The Production of a Feminist InterSpace

This is a position paper in response to Johanna Drucker’s chapter “Interface and Interpretation”, in her 2014 book Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Productions. To read the author’s related annotated bibliography, click here.

The Production of InterSpace: Imagining a Feminist GUI Design Process

by Nathalie Down

The structure of an interface is information, not nearly a means to accept it.

I want to draw attention to Drucker’s position that the graphical user interface (GUI) is best understood as a “space of provocation in which a performative event takes place,” rather than a “representation of computational processes” (138). This paradigmatic shift from perceiving interface as a thing to perceiving it as a space, an “ecology” even, carries with it incredible theoretical, practical, and cultural implications. While such implications are deserving of a new field of study, a thesis at least, I present here a rough sketch of relevant implications in light of my current research on how to support the proliferation of digital narratives from the margins.

To begin, I would like to introduce several spatial theorists whose work could be furthered, developed, made contemporary and new, through Drucker’s spatial concept of interface. Meet Henri Lefebvre. His seminal 1974 work The Production of Space introduced the differential triad of physical, mental and relational spaces to spatial theory. It would not surprise me to learn that Lefebvre’s concept of ‘space as produced through social interaction’ influenced Drucker’s own writing. Next, enter geographer David Harvey and urbanist Edward Soja, both of whom helped merge Lefebvre’s ideas of space with theories of social justice in the 1990s, into what became the field of ‘spatial justice.’ Spatial justice theory provides a framework for examining how the organization of space facilitates social relations of justice and injustice, a framework that may prove invaluable to begin analyzing the social justice dimensions of interface spatiality. And of course, father of socio-cultural genealogy, Michel Foucault, whose trialectic of power-space-knowledge underpins a majority of contemporary critical theory, and is of direct relevance to Drucker’s argument that an interface is more than a carrier of knowledge, it is a knowledge system unto itself, thus rife with power relations. To synthesize these theoretical frameworks with Drucker’s position and relate it to my current research, cultural philosopher Judith Butler’s notion of ‘performativity’ – in which repetitive behaviours constitute our subjectivities – proves to be quite helpful, as does cultural critic bell hook’s identification of the margin as a space of radical openness, possibility and resistance.

In 1980, Foucault noted, “It is surprising how long the problem of space took to emerge as a historico-political problem”. Similarly, and in light of Drucker’s insight, it is equally surprising how the problem of interface space has yet to emerge as a noteworthy historico-political problem! Throughout my graduate-level studies in digital media, Johanna Drucker is, to date, the only scholar I have encountered discussing what I believe to be a central problematic in our contemporary digitally mediated life. Just as the design of city spaces either promotes pedestrian traffic or constrains it through placement of sidewalks and car-free zones, so too the design of screen spaces either promotes activities and behaviours, or limits them. And it is not just a person’s actions that are affected by the affordances and constraints inherent in interface space, indeed as subjects we are constituted through such interactions, and are easily ‘othered’ in the process.

Drucker explains that an interface is a “symbolic space in which we constitute ourselves through the experience of its particular structures and features” (147). So what happens when a subject (a.k.a. ‘user’) does not understand how to interact with an interface, or they feel confused or lost or helpless in their interaction, or the graphical structure carries with it a foreign, or even dangerous set of values? These situations demonstrate that ‘users’ are all in fact ‘subjects’, subjects who interpret the graphical structures found within interface space in relation to intersections of gender, class, culture, race, age, ability and myriad life experiences. Yet these differences of interpretation are missing from HCI and UI / UX discourses. Even the prominence of the term ‘user’ points to an abstraction of a human, not a complex being. An abstraction stripped of race, gender, language, stripped of any distinguishing characteristics, save for perhaps developer status (eg. experienced users, novice user, expert users).

Recently a friend told me a story of trying to empower his grandmother through helping her access a digital narratives database that emerged out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). His grandmother is survivor of the residential school system. She has lived in remote northern communities her whole life, holds precious cultural knowledge, speaks their traditional language, and can still skin a dear in one perfect sheath. My friend knows and appreciates she has no use for email, or online shopping, and has never tried to push the use of digital technologies on her. This was different though. This was big. Real. Relevant. Powerful. The stories and information held within this database were those of closure, of emancipation, of truth depicting the genocide their people endured, the genocide she had survived. This was the reemergence of oral histories violently stolen so many decades ago. The only caveat – the database had to be accessed through a digital interface. He decided a large screened iPad would be most appropriate, with the font sizes that can be made larger for the elderly and visual impaired, and the easy touch screen. He organized a visit, brought her the new iPad, and explained he would teach her how to use the tool to access these narratives of profounf cultural significance. She was on board… that is until they turned on the iPad. An abundance of brightly coloured cartoon symbols floating through a purple galaxy appeared on the screen. She was disgusted, angered, and offended. What is this, she wanted to know, these symbols of the white man? My friend tried to coax her, tried to show her the site, but she would have none of it. The graphical structure and symbolic meaning of the interface housing the information she had waited her life to hear, were not only unfamiliar and confusing, they signified the final culmination of utter colonization. Even her emancipation would be colonized, and so she turned away, an act of resistance, and refused the stories that belonged to her.

A few days later, he more fully understood the implications of what had occurred – the utter colonial saturation of digital spaces, his mandatory participation within such spaces, the retraumatization trap he had set in his grandmother’s lap, her recognition and refusal of it. He was both proud, and crushed.

My friend shared this story with me when I told him about my current research. I began wondering, how might that experience have been different had the bright apple icons been replaced traditional cultural symbols, had the default image been a scene of a meaning, had the language been her own. How would the graphics be arranged? What arrangement, what symbols, what ecology would have made my friend’s grandmother’s heart light up? What space would have welcomed her, invited her in, had her stay a while, come back again? These are the questions that need to be asked in the process of interface design. Questions that recognize users are people, and people have cultures, and cultures have symbols, and symbols have power.

Holding Drucker’s insight that interface is information, my research seeks to determine the informational content currently existing in online spaces where women host digital narratives of their experiences of rape and sexual violence. My research also seeks to hypothesize how such graphical knowledge may shape of the narratives living in digital spaces, how it mediates them, constrains them, distorts and glorifies them, validates and discredits them. I want to know this because I want to create a (cyber) space where women would feel comfortable, safe, empowered and inspired to speak about their experiences. I want to create a space that is designed to foster connection among women, a space to explore, feel welcomed. A space where it’s ok not know what you want to do, where you don’t have to ‘do’ anything, where you can just be. Not as a victim, not as a survivor, not as any kind of encompassing identity. Just as a women who has experienced what so many women have, and want to hear from their sisters, want to feel that power of sisterhood, that power of resistance. I want to create a space that shatters the conceptual framework of ‘user’. I want to create a space of citizens.

The public/private dichotomy is blown apart in digital spaces. A woman can sit in her physically ‘private’ space and enter an interactive discursive ‘public’. This creates incredible opportunities for voices and stories that have tended to occupy the margins. And yet the digital architecture is currently rife with information that mimics the very public spaces where women’s voices, indigenous voices, racialized voices are marginalized, if not excluded from the conversation all together. And without knowing that these very architectures tell us we are ‘other’, we are tentative, then how are we to organize effectively? How are we to resist? We must identify how digital spaces speak to us, learn what they are saying, what messages we are being subjected to through the graphical language of interface. We must not accept it as the ‘way it is’. Cyber spaces, being an aleph of sorts, have the potential to be anything we want them to be. But in order to become architects of emancipation we must first recognize the jail in which we now live. My ideas are grand I know. But if there is ever to be a place for millions of women to gather, to speak, to empower each other, to network and organize, to resist the violence it will be a cyber space, a heterotopia in the Internet of Men. It must be skillfully designed.

Drucker’s insights affirm my instincts that these ideas are worth having. That future discourses of ‘Feminist Interface Design’ and ‘Decolonizing Digital Spaces through Visual Knowledge’ and ‘Interface as Space’ and ‘Cyber Geographies’ and ‘Spatial Justice & GUI’ may very well be just around the corner. That we can create spaces where not only is it safe to speak, it is welcomed, and it feels good, it feels powerful. Silence is performed. It is an act of ‘not doing’. It is an act in response act to our environments that tell us, in whatever ways, to maintain this performance. The spaces we inhabit speak to us; tell us what is permissible, what is possible, what is dangerous and discouraged. When we are blind to architectures of patriarchy we are deaf to voices from the margins.

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