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Cyborg Lives? Women's Technobiographies

Editor: Flis Henwood, Helen Kennedy, Nod Miller
Publisher: York, UK: Raw Nerve Books, 2001
Review Published: November 2002

 REVIEW 1: Lisa-Jane McGerty

In Cyborg Lives? Flis Henwood, Helen Kennedy, and Nod Miller have brought together a fascinating and innovative collection of women's accounts of their everyday relationships with technologies. They call the stories included 'technobiographies,' using an autobiographical approach to explore individual women's experiences of and relationships with various technologies, from TVs, CD-ROMs and web pages, to ante-natal screening, nuclear power, and domestic appliances. As the back cover says, these "very personal stories offer insight into lived experience where gender intersects with class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, generation and subcultural identity in shaping technological encounters." This is the collection's main aim.

As Judy Wajcman points out in the book's Foreword, this collection takes autobiography as a methodology and applies it in a fresh way to technology studies, drawing on a tradition in the women's movement of emphasising the value of everyday experience as an important basis of knowledge. The book's innovative use of autobiography to address issues of gender and technology stems from the belief that a collection of first person narratives illuminates the theoretical debates in this field. The collection as a whole takes issue with the common dichotomy of technology as either liberating or disempowering for women, and seeks instead to explore the "many and contradictory meanings, identities and social relations involved" (8) in the meeting of gender, technology, and subjectivity. And this is exactly what it does, in an eminently readable way.

The editors locate this collection in the cyborg tradition in feminist technology studies, aligning it particularly with the work of Donna Haraway (1985). Haraway's insistence that technology is absolutely an integral part of all of our lives, so that we should conceive of ourselves as cyborgs, is the central theoretical tenet of this book. The editors suggest that this collection of technobiographical writings builds on the new possibilities for feminist analyses and politics of technologies opened up by Haraway (and developed further by others), using autobiography as a means to taking a reflexive approach to speaking about, and attempting to understand, women's experiences of technology. The book also claims, however, to question the usefulness of the cyborg metaphor in understanding our relationships with technologies, offering an "experimental effort" at probing it "for its potentials and problems in helping us to make sense of our own experiences" (20).

Cyborg Lives? is organized into three sections: 'encountering technologies,' 'becoming technologists,' and 'resisting the cyborg life?' and each section is designed to address cyborgian themes relating to boundaries and to the construction of identities. The first two sections also relate to different locations of technologies and technological identities, the first dealing with points of consumption and the second with being identified as scientists/technologists (i.e. with 'production' of a sort). The third section consists solely of Nod Miller's personal rejection of the cyborg metaphor in favor of the metaphor of the goddess in understanding her own relationship with technology.

The opening chapter puts Cyborg Lives? into context with a concise and useful overview of literature relating to the cyborg metaphor, autobiography as methodology, and social constructivist approaches to technology. Flis Henwood then opens the technobiographies with an extremely personal and engaging account of her experiences of the technology of ante-natal screening. In her story, Henwood explores the two distinct voices that were in dialogue within her during her first pregnancy, her story refuting from the opening paragraph any idea of a simple narrative truth. She explores her situation both as a pregnant woman seeking reassurance from medical experts that all is well with her unborn child, and also as a feminist critic of science and technology asking questions about the construction and implementation of ante-natal technologies. The resultant struggle for Henwood, and the essence of her story here, is one in which she simultaneously tries to situate herself in relation to the dominant discourse of maternalism and to a dualistic discourse which implies that only pro- or anti-technology positions are possible. With the benefit of hindsight, Henwood concludes that as she struggled to make difficult and painful decisions about her pregnancy she also struggled to position herself beyond such dualistic discourses, "at a place where cyborg positionings can be explored but where full resolution and closure . . . is never fully possible" (50). This struggle epitomizes the many and varied struggles presented in the rest of the book.

Next, Linda Leung's account offers personal reflections on ethnicity, broadcast, and new media, in an often humorous manner. She laments the poor representation of Chinese people on Australian, American, and UK television -- what she calls TV's 'set menus.' She also astutely describes the processes of searching the Web for "texts and images which illustrate the hybridity and diversity of the Chinese diaspora" (54), identifying the racism and double standards inherent in search engines and the dubious constructions of Chineseness found in the corresponding web pages. Through these processes and the construction of this narrative, Leung strongly identifies herself as a cyborg and celebrates hybridity of all types accordingly, concluding that she'd rather have "a buffet to a set menu any day" (62).

Jules Cassidy and Sally Wyatt present the next technobiography in the first section, which focuses on the taken-for-granted technological artifact of the electric plug. Their observations stem from their arrival in England from Australia and Canada respectively, and they use them to illustrate how something as seemingly mundane as a plug can play a role in maintaining colonialism and constructing and perpetuating 'otherness' -- in short, how technological artifacts (even simple ones) do indeed have politics (Winner 1985). Their account is extremely thought-provoking, addressing as it does issues of gender, ethnicity, and sexuality and serves to highlight some of the problems with the cyborg metaphor, not least of which is in dividing women around the issue of technical competence.

Wyatt then continues by offering the final technobiography of this section, in which she explores her distinctive relationship with technology. Wyatt's father was an engineer involved in the design and construction of nuclear power stations and her mother is a writer of fiction in whose work Wyatt often recognizes people and events from her life. Embracing actor network theory, Wyatt interweaves three texts in her account here of her "cyborg family" (80) -- one of her mother's novels, a work by her father on the nuclear challenge, and one of her own academic papers -- pointing out the ways in which they all address cyborg issues. She draws heavily on Haraway's argument that "writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs" (1985:95), to maintain that her parents and she all wrote different sorts of cyborg stories, what she calls fables born from a "shared cyborgian sensibility of the relationship between the human and the technical and the impossibility and undesirability of attempting to separate them" (90). The result is a fascinating story of stories.

Helen Kennedy opens the second section with a narrative account of her early academic career as a 'technofraud' in university computer labs, describing her transformation into someone seen instead as a 'cyberchick.' She talks of the vast differences between men and women with respect to multimedia (her own field) but also addresses age and subculture as much as gender, emphasizing that the many facets of identity cannot be separated. Kennedy problematizes the use (including her own) of binary oppositions (like technofraud vs. cyberchick) in describing personal experience and social reality but makes an important point in concluding that the binary oppositions rejected in the cyborg literature are not so easily rejected in practice.

Gwyneth Hughes then continues Kennedy's thread, offering an account of her own initiation into academic life -- this time as a chemist, then chemistry teacher. In her story she explores the contradictions of her particular class, sexual, and gender positions with respect to the masculine world of science. But her story is not one of exclusion but of 'unbelonging' as she calls it (123) and of normative behavior; it also addresses issues of partiality and the dangers of truth claims.

Leung then returns to contribute a second technobiography to the collection, this one composed simply of two short stories about critical incidents in her life. She uses the stories to "highlight technology as a tool with which I have contested and negotiated the boundary between inside and outside, asserted my Otherness and located myself in a place where I am not meant to be, thus staking a claim to a position of relative power" (127). In so doing, through this narrative Leung lays claim to being a 'techie' and a cyborg, thereby (in her words) "polluting the association of technology with masculinity" (132), her political aim.

The final technobiography of section two consists of Nanda Bandyopadhyay's rejection of the link between technology and modernization, focusing on her own experiences growing up in India, and maintaining that technology has an important role in tradition as well as in modernization. She explains how she simultaneously experienced modern technologies both as externally imposed attempts to repress Indian culture (by the British) but also as offering an opportunity to escape from the limitations placed on women by traditional Indian family conventions. The contradictions and negotiations involved make for an interesting story, and one in which she creates for herself a cyborgian identity within which the "traditional and the modern [are] always in play" (144).

Cyborg Lives? is brought to a close by Nod Miller's treatise importing the value of the image of the goddess, rather than the cyborg, for understanding her own relationship with the relatively mundane technologies involved firstly with plumbing and then with music. She explains that the thought of being a cyborg at one with plumbing equipment is repellent to her (unsurprisingly!) but being an "ageing hippy goddess" (152) is a much more comfortable image, particularly in relation to her academic work and her identification with rock music 'goddesses.' As she explains, "goddesses cross boundaries between the human and the superhuman, the powerful and the vulnerable, the social and the natural world. They can be shapeshifters, mentors or guardians, awesome allies or formidable foes" (164-5). Miller thus contends that the archetype of the goddess is a more valid metaphor for her and her account makes explicit a valuable point implied by the rest of the stories in the collection: that technologies are indeed all around us and we interact as much with our bathroom equipment as we do with our stereos, computers, and the power stations outside. Whether we label ourselves as cyborgs or goddesses or neither, Miller makes us realize that technology is hard to escape (and would we want to anyway?). In short, Miller's technobiography is as much of a conclusion as could be expected to bring to a close a collection of personal short stories around cyborg issues.

Overall, the diversity of the narratives included in this collection, and the very personal nature of many of them, make for a very interesting and refreshing read. Within the methodological and conceptual framework used here there is no such thing as truth and there can be no real closure, only explorations and narrative constructions around cyborgian issues -- this is a bold and stimulating effort at fleshing out the theoretical debates in technology studies.

Whether the individual 'technobiographies' really interrogate the cyborg metaphor is open to debate however, as sometimes the cyborg 'label' seems to be applied to a story whether it fits or no. The book's emphasis on the cyborg metaphor gives it perhaps an overly narrow focus but the stories adroitly illustrate the intertwined nature of gendered, ethnic, classed, sexed, aged, and technological identities. The narratives depict membership of multiple worlds, an often confusing but very cyborgian practice, but one in which marginality is seen to be a powerful experience (Star 1991).

And as for whether the collection illuminates the theoretical debates as it sets out to do, I think it does, although every reader of these stories will no doubt answer that question for themselves. It is certainly a courageous book and is accessible too despite its reflection on complex theoretical perspectives.

Haraway, D. (1985). "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s," Socialist Review, 80, 65-107.

Star, S.L. (1991) "Power, Technology and the Phenomenology of Conventions: On Being Allergic to Onions" In Law, J. (Ed.), A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination. London: Routledge.

Winner, L. (1985). "Do Artefacts Have Politics?" In MacKenzie, D. & Wajcman, J. (Ed.), The Social Shaping of Technology: How the Refrigerator Got its Hum. Milton Keynes & Philadelphia: Open University Press.


Lisa-Jane McGerty:
Lisa-Jane McGerty is a doctoral student in the Department of Applied Social Sciences, University of Bradford, UK.  <L.J.Mcgerty@Bradford.ac.uk>

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