Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction. The international women's movements have constructed `women's experience', as well as uncovered or discovered this crucial collective object. This experience is a fiction and a fact of the most crucial, political kind. Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression and so of possibility. [. . .] [T]he boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.
--Donna Haraway on cyborgs (1991, p. 149)
We've narrowed the gap between fantasy world and reality. [. . .]. The border is no longer real.
--Richard Chuang on "morphing" (Quinn 1993, p. 106)
In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler (1990) tells us that gender itself is "never fixed, always fluid." Working from that premise, it is important for feminist scholars to look not only at categories of gender as they have been historically defined, or as they are now constituted, but also as they could be redefined and changed through the influence of increasingly pervasive communication technologies. In this paper, I address the effect of new electronic communication technologies on current construction of gender categories. In particular, I focus on the effects of computer-mediated communication (CMC), a medium that appears to hold promise for a reforming of individual and societal conceptions of gender and identity.
Although other authors have taken up the challenge of examining gender and identity in light of technology, they have not taken into account the current and potential effects of these CMC technologies. In her book Feminism Confronts Technology, Judy Wajcman (1991) sidesteps CMC in her introduction, saying "I have not attempted to encompass here all forms of technology. [. . .] Various aspects of information and communication technologies have also been excluded." (p. xi) And Donna Haraway (1991), whose intriguing "Cyborg Manifesto"(1) has been cited extensively in literature on the future of gender construction, also focuses on technologies that provide for the physical recreation of the body rather than the virtual creation that text-based CMC technology addresses.
One collection of essays on women and technology, edited by Cheris Kramarae (1988), does cover the issues of technology and communication, including several essays on CMC. In her opening essay, Kramarae says: "Technological processes have been studied from the (usually implicit) vantage point of men's experiences. When one puts women at the center of analysis, male biases and masculist ideologies become clearer, and one discovers new questions as well as fresh approaches to old questions." She challenges women to begin to "develop a more inclusive understanding of the social relations and ideologies of technological processes" (p. 7).
In this essay, I attempt not just to provide a "woman-centered" vantage point for the examination of communication technologies, but also to examine the ways in which our definitions of "woman" and "man" are shifting in this new communication environment. This is not to say that the term "woman" will no longer be meaningful or useful in discussion of gender and technology, or to say that gender is not or cannot be considered as a factor in the study of information technology uses and applications. Rather, it is an argument that we cannot fix a single center from which the experiences of women with computer and communication systems h1can be viewed, and that such fixity would only serve to deepen inequities rather than exposing and removing them. It is possible to use new theoretical perspectives on the shifting boundaries of gender definitions to rethink a previously deterministic view of the effect of new technologies on society, and particularly the effect of those technologies on women.
The critical theorists are not the only scholars to have approached the topic of dehumanization through technology. In a collection of essays on the relationship between the fields of literature and literary criticism and those of science and technology, F. Garvin Davenport (1990) poses the question "Does mechanization affect human values, and if so, how? To what extent and under what conditions should we allow technology to shape our definition of ourselves as a civilization or as a species?" (p. 227) Again, the assumption of technological determinism is clear. Rather than seeing technology and mechanization as a tool for change, he sees it as the change agent. This scenario fails even to acknowledgethe role of the system designers, let alone the users.
Discussions of mass media and electronic communication also often assume a
deterministic role for technology, even as they exhort users to employ the
technologies for their own needs, be they personal or political. A new magazine
on the social effects of digital and electronic technology, Wired, uses
this quotation from Marshall McLuhan's (1967) classic The Medium is the
Massage as its epigraph:
The medium, or process, of our time--electric technology--is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life. It is forcing us to reconsider and re-evaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted. Your education, your government, your family, your neighborhood, your job, your relation to "the others." And they're changing dramatically.(3) (McLuhan 1967/1993, pp. 6-10)
There are a lot of magazines about technology. Wired is not one of them. Wired is about the most powerful people on the planet today--the Digital Generation. These are the people who not only foresaw how the merger of computers, telecommunications and the media is transforming life at the cusp of the new millennium, they are making it happen. (Rossetto 1993, p. 10)
Some authors, however, have begun to reject this deterministic view of a computer ideology imposed from above. They see a larger role for the users of technology--particularly technology that involves the creation of a mediated or virtual environment--in shaping that environment. This scenario is supported by Anthony Giddens' (1984) idea of a reflexive nature of social life, in which the structure of activity is created and recreated by the very activities constituting it. This image has particular applicability in the context of CMC. We cannot study the effects of CMC upon the participants without at the same time studying the role of the participants in shaping and reshaping the context. Because the actors in this process are self-aware, theories developed and disseminated through the study of the medium can result in the use of that theory by the participants to further modify their communicative environment. As Giddens says, "Reflections on social processes (theories, and observations about them) continually enter into, become disentangled with and re-enter the universe of events they describe." (p. xxxiii)
Joshua Meyrowitz (1985), in his book on the effects of television on American
society, addresses the issue of technological determinism head-on, and provides
a technological context for the ideas of reflexivity raised by Giddens:
Individuals behaving in physical or mediated environments still have a wide range of behavioral choices within the overall constraints. . . . On a group level, the situation is even less deterministic. For we design and use our rooms, buildings, media, rituals, and other social environments. We can redesign them, abandon them, or alter their use. Ultimately, then, the most deterministic perspective may be unwittingly embraced by those who refuse to apply our greatest freedom--human reason and analysis-- to the social factors that influence behavior. We do not retain free-choice simply because we refuse to see and study those things that constrain our actions. Indeed, we often give up the potential of additional freedom to control our lives by choosing not to see how the environments we shape can, in turn, work to reshape us. (329)
Technology is part of our culture; and, of course, our culture, which is male dominated, has developed technologies that reinforce male supremacy. Can this be changed by women becoming more involved with technology--not only as its users, but as its inventors, makers, and repairers? [. . .] Only to the extent that we gain control of the design and fruits of our labor. But that is a revolutionary agenda, for today very few people--women or men--control our tools or our work.
Another option may be to rethink the role of the user in shaping and reshaping the environmental space created in CMC systems. Where we face barriers in moving women into positions of authority at computer companies, we can shift our focus to helping more women become comfortable users of communication technology. This can be accomplished through training and educational programs, with a minimal need for significant economic or political capital. Once women are better represented in the user community, it will be possible for them to exert substantially greater influence in the larger spheres of design and implementation.
How do we currently define the gender categories of "men" and "women"? How can a reconsideration and reevaluation of this institution take place in the electronic/virtual world, and how will it affect our own senses of self, the interactions among individuals, and the society in which we interact? It is these questions that inform a feminist perspective on the changing shape of gender as constituted in a CMC environment. Butler (1990) provides us with a starting point for questioning the current and historical set of cultural meanings and behaviors associated with the biological female body. She asks us "Is the construction of the category of women as a coherent and stable subject an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations?" (p. 5). Unfortunately, the concept of coherent and stable gender roles pervades much of computing culture, and is often the focus of writings on gender and computers. Even feminist writers critiquing the interaction between women and technology fall into a pattern of describing women as the users and necessarily only the objects of information technologies. Through these descriptions, which seem to turn essentialism into technological determinism, authors who intend to expose and thereby end the marginalization of women in technology may well be reifying the very gender relations they criticize.
One application of Butler's ideas to the practical issues of discrimination against and marginalization of women comes in an essay by Vicki Schultz (1992), which addresses employment discrimination in a legal context. Opening with a quote from Judith Butler on how the category of "women" is "produced and restrained by the very structures of power through which emancipation is sought" (p. 297), Schultz emphatically rejects the idea that the dominant ideology of patriarchy has so socialized women that they are unable to construct their own ideas about work aspirations and identities. While acknowledging the power of that socialization, she tells us that "this view suppresses the dynamism and complexity that characterizes the development of female subjectivity" (p. 313) Perhaps more importantly, she recognizes the power contained in Butler's argument for the non-fixable character of the category of women, saying "If female identities remain in flux, then the work world is no mere passive reflector of preexisting properties of gender, but rather a central site where the category of `woman' is contested and created" (p. 314). In the same light, the world of (and the worlds created by) technology need not only reflect current gender categories; instead they can become another arena for the reshaping of those categories.
Sherry Turkle (1984), in her fascinating study of the cultural and psychological world of computers and computer science, also takes some tentative steps toward redefining what constitutes the category of "woman." Although she notes differing attitudes toward computers from many of the women and girls she interviews, she also acknowledges that those attitudes are not necessarily an inextricable part of biological sex, but rather of gendered construction. On the one hand, she describes the tendency for science and scientific activity to be described in what she calls masculine terms: as a "place for the abstract, the domain for a clear and distinct separation between the subject and the object. [. . .] A microcosm of the male genderization of science" (p. 118). On the other hand, she notes that the different methods brought to bear on computer science by girls and women reform our ideas of what constitutes science. In particular, she believes that the computer has "a special role," in this process, because it "provides an entry to formal systems that is more accessible to women. It can be negotiated with, it can be responded to, it can be psychologized" (p. 118). The differences here are utilized to redefine computer science and the gender categories associated with many scientific fields, rather than to reify them.
The most challenging feminist view of the role of technology in redefining the relationship between biological sex and gender comes from Donna Haraway (1991). In her "Cyborg Manifesto" she discusses the potential of cyborg technology as a tool for both confusing and reconstructing the boundaries of gender. At the beginning of this essay, she explains what she means by "cyborg": "A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction" (p. 149). She goes on to say that "[t]he cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation. [. . .] The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world" (p. 150). This vision encourages us to take advantage of the instabilities in boundaries that new technologies expose, and provides us with a conceptual framework for shedding the essentialist linking of biological body and gendered expectations. What remains is a movement from Haraway's physical cyborg body to the virtual self created in through communication technology.
Much writing (by men) about the participation of women on CMC systems has
focused on the expression of stereotypical gender characteristics in a virtual
world. Sex and sexuality are treated as interchangeable. An example of this is
Gerard Van Der Leuen's article entitled "This is a Naked Lady" in the premiere
issue of Wired. The article discusses the "online sex" activities
occurring on many multiple-user CMC systems,(6) saying that:
Sex, as we know it, is a heat-seeking missile that forever seeks out the newest medium for its transmission. . . . [It is] a virus that is always on the hunt for a new host--a virus that almost always infects new technology first. Different genders and psyches have different tastes, but the overall desire seems about as persistent over the centuries as the lust for bread and salvation.
"At the start [of her participation in online sex discussions], The Naked Lady was a rather mousy person--the type who favored gray clothing of a conservative cut--and was the paragon of shy and retiring womanhood. Seeing her on the street, you'd never think that her online persona was one that excited the libidos of dozens of men every night. (p. 74)
This is followed immediately by a description of how the woman became more like her online "naughty" persona: "Her clothing tastes went from Peck and Peck to tight skirts slit up the thigh. [. . .] Her speech became bawdier, her jokes naughtier. In short, she was becoming her online personality--lewd, bawdy, sexy, a man-eater." (p. 74). Aside from the obvious threat he perceives in this transformation, as evidenced by the term "man-eater" to describe a woman who is no longer "mousy" but instead revels in her own sexuality, Van Der Leuen fails to discuss the much broader implications of this form of sexual activity.
Most regular participants in these CMC systems--whether or not they involve sexually explicit interaction--have at least once found themselves surprised by the revelation of another participant's biological sex. Apocryphal stories describing the shock of one participant in online sex upon the discovery of another's biological--as opposed to their virtually constructed--sex abound in computing circles. In some cases the original image is a result of intentional presentations by the participant in question; in other cases, it comes from assumptions about a name or conversational style. In the recent movie The Crying Game, the audience sees an example of a situation that often occurs in online interaction: the taking on of one set of gendered characteristics by someone whose biological body is associated with a different gender category. But while the character in The Crying Game, is eventually "unmasked" (though not without disrupting the audience's conception of gender), interaction in a virtual environment does not allow for the same revelation of contradictory physical evidence: without a physical body to require conformance with the cultural constructions of gender, an individual is free to take on or shed any set of behaviors.
The science fiction writer Pat Cadigan, in a talk given at the American Library Association conference in July of 1991, warned the audience about "the danger of predicting the future in a straight line." This caution is important: by restricting ourselves to a linear progression, we greatly limit the range of options available to individuals and coalitions currently in marginalized or objectified positions. Cadigan herself is one of the few female authors in the field of cyberpunk science fiction--the genre that concerns itself with visions of the future as shaped by computer and communication technology. Her book, Synners (1991) includes a character who attempts to free himself from bodily constraints ("the meat," as he calls it) through an escape into the virtual world of the network. He eventually succeeds, becoming a consciousness manifested on the network, separate from and independent of his physical body.
Cadigan's future of a self existing independently of the (sexed) body is only one of several envisioned by science fiction writers. Also intriguing are the worlds in Octavia Butler's books. In Wild Seed(1980), Butler describes a conflict between a shape-changing protagonist, Anyanwu, and her body-inhabiting opponent, Doro. Although the former is referred to as a "she," and the latter a "he," neither is tied to a biologically sexed body. Anyanwu can take on the shape of man, or of another species, as easily as that of a woman (although she notes that as a man she can father only female children; an interesting re/vision of parthenogenesis); Doro kills and then inhabits the bodies of both men and women. The characters' personas exhibit characteristics we associate with traditional gender roles--Anyanwu as a nurturing and protective being, Doro as calculating and pragmatic. But by placing these characteristics outside of a fixed physical body, Butler separates them from gender as currently constructed.
But while science fiction writers have been pushing the boundaries of our ideas about gender, scholarly writing by feminists on the participation of women in CMC systems has remained tied to our current conceptions of gender. Few authors have chosen to share Haraway's vision of a re-gendered world based on the merging (or blurring) of biology and technology. Judy Smith and Ellen Balka (1988) discuss the use of CMC by feminists, but only in the context of the medium as an organizing tool for those already linked by their membership in the category of "women." While this use of the technology has great value and validity, the discussion of it evades the larger issue of how technology can be used beyond the support of current activities to encourage a radical shift in the identities of the participants.
Not surprisingly, men writing about these boundary-challenging effects of communication technologies are often less enthusiastic than women like Haraway and Butler. Van Der Leuen's article, cited above, is a particularly blatant example of the negativity elicited by a technology that allows--and even encourages--women to become sexually assertive in a way that does not put them physically at risk. On a more intellectual level is the writing of Jean Baudrillard (1983), who criticizes communication technology because it does away with "the Other" and the alienation accompanying that construction, and "explodes the scene formerly preserved by the minimal separation of public and private, the scene that was played out in a restricted space, according to a secret ritual known only to the actors" (p. 130). Baudrillard sees this dissolving of boundaries, particularly between the subject and the object, as a desperate threat, a slide into the ecstasy of obscenity. "No more hysteria," he complains (an interesting choice of words). "No more projective paranoia, properly speaking, but this state of terror proper to the schizophrenic." What causes this state of terror? "[T]oo great a proximity of everything, the unclean promiscuity of everything which touches, invests and penetrates without resistance, with no halo of private protection, not only his own body, to protect him anymore" (p. 132). These concerns seem very much the domain of the male subject: few women in our current society believe that their own body serves to protect them at all; fewer still have the power to "invest and penetrate without resistance." Baudrillard's fears expose exactly the power these technologies have for women: through the destabilization of current boundaries, we may be creating a society that no longer allows for discrimination based on biological characteristics.
Perhaps this is why many men involved in the development of technology
facilitating this process of destabilization are quick to deny its power. In
her interview with Carl Rosendahl, the president of the company that has
developed and promoted "morph" effects for broadcasting and personal
computers(7), Michelle Quinn includes this passage:
But the question that rankles Rosendahl the most, the one that makes him stand on chairs and uncharacteristically interrupt others, is whether the new technology obscures people's ability to distinguish fact from fiction. "No, no, no," is Rosendahl's answer. But others at PDI disagree. "We've narrowed the gap between fantasy world and reality," said Richard Chuang, PDI's vice-president and co-founder who wrote much of PDI's original software. "You can no longer believe what you see on TV. The border is no longer real." (p. 106)
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(2)Unfortunately, the Habermas work cited by Agger, Toward a Rational Society, is not available at the University of Alabama library. Future revisions of this paper will include a direct cite to the original work.
(3)As cited in the premiere issue of Wired.
(4)Of course, these numbers are assumptions drawn from the typically "male" or "female" names on the masthead and may not be accurate.
(5)This power is often exercised by conservative groups. Examples are most evident in the realm of television, where writing campaigns to advertisers have been shown to be potent tools in changing programming, or in the music business, where Tipper Gore's campaign for music labelling generated considerable interest and action. In the area of CMC, a grass-roots coalition of network users (primarily male, reflecting the user base of the technology) gathered sufficient support through electronic mail messages to force Lotus Development Corporation to cancel plans for a mass-marketed CD-ROM disc that would include financial information on individual households.
(6)The best known of these systems, CompuServe's "CB Simulator," allows individuals to participate in private conversations that are often sexually explicit, bearing a strong resemblance to 900-number telephone sex but with the charges being paid to the system operator by all participants.
(7)"Morphing" is the special effects process that produces an image of one item or characters metamorphosing into another. This effect is used in the Michael Jackson video "Black or White," as well as in the portrayal of the shape-shifting character Odo on the television show "Deep Space Nine."