorithms of Oppression; Zuboff, Age of Surveillance Capitalism; Couldry and Mejías, Costs of Connection; Benjamin, Race after Technology; Arora, “Bottom of the Data Pyramid”; Amrute, Encoding Race, Encoding Class.
3. In this book technology and digital technology mostly refer to information and communication technologies including hardware and software, mobile phones, smartphones, computers, the internet, social media, and applications (apps) in interaction with society, comprising sociotechnical systems. Moreover, technologies refers to ways of being and knowing in what Tressie McMillan Cottom describes as “technique, technology, and process of modern life.” Since I started my research in 2015, definitions of digital technologies increasingly include big data, the internet of things, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning. Throughout this book I specify when digital technologies refer to the latter. McMillan Cottom, “Where Platform Capitalism and Racial Capitalism Meet,” 441.
4. Segato, La guerra contra las mujeres, 30. My translation.
5. Bhattacharya, “Introduction: Mapping Social Reproduction Theory”; Fraser, “Contradictions of Capital and Care”; Federici, Revolution at Point Zero; James, Our Time Is Now.
6. There is a large and long history of literature on feminism and care; see, among many others, Held, Ethics of Care; Ruddick, “Care as Labor and Relationship”; Camps, Tiempo de cuidados; Fisher and Tronto, “Toward a Feminist Theory of Caring”; Pateman, Sexual Contract; Ruddick, “Maternal Thinking.”
7. Puig de la Bellacasa, “‘Nothing Comes Without Its World.’”
8. Collins, Black Feminist Thought; Simpson, As We Have Always Done.
9. Anzaldúa, Light in the Dark = Luz en lo Oscuro; Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic”; Cabnal, Feminismos diversos; Segato, La guerra contra las mujeres; Gargallo, Feminismos desde Abya Yala; Paredes, “El feminismocomunitario”; Moraga and Anzaldúa, This Bridge Called My Back; Hull, Scott, and Smith, But Some of Us Are Brave.
10. Hobart and Kneese, “Radical Care,” 2.
11. Gutiérrez Aguilar, “Because We Want Ourselves Alive.” My emphasis.
12. Murphy, “Unsettling Care.”
13. Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?”
14. Cortés, “Generación Incubadora.”
15. It is fundamental to point out that theories and practices of relationality have a millenary history in numerous Indigenous communities. Erasing this is yet another form of oppression, as Zoe Todd powerfully argues in “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take” (16): “So it is so important to think, deeply, about how the Ontological Turn—with its breathless ‘realisations’ that animals, the climate, water, ‘atmospheres’ and non-human presences like ancestors and spirits are sentient and possess agency, that ‘nature’ and ‘culture,’ ‘human’ and ‘animal’ may not be so separate after all—is itself perpetuating the exploitation of Indigenous peoples.” I incorporate aspects of Latin American Indigenous feminist thought throughout this book. See also TallBear, “Why Interspecies Thinking Needs Indigenous Standpoints.”
16. Hobart and Kneese, “Radical Care,” 2.
17. Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics.
18. Puig de la Bellacasa, “‘Nothing Comes Without Its World,’” 204.
19. Ricaurte, “Mapping,” 20.
20. Rolnik, Esferas de la insurrección, 13. My translation.
21. Gutiérrez Aguilar, “Because We Want Ourselves Alive.”
22. Mohanty, Feminism without Borders, 7.
23. Dean, “Feminist Solidarity, Reflective Solidarity,” 5.
24. It is important to note that APC WRP is not advocating for an unbridled online sexual agency. This is also why I have refrained from calling their practices “sex-positive,” a concept often associated with white feminism in the global North. Manifestations of sexual pleasure are complicated and are intersected by age, race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, religion—in sum, by power and social location. I study online sexual and erotic pleasure because it stemmed from my empirical findings, but in this book pleasure is also about joy, fun, experimentation, and desire. Perhaps “sexual pleasure” is not an analytic that can be used by some communities, but pleasure, in its multiple and vast dimensions, could be, as adrienne maree brown has argued in her book Pleasure Activism. For an excellent critique of US white feminist “sex positivism” and its history of equating women’s sexual liberation with “empowerment” without an intersectional analysis, see Zakaria, Against White Feminism.
25. Foucault, History of Sexuality, vol. 1.
26. Nelson, On Freedom, 91.
27. Segato, La guerra contra las mujeres. My translation.
28. Segato, 27. My translation.
29. Segato, 27. My translation.
30. Segato, 29. My translation.
31. Lugones, “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System.”
32. Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes.”
33. Segato, La guerra contra las mujeres, 19 (my translation).
34. Jolly, Cornwall, and Hawkins, Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure.
35. Morris et al., Researching Sex and Sexualities; Wieringa and Sívori, Sexual History of the Global South; Pereira, Changing Narratives of Sexuality; Harcourt, “What a Gender Lens Brings to Development Studies”; Harcourt, “Gender and Development.”
36. Cornwall, “Buzzwords and Fuzzwords,” 480.
37. Santiago, “Lorena Cabnal.”
38. Reyes, “¿Qué significa realmente el ‘vivir sabroso’ de Francia Márquez?” My translation.
39. López, “Lorena Cabnal.”
40. “A un año del asesinato de líder indígena hondureña Berta Cáceres.” My translation.
41. Lorde, Sister Outsider. See also brown, Pleasure Activism; Nash, “Black Sexualities”; Morgan, “Why We Get Off.” There is also excellent scholarship that complicates the historical coupling of technology and Black victimization, such as André Brock’s work on Black joy and digital practice (Distributed Blackness), and Catherine Knight Steele’s on Black women’s appropriation of technology (Digital Black Feminism).