McKenzie Wark on Sat, 31 Jan 1998 10:42:14 +0100 (MET)

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Women set to take over the wired world
McKenzie Wark
[A column about Sadie Plant's book Zeros and Ones, written for The Australian newspaper]

Friday, 30 January 1998

Its not often that a worldwide avant garde movement gets started in
Adelaide, Australia, but it was one of the first sites from which sprung
the growing movement called cyberfeminism. A group of artists based there
called VNS Matrix concocted the Cyberfeminist Manifesto, and the idea
caught on.
In Sadie Plant's Zeros + Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture
(4th Estate), cyberfeminism has its first sustained treatise. Its a 
radical book, both in form and content. Which is no less than what one 
would expect. Her previous book, The Most Radical Gesture (Routledge) 
was on that most remarkable of postwar avant garde movements, the  
Most books have a tree-like structure: a main trunk of argument that 
roots itself in some fundamental grounding proposition, before branching
out into subsidiary findings, always coming back to the main trunk of 
the thesis. Plant's book is more like the tangled roots of a tuber plant, 
or the criss-crossed runners of those hardy grasses that weave across  
sand dunes. 
This structure suits the style of thinking Plant wants to propagate. 
Beneath the hard and fast hierarchical structures of western thinking 
runs a network of multiple non-hierarchical interconnections. Or as the 
situationists said, "beneath the pavement lies the beach."
Plant's book opens onto an image of the primordial sea: "an endless 
geographic plane of micromeshing pulsing quanta, limitless webs of 
interacting blendings, leakings, mergings ...". These words might express 
the prokaryotic soup from which all life evolved, or perhaps the emergent 
network of information, the communicational soup that now oozes across  
the planet.
Either way, what makes Plant's voice distinctive is the consistency with 
which she applies a lateral, non-hierarchical style of thinking to the
problem of the way information permeates matter, organising it and 
disorganising it. Whether in the realm of biology or sociology,
information is now a key problem. But information is not a concept that 
comes to us as something neutral. The idea of information is still tied 
to ancient prejudices.
The zeros and ones of the book's title refer in the first place to now 
forgotten disputes about number. Christianity inherited from classical 
philosophy an obsession with the unity, identity and purity of the  
number one: one God, one Law, one Truth. But one always appears against 
the background of that which is struggles against: the godless, lawless, 
falseness of the world as it appears. 

>From this stems the binary structure of western thinking: soul versus 
machine, man against nature. For Plant, this is a style of thinking in 
which the obsession with a primary unity perpetuates a masculine order  
that suppresses whatever is female -- which stands for precisely 
nothing. This is now a commonplace feminist critique of certain patterns 
of thought. But to this Plant adds another argument. Also suppressed is 
multiplicity. Feminist criticism started out by arguing that the binary 
patterns in thought are gendered, and the feminine is associated with 
the lesser pole of the binary, zero against the masculine one. But zero 
and one can compose not just a duality , one against the other, but an 
infinite series of differences. What really lurks beneath the apparent  
drive for unity in western thought is not the other term against which it 
struggles, but a multiplicity. 
For example, against what she calls the "zoocentric" bias in popular  
thinking about biology, which makes a fetish of big-bodied animals like 
ourselves, Plant makes us think about micro organisms. What do bacteria
have to do with the "new technoculture"? Nature is now the ground that  
justifies many of our styles of thinking. A hierarchical conception of 
the animal world justifies a hierarchical conception of information 
technology. The predatory and monopoly practices of the Microsoft 
corporation are justified with spurious appeals to the "survival of the 
We think of the future as a continuous outgrowth of the present. And we 
think of the present in terms of a legacy of stories that represent its 
past. Plant rewrites some of the stories of the information revolution, 
to help us see it another way, and to help open up possible futures that 
we may not ordinarily be able to conceive. 
Charles Babbage is credited with the idea of the computer. He tried to 
build his "difference engine" out of metal wheels and gears. Ada 
Lovelace was the eccentric woman who programmed it. Lovelace was a 
gambler and a junkie, a woman the shrinks would now call neurotic. A 
brilliant mind trapped by an accident of gender in the endless social 
restrictions of a male world. In Plant's book, she emerges also as a 
quite remarkable thinker. "All, and everything is naturally interrelated 
and interconnected", she wrote. "A volume I could write on this 
subject." In a sense, she did -- her correspondence.
Plant also explores the prehistory of computation in the automation of 
weaving. Jospeh Jacquard made the loom that might be the first piece of 
automated machinery. Lovelace's husband, Lord Byron spoke in parliament 
against the influence of these machines on the lives of the working 
people, but Charles Babbage owned a portrait of Jacquard, woven on one 
of his looms. He saw the early weaving factories as prototype "thinking 
Babbage saw the whole factory, not just the stand-alone machine, as a 
process of computation. A computer is just a node in a great mesh-work 
of flows, of people and materials and information. The computer has 
often been recruited to the fantasy of making the world over in the 
image of a unitary order, but it can also be a tool for assembling a 
much less hierarchical network of self organising processes. The world 
could be made over to look like one big factory -- or an endless bazaar. 
Take a look at the internet, Plant suggests, and you'll see that it 
comes closer to the latter. 
Another famous story of computation is Bletchley Park, where during 
world war II Alan Turing and others applied some of the earliest 
functional computing machines to the task of cracking German codes. Here 
again, Plant goes looking for another way to tell the story. "When 
computers were vast systems of transistors and valves which needed to be 
coaxed into action, it was women who turned them on." At Bletchley Park, 
those women numbered some two thousand. 
While technology is sometimes assumed to be a masculine thing, contrary 
to feminine 'nature', Plant stresses the extent to which the modern 
world was composed of -- and composed by -- great assemblages of women 
and machines. It was women who worked the telephones and the typewriters 
-- and the computers. For Plant, the future looks less like the 
masculine dream of an ordered world, planned from the top down, and more 
like the working practice of the vast armies of women who worked first 
the looms of industrial capitalism and then the office technologies of 
the postindustrial world. Beneath his fantasy of hierarchy and order was 
her network of heterogeneous tasks that got the job done. 
Plant has a particular take on the cultural crises that go with the rise 
of the decentred, networked world. Perhaps its no accident that Dr Freud 
was trying to put the unified self back together again at the turn of 
the century, when communication technologies were already breaking it 
apart. The gramophone, the typewriter and the cinematic image broke up 
the apparent unity of the senses, connecting each to a separate 
technology, outside the body, but threading parts of our selves together 
with parts of machines and mechanically produced information into a vast 
trans-human network.
Plant thinks that Freud's hysterical women patients were pioneers in the 
ways of coping with this mechanised information world that has overtaken 
all of us. For some of the ancient philosophers, women had so soul. For 
some of the modern psychologists, women were deficient in the male 
ability to unify the self and order the mind. 
But in the emerging technoculture, what were once disabilities might 
have a new value. "If the supposed lack of such a central point was once 
to women's detriment, it is now for those who thought themselves so 
soulful who are having to adjust to a reality in which there is... no 
central system of command in bodies and brain which are not, as a 
consequence, reduced to a soulless mechanistic device, but instead hum 
with complexities."
If there is an image from the natural world that for Plant might help us 
here, its from the microscopic world. As Ada Lovelace put it, "I walk 
about, not in a Snail-Shell, but in a Molecular Laboratory." Botany was 
once of the few scientific pursuits open to respectable women. "Skilled 
at sketching and pressing their specimens, they were also ahead of the 
game when it came to the use of shadowgraphs, daguerreotypes and other 
early photographic techniques." The first book illustrated with photos 
was British Algae, by the botanist Anna Atkins, published in 1843. In a 
world underwritten not by God by the natural sciences, Plant's book is a 
cunning and curious intellectual move. 

McKenzie Wark lectures in media studies at Macquarie University and is 
the author of Virtual Geography (Indiana 1994) and The Virtual Republic 
(Allen & Unwin 1997) 

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