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Theater of the Techno-Oppressed

Despite all the hype and hope around it, technology is not inherently good. Historically, technology has often intensified oppressions such as xenophobia, sexism, and racism. Social movements, activist groups, and oppressed people need to be aware of how technology does that and, especially, how it uncovers that under the pretext of neutrality.

Theater of the Techno-Oppressed is an outreach activity offered to UTFPR’s local community. The activity aims to raise critical consciousness about the role of technology in our everyday life, mainly how it constrains our bodies to specific physical and/or political postures that accept oppression as an inevitable deed. Dating apps, ride-hailing apps, work platforms, video streaming, and social networks depend on users lingering at specific postures several times a day to meet their not-so-clear ends. 

Theater of the Techno-Oppressed extends the Theater of the Oppressed arsenal developed by Augusto Boal in the 1970s to fight oppression in Latin America and other parts of the world. Informed by Science, Technology, and Society (STS) studies and instrumentalized by some practices from Embodied Interaction Design, the concept of techno-oppression points to the role of technology in mediating oppression relations between privileged and disenfranchised social groups.

Impersonating the technology

Impersonating the technology is crucial to realizing its functionalities, biases, and infrastructure. The actor impersonator acts toward the other actors like a scripted robot, a virtual assistant, or a physical machine. They, in turn, interact with the technology through the metaphorical body interface: they get information from the technology (inter)face, they pull their arms as if they were levers, they press the chest as if they were buttons, and they talk to technologies as if they accepted voice commands. The oppressive nature of the interaction typically becomes more apparent when the designer shows up on stage and discloses his/her intentions when redesigning the technology to mitigate oppression reactions.

Embodied interaction is a way to deconstruct from the inside out both the discourse of neutrality and technological determinism that depoliticize technology development. The spect-actor discovers its intentionality, origin, privileges, configurations, and functionalities by thinking and acting as a technology. On the other hand, they also discover how these constitutive aspects can be transformed through the critical appropriation of technology for different ends. 

The participants of this activity use theater techniques to identify, analyze, discuss, and elaborate reactions to oppressive interactions while using a certain kind of technology. These activities help them to see themselves not just as users but as producers of technology. This shift is essential for putting liberation on the political agenda of technology development.

Workshop format

Theater of the Techno-Oppressed can be performed as a workshop with social movements and communities looking for a critical appropriation of digital technologies in building collaborative services. Platform cooperatives, solidarity economy enterprises, community associations, and art collectives are some possible organizations that may make use of it. It is also a great educational tool to let future designers learn to position themselves critically regarding oppression relations. In contrast with bodystorming and other Embodied Interaction Design methods, Theater of the Oppressed invites political (and politicized) bodies to enter the stage, bringing over racial, gender, class, condition, and handiness relations.

The proponent acts as a complicator, the opposite of a facilitator. This role provides examples of using theater techniques to discuss technology-mediation issues, and the participants copy and develop them further. The techniques rely on improvisation and everyday body language. There are no written scripts or memorized lines, as it relies mainly on silent acting. Due to that simple set-up, people who usually do not feel confident with acting on stage can feel confident with acting against oppression as part of a collective work.

Post-pandemic version

After 2020, the outreach activity that often led to participants realizing they were relying too much on digital technology had to rely on digital technology itself. We integrated Jitsi, SnapCamera, StreamYard, and Youtube in an artful way to host remote forum theater sessions.

The remote theater forum method extended the reach of the Theater of the Techno-Oppressed, but it curtailed embodied expression, collective creation, and improvisation possibilities. Whenever health conditions allow, face-to-face interaction is preferred.


Categories: Methods & Tools, Outreach.

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