This is your phone on feminism

by Maria on September 14, 2019

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk in Austria on smartphones and cybersecurity.

“Put up your hand if you like or maybe even love your smartphone,” I asked the audience of policymakers, industrialists and students.

Nearly every hand in the room shot up.

“Now, please put up your hand if you trust your smartphone.”

One young guy at the back put his hand in the air, then faltered as it became obvious he was alone. I thanked him for his honesty and paused before saying,“We love our phones, but we do not trust them. And love without trust is the definition of an abusive relationship.”

We are right not to trust our phones. They serve several masters, the least of whom is us. They constantly collect data about us that is not strictly necessary to do their job. They send data to the phone company, to the manufacturer, to the operating system owner, to the app platform, and to all the apps we use. And then those companies sell or rent that data to thousands of other companies we will never see. Our phones lie to us about what they are doing, they conceal their true intentions, they monitor and manipulate our emotions, social interaction and even our movements. We tell ourselves ‘it’s okay, I chose this’ when we know it really, really isn’t okay, and we can’t conceive of a way out, or even of a world in which our most intimate device isn’t also a spy.

Let’s face the truth. We are in an abusive relationship with our phones.

I ‘m really proud of this piece. The rest of it is here.

Comments here at CT v. welcome especially as there’s more I’d like to say about Kate Manne. Anyone here read ‘Down Girl, the Logic of Misogyny? Her thing is that while sexism is the rationalising part, misogyny is the law enforcement branch of patriarchy. (this is a scandalously short and impertinent summary. It’s a fantastic book and I recommend reading it.) I’m thinking that, analogously for surveillance capitalism, exploitation is the rationalisation and predation the policing mechanism. But not sure if that quite works, i.e. if the terms match up, as well as the overall analogy.

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }


nastywoman 09.14.19 at 10:46 am

”Let’s face the truth. We are in an abusive relationship with our phones”.
”I ‘m really proud of this piece”.

You have to – as your piece was for me the final straw to junk it.
-(now I only have to cure my abusive relationship with the Internet in general)


Lynne 09.14.19 at 12:49 pm

There is a lot of good stuff about phones here, but I dislike the analogy to an abusive relationship. Are you afraid of your phone? No, I didn’t think so. I have been in a relationship where I was afraid for my life. So yes, I do think you are trivializing abusive relationships.

Sorry, Maria, you know I love your writing. But not this time.


Donald Pruden, Jr. a/k/a The Enemy Combatant 09.14.19 at 2:33 pm

Wow! Just effing wow!

This is the pull quote I would use to send others to the piece: “Australian philosopher Kate Manne points out how misogyny is based on the care, attention, support and service women are expected to give to men. Emotional labour is the currency that patriarchy extracts from us and stockpiles for the winners. There’s a clear parallel between the emotional labour of women under patriarchy and the ‘attentional labour’ extracted from all of us under surveillance capitalism.” (I will not include the great sentence that follows — dear reader, go check it out!)


Barry 09.14.19 at 2:38 pm

Maria, this is a great way to put this!


Duke the lost engine 09.14.19 at 9:17 pm

It’s OK as a bit of slightly off-colour wordplay but I really don’t think the analogy holds up well. Maybe it is possible to be in such an “abusive relationship” with a phone but for most people their phone is at worst an over-involved friend or a nagging child


Anarcissie 09.14.19 at 11:06 pm

Lynne@1: We haven’t reached a point just yet where most people have reason to be afraid of their cell phones. But we’re moving in that direction, and it has already arrived for certain kinds of people in certain places. The power that gives rise to that fear is also driving the technology in the direction of enhancing addiction and dependency, so that people actually volunteer to be spied on and manipulated, some for many hours per day. The comparison with person-person abusive relationships might yield some valuable insights.


Mark Pontin 09.15.19 at 4:39 am

“A smartphone worthy of both our love and our trust would be a smartphone that is primarily loyal to us. It wouldn’t share our data with random companies that want to exploit or manipulate us, or with governments whose acts can harm us.”

[1] Such phones do exist. You have to pay the price which, say, for the Blackphone 2 Silent Circle is $799 (about £525) —

[2] However, ultimately their existence doesn’t much matter. Everything goes through the internet — audio telephony, text, video, whatever — where it all gets broken down into packet mode and travels as light over fiberoptic networks. And at the major fiberoptic switching stations it ALL gets mirrored and stored by the Five Eyes, which are in a position to hoover up about 75-85 percent of all global internet traffic, and do.

Which means that a phone that’s “loyal to you” is irrelevant. It’s about the network — and thence the metadata and network analysis, and if you trigger a tripwire and register as a person of interest, the alphabet agencies can bring the resources to bear to decrypt whatever you’re sending and receiving. Meanwhile, those agencies merge almost imperceptibly into the monster internet corporations, which have managed to set themselves up as fairly inescapable gatekeepers on the public internet.

Ultimately, the only way to not be fully visible is not to be on the network at all.


bad Jim 09.15.19 at 4:40 am

“Feminism is a secret super-power”. I love this! It’s true. Now and then I’ve encountered instances where every woman knew something that nearly no men did. Parallel realities are a fun trope in science fiction, but they’re not actually that rare in real life.


Maria 09.15.19 at 7:47 am

Lynn, I’m sorry. It does walk the line and I take your point to heart. I wanted to make the invisible visible by showing another unequal power relationship that’s backed up by society, and also how attitudes can be changed by seeing this more clearly. I’ve been around these kinds of relationships a little, but never in one, and that’s a world of difference.

Part of what kicked this off for me was the doubting yourself and loss of day to day security I heard about a couple of years ago from some Mexican activists who’d been targeted by the NSO tools – And how losing trust in their environment and the people around them cut people off at the knees, politically, and did a lot of damage in their personal lives. But that is an extreme case and as you say, most people are not afraid of their phones.

Not this time, anyway. But thank you.


Chetan Murthy 09.15.19 at 12:39 pm

First, Maria, thank you so much for this piece. I sent it to a friend, who responded with

Uh, wow.

I was initially annoyed by the trivialising analogy. But as I kept reading, it
just kept maintaining registration between the two things, and it actually did
turn out to be a model with predictive power. And, also, it crisply articulated
things I already believed, in a less succinct way.

Also, darkly hilarious. And ended in an uplifting way: asking one to imagine a
new, better structure.

Some commenters point out that you’re not really just talking about the phone, but also the network, the apps, the entire Internet. And they’re of right. By analogy: people who fight for food safety, learn that the conditions under which animals are reared and slaughtered are critical to food safety, even if not directly. E.g. “we have cold-water chlorine-wash for chicken, why do we need to worry about how they’re reared and slaughtered? The chlorine takes care of it all, right?” It’s all part of food safety. Similarly, the *experience* of the network comes thru our phones, and so as users, that’s what we focus on. It doesn’t mean that those of us with technical and legal understanding will ignore the apps, the rest of the network.

Also, some argued that you’re trivializing abusive relationships, b/c our phones aren’t that abusive to most of us. I think perhaps these people are either too old, or are forgetting. Snapchat was *invented* because of a certain sort of abuse by our phones: there is an entire generation of young people who, upon entering their last year in high school, went thru and scrubbed their social media of all “unsavory” material, in preparation for college admissions. There have been many students who learned that prospective employers used their social media posts to learn about parts of their lives that were unrelated to work and judged them harshly for it. When we cross borders, many of us are already aware that we need to carry “burner” device with “burner” social media accounts onboard, and plan to ditch those devices once we complete our travel, b/c border police can and will infect our devices and snoop on our internet use. More and more jobs are always-on, with responses demanded in minutes or hours even when we aren’t on the clock. And while sure, those are our bosses making the demands, it is only the presence of these always-connected devices, that allows them to do so.

Our phones [and sure, our devices, our social media] are already ratting us out. And this is jut in the (ostensibly free) West. In more obviously authoritarian places, our phones are already surveillance devices.

Anyway, thank you for this. it’s clarifying and organizing. Also depressing, but hey, that’s reality.


Chetan Murthy 09.15.19 at 12:43 pm

Oh geez, I forgot to adduce a really important class of “our phones are already abusers”: children. Every parent knows that devices are a danger to their children: it is a vector thru which all manner of abusers, both corporate (trying to groom kids to be happy drones and consumers) and criminal (grooming for far worse things) attack children. It’s horrible and pernicious. And we’re not even talking about the ways in which device use are detrimental to learning and socialization.


Chip Daniels 09.15.19 at 2:16 pm

Whenever someone writes about the dangers of the incestuous entwining of the security state and corporate oligarchy it can sound hyperbolic to most of us because for all but a minority of us, the threat is abstract.
Very few of us, for example, have had our phones searched against our will by the police and been punished for our writings or browsing habits.

But that is universally true even for the most repressive regimes. In most of the repressive regimes the vast majority of people rarely if ever feel the fist of the state.

But its the minority who we can and should pay attention to.


Chetan Murthy 09.15.19 at 11:53 pm

The numerous quasi-pushbacks from people noting that we in the rich countries don’t suffer so much from our phones being turned against us, but that they know it happens in other countries, got me to thinking.

I’ll start by assuming that Maria is using her phone as a [un-] “charismatic megafauna” on which to base her case for a different way of imagining the entire data/IT/surveillance/tech ecosystem, I think this is uncontroversial, and wise, too. There are lots of other devices that are “ratting us out”, too, and in the “rich world”, too. We’ve read about Amazon and their use of devices to track workers’ activities. And I’m sure that soon enough, the chicken-factory workers who wear diapers b/c they aren’t allowed time to go to the loo, will be injected with chips that will track their every movement. Frederick Taylor ain’t got nuthin’ on Jeff Bezos. Nuthin.

If you really want to get skeeved-out, google “devices to track workers’ activities”. And get ready to wish for the continent-wide EMP [no, I’m joking, I’m joking!]

All this stuff is precisely in that same space that Maria is talking about, and I want to claim that we (should) use our phones a “hook” to hang all of this on, b/c it’s comprehensible to the vast unwashed. And to the vast washed-but-not-yet-oppressed.


J-D 09.16.19 at 3:09 am

There are lots of other devices that are “ratting us out”, too, and in the “rich world”, too. We’ve read about Amazon and their use of devices to track workers’ activities. And I’m sure that soon enough, the chicken-factory workers who wear diapers b/c they aren’t allowed time to go to the loo, will be injected with chips that will track their every movement. Frederick Taylor ain’t got nuthin’ on Jeff Bezos. Nuthin.

If you really want to get skeeved-out, google “devices to track workers’ activities”.

I don’t imagine the Workplace Surveillance Act 2005 (NSW) is a panacea:
However, I imagine having it is better than not having it.


Maria 09.16.19 at 8:15 am

I’ve been thinking about the idea of love without trust being the basis of an abusive relationship some more, and my mum raised the point that ‘consistently not trusting someone to do something’ like turn up in time is not inherently abusive. And although that’s a limited case of ‘not trusting’, it’s made me think ‘love without trust, where the distrust is also weaponised by the person who causes it’ is a better starting point for what makes a relationship abusive.


Maria 09.16.19 at 8:17 am

Thanks to your buddy, Chetan.


Maria 09.16.19 at 8:21 am

Mark, yes indeed. In that essay I elide the distinctions between the device itself, the kinds of software / business models that currently run on it, and those of the network infrastructure it relies on. This isn’t a problem we’ll fix just at the device level, though there are as you point out quite a few device options.

I use a nokia burner, myself. Lots of free time for thinking, hellish inconvenient for many other things, though I find my navigation skills are slowly returning. But it’s a gesture, not a solution.


Collin Street 09.16.19 at 8:29 am

I don’t know, if you continually can’t turn up on time acct being a selfish cloaca (more formally: not trading off between conflicting requests for your time but rather leaving some specific individual or group to always accept the consequences of any overcommitment on your part) it looks an awful lot like abuse to me.

I mean, sometimes is ok, but if there’s only one person you’re comfortable refusing…


b9n10nt 09.16.19 at 12:46 pm

Great piece.

To continue the metaphor (kinda), I would say that consumer advertising is similarly abusive: we are offered a product to satisfy a subset of our desires, but the goal is to then make us loyal to these products, not the mercurial self that authors these (& other non-commodifiable) wants.

In other words, marketing is pernicious: an entire industry designed to manipulate us. Why this should be acceptable when the logic of supply & demand is grounded in personal autonomous satisfaction is beyond logical (but not political!) comprehension. To use another provocative term associated this time with pedophilia, the prevalence of consumer marketing has been a “rehearsal” for our always-submissive and often acutely-deleterious relationship with consumer IT.

I think the Left needs to adopt a maxim of “fees-yes” “ads-no”. 1) the strict theoretical benefit of ads is obviated by the accessibility of information*. 2) ad-based services are prone to “principal-agent” market failure: you wish to use facebook for partial engagement, but Facebook is selling your maximal engagement to advertisers**. 3) ads have negative externalities: they are corrosive of public trust and self-regulation/discipline for third parties unwittingly exposed to them.

I use the taxonomy of market failures here hoping that a more learned academic here can correct me on possible misuse of terminology, otherwise believing that such terminology allows us to communicate our critique with a wider ideological audience.

*imagine an online public (govt) registry that simply listed the services and products available within a polity, perhaps with links to accredited/impartial/public reviews. Don’t let producers represent themselves!

**this terminology is, I think, especially useful in talking about media bias: sensationalistic and implicitly and explicitly reflective of class interests, in the most narrow and broad senses.


Trader Joe 09.16.19 at 6:05 pm

A thoughtful piece and an interesting analogy.

I guess where it breaks down for me is that in an abusive relationship the abuser is getting more out of the relationship than the receiver. I’m not sure that’s routinely the case with phones.

You rightly highlight all of the crappy and creepy parts of phones but don’t really give them any credit for being the amazingly powerful personal management devices they are. I can order stuff, check stuff, change stuff, learn stuff, keep up with friends, family work colleagues (and much more) all in an efficient manner that fits in the palm of my hand. This is magic and millions owe their well being to it.

It wouldn’t be as addictive if there wasn’t so much benefit and while clearly there are many that don’t have healthy relationships with their devices there are equally many that do know how to power them down, put them away and use them as a tool for their own good rather than the reverse.


Raven Onthill 09.16.19 at 9:30 pm

“It may be that large-scale public social media can only be deployed ethically if operated as non-profit socialist organizations, otherwise they degenerate into profitable toxic troll farms.” – me, a year ago,

I miss the cooperative internet.


oldster 09.17.19 at 12:01 pm

The criticism about trivialising genuine abusive relations is misplaced, I think, because it assumes that only extreme abuse is genuine abuse. And that’s false.

There is extreme abuse, and it’s extremely bad. But there’s also mild abuse and moderate abuse and abuse where you are not scared of dying but you are scared of pain. It does not have to be life-threatening to be genuine abuse.

And pointing out that abuse comes in all degrees of severity is not a way of trivialising the most severe degrees. It’s just a reminder that some lesser degrees count as abuse, too.

Some of those lesser degrees of abuse in genuinely abusive relationships are rather like the abuse that cellphones expose us to — manipulation, exploitation, violations of confidences, and so on.

So I think your comparison is accurate, apt, and useful.

If we can only call it an abusive relationship when it has gotten to the stage of being life-threatening, then we will have waited too late to sound the alarm.

Thanks, Maria.


JanieM 09.17.19 at 9:40 pm

Following on what oldster wrote, abuse that’s relatively mild can still be deeply damaging if it goes on for a long time. All the more since it tends to be non-obvious to outsiders.


JanieM 09.17.19 at 10:46 pm

Refining my 9:40: of course severe abuse can also be non-obvious to outsiders. But there’s a lot of psychological mistreatment — gaslighting for instance — that can go on right out in the open and yet other people don’t see it, don’t agree that it’s abuse, join the abuser in blaming the victim, etc. etc.

Big topic, hard to talk about it in brief.


Raven Onthill 09.17.19 at 11:16 pm

We also have this article from Danah Boyd on sexual harassment in the software research and FOSS communities: I expect by now everyone has heard of the resignations of Joi Ito and Richard Stallman. I am wondering: to what extent are patriarchal values encoded in our software? If the cell systems + the advertising-supported internet are stalkernet, what are we to make of the rest of the profession? It seems to me that it could do with more of the values one sees in architects and the various construction engineering professions.


Chetan Murthy 09.18.19 at 5:52 pm

Raven Onthill asks a good question (though maybe off-topic):

to what extent are patriarchal values encoded in our software? If the cell systems + the advertising-supported internet are stalkernet, what are we to make of the rest of the profession? It seems to me that it could do with more of the values one sees in architects and the various construction engineering professions.

[Full disclosure: I’m a computer scientist, worked in academic as well as industrial research, and at the serrated edge of the knife were all the flesh gets ripped apart]
I don’t know that I’d call the values of the software engineering biz …. “patriarchal” as much as “smash-and-grab”. I won’t recount what we all know about the impunity of software developers to any sort of liability, and their resistance to any sort of warranty (“this is not a piece of software; this is not even a tube of toothpaste”).

For sure, there’s been recognition in some parts of the biz, of the enormous weaknesses of our biz, for decade. Look at the “comp.risks” forum (where weaknesses are reported all the time). Or Spector & Gifford’s papers in CACM (Communications of the ACM, flagship mag) from the mid-80s covering various software systems, and also bridge-building (and highlighting how bridge-building’s requirements weren’t so different from SW eng, yet they used more “professional” engineering standards).

A relevant comparison is between sw eng, and chip design. Chip design is a massively software-based field, and yet, b/c “when you screw up, you get a billion dollars of returned merchandise”, chip design has high standards Whereas in software “when you screw up, at worst you make a fixpack available for download (that your customers have to work to install), at best you get to create and sell a new release!”

No answers here, not even insight. It sucks, and is a large part of why I think commercial software is the worst software.


musical mountaineer 09.18.19 at 6:53 pm

Maria, I am always grateful to find an ally, any ally, in this frightful business of Big Tech vs. Everything We Hold Dear. Even I, a crusty old white male American conservative, might find myself in agreement with a feminism that seeks to, uh…decolonize? our lives from abusive and invasive technology. No longer must unaccountable powers forcibly penetrate our most intimate spaces!

I’m not joking. It’s not just smartphones, either. Google, Facebook, and Amazon all prey on their users. The government actors in the tech sphere (e.g. NSA) are no better. In all these cases, we see puny mortals succumbing to the temptations of power.

It’s curious that with all this exploitation and abuse (with a kind of inevitable potential for far, far worse), you can only engage emotionally by casting the facts into an identity-politics victimhood frame. I wish people wouldn’t do that. But then, that’s exactly what I would say, isn’t it? Do what you gotta do, Sister, I guess.

Finally, while your article is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, I do look askance at you saying you are proud of it. Writing well, and having insights, are very fine things; but pride in these things is out of place. I am not aware that the guy who wrote Paradise Lost ever confessed to being proud of it.


Lynne 09.18.19 at 8:58 pm

Maria, if I had my comment to make again, I probably wouldn’t. If I did, I would use “I” language to be gentler. Most people will not be prevented, as I am, from running with your analogy. I am interested in the subject of your piece, and know from your other writing how rewarding it is, so maybe I will try again with this one.


b9n10nt 09.19.19 at 2:01 pm

musical mountaineer @2

“It’s not just smartphones”.

Well, the address does call out ad-tech generally. But we must -again- look beyond to other industries. Yes, smartphones are intimate. But even more intimate to us is our medium of experience: consciousness. Big Pharma and Big Drunk likewise prey upon the vulnerabilities of their population. Consumers generally are in an abusive relationship with mass-marketed producers.

I don’t mean to trivialize, but it strikes me that something as seemingly benign as the cliffhanger from radio and television serials shows this incipient strategy: let’s torture the plot and character development for maximum engagement, so more soap can be sold! & what, in its day, was more intimate than the psychological attachments we formed on the living room rug next to the radio or tv? As the era of ad-based marketing matured, consumer research and academic psychology honed the tools of manipulation, delving ever deeper into spheres of supposed autonomy (brand loyalty).

We do need a revolution. Too many markets are indeed structured to be exploitative. We are right to want something profoundly better in our civic relations.


Maria 09.20.19 at 6:22 pm

Lynne, please don’t worry or feel any need to re-engage with it. We are good.


ph 09.21.19 at 11:00 am

Agnes Callard’s Office:

Must watch.


Raven Onthill 09.22.19 at 7:46 pm

musical mountaineer@27: this is what feminists have been talking about all along: the invasion of bodies and minds by forms of power. I have been for a long time puzzled as to why white men thought they were immune. Given the increasing ability of forms of power to invade mind and body, it was inevitable that they would be turned on men as well.

And, really, I am pretty sure Milton was proud of his writing. It takes pride, if not outright egotism, to write epic poetry.


Raven Onthill 09.23.19 at 2:00 am

Chetan Murthy@26: “I don’t know that I’d call the values of the software engineering biz …. ‘patriarchal’ as much as ‘smash-and-grab.’ I won’t recount what we all know about the impunity of software developers to any sort of liability, and their resistance to any sort of warranty.”

“Patriarchal” in the political context is something of a catch-all term, isn’t it? This is more a matter of the values of young men or perhaps teenage boys, as if Brett Kavanaugh were a software developer or software firm’s legal department.

As Danah Boyd says, “‘Move fast and break things’ is an abomination if your goal is to create a healthy society.”


Robert McGregor 10.01.19 at 10:51 pm

Trader Joe,

“This is magic and millions owe their well being to it.

Isn’t that going too far–millions owe their well being to the smartphone? Technology giveth and technology taketh away. Show me people who “owe their well-being to smart phones.” I think “Technology,” is the basically “a wash.” But if I have to endure the negative social effects of technology, then I will eagerly benefit from the positive effects of digital technology (texting, GPS, podcasts, ebooks, blogs etc.)


A random FLOSS enthousiast 12.14.19 at 12:11 pm

(sorry for the English, I am not a native speaker)

Hi Mariah,

I came here because I’ve read a translation of your article on a social network.

Your article raise important concerns we face nowadays.

I decided to write this comment because I am really wondering why your article did not mention anything about the FLOSS movement and the solutions we provide.

Actually, we are fighting the battle you are talking about since decades now. We work every single day to allow anyone to take back the control of ours desktop/laptop/smartphones = our lives.

We made WordPress, a Libre software to enable anyone publishing on the web (that’s your blog right now).
We made Mastodon, an alternative to Twitter where harassment, ad-tracking is not ignored by admins. Many feminist and LGBTQ people left Twitter to join Mastodon.
We made Exodus Privacy, a website to let you know everything about the apps spying on you.
We are working on /e/ an Android-based smartphone operating system. It’s like an Android, working out of the box, but we cleaned everything: the smartphone does not send anything to Google without consent.
We are making tons of alternative apps, all our apps are distributed with full transparency (source code is made available for anyone to look out): no hidden data leak against your privacy. You can get them easily from our alternative app store named F-Droid.

We are hundreds, working to build up the alternative ecosystem for a smartphone you can trust.

Maybe you never heard from us? But I don’t understand why your article does not mention our effort. We need you.

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