Feminism, technology, and objectivity

FemTechNet’s new collaborative course (conceived as a DOCC–a distributed online collaborative course–rather than as a MOOC) includes an assignment for students to add feminist perspectives to articles on Wikipedia about technology. The backlash has taken a predictable tone. FOX worries that this will sully Wikipedia’s pristine objectivity:

Fifteen universities including some Ivy League schools are offering college credit to students who will inject feminist thinking into the popular website Wikipedia. … How the feminist thinking they were seeking would appear was anyone’s guess. … They’re more concerned with making it politically correct than factually correct.

A FOX commentator who spoke about the issue couldn’t figure out how this could be useful, joking that the additions would read: “In 1857, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telegram — a woman would have done it first but she was stuck in the kitchen.” Of course, the commentator’s inability to imagine how a feminist perspective might add to our understanding of technology illustrates the profound need for exactly the interventions this course is proposing.

FOX also misses the point that Wikipedia is peer-edited. Meaning that if admins and users don’t like the additions made by these students–factual or fanciful–they could be edited out and rejected. Clearly there are many benefits to the Wikipedia-style open, crowd-sourced, quasi-democratic creation of knowledge, but what are its limits? If the base of users who edit and administer these pages are hostile to feminist perspectives (rather than indifferent or simply unaware of them), what kind of interventions would be effective? It also raises interesting questions about objectivity. Given that the standards shift and are always context-dependent (eg. journalists follow different rules than scientists to achieve the label ‘objective’) what do the rituals and strategies of objectivity look like in an open, peer-edited environment like Wikipedia?

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