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Published January 2000Become a subscriber
Every important technological innovation has its utopian phase, which, once past, tends to seem childish and naïve.
H.G. Wells predicted that the telephone would end traffic jams, and among the myriad claims for air travel was that it would bring us closer to God.
Since then, the ante has been upped somewhat, from a secular point of view at least. The first issue of Wired claimed, for the information revolution, ‘social changes so profound their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire’.1
One of the best known and most widely quoted techno-utopians is the American vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore, who said in 1994: ‘The Global Information Infrastructure will circle the globe with information superhighways on which all people can travel. These highways…will allow us to share information, to connect, and to communicate as a global community. From these connections we will derive robust and sustainable economic progress, strong democracies, better solutions to global and local environmental challenges, improved health care, and – ultimately – a greater sense of shared steward-ship of our small planet.’2
It’s fun to be part of a revolution, especially one which appears bloodless, bodiless even, and benign. Indeed, who can lose?
Yet ‘highways’ and ‘superhighways’ are troubling metaphors. Part of a long-established discourse of progress, and wielded by an ambitious vice president, they pack an imperial punch. But when the dust settles, what Gore’s highways destroy may be seen to have been as important as what they are carrying.
Claims for the renewal of democracy, for the abolition of geographical and national boundaries towards humanity’s common goals are closely linked, in Gore’s utopia, with less explicit claims for new frontiers for American business. Others, however, have been quick to make the connections explicit. A 1995 issue of Wired features a double page spread of a highway, and the words, ‘This wide-open road brought to you by new Microsoft Office.’3 The landscape the highway crosses is green, fertile, and otherwise empty.
These pictures, and the hopes they hold out, remain appealing, not only to Americans, but to citizens of small Western democracies like Australia, increasingly disillusioned with the spaces available to them for ‘communication’, for ‘connection’, and for imaginative travelling. As forums for discussion, our public spaces are increasingly experienced as cribbed, confined, and managed. And so the promise of more open, freer spaces on the Internet becomes correspondingly attractive.
In Australia, as we approach the end of the ‘eureka’ phase, the Internet continues to offer a functioning alternative to top-down, few-to-many models, where several giant producers at the top dictate to passive, but unsatisfied consumers at the bottom. This is true not only for the gathering and sharing of information and ideas, but for fantasy play of many kinds, even though much of it may not be ethically praiseworthy, or artistically memorable.
In techno-evangelism, the commercial and colonising aspects of freedom are so linked with personal and social aspects that the latter act as a lure, emotional engine, and disincentive to criticism. The disciples’ voices project a wild, anything-goes enthusiasm which is infectious, and which celebrates personal gratification in a way that makes the 60s counter-culture look ridiculously old-hat. In this atmosphere, it’s difficult to argue the need for any kind of critical reflection, particularly one that seeks to challenge the belief that the single-minded pursuit of commercial imperatives is a nation’s birthright.
It’s no accident that John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Net libertarian philosopher, in his off-line life has been both a Grateful Dead lyricist and Wyoming cattle rancher.
Barlow has written of the opportunities offered by the Internet that ‘Columbus was probably the last person to behold so much usable and unclaimed real estate’.4
References, expressions, metaphors that have been analysed endlessly in other contexts are popping up as though they carried with them no sense of historical responsibility at all. Utopias are by their nature ahistorical, but the Internet is being presented as a landscape ripe for colonising partly because, by a curious set of elisions, it’s possible to imagine that there are no real people out there, no organic matter – just data, bits and bytes.
At the same time, positive moral and cultural values, and the power towards good, are attributed once again to technology, as though technology, of itself, can deliver them. Historically, when such promises have turned out to be empty, the results quite different, instead of remembering this and being wiser next time, we’ve turned to the next set of promises, the next evangelist.
A curious thing about hyperbole, however, is that it nurtures the sceptic in us, even as, with other parts of ourselves, we’d like to be carried along. Mistrust would seem to be as valid a stance as willing belief. Far from being secure or certain, relations between humans and machines are less predictable than ever before. This is as much to do with the peculiar kinds of machines computers are, as with a sense that the technology/progress/power/freedom engine might finally be running out of steam.
Because computers are language-based, their intimate relationship with their creators has been recognised from the start; not only recognised, but placed centre-stage.
Though the balance between text and visual imagery on the Internet is changing in the direction of giving visual images more prominence, up until very recently almost all Net communication has been text-based.
Computers operate according to their own languages, at the same time allowing us, through them, a variety of novel perspectives on our own. It is in the gap, or mismatch, between promises of paradise and lived or recorded temporal experience, that different kinds of exploration have been taking place.
The reaching out after possible freedoms has been a linguistic one partly because it is on behalf of our language that many of us have felt inadequate – embarrassed by the crudeness and banality of the hype, impatient with its deadening effects, searching, often foolishly, sometimes incoherently, for a different weighting, a different set of paradigms.
A word about English – approximately eighty per cent of the Net, both information and messages, is in English, compared to about ten per cent of the world’s population that speaks English as a first or subsequent language.5
Last year, I attended a week-long seminar on the contemporary novel in Salzburg. There were sixty writers, translators and critics from thirty-seven different countries, and one thing we had in common was our dependence on email for connections home.
One lunch-time, Romanian novelist and teacher, Adrian Otoiu, was sitting at the PC next to mine, typing away, when his Irish-American room-mate, Sean O’Hare, came up behind him and announced, ‘Your computer’s gone ballistic.’ It hadn’t, of course. Adrian was writing a letter in Romanian. In that gathering it seemed a telling example of the myopia of those of us whose first language is English.
The Internet began in 1969 with the development of the ARPANET by the United States Department of Defence, linking two computers hundreds of miles apart. Though this network grew steadily, by 1980 few people outside the military and computer science fields had any access to it. In 1985, the National Science Foundation built a national ‘backbone’ network, which replaced the ARPANET and eventually became the Internet.
During the 1980s, English-born Tim Berners-Lee began work in Switzerland on what would become the World Wide Web, developing a coding system, an addressing scheme, and a set of rules that permitted documents to be linked together on computers across the Internet. He developed the first Web browser, and turned a communications system that only a small elite had been using into a mass medium.
Cyberspace, on the other hand, began with a novelist’s dream.
In 1984, seven years before the World Wide Web was launched, American science fiction writer William Gibson published Neuromancer, his prophetic dystopian vision of a world dominated by overwhelmingly powerful computer networks, and the men who run them.
In Gibson’s neologism, ‘cyber’ comes from cybernetics, and is derived from the Greek verb ‘kubernao’, which means ‘to steer’ and which is also the root of ‘to govern’. It suggests both navigation through a space of electronic data, and the control which is achieved by manipulating that data.
Cyberspace, in Gibson’s world, contains the networks of all communication channels and information stores, and they are closely guarded.
‘Space’, on the other hand, is open-ended, and suggests free movement, infinite extension. Cyberspace cannot be defined by physics or geometry. It has no fixed physical co-ordinates in the real world.
An important part of Gibson’s political and social picture is his imagining of the way human beings interact with the supermachines he creates, and with each other through them, in the space he calls a ‘consensual hallucination’.6
What is exciting for me, and I suspect for many like me, is the requirement to negotiate between a number of knowns and unknowns at the same time, a requirement for which Gibson offers his own paradigm, in prose that is often darkly cynical, already parodic.
Much of the language of cyberspace, not just Gibson’s, seems strung out on an axis between opposing desires, for both embodiment and disembodiment. Margaret Wertheim uses that most physically explicit phrase, ‘surfing the net’, as an example.7 We have ‘visiting a site’ and ‘hit’. The body is ‘meat’, or ‘wetware’. Having your persona destroyed in some interactive games is called being ‘gutted’.
It’s as though the urge to give form to an experience difficult to describe at all leads to a grasping at the most physical (either pleasant or nasty), both as metaphor and aspiration. But the aspiration is confused, the wish to hold on to bodies and their sensations as strong as any wish to escape them. So often the metaphor is mixed, confused, as well.
Talking dirty is referred to in some circles as ‘tinysex’. A ‘one-handed typist’ is someone who masturbates while having virtual (words on a screen) sex, in real time, with a partner who, off-line, may be just about anyone.
One of the most curious expressions is ‘impregnated with a virus’ – the computer as a woman and virus as demonic sperm? The word ‘virus’ itself, in this context, is an attempt to locate an event or a process that is decidedly non-physical within some immediately recognisable, if muddled, physical experience.
Gibson expresses repeatedly the dual wish to leave the body behind when travelling in cyberspace, and to take it along for the ride.
Near the start of Neuromancer, we are told that his protagonist, Case, has been operating ‘on an almost permanent adrenaline high, a product of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix’.
A little further along in the novel we discover, predictably enough, that Case would like to have it both ways, ‘his orgasm flaring blue in a timeless space’.8
The will towards transcendence over the body’s limitations, and the contradictions it entails, are familiar enough in other contexts. What entices me in Gibson’s narrative is not the often undercut longing for union with the void, but its moments of imaginative intensity.
The desire is always twofold – for the physical experience, exaggerated, pure, as though the computer as material object dissolves, is no barrier at all. And for the power the technology gives, without which the experience would be inconceivable. The desires, and indeed the way of life which Gibson expresses and foretells, are both utopian and dystopian, and this is what gives his images their bite.
What about the dream of transcendence specifically for women, for whom bodily anchoring has so often been a means to disenfranchisement? So much has been assumed because of our biology that, even in cyberspace, it can be felt as a dead weight.
Why not travel without it? There are obvious practical advantages. As Margaret Wertheim puts it, ‘there’s no such thing as a bad hair day in cyberspace.’9
Anonymity means that women can pretend to be men, and vice versa, and of any shape, size, age or colour. To enter into Net role-play is at once liberating and confusing. Not only physical markers but those to do with status, background and so on, are up for grabs.
My children find it immensely entertaining, often gathering with four or five of our neighbours, in my son’s room, for chat sessions. They collectively create a persona, usually one as wacky as they can dream up on the spot, then send this persona into a chat room and have a great time making up conversations for her/him. These gatherings arise because our neighbours don’t have Internet access at home. To date, the most enthusiastic participant, who often stays on-line after the others have got sick of it and wandered off, is a twelve-year old Aboriginal girl from across the road.
The crucial thing about Internet role-play is that it is both anonymous, (in the sense that players reveal only as much as they choose to reveal through textual descriptions), and public. No matter how small your audience might be, playing to this audience is still an essentially different experience from creating a private fantasy. You move from the privacy of your imagination to a public arena with your persona, your character, who then interacts with others. Maybe the interaction is exhilarating, frightening, maybe just a laugh. You build on it, or try a different tack next time. Participation creates unforeseen possibilities, blurs distinctions, is unpredictable.
It can be extraordinarily disconcerting, and difficult to sustain, even (or especially?) for someone like me, who has been writing fiction for twenty years, and is used to spending long stretches of time (both narrative time and thinking time), inside a variety of male characters.
MUDs, originally Multi User Dungeons, are interactive games played in real time. Each new player creates his or her own character. There are a huge variety of MUDs, some very similar to other kinds of computer games, involving a lot of killing and moving up levels one by one, some a lot more socially oriented than others, with many characters gathering in the same room for conversation.
Speed and wit are essential. I haven’t been playing long enough to become proficient, but enough to get an idea of what goes on.
On one level, transience is built in and assumed. Theatrical action and dialogue aren’t meant to last, and the experience of interactivity can often be creaking and unsubtle compared with that involved in reading a good novel, or poem. But it won’t necessarily always be this way.
Surrounding the performance are all sorts of relationships that are meant to last, and do, if you can believe the players and ex-players who write about it on their home pages, and in their voluminous correspondence. Thus the MUD marriage, MUD family and so on, strong friendships based around the experience of on-going, ephemeral, ad hoc yet substantial, shared imaginative space.
So what’s so special and different about all this? I know it’s teaching me something about drama and dialogue, and thinking on my feet. I find it exciting, though the excitement might turn out to be that of a passing flirtation – passing, that is, compared to my long-term, love/hate relationship with the novel.
At present I’m mostly involved in exploring the potential of MUDs in more traditional fictional terms, seeing how they (or my imaginary one) might sit in a novel. I’m writing a computer crime series, and in the second book a young man, reputedly addicted to a Northern Irish MUD, comes to a bad end. It’s interesting to play around with the tensions between the relatively tight formal constraints of a crime novel, in terms of plot, the expectation of narrative resolution and so on, and the much less predictable form of the MUD.
Embedded in the ambivalences associated with role-playing and self-expression on the Net are special ambivalences, particular difficulties for women.
A well-known case of sustained gender deception involved Joan, ‘a neuropsychologist in her late twenties, living in New York, who had been disfigured, crippled and left mute by an automobile accident at the hands of a drunken driver’. According to many of those who met her on Compuserve, Joan had ‘a kind of on-line charisma’. She ‘connected with people in a special way, achieved intimacy rapidly, and gave much valuable advice and support to many others, especially disabled women’.10
Joan was eventually unmasked as Alex, a male psychiatrist who had become ‘obsessed with his own experiments in being treated as a female and participating in female friendships’.
This unmasking is remembered and portrayed by many who knew ‘Joan’, as a loss of innocence, a kind of Fall.
Some MUD players use female personae ‘just for the fun of deceiving others, some going so far as to try and entice male-presenting players into sexually explicit discussions and interactions. This is such a widely-noticed phenomenon, in fact, that one is advised by the common wisdom to assume that any flirtatious female-presenting players are, in real life, males’.11
If verbal play spaces can seem pretty crowded with men masquerading as women, and pictorial play spaces deluged with – what was it at the last count? one hundred and forty thousand images of Pamela Anderson – what room is there for actual women, not Pamela Anderson, and ambivalent about admitting it?
Women, once identified as women, can come in for such an array of misogynist beatings that it gives pause for thought.
Stephanie Brail was subjected, at one stage, to sustained on-line harassment, including detailed email descriptions of gang rape, and direct threats by an email stalker who claimed to have found out where she lived. She writes about it in retrospect: ‘The Internet is the Wild Wild West…It’s easy to romanticise these pioneer days…I believe that on-line harassment is, to some extent, already killing free speech on the Internet.’12
What can women with a strong desire to participate do? Age is important here as well. How can a middle-aged woman like myself expect a hearing in a cluster of Net sub-cultures that, like nearly all our others, pays homage to the young? Isn’t it smarter to present as almost anybody else?
Women are faced with a double bind. On the one hand, anonymous fantasy play and pleasure and communication, on the other the suspicion that, if we remain anonymous, something important to our bid for participation might be left behind.
The elision may end up being not only out of the body, (while paradoxically wishing to retain or enhance the body’s pleasures), but out of the responsibilites and forms of restraint that have been worked out over time in the material, social, and commercial worlds we all inhabit.
Although I’m intrigued by the games, I’m just as, if not more, interested in the possibility of women participating in sufficient numbers and sufficiently varied forms to counter female stereotypes, at least the most monolithic ones.
The power struggles that matter in cyberspace, as in any other of our public spaces, involve actual men, women and children, and are going to have to be faced and worked out at some time. Though it is just as clear that gender relations, and all other kinds of power relations, including those with and between children, will continue to shift and change.
There is no safe place to play in cyberspace. Nor does there need to be, necessarily. What there does need to continue to be, in my view, are places where individuals or groups can try their creative luck, then send their product out to try its luck along the wires, not overwhelmingly pre-packaged, already fixed and wriggling on a pin.
Succeeding generations forget how quickly small players get knocked out of the game, forget, for instance, that American car manufacturing wasn’t always Ford and General Motors, that, in the euphoric early days, amateur mechanics got busy and built their own prototypes, in their own backyards; or that, in the early days of computer hardware manufacture, a whole thirty years ago, exactly the same thing was happening.
In the field of communications technology, people forget the claims made for cable television in the 1970s for instance, how it was to be many-to-many.
Mark Surman recalls a vision of ‘two-way, switched common carrier information networks on which anyone could say their piece’, and of people with ‘very specific ideas about how to build community on the wires’.13
Instead, cable has turned out to be just as one-way as its predecessors.
So far as companies competing for a share of Internet markets are concerned, we are currently witnessing the transformation from an entrepreneurial industry including many small players and allowing for, indeed often relying on, influences and innovations from the bottom up, to just another replication of corporate oligarchy. The battles between Microsoft and its rivals provide fascinating insights into this process, and indeed allow for some hope that its outcome might not be inevitable.
One important aspect of the conflict can be summed up as that between closed and open philosophies of software development, between the development and marketing methods epitomised by Microsoft, and the Open Source Software movement, or, to use Eric Raymond’s phrase, ‘the cathedral and the bazaar’.14
Open Source means that any programmers, anywhere in the world, can work on a project, following a method Raymond calls creative anarchy. And they have, with Netscape, Apache, and the operating system Linux.
They’ve done it for the prestige and the intellectual challenge, and because they believe that it gives a better product in the end, one that can challenge Bill Gates’s empire, at least in a situation where this empire’s monopolising tendencies are held in check.
In January 1998, Netscape made the decision to publish the source code for Netscape Communicator 5.0, and to make its Standard Edition 4.0 products free for all users.
In November 1998 the Halloween Documents were published, leaked internal memos detailing Microsoft’s plans for a dirty tricks campaign against Linux and other Open Source projects.
But in March 1999, Linux had its first trade show, and a few months later, Microsoft claimed that Linux was outselling Windows 98 at major software retail outlets.
The US Department of Justice vs Microsoft trial finished at the end of June. At the time of writing this, judgment has not yet been handed down, but many people believe the eight-month long anti-trust trial ‘has already helped reshape the technology industry’.
‘One of the standing rules…that you don’t do anything to upset Microsoft, is being removed.’
In one example, Compaq Computer Corp and Dell Computer Corp, ‘which have long sold only personal computers equipped with Windows operating system, have decided to offer machines running Linux’.15
The commercial colonisation of cyberspace and its exploration by individuals seeking opportunities for freer forms of expression and imaginative play have been proceeding in tandem. Indeed the two have been mutually dependent. As the winners of corporate battles shape the Internet to suit their own ends, so it will change for all of us.
Mark Surman’s phrase for what’s been happening is ‘a revolution of openings and cracks’, by which he means that there are enough ‘openings and cracks’ for ordinary people to insert their visions of what Net communication can and might be.16 He stresses the importance of understanding the technological revolutions of the past in order not to forfeit the opportunities for genuine participation our current one still offers.
1 Wired 1.1, p.10.
2 Quoted in Alinta Thornton, Does Internet Create Democracy, Thesis, University of Technology Sydney, 1996, http://www.wr.com.au/democracy/thesi1_2.html, p.3.
3 Wired 3.10, pp.6-7.
4 John Perry Barlow, Being in Nothingness, Virtual Reality and the Pioneers of Cyberspace http://www.eff.org/pub/Publications/John_Perry_Barlow/HTML/being_in_nothingness.html, p.2.
5 Thornton, p.1.
6 William Gibson, Neuromancer (HarperCollins, 1995), p.12
7 Margaret Wertheim, The Pearly Gates Of Cyberspace (Doubleday, 1999), p.260.
8 Gibson, p.11-12,45.
9 Wertheim, p.25.
10 Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community (Minerva, 1994), p.165.
11 Rheingold, p.166.
12 Stephanie Brail, ‘The Price of Admission: Harassment and Free Speech in the Wild, Wild West’, in Wired Women, Gender And New Realities In Cyberspace, ed. Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise (Seal Press, 1996), p.148.
13 Mark Surman, Wired Words: Utopia, Revolution and the history of Electronic Highways http://www.isoc.org/isoc/whatis/conferences/inet96/proceedings/e2/e2_html p.2.
14 Eric Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, http://www.tuxedo.org/esr/
15 Rajiv Chandraskaran, ‘Changed Microsoft, Rivals Await Ruling’, Washington Post, 25 June 1999.
16 Surman, p.2.