Tag Archives: technology

Joelle Fleurantin and her Erotic Haptic Device, part of the Patchworked Venus project.

Feminist tech demos: menstruation, harassment, an erotic wearable, and more

Joelle Fleurantin and her Erotic Haptic Device, part of the Patchworked Venus project.

Joelle Fleurantin and her Erotic Haptic Device, part of the Patchworked Venus project.

On Friday, I interviewed feminist technologists at a demo showcase in New York City. (Thanks to NYC Media Lab (a higher education-city government-industry partnership) for giving me a press pass to their 2015 annual summit.)

Patchworked Venus

Joelle Fleurantin presented Patchworked Venus, “A wearable exploring how computing has given birth to a new form of sexual intimacy”. See the embedded video below for a demo.

Patchworked Venus: Erotic Haptic Device Preview from Joelle F. on Vimeo.

Ms. Fleurantin, (MPS ’15, NYU ITP), discussed her design with me, explaining that instead of being a phallic accessory like a lot of other erotic devices, Patchworked Venus emphasizes other erogenous zones. Her artist’s statement asks:

How can an erotic device become a tool for body modification: an extension of the user rather than a facsimile of an external, imagined person? And what then becomes of this augmented wearer, specifically when her body is not raceless like those present in dominant representations of the cyborg?

Patchworked Venus explores these questions by casting an intimate experience within the context of dress as performance.

The garment, in contrast to conventional vibrators, is meant to be worn, and uses heat, compression, and touch on the wearer’s back, inner thighs, and nipples. A warm circuit provides heat over the breast, motors like those used for haptic response in mobile phones give the user a sensation of touch on the back and the inner thighs, and an inflatable jacket and hood literally embrace the wearer with a pneumatic actuating system, providing a pleasant feeling of compression and constriction. She “designed and milled breakout boards for use with the Adafruit Flora” (from her “About” page). Ms. Fleurantin also considered using soft robotics and lithography to give the wearer a sensation of breath on the skin, but decided against it since that approach would require a large, loud air compressor.

A close-up of some circuitry on the Patchworked Venus garment.

A close-up of some circuitry on the Patchworked Venus garment.

Check out her ten-minute thesis presentation for more on the Erotic Haptic Device and Patchworked Venus. In it, Ms. Fleurantin discusses her influences and process, including her upbringing as a black woman, learning from her mother how important self-presentation, grooming, and clothing were. I noted down some names and links from that presentation and from my conversation with her on Friday:

(I had previously known Ms. Fleurantin because of her work on user research for the Mozilla wiki; I’ll be curious to see her next project as well!)


I spoke with Lucy M. Bonner and tried out her immersive harassment simulator “Compliment”. Ms. Bonner (MFA Design and Technology ’16, Parsons the New School for Design) developed “Compliment,” a virtual reality experience using the Oculus Rift, and you can see a demo video on YouTube if you sign in.

From her artist’s statement:

Compliment is an immersive experience of street harassment designed and created for the Oculus Rift. It demonstrates the fact that harassment creates an atmosphere of intimidation and tension for women on a daily basis, that it is not ok, and that it is not a compliment. Compliment conveys the forceful intrusion and violation of space and attention that makes a woman feel vulnerable, angry, and silenced in order to raise awareness and effect change.

Ms. Bonner received much more street harassment when she moved from Houston to New York City, and used those catcalls she heard in real life to populate the set of harassing comments that simulated harassers say to the player. She appreciates how virtual reality lets her offer, say, a 6-foot-2-inches man a way to experience the world as a shorter, more vulnerable person. “Many of the harassers in the experience are much larger than the player, which creates part of the sense of danger and intrusion in confrontations.” Also: “Players are unable to respond, as in the real world with concern for safety, and are forced to constantly hear and dodge unwanted attention.”

I mentioned to Ms. Bonner a truism I’ve heard (via Adria Richards or Lukas Blakk, I believe) that men tend to use augmented reality experiences like Google Glass to more powerfully navigate the world, while women tend to use them to document their experience in the world. Ms. Bonner wouldn’t put “Compliment” in that latter category, and not just because VR and augmented reality are different approaches; she considers “Compliment” more outwardly focused, showing other people what her experience is like rather than concentrating on gathering proof of the experience itself. “Compliment” conveys, as she puts it, the “cumulative atmosphere of silencing and objectification”.

Joanna Chin and Bryan Collinsworth present d.Bot

Joanna Chin and Bryan Collinsworth present d.Bot


I spoke with Joanna Chin and Bryan Collinsworth about their quite different simulator, d.Bot. “Drawing from female experiences in online and offline dating, d.bot is a chatbot that simulates conversing with an unenlightened male.” Ms. Chin and Mr. Collinsworth (MFA in Design & Technology ’16, The New School) used JavaScript, socket.io, and Parse to develop d.Bot, and made it partially to test out a theory about a different approach to artificial intelligence than you often see. Rather than aiming for a predictive response, d.Bot is trying to stimulate a particular response in the human user. You can try it out at http://bit.ly/dBot.

A demo session with d.Bot

A demo session with d.Bot

Ms. Chin said that it’s been nice to be able to use things guys have said to her, and that hearing or seeing new annoying messages, she figures, it’s going into the pot. (This includes a comment a guy said to her during fair setup, just before I arrived.) You can also click the “Feed Me” button to add something a guy has said to you, if you’d like to add more quotes to the database.

Mr. Collinsworth hopes d.Bot will help men experience what women experience, both online and in the physical world; any one guy saying uncreative things doesn’t experience what it’s like to hear those same comments frequently and en masse. In that vein, he suggested that perhaps Tinder could show users an originality score as they type messages to other users, flagging likely boring messages and discouraging users from sending them.

Ms. Chin said that she’s seen other critique of boring or harassing men (street harassers and OKCupid and Tinder users) that’s more in a name-and-shame mode, and that she wonders whether a critique in the form of humor around originality and creativity would be more likely to change the player’s behavior, as opposed to dinging a user and saying “you’re a bad person”. For her and for other d.Bot users, the bot is also a fun way to vent — she said she’s seen women happy to finally have a chance to talk back to these messages in a safe, consequence-free sandbox.

I asked for her thoughts on feminist dating apps like Bumble, and we discussed the possibility that Bumble (in which women can and men cannot initiate conversation) is just moving the problem a little further down the road; instead of screening out men at the stage of initial online conversation, het women might find that they go on more dates with men who don’t interact well.


Monica Raffaelli presenting SHVRK

Monica Raffaelli presenting SHVRK

Monica Raffaelli presented “SHVRK”: “Surf the crimson wave with fewer fatalities”. Users can sign up to get text message alerts of their friends’ menstrual cycles. Below is her SHVRK v1.0 demo video.

Ms. Raffaelli (MS Integrated Digital Media ’16, NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering) and I spoke a little on Friday, and then she answered my questions on SHVRK, her influences, and her feminism via email:

There are apps for women to track women’s cycles, and there are apps for men to track what they don’t like about women’s cycles. The former often have pastel palettes, cute logos, and an emphasis on fertility and pregnancy. The latter have a handful of angry responses from the feminist community.

As long as bodily fluids and excretions are taboo, periods will be taboo. The app was never meant to change anybody’s views of leftover uterine lining. That said, the divisive nature of the current apps on the market doesn’t offer many people the opportunity to level the playing field. What we need is an app with an interface with universal appeal. We need an app that doesn’t perpetuate traditional stereotypes, but educates and facilitates. We need an app that makes the monthly inconvenience a little more convenient.

I’ve tried apps with features I didn’t need. I don’t need help getting pregnant, I don’t need to share my uterine woes with a community of empathetic blood sisters, and I don’t need cute puppies to guide me through reminders to hydrate. What I do need is an app that alerts my man to the state of my hormones. What about the men who don’t care about the difference between pads and tampons, ovulation versus menstruation, or what PMS really stands for? Well, I don’t blame them­­I’m not sure I would care for the details either if I didn’t go through it monthly.

The first steps were figuring out what would make a man WANT to use the same period app as a woman. My favorite answers were from the “make me a sandwich” types of guys. If this could get you laid, would you use the app? But of course.

Who is this app for? This is for women who like men, men who like women, and women who like women. This is for the monogamous and polyamorous. This is for the people with a sense of humor. This app is for those who say “I don’t trust anything that bleeds for a week and doesn’t die.” This is for anybody who has ever been cockblocked by a period.

“…why you made SHVRK (including your dissatisfactions with other services and apps)…”

My shark week isn’t a big deal. In fact, I usually forget about it, and that’s why I started to use the apps. These would give me a heads up, and I realized, you know who else could use these updates? My boyfriend. When the conversation comes up, he tries to either be understanding or a comedian. He cares, but he’ll never really get it. Why not give him just the information he needs without framing it in etiquette and small talk?

My research showed that there were tons of apps for men. They seemed to have exploded between 2008 and 2010, and most of them enraged the feminist community. Could it be possible to make one app that could appeal to those menstruating as well as those not menstruating?

“…what technologies you used to make it…”

The graphite pencil. Illustrator, After Effects, and the rest of the Adobe suite. Started playing around with a bit of this and that for the final product, from PHP to Swift… This is a lot of learning as I go.

“…what some next steps are…”

Step 1: iOS or Android? Step 2: Launch.

“…your feminism and the ways in which the project is feminist…”

Feminism can be a scary word. Every female in this society develops a relationship with it, and that makes it a weighty, frustrating, and complex matter. Feminism is a spectrum. We might avoid it all costs, or we embrace our own definition, or we embody someone else’s interpretation without realizing it. That’s about all I can say about ‘feminism’.

I want to bid farewell to man­bashing and figurative bra­burning. There are too many women in the world with no access to proper hygiene products and women who are cast out of their homes during that time of the month, but there are also too many man­bashers and bra­burners here fighting a fight that’s been fought here. What if we take another approach to understanding the difference between men and women in the little world of people with smartphones and access to clean running water?

In April, Leslee Udwin visited NYU for a special screening of her film ​India’s Daughter. There are two relevant memorable moments from that night. The first was when Leslee Udwin said she set out to answer ‘why men rape’. The second was when I asked if she had found her answer, and she responded that she expected the men she interviewed to be monsters. She expected them to be textbook psychopaths. What she found was that they were just humans like you and me. They were not ‘bad apples’ spoiling the barrel. The barrel was bad.

There are bad apple feminists the same way there are bad apple chauvinists. SHVRK is not about redefining ‘man’ or ‘woman’, but about leveling the playing field between unique individuals like you and me, ​so we don’t have to hear “Are you PMSing? Are you on your period?”

“…​and what or who some of your influences are.​”

Leslee Udwin is pretty amazing, but here I have to officially say Happenstance. Nothing goes up on a pedestal like happenstance. Letting the cards fall as they may is magical and always a little mysterious. Let it lead the way.

And more

I concentrated in this piece on discussing demos from the summit that particularly spoke to me on a feminist level, but I saw women technologists presenting many projects you might find interesting for other reasons. StackedUp uses AI for investigative reporting. NEW YOARK is an augmented reality mobile app that emphasizes the diversity of languages spoken in New York City. Bullet Pointe Lab designs and makes innovative clothes for ballet dancers, such as shorts with heating elements to help warm hips so they can open more fully. I saw multiple more clothing-related apps, natural language processing research, a tool to help you analyze your own social media activity, and a Twitter bot and collaborative storytelling and coding project telling the stories of people incarcerated at the Rikers Island correctional facility. On my way out the door, I spoke to one of the event staffers, a woman who’s working on Haveyouseenthem.org, a project to use the web and stickers on milk cartons to raise awareness of missing Central American and Mexican migrants.

Thanks again to NYC Media Lab and to the innovators who spoke with me.

In defense of Women in Tech (WiT) groups

This is a guest post by Coral Sheldon-Hess, a web developer and librarian in Anchorage, Alaska.
She blogs at sheldon-hess.org/coral and tweets as @web_kunoichi.

This post originally appeared on Coral’s blog.

I’ve been rolling this post around in my head for a couple of days, in between attending conference and binge-(re)watching Firefly.

It turns out, I have put a lot of time and effort—and, more importantly, thought—into creating and running a WiT group, so I have a lot to say on this topic. Also, Rebecca Stavick’s post isn’t the first anti-WiT-post I’ve read by a woman (great response to that one, here), never mind dealing with men’s arguments against these groups; so I’ve had time to think through a lot of these issues.

Myth #1 – Meeting as a group of women isn’t valuable in a male-dominated field.

Rosie the RiveterI really liked Eric Phetteplace’s response on Twitter, but I’m going to add a bit, since I have more than 280 characters to play with.

Networking is incredibly important to moving forward in one’s career, maybe especially so in tech circles, where everything moves so quickly and invitations to work on cool projects, or give important talks, depend so heavily on who knows you. So, on the surface, sure, it makes sense to get face time with male colleagues, and nobody is suggesting you shouldn’t.

But networking within a group of women is also incredibly valuable. Take the Merrill Lynch Four, who met and shared information and talked up one another’s work; they all ultimately ended up better off for it. Self-promotion can be hard for women, but promoting the work of other women? It’s easy to do, it’s never frowned upon, and it’s very effective! Also, it’s only possible if you can get into an environment where 1) you’re talking to other women, 2) about work-related stuff, and 3) you won’t be interrupted by men, who are, on average, better at self-promotion and are therefore likely to dominate the discussion.

Myth #2 – Learning with women is less valuable than learning in a gender-mixed group.

I think most people are aware that women have a lower level of confidence than equally competent men, in STEM subjects, as explored in the Fiorentine paper from 1988, comparing male and female medical students. (Short version: women consistently rated themselves lower on every attribute than their equally capable male colleagues.) You can find a bunch of respectable academic citations about differences in teacher behavior toward male and female students here, but I can also tell you, from six years’ worth of personal experience in male-dominated STEM classrooms: women get very little opportunity to talk, even if they are brave enough to do so. Which they aren’t, on average, due to the confidence gap: women report being afraid of asking stupid questions in front of their far more confident male peers, in part because they tend to misinterpret increased confidence as increased competence.

xkcd: How it works (Two male figures: "Wow you suck at math", male and female figure: "Wow girls suck at math")There is also a legitimate concern, when a woman is outnumbered by men in a STEM setting, that anything she does wrong will be extrapolated unfairly out to all women.

Women in a male-dominated environment, trying to learn about a field that’s generally viewed as male-dominated, also suffer from stereotype threat, which is made worse by prominent tech industry assholes (sorry, but he is) who make incorrect sweeping generalizations like “You have to have started programming at the age of 13 to be any good.” That is, as Philip Guo will tell you, total crap.

Do you know how you go about combating stereotype threat for women? Logic dictates—and now a study shows—that female role models are essential.

So, there it is: female-dominated classrooms, with female instructors, are an obvious win, for women learning technology concepts.

Myth #3 – These groups support gender stereotypes by using “dumbed-down language” and female-coded fonts/colors.

Anchorage Programming Workshop logoAt first, I was totally on board with the idea that pink is problematic, which is why we chose a nice, bright blue-green for Anchorage Programming Workshop, with a logo featuring the Venus mirror to try to emphasize the “for women” aspect. Neither of the hosts for the group is overly feminine in our manner or dress, and we didn’t want to risk excluding other women who don’t identify with pink and rounded fonts. “Our group is for all women!” – that was our intended message.

But you know what? We ended up with pissed off dudes approaching our booth at the Anchorage Maker Faire and parents lamenting that we wouldn’t teach their sons how to code. Until we changed our RSVP form, we got guys RSVPing for our events and then not showing up after receiving the email (that went to all participants) emphasizing that “men are welcome, provided they are the guests of female-identified participants.”

I don’t think we’d get as much of that if we had gone with pink. So… I actually kind of respect the other groups’ forethought, on that count.

As for the “dumbed down language” thing, you know what? “Dumbed down” is so very rarely applicable that I propose we strike it from the lexicon. Making something approachable and friendly, so it doesn’t frighten off someone with low confidence, is a good thing! It’s also really hard to do, so, PROTIP: people who have put a lot of effort into making something usable get really angry when you use a phrase that dismisses their efforts and implies that incomprehensibility is a good goal.

Anything written by a competent instructor for an audience of new people will look “dumbed down” (argh) to an expert; that’s sort of the point. If you go look at the intro video and first week of CS50x, a freshman-level CS class at Harvard and online, you’ll see the same kind of language, the same reassuring tone. Because that is the right way to approach an introduction to technology. It has nothing to do with gender.

We do agree on one thing, sort of:

WiT groups—actually, all technology groups—need to do everything they can to be open to people who aren’t “exactly the same” as one another. Most WiT groups are really good about using “female-identified” as their descriptor, rather than just “female,” which is code that they are LGBT-friendly. Most have codes of conduct, which help advertise their commitment to diversity. Some are explicitly for women of color. These are all great! (And already happening, just, you know, for the record…) That isn’t to say any given WiT group shouldn’t work harder to increase the diversity of its participants; I just disagree that gender is the only path to diversity.

I find anti-WiT rhetoric frustrating, because it’s coming from both sides: men feel left out and want to tell us all about it, and women feel compelled to share their knee-jerk reactions to the color pink. Nobody starts with the assumption “This is a valid approach, based on good research and careful plans,” even though that is, in fact, the case. The arguments against these programs are shallow and easily countered, with only a few minutes’ research, yet they just keep coming.

Fact: WiT groups are a benefit to women and to the technology community at large, and their pedagogy and branding are, for the most part, well thought out and well implemented. They are worthwhile, and they deserve support. If you think they can be improved, volunteer to help, instead of tearing them down with grumpy blog posts.

Drupal Voices 100: Jack Aponte on Diversity, Power and Privilege in Open Source Communities

Neville Park is a queer mixie nerd in Toronto. This post originally appeared at Wild Unicorn Herd.

An interview with Palante Tech‘s Jack Aponte (a. k. a. Angry Brown Butch) on, well, diversity in Drupal.

Background: Drupal is a kind of CMS (content management system); it’s a particularly powerful and versatile platform for building and managing websites. It is free and open source, which means that you don’t have to pay to use it, and anyone can help work on it. There’s a very large and international community of people who use and work on Drupal, and like the wider tech community, it’s dominated by white straight cis men. Open Source people, and Drupal people in particular, pride themselves on having a “doacracy”—a community that values getting stuff done above traditional authority. This could create a beginner-friendly, non-hierarchical environment of subversion and experimentation. In practice we just have white straight cis men getting SUPER DEFENSIVE at the suggestion that maybe they got where they are not only by the sweat of their brow, and shouting down any mention of patriarchy, racism, or any other systemic oppression when people run the numbers and get to wondering why there’s so little minority representation in Open Source.

There is a nice summary of the podcast at the link, and my transcript is below the fold. I’ve added links to give context to some of the references Jack and the interviewer make.

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Quickhit: Remember Ada

The first post I made on geekfeminism.org mentioned that Ada Lovelace Day was approaching. That day, March 24th, is now merely hours away.

Celebrated for the first time last year, Ada Lovelace Day is a day when those of us who curate blogs take the time to write about women in IT and Science fields whom we respect and whose achievements we believe are deserving of acknowledgement.

Get your writing hats on!

[From Mary: Also, as you make your Ada Lovelace Day posts, feel free to comment on this thread with a link to your post and a short excerpt. You can also add your post to your profile once you’ve pledged at findingada.com.]

The Happiness Hat

Behold Lauren McCarthy’s amazing Happiness Hat. It’s knitted hat that digs a spike into the back of your head when it senses that you’re not smiling.

happiness hat from Lauren McCarthy on Vimeo.

It’s amazingly creepy and perturbing. I was reminded of how women in particular are often expected to smile or look actively happy. But further than that, a sort of relentless pressure for self-improvement. McCarthy’s video of the Happiness Hat didn’t make me think, “Oh, if I smile more I might be happier”. Instead it reminded me of the concept of hegemony as “the gun inside your head”. Police your thoughts… or else your conscience will prick you – along with the scary hat spike!

Lauren McCarthy has made a lot of other cool stuff. Take a look. From her bio: “Her work explores the structures and systems of social interactions, identity, and self-representation. She is interested in the slightly uncomfortable moments when patterns are shifted, expectations are broken, and participants become aware of the system. Her work takes any form necessary: video, performance, software, internet art, interactive objects and environments, and media installations.”