Virtual Gender

Judy Wajcman, ‘Virtual Gender’, pp.56-77, in:
Wajcman, J., 2004. TechnoFeminism. Polity, Cambridge ; Malden, MA.
Progress is still defined by technological enterprises, but it is digital rather than space technology that now excites the imagination with its more immediate and accessible possibilities. Rarely having made it into outer space, little wonder that feminists have seized upon new digital technologies for their potential to finally free women from the constraints of their sex.
The conviction that the Internet is the solution to social disintegration and individualism is no less popular than the idea that it will accelerate these trends.

The conservative overtones of these debates are apparent. They betray a nostalgia for an idealized past when people belonged to a harmonious community and spent time chatting with friends and neighbours. The destruction of community, and of most forms of communal solidarity, has been firmly signalled in sociological thought for a long while.
At the same time, it has often been noted that the cosy, homogeneous, local community was a rare phenomenon.
[According to Castells] Communities are based on social exchanges rather than physical location; the Internet enhances connectivity and social capital. This new pattern of sociability in the Network Society is characterized by networked individualism.
Real virtuality replaces stable, social foundations (place, nation, class or race) with virtual and changeable environments, which can exist in cyberspace quite separately from geographic locations or real cultural backgrounds.
Although Castells is well aware that the Internet is open to abuse, his vision of the Internet is essentially positive. He describes Internet culture as made up of four layers: the techno-meritocratic culture, the hacker culture, the virtual communitarian culture, and the entrepreneurial culture.
This libertarian culture of computer programmers is based on the values of freedom: ‘freedom to create, freedom to appropriate whatever knowledge is available, and freedom to redistribute this knowledge under any form and channel chosen by the hacker’.
The problem with these theories of virtual community is ambiguity about the extent of their likeness to communities on the ground, and their relation to those grounded communities that necessarily remain.
The virtual community is a social vision that glosses over the fact that communities are also about material resources and power.
Castells says that the ‘Internet is produced by its use’. The hacker culture that he eulogizes is a male culture – in fact, a predominantly white middle-class culture, too. It is also a strange omission that he doesn’t discuss the question of whose freedom is the issue.
Women have historically been the pre-eminent suppliers of emotional support in community networks and the major suppliers of domestic and unpaid community work. The ‘culture of freedom’ that Castells embraces seems to entail a freedom from responsibility for community networks and, therefore, to reflect an implicitly male perspective.
Where women maintain family, friendship and neighbourhood ties, men have participated in a public sphere defined by instrumentalities of work. It was precisely this division that institutionalized men as designers of technology, and Castells does not address the gender relations of design.
In part, cyberfeminism needs to be understood as a reaction to the pessimism of the 1980s feminist approaches that stressed the inherently masculine nature of technoscience.
In contrast, cyberfeminism emphasizes women’s subjectivity and agency, and the pleasures immanent in digital technologies. They accept that industrial technology did indeed have a patriarchal character, but insist that new digital technologies are much more diffuse and open. Thus, cyberfeminism marks a new relationship between feminism and technology.
For Plant, technological innovations have been pivotal in the fundamental shift in power from men to women that occurred in Western cultures in the 1990s, the so-called genderquake.
Old expectations, stereotypes, senses of identity and securities have been challenged as women gain unprecedented economic opportunities, technical skills and cultural powers.
Automation has reduced the importance of muscular strength and hormonal energies and replaced them with demands for speed, intelligence and transferable, interpersonal and communication skills.
This has been accompanied by the feminization of the workforce, which now favours independence, flexibility and adaptability. While men are ill-prepared for a postmodern future, women are ideally suited to the new technoculture.
The digital revolution heralds the decline of the traditional hegemonic structures and power bases of male domination because it represents a new kind of technical system.
Social hierarchies are put to work on nature in an orderly way to produce highly organized systems of social and technological power. For Plant, as for other feminist writers, this is fundamental to technology as a patriarchal system, and is bound up with masculine identities.
[Plant] cleverly uses the digital language of computers – sequences of zeros and ones – to evoke a new gendering of technology. There is a decided shift in the woman-machine relationship, because there is a shift in the nature of machines. Zeros now have a place, and they displace the phallic order of ones.
Innovations occur at different points in the Web and create effects that outrun their immediate origins. It is the ideal feminine medium where women should feel at home. This is because women excel within fluid systems and processes: their distinctive mode of being fits perfectly with the changes associated with information technology.
The idea that the Internet can transform conventional gender roles, altering the relationship between the body and the self via a machine, is a popular theme in recent postmodern feminism. The message is that young women in particular are colonizing cyberspace, where gender inequality, like gravity, is suspended.
Relationships on the Internet are not as free of corporeality as Stone, Turkle and Plant suggest. Although computer-mediated communication alters the nature of interaction by removing bodily cues, this is not the same as creating ‘ new identities. Just because all you see is words, it does not mean that becoming a different person requires only different words, or that this is a simple matter.
The choice of words is the result of a process of socialization associated with a particular identity. It is therefore very difficult to learn a new identity without being socialized into that role.
Research on artificial intelligence and information systems now emphasize the importance of the body in human cognition and behaviour. Moreover, the sociology of scientific knowledge has taught us that much scientific knowledge is tacit (things people know but cannot explain or specify in formal rules) and cannot be learned explicitly.
Bodies play an important part in what it means to be human and gendered.
For cyberpunks, technology is inside the body and the mind itself. Textual and visual representations of gendered bodies and erotic desire, however, proved less imaginative. It was new technology with the same old narratives.
Rather than casting women as passive victims or sex objects, [Plant] maintains that the new interactive multimedia radically recode pornographic consciousness and culture.
Much of the pessimistic critical literature on science and technology has seen technology in a deterministic way, as potentially dehumanizing and running out of control.
Plant offers a twist on this theme. She celebrates cybertechnology out of control because, for her, out of control signifies freedom from male control. The metaphors by which she builds her case are, however, weakly related to the social reality of new technology relations, and the instances she cites are misconstrued.
For example, her history of women’s involvement in technological developments, such as the typing pool and the telephone exchange, are in fact examples of women’s subordination.
She gestures towards recognition that the interconnectivity of the Internet is a product of global capitalism that enables new forms of production and exploitation.
Yet her apparent awareness of women’s exploitation does not stop her from seeing such technology as necessarily empowering women.
For Plant, there is a direct causal relationship between communication technologies and the particular cultural forms they come to be associated with.
Like McLuhan, she fails to distinguish between technical inventions (the digitalization of data), the socially instituted technology (the Internet), and its attendant cultural forms (e-mail, web sites, interactive multimedia, etc.)
As a result, the crucial influence of media corporations and communications institutions, within which technologies develop and which circumscribe their use, is ignored.
[…] the political consequence of this avant-gardist celebration of the ‘new media’ is paradoxically to legitimate the existing social order. Plant is similarly exposed as politically conservative. If digital technology is inherently feminine, whoever controls or uses it, then no political action is necessary.
Cyberfeminism may appear to be anarchist and anti-establishment, but, in effect, it requires for its performances all the latest free-market American capitalist gizmos.
Plant’s utopian version of the relationship between gender and technology is perversely post-feminist. Rather than wanting to erase gender difference, Plant positively affirms women’s radical sexual difference, their feminine qualities. It is a version of radical or cultural feminism dressed up as cyberfeminism and is similarly essentialist.
What is curious is that Plant holds on to this fixed, unitary version of what it is to be female while, at the same time, arguing that the self is decentred and dispersed.
Like much of the literature on cyberculture, Plant does not consider in any depth women’s actual experience of computer facilities. Her depiction of the Internet bears little relation to how most women use it.
The dramatic growth in economic inequality between women with very different qualifications, skills and labour market resources makes it impossible to generalize about women’s experiences with computers.
The ‘feminization of work’ that Plant lauds is characterized as much by a proliferation of casual, low-paid jobs as by high-flying, globally wired women. New technologies may be ‘epistemologically open’, but many of their current forms are similar in their material relations to pre-existing technologies.
Utopian thinking is indispensable to feminist politics, but it needs a clearer distinction between description and imagination to play a useful role. Plant’s strength is her deployment of metaphors to transform the way we think about the woman-machine relationship.
Western masculine narratives traditionally view travel as an escape from feminine domesticity, the site of stasis and containment. While men take to the road or the information superhighway to find themselves, and social theorists embrace mobilities, circulating networks, and liquid modernity as their central concerns, women keep the home fires burning as they did in the physically proximate communities that virtual networks are held to have replaced.
As feminists have long pointed out, the embodied and situated nature of knowledge has been denied precisely because it is based upon the invisible work of women. Rather than dreaming of a flight from the body, feminism has argued for men to be fully embodied and take their share of emotional, caring and domestic work.
To express this in computer jargon, an emancipatory politics of technology requires more than hardware and software; it needs wetware – bodies, fluids, human agency.