Zeros and Ones

Digital Women and the New Technoculture

Sadie Plant

Women, Plant argues, have always been the parallel processors of society. Juggling the many and varied tasks assigned to them—child-rearing, running the house, balancing the books, more recently holding down a job as well—has shown them to be (or made them?) proficient multi-taskers. Now, with information technology shattering the steady, focused forms of the traditional male-dominated workplace, and of society itself, they stand to come out as the key players in a world where the boundaries between nature and artifice are dissolving into an ocean of fragmented possibility.

Beyond this intriguing pragmatic argument (not, I hasten to add, supported by my present experience of the web design industry), Plant manages to extract a bewildering complex of often surprising, sometimes questionable feminist arguments from the implications of digital technology. She rightly makes much of the sexual symbolism of the 1 and the 0, pointing out that while psychoanalysis—and, by implication, the Western male psyche—defines women in terms of absence or lack, the 0 in binary code, in the logic gates of digital circuits, is a ‘positive gap’, the 1 being a negative block to the current. Likewise, woman’s supposed lack of a soul, or central point of integrated personality, lends her a natural affinity to the decentralised networking models that have revolutionised the world. Of course, machines’ status as the ‘slaves of man’, and the looming struggles for machine independence that seem as inevitable as the rise in processing speeds, makes for further women-machine bonds.

It seems almost too neat for Plant’s thesis, then, that the man largely credited as the father of modern computing, Alan Turing, was a homosexual who, after being penalised for his penchants, was forced to take estrogen, leading to his growing breasts. It is here, in her analysis of the associations between digital machines and new, non-binary sexualities, that I found Plant most interesting. As one learns that the famed Turing test, aiming to distinguish between human and machine, was based on a parlour game where someone tries to distinguish between a man and a woman through ‘blind’ questions, one starts to suspect that Plant isn’t just a deft and poetically gifted academic capable of weaving convincing perspectives out of circumstantial evidence—she’s really onto something.

It was disappointing, though, after realising that most of the evidence is in her favour, to notice her applying some oddly clumsy logic to shoehorn certain points in. There is a chapter that deals with the common objection to technology, especially the ideal of VR, being the fruit of a masculine obsession with aversion to direct human contact. In her vision, the feminised use of technology has more to do with extending the human body, admitting to and amplifying its dense interconnection with the environment. All highly compelling; but it’s disconcerting to remember that many pages back, while elaborating woman’s affinity with new media, she dissed face-to-face communication as "the missionary position so beloved of Western man". Is she making a radical new point, contradicting ‘common sense’ with acute perception? Or is she just contradicting herself, to place women on the ‘right’ side of any argument that arises?

Whatever you think of this, and other contestable issues, this book cannot be ignored. It overturns much ‘common sense’ surrounding the history, present, and future of technology with bold, convincing intelligence, discovering beneath it an eager, vital web of new potential that’s bound to shock most men and women, albeit in different ways. Threaded throughout, besides a fascinating appraisal of the Victorian computation pioneer Ada Lovelace, are broad, deep hints at the future of identity, seen through the ‘eyes’ of one of the biosphere’s most ubiquitous, promiscuous and mutable lifeforms: bacteria. Her conclusions are at once distressing (to the individuated ego) and liberating (to life).

Plant’s style (which only rarely succumbs to the showy abstraction of many of the postmodern academics to inspire her) should also be noted and commended. Quotations have no footnote reference numbers; all references are identified by brief reiterations in the back. Those who wish to follow a certain point up can identify and locate it; the actual body of the text has only quotation marks to disrupt the continuum. Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body tried something similar, but kept the references on the same page as the body text. Plant’s method—which I’ve not seen before if it has been done—lends her poetic-academic prose a seamless yet provocative texture reminiscent of well-orchestrated sample-based music.

No doubt there’s much more to be explored in the shifting borderlands between men, women and machines; but check here first for all the most interesting pointers.