Question: What's REALLY new about cyberspace? How is cyberspace "Imaginary" different from prior imaginaries vis a vis the Other? How is internet impacting on hierarchies within the university? What different gender, race and class access is there to internet, different uses of cyberspace, and different imaginaries of VR?
Answer: I come to this conference, not as someone with theoretical and scholarly expertise in virtual technologies, but as as a media scholar who has long studied the impacts of film and television on cultures and communities from feminist, and more recently, postcolonial perspectives. I am interested in comparing the ways in which the technologies of film and TV were resisted, controlled by producers, idealized, demonized and finally accepted by consumers into mainstream culture, with how new virtual or cyberspace technologies are currently being resisted, demonized and idealized. This is a particularly interesting moment in which to be looking at new cyberspace and virtual technologies because we have an opportunity to explore resistances, idealizations, demonizations and acceptances at the different stages of technological penetration into cultures and communities.
Much could be said about the uneven access to cyber technologies, and to different conceptions of them and uses of them according to class, gender and race; social positioning; power hierarchies. My own reference point or community upon which cyber technologies are impacting is the university. Here my concerns overlap with those of Professor Ulmer. These technologies have already had a major impact on the ways things are done within my sector of the university and within my scholarly and teaching communities--impacts which I will say more about in my conference space later on. Right now I want to mention my perception that the luddites, so to speak, are not so much at issue as the generation gap between those using and idealizing new cyber technologies, and those simply oblivious to or uninterested in, them and who continue to carry on business as usual. I don't see anti-technology communities so much as indifferent-to-technology groups.
One group that is indifferent to cyber technologies like the internet, for instance, are some second wave feminists. I hear that getting onto the internet is perceived as too much trouble, as only consuming one's time on trivia, as not worth it. The pity of this is the widening of a generation gap already too wide!
However, on the other hand, I see a difference between the many women making judicious use of cyber technologies, especially the internet, and the males who idealize, demonize or romanticize the technologies (I do not aim to essentialize here. I use these terms to represent behaviors rather than literal bodies. But bodies and behaviors are often aligned with biological sex.) Most hackers are males; most of the people on Wired magazine are males; although Australia and England seem to have spawned futurist female cyber hot shots, these are the exception rather than the rule. Typical for me of political female use of the internet is the case of women running the Yokohama Women's Forum in Japan. The woman in charge of "networking" has made links with women and women's groups globally through email with a view to bringing Japanese women into contact with feminisms everywhere--not something that has been common in Japan. These women have steadily and persistently collected data through a global questionnaire run on email, with quite startling results.
The idealization and glamourization of cyberspace is matched by the demonization stemming from Baudrillard and Kroker, and producing films like Lawnmower Man, and many other sci-fi fantasies. It is hard to find a mean between these polarized discursive constructions of virtuality, but I do think that the Japanese women's experiences and those of women elsewhere figure forth a commonsense understanding of the sheer use value of the internet for making possible communication, connection, the exchange of information, networking, indeed, which has all these years been so extremely difficulty due to time, space, geographic, linguistic distances. The internet allows all but language difference to vanish.
Males, meanwhile, typically less embodied, caring less about psychological connectedness, have taken to cyberspace with glee as a new tool for mastery, control, domination, power-plays, etc. The sheer challenge of the technologies excites and inspires males in western culture and has also inspired them to sci-fi fantasies. Not that women haven't also been inspired: but the problems posed by a Marge Piercy novel, for instance, like He,She,It or Octavia Butler's imaginary cyborgs who share genes and cure through bodily touch -- with its exploration of human/machine sex and of the differences between cyborg and human bodies--these are very different from the kind of violent creations of William Gibson vis a vis internet/cyber technologies. The imaginary cyberspace futures being constructed by males and females, and in part determining what that future will be like, need exploring for what we can learn about formations of technological matrix' and their gendering.
An important distinction in new technologies needs to be made between the CD-Rom and internet. CD-Rom technologies are far more conventional and not interactive like internet. They offer a comparison with the introduction of TV in the sense of showing the kinds of constraints that operate when marketing and profit are involved, and when norms of the culture have to be gauged if a product is to sell. So, I am exploring Bookshelf 95, Encarta 95, Cinemania 95 for what's included and what's excluded in these rather expensive CD-Roms. Canonical forms are experiencing a new lease on life in the CD-Roms in the "family packages." What's important is how CD-Roms and the internet are setting the agenda for future developments in these early days. It's always a question of who controls new technologies with what ends in mind.
E. Ann Kaplan