"You can't do what you want to without me," she says, tossing her arrogant long tresses of links and nodes ..."
-- Deena Larsen
"As I knit the sweater I am knitting the future too. I am knitting 'Sam', for example--age 45, a mildly successful ice cream company executive, a Mark 7 cyborg with accountancy modifications, a being of the 2040's."
"Moving Zuzu's Petals Quarterly online would enable us
to cut costs and eliminate the financial barriers that kept us from
distributing the magazine free of charge to a wider audience as
we'd always wished ..."
Close Encounters of the Technical Kind
The geek girls have grown up. Whether they wax lyrical from a historical perspective, knit us sweaters and new narrative, or present us with "just the facts, Ma'am," women have embraced the Internet and new technology. Below, words from three women who have helped set the bench mark for what makes up literature in the digital age -- noted hypertext author: Deena Larsen, prize-winning hypermedia author: geniwate and Founder and Editor of Zuzu's Petals Literary Resource: Tabetha Dunn.
Technology beckons me in many voices. The ancient host of sirens have left their rocks by the ocean waves to weave the whir and flickering lights of computers into lilting melodies of irresistible madness.
The strongest siren, in a no-nonsense, even tempered voice, insists on inhuman levels of consistency. If you ask the same question in the same manner, you will always get the same answer--no matter what. Hers is the age-old voice of Euclid overlain with the intrigue of pi. If you agree that parallel lines never meet, you can create a consistent world of geometric axioms and proofs. And you can recreate your proofs again and again in countless schoolrooms, texts, and problems. While the complete value of some of these numbers continues to be a mystery, it's the same mystery--the beginning digits of pi do not change with the weather.
I love to play pente against the computer--because I know what moves the computer will make in any circumstance, I can create the same patterns in the game over and over again. This consistent voice is comforting in a world full of inconsistent faces and people. I never know how a person is going to react in pente. I can play the same game with the same person a hundred times and never get the same patterns.
Consistency's sister siren has the same comforting undertones, and holds forth in the lofty voice of logic tomes and software codes. If you put the correct words in the correct order (mind that you never leave out a comma or a space or any other important symbol!) you will get the same results, each and every time. These simple, elegant building blocks can be combined for ever and ever more complex, gorgeous structures of consistency. This ideal voice contemptuously ignores the little pitterpat of bug's feet that swarm into each inadvertent overlap, each trespassing countercommand.
"Aha, Watson! the game is afoot!" cries yet another temptress, who leads in a devil may care, let's try this and see what happens search for those little bugs. The joy of finding out what is wrong and having working code is overwhelming. I have to confess here that I often don't have the patience to follow this particular siren over endless tracks of code that look the same to me, nor to do the meticulous tracking and documenting she demands. Yet this, I think, is the voice that most programmers hear and learn to love, their spines quickening with the prospect of yet another chase.
A teasing siren's voice rings out with a child's glee, come play with me. This voice always has new toys to present, new amazing potentials. I must admit, however, that this child sprite reaches me mostly through the eyes of others. I smile with her as I watch people downloading MP3s to play just anywhere, or see them taking notes in their hands on tiny palm pilots and expounding on how the little thing has completely reorganized their lives. Yet when it comes to actually touching the new toys, I am at heart a Luddite. I resist the wiles of the new, preferring to let others experiment and spend hours figuring out the latest devices. Most of my friends pay to play in this never ending toybox, and I am content to hear about their fascinating adventures second hand.
No, the siren that calls to me the loudest has a commanding, preemptory voice. "You can't do what you want to without me," she says, tossing her arrogant long tresses of links and nodes, of images and words. "You fool!" she exclaims over my shoulder as I try to figure out a way to show relationships between characters and text. "You can't get there from here in a linear, paper world." And she grabs my hand and leads me firmly into the world that I have always dreamed in. Hypertexts--the words and images I want to write, the ideas I want to convey, the structures I want to explore--can only be read in her digital, nonsequential world. Within her world, we can show connections between ideas with links, images, and colored themes. We can create works where most of the meaning lies in the connections and relationships rather than in the words on the screen. We can explore the direct relationships between content and structure by mousing over the structure of a piece while words show in another screen. We can play with time and characters by programming conditional links and splitting works into frames. We can go beyond four dimensions with the flick of a mouse. The scintillating possibilities she offers are endless.
Deena Larsen has been following these sirens for over a decade. "Language of the Void" appeared in last issue of Riding the Meridian.
geniwate -- The knitted cyborg
I have been reading Donna Haraway's classic article 'A Manifesto for cyborgs'. 'A cyborg', she says, 'is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction' (Haraway 1989, page 174). Haraway's cyborg is an ironic, blasphemous image in which science, technology and socialist feminism meet and dissolve.
I have also been knitting a sweater for my partner who has just come out of hospital. Knitting is a repetitive task, a time-consuming task, traditional woman's work--and I can't help wondering what will become of knitting when we are all cyborgs?
Maybe we will no longer appreciate the hours of love that hand-knit sweaters represent. Maybe we will get love top-ups from talking roses with sensitivity implants and rubberized thorns. As I knit the sweater I am knitting the future too.
I am knitting 'Sam', for example--age 45, a mildly successful ice cream company executive, a Mark 7 cyborg with accountancy modifications, a being of the 2040's. Sam is on the way home to its latest purchase, a Mercedes PS-2 Mark 6 chestnut colored cyborg with optional extras. The Mark 6 has no biological higher brain functions, (unlike the Mark 5s, which cost the same amount). Other parts of the Mark 6 are biologically female.
'Darling, I'm home', Sam cries at the door. The Mark 6 already knows. Wheeling towards its owner it disgorges a beer from the trapdoor in its neck, produces a coat hanger from its shoulders, removes its owner's shoes and offers slippers or sex. After refusing the sex Sam asks it what it has been doing. It replies that it has been knitting Sam a sweater, would Sam like to see it?
When he (let's call Sam a 'he') answers 'yes', the optional knitting needles spring from the Mark 6's hand attachments, it delves into its chest cupboard and emerges with stitches on the needles.
The sweater is precisely the one that Sam programmed last night and the size and design are flawlessly executed. However he is unsure whether it is him, so he sits his 'wife' down and inserts a different program. This is actually the fourth time the Mark 6 has re-knitted Sam's sweater. It will happily do so until the wool wears out.
Later that evening Sam goes to the theatre. He takes his possession along--Shakespeare may be lost on her but she's great for dark allies. The latest combat knitting program ties up thugs with plains and purls in less than 30 seconds. (The popularity of martial arts knitting programs has spawned a variety of games including 'Loom' and 'Knitendo'.)
Sam thinks of the Mark 6 as his 'wife'. This may or may not have anything to do with the emotion bypass he had in 2034.
It is easy to develop this disturbing, distopian scenario. Should I have given the Mark 6 a name? Is it human enough to deserve one? After all it has no capacity for abstract, self-directed thought. On the other hand, aren't we all, to some extent, programmable?
Do the Mark 5 cyborgs with their frontal lobes and optional ovaries feel sisterhood with this creature? Maybe Sam keeps changing the pattern for his sweater in a misguided attempt to fill the vacuum that the love of a sentient human being fills for us. But maybe he really doesn't need the stuff. Maybe our technology will change our consciousness beyond imagining. Maybe, as Haraway playfully suggests, the end of gender is nigh. Maybe gendered identity in the future will rely on stereotyped, historical concepts of 'man' and 'woman' that will be programmed into the cyborgs according to whim, or some nefarious Grand Master Plan.
Sometimes I feel there is no room for knitting in my life. I have a career and an art practice that are dependent on technology. In a psychological sense, I am already a cyborg.
My cyborg existence is very new--it is the knitting that attaches me to the past, to women's work and to a tradition of production founded on intimacy. However I don't think my grandmother would have considered that the knitting of the Mark 6 gives them something in common.
Haraway says: 'The international women's movements have constructed 'women's experience' ... The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women's experience in the later twentieth century.' (Haraway 1989, page 174)
Western, wealthy, educated women are now in a position to knit new types of products--identities, lives, programs--and sweaters too, if they want.
I don't think technology is a panacea, but it does give the privileged few of us alternatives. Not easy alternatives, for technology is difficult and we are not gods--either in knowledge or power. But for me, the game it allows us to play is (almost, for nothing is ever) enough.
geniwate lives in Adelaide, South Australia. She published conventional poetry and practiced as a performance poet before turning to the Internet as a venue for experiments in poetry and multimedia. While it is sometimes hard to reconcile her current work to the poetry tradition, she still wishes to be a part of that tradition, to be challenging it rather than rejecting it. She is the author of rice, which won the TrAce/Alt-x International Hypertext award.
Technology is a tool like any other. When we first created Zuzu's Petals Quarterly in 1991, it was a traditional print magazine which featured poetry, fiction, commentary, and original art. Each issue was edited and designed on what was then a semi-snazzy IBM 286 clone, and when the issues were all collated and bound we'd print out address labels and stuff most of the issues into large manila envelopes for mailing to subscribers, institutions, and potential reviewers. It was a highly labor intensive process that took weeks and weeks from editing to design/ from production to fulfillment; most of it done in-house by two tired editors and a few friends. After a week or two of recovery after each issue came out, we'd go back to reading manuscripts and planning future issues and the process would start again.
Over the years, we'd come across many resources that would be helpful to writers and artists which we filed away for future use. Like many editors of literary magazines, we wished we could publish the magazine in color and expand our page count while maintaining editorial quality. In keeping with Dana Gioia's essay in the award winning book "Can Poetry Matter?" we also wanted to distribute our magazine more widely to reach audiences which were beyond poetry's traditionally academic sphere. As a labor of love, rising postal and paper costs made fulfillment of these wishes highly unlikely until 1995.
In 1995, after years of using Prodigy, Delphi, Genie, and various local BBSes for research, community, and entertainment we discovered the internet and it was impossible to ignore the potential productive impact this medium could have on literature and education. Moving Zuzu's Petals Quarterly online would enable us to cut costs and eliminate the financial barriers that kept us from distributing the magazine free of charge to a wider audience as we'd always wished, so we made the leap online. Our editorial standards remained the same as when we published in print, but now we had an even wider pool of submissions to choose from (we still get about 40% of our submissions via postal mail: about a 50- 50 split between mail and female submissions) and an expanded opportunity to share our writers' work with readers around the world. Best of all, we were finally able to share the helpful resources we'd accumulated over the years.
After looking at the source code of a few websites, I bought a book on web design and spent a few days learning HTML and testing out code in a shareware text editor. Then I started to organize and code webpages to showcase the resources we already had, found some literary links on the WWW, and placed our first Web issue of Zuzu's Petals Quarterly (#11) online as an important part of what was to be called The Zuzu's Petals Literary Resource. The website debuted in November 1995 with 10,000 helpful addresses for writers and artists, 300 arts links organized by topic, and Issue #11. A few days later, the website was lucky enough to get named the NCSA/ Mosaic Pick of the Week (back when the NCSA was one of the most popular websites) so things really started getting rolling. The website is now is 400+ webpages strong with 10,000+ organized arts links, updated literary news and events, and we plan to expand Zuzu greatly in scope over the next few months with many new features and even more frequent updates.
When Zuzu's first moved online, Frederick Barthelme's Mississippi Review seemed to be the only major print literary magazine to place its confidence in electronic publishing. Most of the few dozen WWW litmags at the time had never had a paper component and were internet exclusive publications. There was a lot of debate about whether web magazines could ever be as good as traditional print magazines. Now that more print magazines are online and the total number of WWW magazines has increased exponentially, that debate seems to be dying down and it's become apparent that readers are looking for ways to decide what magazines are worth wading through. There is a wealth of choice and information out there and a niche waiting to be filled by the WWW's answer to the Pushcart Prize (eSCENE pioneered in this area), a publication using Utne Reader's/Reader's Digest's topic based excerpting methodology, or an online variant of Dustbook's Small Press Review/Small Magazine Review. As I get more and more involved on a personal level with digital filmmaking and hypertext I'm glad to see there are more venues for such web friendly mediums and we definitely plan to be one of them. Out of new mediums grow new methods and new arts; new ways of expression and new ways of experiencing. As Andre Malraux said, "Art is a revolt against fate."
Tabetha Dunn is co-editor of The Zuzu's Petals Literary Resource which has been featured in such places as Evan Morris' "The Book Lover's Guide to the Internet", is a USA Today HotSite, and was named one of the 30 best websites by Entertainment Weekly (10/97). Her poetry has appeared in Voices International, The Black Bear Review, Asylum Arts' Asylum Annual, Gypsy, Soundings East, The American Aesthetic, Synaesthetic, Snakeskin, and The Black Buzzard Review. Her poetry videos have been featured as part of California's Center For Visual Arts' Bytes of Art Multimedia Exhibit, in The Blue Moon Review, and as part of in The Little Magazine's (University at Albany-SUNY) latest CD-ROM edition. She is a web designer in Ithaca, New York.