A review of Postfeminist Technologies: Digital Media and the Culture Industries of Choice, by Jonathan Alan Cohn.
From cosmetics to fine art, films to romantic relationships, Jonathan Cohn’s dissertation takes the reader on a thorough exploration of how digital recommendation systems infiltrate nearly all aspects of our everyday practices. By contextualizing the history of how digital recommendation systems were created and then providing specific examples, Cohn convinces the reader that these digital tools are a byproduct of neoliberal ideology (emphasizing personal autonomy and responsibility) and postfeminist rhetoric that associates liberty with consumption and choice with anxiety. By relieving consumers of what Cohn phrases the “burden of choice,” digital recommendation systems not only maintain the status quo but also create the illusion of community whereby users are connected over shared consumer tastes that ultimately enhance individual gains over mutual collaboration.
He begins this argument by providing a brief history of the rise of neoliberal thought and an overview of postfeminist theory. He describes how neoliberalism is couched in the belief that autonomy and free-market systems can self regulate societal ills. This logic fits soundly with postfeminists, who argue that since we achieved the goals of feminism, women today are no longer subject to inequality. Likewise, postfeminists align well with neoliberal goals of empowerment through autonomy and agency. Cohn furthers his point about the relationship between neoliberalism and postfeminism by describing how postfeminists are empowered by the market, creating an environment where women consume products in order to become “a certain kind of self” (pp. 25). Cohn demonstrates how neoliberalism and postfeminism are thus tightly intertwined, both placing value on consumer freedom as a source of individual agency.
It is because of this framework that digital recommendation systems fit so nicely into our 21st-century ethos. These recommendations propose that they are making the “best” recommendations possible but in doing so hide the larger structures and ideologies they function under, thereby making the user feel in charge of their ultimate decisions (pp. 20). Similar to past critiques of culture industries, Cohn describes how digital recommendation systems lead users toward certain options while rendering others invisible, and in doing so seem to provide a plethora of choices when in actuality the choices are limited and ultimately standardized. To prove this point, Cohn takes the reader on a historical overview of how filtering technology was created, and then provides specific examples using media recommendations, dating recommendations, and plastic surgery recommendations. Throughout each example he details how the postfeminist discourse is embedded in the technology and concludes with a few final remarks on these connections.
In the first chapter, Cohn provides an insightful history of how algorithmic filtering and planning began. While many attribute the rise in filtering technologies (and computer programming more generally) to men, Cohn’s historical account demonstrates how it was a female MIT professor, Pattie Maes, who created many of the earliest forms of digital recommendation systems. Using the examples of products Maes created, including scheduling software, Maxims (an email sorting software), RINGO (a music recommendation system), a dating service, and even the invention of the first social networking system (Firefly), Cohn describes how each system is tightly wed to the postfeminist logic that one’s ability to “choose” is proof of gender equality but that choices are overwhelming and part of the reason why women today are unhappy. This emphasis on choice, and specifically one’s ability to make the “wrong” choice, is important since postfeminism denies the existence of structural barriers to gender equality, thereby creating a logic where failure is predicated on one’s personal decisions. For example, women who focus on work and do not have children at an early age might feel unhappy with this “choice” without acknowledging the larger structural barriers that prohibit women from obtaining the resources they need to do both simultaneously (for example, paid maternity leave). Maes herself became an iconic postfeminist figure as she developed these systems out of her own need to juggle the daily demands of work and family–the postfeminist logic that a woman’s ability to “have it all” translates into women having to “do it all” (pp. 46). An informative and provocative chapter, Cohn’s attempt to write women like Maes into the history of technological development is extremely important considering that her algorithms became the prototype for many popular digital recommendations systems used in online consumerism today.
Focusing on discourses of gender, sexuality, and privacy in Chapter 2, Cohn provides specific examples using TiVo, Netflix, and Digg to illustrate his points. He argues that, rather than alleviate the stress of choice, these recommendation systems can actually increase user anxiety by providing more suggestions than the user could possibly watch. Moreover, the type of content that these systems recommend creates anxiety in users over their sexual identity and pit individualism and community against one another. Because these systems gather, use, and sell the ratings and other demographic information of users, Cohn argues that these systems create an illusion of agency while exploiting consumers’ free labor. Moreover, Cohn describes how these systems then use the information users provide to them to sell consumers more products. This system of using user-generated content to garner profit brings up important issues of security and surveillance. By examining these central ideas, Cohn explains why consumers are increasingly wary of how (and if) their privacy is protected when using these services. While these systems are created under the ethos that we need to manage all of our time in an era of plentiful choices, in reality these digital recommendation systems are only recommending a very small portion of the content available. In the process, the consumer becomes the outsourced, unpaid, laborer filled with anxiety over what the suggestions Netflix or Tivo “mean” about their personal identity and privacy.
Chapter 3 uses the same framework of gender, sexuality, and agency but turns its lens toward the recommendation systems in matchmaking websites. Cohn argues that on-line dating delegitimizes individual choice by reducing users to quantifiable statistics. While these sites are advertised as empowering–suggesting to the user their ability to take control of their love life–Cohn demonstrates the various ways these sites actually remove agency and promote traditional gender roles. Similar to the ideas described in Chapter 1, in an postfeminist environment that blames the self for not meeting life goals, online dating services provide a “pro-love” solution that hides the fact that online dating treat relationships as a commodity, teaching us to think of love as a marketplace.
Broadening the idea of what constitutes a recommendation system, Cohn delves into the cosmetic surgery industry in Chapter 4. Alarmingly, Cohn describes how pre-programmed systems and apps within the industry use algorithmic “recommendations” to provide a standardized (and arguably Western-centric) set of beauty ideals. Cohn again returns to postfeminist logic, arguing that women use these recommendation systems and ultimately undergo cosmetic surgery as a form of empowerment but simultaneously subject themselves to hegemonic standards of beauty and objectification (pp. 214). In the last chapter, Cohn summarizes his central argument: predicated on the postfeminist logic that choice has become less associated with liberty and possibility, and more with anxiety and burden, consumers seek out recommendation technologies and forgo their privacy in the hopes of making the task of “doing it all” simpler. As a result, Cohn argues, they are geared toward a normative standard rooted in neoliberal ideals. Ultimately, in Cohn’s words, recommendation technologies have created an environment of limited choices. Much like how parents might approach reasoning with toddlers, digital recommendations systems reduce the scope of choice in an effort to quell a consumerism-driven tantrum.
Department of Sociology and Department of Media Studies
University of Virginia
Lisa Belkin. “The Opt-Out Revolution.” New York Times (October 26, 2003).
Eliot van Buskirk. “How the Netflix Prize Was Won.” Wired (September 22, 2009).
Pattie Maes. Personal Interview, June 21, 2011.
Lisa Miller. “An Algorithm for Mr. Right.” Newsweek (April 26, 2008).
Naomi Wolf. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women. New York: Perennial, 2002.
University of California, Los Angeles. 2013. 310 pp. Primary Advisor: Kathleen McHugh.
Image: Use of a micrometer in a 1930s magazine.