Women, Technology, and the Myth of Progress

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9780130985958: Women, Technology, and the Myth of Progress

This book explores reproductive, household, and office technology in order to challenge popular notions of technology as progressive for women. It argues that technology gives its benefits differentially, depending on such critical social issues as race, gender, and class. Topics in this provocative analysis include the social construction of technology, the status of women, reproductive technology, office technology, household technology, the myth of progress, and implications for social change. A provocative read for anyone interested in women's issues with regard to household, workplace, and reproductive technological breakthroughs.

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We live in a time of rapid technological development and, while most assessments of this are decidedly optimistic, some have voiced concern that these changes—as varied as test-tube babies, intelligent robots, smart irons, and genetic engineering—are outstripping our ability to understand or control them. Few would deny that technology has brought improvements in the way many of us live. My own family history offers undeniable evidence of its benefits. As a boy, my father would comb the Brooklyn waterfront for bits of coal to warm his family's small apartment, which lacked centralized heating, while my mother spent years of her childhood bedridden with . diseases that my children, given modern antibiotics, wouldn't even know by name. But the belief that technology is purely beneficial needs to be reexamined, not to condemn technology, but to understand more clearly the stereotypical images we have of it, as opposed to its many realities.

This book is an effort to contribute to a critical analysis of technology, offering ways to think about it, make sense of it, and even challenge the direction of technological development. I have been able to draw on a rich and diverse academic literature, bringing together elements that have not been combined previously. I challenge the association of technology and progress by looking at a range of technologies (reproductive, household, and office technologies) and their development and implementation in terms of diverse groups of women. I resist the assessment of technology as either "good" or "bad," perspectives that characterize much public debate about technology and that predominate in media reporting. I insist instead that technology be understood in social terms, as a product of society, developed and utilized in ways that defy such dichotomies. My training as a sociologist has taught me the value of a focus on social inequality and its impact on all dimensions of society, thus including technological development. When viewing technology through a lens of social inequality, it becomes vividly evident that it bestows its benefits differentially, depending on crucial social categories including gender, race, and class. A focus on diverse groups of women and a range of technologies often associated with them, offers one way of demonstrating the oaring impacts of technology.

In addition to an emphasis on inequality, the book also offers an analysis of the myth of progress, the pervasive Western belief that connects technological development with continual improvement for all. Reflection on the experiences of women encourages us not only to question the veracity of such claims, but to ask more specifically who benefits from technology and indeed how we define progress. I use the profound insights of sociologist Max Weber, with his concerns about the very meaning of modern technological society, in order to illuminate these issues.

I hope this book will add to a more critical understanding of the role of technology in our society, a rethinking of the myths we hold about it and, more specifically, a keener recognition of the intersections of social inequality and the development and uses of technology. Finally, the book intends to signal that social change is both necessary and possible, but that it will not emerge through a technological fix. If our problems with technology are rooted in social inequality and mythical ideas about technological development, then these must be the targets of social change.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I wish to thank many friends, relatives, and colleagues who encouraged me and provided valuable suggestions throughout this project. In particular, Mona Harrington offered her enthusiasm and her keen insights at an early stage of my writing, and this assistance sustained me throughout. Ben Harris initially got me interested in the significance of issues regarding workplace technology and women, and the project seemed to grow from there. Bill Hoynes, Peter Leonard, Marque Miringoff, Pat Wallace, Deborah Moore, and Beth Weitzman read all or portions of the manuscript and provided invaluable suggestions. Marque Miringoff also assisted with the graphs. Much needed support was also provided by Eleanor Dillon, Jane Parsons-Fein, Eileen Shea, and Jeanne Yglesias. Many Vassar students provided excellent research assistance in preparing this book. I thank, in particular, Rachel Pinsky, as well as Corinne Adams, Rebecca Dudley, Thomas Finni, Sarra Hale-Stern, S. Anne Johnson, Linda Ohman, and Valerie Sobel. I also gratefully acknowledge the constructive and insightful advice offered by the reviewers who commented on the manuscript: Abby L. Ferber, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs; Joan Ferrante, Northern Kentucky University; Claire Renzetti, St. Joseph's University; and Susan Tiano, University of New Mexico. Finally, and most importantly, I thank Pete for leis unfailing enthusiasm and constant encouragement.

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