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Of the flock of books, articles, and academic treatises that have addressed gender and technology recently, Wired Women: Gender and the New Realities in Cyberspace (Seal Press, 288 pp, $16, paper) stands out in its limited success. Designed in part as a comfy Internet introduction for technophobic women, this essay anthology also reads like a how-to manual for everyone who’s ever tried to provide big answers to some big questions: What qualities do “women” share? And what is cyberspace, anyway?
Wired Women confronts the conundrums of women in cyberspace, but wisely resists the urge to resolve them. Instead, it seeks to establish a sense of shared experience, a sisterhood of the wires. The views assembled by editors Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise may clash, but they’re never discordant. Underneath the book’s cacophony of takes on how women relate to one another, and what the Net does to those relations, is a team spirit that’s too often missing from feminist—not to mention technological—writing.
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A look at the contributors’ bios tells why. These women may write with enviable eloquence, but a good number of them are engineers, computer programmers, and telecommunications specialists. Dwelling in the sterile, male-dominated corridors of their scientific disciplines, they know too well how fragile and crucial women’s community really is. Their feminism is more embattled, and thus angrier, than that of the high-spirited “girl” variety—typified by Web sites like “Geekgirl,” “Cybergrrl,” and “Girls Can Do Anything”—that gets most of the media’s attention.
Telecommunications researcher L. Jean Camp writes about her experience with a women-only electronic mailing list in “We Are Geeks, and We Are Not Guys: The Systers Mailing List.” Camp tells how the women on the list came through when she was preparing to give a paper at a major research conference, and was planning to take her nursing baby along. “Going to a conference breast-feeding a baby? There’s no chapter on ‘Dealing with Let-down in Silk’ in Dress for Success,” she remembers. Worried, she sent a message to the Systers list asking for others’ advice and experiences. Within hours she had dozens of replies. Hearing those stories put her fears to rest, and her giddy relief comes through in her description of the incident. “If…babies could be sick or have an ebm (e = explosive) in a session and all turned out fine, then, well, what was I so worried about!”
Experiential writing like this dominates, shading frequently into explanations of how to use mailing lists and other Net features. But a few of the contributors take an analytical tone, focusing on the abstract issues raised by virtual interactions. Both Lori Kendall, in “MUDder? I Hardly Know ’Er! Adventures of a Feminist MUDder,” and Shannon McRae, in “Coming Apart at the Seams: Sex, Text and the Virtual Body,” examine the fluidity of gender identity in the imaginary worlds that exist online. Called “Multi-User Dimensions (or Dungeons),” MUDs allow “players” to craft any self they like. People routinely switch genders and even, in one world, species.
McRae resists clunky post-structuralist speculations about the appeal of such practices, offering instead a summation that evokes the pleasure of switching. Noting that virtual-identity play has emerged simultaneously with “various means of deliberately altering the human body…bodybuilding, dieting…piercing, tattooing, plastic surgery,” she applauds the cresting polymorphosity that these phenomena suggest. “Human beings have turned the machinery of power that surrounds them into sources of play and pleasure,” she writes.
That sentence is a concise summary of the Net itself. It may have originated as a way for the Department of Defense to communicate in the event of nuclear war, but its anarchic users have pushed it far beyond that original conception. By collecting the voices of fierce, stubborn women determined to make the Net meet their needs, Wired Women illustrates the means of that transition.