Stephen Scardamalia
September 29, 1996
New Media
Andy Deck

In her book 'Nattering on the Net: Women, Power, and Cyberspace', Dale Spender discusses the evolution of print, communication, and the new electronic media. She makes many valid points about where print and society have been, and where they are headed.

One of the key issues she talks about is the reluctance of a large portion of society to accept the cultural shifts towards computers and the internet. She asserts that this situation mirrors that of the 15th century when the printing press revolutionized society, implying that we are on the verge of a communication and societal revolution, brought about by the computer. I believe the two situations are quite similar, and when I look at it from this point of view, I agree whole-heartedly that a revolution is just around the corner. For myself however, Spenders good ideas and points were often over-shadowed, and her arguements set back, by remarks that seemed irrelevant, false, or extremely biased.

Throughout the book, Ms. Spenders arguements elude to, and are sometimes based on, what could be reffered to as a feminist' point of view. This leads to her erroneous remarks on the origin and definition of the word sexism' (and its derivatives). First, she implies that sexism' was originally coined and used by women, but gives no informationon how she came to that conclusion. She refers to A Feminist Dictionary's definition of sexism as: "A social relationship in which males have authority over females." Now, seeing as how Spender regards the standard dictionary as being biased from a male point of view, it seems hipocritical to imply that the definition set forth by the feminist dictinary is more correct. She includes the following Macquarie Dictionary definition: "to stereotype a person according to gender and sexual preference." This seems to me, to be the best definition, because it can apply to a male or female. The words sex, sexism, sexual, and all other derivatives, are not gender specific! Ms Spender would have us believe that only men can be sexists, when it seems pretty obvious that sexism can often be a two-way street! Even if sexism originally refered to male biases only, Spender still contradicts herself, having previously stated that English is a dynamic language, and is becoming even more so with the computer revolution! And her own biases are again revealed when she says: "...send a few men to an unpleasant death..." (p 65).

Later, again adopting a feminist' point of view, Ms. Spender accuses university computer sciences courses of supporting "...abuse and harassment of women." This statement is outrageous! Especially when one considers that many such courses are taught by women! This statement implies that every man taking or teaching a computer science course is a sexist! She also likens university computer labs to a "men's changing-room at a major sporting event." She states that "The atmosphere is laden with testosterone, and the overwhelming message is that women are not welcome." Granted, I haven't been in many university computer labs, but the ones I have been in cover a wide social experience: Sarah Lawrence, and Cornell University. I have never witnessed in either, such anti-female sentiment as Ms Spender would have us believe exists. And much of information and judgements are based on someone else's studies of computer labs in primarily Australia and other countries! This is not a fairly representative study.

She goes on to discuss Lynda Davies' findings about male support staff engaged in cyber-sex late at night. The point has to be made that as an outlet for sexual aggressions or for potentially harmful sexual desires, the computer cannot be beat! Both participants are enjoying the situation, which is a phenomenally better alternative to acting out on a person in real life who does not consent, or does not want to be party to such actions. And if someone in a computer lab has a problem with such things, all they have to do is keep their eyes on their own screen. I found particularly offensive Ms. Spender's stereotyping (there's that hipocracy again) of male computer users as "nerds" and "techie-heads". Often, as is the case at the SLC computer lab, many lab assistants are female (1 in 3) and/or are there simply because they needed a job and find some enjoyment in working with computers.

She generalizes again saying "It's been there with cars...and it's there with computers as well...Men tend to see machines as an extension of their own anatomy; where technology and gender intersect." This is a gross generalization, because while it can't be denied that this mentality exists, it is not as pervasive as Ms. Spender makes it seem. The fact that I want a fast computer, with a big hard drive and memory extensions has absolutely nothing to do with my genetalia! These things are nescesary for the types of applications I want to run, and the things I want to produce. (Coincidentally, I also like souped-up hot rods. They can be seen as works of art, involving hundreds of hours of hard work and money to create a beautiful, precision machine. And are often owned by women.) It would serve no good to go on listing all the stereotypical or false remarks Spender makes about computer labs and assistants; suffice it to say, there are more, and it would be nice if she could have at least acknowledged the fact that there are pleasant labs and friendly, courteous assistants out there.

The next targets of Ms. Spenders' misguided attacks are computer games. She believes that one of the reasons for the lack of initial female interest in computers is due to the software that is available for youngsters. And she is basically right when she says that the goal of most of the games is "to kill as many people as possible..." However, the target is human probably only 30% of the time. The adversaries in most games are robots, or evil creatures. And she is way off-base when she says that the games have "a preference for violence against women." This is utterly and completely wrong! In only one game that I have ever played, is it even possible to kill a woman. And it is far from the goal of the game. In all others (that involve fighting/killing etc...) the target is a robot (Mechwarrior, Descent...) or a non-gender-specific alien creature ( Doom).

Ms. Spender even goes so far as to compare the emotional affects of game-deaths and book-deaths. She says "Death in a novel could in itself be traumatising.Evev now I can recall the terrible effect that the demise of Judy in Seven Little Australians had on me, along with Beth in Little Women. Two deaths in the thousands upon thousands of stories...and they still have the power to distress me." Ms. Spender seems to forget things like... character development and plot, which in a novel, allow the reader to develop a feeling of connection with the characters. A connection that is completely absent from computer games. Characters in books develop feelings and personalities in the readers mind, which is why their deaths can be upsetting. In a computer game, there are lots of two dimensional images (very rarely true 3D) that must be destroyed. They are not humans with feelings or personalities, they are computer-generated entities. And in my opinion, most computer users understand such differences.

In discussing the ‘rules of the road' for the information super highway, Ms. Spender begins, "In the real world, men dominate communication". And she continues later, "Not all men do this. Not all men choose to stick by the rules. But the fact that some men do not conform to the conversational code, does not mean the code ceases to operate...In choosing not to play by the rules...a man can be so noticeable that his behaviour serves as a reminder of the ground rules he is breaking, and this entrenches them still further." I have to pose the following question to Ms. Spender: Can men do anything right? It seems that in your eyes, we cannot. This is an obvious case of the old cliche ‘Damned if you do; damned if you don't.'

Ms. Spender continues her attack on male-dominated communication say ing, "Women are being kept out of cyber-communication with an electronic version of interruption and intimidation...the habit of line-by-line rebuttal of women's arguments; this is but another version of the "correction" statement, "What you mean is...", taken to the extreme." So I guess in my orderly rebuttal of her statements, I am interrupting and itimidating her. I apologize. Next time I have a difference of opinion, I'll state my case in an illogical sequence, skipping certain points, and maybe call someone up a week later to add a few thoughts. Her statements are absurd! How else do you go about arguing a point than in an orderly, line-by-line (point-by-point) manner? Yes, if you take the time to look around, men do the same thing to each other, and women do the same thing to members of both sexes!

Ms. Spender makes the following statements about ‘net communication: "The studies that have been done on communication on the net make it clear that it's more a male monologue than a mixed-sex conversation. The discourse is male; the style is adversarial. The premises are winning or losing...aggression, intimidation and plain macho-mode prevail." I don't know where she is finding her studies, or how much real on-line experience she has, but I can say (with much conviction) that my experience with mailing lists, chat lines etc... has 99% of the time been the opposite of what Ms. Spender describes. The members of the mailing lists relate to each other in a civilized, respectful way, and the chat lines are exactly that- a lot of chatting. By both sexes.

On page 212, Ms. Spender remarks about advertising: "Using sex to sell a product to men isn't new, of course: for decades, cars were sold by scantily-clad females, whose role it was to seduce the male buyer." It must be observed that while ads exploiting sex aimed at men are quite prevalent, there are plenty of examples of the reverse: men being used as sexual objects, to seduce the female buyer.

In discussing on-line pornography, Ms. Spender states: "I do not need to be convinced that pornography has a significant impact on the psyche - and the behavior - of the human beings who make use of it." I must argue that the effect of pornography depends entirely on the individual using/viewing it. If the user is a child or other mentally/socially underdeveloped person, then yes, porn can have a negative impact. But if the individual is mature, secure, and has developed their value system, then viewing pornography can be a simple, entertaining act, with no side-effects, or harmful consequences.

When Ms. Spender goes on to attack video games again, she says, "And the ‘target' for such violent abuse is female, more often than not." (p. 216) It is not clear whether she is referring directly to video games, or to the quote "...teenage violence is increasing everywhere at alarming rates." If she is referring to the games, then this statement demonstrates mind-boggling naivety on her part. (See previous discussion of this topic) While some opponents in games such as Mortal Kombat are female, the goal is not to destroy women, but to conquer the opponent. Some might even go so far as to say that this inclusion of women could be construed as equality of the sexes (this is not my view, only an interesting perspective.).

Ms. Spender believes that the makers/distributors of pornography should be responsible for proving a lack of dangerous effects of their material. (This is based on the ‘fact' that "...manufacturers cannot put a product on the market which might put public safety at risk." She seems to forget things like guns, knives, chains, etc...) But, this is extremely difficult to prove, because it requires inferences and conclusions based on intangibles - like mental states and conditions, and perceptions of different individuals whose reactions are totally unpredictable because of aforementioned characteristics - unlike obvious, documentable changes resulting from the use of products that are physically altering.

I also have to argue, that the use of pornography can be an much safer outlet of sexual ideas, tensions, deviances, than acting out. If a person has a desire for a certain fetish, pornography can fulfill the desire that might otherwise be released on an unwilling victim, which could be at the least, upsetting, and at worst, physically harmful.

So, that's the deal. I found some of Ms. Spenders comments to be infuriating and absurd. But considering these, and reading with an open mind, Nattering On The Net is probably worth reading. There are many interesting and valid points about the current state of the phenomenon known as the ‘Information Superhighway', and it's future, and women's relation to it. At the very least, it'll make you think.

Stephen Scardamalia, October 23, 1996 back