IV. Readers, Writers & Cyberspace

The linking of personal computers by modem 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.

The Infobahn

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 hard disk, 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 services.

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 in general. 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:


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 and frightening.

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:


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:


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 in cyberspace." 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.


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 "cyberhype".

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:


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:

This is also an area where women can use the Internet/Infobahn to work collaboratively, to design games and to distribute their games as shareware. 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 shows. 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 remains).

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:


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 culture.

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:


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 American!" 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.

Next: Bibliography
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