This is your phone on feminism

How to fix our disturbingly unequal relationship with smartphones

 A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk in Austria on smartphones and cybersecurity.

 “Put up your hand if you like or maybe even love your smartphone,” I asked the audience of policymakers, industrialists and students.

Nearly every hand in the room shot up.

“Now, please put up your hand if you trust your smartphone.”

One young guy at the back put his hand in the air, then faltered as it became obvious he was alone. I thanked him for his honesty and paused before saying,“We love our phones, but we do not trust them. And love without trust is the definition of an abusive relationship.”

We are right not to trust our phones. They serve several masters, the least of whom is us. They constantly collect data about us that is not strictly necessary to do their job. They send data to the phone company, to the manufacturer, to the operating system owner, to the app platform, and to all the apps we use. And then those companies sell or rent that data to thousands of other companies we will never see. Our phones lie to us about what they are doing, they conceal their true intentions, they monitor and manipulate our emotions, social interaction and even our movements. We tell ourselves ‘it’s okay, I chose this’ when we know it really, really isn’t okay, and we can’t conceive of a way out, or even of a world in which our most intimate device isn’t also a spy. 

Let’s face the truth. We are in an abusive relationship with our phones.

Ask yourself the first three questions that UK non-profit Women’s Aid suggests to determine if you’re in an abusive relationship:

  • Has your partner tried to keep you from seeing your friends or family?
  • Has your partner prevented you or made it hard for you to continue or start studying, or from going to work?
  • Does your partner constantly check up on you or follow you?

If you substitute ‘phone’ for ‘partner’, you could answer yes to each question. And then you’ll probably blame yourself.

 If this feels dangerously close to trivializing abuse and intimate partner violence, then stick with me just a minute more. What our smartphones and relationship abusers share is that they both exert power over us in a world shaped to tip the balance in their favour, and they both work really, really hard to obscure this fact and keep us confused and blaming ourselves. 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?

 Nope. Our devices are basically gaslighting us. They tell us they work for and care about us, and if we just treat them right then we can learn to trust them. But all the evidence shows the opposite is true. This cognitive dissonance confuses and paralyses us. And look around. Everyone has a smartphone. So it’s probably not so bad, and anyway, that’s just how things work. Right?

Feminism is a secret super-power

Feminists are often the canary in the coalmine, warning us years in advance of coming threats. Feminist analysis of Gamergate first exposed the online radicalization of legions of angry young men for whom misogyny was a gateway drug to far-right politics. More practically, when the US military finally realised the enemy could use running app, Strava, to track the habits and route-maps of soldiers based in hostile environments, domestic violence activists collectively sighed. They’d been pointing out for years that the app is used by stalkers and aggrieved exes to track women. I’m not the first person to notice that in cyber-security, feminism is a secret super-power. Checking every app, data-set and shiny new use-case for how men will use it to endanger women and girls is a great way to expose novel flaws and vulnerabilities the designers almost certainly missed. So, while looking at our relationship with our phones through a feminist lens may be disconcerting, it’s incredibly useful, and in a deliciously counter-intuitive way.

Feminists know about power. Specifically, they know a lot about unequal power relationships; how they are systematically used, and how they are rationalised or explained away as ‘just the way things are’. Long before individual men abuse women, they internalise the logic of “unequal power relationships between men, women and children embedded in social organisations like the family”. Abuse isn’t just pathological. It’s political. Where others might just see some behavioral problems that need fixing, one to one, a feminist sees the abuse of women and girls as something inevitable – even intentional – in patriarchy. So, just as we don’t fix climate change by individually eschewing plastic straws, we don’t fix our smartphones’ designed-in lack of trust by individually trying to spend a bit less time on Twitter.

But that’s just entry-level feminist analysis. It explains why individual solutions won’t fix the structural problem of our trust-wrecking smartphone business model, but it doesn’t get at why the model exists.

Emotional labour holds up patriarchy just as ‘attentional labour’ fuels surveillance capitalism

Australian philosopher Kate Manne points out how misogyny is based on the care, attention, support and service women are expected to give to men. Emotional labour is the currency that patriarchy extracts from us and stockpiles for the winners. There’s a clear parallel between the emotional labour of women under patriarchy and the ‘attentional labour’ extracted from all of us under surveillance capitalism. We’re required to keep clicking on ads, serving up our behavioral data and spending hours every day scrolling, tweeting, liking, surveying and high-fiving.

 Because if we ever stop? Well then the whole damn thing will come falling down. Without adtech the internet will fail. Without the freemium model, there will be no services, no content, no innovation. Big Tech and the phone companies and all the downstream data-brokers have to lie to us about how our devices really work – and who they really work for — because otherwise everything good they’ve built would go away. We must go on sharing more of our lives with devices we love but cannot trust, because even trying to fix it will cause the whole social order to combust. Next thing you know, women will be wearing trousers and thinking they can vote.

Which is to say, everything is impossible until it’s inevitable. One more thing feminists have taught us; to get out of an abusive relationship you first have to see it for what it is. And to change the economic and political order a corrupt business model depends on, you first have to realise that it can be done. Twenty or thirty years ago ‘rape in marriage’ was considered an oxymoron in most Western countries, something that couldn’t be a crime because those in power couldn’t even conceive of wives being able to with-hold consent. Today we have changed mindsets so much it’s almost hard to imagine ourselves back into that moment. And we can do it again.

What would a trustworthy smartphone be like?

We have to imagine a future we want to live in so we can build it.

 A smartphone worthy of both our love and our trust would be a smartphone that is primarily loyal to us. 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.

A smartphone worthy of our love and trust would want the best for us and would actively help us to achieve it. Smartphones can be our second and third and fourth brains. They help people with memory loss or processing deficits to build work-arounds. Similarly, they could help the rest of us extend our memories and build our concentration. Instead of monetizing our distraction, a trustworthy smartphone would help us do the sustained intellectual and creative work that gives our life meaning. It would deepen and broaden our relationships, not exploit them for a social graph. It would dive into immersive storytelling and communication with the goal to make new ways for us to love and be loved.

A smartphone worthy of our love and trust would not just waste less time or wreck less privacy or extract fewer monopoly rents. It would work with us to make us better humans and help squeeze our species through the narrow survival gate of the next hundred years.

 Yes, this is all very utopian. But you know what else was? Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, a feminist utopia written in 1915 that imagined and helped make possible the world of 2015. Imagining better futures is the only way we have ever managed to shrug off settled wisdom and build better lives. 

How do we get there?

There are different ways to configure the financial and political ecosystems our phones dwell in and suck us into. We can pay the full cost of them while also reducing the gargantuan, irrational and once-in-a-millennium returns on capital Big Tech has made for the past twenty years. We can treat the services that run on them more like utilities, with revenue caps and universal service requirements, because that is how grown-up countries deal with life-critical public goods. We can wildly ramp up privacy and data-portability and competition rules, and we can start actually enforcing them. All this requires a change in mindset, what some would call a revolution.

Seeing that our relationship with our smartphones is not healthy and not right is the first step. Understanding that we are not individually at fault for it is the next. Abusive relationships depend on mystification, “the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident.”  Using a feminist lens brings the unequal power relationship into focus, shows just how weird it is and reminds us how we’ve dealt with this kind of problem before.  It’s not for us to tweak who we are, but for our phones to radically change so they are worthy of our love and trust.