Careful Industries
Published in

Careful Industries

Sunshine Machines: Towards a feminist future of digital care

This essay was commissioned as part of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation programme Social justice in a digital age in response to James Plunkett’s essay The care paradox. Rather than examining how digital social justice might be fitted within current capitalist systems, it attempts to expand the frame, and explores how infrastructures beyond the market are essential to fostering a more caring digital society.

Donna Haraway (image adapted from Storytelling for Earthly Survival)

“Instead of seeing the corporate sector, military strength, government and law as the most important segments of society, deserving the highest level of wealth and power, a caring society might see that the tasks of bringing up children, educating its members, meeting the needs of achieving peace and treasuring the environment, and doing these in the best ways possible, should be that to which the greatest social effort of all should be devoted.”

Virginia Held, Ethics of Care (2006)

A truly caring digital society nurtures and grows spaces beyond the market, and imagines possibilities outside of the app store. Innovation in a caring society must not only generate profit but create better outcomes for everyone. This is possible, but it requires care for people and planet to be valued as highly as capital — and for wellbeing to be incentivised as much as shareholder return.

Consumer digital technologies tend to individualise and personalise, which in turn makes us all easier to monetise. The consequences of this individualisation are far-reaching, but they are as much a consequence of capitalism as they are of technology: after all, almost any goal or any outcome can be designed for. Meta’s goal to “maximize engagement” might be financially profitable, but it comes at the cost of increased “misinformation, extremism, and political polarization”. This societal debt is by no means paid off by their quarterly earnings; instead it is quietly, and repeatedly, written off.

It might seem that the close coupling of digital innovation with the market was inevitable, but our present reality is only one possible digital world — creating others is still possible, and there is little time to waste. Many digital worlds can and do co-exist, and it is not necessary to dismantle the platforms before building alternatives.

This essay begins with an exploration of how digital capitalism has minimised care and and ends with suggested next steps for building the foundations for what must come next, spaces for “alternative publics” that exist beyond the walled gardens of platform infrastructure. Cultivating the conditions for what can and should come next requires a systemic approach to nurturing digital infrastructure: for looking beyond capitalism and the constraints of the market, and prioritising care and public good.

Digital care as individualism

What do you think of when you think of digital care? Perhaps Paro the therapeutic, seal-shaped robot or the parental controls you put on your children’s devices. Perhaps it makes you think of the affirmations that pop up on Instagram, the check-ins you share with your close friends and loved ones or the well-earned Friday night takeaway that gets magicked to your door through an app. Or it might make you think of the alerts from your bank that tell you what you’ve spent, and how much money you do (or don’t) have left.


As service-design expert Lou Downe says, “Good services are verbs”, and digital care tends to be created in ways that make it easier for us to take active steps to look after ourselves.

In the UK, the state and a number of large institutions deliver certain kinds of digital care at a macro level, while the digital consumer market takes care of the micro, through apps and ecommerce and smart devices. There is not really a plan for this, a whole ecosystem map of what these combined services could or should look like, so as consumers we wander through, gathering what works for us as and when we can. In the language of digital transformation this is known as “disintermediation”, or unbundling, and its effects can be seen in many parts of life, from the disappearance of travel agents to the plethora of new entertainment providers.

In a healthcare context, digital care might be familiar to affluent, time-rich consumers as a journey that includes tracking steps, diagnosing symptoms on the NHS website, ordering bespoke monitoring tests from a healthcare start-up, clicking on an Instagram ad for dietary supplements, and eventually booking a video consultation with either your local GP or a pay-as-you-go private provider. But if you can’t afford a stable and secure home Internet connection, not only are these options unavailable, you will also have reduced access to the wider social determinants of health, such as cheaper goods and services, higher paying work, support from friends and family, and reliable information. There is no overall responsibility for weaving these digital care services together as a safety net; instead, they all exist to extend our personal responsibility — to make us do more with the little time we have.

Our smartphones help us to be simultaneously more self-determined and more extractive — and this is by no means a new digital phenomenon but the logical progression of market determinism. Writing in 1989, political scientist Joan Tronto observed that a disposition towards caring for others was in tension with market forces:

“to be attentive to the needs of others, one must relinquish absolute primacy of the needs of the self… The paradigm of the market requires putting one’s own interests first.”

Over the last three decades, digital product design has turned infinite attention to “one’s own interest” into a feature, not a bug. From personalised ads to pre-filled shopping baskets and optimised purchase paths, we are all now royalty in our own homes, served — for a small price — by Netflix, Uber, and Deliveroo. When we order something on Amazon, the ability to solve day-to-day problems by conjuring essential items to our door can feel very empowering, but we have no sight of the working conditions of the warehouse staff or delivery drivers who make that happen — and often-times our reliance on these services is increased by the pressure to optimise our time management and engage with the never-ending personal admin that our complex digital lives demand. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild observed in 1983 that, “in the modern market society… providers of services are expected to feign caring”, and we are complicit in maintaining that charade, as we assign star ratings to gig economy workers, rating how thoroughly and efficiently they anticipated our needs.

Servants’ bells, with room names above, in the corridor at National Trust property Dunster Castle

Our relationship with what media historian Rachel Plotnick calls the Power Button is not so new either. The “complete your order” button in an app is not materially different to the service button or bell in grand nineteenth-century homes that summoned servants to do their employers’ bidding. It’s an interface that obscures unseemly effort and creates an illusion of control, while simultaneously enforcing hierarchical power relations. The labour that takes place behind the button is out of sight and out of mind.

The patterning of this individualism goes further back still. Ruth Schwarz Cowan’s survey of domestic technology, More Work for Mother, examines how increased technological capability aided the privatisation of home life and extended the burden of the housewife, from pre-industrial societies on. As water pumps were replaced with private water supplies and communal ovens with family stoves, the edges of the household were drawn more tightly, and woman’s work became a fixture of that privatised setting, unstoried and unseen. Writing in 1983, Cowan described the modern housewife as:

“the last Jane-of-all-trades in a world from which all the Jacks-of-all-trades have moreorless disappeared; she is expected to perform work that ranges from the most menial of physical labour to the most abstract of mental manipulations and to do it all without any specialised training.”

Despite this range and complexity, care work remains low status and badly paid because it is still largely done by women, out of public sight. When turned into consumer goods, it takes the shape of convenience — cleaning products with miracle properties, pre-prepared foods, and robot vacuums that, coincidentally, share maps of your home with Amazon; as Cowan says, “in the West, over the last two hundred years, women’s work has been differentiated from men’s by being incompletely industrialised” — and the hardest and most human parts of the tasks are left undone.

Care is something that the market expects us to take for ourselves, while providing technologies that seal us ever further in our homes. From neighbourhood notice boards calibrated to create dispute to Ring doorbells installed to protect and surveille, digital technologies can be deployed to increase our privatisation, separation, and fear.

This is, perhaps, one endpoint of libertarianism: the freedom to be at home, alone, waiting for your Getir driver to arrive — reliant on consumer technologies, but independent from all else.

From the introductory matter to The Whole Earth Catalogue

And although this is a much smaller world than the one envisaged by acclaimed technology visionary Stewart Brand in The Whole Earth Catalogue, it shares some qualities with that bold individualism. Brand sought connection to a cybernetic web of knowledge, hoping it would lead to total independence — what he termed a “realm of intimate, personal power”, in which “[w]e are as gods and might as well get good at it”. Fifty years on, this heroic vision is responsible for shrinking the potential of our digital society — optimising self-service, alongside small acts of personal digital care.

Digital Care as Community

“Care is everything that we do to maintain, continue and repair ‘our world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That work includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web.”

Joan Tronto, Moral Boundaries (1993)

Care is not only a verb; it is also a value system and, according to Joan Tronto, “a survival mechanism for women and others who are dealing with oppressive conditions.” It is not just the work we do for ourselves, but the work we do for others, the bonds we build, and the trust we share. Care is a process, an escape, and a set of new possibilities. It is not a yellow thumbs up on Facebook or a remix on Insta, and it is not always visible.

So what does that mean? Where does that leave a reimagined, more care-full, digital world?

If capitalism individualises us, then care can bring us together — giving us cause to celebrate connection over engagement and relationships rather than subscriber numbers.

Image from Tim Berners Lee’s “Information Management, A Proposal” (1989)

This might sound grand and impossible, but the Web was, quite literally, made for this; the metricisation, surveillance, and billionaires were added later. The Web as a place of connection is central to the concept of “hypertext”, and while it was conceived within the hierarchical confines of research academia, it was originally imagined as a relational space. This early sketch of the architecture shows a Web woven from the links between people and information, in which the person is just one node of many. By 2008, Berners-Lee had evolved that ambition even further, describing the Web as:

“really a system of people. Yes, it is enabled by technology … [but] we stopped thinking about the internet as the collection of computers and we stopped thinking about the Web as the collection of connected pages and now we think of the Web as humanity connected.”

Of course, with hindsight, by 2008 the lack of social and regulatory curbs and civic investment had already made this version of the Web impossible, but that does not mean some other versions of it cannot be realised in different forms.

The difficult thing, in 2022, is to imagine a full transformation of the status quo; a world in which all platforms are positive, and digital extraction is laid to rest. Regulation and legislation can and should moderate the platform’s worst excesses, but it is essential to also build what should come next.

One remedy for the extremes of our existing, individualised digital world is to create more balance, and nurture more alternatives. Rethinking access, hosting and hardware, and skills, as well as developing more sustainable and equitable approaches to governance and investment would help lay the foundations for this. The following set of pointers simply scratches the surface for what might be made possible with the creation of community-powered, responsible infrastructure.

Five steps for a more caring, feminist digital society

1. Universal basic digital access

The first step is to rethink access: to decouple Internet connectivity from the market and make it a genuine public good.

Current connectivity models assume that the private household is the default billable unit, and impose artificial limits on an abundant resource. Two decades of relying on the market to deliver connectivity have shown how rapidly inequality can be created: neighbouring households might be affected by digital poverty or benefit from super-fast broadband, regardless of their need or proximity to broadband provision. A model such as place-based universal basic digital connectivity would enable access to the digital world beyond the constraints of the market, and enable wider access to both digital participation and production.

2. Decarbonised hosting and hardware.

It is also vital to invest in green infrastructure.

Legislatively, it is essential to enshrine the “Right to Repair” so that hardware can be mended and maintained. More people also need the capacity to fix and manage their devices, and these kind of practical skills could be diffused through reforms to the national curriculum and the creation of free civic training courses, based in community repair shops. Local refurbishment specialists should also be incentivised and supported through tax schemes, and given access to materials through an expanded network of e-waste collection and recycling points.

Image from EDIE

Decarbonised alternatives for compute power, data storage and cloud services should also be incubated with state support, and all public services transitioned to green alternatives as a priority. The Green Web Foundation’s call for a fossil-free Internet by 2030 should be supported by ambitious targets for UK businesses to transition to green digital infrastructure, with incentives and penalties put in place to encourage hardware reuse and migration to fossil-free services.

3. Decouple Digital Skills from STEM.

STEM skills are not always essential for all digital jobs. Two stark consequences of the sciencification of the digital world are the lack of regard for the social impacts of technologies, and the reinforcement of digital as an elite domain that reinforces sexist, racist, and ableist norms and standards. There is not space in this essay to detail this extensively, but examples and analysis are easy to find. Good starting points include Emily Chang’s Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, Christina Dunbar-Hester, Hacking Diversity: The Politics of Inclusion in Open Technology Cultures, Safya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, Elon Musk’s Twitter feed (which I won’t link to), and almost every single article published in Business Insider.

This is not to say that innovation does not need computer scientists — of course it does — but a traditional science and technology background is not the only way to become a digital maker.

This is in part because digital products and services also need communicators, designers, researchers, anthropologists, coders, and creators of all kinds, and a focus only on STEM skills fails to grasp the importance of these multi- and interdisciplinary teams in creating good services. Moreover, the rise of No Code and increased availability of tools and services such as Glitch and Tensor Flow will, over time, lead to a relatively small proportion of the overall number of future digital roles requiring deep technical and computing knowledge. Instead, many more people will need technical confidence (or what Alix Dunn calls “technical intuition”) but not everyone will need to know how to make things from scratch.

The sciencification of workplace digital skills also fails to understand the different motivations that different people have to create. It assumes that a traditional academic and professional approach to acquiring skills and knowledge is the default way of entering what is still a nascent and deeply improvisatory field of practice. However, anyone engaged with digital culture will know that makers are all around them, and that a culture with some parallels to digital jugaad is alive and well in the Global North, outside the constraints of big corporate culture. Influencers might be the most visible face of this, but they are just the visible tip of the iceberg. As long as the Web has existed, fandom and a desire to communicate with others has been a driver for learning how to mod, hack, and code. For instance, Thomas Dolby tells the tale of how teenagers repurposed an engineer-to-engineer communications protocol on early Nokia phones, and accidentally discovered text messaging.

From “Buffyverse and Beyond” on LiveJournal

This often takes place outside of formal education (see, for instance, Sacha Judd’s paean to how loving One Direction was instrumental in teaching a generation of girls to code), but skills acquired this way do not have the same status as those supported by certificates. The rise of the creator economy demonstrates how ingenuity, craft, and creativity can be unlocked in ways not be imagined by those designing formal curricula. Broadening the pathways to applied digital skills by recognising that they are not synonymous with STEM would result in a more well-rounded, more diverse and representative workforce.

One way to achieve this is to modernise education policy to reflect the fact that digital is now a fact of life, not a specialised subject, and to weave digital production and creation skills across a lifelong learning curriculum. This would lead to a more socially and culturally representative digital workforce, drawing on a greater range of influence, which would in turn lead to fewer extractive products and services being created, and a greater diversity of more sustainable visions and ambitions being achieved.

4. Cultivate alternative tech, beyond the market.

Illustration by Elly Janz, for

The communities, makers, and creators who are building resources, strengthening democracies, sharing knowledge and information are mostly bootstrapped or battling for philanthropic support. If Patagonia can make the Earth its only shareholder, every VC can consider how to reshape their portfolio and deliver against wellbeing goals for people and planet. The beginnings of a plan for stimulating this are set out in The Case for Community Tech.

5. Normalise shared governance.

The most transformational part of Web3 culture is the will for transparency and collective decision-making. While the execution of this may still be imperfect, taking digital governance out of the board room and moving from a focus on compliance to one of collective good could be transformational for the Digital Commons. Nurturing this, and using it to develop shared governance methods that foreground care and equity, could be transformational for the waves of technologies yet to come.

These measures are initial steps that prioritise social and natural capital over money. They will not result in decacorns or increases in GDP, but they do provide some scaffolding for growing alternatives to some of the most ingrained problems of our current digital world, ones that foreground digital wellbeing, and decouple digital from the relentless pursuit of capital. As sociologist Nancy Fraser says in Rethinking the Public Sphere, “history records that members of subordinated social groups — women, workers, people of color, and gays and lesbians — have repeatedly found it advantageous to constitute alternative publics”; investing in alternative infrastructure that will support and grow these alternative publics will create spaces in which social justice is the norm, not the exception.

Manifestación contra ataques sexuales en San Fermines, Pamplona, from Wikimedia Commons

This is not just a strategy for digital care, but for a Feminist Internet — one that is plural, sustainable, and more representative of our whole human existence. As such, to finish, it seems appropriate to cite thinkers who are shaping the feminist digital past, and the possible, unfolding future.

Like Stewart Brand, feminist scholar Donna Haraway also took early inspiration from cybernetics, but the connected world she described in the Cyborg Manifesto feels more like an escape into extended consciousness than a method of control. Writing in 1985, Haraway saw the power of the Web not as being for everyone (as Tim Berners-Lee would later say), but as made of everyone:

“Technologies like video games and highly miniaturised televisions seem crucial to modern forms of ‘private life’ … I prefer a network ideological image, suggesting the profusion of spaces and identities and the permeability of boundaries in the personal body and in the body politic. ‘Networking’ is both a feminist practice and a multinational corporate strategy… If we learn how to read these new webs of power and social life, we might learn new couplings, new coalitions.”

In shaping the futures of technologies it is vital to acknowledge how our digital lives represent more than “the unitary self”. The potential of the Webs we weave remains infinite, unlocking the possibilities of connecting to, and forming, many other selves and possibilities. This, more than any capital return, is what makes technology truly irresistible to us, and makes it worth making it work.

Almost forty years later, Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism builds on this, and describes the necessity of a digital life beyond physical and gender boundaries:

“We want a new framework and for this framework, we want new skin. The digital world provides a potential place where this can play out. Through the digital, we make new worlds and dare to modify our own.”

A Feminist Internet is not a place of polarisation, but one of exploration and adaptation, in which new cultures, communities, and connections are fostered. It is possible to build it, we just need to start.

Originally published at on October 26, 2022.



Blogposts from the Careful Industries team, a UK research studio

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Rachel Coldicutt

Exploring careful innovation, community tech and networked care. Day job: @carefultrouble .