Shiny New Vessels, Same Old Ghosts: the High-Tech Face of Consumerist Feminism – Info News
I’ve learned from experience that if I’m still feeling bugged by something I saw on the internet two weeks ago, I should probably write about it, and exorcise the demon.
Buzz is a wearable I came across recently via Instagram; it’s a bracelet that has the ability to monitor the blood alcohol level of its wearer. It buzzes with increasing intensity as more alcohol is consumed, flashing red when the wearer has drunk a certain amount, and it also has the ability to send push notifications to friends or family members of the wearer, alerting them to any potential alcohol-related danger they might be in, plus their whereabouts.
Created by Ob-Gyn Dr. Jennifer Lang and New Deal Design, Buzz has been specifically designed as a deterrent for sexual assault. Women, as the group making up the majority of assault victims, are primarily the target audience for the device, but the idea is that both parties on a date can be wearing it. By bumping their Buzz bracelets together, two people enter a date (be it one that is planned in advanced or impromptu) that is then monitored by the cloud through the tracking of location, blood alcohol levels and the ‘good vibes’ or ‘back-off vibes’ the two parties can send to each other by tapping or pressing their bracelets. Sounds potentially useful, although very surveillance-culture-y.
Temporarily putting aside my own reservations about location tracking, I think the ability to send a distress signal is a smart and potentially effective innovation against harassment. But what about the blood alcohol monitoring? The description I first came across pointed out that both the wearer and their date would be alerted to their own and each other’s blood alcohol level, enabling them both, supposedly, to understand when their partner would no longer be able to consent. Buzz is billed not as a breathalyser, but as something that monitors “your capacity to consent,” and something about this feels a little insidious. I struggle to see the monitoring of ability to consent as having any impact on harassment levels — because it doesn’t teach people that they are not by default entitled to sex. If you are already the kind of person to whom consent doesn’t matter, or who thinks an inebriated partner is fair game, then a flashing bracelet isn’t going to stop you, or magically re-educate you. This product has been publicised as an attempt to keep women safe, but it addresses one specific restriction on the freedom of women by supplying another: preventing women from drinking too much is an infliction on female freedom, but it also explicitly reinforces the same old story of women being to blame for their own rape. I get it — Buzz was created to monitor and protect both parties on a date, regardless of gender. This doesn’t erase the fact that the majority of sexual assault perpetrators are men, and the majority of people taken sexual advantage of whilst drunk are women. We have to ask ourselves: according to this wearable, what is the cause of rape? The answer here is irresponsible women. Restrictions on autonomy aside, I also want to know how exactly this is re-educating people regarding sexual harassment and consent. Are we not just installing CCTV on human relations that are already damaged? We need tech that wades in and re-wires those human relations, from the core out.
Other concerns kept slowly surfacing a while after I’d read about Buzz. What’s to stop your date — or indeed, other people — from using the little red light to identify and capitalise on your vulnerability? For a sexual predator, this red light means go, not stop. The monitoring of blood alcohol levels will not re-educate people about sexual entitlement; consent discussions and personal testimonies will. So will, if necessary, punishment. Anointed with this bracelet, I have to say, I would feel highlighted to the type of person who spends their nights out precisely looking for girls who seem a little drunk, a little lost, a little vulnerable. I would also find it so, so humiliating. Forget the sexual predation element for a second — could you imagine being sat opposite your date, taking a swig of beer and having a red light pop up on your wrist? I find it mind-blowing that this design wasn’t written off as too patronising, too infantilising, especially for a generation of women who are constantly being ego-stroked by large corporations about how strong we are, how fierce and independent we are. So fierce and independent that we’re expected to accept being tagged and having our drink intake limited in order to coddle and cushion men unable to comprehend the basics of consent?
But this is not new; from dressing ‘responsibly’ to avoiding lone travelling, women have always been expected to shoulder the burden of rape risk management. What is new is the fascinating metamorphosis of the capitalist hijacking of feminism as it transcends pop culture and begins to bubble up into the tech sector. I am not being sarcastic; I think it’s genuinely really interesting to see how designers and engineers and programmers respond to societal desire and it’s exciting for me that feminism and other social movements, for the first time in a very long time, are surfacing repeatedly in that societal desire. Unfortunately, the products churned out in response very rarely seem to come from the core beliefs of the movement. Consider female Viagra, about which Laurie Penny has written a great article that goes into more detail than I do here -insert link-. The promotion of the drug supposedly responded to a female desire for sexual autonomy and sexual pleasure — yet at the core of female sexual dysfunction is not a lack of Viagra, but societal onus on male pleasure as taking precedent. On the way the woman looks during sex being more important that the way she feels. Complex elements that are born of both the pressures and the limitations of a patriarchal society, and that cannot be addressed by a pill. Similarly, Buzz pastes the solution of surveillance onto the deep-rooted problem of sexual harassment. But you will never, ever solve that problem until you teach people they are not sexually entitled to the bodies of others. These feminism-motivated products feel like they were designed by somebody quizzically circling the crash-landing site of 2018’s raw, hurting, leaking feminist desire and trying to patch the thing with their own values; values from the culture that caused the crash. It is not a match. The host has rejected the transfusion. You have made a broken product.
Buzz is a fascinating case study because of how it presents itself. It is so tecchy. People will (and already have) comment and share information on this product claiming it to be amazing and empowering, without interrogating what it is saying about women, their independence, and their role in the narrative of sexual harassment. And this is because that is how we respond to impressive technological advancement; in the age of social media even the consumption of products is performative. We read headlines, share, comment and sing the praises of products because they’re very clever, because it makes us feel clever — or perhaps, understandably, just a little less hopeless — completely skimming over any more sinister implication they bring with them.
Consider a hypothetical wearable that monitors the perceived promiscuity of your outfit, or that lets you know if you’ve said one thing too many to your date that could ‘lead them on.’ We’d be rightly scandalised if such chiding, medieval items existed, no matter how impressive the technology behind them. Why is Buzz any different to these, monitoring us so we don’t accidentally get ourselves into one of those everyday ‘asking for it’ situations? Is it because the product is medicalised? Co-created by an ob-gyn and reviewed with the associations of health and security and understanding ones own body, it attracts us the with the same tidal, responsibility-based pull of the mooncup. (The difference being that the mooncup actually solves a problem by listening to and engaging with issues of waste and expense surrounding menstrual products) This is a product for a smart woman. A woman who understands her body. A woman of the #metoo generation. This product is empowering!
Of course it feels empowering for women to claim ownership over a piece of technology, to have technology designed with our needs and concerns in mind — it comes straight from a world women have long been excluded from, and it’s a good feeling to be establishing territory and representation, bit by bit. But I do not believe that knowing, understanding and caring for your body as a woman should involve relying on technology to tell you your own boundaries — or to turn that body into a litmus test for sexual availability. Women are more than sexy barometers.
The victim-blame-y ethos of Buzz is an issue for me, but I guess the message I really want to get across is that we must be critical of what we consume. We’re at danger of being so grateful that rape is even being discussed and addressed in the mainstream that we forget to engage critically. Just because something is impressively designed and engineered, is high-tech, is cutting-edge, is billed as empowering and is riding the wave of marketable feminism — doesn’t mean it’s healthy. And it certainly doesn’t mean it’s immune to the smuggling of sexist, outdated narratives.
Buzz teaches us to respond to red light; it conditions us to understand an artificial signal rather than to be receptive to the discomfort or distress of a partner. This is like punishing a child without explaining to them what they’ve done wrong. What we need is design that addresses more realistic needs — those of education, empathy and safety. Why not, as a friend of mine suggested, design a wearable that people can use to check in their drink has been spiked? Or software that records and reports sexually abusive language or material sent over dating apps? Buzz’s ability to send location-based distress signals to friends and family is really useful — perhaps this should have been the focus of the product.
Importantly, I think the creators of Buzz had (and have) genuine good intentions. They claim to have wanted to create something to actively reduce sexual harassment, and I respect that. I just wish they’d approached it from the opposite angle, designing to undo the way our society views women as passive potential prey and men as active, entitled sexual pursers — instead of designing a product that both accommodates and reinforces this setup. As a piece of technology, it shows us how easy it is for us to draw upon those social myths as part of our natural coding, rather than creating and designing for an alternate vision. I am 100% here for technologically manifested feminism. I am more than prepared to spend money or share information if the products themselves increase equality, empathy and safety amongst people of all genders. But by no means must these innovations contribute to the narratives that already oppress women. Or else what’s the point? We need to innovate against rape, not around it.
Article Prepared by Ollala Corp