" ... in a film like "eXistenZ", with a female lead who is a virtuoso with the computer, the imagery is replete with male fears of being penetrated, that is, made to occupy the female position because the maestro controlling the world (and thus the person occupying the male subject position) is a woman."
-- N. Katherine Hayles
"I have found that it is easier to challenge sexist assumptions in newer, technological workplaces than in hidebound institutional situations (corporate or academic), the overarching purpose of which is to protect their privileged status regardless of the kinds of changes that may be happening beyond the tower or the boardroom."
-- Diane Greco
Additional Recommended Reading:
N. Katherine Hayles:
How We Became Post Human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics University of Chicago Press from Amazon
Other books by Hayles are also available through Amazon.com
Wittgenstein's Ladder : Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary University of Chicago Press from Amazon
Other books by Perloff are also available through Amazon.com
Cyborg: Engineering the Body Electric Eastgate
*Water writes always in *Plural
with Josephine Wilson
with Josephine Wilson
Patchwork Girl Eastgate
Women and Technology, Beyond the Binary
A Roundtable Discussion with N. Katherine Hayles, Marjorie Perloff, Diane Greco, Linda Carroli and Shelley Jackson, hosted by Jennifer Ley
Words have tremendous power. They reinforce expected norms, stereotypes and cultural models, call up associative thoughts and emotions.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of evoking a feminist aesthetic is that it can so easily become reactive. But as feminism matures, it becomes clear that its goal cannot be to 'get back' that mythical state which might have existed during the days of goddess worship, nor to play the boys' games as well as the boys. Today, women are inventing new games, new models, new paradigms.
Our machines are binary, need we be? Are we man/woman zero/one or can we aspire to become a new operating code that underlies the system, create a model that speaks to what can be, rather than to what is not?
The participants in this discussion are leaders within the growing community of women who wish to throw out the binary, the black/white dualism that seems to devolve from so much feminist rhetoric. They are writers, professors, editors, theorists and they are women. In a world where intellectual power and the means to wield it is currency, they are wealthy, and here, they have been generous with their wealth. It's an honor to introduce them:
N. Katherine Hayles is Professor of English at UCLA, Hayles writes and teaches on the relations between culture, science and technology in the twentieth century. Her books include The Cosmic Web: Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century, Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science, and most recently, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. She is the recipient of numerous prizes and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Presidential Fellowship from the University of California, and the Luckman Distinguished Teaching Award. She is currently at work on two books theorizing electronic literature, Linking Bodies: Hypertext Fiction in Print and New Media, and Coding the Signifier: Rethinking Semiosis from the Telegraph to the Computer.
Marjorie Perloff is the Sadie Dernham Patek Professor of Humanities in the English Department at Stanford University. She is the author of ten books on various phases of twentieth-century poetry and poetics. Her most recent books are Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago, 1992), Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago, 1996), and Poetry On & Off the Page (Northwestern, 1998). She has written some 200 articles and even more reviews on poetic as well as cultural and intellectual issues for scholarly journals as well as magazines like The New Republic and Boston Review. She is the recipient of numerous fellowships including a Guggenheim and NEH Senior Fellowship and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is currently working on a book for a manifesto series for Blackwell's tentatively entitled Poetry for the New Millennium.
Diane Greco is acquisitions editor at Eastgate Systems. She holds a Ph D in the history of science from MIT, and is the author of Cyborg: Engineering the Body Electric, a hypertextual study of representations of women in cyberpunk science fiction, which was published in 1995 by Eastgate.
Linda Carroli writes as an essayist, critic and journalist. She has also produced hypertexts both collaboratively and independently. The projects, *Water writes always in *Plural and Cipher resulted from online collaborations with Josephine Wilson. In 1999 she completed a hypertext essay, "speak".
Shelley Jackson holds an AB in studio art from Stanford University and an MFA in creative writing from Brown. She is the author of the acclaimed hypertext novel Patchwork Girl (Eastgate Systems, 1995) and the web-based multimedia project "My Body: a Wunderkammer" (Alt-X, 1997). Her short fiction has appeared in various print journals and anthologies, including Conjunctions, Fence, and Gargoyle, and she is working on a novel. She has also illustrated several children's books, including her own, The Old Woman and the Wave (DK Ink, 1998). She hopes one day to have time to work on her latest hypertext project, "Musee Mecanique", a multimedia piece combining text and stop-action animation.
1. If we look at the etymology of the word 'technology', we can see that Sadie Plant made a valid point in her book, Zeros and Ones. The Greek word 'techne' means 'art/skill'; historically, women have done much to advance cultural technology. So why do you think that the word 'technology' now has an application that is quite other, more machine-like, less human?
N. Katherine Hayles: To follow up on Sadie Plant's observation, technology also has connotations that are more masculine, more gendered, than the art/skill sense of Techne. Gender politics has historically been important in how technology has been understood, and gender politics continues to be important with computer and information technologies.
Consider this trajectory. Richard White has traced the change in gendering of transportation technologies from 1880-1920 or so, particularly the railroad. He points out that the railroad was initially seen as an emasculating technology; any wimp could drive a locomotive, while it took a real man to control a team of galloping horses. But gradually a transfer of meaning took place in which it took a real man to control a complex technology, whereas any grunt could drive a team of horses. The transition here is relevant to information technologies because it documents a change of meaning that anticipates the "knowledge work" of information technologies. As with the railroads, information technologies provide another arena in which masculinity ceases to be understood as physical force and becomes instead the ability to master and control the computer. As computers become pervasive throughout first world societies, the nerd/wimp image is fading and being replaced with the super-macho hero who is omnipotent because he has a special relation to the technology--witness "The Matrix," but also more nuanced, satirical versions of this shift in Pat Cadigan's "Synners" with Visual Mark, in "Johnny Mnemonic" and in the Neuromancer trilogy, and with Roy Baty in the film version of "Bladerunner." And in a film like "eXistenZ", with a female lead who is a virtuoso with the computer, the imagery is replete with male fears of being penetrated, that is, made to occupy the female position because the maestro controlling the world (and thus the person occupying the male subject position) is a woman.
Marjorie Perloff: "Technology" has had a bad rap throughout the twentieth century, indeed from the mid-nineteenth century on. When Plato in the Ion defined art as TECHNE KAI EPISTEME (technique or skill plus knowledge), TECHNE had a positive meaning. But after the Industrial Revolution, "technology" gets increasingly related to "capitalism" as well as to America! Heidegger's philosophy takes "technology" or the "technological" as the dreaded Other, the practical, which Heidegger equates with America, that rich, empty, mindless, go-getting, Capitalist empire on the make. And along the way, technology becomes associated with the Captains of Industry who were, of course men. Women, so the cliche has gone for most of the century, are more sensitive, "caring," feeling, and hence "non-technological." It's a very bad stereotype.
Diane Greco: I find this focus on etymology a little nostalgic. Technology's current meaning is irrelevant to its relation to "techne," and however comforting it might be to recall the roles of craft and skill in order to oppose them to the Amerikan Church of Mammon, this operation sheds precious little light on the ways in which women's access to the power *represented by* information technology is or is not limited by other factors.
For me, technology isn't the issue. Power is. When we talk about "women and technology," the word "technology" stands in for power. Unlike computers, which are easy to point to because they are so ubiquitous and tend to stay in one place, power is abstract, it circulates in surprising ways, and therefore it's harder to imagine. Are women better with computers because they're closer to the skill/craft/techne thing (closer to the earth??) That's a damaging stereotype. Are they *worse* with computers because computers are abstract and women are (again) skill/craft people, irretrievably embodied, closer to themselves and others, etc etc ad nauseam? That's the same damaging stereotype in a different guise. Obviously the problem is not computers or some general thing called "technology"; the problem is that women (and men) are still hugely ambivalent about the issue of women's relationships to power--including issues of envy, competition, ambition, good girls & bad girls, and perhaps above all, the pursuit of sexual pleasure--and when "technology" comes to represent power, it acts as a kind of lightning rod.
Linda Carroli: I suppose the question is not so much about etymology but along the lines of how technology functions/ed in society, and how those functions develop/ed and function/ed as gendered. In Zeros and Ones, Sadie Plant reclaims territory by asking a similar question, finding that women have enjoyed positive, productive and intimate relations with technology (which is many types of technology). Human relationships with technologies are complex and varied. A machine can be seen as a tool, as an extension or as a second self. Those innovations in transportation might have thrown masculine identity into question but they made it more possible for women to travel. So these technologies acted as a kind of conduit for women to experience the world, to escape the private domain and experience more of the public realm. It's the same with media technologies. Catherine Lumby argues this in Bad Girls: through these technologies - telephone, radio, television and the Internet - the public/private separation is blurred and women are increasingly exposed to and involved in the world. It's not a one-way street and through technology and our interactions with it, we are also 'undoing' seemingly given power structures.
Lately, I've seen a lot of human evolution and natural history type documentaries on television. For some reason they seem to be screened consistently. In speculating about the development of hunter/gatherer societies or communities, these activities always seem to be divided along gender lines. Now, this always seems like a great assumption on the part of documentary makers and scientists. Somehow, these groups living thousands of years ago, dwelling in rather harsh environments, could afford to be more concerned about gender and patriarchy than about survival. I just find it hard to believe. It seems to me that when survival is what's at stake, then whoever can, does. Women's physical abilities would be used to great advantage if what is said about our pain threshold and endurance is true. So the most able bodied women and men hunted (or whatever requires that kind of strength) while others (let's say the elderly, sick, pregnant, nursing, young, etc.) gathered and perhaps cared for children closer to camp. Subsequently, whomever was undertaking an activity was also more likely to invent tools, strategies or processes that facilitated that task. Speculating along those lines puts women in the position of inventors or toolmakers.
That kind of diverse participation in our societies has been eroded, and the documentaries I have been watching are telling me that such a social organisation was not only unlikely but simply never happened. They don't even entertain the possibility. ALL tools were made by men. ALL hunting was done by men. ALL child-rearing, gathering and cooking was done by women. That's how entrenched that oppositional mindset in relation to power is, despite the conjecture that, in a temporal sense, the kind of diverse participation which I am talking about was perhaps the norm for rather a long period of human development or evolution.
Shelley Jackson: Is the issue whether technology could embrace a warmer, less machine-like aesthetic? Are women supposed to make this their project? This idea seems to reinstate the stereotypes that kept women out of technology in the first place: women as cuddly, homey, artsy-craftsy folk. Still, as artists (of various genres and genders) discover electronic media, the image of technology IS changing, I think. Maybe this will lower the resistance of those women who have swallowed the notion that they had better devote themselves to the fuzzy or edible arts.
Or is the issue why women no longer have an intimate relationship with (what is now meant by) technology, and how we can fix this? Technology once meant (and this is still the first definition in one of my dictionaries) the scientific study (-logy) of the applied arts. These applied arts became, from the industrial age onward, increasingly remote from the homey pursuits - weaving, pottery, and so on - once covered by 'techne'. But while the vocabulary changed with the times, women's work stayed behind, in the home. Women's current relationship to technology is just a subset of women's relationship to all the public arenas of work and politics once explicitly barred to her. Vestiges of these prohibitions survive in all sorts of forms: 'glass ceilings', wage differentials, playground jokes and back-room jokes, etc. It's no big surprise that this holds true for technology as well, but the etymological angle doesn't seem very fruitful to me, unless it serves as an inspiration to women to step into occupied territory with a swagger. It is interesting that, as money moves online, the arena of important work is shifting back towards the home, a territory still (some millennia later) conceded to women. To think this will give women a meaningful step up is goofy, though. I think K Hayles is right that whatever field of work becomes most highly valued in a given time gets defined as masculine turf. As D. Greco says, that's a question of power, and it's changed over the long run by countless small challenges.
2. Do you think your work with new technology, your writing about it, is ever dismissed as 'women's work' or do you think working with technology actually helps to diminish the gender barrier? Is there a 'digital glass ceiling' on the Internet?
N. Katherine Hayles: I don't know about a glass ceiling on the Internet; perhaps there is, because the Internet cannot help but mirror contemporary social structures. I can say, however, that there is certainly an overwhelming presence in the field of computer science generally. I regularly attend colloquia sponsored by computer science departments here at UCLA and elsewhere, and generally I see less than 5% of women in the audience. Here I think the MIT report on Why So Slow is relevant. Few practice overt sexual discrimination, but little biases add up into big differences for women working in this field.
Marjorie Perloff: I don't really work with technology that much so this question is hard to answer. But, yes, I certainly think there is a glass ceiling on the Internet. Partly this is women's fault. It is currently a truism that whereas men "play around" with technology, make web pages, etc., women "can't be bothered with all that." Expectations vis-a-vis the Internet have reenforced these gender stereotypes.
Diane Greco: My experience has been that glass ceilings exist in lots of places, particularly in institutions where the pace of change is slow. I've bumped my head hardest where protection of privilege was at issue, rather than technical competence. And I have often spied a number of women, not just men, up there beyond the glass, installing new panes to replace the old ones they broke on their way through.
I have found that it is easier to challenge sexist assumptions in newer, technological workplaces than in hidebound institutional situations (corporate or academic), the overarching purpose of which is to protect their privileged status regardless of the kinds of changes that may be happening beyond the tower or the boardroom. It is important to remember that the Internet economy's pace of change is very rapid, and there's a lot at stake. When fortunes are made and lost this quickly, the protection of privilege is a luxury. There's no percentage in keeping women out if they can perform the technical labor that is currently in such great demand. Not only does it open the door to expensive lawsuits, but it's part of an economy of symbolic capital that isn't as important as the economy of real capital in the internet world. (Although this will change soon enough; for instance, the protection of brands, which circulate in a symbolic economy similar to that of privilege, is starting to become a serious issue, particularly in the fights brewing over ownership of domain names--witness etoy vs. etoys.)
Linda Carroli: There are hierarchies everywhere. There probably are 'glass ceilings' in science and technology workplaces, change can be slow and women are underrepresented in these sectors. I don't know about a glass ceiling on the Internet either. However, I anticipate change in this area. After a decade of affirmative action programmes in schools and tertiary education, girls are excelling in maths and science. So we've now produced a generation of superwomen, capable of stepping into computer science degrees and filling the demand for I.T. professionals. It may not be something that lasts given the nature of economic rationalist reform in education in Australia. But at least those girls have the knowledge and perhaps they might just become mentors to other women as education contracts.
Even though the idiom of cyberculture embraces information freedom, fluid identities, boundary crossing, access and participation, the Internet has a pretty high entry level. there are costs associated with computers, software and ISP accounts - definitely in the four digits, and that's not a nominal amount when you see the distribution of wealth stats. Even though there are community centres and libraries which offer free web access, the resources are stretched. I also suspect that information about these services isn't reaching people. Last year I spoke at a writers festival about hypertext and assumed a level of awareness of the medium among the audience. Come question time, my correspondents and I were surprised to field questions seeking information about definitions, access, technology rather than artform. Even though Australia is a rapidly connecting country, I am wondering who is falling through the net. The opportunities provided by the Internet mean very little to those without access to the tools or the infrastructure.
Shelley Jackson: I may be generalizing from mere smatterings of personal experience but it seems to me that the only area in the new technology where there is a really entrenched male dominance is in computer programming. I am sure that in those quarters my work (if it's considered at all) is dismissed as low-tech, and that the fact that I'm a woman probably confirms vague convictions that women can't handle the big guns, but this is not a simple gender issue; it also reflects a tech/art divide. I'm not in a position to challenge this divide; I'm not a programmer. But I know women who are, and sure, I think their work does help to undermine the gender barrier - which, incidentally, I don't think of as a glass ceiling, but as a prevailing stereotype that curbs and channels young women's aspirations at their conception, a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's a lot like the 'women can't really rock' stereotype, which lives on, but under pressure from a generation of women musicians who are as fond of screaming guitar solos as the next guy. It will take a while for the whiff of 'pretty good for a girl' to go away, but the stereotype is changing.
It actually seems to me that the Internet is really accessible to women, though I can't prove it with numbers. So maybe hard-core programming is a well-defended citadel--who cares? Well, would-be programmers, of course. But you don't need to be a programmer as such to do astonishing things online.
3. Would you describe yourself as a cyberfeminist, or say that your work (or some of your work) uses the strategies of cyberfeminism? What does this term mean to you?
N. Katherine Hayles: I'm not sure what cyberfeminism means to those who self-identify as such. To me, it means feminism practiced in electronic environments, particularly on the Internet and on the Web. While this description wouldn't leap to my mind to describe my own work, everything I do is informed by what I have learned over the years from feminist theorists and practitioners. Particularly relevant for me are discussions about how subjectivity becomes obviously constructed, fluid, and transformable in electronic environments. To the extent that this is a strategy of cyberfeminism, then my work, particularly How We Became Posthuman, definitely engages these issues.
Marjorie Perloff: No, I wouldn't describe myself as a cyberfeminist but as someone interested in cyberarts. For me, the revolution of the last few years has been the subtle movement of Internet activities into the realm of poetry and the arts. New websites--for example, Kenneith Goldsmith's Ubu Web have virtually (pun!) changed the way we look at and study artistic/literary movements.
Diane Greco: Cyberfeminism? Never heard of it. Sounds fishy.
Linda Carroli: I take it as meaning what Sadie Plant said: that there is a correlation between the rise of women's power and the rate of technological development. "It occurred to me that a long standing relationship was evident between information technology and women's liberation. You can almost map them onto each other in the whole history of modernity. Just as machines get more intelligent, so women get more liberated!"
Cyberfeminist International (Old Boys Network), Cornelia Solfrank says: "Cyberfeminism is a new and promising term. It suggests a fresh ideology, embracing the notions of "cyber" and "feminism" and all they signify. It creates a space for women to invent, dissect and alter the trajectories of the new technological and information era."
On the strength of these descriptions, I would say this Q+A is a cyberfeminist exercise. It's the viral nature of feminism that seems to create potential and makes it likely for different feminisms to intersect, regenerate, hybridise, etc. Cyberfeminism conjures a hybridity or contingency that I am comfortable with - more so than a feminism that says women are victims - because power is implicit or fragmented.
Shelley Jackson: Cyberfeminist? I wouldn't use that word. I'm a feminist writer, emphasis on writer. Those two things aren't at odds, of course. Hypertext has certain built-in possibilities (multilinearity, multiple focii, fuzzy boundaries, inclusiveness, collaboration, blah blah blah) that have traditionally been associated with femininity, though they're also characteristic of a strain of writing - strongest in modernist & postmodern works in this, oops, no, I mean the LAST century - produced by both sexes. I reject the idea that there's anything biologically feminine about this mode, but in embracing the one (the discredited 'experimental' writing) I am implicitly embracing the other (the discredited 'feminine'). (But see Diane's dismissal of this delicate line of argument in her response to question 4!) My electronic writings--Patchwork Girl, My Body, Stitch Bitch--also address issues of body and self from an feminist standpoint, but I don't really think there's anything particularly 'cyber' about their feminism.
It occurred to me recently that the vast and efficient systems of communication made possible by the Internet are strongly reminiscent of the (then unattainable) dreams of grassroots publishing networks held by many of the feminists I grew up among in Berkeley in the 70s. The circulation of ideas, the forming of virtual communities: old strategies, new technologies. One thing I like about the Web (often deplored, weirdly enough, by fellow writers waxing nostalgic about the days of editorial 'standards') is the proliferation of idiosyncratic and 'unpublishable' writings, especially those by young women seizing the opportunity to sound off, show off, assert themselves. I hope and expect this will change both writing and women's lives in all sorts of ways.
4. Do you think women approach and/or use technology to different ends than men do? If so, could you give an example that you have witnessed? Or do you believe this to be a moot point?
N. Katherine Hayles: I do think women approach and use the technology differently, although obviously this is a generalization and there are many exceptions. The technology is especially well suited to collaborative projects, and there are many examples of women using the technology this way, from Carolyn Guyer's Millennium project to Christy Sheffield Sanford's Book of Hours to this email exchange. Many women are interested in the artistic use of the medium; only a small percentage of women are interested in using it for military games, simulations, and militaristic tropes. Having had occasion to read the projects celebrated in Carolyn Guertin and Marjorie Luesebrink's "Dinner Party" in this issue of Meridian, I also notice that many women in Net art, as in feminist art generally, are interested in the trope of the body, particularly the fragmented or fetishized female body. Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl and "my body: A Wunderkammer" are cases in point, as well as Claire Dinsmore, "Pronunication: 'fut' or A tool and its meanings." In electronic environments, there are especially rich conjunctions between the cyberbody and the cybertext. Both are coded, distributed, non-unitary, and potentially subversive.
Marjorie Perloff: I've noticed on the websites and discussion groups I use that the ratio of men to women seems to be about 10 (men) to 1 (woman). Women seem to be leery of joining the conversation. Why? I think this is the lingering belief that technology is "male" and "bad." I have seen, for example, language poets who want to be thought of as very innovative and yet can't open an attachment. This happened just recently when I was trying to circulate an important letter among poet friends. A number of these talk a great deal about the "fractal," "complexity theory," cyberspace, etc. but four out of five asked me to please send my statement by snailmail or fax because they don't know how to open an attachment. I find this pretty appalling but it's often considered "cute" and "helpless." As in "poor little me! I don't know how to use these newfangled things. Again, Martha Banta, the current editor of PMLA, told me she has never yet used the Internet.
Diane Greco: There's a kind of feminism, which I find highly annoying, that consists in imposing certain values, which are usually explicitly associated with "the feminine," whatever *that* is, like "indeterminacy" and "multiplicity" on the production of digital art, so that any work that seems to evince these qualities is valuable and everything that doesn't, isn't. Leaving aside the questionable nature of this kind of criticism, which attempts to put evaluative criteria ahead of the works themselves, there is this issue of associating these fuzzy values with "the feminine," which works to reinforce the stereotype that women aren't equipped to handle a hard-headed discipline like computing. I would acknowledge that there's a difference between "the feminine" as it gets constructed and actual women's lives and their choices, but not everyone understands that subtlety. And it's just too easy to associatively slip from the whole feminine-mystical-intuitive thing to "that's the way women really are."
It gets worse, too, because in opposing "feminine" qualities like empathy with "masculine" militarism and competitiveness, what this Big-Mother-feminism often boils down to is a coercive injunction to "just be nice." This is complacent at best, and pernicious if the idea is not to level the playing field, but to abolish the game itself, and replace it with a new game that has to do with manners and manipulation, instead open conflict, which at least has the virtue of an obvious outcome.
I should probably add that there is, though, a kind of ludic feminist presence on the Web, for instance in the 'zine geekgirl, edited by the wonderful Rosie Cross, that has managed to leave Big Mother behind. I applaud this. I love to see work by women that gives me the sense that the artist or writer would arm-wrestle me any day, no problem, and no matter who won, we'd shake hands and have a beer afterward.
Linda Carroli: I don't think there's much point in being didactic about it: women are this and men are that. I've read studies which have found that there are differences in the ways boys and girls approach and/or use technology. I just don't like these studies whose methodologies are designed to find differences and then those findings are asserted as an essentialised behaviour or normative indicator. That's how pejorative stereotypes are made. For the rest, I do agree with Diane Greco about the reiteration of these stereotypes viz a viz 'the feminine'. Women do make choices. They play violent games, understand computer programming and look at cyberporn.
Shelley Jackson: I am mostly interested in technology as applied to the arts, and I've seen good work by both women and men, but I'm more interested in thinking about the work on its own terms than in ferreting out the sociopolitical forces that, along with artistic and personal considerations, shaped the artist's vision. From a feminist as well as an artistic standpoint, I'm more interested in what can be done than in detecting the persistent traces of our gender training in what has been done.
5. Studies seem to show that women only make up 20% of graduates from computer science programs, yet, as Judy Malloy and others have said, the field of hypermedia is replete with women authors and artists. Why do you think this is so?
N. Katherine Hayles: As we know, the technology is not just one thing. The digital computer is the most powerful simulation technology ever invented, a technology that can simulate virtually anything, including itself. Given the potential of the technology for simulation, much depends on the desires of the designer. If you can imagine it, there's a good chance you can simulate it in some way or another using computer/information technologies. I think that this explosive potential for the technology to do and be almost anything explains a lot of its appeal for women authors and artists. And it's a wonderful medium not only for exploration but also for experimentation. The women I know who are doing marvelous work in this medium are most self-taught.
Marjorie Perloff: I agree with what Kate Hayles says. Computer science programs strike most women as "mere" technology, a way of making a living whereas the appeal to the artist/writer of the hypermedia is something else again. But I think this will change as time goes on and that women will make up a much higher percentage of graduates of computer science programs.
Diane Greco: Unless I am mistaken, the graduation rate of female computer scientists has nothing do with the prevalence of women in digital arts. First, you don't need a degree in computer science to create internet art. Anyone who can read a manual can use Photoshop, Illustrator, Storyspace, Director, Flash, Fireworks, Dreamweaver, and so on. HTML is a markup language; as with the old-fashioned non-WYSIYG text editors, you just use the keyboard to define what your text and your page look like. The stuff's easy to use, as long as you can get access. The situation with female computer scientists strikes me as the result of deeply entrenched social and institutional biases against teaching and especially mentoring women in the hard sciences and mathematics.
Linda Carroli: I suppose women are gaining their knowledge and experience of the field by different means than university computer science courses and/or are targeting different disciplines within the university. There's probably a gender imbalance in visual arts, graphic design and creative writing courses as well, just as there as been a gender bias in the arts throughout history. There are other ways of acquiring this knowledge, not all of which are institution-based.
Shelley Jackson: It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, as I said above. And as D Greco says, you would have to come to computer science with a specific initial interest, and without having been turned off to it along the way by the chilling lack of encouragement for women to enter math and the hard sciences, whereas hypermedia has attractions for artists in all sorts of areas, and a special appeal for hybrid creatures like me, who straddle the divisions between traditional disciplines. There are so many possibilities for new structures, new combinations of old art forms, and it's all relatively accessible. You don't need any computer training to have a good new idea, and you don't need that much more to begin realizing it.
6. Do you think that, as Carolyn Guertin has maintained, women 'take' to hypermedia more readily because as a literary form, it is still very new, and its grammar is still ours to construct? How do you wish to affect the construction of that grammar?
N. Katherine Hayles: In my experience, both women and men are excited by the openness of hypermedia. The exuberance and experimentation I see in hypermedia are mind-boggling, or more accurately, mind-stretching and mind-exhilerating. Let us not forget, howver, that hypermedia art and literature do not leave behind traditional media, including print. Rather, hypermedia engage traditional media in a complex dynamic of replication and innovation that Bolter and Grusin call remediation. Print imitates hypermedia, and hypermedia imitates print, although always with differences that are media-specific. As for my own work, I would like to affect the grammar so that it can be used to unsettle traditional enactments of subjectivity, opening the way for more fluid, open, and distributed ideas about the relation of human consciousness to its environments.
Marjorie Perloff: Hypermedia offer women an especially good medium for constructing new arts/knowledge bases. For one thing, women are still at home a lot more than men are, taking care of household and children, and the hypermedia allow them to work AT HOME--a fact that cannot be overestimated. And it gives us contact with women (and men) around the world. My website regularly brings me in contact with strangers whom I'd never know were it not for cyberspace and forces us to think more globally.
Diane Greco: I think my work speaks for itself. I don't have any designs on a single "grammar" of hypermedia. I'm not even sure there is one. My most pressing feminist concern is mentoring--how to be sure that the gains of the last 30 years don't just disappear with my mother's generation.
Linda Carroli: This reminds me of something I read about women flyers. Apparently, no sooner was the 'flying machine' invented than women were in the skies as recreational flyers and adventurers. I think it might be a similar circumstance with women and the Internet. Impacting on the grammar might be an impetus for women writers and that new grammars are emerging from the work women writers are producing.
Unlike an institutional space, say a creative writing course, cyberspace is an open space. I think that risk-taking is more likely in this kind of space because of the scope of media practices that can be incorporated into work, the potential of remediation practices. This challenges the 'word' itself. And this approach to writing practices suits me. I am enjoying the shared ethos of experimentation which crosses and includes diverse practices and discourses. I am particularly enjoying being a list subscriber and involvement with groups like the Electronic Writing Research Ensemble which "wishes to contribute to research on writing, and to writing as research, in the (electronic) way of facilitating a continuing inventive practise, a composing and composing, of textuality that is interdisciplinary, poetic, critical, and personal."
While working on our hypertext fiction, Cipher, Josephine Wilson and I were one day in Internet Relay Chat musing about the context of our work. That day we spoke about how hyperfiction is understood as a departure from the novel, and compared to narrative texts. Even in that context, we were reiterating the authority of those texts by using them as benchmarks of sorts. BTW: That's how we collaborate - via IRC and email because Josephine is in Perth, and I am in Brisbane (different ends of the country). Our works are produced exclusively online. So those exchanges form the basis of our creative work. In producing Cipher, we sought to contextualise the work as 'screen writing', not just writing for the screen but on it. It is work concerned with the frame, as the ambiguous 'parergon' which does not separate an outside from an inside but unsettles the distinction between the two, and we do this, I think, through interactivity. This shifts the writing off the page and into the realm of visual culture, necessarily engaging with a mediascape of advertising, image, visual art, film and video, and requiring the active participation of the reader or users.
Shelley Jackson: Maybe, sure, why not? I have been annoyed in recent years to read various essays (there was a flurry of them a few years ago) by male novelists declaring that writing is finished, the novel has seen its Golden Age, there's nothing new to say and no new form to say it in. Whereas I, noting the conspicuous shortage of female and other minority contributions to the great sweep of literary history, have always had the feeling that writing was just beginning.
If you're used to feeling a bit marginal anyway, and you doubt you're in the running for the Next Big Thing, and you don't especially revere the institution of print, and you're less identified with prevailing definitions of quality and success, and in any case you suspect that your best attempt to play by the rules won't guarantee you a major publishing deal, even if you wanted to which you don't because if you're going to write the same old novel over again why bother - then you have nothing to lose in trying a brand new form, and everything a writer with imagination dreams of: possibilities, freedom, the chance to do something unprecedented.
I don't really want to construct a grammar that prevails and becomes a standard (I'm too excited by the absence of a standard grammar) but I do have the cautious feeling that hypertext could pick up a line of inquiry leading away from the taut, plotty, linear novel, a line dropped by the American mainstream long before most of the great works in that vein were written.
Even though we (nervously) revere Joyce and Stein and Woolf and pay skeptical due to a handful of so-called postmodern innovators, the novel in its printed & bound form remains frozen at an evolutionary stage prior to these developments, and deviations are viewed with suspicion as gimmicky or decadent. Hypertext makes linearity look like the construct it is, rather than the natural shape of thought. It's one choice; there are others. Structures that would be cumbersome (gimmicky) in print are easy to construct and to navigate in hypertext. So my cautious hope is that writing will come to look a lot more like what was once viewed (in the benighted twentieth century) as a recherche experiment. Is that a grammar? A proliferation of grammars, maybe.
7. What do you think the major challenges are for women as the Internet and its technology continues to mature? Do you worry that as systems become more standardized, opportunities for women may be lost within a 'new boys' (inter)network?
N. Katherine Hayles: I think that there are major political battles shaping up over controlling--i.e, censoring--the content of the Internet. There are also major battles looming over whether the Web will be primarily an instrument of commerce, where everything must be justified by reference to the bottom line, or whether it can continue to enact some of its anarchic, uncommercial, free-for-all impulses. I hope very much that it can continue to function as a new commons that anyone can join for a nominal cost. This will take effective political action to preserve, equivalent to the Civil Rights struggle, eco-politics, and other epic battles of the (almost) 21st century. It's hard to stuff the genie back into the computer once she has escaped onto the Net, however, so I am optimistic that the wonderful work we see by women on the Net will continue to expand and develop.
Marjorie Perloff: The downside of the Internet was foreseen by Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction; Benjamin says that from now on (this was in the mid 30s!) everyone would be an author. The worst part of internet discourse is that, in various lists like the Buffalo Poetics list, everyone gets his or her say and although this should be good, people are enormously irresponsible and destructive. In earlier media, no one would have known they were "out there." To give a concrete example, the poet Susan Howe has a wonderful new book called Pierce Arrow (New Direction, 1999). In this book, Susan reimagines many aspects of the life of Charles Sanders Pierce and uses his manuscripts as a jumping-off point for poetic meditations. A young man who has no credentials of any sort in the poetry or scholarly community--he works on Wall St--wrote a "review" of her book for the Pierce newsletter blasting her book as "ignorant" of the philosopher. Naturally, she was very upset. I tried to explain to her that the young man in question had absolutely no credibility and had himself never published a line but of course the damage was done.
I've had similar attacks myself, often not even knowing whether the writer is male or female (people use all sorts of names and borrow email accounts). In pre-cyberspace days, letters to the editor and such were of course vetted and edited. Now--anything goes. We have to find a way to diminish or at least contextualize this kind of "noise" which has made discourse on serious topics increasingly trivial and destructive. Lists that begin in good faith turn out to collapse under the weight of silly backbiting by those who don't have a clue. So this is a problem. Obviously one doesn't want censorship, but there should be minimum requirements of accuracy and responsibility as in print culture and someone should function as EDITOR.
I want to make clear that I don't want anyone to "police" listserv and discussion-group discourse but the fact is (and I'm not sure how one handles it) that such discourse rapidly deterioriates. Discussion groups that begin with a bang in a few months' time become the domain for endless trivia, pointless attack (nameless, faceless), and so on. One can, of course, say it's "healthy" to have so much participation, that it's very democratic--and it is. But it also produces a false sense of power, giving participants a sense that their word is heard when, in fact, it just goes by changing very little.
Diane Greco: I think I've already addressed this issue ... what I'd like to add here, to respond to Marjorie's comment, is that even in print, this editorial function is not so pure. Everybody knows that most of the national media is controlled by corporations; I recently had the pleasure of speaking with an editor at a respected small press, which has recently been acquired by a big media conglomerate. When this happens to a small press, the press (like every other segment of the conglomerate) is asked to shoulder a percentage of the overhead for the conglomerate *as a whole*, so that if one sector loses money, the whole operation must cover for that. Being responsible for a disproportionate share of the overhead (relative to what the press alone would cost the company) means that she cannot accept the same kinds of books that she used to--and that means this former independent press won't be publishing as much literary fiction as it used to, because it does not have the kind of huge, proven market that mass-market paperbacks do (for instance). An editor's responsibility, in this case, really is to the *conglomerate's* bottom line--and that's the form of "censorship" (which is, in a way, what is going on) that bothers me most.
If everyone is an author, it is true that there will be a lot of so-called noise, and it may be uncomfortable to have to rely on one's own judgment in order to make decisions about what is true, or valuable, and what is not. Democracy has always made people nervous, and the democratization of publishing will certainly be no exception. But instead of fixating on the potential info-glut, let's look at another possible scenario. As Jaclyn Pare points out in the Jan/Feb issue of Poets & Writers, the nascent internet-enabled print-on-demand industry--think of Fatbrain, or iUniverse, or Chapbooks.com--makes small press runs very economical, because every book produced has a buyer. This doesn't solve the selection problem, of course.
However, it does mean that not only individuals, but publishers with editorial staffs, can keep valuable books in print and available longer. This represents a significant expansion of readers' options--and holds out the possibility that readers will have choices beyond what's offered by the five or so media conglomerates that currently control so much of book publishing.
Linda Carroli: I would assume that once women were in an industry then they couldn't really be squeezed out. They would upskill, etc along with the industry, as well as act as role models, mentors for younger women. I suspect that the few women that are in that industry have proved that women can do the work.
I also think that once practices are standardised then the nature of the work will change: repetitive, less innovative, less problem solving, less scientific. It's value will change too. A bit like N. Katherine Hayles' transport example. How male identified is repetitive, standardised work among the tertiary qualified? So I anticipate heaps of opportunities for women in that context! Once standardisation is achieved, we're also looking at a cheaper product, so that lowers the internet entry level I was worried about earlier. Whether there are opportunities for women to establish their own internet endeavours once they have their computer, is a matter of regulated content and I suppose future cyberspace ownership legislation. In Australia, the Federal Government has passed rather a harsh internet censorship law. It targets porn, but commentators are saying it will have effect further afield and are anticipating that any internet content with explicit content - including artworks and health information - stands to be banned. The sorts of measures to be introduced include filters and adult verification schemes, both of which have proved to have adverse effects on site visits. Although, you have to wonder about the effect of this legislation when a hacker 'vandalised' the regulatory authority's website.
I wonder though if it will be a matter of systems being standardised or the Internet ownership concentrated in the hands of a few. The Time Warner and AOL merger is flagged as the shape of things to come. This kind of concentrated ownership usually results in fewer opportunities for everyone as the result of streamlined corporate structures. In terms of content, these big corporations or cconglomerates stake out some virtual turf and act as though they are all things to everyone. It's so coercive and the user - and in this context, the consumer - might not go anywhere else on the Web except a large branded site. This consumer behaviour ends up being a kind of internet content control as well, and I can imagine that part of their appeal will be that they will be child-safe.
Shelley Jackson: I'm not worried about opportunities for women disappearing. Like N K Hayles and L Carroli, I'm worried about content disappearing: about internet censorship and attempts to guide and regulate traffic. I'm worried about invisible editors (I've already implied that I think the 'noise' M Perloff complains about is essentially a healthy thing) and traffic cops that create 'mainstreams' where there weren't any. This should concern not just women, of course, but anyone who figures that wherever the mainstream flows, the most interesting traffic will be off to one side somewhere.