By Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education, University of Southern California
In her book, Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood, the social historian Miriam Formanek-Brunnell tells a fascinating story. At the turn of the 20th century, doll manufacturers were confronting a problem: previous dolls heads had been made of china or bisque. For some, this was a feature, since it forced young girls to play with them gently and to thus acquire what were then seen as feminine skills and graces. But, for others, this was a liability since they easily shattered and so designers set out to design a doll's head that would absolutely not break.
Thomas Alva Edison confronted this as a purely technical challenge, seeking advice from the men in his lab, and seeing an opportunity to develop a potential new market for his phonograph to create talking dolls. What the boys in the lab came back with was the use of industrial level materials. They made the cast iron baby doll, which would not break under any circumstances, though we might predict that it would break a few jaws if young children then played with it as aggressively as kids today might. Meanwhile, there were some smaller companies, which were run by female entrepreneurs during this period, which had on-site daycare facilities. They sought to solve the problem by observing how young girls played with dolls, and they came back with the idea of using Indian Rubber, a material much more apt to respond appropriately to human touch than cast iron.
«Many of today's software projects are a bit like cast iron baby dolls: offering solutions that are not grounded in the human life world and expecting we will bend our practices to their demands»
I am telling this story in part because Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, has often been described as the modern equivalent of Thomas Edison: an industrial leader who runs a large research team and seeks to figure out how to solve problems primarily on a technical basis. We may not know what would have happened if Gates was a woman, and it is a hard question to answer without falling into essentialist traps. But, we do know the difference between how Edison and his female counterparts addressed this particular challenge.
Many of today's software projects are a bit like cast iron baby dolls: offering industrial strength solutions that are not grounded in the human life world and expecting that we will bend our practices to their demands rather than seeking to understand what role these products play in the context of our everyday experiences. Would a female Bill Gates have approached the problem differently? We can only speculate.