Cyberspace For Girls

A Girl’s Guide To Cyberspace

1994 – Published in Vogue

Molly Millions has surgically implanted mirror shades that enable her to see in the dark, and fingernails that transform into switchblades. Deadpan Allie is a future psychiatrist who works on her patients by entering virtual representations of their psyches. Nance repels muggers with her personally designed hologram projection of attacking rats. Chrome is a high-tech whore who implants her victims with carefully concocted cancers. “Virtual girl” is a perfect, humanoid female robot; an artificial intelligence that discovers herself and creates a cyborg mate. All are women warriors in the fictional world of cyberspace from the books of women writers like Pat Cadigan and Amy Thomson as well as the doyen of cyberpunk, William Gibson.

Anyone with a computer linked to a telephone can plug into cyberspace, the world beyond the computer screen, a global electronic web connecting millions of computers, known as the Internet. Reality, or what passes for reality in cyberspace, is fast catching up with these fictional representations, providing new role models for women, long sidelonged by the computer nerds and cowboy hackers who have hogged the keyboards for so long.
But there is still a lot more baseball and porn than breast cancer research or fashion news on the Internet, with currently only 4% women users. Women’s traditional fear of technology, (do you know how to programme the video?) means cyberspace remains heavily male dominated. And despite women’s progress in most professional fields, men still outnumber women by 3 to 1 in computer science degrees, and there are few women in the higher eschelons of the computer industry.

While girls play with My Little Pony, little boys are already mastering their Gameboys establishing a pattern where girls and women have less access to the hardware and less inlcination to explore the possibilities of the software. Women have less economic power to pay for the kit in the first place, less time in the home to use it when it’s there.

In a world where computer mediated communications will very soon be effectively controlling the planet, it means a whole new battleground for women. If they are to have any power over how the new technological world develops, they need to be involved at every level, from designing the software to applying it in the home, in industry, in professional arenas, in education, in politics, in art and entertainment.

Most software is still written and produced by men, most of them “tinkering anoraks”, comfortably sequestered in large campus-based software companies, cut off from the real world. Bill Gates, the multi-millionaire owner of Microsoft, the American company that dominates the world’s software market, was recently quoted in the Sunday Times as saying, “Just because we’re involved in building the system does not mean we know how it will be used.”

Well actually for most women that’s just fine. While we may feel we ought to know how the car engine works, few of us have any particular desire to crawl under and fix it. We just want cars to be safe and reliable and get us somewhere exciting with a smooth ride along the way. Now the Anoraks have spent all those years designing programmes and user friendly interfaces, it is now nearly possible for women just to sit down and, as it were, pick up the phone. (We don’t need to know how that works either. Or the sewing machine. Or the electric blender.) Now computers themselves are much easier to use, and the software available is more accessible, with wider practical appplication, women can begin to see the potential of the beastly things.

Men tend to love the technology for itself, women want to be able to use it. Now they can see how using computers could really help their lives, for organisation, for information, for pleasure, perhaps most of all for communication. In one school computer class in Richmond it was discovered that boys tended to gravitate towards solitary computer games while girls preferred to use e.mail and join network conferences with others.

Those who argue that the future is female, point to the increasing need for so-called “feminine” skills of negotiation, cooperation and communication, all of them potentially vital in gaining power and influence in this brave new cyber world. Joanna Buick is a sculptor, currently working on a project for Chelsea School of Art on virtual reality as a fine art medium, and writing Cyberspace for Beginners, due out mid-1995. She suggests, “Perhaps women are trained to care more about the effects on people, and they are better at making connections. They understand the implications more, are better at ‘pushing the envelope’ and crossing boundaries.”

At the same time cyberpunk fiction and even comics are throwing up a whole new generation of feisty, female role models controlling and exploiting future technology in a world where traditional stereotypes simply don’t apply any more. Brawn is irrelevant in cyberspace, and in any case you can choose any gender or form you like, so the very boundaries of personal identity are challenged. When communication is mediated by words on a screen or computer generated simulations, no one needs know whether you are brown or brunette, disabled or deaf, beautiful or plain, male or female.

Women are beginning to respond to the opportunities and creative potential of electronic media. They are exploring the possibilities, from exchanging professional information to educating children, computer home shopping malls to health information bulletin boards, link-ups with remote communities to experiments with multi-user cybersex which afficionados swear is a whole lot steamier than the “real” thing.

Womens’ networks are sprouting all over the planet, from the New Age silicon valley communities in California to the Australian outback, from the wilds of Canada to the Greenwich Village nightclub scene, where computer communication is the new drug of choice. Stacy Horn set up Echo, (East Coast Hang Out), the New York based electronic community four years ago, because she got so frustrated by on-line hostility from men. She now has nearly 50% women subscribers. From her apartment jammed full of modem telephone links and computers she now runs a women’s conference on-line, and is planning to expand into Europe. The Internet, it seems, is rapidly becoming one of the world’s most fashionable rendezvous, with New York nightclubs like Jackie 60, hooking up to become the Jackie Hackers Club. Club regulars on the Net include Debbie Harry, The Dueling Bankheads and Lady Bunny. You can even get a handy book listing the e.mail addresses of the Rich and Famous; how to connect to Jodie Foster, Mel Gibson, Rosie O’Donnell, Winona Ryder, Courtney Love, Howard Stern and other net cruisers.

San Francisco based Women’s Wire, which has 90% female subscribers, is characterised by a more laidback and intimate California-style interface; women publish their own descriptions on the net, including photographs of themselves, their families, even their cat. San Francisco was one of the earliest centres of Internet development, so by now cosy net communities have developed, communicating regularly, depending on each other for suppport in times of crisis. and even occasionally meeting up in real life for barbecues and, well, baseball games. In his book, The Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold describes finding a tick on his baby daughter’s head. While his wife dialled the paedeatrican for advice, he tuned into the Internet. Within minutes a doctor on-line happened to see the query, responded with advice and the tick was removed, 15 minutes before the paedeatrician called back.

The West Coast also has the first cybercafes and nightclubs where net surfers can meet on-line to commmunicate with each other and like minds, some of them significantly altered by designer “smart drugs”. San Francisco is also the base for the cult cyberpunk magazine Mondo 2000 and its mysterious wealthy owner, Queen Mu, and her Hugh Hefner style estate.

Rheingold’s research into the way the Net is actually used suggests that it can sometimes be women who first find a real use for the Net, beyond the world of computer games and experimental software. He describes the experience of the Women’s Resource Center in remote Montana, where the use of the network took off first in the general community in the hands of women, who learned computer to skills as part of a self help programme, and then used the network to link rurally isolated women, single mothers, abuse victims and so on, exchanging information, providing support and an on-line community.

Central London now has Cyberia, a computer cafe serving capuccino and the latest computers, wired into a high powered fibre optic network, which means they can download information much faster than a conventional telephone line. It was founded last September by two women, Eva Pascoe and Gené Teare. Tall, blonde Polish Pasco, in short pleated skirt and black bra under transparent red chiffon scattered with silver stars, stresses the need for women to get actively involved and reject the anti-technology bias of traditional feminism, “At the moment the Net serves men’s needs, we want women to think about how they can use the technology.”

She is setting up a database of local information for women, but she stresses that the Net is user-led, women need to contribute the information they want. She cites for example exchanging information on health issues like breast cancer or children’s allergies. F.email is another bulletin board originally set up to explore the issue of women and technology, but, says Pasco, the last time she checked in the discussion had diverged to, “the subject of emotionally unavailable men!”

But actually participating on line can prove tricky, and women do complain about harassment, and the very male oriented structure to the communication. Many users tell stories of entering conferences and finding they are the only women; very often the other (male) users soon start coming on to them, making inappropriate intimate conversation, suggesting private encounters etc.. The so-called Netiquette – that is the etiquette for using the net, is has been largely established by men, and argument is the dominant pattern, especially flaming, the term used for aggressive responses (writen in CAPITAL LETTERS). New users who fumble around and ask stupid questions often get flamed too, which puts off some women.

It is tempting for women to adopt a neutral or even male persona to avoid harassment, but the more robust dismiss this as a feeble response insisting that woman should make their presence known and fight back, if they are to wield any power. Some conferences are limited to women only, although of course men could easily pretend to be female to join. Interestingly if they do, they also adopt the etiquette and behaviour of the women contributors. In which case, presumably, they are perfectly welcome. It can also be argued however that on-line communication can transcend traditional hierarchical boundaries with everyone, male, female, timid, agressive, boss or employee getting a more equal opportunity to contribute.

Netiquette can become a muddy ethical minefield; most controversial has been the so-called virtual rape. A MUD is a Multi User Dungeon, a networked session of regular users playing out fantasy roles; on this particular occasion it was disrupted by a wierd new arrival, who called himself Mr Bungle. He began to write out all the horrible things he would do to one of the other contributors, a woman, which she and others read on screen. Both the woman herself and the group felt profoundly violated, and the affair created shock waves throughout cyberspace triggering intense on-line discussions about the principles involved, from female autonomy to freedom of expression. The perpetrator was eventually excluded, not a move that is popular in anarchic cyberspace. And anyway he popped up again soon after in another name and guise….

There are some wild and wooly margins to cyberspace, from paedophile conferences who invent child characters to abuse, to the vast quantities of hard-core pornography available. The likelihood of censorship is remote, since the entire ethos of the Internet is against rules and strictures. The technology is designed to avoid any such limitations, originally established by American military intelligence as a method of maintaining contact even in the event of nuclear war. It was designed so that there was always a way to connect, if one station was down, the net would automatically reroute to another. “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”.

A whole new discipline of artistic and academic theory is evolving around the new medium. It is one area where women are at the cutting edge, partly because their presence in the academic world means they have access to the technology, and partly because as Joanna Buick observes, “I think women are attracted to Virtual Reality as an art form because they perceive it as a new frontier.”

And while women may be traditionally shy of technology they do have an honourable role in computer history. Ada Lovelace, the gambling, opium-smoking daughter of Lord Byron, was the inventor of an early computing machine, based on Jacquards’ revolutionary punched cards for programming looms. In 1944 the American, Grace Hopper, developed the key computer language COBOL and came up with the word “bug” for a computer glitch.

Cyberfeminist theorists today range from sociologist Sherry Turkle at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Allucquere Roseanne Stone, “Great Goddess” of Cyberspace and author of Will the Real Body Please Stand Up, an exploration of the impact of technology on personal identity. Most often cited is Donna Haraway’s Cyber Manifesto, although you need a combined degree in cybernetics and feminist deconstructivism (advanced level) to understand it. The gist of it is that the combination of new technology and the Chaos theory mathematics undermine any assumptions we might have about the universe being a predictable place, following established patterns. The world is much more complicated and interdependent than previously thought, and we are entering a new dimension where all our previous assumptions about identity and gender, status, race etc will be questioned or even negated as people acquire and invent new identities for themselves. Haraway suggests that women are in a good position to exploit this new development because they are already familiar with the experience of being alienated from the dominant patriarchal culture.

In other words the future is female. Women have less to lose from relinquishing the conventional culture, and their experience of living within a culture not primarily designed for them, and in some cases attempting to adapt it to their own needs, gives them a head start in adapting and understanding cyberspace.

Sadie Plant explains. She is a lecturer at Birmingham University Cultural Studies department, and author of Beyond the Spectacle, a forthcoming book on drugs, intelligent machines and cyberfeminism. Plant argues that women may be better equipped than men to exploit the radical challenges of the Internet, partly because of the way it has evolved – organically and anarchically with no central control, developed entirely by its users.

Says Plant, “The Net is not a hierarchical centrally organised system, and women are more used to this kind of network. Women have always understood that they are part of a system they have no control of. Cyberfeminism is really a fundamental cultural issue of access to communication and information.”

Art is one way women are using and directing cyberspace, exploiting the potential of multimedia and Virtual Reality, to create mind-bending computer generated environments, playing with gender and form, sometimes remaining anonymous, or adopting sophisticated simulations… “Would Madam like blue eyes or brown, round ears or pointed ones?” According to Sadie Plant, “For women the potential of artificial reality is a familiar one, because they have been roleplaying for millenia. Feminism has always dealt with problems of identity. Men depend much more on a strong sense of self, a liability if you want to adapt and move into different environments.”

Emerging talents include Australian Linda Dement, who creates CD-Roms of anarchic interactive text and images and Californian Brenda Laurel, currently engaged in a huge Virtual Reality project intended to be an interactive game suitable for children. Nina Pope works with “real, imagined and virtual landscapes.” Sculptor Joanna Buick, who is researching Virtual Reality as a fine art medium, comments, “In my own work I’m interested in sense perception. Not Virtual Reality as a different world, but how we can be in two places at once, and reconcile two sets of data. Part of you is always in dream land, and Virtual Reality presents a physical example of this.”

The work of VNS Matrix, (matrix, another name for the Net, is derived as it happens, from the Latin for womb) an Australian based electronic art collective of four women, is among the best known cyberfeminist art, dedicated to subverting the male dominated world of cyberspace. Their mission, “to hijack the toys from the technocowboys.” Says Francesca da Rimini, “We want to show women that technology isn’t boring. It can be sublime!”
Through video, computer games and huge billboards, they create alternative computerised sexual environments, construct images of women of the future, who can look however they like, enhance their bodies, or change their form completely. (“Horns, madam? armour-plated exo-skeleton? wings?”) VNS Matrix have invented an in-your-face parody computer game, Gamegirl, starring a heroine called All New Gen, a female virus, upported by her Homegirls, the DNA Sluts, with a mission to infiltrate and corrupt Big Daddy Mainframe. Look to your laurels, Game Boy.