Cyberspace - Land of Cyber Cowboys and Women Outlaws

Cultural notions of gender embedded in the very technology of the cyberworld

Release Date: June 14, 2002 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Contrary to its revolutionary promise as a gender-free zone, cyberculture, women cyberspace pioneers argue, reproduces the power dynamics of sexist and racist practices and has a mythology that perpetuates inequality.

They speak their minds in "Reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture" (MIT Press, 2002), a groundbreaking collection of theoretical and fictional writing, including cyberpunk, edited by Austin Booth, a senior assistant librarian at the University at Buffalo, and Mary Flanagan, professor of art at the University of Oregon and former UB faculty member.

In it, 27 authors consider the effects of rapid and profound technological change on culture and, in particular, the revolutionary and reactionary effects of cyberculture on women's lives and identities.

They examine how conceptions of gender are embodied in different technologies and how those in turn shape our notions of maleness and femaleness. Their observations are quite explicit, ranging from the use of language in technology to the presentation of women in cyberpunk fiction.

The contributors include women who have lived in some province of the cyberworld as early as the 1930s. Most are contemporary scholars and authors who are up to speed on advanced technology, neuropolitics, culture jamming and the latest technobuzz.

Booth frequently publishes in refereed journals on women in cyberspace and information studies, and currently is working on a book titled "Bodies at Work: Women's Work in Cyberfiction, Cyberculture and Cyberfeminism." Flanagan is the author of a number of articles on gender and narrative in virtual worlds and has produced many innovative media projects, including Internet games, a networked version of the phage computer virus and "Career Moves," a computer-controlled board game that explores ideas about women and work.

Booth points out that "fiction writing on cyberculture has been dominated by two almost mutually exclusive visions. One," she notes, "is the heroic image of the independent male outlaw hacker/cyborg/technojunkie. The other is the utopian myth of a gender-free cyberworld.

"Female software developers, online chat enthusiasts, performance artists, cyberpunk writers, technosex participants, hackers, game designers and digital artists, in fact, do create digital works that permit new types of relationships between work, men and machines," says Booth.

Nearly all women involved in the cybertech world, however, are low-level technology laborers.

Booth says that if we look at "cyberpunk," the popular sci-fi pulp genre in which high-tech goes lowlife, we see that it was dominated by male authors and cyber-rebel male protagonists throughout the 1980s when it became popular with mainstream media.

Familiar examples include "Neuromancer," "Blade Runner," "The Terminator," "The Shockwave Rider" and "Johnny Mnemonic." These works posit male heroes as operating against impossible odds, sometimes "saving" women who are less cyber-savvy and sometimes operating in a world devoid of women altogether.

Booth says "male cyberpunk can be defined as dystopian tales that tend to take place in worlds defined by unimaginably complex technologies including infinitely powerful computer networks, alternative universes, bio-enhanced characters and electronic demons, coupled with apocalyptic landscapes marked by urban decay and overpopulation.

"The revolutionary claims of cyberpunk, however, conceal its ultimate conservatism on matters of class, gender and race."

Male writers frequently present women as "naturally opposed" to cybertechnology or as existing outside of it, says Booth.

"It's no wonder that so many women critical theorists and fiction writers see cyberculture as anything but a 'gender-free' zone," Booth says. "They see women misrepresented, pushed aside and subjected to the same sexual mythology they had hoped would not be a part of this new culture."

Some of the more hopeful writers in "Reload" imagine the cyberworld as a revolutionary social experiment with the potential to create new identities, relationships and cultures, and even a uniquely female space.

Despite this, author after author indicates that women don't escape their bodies in cyberspace and dispute claims that cybertechnology offers better working conditions, improves women's quality of life or diminishes gender divisions.

"Both theorists and fiction writers generally agree," Booth says, "that cyberspace is a complex and contradictory place marked by oppression as well as liberation."

On the "oppression side," male hacker "console-cowboys" are heroized or at least presented as absolutely central to this new culture while women have tended to experience it from the margins, as outlaws working on the sly, a position which, ironically, allows them considerable critical creativity, says Booth.

"Within this context," she says, "women fiction writers have found room to celebrate their 'machine natures' and employ them to subvert dichotomies associated with domination and inequity."

The writers included in "Reload" are highly credentialed and often trained as scientists and technologists and their work repeatedly calls our attention to the fact that gender-related practices and beliefs and rifts between high and low culture are embedded in the very texts and artifacts of cyberculture.

The award-winning, best-selling author James Tiptree, Jr., a pseudonym for scientist Alice Sheldon, for decades was highly praised for "his" ability to grasp and articulate nuances of the female psyche.

Laura Mixon, a chemical engineer by training, explores the social and environmental impact of technological change, the nature of consciousness and the realm of genetic experimentation.

Melissa Scott, a scholar of comparative literatures by training, writes about lesbian hackers and through them, the meaning and methods of social and technological marginalization.

The single male contributor, Thomas Foster, looks at how desire, identification and "virtual embodiment" are articulated in narratives of cyberspace.

In her contribution, C.L. Moore, one of the few women writing science fiction in the 1930s and 40s, discusses femininity as a performance.

The authors anthologized here ask whether cybertechnology really erodes cultural categories like "masculine" and "feminine" as promised, and if so who benefits from such a change -- women, as some feminist theorists have hoped, or everyone but women?

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