Postfeminist Technologies: Digital Media and the Culture Industries of Choice

Doctoral thesis English OPEN
Cohn, Jonathan (2013)
  • Publisher: eScholarship, University of California
  • Subject: Web studies | Mass communication | Film studies | Choice | culture industries | Digital | Neoliberal | Postfeminism | Recommendation Systems

In this dissertation, I argue that digital recommendation systems - a relatively recent technological innovation - fundamentally reconfigure the very notion of "self" in and for the digital era. Many popular websites, including Google, Netflix and Amazon, employ these systems to assist the user in making decisions of all types, by offering recommendations based on particular algorithms. Throughout the dissertation, I engage the ways that these recommendation systems facilitate contemporary notions of agency and identity as they are constructed through acts of choice. I examine how these systems have enabled the emergence of what I call the culture industries of choice. These industries use digital recommendation systems to lead users toward certain decisions and objects and away from others. In doing so, these automated recommendations, derived from an analysis of user data, shape the contemporary self through a rhetoric that equates conformity with equality and consumerism with freedom. Now a part of today's most popular and influential websites and digital technologies, these digital recommendation systems articulate self-representation and modulation as an integral part of electronic consumption; further, they articulate new networks and conceptions of community. Thus, the need to understand how they affect the way we represent ourselves and think ourselves, as well as how we construct our local and global communities, grows increasingly urgent.By focusing on how recommendation systems are used by a wide range of sites and technologies, I suggest that the notion of the "recommendation" may serve as a means of critically examining the intertwined relationship between postfeminism, neoliberalism, and digital culture. While many theorists have written extensively about the pervasiveness of choice and the anxieties that result from the need to choose in a neoliberal and postfeminist context, my project shifts the frame by exploring how digital recommendation systems have developed to help people manage and make these choices. My dissertation focuses on how discourse and technology have interacted from the birth of the World Wide Web (W3) in 1992 to the present and how digital technologies and algorithms are presented as lifting the "burden" of choice, a sense of burden upon which neoliberal and postfeminist discourses depend, and in so doing offer greater "freedom." These technologies both figuratively and literally shape user profiles through this instrumentalization of choice. I begin in Chapter One with a discussion of digital recommendation systems in relation to the postfeminist, neoliberal workplace and the female professional. Many of these technologies were developed by Professor Pattie Maes in the early 1990's at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology specifically to help female professionals manage the many difficult everyday choices that having a family and a career often entails. Maes's recommendation systems organized schedules, sorted email, searched for music and other media, and helped academics find others with similar interests. In Chapter Two, I focus on how postfeminist discourses centered around citizenship, gender, and sexuality are at play on media recommendation sites like Netflix and and in relation to Digital Video Recorders like TiVo. Chapter Three explores how these same discourses and a strong focus on postfeminist self-management affect personal relationships through recommendations on dating websites that use matchmaking software, with a special focus on eHarmony. Chapter Four examines how neoliberal and postfeminist paradigms of choice, individuality, and traditional gender norms are transforming the human body through websites and technologies that analyze, judge, and rate a person's appearance in order to recommend "make-overs" including plastic surgery operations. Throughout, I show how these recommendation technologies and their varied uses transform and complicate our relationship to our very senses of "self" in our current media landscape.
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