Technology and the Law: Articulating a Women's Rights Perspective
14 Pages Posted: 15 Jun 2016
Date Written: June 13, 2016
I have in my office a poster from the NGO Forum of the World Conference, which closed the United Nations Decade for Women, held in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1985. The design is simple: a black, white, and red drawing of a strong and graceful African woman. Upon her head she carries a sign, in place of the traditional pot or basket. The sign reads, "If it's not appropriate for women, it's not appropriate. Tech and Tools at Forum 85, Nairobi."
The poster's specific reference is to the Appropriate Technology movement. Led by women and grassroots activists during the seventies and eighties, this movement challenged the emphasis on big construction projects in foreign aid packages. An "appropriate technology" may be large or small, crafted or "high tech." The important thing is that it be accessible to its users and not require them to conform to its demands. Instead, the technology serves and sustains their chosen way of life.
The vibrant image depicted by my poster also challenges the deterministic conception of technology, the idea of a "technological imperative." Two basic deterministic assumptions have profoundly influenced the law's response to technology: (1) that the pattern of technical process is preordained, and not the product of human choice; and (2) that society must adapt its arrangements in response to technological developments. These beliefs are widely held and tend to deflect critical reactions to new products and obscure opportunities to make technology more socially responsive.
Today, I want to discuss the status of technology in the law and suggest that, to secure women's rights to health and a viable environment, we must re-evaluate and change the law's treatment of technology. I am going to speak very generally about both medical and reproductive health technologies and production technologies which affect the environment. I will discuss conceptual obstacles to changing the law about technology and suggest that identifying cases in which technology has already been the subject of women's struggles may help orient us toward articulating legal rights to appropriate technology.
A threshold difficulty in considering technology is its peculiar invisibility. The familiar is often invisible and our understanding of technology suffers from this limitation. Technology is pervasive and it constitutes the framework for our lives, so we tend not to see individual technologies as objects nor view technological evolution as a category. Indeed, we do not have much lay vocabulary for the term "technology."
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