Sep 21

Breaking the Frame 2015 talks

BREAKING THE FRAME 2: Second Gathering on the Politics of Technology

July 9-12 2015, Unstone Grange, Derbyshire.

Organised by CorporateWatch, Scientists for Global Responsibility, Luddites200 and others

Part One – Dave King opening & Jim Thomas from ETC Group on Skype

Part Two – Dave King – Luddites200

Part Three – Dave Darby – Low Impact Living Initiative

Part Four – Barbara Jones –

Part Five – Dave Darby Low – Low Impact Living Initiative

Part Six – Barbara Jones and Dave Darby on Solar

Part Seven – Dave King – Luddites200

Part Eight – Barbara Jones –

Part Nine – Barbara Jones –

Part Ten – Tim Flitcroft – Commons Rising

Breaking the Frame

Breaking The Frame is a growing network, which aims to democratise decisions about technology.  We are bringing together different campaigns in order to learn from each others’ experience and strengthen our work.

  • Building on our gathering in 2014, we organised the 2015 gathering, which took place in Derbyshire on July 9 – 12, at which these videos were filmed.
  • There are upcoming events in London and Bristol, and a monthly reading group based in London.
  • If you would like to get involved, or are interested in becoming part of the network, contact



Feb 18

Borders and Technology – 20th February – Bristol

Borders and Technology:

A look at contemporary and historical surveillance and control over the movement of people, plus resistance to it. Fri Feb 20th 7-9pm 2015 at Hydra Books, 34 Old Market, Bristol BS2 0EZ. Speakers include: Statewatch (, Bristol Radical History (, and others.

Feb 18

Women’s Gathering – 28th + 29th March 2015

Women’s Gathering on gender and the politics of technology, focusing on reproductive technologies,  6pm March 28th – 4pm March 29th 2015, London.

At the first Breaking the Frame gathering in 2014, women started developing a feminist analysis of the intersection between gender and the politics of technology and how it impacts on all aspects of our lives, e.g. in food production, work, surveillance, digital technology, and health.

At this event we will continue that process, focusing on reproductive technologies. Public debate in this area has mainly been framed as science versus religious reaction, which tends to ignore any feminist analysis. We shall be asking: are these technologies of benefit to women, and if so, which women, or do they risk our health and integrate our bodies further into the patriarchal capitalist system?

Join us to explore the issues with an outstanding set of speakers:

►Jalna Hanmer and Stevienna de Saille on a radical feminist analysis of reproductive technologies
►Rahila Gupta on sex selection and abortion
►Donna Dickenson and Kathleen Sloan on international and commercial surrogacy
►Miriam Zoll on the impact of IVF on women
►►Outline programme

Saturday March 28th 7pm – Sunday March 29th 5pm, 2015
The Feminist Library meeting room
5 Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7XW.
Venue is disabled accessible, recommended minimum donation £5
All self-defining women welcome. Cheap vegan food.

For more information or to book, contact

Printable Flyer

Feb 18

Radical Science and Alternative Technology – 11th April 2015

Radical Science and Alternative Technology: From the 70s to the Present.

Discussion event with talks by the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science / Alternative Technology Movement and current activists.

April 11th, 1pm to 5.30pm, Feminist Library, 5 Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7XW.
In our highly technological industrial society, key issues hinge on the politics of science and technology. In the 1970s and 80s the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science and the alternative technology movement campaigned against harmful corporate and military uses of technology, for ‘appropriate technology’ and for ‘science for the people.’ These perspectives are critically needed in the current environmental crisis, whilst surveillance, automation and workplace hazards continue to be major issues.  This event will bring together different generations of activists and critical scientists and engineers to compare perspectives and learn from each other.
  • Introductions: Hilary and Steven Rose (BSSRS), Peter Harper (Centre for Alternative Technology), David King (Breaking the Frame)
  • Energy/food politics: Les Levidow (BSSRS), Helena Paul (Econexus), speaker from Anti-Fracking Movement
  • Social control/surveillance: Jonathan Rosenhead (BSSRS), Jim Killock (Open Rights Group)
  • Work hazards: Sue Barlow (BSSRS, women and work hazards group), Eve Barker (Hazards Magazine), tbc
For more information contact

Feb 18

Automation and the Threat to Jobs – 23rd May 2015

Automation and the Threat to Jobs: What Response from the Labour Movement? Event to discuss how unions can respond to the threat of robotics and automation. May 23rd (tbc) 2015, London.

Oct 17

TTIP day of action Oct 2014

Here’s some videos from the TTIP day of action 2014:


John Hilary – War on Want

David Babbs – 38 Degrees

Ludovica Rogers – Occupy London

Sam Lowe – Friends Of the Earth

Tracy Worcester – Pig Pledge

Jan O’Malley – Keep Our NHS Public

Speaker – Save Lewisham Hospital

Jean Lambert MEP – Green Party

Annie – Unite The Youth

Sara Calloway – Global Women’s Strike

Banners at Parliament Square

Oct 02

TTIP: The ‘harmonization’ of regulation for the benefit of corporations

Negotiated in secret and widely opposed by civil society and community groups, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) calls for the ‘harmonisation’ of regulations between the United States and the E.U.  Internet privacy and safety and environmental regulations in all areas are expected to be decimated if this anti-democratic re-write of common protections for workers, the environment, and the public is permitted.  Corporate interests with privileged access to the negotiating process hope to achieve technocratic control of regulatory science. To learn more come to this public discussion event:


  • Linda Kaucher – Stop TTIP!
  • Wendy Grossman – Open Rights Group
  • Hilda PalmerHazards Campaign
  • Sam Lowe – Friends of the Earth

Monday October 6th, 7-9pm @ The Feminist Library, 5 Westminster Bridge Rd, London SE1 7XW.  Nearest tubes: Waterloo/Lambeth North

Organized by Breaking the Frame

The BTF working group supports the October 11th Day of Action on TTIP. For more information or to find your local action

Jun 15

Earlier events

Breaking the Frame programme of events 2013-14

Technology dominates our world, but many people think ‘its just a neutral tool’ or that technology = progress.  Although it does bring some benefits, most technology designed and controlled by corporate, military and technocratic elites to serve their interests and exert their power.  Breaking the Frame is organising a series of monthly events to look at the technology politics of food, energy, work, gender, war, the economy, health etc.  There will be speakers from campaigning groups and lots of time for discussion.  We are preparing for a 3-day gathering in May 2014 on these issues.


July 8th 2013 Technology out of control? Drones, killer robots and the arms trade
August 12th 2013 Nuclear Power: Climate Chiller or Silent Killer?
September 9th 2013 Gender and the politics of technology
October 14th 2013 Economic crisis and austerity: the Role of Technology
November 11th 2013 Food, GM and synthetic biology
December 9th 2013 Extreme Energy, Geoengineering and climate change/Poetry launch and seasonal party
January 13th 2014 The politics of alternative technology and workers’ plans
February 10th 2014 Digital technology, surveillance and Big Data
March 10th 2014 Toxics and nanotechnology
April 14th 2014 ‘Mental health’, big pharma and the new eugenics

Breaking the Frame Part 1: Technology out of control? Drones, Killer Robots and the Arms Trade

Remote controlled drones have already caused many civilian casualties in the ‘war on terror’, and people in the target zones and in Britain are campaigning against their use. But the military is moving towards letting battlefield ‘killer robots’ take their own decisions without human input. Should we allow computers to decide who lives and who dies, and who is legally responsible for their actions? This first meeting in our ‘Breaking the Frame’ series on the politics of technology will address some of the ethical and ‘existential’ issues raised by the march of technocracy. There will be plenty of time for informal discussion.
When: 7pm July 8th 2013 Where: Fairly Square cafe, 51 Red Lion St London WC1R 4PF
Introductions from:

Breaking the Frame 2: Nuclear Power: Climate Chiller or Silent Killer?

Nuclear power is not a new technology, but it is perhaps the most dangerous technology we have at present, as the Fukushima disaster has shown. The UK government is still pressing ahead with plans for new nuclear reactors at Hinkley and SIzewell, plans which have sparked fierce local resistance. Is the nuclear power the answer to climate change or is it sure to lead to further disasters and nuclear weapons proliferation? Does it make the development of decentralised renewable energy less likely? Is there a basic problem with nuclear technology?
Introductions from:

  • Nikki Clarke – Stop Hinkley Campaign
  • Atsuko Kamura – Japanese Against Nuclear

Breaking the Frame 3: Gender and the Politics of Technology
In the home and at work, women and men have different relationships to technology.  Women have traditionally been excluded from science and engineering and are put in the role of users and operators of new technology.  Do technologies like IVF and domestic machinery really benefit women or entrench their existing social roles?  How do shifts in technology affect the oppression of women?
Introductions from:
  • Cynthia Cockburn, feminist activist and author of Machinery of Dominance, Gender and Technology in the Making, and Brothers: Male Dominance and Technological Change
  • David King Human Genetics Alert
  • Feminist environmental activist (tbc)

Breaking The Frame 4: Economic Crisis and Austerity: the Role of Technology
The ongoing financial crisis has exposed the fragility of the banking and finance system, and the 2008 crash would have been impossible without the ‘dark magic’ of computer-generated derivatives. But while we continue to debate banker’s bonuses, automated High Frequency Trading has taken over the stock market, creating new volatility as algorithms complete trades in milliseconds.  Back in the real world of austerity created by the crisis, automation is contributing to public sector job loss, as workers are replaced with machines.  How can we get technology to serve people not profit?
Introductions from:
  • Dave Dewhurst, Occupy London Economics Working Group
  • Speakers from Corporate Watch and Kaput, tbc

Breaking the Frame 5: Food, GM and Synthetic Biology

It’s hard to be indifferent to the politics of food, and that may be why the anti-GM food campaign was so successful. But despite environmental concerns and accumulating evidence of health risks, the GM corporations continue to push this technology. Their aim is to intensify industrial agriculture and their control over the entire food chain. Now with ‘synthetic biology’, an extreme form of genetic engineering, scientists aim to industrialise life itself. Come and discuss the way forward on these issues.
Introductions from

  • Jyoti Fernandes – La Via Campesina UK
  • Laura Pearson – March Against Monsanto London
  • Helena Paul – Econexus

There will be an exhibition of classic posters on the politics of technology, produced by Christine Halsall of Chimera Publications.

At 6pm there will be a discussion group at Fairly Square on the politics of technology, to which all are welcome. For more info contact, or visit Facebook: Breaking the Frame.


Breaking the Frame 6: Extreme Energy and Geoengineering / Poetry Launch and Seasonal Party

The consequences of fracking and other forms of extreme energy for local environments and climate change seem obviously disastrous, so why do they persist? After 200 years of techno-capitalism, it is not just greed that has brought us to the brink of ecological disaster. But for technocrats, engineers and corporations, the solution is more of the same: technology will fix the problem, and let us continue business as usual. In this case, they think they can engineer the planet’s climate through insane experiments like blasting sulphur particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight, or trying to change the chemistry of the oceans. The results of these technofixes may be much worse than climate change. How can we stop these irrational schemes and move to a sustainable energy supply?
Introductions from:

  • Frack-off – on fracking and other extreme energy technologies
  • Pete Deane (Biofuelwatch) – on geoengineering

At 6pm there will be a discussion group at Fairly Square on the politics of technology, to which all are welcome. For more info contact, or visit Facebook: Breaking the Frame.

The second half of the event will be a seasonal party, including the launch of Luddite’s 200 long-awaited poetry anthology, ‘Words in Praise of Ned Ludd’. Pete the Temp will perform some of his and others’ Luddite poetry.


Breaking the Frame 7: The politics of alternative technology and workers’ plans

Radical movements, appreciating the importance of technology, have often tried to appropriate or modify it, or even to create their own technologies. ‘Alternative’ or ‘sustainable’ technology has now become part of the mainstream, but has it lost sight of the principles of its founders, such as E F Schumacher? Has it become just another techno-fix? Trade unionists have also put forward alternative plans for how to use technology in the common interest, rather than those of corporations and the military. But can industrial megatechnologies ever really solve the problems that industrial capitalism has created? Can the Green and Left critiques of technology be combined?
Speakers :

  • Patrick Mulvaney (adviser to Practical Action)
  • Suzanne Jeffery (Million Climate Jobs Campaign)

The second half of the meeting will be an opportunity for people to give input on the Breaking the Frame gathering. 

Breaking the Frame 8: Digital technology, surveillance and Big Data

Recent revelations about the use of Big Data for ‘predictive policing’ in the US, the scandal over spying by the US National Security Agency, and the selling of users’ data by Facebook to other corporations, have highlighted the extent of state and corporate surveillance. While digital technologies are often useful for individuals, deeper questions need to be asked about their structural function in our society. Is campaigning for privacy and internet freedom and taking personal security measures enough?
Introductions from :

  • Statewatch
  • Open Rights Group

Breaking the Frame 9: 30 Years on from Bhopal: Can we Control Toxics and Nanotechnology?

As we approach the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, the effects of toxic chemicals upon people and the environment are still amongst the most harmful impacts of industrial capitalism. The continuing resistance of chemicals corporations and legislators to precautionary approaches and the widespread conflicts of scientific interest continue to hamper efforts at clean-up, whilst the health and safety of workers is routinely ridiculed in the mainstream media. Meanwhile these same corporations are developing new technologies including GM and ‘synthetic’ organisms and are busy marketing potentially unsafe products of nano-technology. How can we put these issues back at the centre of public debate?
Introductions from:

  • Colin Toogood, Bhopal Medical Foundation
  • Helen Lynn, Alliance for Cancer Prevention
  • Michael Rainsborough, Stop Unsafe Nanosilver

Breaking The Frame 10: ‘Mental health’, big pharma and the new eugenics

Modern medicine is often trumpeted as one of the greatest examples of technological progress.  But technocratic medicine also has a very dark side.

  • Side effects of drugs are in the top ten causes of premature deaths
  • Continuing historic eugenic tendencies under the rubric of reproductive choice, pre-natal testing prevents the birth of thousands of disabled people
  • The medicalisation of mental distress serves the financial interest of drug companies but often fails to address the real problems of highly vulnerable people.

Meanwhile, as the NHS suffers increasing privatisation, the government wants to sell our electronic medical records to the pharmaceutical industry. this event will explore how genomics and other high-tec medical trends are detracting from public health approaches and basic human-centered treatment.
Introductions from;

  • Micheline Mason, a writer and leading advocate of inclusive education will discuss the rights of disabled people and the history of eugenics
  • Redmond O’Hanlon from the Critical Psychiatry Network will look at the problems of drug-based psychiatry and how this serves the interests of the pharmaceutical industry
  • Fleur Fisher former head of Medical Ethics at the BMA will speak about the campaign against government plans to allow drug companies access to the NHS medical records database

Feb 24

Databases and data-mining: a favoured method for security and law enforcement agencies

Databases and data-mining: a favoured method for security and law enforcement agencies

Chris Jones Statewatch

Image from The Guardian

The documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden on the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have revealed the vast extent of state surveillance undertaken in secret in the name of “national security”. However, absorbing vast amounts of digital information is not solely the preserve of secretive security agencies. Increasingly, police forces are taking a similar approach. However, organisastion and campaigning have the potential to slow and possibly halt such developments.

A potted history of the NSA

In 1946, following their cooperation on signals intelligence in World War II the UK and USA signed an agreement – known as the UKUSA agreement – which permits “the exchange of the products of the following operations relating to foreign communications”:

(1) collection of traffic

(2) acquisition of communication documents and equipment

(3) traffic analysis

(4) cryptanalysis

(5) decryption and translation

(6) acquisition of information regarding communication organisations, practices, procedures and equipment.

More specifically, the agreement was between the US Army-Navy Communication Intelligence Board (“representing the U.S. State, Navy and War Departments and all other U.S. Communication Intelligence authorities which may function”) and the London Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) Board (“representing the Foreign Office, Admiralty, War Office, Air Ministry, and all other British Empire Communication Intelligence authorities which may function”).[1]

Canada joined the Agreement in 1948, and Australia and New Zealand in 1956. Norway (1952), Denmark (1954), Germany (1955), Italy, Turkey, the Philippines and Ireland are also party to the agreement.

Together the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand make up the ‘Five Eyes’ states. They share intelligence and information on a variety of issues, and from a whole host of sources – not just SIGINT – including human intelligence, defence intelligence, and security intelligence.[2] There are a number of other ‘Eyes’ groups with varying countries involved.[3]

During the Cold War the primary interest of these agencies was communism and the activities of the Soviet Union, its satellite states, and their agents. Now they appear chiefly focused upon terrorism, industrial espionage, and cyber-security (for example with a focus on hackers and cyber-attacks).


In 1988 the journalist Duncan Campbell revealed that Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the USA were operating a global telecommunications interception system, which became known popularly as ECHELON.[4] Agencies such as the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) played a key role in this network.

A decade later the issue began to receive political attention in Europe, most notably with the publication of three European Parliament reports, one of which concluded, amongst other things, that Member States involved with the system were probably in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Despite the furore, nothing happened. Rather than taking action to rein in the NSA’s capabilities, US politicians apparently gave the agency the green light to expand. According to NSA whistleblower Adrienne J. Kinne, after 9/11 “basically all the rules were thrown out the window” and extensive surveillance of US citizens as well as foreign nationals increased massively, in the name of combating terrorism.[5]

One of the EP’s reports noted of ECHELON that:

“In areas characterised by a high volume of communications only a very small proportion of those communications are transmitted by satellite… this means that the majority of communications cannot be intercepted by earth stations, but only by tapping cables and intercepting radio signals, something which – as the investigations carried out in connection with the report have shown – is possible only to a limited extent… the UKUSA states have access to only a very limited proportion of cable and radio communications and can analyse an even more limited proportion of those communications… the extremely high volume of traffic makes exhaustive, detailed monitoring of all communications impossible in practice.”[6]

Changing strategies

The US government was obviously well aware of these problems. In 2001 the Wall Street Journal reported that “the NSA’s snooping capabilities are in jeopardy, undermined by advances in telecommunications technology.”[7]  According to Thomas Drake, another NSA whistleblower, in 2003 the government intervened in the sale of a US undersea cable company to an Asian firm, Global Crossing. A ‘Network Security Agreement’ was signed between the government and the company, which was obliged to maintain an internal corporate cell of American citizens with government clearances responsible for ensuring that surveillance requests for fulfilled quickly and The vast global increases in digital telecommunications and transactions led the US Department of Defence (of which the NSA is a part) to state in 2007 that the Pentagon aimed to expand its systems to be able to handle yottabytes of data (yottabye=a septillion bytes, 1024; gigabyte=about a billion bytes). A March 2012 article by James Bamford[9] in Wired magazine makes clear the expansion of the NSA’s operations to deal with the digital age. It examined the NSA’s new data centre in Utah, which was intended to gather, store and analyse:

“[T]he complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches as well as all sorts of personal data trails – parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter’.”[10]

As an aside, the centre will have a significant environmental impact: according to Bamford it will use 65-megawatts of electricity per year and its water system will have the ability to pump 1.7 million gallons of liquid per day. It also has its own sewage system, and a massive air conditioning system to keep computers cool.

The Snowden revelations

Then, in June 2013, investigations based on documents obtained by Edward Snowden confirmed the involvement of Global Crossing and other firms in the worldwide surveillance operation and the extent to which the NSA and its allies, such as GCHQ, are able to monitor personal communications.

Agreements with companies such as Global Crossing and BT, as part of the FAIRVIEW program, allow the NSA to extract internet traffic as it travels across the globe; the agency extracts information directly from the servers of major US internet corporations such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo; gathers information on hundreds of millions of text messages and phone calls every day; and has broken or circumvented digital encryption standards.

GCHQ, meanwhile, which over the last three years has received £100 million from the NSA for its efforts, also engages in cable tapping, monitors phone calls and text messages, and so forth. It provides information and analysis to MI5, MI6, the government, and also the NSA, who apparently consider the comparatively weaker regulation of its British counterpart as a “selling point”.[11]

The haystack

Broadly speaking, it seems that the NSA and its partner agencies are aiming to collect, if not everything, then as much digital information as they possibly can. People generate this information through increasingly-ubiquitous devices such as smartphones, laptops, etc.; the advances that have led to these devices allow state agencies to store and process the information.

The result is an enormous haystack which is apparently used to sift out the various needles: terrorists, hackers, spies, companies breaking sanctions and trade embargoes, etc. The NSA, GCHQ and their supporters claim that the agency is incredibly judicious with this information, but significant lack of transparent oversight arrangements means it is not clear that this is the case. In any case, it does not justify collecting it all in the first place.

Nevertheless, the “haystack” approach – the collection and analysis of vast sets of digitally-stored data – has become, or is becoming, increasingly adopted in law enforcement.


There are numerous examples that could be used, but a particularly useful one, due to its scale and nature, is Passenger Name Record (PNR) information. PNR is generated by travel agencies and transport operators when individuals book travel tickets. For airlines, which so far have been the key focus state PNR collection and analysis efforts, the PNR data is made up of:

  • PNR record locator code;
  • Date of reservation/issue of ticket;
  • Date(s) of intended travel;
  • Name(s);
  • Available frequent flier and benefit information (i.e., free tickets, upgrades, etc.);
  • Other names on PNR, including number of travellers on PNR;
  • All available contact information (including originator information);
  • All available payment/billing information (not  including other transaction details linked to a credit card or account and not connected to the travel transaction);
  • Travel itinerary for specific PNR;
  • Travel agency/travel agent;
  • Code share information;
  • Split/divided information;
  • Travel status of passenger (including confirmations and check-in status);
  • Ticketing information, including ticket number, one way tickets, and Automated Ticket Fare Quote;
  • All baggage information;
  • Seat information, including seat number;
  • General remarks including OSI (Other Service Information), SSI (Special Service Information) and SSR (Special Service Request) information, e.g. wheelchair requirements, seating preferences, special meal requests, etc.;
  • Any collected APIS information;
  • All historical changes to the PNR listed in numbers 1 to 18.

All this information is collected by commercial companies for their own use. Law enforcement agencies, however, decided that it may be useful to them.

In 2004 the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the EU signed an agreement on airline PNR which has been renewed a number of times, most recently in 2012. The agreement requires the PNR data of all airline passengers travelling from the EU to be taken from airlines’ and travel agencies’ computer reservation databases and sent to the DHS for processing and examination for involvement in “terrorism and related crimes” and “other crimes that are punishable by a sentence of imprisonment of three years or more and that are transnational in nature.”[12]

It is worth noting that although the NSA apparently collects “travel itineraries” (see Bamford quote, above), it presumably does not share them with the DHS. If it did, there would have been no need to conclude a separate agreement with the EU to ensure that airlines and travel agencies hand over PNR information.

Currently there is EU legislation on the table that if passed would extend the system to flights coming into the EU – and possibly plane, train and boat travel within the EU – despite the fact that no evidence has been presented to show the value of PNR in dealing with terrorism and crime. Justifications from law enforcement agencies that have been made public have relied on anecdotes. The same problem surrounds the EU’s controversial Data Retention Directive, which mandates the collection by telecommunications service providers of metadata on telephone calls and internet use for up to two years, for law enforcement purposes.[13]


The tendency towards the collection and collation of large sets of data, personal or otherwise, and the application of new modes of analysis to already existing datasets, appears endemic: the introduction of “predictive policing” systems,[14] the attempt to give law enforcement agencies powers held by GCHQ through the “Snooper’s Charter”,[15] the EU’s Data Retention Directive, providing law enforcement authorities with access to the European database of asylum seekers’ fingerprints and the European visa database,[16] not to mention use of data-mining and analysis tools by private companies…

These “solutions” are frequently marketed to governments by multinational IT and security corporations as “solutions” to the problems of terrorism, crime and “migration management”. The fact that states and state agencies frequently purchase such systems shows the extent to which they see large-scale collection and processing of data to be a valid and effective way of dealing with security problems. Given the amount of personal data that is routinely generated, collected and stored by private companies and non-law-enforcement government departments, there are clearly vast possibilities for more extensive surveillance.

However, such developments are by no means inevitable. Campaigning prevented the Snooper’s Charter becoming law, legal challenges from NGOs may well see the Data Retention Directive struck down,[17] and the negotiations on an EU PNR system have for some time now been stalled due to civil liberties concerns.[18] Ensuring transparency and basic accountability of security and intelligence agencies (as called for by campaigns such as Don’t Spy On Us in the UK[19] and Stop Watching Us in the US[20]) is the first step towards ensuring that these bodies are compelled to act within a framework based on human rights and the rule of law. There’s always lots of bad news, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism too.

[9] Author of a number of books on the NSA: The Puzzle Palace (1982 and 2001); Body of Secrets (2002), The Shadow Factory (2008).

Nov 24

Technocracy, gender and reproductive technology

David King

It is often assumed that the Enlightenment ideals of rationality, liberalism and progress through science are aligned with the liberation of women. Reproductive technologies, as part of medicine are also assumed to be an unalloyed benefit for women, giving them reproductive choice and control over their lives. Although there is truth in this, there is a darker side of the liberal agenda, which can be traced to the origins of modern science in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century. This revolution marked a shift in fundamental worldviews throughout European society, and the establishment of technocratic capitalist modernity.

The Medieval World

In the medieval worldview, as in nearly all previous cosmologies across the globe, the earth/nature was seen as female and as an inherently alive and inter-connected whole. There were different shades of this philosophy, including the alchemists’ view of the world as a unity of opposing and equal male and female principles. While the male principle is active, the female was thought of as passive and nurturing. For example, it was thought that the heavens were masculine and fertilised the earth through rain (semen).

For many hundred years, the feudal order, however unjust, maintained an ecological balance that maintained social stability. As the medieval order broke down in the 14th and 15th centuries, this began to change. The medieval worldview played a significant role in restraining all-out exploitation of natural resources. For example, in the medieval worldview, our distinction between organic and inorganic substances did not exist: metals were thought to be formed by the secretions of the earth’s womb. As the market economy emerged and with it the demand for minerals, there were major debates in the 16th century about the acceptability of mining, with opponents portraying it not merely as the sin of avarice but as the rape of Mother Earth. Proponents responded by portraying nature as wicked stepmother who refuses to nourish her children.

Organic metaphors also permeated political thinking, with the image of the ‘body politic’ being taken very literally. While the nobility subscribed to hierarchical philosophies stressing the active rule of the head, vitalist thinkers like Paracelsus viewed activity and change as immanent to nature, which translated into a radical, democratic politics which led to his persecution by different states of Europe. In the transition period, in which the stability of the Medieval order was breaking down under the pressure of nascent market capitalism, the relationship between metaphysical ideas about nature, gender, politics and questions of political power were very significant. The break-up of the old order and accompanying social turmoil created widespread existential angst, with fears of chaos, anarchy, and even a crumbling of the laws of nature. The destructive side of nature (plagues, famines, tempests) began to be emphasised and this was linked to male fears of the unruly and dangerous force of female sexuality.

Thus the Judeo-Christian idea of the dominion of man over nature and women began to be emphasised, and was allied to a backlash against women who were attempting to escape from their medieval roles and carve out a place for themselves in the new commercial economy. These politics can be seen clearly, for example in Milton’s Paradise Lost. On the elite political stage, the conflict was played out in John Knox’s First Trumpet Blast Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, a polemic against the three Catholic Queen Marys of Scotland and England which emphasised the Aristotelian orthodoxy that the male principle of spirit should rule over the female in order to maintain order in the cosmos. For women of the lower orders, the male backlash took the more violent form of the witch persecutions, which pitted the hierarchy of the Church against the old, pagan and more democratic religion.

The Birth of Technocracy

The emerging mechanical and scientific philosophy of the 17th century crystallised first in the writings of Francis Bacon, who as Lord Chancellor of England was personally involved in the witch trials. Bacon’s major contribution was the idea of the experimental method of science and a strict insistence upon inductive reasoning, i.e. reasoning from observations about nature and the results of experiment, rather than the abstract logical theorising that had dominated the philosophy of the Middle Ages. Bacon, who was a great enthusiast for the new ‘mechanical arts’, first coined the mission statement of technocracy – ‘Knowledge is Power’. Criticising Aristotle’s natural history approach to discovering facts about nature, Bacon stressed that nature would not reveal the secrets hidden in her womb and bosom unless she was ‘vexed’ through the interventions of the scientist, which he often likened to the techniques of prosecutors and inquisitors. He often refers to nature as a harlot who must be forcibly subdued through science. In his utopia, The New Atlantis, he describes a fully-fledged political technocracy (i.e. a society ruled by scientists), ruled by the Father of its scientific institute, ‘Salomon’s House.’


Bacon’s philosophy was echoed by the aristocratic founders of the Royal Society. In 1664, for example, Henry Oldenburg, the Society’s secretary, stated that its intention was to, ‘raise a Masculine Philosophy…whereby the Mind of Man may be ennobled with the knowledge of the solid Truths.’ Despite their view of nature as merely dead matter, such writers continued the identification of nature as female. Robert Hooke, for example, viewed matter as the, ‘Female or Mother Principle,’ which was, ‘without Life or Motion, without form, and void, and dark, Power in itself wholly unactive, until it be, as it were, impregnated by the second Principle, which may represent the Pater.’

These scientists were clear that the scientific approach to nature must be vigorous, and their writings are full of sexual metaphor. Bacon proclaimed that men must make peace amongst themselves in order to turn their, ‘united forces against the Nature of Things, to storm and occupy her castles and strongholds’. Instead of remaining in the, ‘outer courts of nature,’ Bacon exhorted his followers to ‘penetrate further’…’, ‘into her inner chambers.’ John Webster, a slightly later writer, argued that such an approach would be needed in order to, ‘unlock her Cabinet’, and Oldenburg echoed this tone, arguing that scientists must ‘penetrate from Nature’s antechamber to her inner closet.’   Although modern scientists do not openly express themselves in such terms, examples can be found in the writings of scientists throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries.

During this period, male doctors began the first of many waves of displacing women midwives from the management of childbirth.  However, their scientific confidence was not matched by their understanding of how human reproduction worked.  Echoing the inherited patriarchal assumption that the active principle was in the male ‘seed’, these writers insisted that the egg and the womb were no more than passive receptacles for the seed that made no contribution to the child’s characteristics.  It is rather ironic that my copy of Carolyn Merchant’s ‘The Death of Nature’, the classic description of the misogynist philosophy of the Scientific Revolution, is described by its publishers as a ‘seminal’ (rather than ovular) work.

In Bacon’s model of nature, as in that of the other key philosopher of the Scientific Revolution, Rene Descartes, matter is essentially passive and only moves or changes in response to external forces identified as the principle of spirit or God.  This follows the earlier aristocratic models of society and the cosmos: it was no accident the first scientific society was named the Royal society.  In the mid 17th century, with the work of Isaac Newton and the founders of the Royal Society, a ‘billiard ball’ or clockwork model of nature came to dominate scientific thinking, in accordance with Descartes’ and Bacon’s mechanical model of the universe.  It was this ‘disenchantment’ of nature that legitimated the technocratic drive for complete control and the capitalist projects of exploitation of natural resources without limit.

At the root of the scientific attitude to nature is a distancing of the perceiving subject from his object (nature), a severing of relationship between the scientist and nature, which is precisely what scientists describe as necessary in order to obtain ‘objectivity’.  In the 1660s, this gendered difference of approach was reflected very concretely in the famous experiments on the vacuum in which scientists placed a bird in a bell jar, and then evacuated the air, killing the bird.  According to contemporary accounts, women observers protested vehemently against this, forcing the men to conduct the experiments in the dead of night after the women had gone to bed.  It is this distancing of subject from object that, in the second wave of the women’s movement in the late 20th century, feminists identified as the ‘male gaze’, through which men objectify women.

Reproductive Technologies

The technocratic project of control of nature did not get to grips with human reproduction until the beginning of the 20th Century, where it emerged in the form of the eugenics movement. In this period, technocracy was an open political movement of scientists and engineers, who argued that the problems of administrating industrial society were too complex to be left to democratic processes, and that the running of society should be entrusted to their ‘apolitical’ stewardship. The eugenics movement was closely allied to the technocracy movement, and contrary to the idea we have inherited of eugenics as an extreme right-wing phenomenon, most eugenicists saw themselves as progressive and humanitarian. Eugenics was part of the overall managerial tendency in politics that arose as a result of the failure of 19th Century laissez-faire capitalism to deal with the social turmoil of industrial mass society. At its centre was the technocratic concept of social control through control of nature, in particular the randomness and mess that arises from human sexual reproduction. Eugenicists would always begin by asking, “How can we devote so much attention to the breeding of our farm animals, yet do nothing about human breeding?”  But its target was women’s bodies and reproductive capacities, not those of men.

The gender politics of eugenics appear contradictory unless it is understood as a form of technocracy, fundamentally aimed at the rational control of reproduction. Some aspects seem very clearly anti-feminist and oppressive of women, for example the tendency to sterilise unwed mothers. It is not an accident that in the classic eugenic study of a poor white US family, the Jukes, which supposedly demonstrated that four generations of the family were criminals, ‘feeble-minded’, prostitutes etc, the ancestor from whom all these burdens on society were descended was a woman, Ada Jukes. If only she had been sterilised, the eugenicist argued, society would have been spared the burden of the following generations. Likewise the Supreme Court case, which established the right of US states to sterilise people without consent involved a woman, Carrie Buck.

On the other hand, the eugenics movement (which was always composed of a large proportion of women) presented benefits to women: it was eugenicist women, notably Margaret Sanger in the USA and Marie Stopes in England, who pioneered birth control for women, and who founded the Family Planning Association, for example. Stopes and Sanger always argued that they were relieving women of the burden of multiple pregnancies and caring for huge families, yet it was also very clear that their efforts were targeted at the ‘lower’ classes.

The integration of eugenics with the technological control movement of the 20th century (Fordism) is best captured by Aldhous Huxley’s 1930s novel Brave New World.  It is most remembered for its vision of artificial wombs and artificial class differentiation through dosing the bottled foetuses with alcohol.  In that world, the word ‘mother’ is a term of abuse indicating something disgusting, whilst women are simply not permitted to refuse sex.

After World War II, when eugenics had acquired an extremely bad name, the efforts of eugenicists switched to population control in the Third World. Here again, whilst control of their fertility was undoubtedly a genuine benefit for many women in those countries, the targeting of the reproduction of black women, who were supposedly creating a world population problem, and the coercive nature of many population control programmes reveals the eugenic character of that movement. In the 1970s and 80s the targeting of poor women and women of colour with dangerous long term contraceptives such as Norplant and Depo Provera continued these policies.  Although it is often assumed that racist and coercive sterilisation programmes are a thing of the past, recent scandals in Israel and the USA show that this is not the case.

Throughout the 20th Century, whilst overt eugenics has declined, human reproduction has become an increasingly technologised process, in which pregnancy and childbirth have become increasingly medicalised and hospitalised and obstetrics and gynaecology have become the domain of mainly male doctors, with midwives performing an increasingly subordinate role.  Technological interventions in reproduction have included hormonal contraception and fertility drugs as well as the disastrous experiences of drugs such as DES and thalidomide.  Technologisation of reproduction has created its own logic of quality control, through the development of ultrasound and other prenatal screening programmes.  In 1979, IVF was first achieved by Robert Edwards, a committed eugenicist and board member of the British Eugenics Society.

The response of feminists to reproductive technologies has varied depending on their relation to technocracy. Thus, for example, in the early 1970s the radical feminist, Shulamith Firestone, tried to develop a kind of Marxist approach in her book The Dialectic of Sex, which argued for the use of technology to liberate women from the burdens of reproduction as the only way to achieve equality for women. Most notoriously, Firestone argued that as in Huxley’s Brave New World, scientists should develop ectogenesis, i.e. artificial wombs for growing babies outside the body.

In contrast, in the 1980s an international network of feminists calling itself The Feminist International Network for Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering (FINRRAGE), developed an eco-feminist critique of reproductive technology, arguing that it is part of the patriarchal attempt to appropriate and control women’s bodies. Some of these writers theorised that this drive to control women’s fertility originates in fundamental male insecurities stemming from men’s marginal role in the reproductive process, and argued that the technologisation of reproduction was leading to the removal of the last truly woman-centred aspect of human life from female control.  Further generations of feminist writers and scholars have continued to struggle with the contradictions of technocratic progress, control and choice, and women have fought against medicalisation through the natural birth movement for example.

Some Current Gender Issues in Reproductive Technology

IVF; Although IVF has now been practised for over 30 years and millions of women have undergone it, there is still a lack of research on the long-term health consequences for women. IVF is a stressful and invasive procedure with significant short-term health affects, notably Ovarian Hyper-Stimulation Syndrome. This condition, in its mild form, can affect up to 30% of women, and there is no clear consensus about how many women are affected by the medium and severe forms, with figures ranging from 1 to 8%. In these cases, blood vessels become leaky leading to the collection of a large amount of fluid in the abdomen. Although figures are unclear, there may be one death per year from OHSS in the UK, but there is no systematic monitoring of the condition. Feminist critics have argued that the standard IVF approach, which uses large hormone doses to produce 10 to 15 eggs, many of which will be of poor quality, imposes unnecessary risks on women. It is sometimes suggested that these high doses are used in order to create a supply of surplus eggs, which can be used in research.

Egg donation: These concerns about hormone treatments are especially sharp for women who are donating eggs to other women, since they are not themselves aiming to become pregnant. Such women undergo significant risks and there have been major controversies about the exploitation of women in egg donation. For example, in the 1990s and 2000s, a commercial egg trade operated in Europe, with women from Eastern European countries donating eggs in return for small payments to “fertility tourists” from Western European countries. In some cases the clinics, which were making large profits from this trade, subjected the donors to extremely high doses of hormones, with resultant damage to the donors’ health. There is some evidence of overlap between the criminal networks that traffic in Eastern European women and the egg donation trade. In 2009 the UK changed its policy on egg donation, allowing payments of £750 to egg donors, with the aim of encouraging UK women to make up the shortfall in supply in the UK. Critics such as the No2Eggsploitation Campaign argued that these financial incentives were likely to lead to women on benefits and students with large debts taking the risks of egg donation, for purely financial rather than altruistic reasons.

Surrogacy: In the UK, commercial surrogacy is not permitted (although substantial ‘expenses’ payments can be made). As a result, an international surrogacy trade has developed centred on India and the Ukraine, with many of the same concerns as those raised by the trade in eggs. In India, whilst clinics are making large profits, surrogate mothers are paid only a small proportion of the overall fee, and often have to sign contracts stipulating that the clinic is not responsible for any damage to the woman’s health as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. The women are often coerced into surrogacy as a source of income by their husbands or fathers (in India, such work is seen as similar to prostitution, and are obliged to reside in dormitories at the fertility clinic during pregnancy.) In essence, the situation seems little different from baby-farming, and is a particularly unpleasant example of the exploitation of people in developing countries by wealthy Westerners.

Sex Selection: The development of ultrasound scanning in the 1980s has enabled the widespread abortion of female foetuses, particularly in India and China. These practices, driven by traditional patriarchal preference for sons as well as complex social factors, have extended the traditional phenomenon of female infanticide and death by neglect of young girls. The result is that in some parts of India the ratio of boys to girls can be as high as 125 boys for every 100 girls, and it is estimated that over 100 million women are missing from the world population as a result of sex selection. In turn, this is leading to significant social problems, including large numbers of men unable to find wives and the resulting increase in trafficking of women into these areas. In the 1990s, India legislated against prenatal sex selection, but the law has never been properly enforced, and the large sums of money to be made in this industry has meant that the problem continues to grow. It appears that the practice has now spread to some Eastern European countries, such as Georgia.


The purpose of this post has been to relate issues in reproductive technologies to the overall regime of technocracy, which has been a central element of capitalist modernity. Technocracy, which began in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century and was based upon the views of male scientists and philosophers, is based on principles of control and authority over the unruly female that are closely similar to those of traditional patriarchy.

These fundamental dynamics of technocracy have been played out in the development of reproductive technologies under the banner of eugenics in the 20th Century. The overall trend towards growing technological medical control has followed from the obvious offence that unregulated human reproduction represents to a technocratic social order.

But this is not to say that control of nature is always a bad thing or that it never brings concrete benefits to individual women; such is the contradictory nature of technocratic progress. Millions of women are grateful for IVF and hormonal contraception, for example. It is also often argued that these technologies give women more choice (that great shibboleth of consumer capitalism), and it cannot be denied that, in some ways, they do. But like all technologies, they also control us by controlling what the options are, and through the social pressure of a society which thinks that high-tech and control are always best. No-one has to be forced by the state to undergo pre-natal testing and the result – the termination of 90% of pregnancies involving Down Syndrome, for example – is a foregone conclusion, without anyone having to take responsibility. One thing that placing these developments in an overall framework of technocracy does allow us to understand, however, is that these benefits are often technofixes – technological solutions to social/political problems that fail to address the real causes of the problems.

Provision of contraception to Third World women is a case in point. The suffering of women under the burden of so many children is caused by a combination of patriarchy – men’s insistence on their sexual rights within marriage and producing children – and poverty which makes it a rational strategy to have many children. Instead of addressing these issues, the population control movement of the mid 20th Century descended upon these countries with its technology – contraception/sterilisation, often applied coercively.

A consistent feature of technofixes is that they seen sensible within the overall technocratic order, and so perpetrate that order and the interests that benefit from it. For women in industrialised countries, contraception may have reduced the risk of unwanted pregnancies and sexually liberated them, but it also created a situation in which it became an expectation that they should always be ready to have sex with men who wished to, rather than genuinely putting women in charge of their sexual lives and reproduction.

One simple thing we can say about the whole process of development of these technologies (as has often been said about technology-led development of Third World countries) is that it is hardly driven by the express wishes of its intended beneficiaries. Rather, it is driven by the logic of technocracy, which may sometimes partially help women in certain ways. It is hard to know which of these technologies would be in real demand in a feminist, post-technocratic world.  Perhaps women would take control of them – this is the promise of utopias such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Bodies of Glass.

In the current social order, however, there can be little doubt of the trajectory of perpetual reproductive and genetic control technologies – not merely the free-market eugenics that is developing right now, but a world in which sex is separated entirely from reproduction so that both may serve as forms of social control, as Huxley predicted. Ultimately, as the ‘transhumanists’ hope, both may become entirely redundant as humans finally achieve the masculine dream inherent in technocracy from its beginnings – the escape from the material, from embodied existence altogether, as we become entities of pure spirit running in computers. That vision is not merely anti-female, but anti-human.

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