Then she got into the lift, for the good reason that the door stood open; and was shot smoothly upwards. The very fabric of life now, she thought as she rose, is magic. In the eighteenth century, we knew how everything was done; but here I rise through the air, I listen to voices in America; I see men flying–but how it’s done, I can’t even begin to wonder. So my belief in magic returns.
– Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Whenever I mention the fact that the world’s most prominent programmers in Computer Science’s early days were all women, the listener invariably asks me, “Why is that?”
To which I always think, Why not?
Sadie Plant’s book zeroes + ones explores changing social status of women in an Information Age that empowers them while they empower it. She relates computer programming to knitting, and pulling together Web 2.0 resources to working a loom. She dances with the online world’s anonymity, and how that tears down all the social contexts people previously used to pre-judge one another’s words. Plant does these things with prose that is complete chaos.
I discovered that Plant’s haphazard, non-linear romp through history, metaphor, and wild prose is a literary style known as Cyberfeminism, which is oddly inspiring. Her prose is delightful; her organization is terrible. For instance, she references Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, and then, a few chapters later, tells us what those laws are.
I would love to cut this book up into note cards of paragraphs and put it back together into coherency, but then it might lose it’s charm. A whirlwind of ideas lacking defined purpose appears to be what Cyberfeminism is all about.
A path is always between two points, but the in-between has taken on all the consistency and enjoys both an autonomy and a direction of its own.
– Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus
Her style is the essence of punk, intellectual, confrontational, and subversive. At first I was put off by some of those metaphors that usually turn me off to some feminist writers. Zeroes are made to represent vaginas at a point, ones are penises, which are then extrapolated into social views of women being empty, needing men to fulfill them. Although I find passages like this pretty silly, in the context of Plant’s book, I was okay with it.
She references science fiction novels and movies with cyberpunk and steampunk themes, such as Blade Runner, Eve of Destruction, and all of William Gibson’s novels, in support of Plant’s metaphor for women of the past being appliances, like computers, tasked with mundane work. Women are like the replicants or androids of science fiction, which break from their molds to empower themselves, rebelling against the authorities. As computers produce phenomenon beyond our expectations, so do empowered women.
And instead they watch the machines multiply that push them little by little beyond the limits of their nature. And they are sent back to their mountain tops, while the machines progressively populate the earth. Soon engendering man as their epiphenomenon.
– Luce Irigara, Marine Lover
There are many ways to bring women into the Computer Science fold. While I prefer strong, dispassionate reasoning, I believe Sadie Plant’s method, with its themes of rebellion, intellectual strength, and empowerment, is by far the much more effective means. Any tactic that inspires people to learn is a worthy tactic.
Because when we learn, we are programming ourselves.
Note: Quotes cited here, are cited in Zeroes + Ones, which is filled with such references.