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Design for one: Centering the inadequacy of technology

[By Chinar Mehta]

The first computer in my own home, years ago, was kept in the only room with air conditioning; my parents’ bedroom. The tangle of wires positioned my parents as the authority in the household – there was nothing we could do on the “personal” computer that could escape their notice. Few of us can deny the significance of the place of the computer, the television, or the telephone in our homes. Chairs and sofas point towards the television, and the location of the telephone censors who we call and how we talk to them. Even my first interactions with a mobile phone, otherwise designed to be for the individual, were on my mother’s phone; a cause of minor annoyance for her when the ringtone would be altered without her consent. My mobile phone today, however, has become much harder to share due to all that I need to protect. I keep it locked with my fingerprint. It contains access to my social networks, fusing a kind of personal identity with my phone. Even more importantly, my phone maps my bank account to me with apps like BHIM or Google Pay, DigiLocker allows me to carry valid digital copies of my identity documents, and Aarogya Setu rules me safe or unsafe from SARS-CoV 2 infection. The phone (and its accessory technologies) is increasingly designed to not just be on my person at all times, but being me. While this may seem like a runaway train at this point to many “digital natives”, we must be willing to denaturalise the mobile phone as a “private” object with design strategies that will be universally acceptable.

Phose users in India: Design for one? (Image credit: UN Women Gallery)

The design context of the smartphone is one where the positioning of the imagined user is severely limited. Many research studies speak to the wide digital divide between men and women in South Asian countries, particularly India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In India, men are 33% more likely to own a phone than women, according to a study conducted by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The study attempts to explain this divide with reference to the gender norms that govern acceptable usage of mobile phones by women, positing the device as “challenging traditional gender norms”. 47% of the women who used mobile phones were borrowers of phones, and the study claims that this poses significant constraints on diversification and independence, especially when the phones are borrowed by women from their husbands. Moreover, the study also suggests that many more women use phones for a simple activity such as making a call, as opposed to something more complex, like using social media websites. These conclusions can be worrying considering research that suggests that access to internet technologies for women in developing nations exposes them to a wide range of benefits; empowering rural women in India and South Africa, helping Iranian women participate in the national discourse via blogging, social media aiding women entrepreneurs in Indonesia, among others. 

While it may be fruitful to examine the various gender norms that guide the rules and contexts of use of mobile phones in India, what generally escapes scrutiny is the assumption that sharing technology such as a mobile phone does not allow for it to be used in the best way possible. The technology itself evades examination. This points to a predilection of some social science research where questions “tend to be framed in terms of what is wrong with the person who is experiencing the problem, rather than in terms of what it is about the current social order that makes the problem likely”. This criticism of the framing of questions also holds true for when the design of the technology is not adequately addressed, but contextual social norms are.  The assumption here is that developing societies have restrictive social norms that do not allow for the use of technology that is seemingly designed for universal use. Internet technologies are driven by commercial or state interests, seldom being analysed as being inadequate for use by marginalised identities. The users of most technologies are imagined by their developers to be very different from those our team at FemLab.Co imagines as part of this project; normatively an “ungendered” white user. In this way, technologies fit into a larger ecosystem of a neoliberal economy of deeply gendered culture and design. The mobile phone, particularly, becomes by design a technology each individual must have access to and use in a certain way. 

With this context, revisiting the mobile phone as a private object becomes crucial. The personal computer of the 1990s, and even the feature phone to a certain extent, was used in a manner that kept the connections between individual identity and the machine loose. It lent itself to a shared use in a household, and it was used as such. The smartphone, in this regard, precludes shared use by design. Social media applications add to this predicament; all of them are designed for use by one person using the device. And yet, surprisingly, according to research, an economic constraint is not the only reason why people may share mobile phones. Of course, social norms in some communities make it acceptable to share mobile phones between members of a family or even friends. Even relatively privileged women, sometimes, have little interest in owning a smartphone. When women do use smartphones, many of them do not make use of social media, which may require a particular kind of technical skill. This kind of skill can be assumed for those familiar with technology prior to the smartphone, like a computer for instance, but not for others. Again, this is not simply a question of teaching individuals to use technologies. Rather, I would like to pose a different question; what is it about a technology that prevents or limits its use? What do women workers in diverse industrial sectors in Hyderabad find lacking in any media technology? Moreover, as far as technical skill is concerned, are there opportunities to learn with shared devices within groups?

We should be concerned about the lack of ownership of mobile phones, but one way to mitigate the problem is to redesign smartphones as devices that become part of an existing pattern of media use (or communicative ecology). Therefore, I argue that if many women are not able to derive the full benefits of a smartphone because (among other reasons) they are sharing the phone with someone else, this stems partly from the design of the smartphone (and its applications) itself. It is essential to centre this inadequacy. Similarly, if women are negotiating with the intended use of the mobile phone, we have a lot to learn from these negotiations. It would be with this spirit that we, at FemLab.Co, would attempt to look at the communicative ecologies of women workers in Hyderabad.