Encoded Inequality: Hacking the Gender Bias in Media Technology

Utilizing a case study of the old technology of video game cartridges, my dissertation project interrogates the gendered biases and assumptions embedded within media technologies at multiple levels of production and play through reverse engineering practices. This project draws from initiatives by feminist technology scholars such as Lisa Parks and Lisa Nakamura, as well as ROM hacking and DIY culture to trace, recover and discuss forms of female labor, using both the methodology and material itself as subjects, while also drawing inspiration and examples from artist Rachel Simone Weil’s work, femme disturbance, and feminist labor theory. My analysis utilizes theories on the commodification and fetishization of communications technologies and workers, as well as scholarship on gendered performance and labor, particularly affective labor theory. Using these theories as a catalyst, my research looks for evidence in the residue of gendered, othered or fetishized labor within the materiality and mediation of cartridges.

I use a mixture of historical documents, instruction manuels, theoretical texts and ROM hacks to discuss the ways in which labor practices of using and creating the technology of the electrical socket is distinctly gendered, and how these labor practices and associated ideological constructs become embedded in the very technology itself. Yet, these practices and ideologies have become erased and/or imperceptible via naturalization, which greatly affects the ways in which we understand and mythologize the technology’s history as well as its role in larger, multinational critical infrastructure.

I use the video game case study to point to larger issues in current culture, namely that most technologies not only reinforce views that males are primary technology consumers and producers, but that hegemonic masculinity and domination is reflected through the format of media technology itself. Therefore, to create feminist media, we must rethink both the medium and process of design, including infrastructural, cultural, political and social contexts.