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27 September 2019updated 02 Oct 2019 9:28am

Why the internet needs cyberfeminists more than ever

In the web's early days, a group of feminist thinkers argued technology wasn't just for men. Today, their ideas have gained renewed urgency. 

By Sanjana Varghese

The year is 1992, and on the side wall of an art gallery in Sydney, Australia, a huge billboard appears overnight. Erected by an obscure group of artists who go by the name VNS Matrix, it features provocative, slightly nonsensical statements: “we are the virus of a new world disorder, disrupting the symbolic from within”. The billboard is a call to arms from a nascent movement of “cyberfeminists” intent on urging women to reclaim technology. It was, in many ways, ahead of its time.

In the 1990s, cyberspace was still an exciting new frontier. The internet was young, imaginative and open – a place of boundless possibility, where people could assume whichever identity they wanted. Out of these utopian origins, a movement known as “cyberfeminism” began to grow. It combined feminist energy with a philosophical bent, producing art and manifestos with an irreverent, raucous tone that stressed the need to interrogate technology. 

Some 20 years later, the web has taken a darker turn. Its early pioneers have since become its critics. Problems that we’re now encountering, from election interference to social media trolls and deep fake videos, are the products of an internet that has shed its early optimism. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – cyberfeminism is having a moment in the sun.

One of its pioneers was artist and academic Cornelia Sollfrank. “Cyberfeminism really designates the spirit of the Nineties,” she tells me. “I realised there is a new interest from younger people, and I started to get invitations to speak at conferences and give talks about four or five years ago”.

“The situation is completely different, and so cyberfeminism cannot be the same thing it was 25 years ago.”

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In 2017, the Institute of Contemporary Arts held cyberfeminist international, a gathering of thinkers and artists who were invited to discuss its legacy. This weekend, the inaugural feminist literary festival New Suns will be taking place at the Barbican in London, where attendees and speakers will examine the relationship between gender, technology and literature. 

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For people who grew up only knowing a world with Google, the tenets of cyberfeminism are an attractive counter to technology’s dominant narrative. Silicon Valley – and its attendant culture of “tech bros” – is often positioned as a masculine domain. The original cyberfeminists refuted this narrative and insisted that women had always been involved in creating technology.

As The Old Boys Network, a satirical feminist art collective, wrote in their “anti-manifesto” that was published to coincide with the first cyberfeminist international gathering in 1997: “cyberfeminism is not about boring toys for boring boys”.

The origins of the movement are cloudy. In 1985, Donna Haraway, a professor at the University of California, published the “Cyborg Manifesto”, an essay in the Socialist Review. Haraway’s ideas were radical: she called for a rejection of rigid boundaries between humans and animals, and asserted that the cyborg is “a creature in a post-gender world”. Technology was redrawing the boundaries of identity. “The physical body became less important, and there was this possibility of playing with identities,” Sollfrank says. 

Others argued that women’s relationship with technology goes back even further – in ways that are often ignored. In an essay published in 1995, the British philosopher Sadie Plant argued that computers can be traced to the history of weaving, because its complex process pulls together and integrates several threads into one cloth. 

The seminal science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, meanwhile, in an essay that Ignota Books is re-issuing for New Suns, developed what became known as the “carrier bag theory of fiction” – the idea that the first technology or tool wasn’t the spear or sword carried by a hero, but rather the sacks and bags that women used to transport food for their families. Beneath this theory was a deeper significance: technology isn’t about dominating the natural world, but caring for those around us.

Today, the web has become a fertile petri dish for hate. Gamergate, where a woman who worked in video games was harassed, doxed and abused online by men, portended many of the internet’s darker recesses. The cyberfeminists’ vision now seems like a discordant relic from a sunlit age. 

“I just think that none of us foresaw what everyone’s talking about now – that so much terrible stuff would be on the net, and that it would be a source of harassment and all this alt-right stuff,” says Judy Wajcman, a professor at the London School of Economics and the author of Technofeminism. 

“Why wouldn’t we think about cyberspace as an imaginative space? There was a huge amount of optimism.”

The incursion of facial recognition and artificial intelligence into everyday life, coupled with privacy scandals involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, have kindled growing unease about technology – for who it’s made, and by whom it’s owned.  

“Technological knowledge is power, more than ever, and people who are in power don’t want to give it away. They don’t want to share their knowledge,” says Sollfrank. “Being able to just post on Facebook isn’t technological competence.”

So Mayer, a poet and author who has been on the edges of cyberfeminism since the 1990s, tells me that part of the reason for its resurgence is the emphasis its founders placed on transmitting knowledge. 

“Technology can… enable us to build an archive and care for the work of those who have gone before us. Cyberfeminism is about making things which help us to connect to each other, further our communities and heal each other.” 

In this sense, Le Guin’s carrier bag theory provides a necessary bulwark to the ideas of technology founders intent on “disrupting” the status quo with shiny and often superfluous inventions. 

At the time of its inception, cyberfeminism was an obscure movement that received little attention beyond a fringe of thinkers. “People were not interested,” Wajcman says. “Now, there’s a new wave of technology, some people say there’s a fourth wave of feminism, and there’s renewed energy. Young women are emboldened enough to stake this stuff on.” 

Not all of it remains relevant, of course. Cyberfeminists focused on technology as a liberating force – an approach that feels incongruent with the unequal reality of the “sharing economy”, where Amazon workers labour in inhumane conditions and Uber drivers have few of the protections afforded by traditional employment. 

These may be part of the reason why cyberfeminism – despite its increasing relevance – is almost a historical project. Sollfrank says the movement is a product of the 1990s, and that she prefers to use the term technofeminism to address today’s challenges. 

But the thinking of these feminist predecessors is still urgent and valuable, even if only some of it remains completely relevant. Rather than playing into our current narratives around technology, it offers a liberating account of an alternate future, where technology is harnessed and configured for other more just purposes.