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women@internet: Creating New Cultures in Cyberspace

Editor: Wendy Harcourt
Publisher: London: Zed Books, 1999
Review Published: March 2001

 REVIEW 1: KalÝ Tal
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Wendy Harcourt

women@internet is unique among cyberculture texts, offering us a look at the ways in which feminists working within non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are using the Internet to connect Third World and rural women with each other and with outside resources. As they bring women on-line, these NGOs hope to promote social justice, and develop new methods of networking for the purpose of achieving political change. The authors of women@internet are likely not familiar to many who think of themselves as cyberculture critics. Nor do the writers drop many of the famous names we've come to expect in association with feminist studies of Net cultures. A glance at the volume's bibliography reveals mainly titles in anthropology, sustainable development and human ecology. Perhaps the focus on real-world applications of theory is what makes women@internet so relevant, interesting and fresh. In this essay I will discuss the strengths of the volume, as well as critiquing its faults.

The authors are all associated with Women on the Net (WoN), set up by the Society for International Development (SID), with UNESCO funding. WoN has several aims. The first is empowering Third World women and women from marginalized groups by encouraging them to "use technology as a political tool." The second is to bring women into a developing Internet culture so that they can influence and build that culture by contributing their local perspective and by interacting on a global level. Third, WoN seeks to create a network of women in many types of institutions who will create a new agenda for the international women's movement that will both shape and react to the telecommunications industry. Fourth, and finally, the organization wishes to build a community resource which will be useful to women's groups, providing technical and moral support and access to "analysis, knowledge, and skills in navigating the Internet (Harcourt, 1).

The question at the heart of the book, and running as a thread through almost all the essays, is whether there exists or could exist a distinctly feminist cyberculture. Arturo Escobar, an anthropologist and political ecologist and one of the few male contributors to women@internet, explains that:

    . . . in feminist cybercultural politics, women struggle simultaneously against the control of cyberculture by male-dominant groups and against the restructuring of the world by the same technologies they seek to appropriate. To the extent that women's cybercultural politics is linked to the defense of place, it is possible to suggest that it becomes a manifestation of feminist political ecology. This political ecology would similarly look at gendered knowledge; gendered rights and responsibilities concerning information and technology, and gendered organizations. It would examine, in short, the gendering of technoscience and cyberspace" (48).

A feature of feminist cyberculture, then, is the tension between resistance and appropriation, which is played out in this volume primarily as a contest between local and global interests. Contributors seek a synthesis which is described, in Arif Dirlik's terms, as "glocal":
    . . . 'glocal' is a first approximation that suggests equal attention to the localization of the global and the globalization of the local . . . (15).

    The book suggests that the women and men writing here are seeking not to be trapped in the excitement and hype around the cyberworld but are trying to map out virtual reality as closely as possible to their place-based politics. And in this resides some sort of identity in cyberculture (223).

Glocalization is impossible unless the importance of the local and the global are given equal weight. The notion of "place" is central, and it is in the tension and dialogue between real and virtual spaces, "real-time and local-time activism; tele-elsewheres" and "embodied and embedded places" that cyberculture might develop (Escobar, 37). One of the most useful features of the book is that the endless argument between cyberculture critics about the nature of the "real" and the "virtual" is relegated to the background, while practical applications of theory are foregrounded. Most of the essays in women@internet work from the premise that networking is already a feature of feminist politics. Gillian Youngs points out that although the Internet is a recent development, women have been working alone and together to promote social change and that the Net is one more tool to be used in the struggle (64). Other writers note that feminists have always used available technology to connect with each other locally and globally (92). Women are motivated to go on-line when they see the power of the Internet to assist them in building new women's networks and extending older ones.

So how should we be thinking about 'virtual space' as women's communicative space? One helpful way, I would argue, is to maintain a strong sense of the public/private contexts which shape women's lives and communication, including, importantly, with one another and to recognize that liberation strategies have long been focused on challenging the discursive boundaries resulting from them. In other words, while virtual space needs to be considered in terms of its distinctions, it should also be related to well-established women's and feminist emphasis on the radical potential of communication" (63).

Unlike many more theoretical cyberculture critiques, women@internet frankly acknowledges that, "Most people on the planet do not yet work for or buy from the information/global economy" (34). The understanding that most internet users live in developed countries, and that two-thirds of the people on the earth don't even have telephones, backgrounds each essay, which brings the tension between the liberating potential of the Internet and the lived reality of most people's lives to the forefront. The divisions that the Net creates and enhances between differently privileged groups of people are considered seriously, rather than being lumped under that all-inclusive term "digital divide." Writers make comparisons between the information-rich and the information poor, and the ways that unequal distribution of information parallel and enforce unequal distribution of wealth: "While intellectuals invent metaphors of postmodernity and postindustrialism, capital continues to accumulate unevenly, the poor become poorer and the less powerful become even weaker (they can now have a website)" [80].

Sohail Inayatullah and Ivana Milojevic also point out that costs for Internet use are much higher in less developed countries, and thus it is the women with fewest resources who pay the highest relative price to get connected (95-96). As Harcourt says, "the Internet offers a sense of being able to share your life more easily" only for those able to afford access (221).

Besides the categories of information "rich" and "poor," authors consider other binary oppositions including information "fast" and "slow" and the division between literate and illiterate people. In an information "fast" culture, "data and information are far more important than knowledge and wisdom" (77). The benefits of a shift from slow to fast are not yet established. Literacy is also linked to cultural practice, and Laura Agustin argues that the pressure to shift from an oral to a literate culture has a far-reaching impact:

    Classic 'development' projects, whether applied to populations located in the Third World or to migrants who have left it, have assumed that progress happens in stages, of which literacy is the first. According to this theory, everyone must become literate in the same ways that Western societies have come to take for granted. The use of alphabets to store knowledge is said to constitute humankind's most significant step up on the ladder of progress, the step that distinguishes people from animals and cultures that 'succeed' from those that do not. Yet alphabet technology is comparatively recent and has not taken hold with all the world's people (151).

Women, charge these writers, need to be more than merely users of the technology. Increasing, the number of women on-line will not work towards liberation from patriarchal structures unless they can shape the technology to their own needs.

We need to do more than empower women to use this technology and convince them that it is available to them. In general it is not. This new technology has to be conquered and it will not be conquered only by increasing the number of users (24).

women@internet is consistent across the essays in the authors' desire to see women become active agents in the development and use of Internet communications technologies so that the potential of these technologies "is directed towards enhancing human well-being rather than strengthening existing power monopolies" (xv).

This is, of course, easier said than done. It is always simpler to speculate about zones of resistance to hegemony than it is to create them. And the technology itself presents new dangers. Along with increased potential for connection and communication between women comes the increased possibility of surveillance, harassment, and control (64). And it is difficult (perhaps impossible) to separate the technology from the capitalist system which creates and sustains it. If, as Cees Hamelink argues, the institutional structures of the technology providers are "defined by the rules of the capitalist market economy" ( 80-81), how can we expect to transcend the limitations of these structures? Laura Agustin suggests that we will not find our answers in a dialogue about universal "rights" to Internet access:

    The question would not be whether we can provide egalitarian access points to the Internet for all the world's people. If we construct the conversation on 'rights to access,' 'freedom of speech,' and visions of progress and development (who has the electricity and telephone infrastructure, who has the money for a computer, who can go to school to learn about technology, who sees information as a 'consumer' item and a right) then we reproduce the same conversation we found oppressive in the first place (152).

Capitalism, in the estimation of these writers, can only look at knowledge as a commodity, information as something to be "acquired," and Internet users as consumers or potential consumers of information. Agustin reminds us that "most of the world does not belong yet to such an 'information culture,'" and that it is wrong to impose the values of information culture even if we are convinced that other people and cultures will benefit (152). If we don't challenge the consumer model, Sally Burch warns us that the Internet will become a "passive medium where, in the extreme case, interactivity could be reduced to personalized selection of products, programmes and services" -- hardly a model for freedom (202).

This is not an unfamiliar problem for feminists, who have long wondered if it is possible (in Audre Lorde's terms) to use the master's tools to dismantle the master's house and build a new shelter that accommodates women's voices, needs, and interests. The authors of women@internet are aware that not only technology, but also thought and imagination are "already captured by hegemonic languages, economies of meaning and systems of power" (29). Escobar gives the example of women's NGOs, whose existence depends upon compromise and accommodation with existing "male dominant and market driven policies" and notes that it is difficult to promote radical feminist ideas in such an environment (49). At the very least, argues Burch, we need to make sure that the creation of democratic communication structures becomes a central concern for social movements (204). Change will not come as a result of using the technology, but as a result of political activism directed towards changing the technology.

These authors are not convinced that technology will cure more problems than it creates. They worry whether "the enlargement of opportunities for cultural resistance, for instance, balance out with the narrowing down of real spaces by the forces of a transnational capitalism fuelled by the same technologies" (77). They fear that the massive pipeline of imagery and text pumped out to the developing world via the Internet will drown out cultural difference and promote (the illusion of) homogeneity:

    The coming of the information era, ostensibly providing untold riches in bits of freedom for all, in fact limits the futures of others because it robs them of their future alternatives by amplifying the world view of the dominant . . . [P]erhaps this web is Max Weber's iron cage -- the future with no exit, wherein there is an inverse relationship between data and wisdom, between quick bytes and long-term commitment, between engagement to technology and engagement with humans, plants and animals (49)

    And if the Internet can be used to empower the oppressed, how much more can it reinforce the power of dominant groups by allowing them to communicate with and support each other against challenges? (213).

women@internet's feminist writers do propose some strategies for successful resistance. Prerequisites for success include building on the feminist tradition of networking through use of the new technology, and a refusal to be seduced by technology itself. Instead, we must view technology as a tool "to improve, support, protect and enhance women's full and equal participation in all aspects of society" (100). We could not have a progressive information society unless we created:

    a world system that was diverse in how it viewed knowledge, appreciating the different ways gender and civilization order the real. It would not just be technical but emotional and spiritual as well, and ultimately one that used knowledge to create better human conditions, to reduce dhukka (suffering) and realize moksa (spiritual liberation from the bonds of action and reaction.) The challenge, then, is not just to increase our ability to produce and understand information but to enhance the capacity of the deeper layers of the mind, particularly in developing what in Tantric philosophy is called the vijinanamaya kosa (where knowledge of what is eternal and temporal is touched) [85].

    An information economy must be transformed into a communication economy, where "differences are explored, some unveiled, others left to be" (85). This means that modes of listening, of overcoming the structures which have silenced or 'disappeared' marginalized groups, must be developed: "For, with all the rhetoric about the need to liberate 'unheard voices,' we miss an essential point: those voices have been talking all along" (155). A feminist communication economy would open the channel wide at both ends, giving the speech of Third World women the same weight and authority as the speech of women in the developed nations. Technologies of intimacy would need to be created, "technology not isolated in offices, not connected to formal education, not touted as a new religion, not pushed as a 'right,' but instead associated with coffee, sandwiches and chat . . ." (155).

Collective resistance is needed to counter commercialization and hype. No person or single organization can successfully work alone to gain an audience for women's causes. Unless women work together, their voices will be obscured by the sheer volume of information poured out over the Internet and the Web (203). Women need to organize and insist that they be involved in the development of new technology if they are to influence its growth in progressive directions. And women need to keep a close eye on other marginalized groups and be ready to learn from them when they employ new strategies to resist hegemony.

This text is not without its problems and internal contradictions. Most obvious, though not most important, is the adoption of metaphors that work against the progressive feminist arguments presented in women@internet. The adoption of Donna Haraway's metaphor of the cyborg is ubiquitous and, by this time, seems almost to go without saying in most feminist cyberculture critiques. It is most appealing, however, to white middle-class feminists from Western countries, and it is the Canadian editor, Wendy Harcourt, who seems most strongly drawn to that metaphor in women@internet. Though she acknowledges that Haraway's cyborg "belongs to a sophisticated cyberspeak being produced mainly in Northern feminist (postmodernist) circles" (223) she does not avoid it but, rather, uses her power as editor it frame the book with cyborg references. That the frame is rejected by some writers is clear: "The mechanism of cyberspace, its fluency and time-space compression, mirrors the transnational models of capital accumulation offering illusions of democracy, opportunity and agency for some. But the cyborg is not generally the person sitting in front of the computer, half-machine, half-subject, wondering about the 'power to see from below.' The cyborg is the 'other,' flipping hamburgers and talking the 'cyborg speech' of McDonalds" (25).

Marisa Belausteguigoitia Rius makes it clear that from her standpoint the "cyborg" is a woman trapped in the technology, rather than one liberated by it, but this is not acknowledged either in Harcourt's introduction or conclusion.

Of equal concern is the repeated use (again primarily by Harcourt) of the metaphor of "the delicatessen" for the writings in this anthology: "an image of the corner shop with all the delicious things to see and eat from around the world, a very safe but spicy idea" (15). An explicitly capitalist metaphor, the delicatessen can easily be seen as an example of the "illusion of diversity and multiculturalism totally devoted to the reinforcement of the market and the technologies of buy and sell" which is criticized in the anthology (25). Immediately evocative of consumption, the exotic items are to be tasted, judged, and either purchased or left on the shelf. Though the metaphor was initially introduced by Rius, who used it ironically (to show "the way women of color may be made exotic and semi-tokens" [85]), Harcourt seems to have adopted it far less self-consciously than one might wish:

    We have a 'delicatessen' offered for the tasting by the Women on the Net (WoN). They present the spice of what these new communication technologies offer and the tempting new ways to experience one another, suggesting a new closeness as women (with men) explore and create a cyberculture. Lurking in these new sensations and experiences are the voices warning us to consider carefully that such a mixture of cultures, hopes and vision might well fragment on the tasting. They are housed in a not so congenial structure, and it is uncertain from just where the ingredients come" (219).

This paragraph could be used as a textbook example of Orientalism, relying, as it does, on the "spice" of exoticism, the "temptation" of sensuality and the "warning" of risk or danger to entice the armchair traveller to visit foreign climes. One wishes that Harcourt's reading of the essays contained with women@internet could have taught her to avoid such mistakes. Certainly Escobar's reference to science fiction stories which "play with the idea of 'downloading' Third World cultures onto global webs [51]" in the ultimate act of consumption and appropriation should have resonated unpleasantly to Harcourt and made the use of the delicatessen metaphor less attractive.

More problematic than the metaphorical constructions, however, is the fact that the essays often waver between supporting the idea that the Internet can be "home" to "new" kinds of communities, and the idea that one must distinguish between the Internet (which is a tool) and Internet users (who are "heterogeneous actors and sites, each with its own culturally specific interpretive system and with dominant and subaltern sites and knowledges" [43]). "Feelings of community" are not equivalent to communities, and it seems that some writers (particularly Kekula P. Bray-Crawford, June Lennie et al., and Wendy Harcourt) are more optimistic about the community-building potential of the internet than the current research warrants. There is also, scattered throughout the volume, a certain amount of starry-eyed wonder at the technology and the awesome "possibilities that new forms of communication and expression have placed in our hands at the start of a new millennium" (xvi). And, probably because the writers are not primarily cyberculture critics, there are also "gee whiz" reactions to listserv phenomena that are nothing close to unique, such as the sense of intimacy created on listservs populated by people who share a common goal. There are also some oddly na¤ve statements, such as Harcourt's claim that "a vital element of communication -- physical attraction -- could not enter" into WoN list interactions because people were unaware of what others looked like in the flesh (220).

Though the emphasis of the book is on practical strategies for enhancing the power and effectiveness of communities of women, some writers also make large, distinctly utopian claims:

    [T]he culture of feminists, ecologists, NGOs, indigenous groups, information technology, progressive groups, and migrant women is shifting traditional borders through cyberspace interactions (3).

    . . . when I refer to the Net I am not talking about a terminal. Rather I imagine it as a source; with the possibility to expand traditional limits and to find new possibilities to democratize development, using the vast communication potential of the Net. And when I say communication, I do not refer to the new media only, but to communication as the core of our humanity, as a social commitment to rebuild what global forces have destroyed (72).

This sense that the technology itself contains the seeds of our liberation directly contradicts the prevailing view of the other writers of women@internet, who would no doubt take issue with the statement that "new technologies foster interactivity, multiplicity and alterity" (74). Such contradictions are useful if the essays are in dialogue, but that does not appear to be the case in this volume.

Those are, however, relatively tiny quibbles compared to what I see as the overarching flaw in women@internet -- the failure to resolve the tensions between the need for a "safe space" for women to converse, and the need to freely discuss troubling and controversial questions in diverse environments where all women will not agree, and where some may be bitterly opposed to the projects of others. This problem was most graphically illustrated in the essay by June Lennie, in which she described welink, a listserv created primarily for rural women in Australia in order to allow them to link with each other and with urban women: "The sense of caring and respect for others' feelings, and a desire to maintain and protect the friendly atmosphere of the group meant that some limitations and constraints on what could be freely and openly talked about on welink were imposed on participants, in varying degrees, both by themselves and by the group. Highly contentious topics have usually been avoided . . ." (102).

Not surprisingly, the most controversial topic that came up on the list was related to Aboriginal land rights. There were no Aboriginal women on the listserv but the tension that developed between urban and rural white women was severe enough to disturb the sense of "safety" and "community" of listmembers. In communities that value "safety" above all, the interests of some women must be sacrificed for the comfort of other women, a set of pressures which works to homogenize discussion groups as dissenting views are silenced or forced to self-censor. This puts "feeling good" in front of inclusivity, since consensus is rarely achievable in truly diverse groups with genuine (and perhaps irreconcilable) differences. Without a strategy for conflict resolution and with pressure for consensus, "others" are silenced for the good of "all." In this fashion, the illusion of consensus is created even when it does not genuinely exist:

    Welink is providing a significant means of giving voice to rural women; it gives much needed social support, helps to break down differences and stereotypes and to broaden perspectives . . . Welink has also been invaluable in some women's networking and leadership activities and in their community development work. While clearly welink has been highly successful, however, some self- and group-imposed restrictions seem to be necessary to maintain the safe and friendly atmosphere, the personal sharing and the strong sense of trust and connectedness (195).

Since coalition work is a cornerstone of feminist activism, it seems important to question whether homogenous nodes of "safe space" can effectively network with other different, but equally homogenous nodes. Exclusivity in each node is not a good sign that heterogeneous networks can be supported. Coalition work is never "safe" work, but it is the only kind of feminist work that acknowledges the differences between women as well as their common interests and goals. The advancement of women's agendas relies on women's ability to shift existing power structures -- a possibility only when grass-roots movements combine their strength instead of working at cross-purposes. women@internet would have been a stronger book if it had faced this issue squarely.

The strengths of women@internet are its dedication to marrying theory to practice, its unabashed feminist perspective, and its focus on the tensions between global and local interests as they relate to the design and use of internet communications technologies. The volume is commendable (and rare) for its focus on presenting essays by Third World women. The use of inappropriate metaphors was annoying, but a minor problem. Unfortunately, not enough time was spent exploring the difference between real and imagined communities, and the questions and contradictions raised by creating the "safe spaces" that so many authors in the anthology espouse were barely examined. Despite my critique, women@internet is a strong anthology, full of powerful and insightful cyberculture essays that are refreshing in their connection to the physical world and to local cultures. Unique in its perspective, it is an essential text for all cyberculture collections.

KalÝ Tal:
KalÝ Tal is a Professor of Humanities at Arizona International College of The University of Arizona. She has written scholarly and popular articles on race in cyberspace and is currently working on a book manuscript on that topic. Her most recent book-length publication was Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995). She also maintains the afrofuturism Web site for the listserv of the same name.  <kali@kalital.com>

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