"Male" Technology, Feminist Dystopias and the Promise of Cyberspace


Feminists have often assumed the role of opponent of technology, a role that seems to have developed out of the equation between women and nature prevalent in Western society. As Jane Flax points out, "In the contemporary West, women are seen as the last refuge, not only from the 'heartless' world but an increasingly mechanized and fabricated one as well."(1) Although, as Flax recognizes, the equation of women with nature can be viewed as an integral part of the complex of patriarchal thought affirming gender differences, criticism of technology has had an established place in feminist theory. In a recent feminist treatment of technology, for example, Judy Wajcman criticizes the ideology of "masculinity" in our culture that postulates an intimate connection between men and machines. In a chapter entitled "Technology as Masculine Culture," she complains that the emphasis on "masculine technologies" slights "women's technologies," which she lists as "horticulture, cooking and childcare."(2) This kind of critique only serves to perpetuate the traditional dichotomy by working within the framework of existing prejudices.

While not as simplistic as Wajcman's critique, feminist science fiction novels criticizing "male" technology sometimes also simplify the relationship between technology and gender. The novel The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper postulates a world after nuclear war, and one of the protagonists explicitly makes men responsible for the destruction:

It was men who made the weapons and men who were the diplomats and men who made the speeches about national pride and defense. And in the end it was men who did whatever they had to do, pushed the button or pulled the string to set the terrible things off. And we died, Michael. Almost all of us. Women. Children.(3)

In order to ensure that such destruction never occurs again, the women of "Women's Country" have taken over what is left of civilization and are embarking on an exceptional experiment. Men and women are segregated in "town" and "garrison," and while the men are still responsible for defense, or in other words war, the women control the books and the knowledge, and the men's access to war technology is limited. In a very effective twist, one of the few technologies besides medicine that the women of Women's Country have maintained is genetics, and it is revealed towards the end of the novel that they are attempting to breed violence out of men through selection.

In Pamela Sargent's novel, The Shore of Women, the premise is the same -- men have nearly destroyed the world, women have taken over and live apart from the men -- but the women's civilization is more technologically advanced.(4) The question of blame is also not quite as clear-cut: although men certainly were guilty of destruction before, it is now women who have the technology and the power and are corrupted accordingly. They kill entire populations in villages of men on the outside when it appears that the men are becoming too advanced and might pose a threat to the established order of things. Although these feminist novels do not explicitly state a connection, they implicitly associate high technology with hierarchy and destruction.

Feminist critics who specifically treat digital technologies tend to emphasize the masculine bias of the development. Sherry Turkle, for example, describes the world of computer programmers as unattractive for women as a result of the male atmosphere:

Though hackers would deny that theirs is a macho culture, the preoccupation with winning and of subjecting oneself to increasingly violent tests make their world peculiarly male in spirit, peculiarly unfriendly to women.(5)

Other critics of digital media cite the addictive potential, the commercialization of the Net, possibilities for control and surveillance, and the use of the new technology by the industrial-military complex, to name just a few. In Vonda McIntyre's story "Steelcollar Worker," cyberspace and virtual reality are far from being realms of freedom for electronic cowboys, as they are in William Gibson's novels.(6) McIntyre postulates a new form of "blue collar" work in which workers are literally strapped to virtual reality couches rather than metaphorically chained to conveyor belts. Here the new technology does not mean an increase in freedom, but rather is just another way of getting the job done, and a rather suspicious job at that.

Of course, McIntyre can hardly been seen in the camp of the critics of technology -- in her science fiction novel Superluminal, the protagonist gladly exchanges a human heart for an artificial heart, voluntarily becoming a cyborg.(7) Using images such as this, feminist writers and critics in increasing numbers have begun to emphasize the promise of technology.(8) As early as Marge Piercy's utopian community in Woman on the Edge of Time, technology of the future was envisioned positively, at least in part, allowing women freedom from biological constraints. The most famous recent feminist treatment of technology is probably Donna Haraway's "Manifesto for Cyborgs."(9) Haraway sees the metaphor of the cyborg as a challenge to old dualisms:

... my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work. One of my premises is that most American socialists and feminists see deepened dualisms of mind and body, animal and machine, idealism and materialism in the social practices, symbolic formulations, and physical artifacts associated with 'high technology' and scientific culture.(10)

Haraway's affirmative attitude towards technology has had an important influence on new developments in feminist theory. Among other things, she points out that communication technologies offer an opportunity to take control of body and meaning, and argues that feminists should take advantage of the potential rather than getting caught up in the supposed contradiction between feminist goals and technological progress.(11)

The emphasis in this paper will be on the freedom of "cyberspace," envisioned or actual, made possible through technology. The virtual spaces of networks like the Internet, CompuServe or GEnie are marginal spaces outside or beyond the "real" world, a flexible world in which participants are temporarily free from the constraints of the body -- science fiction in action, as it were. This realm beyond the physical is commonly seen as a anarchic kind of community, stubbornly defending itself -- technologically -- against hierarchy and control. One element of this potential anarchy is that the virtual meeting place of electronic networks offers a unique liberation from traditional gender roles and expectations. In cyberspace, all indicators of gender are absent except for that of name, and on most networks names can easily be changed and a gender-neutral nickname adopted, or even a name that normally signals belonging to the opposite sex. This environment offers a perfect opportunity for experiments with gender identity,(12) an unparalleled freedom from assigned identity.(13)

In Melissa Scott's novel Trouble and her Friends, the networks of the future form a marginal society outside of the law in which women can be cowboy heroes as easily as men.(14) Here, identity, including gender identity, is what you make it. Roaming the net is done by way of programmed icons that go by imaginary names, such as the title figure "Trouble." One character, introduced to the reader in the on-line episodes as a female icon going by the name of "Silk," uses the malleable space of the Net to stage virtual seductions of other figures. "Silk" appears in both male and female guises, however, and it is not until shortly before the end of the book that the reader finally discovers the "true" gender of the character behind the icons.

A recent short story by the science fiction author Maureen F. McHugh, "A Coney Island of the Mind," also uses a virtual setting for the portrayal of a complicated come-on. The protagonist, who goes by the name of "Cobalt," is well aware that the people he meets in cyberspace can be very different from what they are in reality. So when he meets a beautiful woman at the virtual Coney Island of the "Reality Parlor," he is not about to be fooled by appearances, but rather plays along. I quote: "Maybe she's forty years old, he doesn't know. Maybe she's ugly.... Wild thought that this beautiful girl can be anything."(15) But despite this network savvy, he is still unprepared for the kind of masquerade that he becomes a victim of. Not only is the woman he meets not a woman, but the virtual hand he is stroking is not wired to a hand either.

In these fictional examples, characters use the medium of digital technology and electronic networks to disguise their "real" physical identity, to masquerade as a different person with a different gender. Although the figures experience "physical" contact in the virtual reality of cyberspace, there is no actual masking of the physical body, since the action takes place in a computer-controlled "space" independent of physical space. A digitalized image is designed and projected: online identity is a result of imagination and programming skills, either of the protagonist herself or of a hired programmer, but it is not connected with actual physical appearance.

Such digital masquerades are not only to be found in fiction. Although computer technology is not yet as advanced as these authors project, identity and gender confusion is already a part of life on the Net. "Cyberspace," the term coined in 1984 by William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer to describe the virtual space of "the Matrix" or network of the future, is in its present form a text-based "space" or "consensual locus," as Sandy Stone calls it,(16) and not yet equipped with virtual reality technology. The reliance on text, however, provides a sort of liberation from physical appearances, making it possible for the participant to easily construct an online identity beyond the bounds of age, race or gender.

This of course is possible in epistolary communication as well, but there are two very important differences between letters and cyberspace as we know it. Electronic newsgroups and listservs are public arenas, resembling an ongoing conversation with dozens of participants rather than a private exchange. No previous acquaintance is necessary to exchange messages with someone else; all that is necessary is participation in the same discussion group. At the same time, anonymity is insured in a way that would be unthinkable in an exchange of letters -- an electronic address frequently does not even reveal the country of origin of the writer, let alone his or her physical address.(17)

Electronic masquerades are not necessarily conducted for subversive purposes, but the irritation the cross-gender masquerade causes among those who witness or become a "victim" to it points to a subversive moment. As Terry Castle postulates, masquerade can be used as a method to undermine patriarchal structures.(18) I have encountered several women who have adopted misleading "handles" or nicknames in order to construct an identity for themselves beyond the bounds of gender, or merely to play with expectations, a masquerade which is seen sometimes as liberating, and sometimes as threatening, depending on who uncovers the masquerade. Men as well have adopted female personas "on the boards," but rather than being seen as an attempt at liberation, this is frequently interpreted as an infiltration, an attempt on the part of the masquerading man to gain the confidence of his unsuspecting female conversational partners, as in the case of "Julie," the male psychiatrist.(19) In this context it is important to note that all the uproar over potential gender masquerades on electronic networks stems from the fact that readers find it necessary to assign a gender to the author of the digital messages they read. Gender can not only be seen as a basic element in the construction of personal identity, it is also a basic element of the way in which we construct our understanding of identity in others.(20)

A more organized institution for creating various online identities can be found in the role playing games or "MUDs" (short for "Multi-User Dungeon") that have developed on the Internet and elsewhere. Of course, such online identities as these are "only" a game, and not an attempt to fool anyone -- everyone knows the rules, and participants are well aware that it is more than likely the figure they "meet" on the MUD has no resemblance whatever to the physical person typing in the commands. On the other hand, participants on MUDs have a tendency to take the game very seriously; or in the words of an experienced MUDer: "The jury is still out on whether MUDding is 'just a game' or 'an extension of real life with gamelike qualities.'"(21)

Beyond the element of play, there is another basic difference between newsgroups and MUDs. As opposed to newsgroups, MUDs (like chat rooms) take place in "realtime," in other words live. They are virtual "locations," usually with a setting dominated by some kind of theme, historic, literary or merely fantastic, where the participants type in commands to move through the imaginary landscape and interact with it as well as with other participants. As soon as a participant "speaks" or conducts any other action, other participants in the MUD are informed of the action and can react accordingly. You can only read along and react if you are in the same place at the same time on the same MUD, however.

There is no recognizable true identity behind the mask of the MUD name; participants are only known by the name and description they have chosen for their figures. Among the characteristics that can be freely chosen is of course that of gender. On several MUDs there are even alternatives to choosing between the simplistic dualism of one's own or the opposite sex: on Internet's "LambdaMOO," for example, you could choose from no less than ten different sexes, each with its own appropriate pronouns: neuter, male, female, either, spivak, splat, plural, egotistical, royal, or 2nd.

In addition to gender confusion, there is a further complication to the question of identity on the nets: participants are not only people, but also computers. So-called "bots" are programs written to simulate the "behavior" of a human MUDer. On the MUD "Farside", for example, my virtual movements were shadowed by a figure by the name of Mendek who told me what to do when I got to certain locations. In the computer-controlled fantasy world, it is quite conceivable that "Mendek" was not a person at all, but rather a very elaborate introduction to the MUD -- a sort of help function -- even though he answered my questions with seemingly personal answers. Most visitors to MUDs have no way of checking such a suspicion, just as they have no way of checking the gender of a person behind a MUD character.

Identity on electronic networks is not influenced by visual signs, not presented by a physical body. It will probably not be much longer before pictures and sound are integrated into electronic communication,(22) but even when this development takes place, "appearance" theoretically could become as much a part of created identity as the text-based identity of the networks now. Digital images are easily manipulated and would not have to reflect the physical appearance of the person at the terminal sending the message. In Trouble and Her Friends, for example, one of the main characters constructs an icon for herself which resembles a two-dimensional cartoon woman, while the title figure Trouble uses a harlequin.

Of course, appearance alone is not identity, and neither is gender, but no one in her right mind would deny interaction between them. In online identity, a shift in the interaction is taking place. Scott Bukatman for one sees in the phenomenon of cyberspace a radical threat to traditional concepts of fixed identity. The identity of the electronic age is what Bukatman calls "terminal identity", quote: "an unmistakably doubled articulation in which we find both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity constructed at the computer station or television screen."(23)

Marshall McLuhan pointed out over 30 years ago that communication technologies are much more important than the messages they transmit; I quote: "..it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and interaction."(24) The world of electronic communication is a world which allows "real" communication between "real" people, but it takes place in imaginary space that different users perceive in different ways. Paul Virilio sees in this a basic paradox of our digital age: virtuality replaces actuality and revolutionizes our idea of reality.(25) "Illusion" as opposed to "reality" is an integral part of the digital world, but at the same time such oppositions don't really apply anymore: more important than producing an illusion is the realization of possibilities.(26)

Critics of electronic communication have pointed out that cyberspace is a predominantly male space, which would not necessarily bode well for the kind of revolutionary potential I have been arguing for here. Men are generally more computer-literate than women and their participation on electronic networks is higher -- which might well have something to do with the supposed incompatibility of women and technology that I mentioned earlier, I might add. In fact, a male bias is already apparent in the computer-genre of adventure and role-playing games, in which the vast majority of the protagonists are male. Well-known women authors such as Roberta Williams of Sierra work against this tendency by creating figures like the journalist-detective Laura Bow, but for any real change to take place, more women would have to be involved in game development. If not, we must face the distinct possibility that the conventions of the new medium will display a male bias as strong as that in any other.

On the other hand, the popular portrayal of electronic space as a macho paradise(27) is greatly exaggerated. Men, or to be more precise, male masks, are generally more common on networks than female masks, but not everywhere and not always. The majority of the MUDs I've visited have rules for behavior which include "laws" against sexual harassment, and someone who violates those rules will find him- or herself thrown out by the local God or Wizard, and probably locked out permanently for good measure. (The "God" is the "creator", in this case the programmer of the MUD, and the "Wizards" are the online authorities who enforce the local rules.)

The mere fact that gender identity in online interaction can be chosen at will upsets the conventional, common-sense notion of gender as a given, and for this reason digital masquerades that ignore or cross gender boundaries may well have a lasting influence on our understanding of gender and gender identity. Cross-gender online masquerades, fictional as well as "real," demonstrate the extent to which "gender" displays a performative character: the role is taken on and carried out.(28) The irritation of gender confusion on the nets is a result of the insecurity that arises at the erosion of seemingly stable boundaries, a positive irritation in this case. In the semi-imaginary space of electronic networks, concepts such as "subject" or "identity" no longer possess the same ontological meaning: the subject has become a project.(29) In the constantly shifting space of cyberspace, gender can be as much an expression of style or personality as hair color or clothing.

Nearly as radical is the consideration that we might eventually accept such digital masquerades without even wondering about the "true" identity of the person at the terminal. After the figure in Scott's novel discovers the probable gender of her seducer, for example, she is mildly irritated but far from irate, since she wasn't particularly interested in the person behind the online identity in the first place. I quote: "There was no use in being embarrassed; sex and gender confusion was one of the hazards of the nets, something a few people enjoyed exploiting while most of the net tried to minimize the inevitable mistakes." (282) In yet another incident, the title figure Trouble meets the actual person behind an online identity she has known for some time, and she is astonished at how much the man actually resembles his "icon."

Here the "masquerade" is no longer a masquerade, but rather an expression of personality, a realization of possibilities -- just as it is on the MUD. Of course online identity, and that means online gender identity as well, is nothing more than a collection of bits and bytes transmitted through telephone wires and reconstructed at the terminal, and the increasing graphic possibilities of the new technology will not change this. In the virtual space of electronic networks, biological sex only plays a role in interaction if the participants want or allow it to do so. In the best of all possible worlds, the ease of digital cross-dressing could lead to a less dominant role for gender in the construction of individual identity. Where it will lead in this world may in part be up to the local gods and wizards, but it is also up to us.  


1. Jane Flax, "Gender as a Problem: In and For Feminist Theory," Amerikastudien / American Studies 31,2 (1986): 207.

2. Feminism Confronts Technology (University Park, Penn.: Univ. of Pennsylvania Pr., 1991): 137.

3. The Gate to Women's Country (New York: Bantam, 1989): 301.

4. Pamela Sargent, The Shore of Women (New York: Bantam, 1987).

5. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (London: Granada, 1984): 216.

6. Analog, November 1992.

7. Vonda McIntyre, Superluminal (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983).

8. Anne Balsamo for example challenges feminist critics to recognize the "potentially liberating effects of technology." "Reading Cyborgs Writing Feminism," Communication 10 (1988): 336.

9. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980's," Socialist Review 80 (March-April 1985): 65-108.

10. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991): 154.

11. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: 164.

12. See for example Alyssa Katz, "Travestie im Cyberspace," Die Tageszeitung, August 12 1994: 13.

13. I would not go as far as Theodor Nelson, however, who invented the term "hypertext" in the sixties, to claim that "THE PURPOSE OF THE COMPUTER IS HUMAN FREEDOM.""Opening Hypertext: A Memoir." In Literacy Online: The Promise (and Peril) of Reading and Writing with Computers, Myron C. Turman, ed. (Pittsburgh and London: Univ. of Pittsburgh Pr., 1992): 44. Capitalization in the original.

14. Melissa Scott, Trouble and Her Friends (New York: Tor Books, 1994).

15. "A Coney Island of the Mind," Asimov's Science Fiction 17,2 (Feb. 1993): 95.

16. Allucquere Rosanne Stone, "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?: Boundary Stories About Virtual Cultures," Cyberspace: First Steps, Michael Benedikt, ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991): 84.

17. Internet addresses sometimes reveal the country of origin (as in "de" for Germany), but many Webmail services provide users with a fairly neutral ".com" address.

18. Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century Culture and Fiction (Stanford: Stanford U.P., 1986): 125.

19. See Allucquere Rosanne Stone, "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up? Boundary Stories about Virtual Cultures," Michael Benedikt, ed., Cyberspace: First Steps (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991): 82-83.

20. See Mary Crawford and Roger Chaffin, "The Reader's Construction of Meaning: Cognitive Research on Gender and Comprehension." In: Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts and Contexts, Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart, ed. (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins U. P., 1986): 13-19.

21. Jennifer Smith, "Frequently Asked Questions: Basic Information About Muds and Mudding." Archived on ftp.math.okstate.edu under pub/muds/misc/mud-faq.

22. See Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991): 88.

23. Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction (Durham and London: Duke U.P., 1993): 18, 9.

24. Understanding Media: The Extension of Man (New York: Signet, 1964): 24.

25. Paul Virilio, "Das öffentliche Bild", in: Digitaler Schein. Ästhetik der elektronischen Medien, Florian Rötzer, ed. (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1991): 344.

26. See Vilém Flusser, "Digitaler Schein", in: Digitaler Schein, Rötzer, ed.: 156.

27. See "Machos im Internet" in Der Spiegel, 23. Jan. 1995: 97.

28. See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York und London: Routlege, 1990): 47.

29. Holger van den Boom, "Digitaler Schein - oder: Der Wirklichkeitsverlust ist kein wirklicher Verlust", in Digitaler Schein, Rötzer, ed.: 185.


This paper was originally given at the annual conference of the German Association for American Studies in Hamburg, June 1995.


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Ruth Nestvold, 2001.