Log on or drop out: Women in a wired world
Canberra, 5 March 1998
Musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson has said that "technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories". On the eve of another millennium, it definitely feels that way. We may never physically visit many places around the world but you can bet there is a wire that can connect us to the people living there.
Like many people working in the media, I spend many hours every week in front of a computer screen. But the fact is I'm not always working on stories for HQ - there are traces of all aspects of my life on my hard discs. My computer desktop has become a place where I receive all sorts of news from friends. Recently, several of them, instead of making a personal call, sent group emails announcing the birth of their babies. One friend even put out a "baby bulletin" for a while, so emails would arrive letting us all know how his daughter, who spent some time in intensive care, was coming along. Another friend sent me an email about the death of punk feminist writer Kathy Acker. It included links to Web sites featuring tributes to Acker, with details about memorial services that her friends had planned in various cities.
It made me realise how much some of us now rely on the Internet to keep in touch with other like-minded souls. Cyberspace, or whatever you want to call that network of infinite digital connections, has become another place where we can communicate directly, where we can celebrate life and mourn the dead. Ignore the stereotype of the nerdy kid who spends all of his time online and has no human contact. The integration of computer technology into our daily lives has created the potential to build a new kind of politics.
Most people have an opinion about technology. In fact, the twentieth century has seen a constant battle between the sceptics, fearful of big brother and technological insensitivity, and the enthusiasts, for whom most problems could be resolved by the application of new technologies.
While radical groups have generally resisted big technology, cyberspace was, from the outset, heralded as a means for establishing direct links between people, free of the institutionalised - mediated if you like - frameworks on which the modern world has relied for its sense of community.
There's reason to be sceptical about this. Mention home computers and the image that mostly comes to mind is not one of radical activity. More likely it's an image of spotty boys in their bedrooms, glued to the screen, their time divided between virtual warfare and interactive porn. The forthcoming shift of the Internet to the TV screen suggests that for women the Net will mostly offer the dreary isolation of home shopping.
So what do we do in response? Unplug everything in the house then have a Bex and a good lie down? I don't think so. Just as you don't buy everything in the newsagent, you won't want everything on the Net. Feminism won't necessarily be any less marginal in the new media than it is in the old. But rather than wait to see if cyberspace turns into something that we like, we should, like the boys, attempt, through our use of the technology, to shape the media structures of the future.
I've called this talk Log On or Drop Out: Women in A Wired World. Some of you, especially those who have had problems getting those pesky computers to behave, may often fantasise about dropping out, moving to an idyllic island with no cables, no "help lines", and no indecipherable manuals. That's fine. But I would like to think that women were in a position to make an educated choice about whether to log on or drop out. And, remember, though we can talk about new and old media, they can't be so neatly divided. The foreseeable future is a combination of print and digital media. (There is a print version and an online version of HQ with different content for each medium.) Avoiding digital media may come to mean dropping out of engagement with any media. That's a risky proposition for anyone advocating social change, including feminists.
I've spent most of my working life thinking about ways in which technology and media can be used constructively. Tonight I'd like to share some of these thoughts with you. It will be a meandering kind of journey through print and online media with two main sign posts:
- First: technology is a tool. It gives us access to cyberspace, a new territory for women to explore. It offers a further opportunity to exchange ideas and to develop new ones.
- Second: technology is cool. At least many young women who spend time online think it is. So if we want to foster and encourage feminist practice, if we want the next generation to be actively involved in the various strands of feminism, then we will need to use technology to reach them. The Internet is already used by many engaged and active women who are in an excellent position to stimulate strategies and theories for contemporary feminism.
So technology is not just a means to deliver feminism, it's also something that may change our ideas about what feminism is.
Participation has always been central to feminism. This is not always conveyed in the media: it's easy to imagine that feminism is represented by the professional feminist, the celebrity feminist and the academic feminist. And these women are usually portrayed at loggerheads.
In 1995, when I started working on my book DIY Feminism, I found that young women's ambivalence towards feminism was partly a reaction to the professionalisation of the field. Yet their activism emerged when they detailed how they dealt with particular situations every day. They were committed to redefining feminism in their own ways - building on women's past achievements while developing a contemporary style and attitude and, at times, different organisational frameworks. Their main concern was getting the right result; it didn't matter whether or not it was backed up by a theoretical or party political platform.
I wanted to find out about "everyday" feminism. To illustrate this, I encouraged the contributors to write about their personal experiences as mothers, daughters, writers, artists, rock musicians, lawyers, teachers, Web site creators, students, politicians and TV hosts. I summed up their attitude as do-it-yourself or DIY. Each contributor had a slightly different view of feminism depending on their racial and economic background and each preferred to qualify its meaning individually.
Basically, this collection of stories was my attempt to present feminism in a form that young women would relate to.
If that sounds a bit like marketing, that's okay. Because for years the image of the feminist as someone who is angry and uninspired has dominated the media. I know this isn't a recent problem as Eva Cox told me about wearing a seventies T-shirt printed with the words "I'm a humourless feminist". People took it seriously!
Things have changed a little since then, although in the media we can now find an equally skewed image of the young feminist. She's apparently someone who shops. Actually that's misleading. She puts on lipstick, then she shops. The media loves simple catchy themes even if it's necessary to fudge the details to get them. It happens to men too. You might remember last year's "New Lad", a British label that didn't ever really look like fitting Australian men.
The Spice Girls' feminist credentials might be pretty thin but I think we can spend too much time on that sort of debate. Girls will grow out of the Spice phenomena, and their experiences might make them look for a more realistic feminism.
Feminists would be better off developing a more sophisticated way of dealing with the world of infotainment than simple rejection. One of my favourite zines rates women's magazines by the percentage that is worth reading. The Spice Girls have shown that feminism is marketable, even though their brand of it is a feminism we may not like. If we could just borrow that part of their act that enthuses young women about power maybe we'd have something useful.
Twentysomethings and teenagers (or screenagers as author Douglas Rushkoff describes this group) have grown up using computer technology and they simply expect that it will be an integral part of their lives - in the workplace, at home, in pubs and clubs. They are used to our fast-forward culture and are familiar with the numerous ways to transmit ideas: email, computer conferencing systems, faxes, satellite television, radio and good old print media. Screenagers were born into a world of media saturation and information overload.
So, in this chaotic environment, how can we now ensure that the messages that matter to us get through? How can we sift through the data and get what we need? How can we thrive in this fluid and hybrid techno culture? Anyone with a political agenda has to figure out how to take advantage of the powerful communications infrastructure that has developed over the past few decades.
Consider this contrast between two of my heroines, two women with impressive political agendas: Catherine Helen Spence and Misha Schubert. I wrote my honours thesis on Miss Spence because she was the first female political candidate in Australia's history. The rugged colonial writer ran unsuccessfully for the 1897 People's Convention to draft the Australian Constitution, despite being endorsed by a liberal group as the "best man of the lot". There were few tools and avenues available to those wayward women like Spence who wanted to participate in the political process.
Spence was, of course, very good with that old-style technology - a pen and paper. Indeed she used to write utopian novels in which she espoused her political views often to the detriment of the plot. So in Handfasted, a classic romance set in an Arcadian community, she details her policies on childcare in between swoons and marriage arrangements. No wonder the publishers rejected it - they sold fantasy not manifestos.
Last year, when I met up with Misha Schubert, one of the stars at this year's Constitutional Convention, to chat about her plans for the Republic4U youth ticket, she had much more than a pen and paper in her toolkit. She was planning a multi-media campaign using whatever resources and technology she could access - this was true girl power in action. I was interested in what she was doing because it seemed to typify the DIY feminist style that I identified in my book. (Ask for contact details and Misha, who contributed to the book, will of course give you a mobile phone number, a fax number and an email address.)
The Republic4U campaign started when Misha and half a dozen friends met in a loungeroom in Fitzroy in Melbourne to talk about how to get younger Australians involved in the debate about constitutional change and the republic. They did focus groups to understand precisely how to reach the right people, they started mailing lists (snail mail and email), they designed T-shirts with chest graffiti (women's and men's sizes), they handed out electoral enrolment forms, they wrote leaflets and email bulletins, and they developed strategies to get media coverage.
One of the group, Melissa Yuan, who is also a board member of the YWCA, told the Women's Constitutional Convention:
For a bunch of twentysomethings, this was the first time in our lifetime that the community was being invited to be involved in a mainstream, non-partisan debate on Australia's future. In generational terms, this could be a Vietnam moratorium style issue that galvanises, politicises, and trains a generation of young Australians about political life.
She spoke in detail about the process of electing delegates and how to achieve political change from a grass-roots level. Her paper, which can be read at the Women's Constitutional Convention Web site, is a practical and encouraging guide for activists, especially those who do not belong to mainstream political parties and organisations. Melissa also mentioned that her group had - surprise, surprise - been tagged the Spice Girls, by other Republic groups. "But," she said, "like the Spice Girls, we've propagated a DIY approach to feminism."
When Misha Schubert addressed the Women's Constitutional Convention, she emphasised:
To get good women elected we need to build electoral machines. We need our own pollsters, spin doctors, message testers, media gurus, fundraisers, letterboxers, doorknockers, function organisers, web designers and donors.
This is spot on. But how often do you hear older politicians give such a snappy analysis? Most of them wouldn't have a clue even how to brief a Web designer. Misha's generation, however, seems to have an innate understanding of how to use the media and technology to make a political impact.
Whenever I turned on the radio or opened a newspaper during the Con Con, Misha was making an appearance (along with several of the other younger delegates which was great to see). Once her profile was established in the media, there was a ripple effect and she was everywhere. Misha and her group generated this coverage themselves, without the support of a party PR machine.
Computer networks are making it possible for smaller groups of people outside institutional structures to network and be effective. On the Internet you can find people expressing their opinions, participating in debates and fighting for their political beliefs. Paradoxically, on this global network, we are witnessing the rise of community action groups. People are creating alliances online, putting themselves in a stronger position to challenge governments and businesses.
Of course I realise that not everyone has access to the Internet - it's still populated mainly by students, academics and professionals. But it is gradually becoming a more egalitarian medium. And women are now using the Net in many different ways to advance their interests.
Here are a few examples:
At the most basic level, email is an easy way to communicate one-to-one. Recently I received an email from a student wanting some comments for a project. "Hi, my name is Catherine," she wrote. "I'm in year 12. For Society and Culture I have to do a PIP (personal interest project) and I'm currently tossing around the idea of basing it on the Spice Girls and their impact on feminism...." (See, she's on to it.) Somehow hierarchies break down on the Internet so requests like this go directly into my computer's mailbox. For teenage girls, the online world is already beginning to supersede the telephone - the stereotypical image of girls chatting for hours on the phone may be replaced by one of girls tapping on keyboards and jamming the line.
Electronic mailing lists have become a powerful political tool. You simply have to subscribe by email to a particular list and then you can post and receive messages from other members of the list. It is a fast, cheap and efficient way to communicate and a little easier than arranging regular meetings in the local hall. It encourages a continuous exchange of ideas and, if you find the right lists, informed debate on specific subjects. That doesn't mean you don't have to meet "in real life" but a lot of work can be done on a campaign before everyone gets together.
Some of you will be familiar with the Australian Feminist Policy Network. It's better known as ausfem polnet, an email-based network of Australian women which is coordinated by Elizabeth Shannon at the University of Tasmania.
Over the past few weeks, many women have been posting comments about the abortion case in Western Australia. I was able to read Cheryl Davenport's letter to supporters about her Abortion Law Reform Bill. Other women corrected errors that had been made in newspaper reports and on radio, supplying a kind of meta-commentary on current events that related to women. For example, a volunteer worker from Children By Choice, a counselling service in Queensland, wrote to express her concern about the amount of misinformation on abortion services in her state. She'd been listening to talkback on Triple J. One of the callers said she travelled interstate to get an abortion because she was unsure of the legal situation in her home state Queensland. The counsellor posted accurate information at ausfem polnet, as well as details about Children By Choice and its Web site.
These lists basically function like general noticeboards. You can find details about women's festivals and events, such as the International Women's Development Agency talk by Tran Thi Lanh last night in Canberra, with contact names and numbers if you want to get involved. Ausfem polnet has over 450 individual and group members so it's a direct and constructive way for activists, practitioners and scholars to communicate and work towards their shared goal - equality for women.
Electronic petitions are a new phenomenon. For those of us fortunate enough to live in democratic countries, they offer tremendous potential. It's cheap to do and it's easy to participate: sign up at a Web site or through a mailing list. For example, there are several Web sites where you can endorse statements on reconciliation and coexistence.
Last year over 5,000 people signed a petition that was submitted to the Senate regarding Parliament's response to the High Court's Wik decision - it was the first electronic petition to be accepted by the Australian Senate. The names of the signatories can be read on the Net along with comments, which makes this significant document even more powerful.
A similar site was set up by Anthony Shipley, who wanted to give people the opportunity to apologise to the stolen generation - "those of our fellow citizens who were separated from their families as a direct result of government policy". Last time I looked at it, 6054 people had signed the statement. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald (Icon, 21/2/98) Shipley said: "As an individual, it would be impossible to create an effective paper petition without creating an organisation or getting the support of the churches or political parties, all of which have their own agendas and come with their own baggage."
This is a good example of how computers can be used to kickstart a campaign. It's also another example of DIY activism. As I've argued many times since the publication of the book, DIY does not mean "Do It Only For Yourself". DIY does not negate the need for collective action. Small contributions need to feed into other larger campaigns. As disenchantment with the two-party system grows, these off-the-cuff interventions are going to become a more important part of contemporary politics. And that will open up opportunities for women if they're logged on and ready to go.
There are many other less overtly political Web sites for women, which I scan regularly because they offer information and ideas that are difficult to find elsewhere in the media.
Rosie Cross stopped producing her hard copy version of geekgirl because she couldn't afford the production costs. Her ezine, which is fun, feminist and funky to look at, is booming. Each visit is an adventure. Geekgirl has encouraged many young women to find out about computers and join the digital revolution. Geekgirl could be seen as a marginal activity in terms of mainstream media but this site, with its demands for social justice and a good time, gives an indication of the potential of this medium.
SpoiltMilk is another futuristic feminist site. It's a lifestyle zine in the broadest sense so it offers tech tips as well as fashion tips. Ever wondered about the connection between feminism and hacking? Peta Mayer argues that they make excellent bedfellows. "Patriarchy creates firewalls around women's information and experiences," she says. "This is where the Net is positive for women because it allows them to get information out and express it in fresh ways."
There is plenty of evidence of collaboration among Web site creators: most of the good ones will give you their recommendations of where else to go on the Net. For example, at the Sydney Women's Festival go girl site, you can leap off into many women's sites, including WomenzNet, gURL, Women's Wire, NrrdGrrl, National Women's Justice Coalition, LandcareWeb (for Women in Agriculture) and The CyberMom DotCom. (When I called in to this one, they were running a poll on whether Hillary Clinton should stand by her man!)
Women who have created their own sites often talk about it as an adventure. Adriana Deri told geekgirl:
It has taken me out of the kitchen, where I used to cook three square meals a day for my family, back in to the computer chair. I've thrown in the tea towel and now I sit and create an online site which is filled with fun and entertainment.
At one site, recently, I read about plans for a Women's World Web Day, which could result in a cohesive statement about what women around the world have to say about their position at the end of the twentieth century. I don't think Germaine Greer was thinking that ambitiously when she proposed a worldwide dating dossier on the Internet where women can check out the possibilities and dob in the bad boys. Greer wrote:
You go out with someone, and he does x, y z, things that are insensitive or pathetic. If he doesn't call you ever again, and that's his pattern. . . . Put it on the net.
Maybe Germaine should call it he/said/she/said.com. Otherwise it doesn't seem a particularly cool way to use technology.
Few Web sites are commercially successful - nobody has really figured out how to make money out of them. Yet, compared to other forms of media, getting a space on the Net is affordable. It's where women who couldn't get regular commentary spots in the media and in established political forums have set up shop. They were forced to open up new territory because the gates to traditional media and to the main political parties were closed. Some were wary of following a leader or a party platform so new media, which encourages discussion and participation whatever your status, seemed all the more attractive. In the online world, you frequently encounter an adventurous, uncensoring spirit, one that rarely surfaces in the mainstream media.
There was plenty of evidence of this political and cultural shift during the national youth arts festival LOUD in January. LOUD copped some criticism from youth workers for catering mainly to an educated white middle-class group, who did seem to be the first to jump in. Yet the model - a media based festival - has the potential to reach a more diverse audience. I was impressed with the Web site created by nine techno-gurus - seven of whom were women - from around the country. I was interviewed by one of them though it was all done by email - we never actually met. The Web site was entertaining to look at and the content was smart. The confidence of the creative team came across loud and clear - this was their medium, they had the tools and they knew how to use them better than anyone with years of experience in other kinds of media. There was little evidence of any timidity about the digital frontier. The LOUD Web site showed how technology can promote a sense of community.
When DIY Feminism was published some critics were puzzled, even annoyed, with the book's emphasis on the role of computer technology. Did they think I was trying to promote modems as a fashion accessory? None of the political and tech savvy women I knew had their modems packed away in boxes - they were publishing their views on personal, political and other current issues. It seemed clear to me then that anyone concerned with future directions for feminism had to be thinking about what wired women could contribute.
Jon Katz has documented the rise of what he calls the Digital Nation in his columns for Wired. Last December this American magazine published the results of an in-depth poll on Americans' views on technology and society. They developed a profile of a politically important demographic group: the Digital Citizen.
The survey showed, as Jon Katz commented, that:
Almost all conventional wisdom about digital culture - especially as conveyed in recent years by journalists, politicians, intellectuals and other fearful guardians of the existing order - is dead wrong. The Internet, it turns out, is not a breeding ground for disconnection, fragmentation, paranoia and apathy.
Digital Citizens are not alienated, either from other people or from civic institutions. Nor are they ignorant of our system's inner workings, or indifferent to the social and political issues our society must confront. Instead, the online world encompasses many of the most informed and participatory citizens we have ever had or are likely to have. (Wired, December 1997)
This is a trend that feminists can't afford to ignore. If women are connected then at least we will have a say in how the Internet develops. We have made a reasonable start. According to the Wired survey, the gender gap has largely closed: connected Americans are 52 per cent male and 48 per cent female.
I acknowledge that it does require effort to log on: there are economic barriers and frustrating technical difficulties even when you have the right gear, not to mention the jargon and technobabble that has to be interpreted. There are also valid questions to ask about the technology that we are using: Who is controlling communications technology? Whose interests are being served?
Though let's think about technology in these terms as well: acquiring computer skills and venturing into the online world is a key decision to make not simply as a consumer but as a citizen.
I find that when it comes to computers and technology, people often end up talking in absolutes. There's no point sitting around waiting for an all-encompassing theory to explain what's going on. My attitude has always been, Get out there and do it.
One thing that has been reinforced to me in my years working as a journalist and editor is how much the media loves a spectacle. As a feminist I think about how to make the most of this rather than complaining about how feminism is marginalised in a predominantly tabloid culture.
Activist women have to be able to operate in a culture where information and entertainment blend together, where politics is often reduced to a sideshow. They need to know how to channel good information to the right people. If you are trying to get something into traditional media like newspapers or television, you need to work with its love of diversion and conflict. Journalists won't do your promotion for you but they are after a good story.
Early last year I wrote a column in the Australian about a favourite subject of mine - the words we use to describe the female genital area. I argued that we needed to expand our vocabulary because most of the words that are used are either clinically anatomical, crudely contemptuous or embarrassingly euphemistic. Germaine Greer first wrote about this issue in 1970 and we still don't feel confident about describing this part of our bodies. Of course the newspaper wouldn't print the word "cunt" - it appeared with dashes between the "c" and the "t".
I was contacted by the three women - Maude Davey, Liz Baulch and Deb Strutt - who had just completed a witty and entertaining short film called My Cunt. It screened on SBS last month. However managers at the ABC refused to broadcast an Arts Today forum in which the film was discussed because they were concerned about some of the language. When the film makers were interviewed on Triple J they still couldn't mention the title of the film. By this stage, of course, other commentators had taken up the issue. As the film-makers said to me, "One of the most unexpected things about this film is the fact that it has developed a life of its own and consequently generates far more publicity than we could ever initiate." Old media will be with us for a while yet and, as this incident shows, its need to feed can sometimes be turned to advantage.
At the time of my column, I received a lot of correspondence from people who agreed with the strategy of reclaiming derogatory and maligned words, which gives us a huge range to choose from. But the discussion didn't stop there. Geekgirl featured the column and I've since received by email suggestions from around the world. I'm still using the word "split". And the little girl whose mother first raised the issue with me is still using the term "my bit".
The shape our future takes will be determined by the small moves that women make now. Technology can help women make an impact in political and cultural arenas. Old and new media can be used to shift rigid political agendas and initiate change - even when it comes to hardcore feminist issues such as reproductive rights, equal pay and child care.
On International Women's Day we remember a public demonstration by female members of the International Garment Workers' Union in New York in 1908. It's a day for taking action and making demands.
Ninety years later, women fighting for political change need to be savvy about media and technology. Don't leave it up to the geeks. We should all be starting serious conversations about the tools we need to improve the lives of women in a wired world.