Thursday, March 12, 2009

"The Digital Landscape: New Space for Women?"

Jennifer Light's 1995 article, "The Digital Landscape: New Space for Women?" is under 15 years old, yet seems simultaneously dated (perhaps due to the rapidly changing nature of the technology she discusses) and innovative for the ways in which it approaches the Internet and its implications with regard to women, particularly, and gender, in general.

Its datedness rests primarily on the fact that it was written at the dawn of what I describe as the lay Internet – at the very beginning of the web era and pre-vast commercialization that now characterizes the Internet landscape. The choice of metaphor (what Light describes as the language of urban planning) used to describe the Internet of the day (“information superhighway” and “Infobahn” are two descriptors that seem as outmoded today as they were clever in the past).

Yet many of Light’s keenest observations rest on these very metaphors of the Internet as space, for at the time of her writing, the Internet’s space was largely unclaimed and suggested promise, in particular to feminist scholars and others who saw opportunity and a way for women to stake a claim at what was the launch of the popular Internet.

Light’s treatment of this topic is wide-ranging; she appeals to history and scholarship of so-called “gendered technologies” of the past – some of which were aimed directly at women (e.g. wash machines and household technologies designed ostensibly to ease labor burdens but frequently the creators of more) and others which were appropriated by women for their own uses (e.g. the telephone). Along the way, she very deliberately dismantles what she describes as essentialist thinking and theorizing which, she rightly contends, is as much at the root of reinforcing the gendered nature of digital and Internet technologies as the actual technologies themselves are.

In order to keep this entry of reasonable length, I’d like to highlight just a few of the other interesting points from this article:

p. 136 Light asserts that the gender identity of a technology, being that it is socially constructed and subject to change, is a malleable thing and can be targeted to be actively changed. This change comes via users engaging as innovators, as they did in the case of the telephone. Women, Light posits, could act en masse or in groups to repurpose and reenvision technologies in ways that make sense to them. This requires, among other things, a fluid approach to notions of gender in the first place, rather than mapping technologies into a space demarcated by the problematic and unyielding masculine-feminine, male-female dichotomy.

p. 137 Light invokes the case of a women-only space on the French national Minitel network. This is an interesting example because of the fact that the Minitel, its network, and the technology used to access it were all projects enabled at a national level via nationalized telecom institutions and governmental support. Yet American culture has soundly rejected anything that could be constituted as interference on this sort of level. Are there lessons to be learned from experiments like these?

p. 139-140 Light debunks many feminist fears that these new CMC pose by suggesting that new forms of communication will not deprioritize or eliminate women’s traditional forms of communication, but, rather will diversify and enhance the space in which these forms can take place, making use of the intrinsically horizontal, flexible nature of the Net.

p. 141-142 In these spaces, Light notes, are ample opportunities for women to create room for themselves, to self-organize (for political, social or other ends), using models that make sense to them and that are seemingly frequently, and ironically, aligned with the architecture of the Net and of computer networks, in general.

Again, these observations are highly reliant on metaphors of physical space, urban planning and a treatment of the Net as place. I wonder how Light might revisit some of these same topics, fifteen years later, in light of the vast commercialization of the Net, its shift from a text-based (and therefore highly imagined and hypothesized) space to one that is largely graphically, if not multimedia, driven – a fact that I would contend has flattened the landscape, and greatly shifted the notion of the Net as a commons to one of a series of boundaries (often commercial).

In a time when it would be exponentially harder to get on, access and participate in the Net in a way that fell outside of the parameters of commercialized, for-profit and branded, highly designed and defined user experiences, how would Light envision opportunities for women to create, claim and design space in this context? Is there a hope to be a feminist user as innovator in today’s commercial world? Does the "space" metaphor make sense, or is it a metaphor that has lost its window of relevancy as sociocultural norms have been transcribed into the digital medium?

(Info on Light can be found here and here; she has a joint appointment at Northwestern in both History and Communication.)

1 comment:

  1. This article reminded me of a book I read for my undergrad anthropology of the Internet studies, Cyberspaces Of Their Own. Fandom has long been a female-only space (more by default than by intent; the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade doesn't attract a lot of men). It's not as overtly political as feminist newsgroups, but it is an instance of women using technology for their own purposes.