‘They are surely happy,’ said the prince, ‘who have all these conveniencies, of which I envy none so much as the facility with which separated friends interchange their thoughts.’ —Samuel Johnson, Rasselas
… still, saved as we all are by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments — Jane Austen of Anne Elliot, Persuasion
What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. if we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”—— Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
Emma Thompson as Carrington in the 1995 film of that name, Jonathan Pryce as Lytton Strachey, scripted & directed by Christopher Hampton, adapted from Michael Holroyd’s biography — today she’d be on the Net, and a laptop might be in front of him too
Dear friends and readers,
I’ve had several thoughtful responses and have been moved to write again taking on a new aspect of the topic, or at any rate, a different perspective and emphasis.
I wrote my paper in 2006 and would like to think there has been progress in the area of understanding cyberspace experience itself as well as how cyberspace impacts on physical local (so to speak) space and vice versa. That people continue to try to understand the first, the interaction between physical/local space and what happens in cyberspace is so; this morning I saw a Call for Papers whose subtitle is “The Digital Turn” and its interest is how cyberspace is affecting book history studies; what they are after is how power relationships are changing and thus what’s written about. They are not concerned with cyberspace experience in and of itself. People who are those who would not be interacting with others the way they do if not for cyberspace and are listened to (say bloggers who are political but not hired by conventional newspapers or political organizations) are partly to blame for this, for that’s how they justify their presence on the Net. They are there for influence and social connection. To be sure, the latter is a strong part of why all people are on the Net, but it does not go anywhere near far enough in understanding what happens here.
And that’s hard. It’s one thing to say that content is only part of what’s happening and maybe not the most important, especially surface content; it’s another to try to articulate what are the equivalents to physical of what’s happening that influence content and make people behave on the Net the way they do. It’s easy to describe this through connection. Women learn early on to fear violence and humiliation; ergo, they are afraid, and rightly for them safety is the central issue. For men not so much; my experience here is men say (in off-list communications is where you learn this sort of thing) they don’t trust the other person posting; they can know too little for sure about them unless they’ve met them face-to-face or have some certain history about them and know this is their identity. This trust connects to holding onto a job and promotion and pride (saving face) — issues central to manliness, respect as a man as understood by our society.
And it’s not hard to take what is known about women’s psychology growing up — the real importance of intimate friendship as a support mechanism — and try to see how this works. The woman one commenter mentioned who pretended to be a male is escaping these continual influences or pretends she is. This woman was apparently (someone known to all) a tenured professor. I suggest therefore she is also successful because she is credentialed high. Katha Pollit has that and it makes a big difference in how people react to her postings on the Net.
Two responses were about false identities on the Net. One friend I know revels in games where he says that in fact these false identities are aspects of ourselves that we get to be, or act out (using the common life is a stage metaphor) there where we can be them nowhere else. Another inveighed against it when the identity was presented as real on a list-serv or blog. Said she was “very offended,” a phrase I note that is not much in use in physical local space but is a common way of beginning a debate or quarrel with someone on the Net. It’s put in polite terms but what it means was “you piss me off” or “how dare you,” a stance people don’t dare face-to-face unless they are willing to take the argument very far (into something physical or vengeful).
I do dislike intensely the false identities on the Net but know from the get-go, in its origin, people immediately began to take advantage of that, and a lot of people appear to love it. Those who play games don’t seem to care in the least that what they are doing will have nothing to do with what happens in real space. At least they hope so. (Sometimes they are caught up and find they are badly hurt in the real world because they have believed a false identity). I find it to be cheating, a fundamental lying but that’s because I want experience on the Net to count, though it need not in regular physical space to count.
The reality is there are a whole group of peculiar circumstances on the Net not replicated in regular physical space which are at work (how is it she speaks to me? knows something, though not much, of me? she does), elements which keep some people from posting (all these unknown make them nervous) and which encourage others to post (I’m more comfortable and freer when I am not looking at someone’s face, can speak so much more freely). The largest is it’s a writing space; you have to have a writing self, love writing and not be bothered with revealing this self which is a more private self than the social one.
In my paper the best book was Technology and Women’s Voices: Keeping in Touch (ed. Chris Kramarae) and after that Women@Internet (ed. Wendy Harcourt) because they really genuinely looked at women — for example, that we are so much less technically educated, so much more uncomfortable with technology — but both and (from the title you see this) Communities in Cyberspace essays (ed Marc C. Smith and Peter Kollock) include one on women tenants empowering themselves to fight a local landlord) (are often most on about how cyberspace and regular physical space interact. A slew of individual essays in periodicals were very good too but I no longer remember which was most helpful. For me whose identity is partly that of an academic these were Jill Arnold and Hugh Miller, “Same Old Gender Plot? Women Academics’ Identities on the Web,” paper presented at Cultural Diversities in/and Cyberspace Conference, University of Maryland, 2000; Jill Arnold and Hugh Miller, “Academic masters, mistresses and apprentices: gender and power in the real world of the web,” Mots Pluriels, 19 (October 2001).
My husband Jim taught Information Technology: he’d have 1 or 2 women to 11or 12 men every time. Conferences are 90% male and the women there are often in personnel. The kind of talk men indulge in as social grease is highly sexist and makes women uncomfortable. Men don’t want these women there so they can carry on that way.
I concluded that the internet was an equivalent of the railway in the 19th century in changing our world because I took on that aspect too. People using the railway did not get to say where it would stop or how be organized. That’s what women are today still.
But today I want to begin to dwell on another aspect, one as or more crucial. You can see it’s ignored because most photos on the Net are of people apart from their home environment, on a laptop, shown in business places, out on the street (buying hotdogs as a joke), and mostly with other people around, people in rows with laptops. That’s not accurate. Yes the cell phone has become a little computer in our hands, but that’s someone phoning someone else, acting pragmatically most of the time, killing time too, distracting themselves as with crossword puzzle. It’s not computer cyberspace experience that leads to blogs, websites, web-rings, list-servs.
Much of that time on the Net is spent at home, alone outside (it can be a common room, a library, a coffee place where you can sit for hours), ensconced in an individualized environment.
It needs someone or a group like that of Freud and his early disciples to really delve this new area of life, new way of communication. A great deal of what people write is about how a newspapers and communities in regular conventionally organized physical space are impacted by someone who has the courage to break social and political codes, manners, and tell real truths or falsehoods on the Net. It’s not just a matter of finding analogies for family life. Maybe it seems impossible to do but in the 1880s it would have seemed crazy to come up with Freud’s theories and nowadays it’s all commonplace and some of it essential to understand what happens to us. My intuition tells me we have to begin with a new experience of solitude (with others there and not there), how this is recuperative. Then how people feel when they are alone in the pre-cyberspace way, and how much this empowers some when they know they are alone (and hence as women in the immediate sense safe) and how these feelings are transformed into something new. What kind of person does it empower? why? what has been their background to make them feel so? we have to get over dismissing the very real urge of people to be asocial at crucial moments of their lives.
We need to think about how much we can reach on the Net and why it is so vital to keep it un-exclusive. How much information and insight one can have in a day by reading on the Net it would not just take years of books to have, but would not be in books. What are the conventions of postings, list-servs, blogs, webrings that make them so different from what is put into still unchangeable print.
We need to think about why face-book where people do identify themselves and form small but distant groups is so enjoyable. Not scold people and despise them as delusional. They are not. We need to understand the dysfunctional nature of a lot of physical local life and how hollow it can be, impossible to find any satisfaction in. What happens at twitter? Why is this place important to the people doing it, not the important people outside the Net quoting and writing about it.
We need to be frank and examine the hurts people experience on the Net. What are the specific circumstances each time? how did the relations unravel when they would not have in physical local space apart from not being face-to-face. What was allowed and what came out? What were the results? If we cannot tell them aloud to others on the Net individually, think individually and then generalize.
Finally, two people, one the same as the above, brought up the issue of gender lying. Both women. I wonder if men would bring this up. It’s a separate issue. She said to watch a woman, say Sally, pretend successfully to be a man, discuss football, sex as a man, be aggressive and be respected (and perhaps help Sally’s life outside the Net) made her want to be a man intensely. It is possibly true that a woman can and experience power because on the Net she can have an imaginative experience of being a man, and in cyberspace that’s as good as physical experience. There is such a thing as internet sex. For my part, I would never want to be a man, never have. I don’t know how usual or unusual that is for someone who is a feminist. I don’t care that being a woman gives me much less power in most areas because my experience is this particular lack is not much worse than my class (which I saw robbed me from the time I could understand my environment), who I was born to, how little money or connections I had in growing up or after.
It’s not just the old Austen saying (Anne Elliot) that we like ourselves best after all and do not want to trade (see epigraphs at the top of the blog). It’s that I know myself fundamentally as a woman that’s what I want to be. I do think of myself first as much a woman as a person. Frankly (Rhett Butler stuff) I’m relieved that I never have had anyone tell me I had to support a family, had to have a certain kind of job to do so. I’m glad to have options women are given like staying home if I have another source of income beyond marketplace work remuneration. I’m glad to be free by option of having to do well in social interaction to rise to power. It’s not expected of women and they can survive without it and (if they have brains) even now when masculine values have taken over women’s worlds, can still ignore or cast it aside. I dislike and reject some of the disadvantages. I felt under no obligation whatsoever to have children. But then I basically regard life as in itself meaningless and all these things are unreal and one can if lucky pick and choose — and can try insofar as each of us can (what are our genes, where born, to whom, what gender, race, class). Like Woolf, I see that women don’t have identities in the same way at all as men; our gender cuts across all these and cuts us off from much power that comes with this or that identity.
But then gentle reader I do prefer women’s books to men’s, women’s films, women’s poetry.