"Some old school books also made me smile. Oh, the
poor children of those days! Fancy them sitting at desks and trying their
eyes over all that wretched small print. Now, when all teaching is done
by cinema and gramophone, we realize what a purgatory education must have
been in the past. I am very thankful to be living in A.D. 4000, with all
our modern advantages. Think of having to go by sea to visit your friends
in America, when to-day we simply get out the balloon and whisk over to
pay a call. My new electric shoes have just come, and I expect will be
a tremendous aid to my dancing. I shall wear them at my birthday-party.
By the by, I must send a wireless to Connie, to ask if she means to come
to my party."
(Angela Brazil, The Head Girl at the Gables, Blackie & Son, 1919, pp229-30)
The linking of personal computers
to the telephone network allows users to link up in turn to what has been
termed in the USA the "Information Superhighway" or, to give
it its European name, "Infobahn". As well as allowing readers
to read more widely and more actively, this enables them to communicate
together and to form "virtual" communities. Women writers have
imagined the future, both utopian and dystopian, to which this might lead.
In the late twentieth century, the Infobahn as it is finally
envisaged - a fast, easily accessible, complex network which allows for
the instant exchange of information - does not yet exist. What we do have
is the Internet - described as a "string and chewing gum version"
of the Infobahn - which is the world's biggest computer network. Originally
a US military development, the Internet began in the 1960s as a small network
linking a handful of computers together over a wide geographical area.
It was designed to be particularly robust in the event of enemy attack,
and to allow messages travelling from one computer to another to be handled
in a flexible way. Today the Internet connects together lots of smaller
networks - government, public, commercial and academic - and enables users
to communicate with each other from all over the world. It is a massive
source of information and services, and is one of the twentieth century's
most important developments in communications. It is self-governing, and
access to much of it is free (although users outside the academy have to
pay a commercial service for a connection and may also have to pay for
the cost of telephone calls).
A fundamental difference between communicating via the
Internet/Infobahn and via other means of textual communication is that
it is a paperless form of communication. Instead, communication takes place
in "cyberspace", a term first coined by science fiction writers.
This is a purely notional space, but is a useful aid to conceptualising
electronic forms of communication. What the computer user sees on their
screen is "virtually"
real, but does not exist in any tangible form. Yet it "seems to be
as real as perspective geometry, ray tracing, depth cueing, texture mapping
and other computer graphic devices can make it".
And in cyberspace, everything is connected - computer networks, television
networks, telephone networks: " . . . anyone connected to these networks,
be they a humble telephone subscriber or television viewer, participates
. . . No-one can avoid becoming active citizens of cyberspace."
One of the most exciting aspects of the ebook is the
potential for readers to access it electronically from their own computers
via the Internet/Infobahn - assuming of course that a copy is stored there.
There are two ways in which a reader can do this. First, they can connect
their own computer via the phone line and Internet/Infobahn to the computer
where the ebook is stored, and display it and read it on their own computer's
screen whilst still "online". Second, they can connect their
own computer via the phone line and Infobahn to the computer where the
ebook is stored and make a copy of the ebook on their own computer's
which they can read later "offline". This first option is preferable
when there is free access to the telephone system, since hard disk storage
space is expensive; however, in countries such as the UK where the majority
of local calls are charged for, the second option is usually preferable.
In 1996, readers can already use the Internet in both of these ways to
access a growing number of texts stored on the World Wide Web,
another forerunner to the Infobahn.
The Internet/Infobahn also offers the opportunity to communicate
with other people around the world, to exchange ideas, to initiate or join
in with discussions, and to retrieve or share other textual and graphical
information. This is a much quicker and often cheaper process than using
the conventional mail - "snail mail". It also allows a written
"conversation" to take place, since users can include copies
of the comments to which they are replying in their answers. It is much
cheaper than using the telephone to communicate verbally, since most users
can gain access with a local telephone call. In addition, it is fundamentally
different from snail mail or verbal use of the telephone in the way in
which it functions.
First, there is no requirement to have had prior contact
with the people being communicated with. Once familiar with the Internet/Infobahn,
it is a simple matter to find out about and join in discussion forums -
newgroups or email "lists" - which cover topics relating to a
particular field of interest, and thus to "meet" people electronically.
The Internet/Infobahn therefore provides people throughout the world who
have common interests or concerns with a means of linking up, rather than
simply offering them a means of communication.
Second, communicating via the Internet/Infobahn is not
dependent on real time. Anyone who is sent a message can pick it up at
a time which is convenient to them (assuming that they have access to a
computer and modem), while contributors to discussion forums can read the
latest contributions from others and reply to them at any time of the day
or night. Away from cyberspace, women in particular are restricted in their
ability to communicate by the demands of their employment and families.
In cyberspace, these problems are lessened.
Third, there is no need to be in a particular place to
communicate via the Internet/Infobahn, so long as there is access to a
computer and modem. People can communicate across national boundaries without
leaving their desk or home. This is another reason why the demands of employers
and/or families are less likely to restrict women's ability to communicate
in cyberspace. It also removes the barriers placed in women's way by fear
of attack, mobility problems or simply the aforementioned poor public transport
Fourth, personal image and appearance becomes irrelevant
on the Internet/Infobahn, as does body language, and this can be particularly
liberating for people with impairments. In fact, many users conceal or
disguise their gender in order to explore differently gendered or non-gendered
means of communication.
Lastly, the combination of features described above means
that the Internet/Infobahn can improve communication between people with
different mother tongues. The successful exchange of text-based information
in cyberspace is not affected by accents, people talking too fast or poor-quality
phone links, nor is it delayed by snail-mail systems which are often expensive
and subject to interference by governments. In addition, the development
of text-based translation programmes will facilitate communication further.
In the late twentieth century, the use of the term "information
superhighway" or "infobahn" to describe this form of communication
has been unfortunate, conjuring up as it does an image of men sitting on
their own driving fast cars, controlled in their direction and in their
every move by the road itself and by related traffic control measures.
However, it is obviously an attractive term to most men, as demonstrated
by the enthusiasm with which it has been adopted worldwide. But women are
much less likely than men to own a car,
as are disabled people, working-class people and people from ethnic minorities,
and so are more likely to be alienated from the metaphor.
Since the early 1980s, a UK government policy of prioritising
car ownership over public transport has meant that the public transport
services relied on heavily by women, children, members of ethnic minority
groups, disabled people and older people have been denied much-needed public
funding. And when women do drive, because their journeys are more likely
to be domestic and thus local, they rely more heavily on using roads which
in the UK at least are in much poorer condition than the highways which
receive the bulk of public funding. In addition, as William Howell and
Dale Spender point out, the development of the highways in the USA have
resulted in traffic deaths, air pollution, urban gridlock, urban sprawl,
isolated suburbs and downtown slums.
It is therefore particularly unfortunate that it is this misleading image
of road travel which predominates in any discussion about the current,
and, more importantly, the future uses of computers. No doubt it is one
reason why those who have embraced the technology to date have been overwhelmingly
white, male and middle-class.
Girls' School Story Fans & Cyberspace
Women are, however, beginning to embrace the technology
too. In The Fans of Girls' School Stories
I describe how fans of girls' school stories have linked up across the
world via phone calls, faxes, letters and (computer-produced) fanzines,
and how these links have facilitated the development of real friendship
networks which have been further strengthened by meetings and telephone
calls. Via these links and networks, information has been shared about
girls' school stories - including information about how girls and women
first came to read the books, their favourite books and characters, settings
and authors, and the availability of books for borrowing or sale - and
about the fans themselves. In 1996, this network was extended to cyberspace.
A Chalet School web site, Chaletopia!,
was launched by Polly Goerres from the UK, and an email group, Girlsown,
was set up by Anita Graham in Australia to discuss girls' school stories
Other fans began to communicate amongst themselves via email.
By this time there were, of course, a number of fan groupings
already present on the Internet, notably Star Trek fans. However, prior
to the mid-1990s women fan groups were unrepresented,
and it will be extremely interesting to see how the use of the Internet
affects the fan network in the future, given the differences between communicating
via the Internet and snail mail/verbal use of the telephone discussed above.
In particular, the restrictions on communication caused by the fact that
the fanzines are only published every three months will be lifted.
What kind of experience can the women fans expect when
they enter cyberspace, given that, in the late twentieth century, women
formed a minority on the Internet?
Cyberspace has been described by David Gans and R.U. Sirius as " .
. . presently inhabited almost exclusively by mountain men, desperadoes
and vigilantes, kind of a rough bunch . . . And, as long as that's the
case, it's gonna be the Law of the Wild in there . . . "
This Wild West analogy has also been used by Laura Miller,
who views it as part of the problem facing women seeking access to the
Internet. She argues that, updated for the 1990s, the analogy has been
taken to mean that the digital wilderness must be tamed by daring men,
who must protect their women folk from rapacious scoundrels out to lure
them into sex chat conversations and browbeat other women out of every
conversation. She writes that "wired women" need to "refuse
to acquiesce in these roles", which means that they also have to change
the way online technologies are talked about in the media. More recently,
it seems possible that women may also need to resist attempts to "civilise"
the Internet, too.
Whether the cyberspace of the mid- to late-1990s is a sexist environment has been disputed by women active on the Internet. However, Dale Spender has demonstrated convincingly that:
Women are being silenced on the Net in a number of ways. There is the silence of women who withdraw because they are shocked, fed up, threatened or distressed. Then, too, there is the silence that is imposed - the silence that goes with women not being able to get a word in, prevented from raising the topics that are of concern to them. But there's also the silence that confronts women if and when they do venture to comment on-line. In society in general, and in cyberspace in particular, it is abundantly clear that women's words count for much less than men's.
In particular, women have been reluctant to join in group
discussions in cyberspace because of the possibility of being "flamed"
by male users - "flaming" is replying to someone else's contribution
in a rude, arrogant, overbearing or derisory way, and is often typed in
capital letters which is taken to be the written equivalent of shouting
- particularly since women often find that they are further pursued by
personal emails. This kind of behaviour appears to be more common on the
Infobahn than in other media and face-to-face,
perhaps because men feel that there is less chance of reprisal. As Spender
has demonstrated, it can be violent, sexually explicit and extremely hurtful
However, the majority of flaming is done by strangers
who have no real power over the person they are flaming, and who will be
unable to identify that person in real life ("IRL") if a few
simple precautions are taken. While women may not be able to resist physical
abuse, we can have more power over the effect of written abuse. It is important
that this is recognised by women coming on to the Internet/Infobahn, and
that responses to flaming are not dictated by women's experiences in the
outside world. It is also important that women realise our power to flame
others; that we can challenge discriminatory discourses in cyberspace without
great fear of any form of reprisal which can physically harm us. Even if
there is the exceptional case where a woman is pursued beyond the Infobahn,
we cannot allow ourselves to be frightened away when the real dangers are
so small. Rather, we need to develop support systems for women who are
flamed in these circumstances.
If this support is in place, what is the likely effect on the girls' school story fans taking part in an electronic network? Kimberly Matheson writes that there has been:
very little research, theoretical or empirical, which
has examined the more micro-level social psychological experience of [women]
using computers, including computer-mediated communications, and how the
experience may differ for women, relative to men
. . . very little research has examined purely social computer networks despite their growing existence . . . However, for those systems which have been established and maintained, it has become apparent that, in contrast to the results of organizational research, interpersonal relationships and friendships can be formed and can represent powerfully intense experiences for the users . . .
The enhanced self-awareness experienced during computer-mediated communications may have positive implications in the context of computer networks established by women to achieve social mobilization and to maintain a sense of solidarity in a common identity . . . Moreover, if the network emphasizes this common identity, and therefore makes it a relevant dimension of the communications, the goal of solidarity and the development and maintenance of a positive social identity are more likely to be achieved.
This suggests that an electronic fan network is likely to provide a positive experience for those women participating.It is also probable that access to an electronic fan network would have wider implications for the women taking part, and perhaps for the future of computing. Matheson writes that:
Involvement in communication networks would also provide
women with an opportunity to gain basic computer skills. Indeed, such networks
may prove to be critical in linking women together with technology in a
positive, non-threatening and meaningful context . . . this more relevant
exposure might provide women with a chance to acquire critical experience
with computers, and in so doing reduce their susceptibility to the fears
that may reduce their proficiency in other tasks and applications.
Moreover, the enhanced self-awareness experienced by users that may have accentuated women's initial non-motivating, perhaps negative, encounters with computers, may, in this context, accentuate the positive nature of the experience, and hence help to encourage more women to pursue technological careers. This in itself may provide women with not only a greater sense of empowerment, but as well greater power in reality by giving them a "visible" voice in the future of technology.
Indeed, if women's knowledge of computers evolves from their experience of empowerment through communication with other women, rather than through the traditional (masculine) routes of gaming and programming, women may be more likely to encourage a much-needed counter-perspective in the prioritizing of computer applications and norms.
It is arguable whether cyberspace can function as a true
womanspace, defined by Lisa Tuttle as "a place where women can be
alone together, free from male intrusion; any physical space for women
only which fosters the sense of community among women and allows them to
lay the foundations for a new, woman-centred culture".
What is certainly true is that women's space within cyberspace is not affected
by the conventional restrictions discussed above, and that cyberspace already
offers unlimited opportunities to create women-only spaces within it,
including a space for girls' school story fans.
In particular, by offering electronic discussion groups and other "meeting
places" with a common theme and interest, and by offering "membership",
they encourage a greater sense of community than IRL. Spender points out
that: "Setting up women-only networks is one thing; keeping them women-only
is quite another";
but despite this, "increasingly, women are seeing the potential of
the net and are using it to extend their community".
Ultimately, it is the sense of community, of connection,
which may appeal most to women about cyberspace. And as with the fan clubs,
it is keen readers - traditionally regarded as being socially isolated
and insular - who may appreciate this the most. Feminist literary critic
and academic Elaine Showalter has envisaged the combination of the ebook
and the Infobahn as "a paperback-size computer on which you could
call up any book. When it arrives on your screen, you could also have the
option of an online discussion, composed of other readers - a reading club
Spender adds that: "who we are, what we know, and how we think, are
all being changed as we move from a print-based society to a computer-based
world. We are becoming different people; we are creating a new community."
Imagining the Future
As Mireille Rosello points out, the effect of the development of the ebook, and the future of the ebook itself, is dependent on readers today.
It seems to me that whether hypertexts are a threat or a promise depends precisely on how we shape them now. And the forms they will take may very well depend on how we talk about them now, and on who decides to use them for whose benefits. At this point, hypertexts are neither a threat or a promise, because for a good 90 per cent of the population they remain a dream, or a nightmare. For better or for worse, I have inherited the post-Freudian belief, or suspicion, that dreams are not useless. . . . Of course, one does not use the same (discursive) tactics when talking about a dream or a nightmare (be they collective) and when using words as an attempt to solve immediate problems which are clearly identified and obviously require attention. In other words, I don't claim that hypertexts could help the homeless or constitute effective solutions to racist behaviour or inner-city disasters. On the other hand, I blame my lack of imagination, and not hypertext, for the missing link. And I also do not need cataclysmic prophecies to be aware that hypertextual environments could also exist side by side with, or even perpetuate, a system which tolerates such problems.
Male science fiction writers such as William Gibson
have had an enormous impact on the language used in and perceptions of
information technology in the late twentieth century. Gibson's work has
been instrumental in introducing readers to information technology and
in influencing the discourse, far more so than non-fiction writers.
This is because fiction dramatises the information, along with the fears,
hopes and concerns of the society in which it is written, and as well as
being easier to understand, can seem more real and more relevant than non-fiction.
"These are our story-tellers, exploring what it means to be embodied
in high-tech worlds. They are theorists for cyborgs."
In particular, Gibson is credited with inventing the sub-genre of cyberpunk
in 1982 with the publication of Neuromancer, which led the way in
imagining a world, not too far in the distant future, where the use of
advanced information technology has become commonplace. Gibson imagined
a world where the human brain could "interface" directly with
a computer without using a keyboard, and where cyberspace then appeared
as a visual, "virtual" reality. Much of his work is dystopian,
but it has often been misinterpreted in the wider utopian discourse of
The women writing girls' school stories in the first half
of the twentieth century did speculate occasionally on the lives of schoolgirls
in the future,
but did not imagine the developments in information technology which have
subsequently taken place. Since the end of the 1970s, however, women fiction
writers have been increasingly intrigued about how our future will be affected
by scientific developments. This has largely been expressed through the
emergence of feminist science fiction as a genre, with the development
of feminist publishing imprints such as The Women's Press sf in the UK.
The works of two of these authors in particular are pertinent when considering
the future of women - including the fans of girls' school stories - in
cyberspace: Marge Piercy and Suzette Haden Elgin.
In 1978, when Piercy published Woman on the Edge of
Time (The Women's Press sf, London, 1979, first published in the US
in 1978), she imagined two alternative futures, both accessible by her
heroine, the working-class, poorly educated Connie Ramos, who spends most
of the book forcibly and unjustly incarcerated in a state mental institution.
One future is a (threatened) ecological and social utopia where technology
is controlled by the population for the benefit of the population; in the
other, technology is used to control the population, with genetic engineering
used to manipulate the bodies of women and the working classes. At the
end of the book, Connie overcomes her powerlessness to fight for the future
she desires, to the extent of murdering four scientists involved in developing
oppressive technology and thus committing herself to spending the rest
of her life in the institution.
Woman on the Edge of Time has a powerful message:
what happens in the future is largely dependent on our actions in the present.
Perceived powerlessness should not make women apathetic or reluctant to
act; rather it is a reason for making greater efforts. Women in the academy
are better placed than most other women to affect the development of technology,
as well as being best-placed of all women to make use of it. If women do
not fight for access to information technology now and make use of it when
we get that access, then we should not be surprised when we are excluded
from the benefits of information technology in the future. And as in Piercy's
dystopia, this could mean that women lose our past gains to end up with
even less equality than today.
Piercy also reminds us that it is not enough for an elite
to have access to technology. In her utopia, everyone benefits from technological
advances, and contributes according to ability. If this is to happen in
reality, there is a whole "shopping list" of demands: the extension
of literacy, particularly among women in the developing world; free access
to the telephone system; free access to training, including women-only
courses; free access to software and hardware, including women-only spaces;
control over the pricing structure of software and hardware to avoid excessive
profiteering; support for girls and women involved in manufacturing computer
technology - particularly in the developing world - to achieve decent pay
and working conditions; research into the reasons why girls continue to
be effectively excluded from computing at school
and action to change this; the opening up of careers in computing to women
. . . We also need to ensure that women are not excluded because of class,
race, sexuality, disability or age. And given that, so long as women have
lower incomes than men and a lower status within both society and the academy,
their access to cyberspace will never be as great as that enjoyed by men,
traditional feminist concerns remain equally important.
A utopian discourse has, of course, characterised recent
debate about cyberspace, and can be seductive. This discourse has stifled
debate about access and control, and has concentrated attention on the
possibilities of the virtual
world rather than the uncomfortable questions raised above. But it is important
not to lost sight of the possibilities offered by cyberspace, particularly
given women's greater affinity for the written word. One way forward is
to use the Internet/Infobahn to debate the issues, to exchange information
about successful local schemes and to coordinate actions. The Internet/Infobahn
also offers women ways of working collectively and collaboratively, even
across continents. Collective and collaborative work has always been viewed
as a more feminist way of working,
but it is also a way of achieving more, faster. Working together over the
Infobahn is a way of achieving even more, even faster, and that is where
the metaphor becomes more appropriate to women.
It is also necessary to develop computing technology to meet women's needs, and to change misogynistic computing language and working methods. Spender points out that:
When it comes to cyberspace, men have the power. But it
doesn't have to stay this way. And it won't. Not if women are convinced
of the necessity - and the desirability - of becoming involved . . .
Women are needed even at this stage to rewrite the road rules on the superhighway. Computer-competent women are needed to "suss out" this new public place and pass on advice to the next generation.
In particular, there is a need to develop software for and by women, and perhaps a priority should be the development of new computer games. Gaming is overwhelmingly important in introducing boys to computing, and the fact that so few girls use computer games compared to boys is directly linked to the fact that there are so few games available which hold any relevance to their lives or values. As Spender points out:
it's toys for the boys at the moment. They are the ones with the leisure time, the ones who are seen as the market, the ones whom the games-producers are doing their utmost to please. The only problem for women is that it is not a game that we are playing; in more ways than one it is deadly serious. Women, and women's experience, are being excluded.
This is also an area where women can use the Internet/Infobahn
to work collaboratively, to design games and to distribute their games
Previously, feminists have recognised the importance of producing literature
for girls which challenges sexism and promotes feminist values,
and this continues to be important, as the example of girls' school stories
But among boys, gaming is already replacing reading as a leisure activity.
Equally, publishing a printed book requires the interest and financial
commitment of a publisher, while little financial investment and no commercial
support is require to make shareware available (although the time requirement
Women in the academy are already particularly well placed
to work on non-commercial publishing projects, and need to consider how
this work could be extended or even replaced by electronic publishing projects.
It is also important to ensure that in the future every feminist text is
made available on the Infobahn (this process has already begun)
- with new texts published electronically online at the same time that
they are printed - and that hyperlinks are created to facilitate feminist
research. This will involve a fundamental shift in the way in which texts
are legally "owned" and access to them is controlled. But feminists
will also need to raise funds and to establish and manage electronic publishing
projects if the Infobahn's potential is to be realised.
A later book of Piercy's, Body of Glass (Michael Joseph, London, 1992, first published in the US by Middlemarsh in 1991 as He, She and It) is set in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust (probably reflecting the fact that when it was written the Soviet Union was still in existence). Much of the world is controlled by multinational corporations (a common cyberpunk theme); however, alternative communities also exist, and the book follows the story of three generations of Jewish women, Malkah, Riva and Shira, who originate from one of these. Information technology is dominant in this world, and is the main source of income. As with Gibson, humans interface directly with computers by plugging into a socket fitted into their temple, joining the "worldwide Net" from a local base. Here Piercy describes Shira projecting into the Net:
She moved quickly from her own private base into the Y-S base [Y-S is the multinational for which Shira is currently working]. Their logo greeted her, white and black double lightning against sky blue. The Y-S imagery of entering the base was a road sign. She was standing on a crossroads branching in seven directions. Library access. She walked along the narrow white road. Of course she was sitting in her chair, but the projection felt real enough. A person could die in projection, killed by raiders, information pirates who lifted from one base and peddled to another. (p7)
The alternative community where Shira was brought up and
to which she returns early in the story is researching into artificial
intelligence. Part of the story surrounds the development of an illegal
cyborg, an artificial life form programmed to protect the community, and
the effect which the women's feminism has on the eventual outcome of the
project. Artificial or "virtual" reality, including the development
of human/computer interfaces which link directly into the brain, and artificial
intelligence, are the two areas which are currently receiving the most
interest in terms of the future development of information technology.
As Piercy warns, one of the key motives for this is the use of such developments
in military "defence" (it should be remembered that advanced
technology played a key role in Gulf War bombing raids). Meanwhile millions
of pounds are being spent on the development of "virtual sex machines",
while, as Spender demonstrates, pornography is prevalent throughout electronic
War and the replacement of women by machines reflect feminists'
worst nightmares about technology, and it is clear that our ability to
affect these developments is limited. (It is a sad fact that the potential
of Ada Lovelace's pioneering computer work in the nineteenth century was only
realised by the US defence department in the Second World War.)
But we are by no means powerless, as Piercy stresses, and once more the
Internet/Infobahn can be used to exchange information and to develop strategies.
The first step is to encourage more girls and women to enter computing,
where they can have the most direct effect on future developments.
Women coming to computing for the first time should remember that women have a century of keyboarding experience behind us. This has been a gender- rather than class-based experience; beginning when the piano-playing "accomplishment" of middle-class young women made them the first choice to operate the new typewriters in the late nineteenth century; since then, young women of all classes have been directed to secretarial work. It is only now that keyboard skills are seen as the passport to career success rather than the hallmark of low-paid women's work that men are being seen as the natural users of computers. (In fact, if either sex is predisposed to computer literacy, it is not the one which has been opting out of keyboard work ever since typewriters were invented.) Self-styled "cyberfeminist" Sadie Plant writes that:
Cyberspace is the matrix not as absence, void, the whole of the womb, but perhaps even the place of woman's affirmation. This would not be the affirmation of her own patriarchal past, but what she is in a future which has yet to arrive but can nevertheless be felt.
The second step is to decide what future developments
feminists consider to be desirable, and to organise to make them a reality
with the belief that our aims are achievable. This brings us to Suzette
Haden Elgin, and her books Native Tongue (The Women's Press sf,
London, 1985, first published in the US by Daw Books Inc, New York, 1984)
and The Judas Rose (first published in the US by Daw Books Inc,
New York, 1987). Elgin's stories are set in the twenty-third century, where
the gains in equality which women made during the twentieth century have
been lost. Language rather than technology is all-important, because it
offers a means of communicating with and colonising intelligent life on
other worlds. The task of translation and communication falls to one community,
the Linguists, who are regarded with fear and loathing by the rest of society.
According to the copy on the back cover of The Women's Press sf edition
of Native Tongue, this has "handed the so-called 'weaker sex'
a weapon for liberation . . . if they dare to use it". Elgin's women
do dare, by using their specialist skills as linguists to develop a secret
women's language, Láadan, based on women's concepts of life experiences.
(Elgin was perhaps inspired in this by historical examples of women's languages.)
By the second book, The Judas Rose, Láadan has spread rapidly
- far more quickly than its inventors had predicted, who are amazed when
it achieves wide usage within their own lifetime - and the spread of the
language is facilitated by the development of women-only living spaces.
It is a measure of how rapidly technological changes have
taken place since Elgin completed her stories in the mid-1980s that information
technology's role is non-existent in this society. The fictional "prefaces"
to her books are set even further into the future, where women have achieved
a higher status (although we are not told how far they have progressed).
However, while these prefaces refer to the "traditional publishing
media of computer-disc or microfiche" (Native Tongue, p5),
they describe proudly how the books have been "printed and bound in
the ancient manner" (p6). Elgin, as with many feminists,
perceives technology as part of the problem rather than as part of the
solution, but her stories make two very important points. The first warns
women that our hold on even our current position within patriarchal societies
is tenuous, and that gains which have been hard won can be easily lost.
As Spender points out, it is quite possible "that in the next century,
the verdict will be that women were worse off after the electronic revolution
that they were before it, unless drastic changes are made very quickly
to ensure access and equity for women in relation to the electronic medium".
Should this happen, developments in information technology could be used
as a means of oppression rather than liberation.
Elgin's second point is that women's ability to communicate
effectively and to achieve change is limited by our use of language. While
Spender accepts that there is a: "great need to learn English - or
in order to communicate in cyberspace, if we are to be successful in creating
a worldwide "virtual community" of women in cyberspace we should,
perhaps, consider alternatives. As language in cyberspace is largely written
rather than spoken and translation programming is well-advanced, this is
far from being impractical. And to illustrate the continuing convergence
of science fiction with reality, readers should note that Elgin has already
published A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan.
|Dr Ju Gosling aka ju90's ABNORMAL: How Britain became body dysphoric and the key to a cure is available now for just £3.09 for the Kindle or in a limited-edition hardback with full-colour art plates for £20 inc UK postage and packing.|