Associate-Professor Keng Chua
Centre for Media Communications and Asian Studies
Faculty of Arts,
PO Box 157, Lismore, NSW 2480 Australia
In this paper, I wish to look at the both the technologies of gender and the
technologies of knowledge, which includes the technologies of writing, reading
and communication, as they converge in this new technology called the
WorldWideWeb.What I want to do in this webtext is to locate the gender
discourses surrounding the Web and to explore some issues relating to the
design, organisation, control and use of the web as a gendered space and
facility. This is by no means a complete dsicussion of the subject and in the
spirit of web hypertextual connetivity I hope this will open up other pathways
to link to future exploration of gender and the web.
The "re-presenting" of knowledge
The WorldWideWeb is a new technology of knowledge in so far as it enables the
construction, organisation and dissemination of information. Information is the
raw data by which knowledge is constructed primarily through the process of its
organisation and management. What is useless trivia to one person may become
useful knowledge if its is organised and managed for its relevance. The Web is
potentially a powerful technology of knowledge, not just a linked facility for
storing information or documents. The connectivity of documents of information
has allowed for new ways of organising and building knowledges, of traversing
traditional disciplines in a more intimate manner - you can draw on a document
in say, the hard sciences, and one from the arts, all within the same frame -
and of potentially connecting all the knowledges in the world. Hence its name.
It enables a kind of framing that yokes disparate disciplines together and in
so doing create a new montage of knowledge. And the fluidity of its frames and
framework present us with new ways of looking at old knowledges. It
re-presents knowledges and forces us to acknowledge the comparativity and
fluidity of the structures of `truths'. Readers do not have to adhere to
authorial or editorial organising structures. They can re-organise and
dismantle such structures to suit their own topical interests. In the act of
electronic access, they also perform a re-organising task. The organising
principle of the web also makes the network of links and associations with
other texts `visible and explicit to an extent never before possible' (Bolter,
1991:113). In this way the new technology of writing and reading as operative
in the Web dismantles the strict hierarchy of printed texts such as those
found in a book. At the same time, it prevents closure in narrative and
non-narrative structures, since texts can be linked almost infinitely in the
Web. It promotes a non-linearity of argument and different organisation of
The deconstructionists, notably Barthes and Derrida, and even Wittgenstein
before them have attacked linear hierarchy in writing and proposed that `the
end of linear writing is the end of the book' (Derrida, 1976:86-7).In this
sense Derrida was prescient and the Web has borne out his new way of reading,
writing and the construction of knowledge. In this way the Web can be seen as a
new technology of weaving the fabric of knowledge. Once again a technology has
come about as a new culture of knowledge has pre-empted; the new technology has
not determined the new culture, but it has become its handmaiden and thus
enables the operability of the new knowledge structure which is now seen as
fluid and interlaced rather than permanently fixed on the page. This is yet
another example of how technological changes have reinforced the emergence of
Technologies of gender
In the same way, the newer technologies of gender have forced us to re-think
certain `truths' about gender construction and re(-)presentations. Whereas in
the past, gender was conflated with biological sex, we can now think in terms
of gender construction and re-construction. Simone de Beauvoir first hit on
this in her seminal work, The Second Sex (1949) which critiques the
hierarchical binary structure of gender organisation of her generation. In her
thesis that ` a woman is not born, she is made', she paved the way for a
re-thinking of gender spaces, roles, ideologies, values, beliefs and behaviour.
Gender has come to be thought of not as essentially given, but as socially and
culturally constructed, not as hierarchical and fixed but as equitable and
At the same time, gender studies scholars have pointed to gender construction
as the `product of various social technologies, such as the cinema, and of
institutionalised discourses, epistemologies, and critical practices ,as well
as practices of daily life' (de Lauretis, 1987:2). Social emphasis on gender
differences has also lead to differences in designations of spaces and
behaviour for different genders. Traditionally masculinity has been linked with
the logical, technical and rational while femininity has been linked with the
emotional, intuitive and irrational (see Threadgold, 1990; Curry-Jansen, 1989,
Spender, 1985, Saco, 1992 and Chapman & Rutherford, 1989). Such cultural
representations of gender have led to the division of spaces and activities
designated as more suited or productive for one gender rather than the other.
On the other hand, deconstruction of such representations and discourses have
pointed to new ways of thinking about gender spaces and activities resulting in
more blurrings of gender boundaries and a re-mapping of gender terrains. The
new femininities which seek to challenge the old structure of positing women as
illogical and irrational have led to a movement towards the public, `rational'
sphere for women. At the same time the new masculinities have allowed for men's
involvement in activities formerly designated as women's domestic realm. This
new masculinity has also allowed for the respectability of the computer `nerd'
and web and internet `surfer'. It has permitted, too, games which allow for
gender switches such as in MUDs and MOOs. These gender re-mappings and activity
switches have in turn reinforced cultural de-/re-constructions of gender. It is
not surprising, therefore, to note the heat of the contest for gender space now
fought in cyberspace.
What's in a name?
But what's at stake and what's in a name? The word `web' certainly connotes
traditionally feminine activities such as weaving, spinning and even, looming.
`Web' is defined by the Macquarie Dictionary as `Something formed by weaving or
interweaving; a thin silken fabric spun by spiders,.. a woven fabric, esp. a
whole piece of cloth in the course of being woven or after it comes from the
loom; anything resembling this, as seeming to be interlaced, tightly woven, or
closely linked; a tangled intricate state of circumstances, events, etc .. a
large reel of paper , esp. as used in certain types of printing. in medieval
and old English: webbe : akin to weave'. In other words the name itself would
connote activities traditionally associated with feminine domains. So the web
can be considered in terms of feminine connotations and yet the discourses
surrounding the activities involved in constructing or using the web connote
more traditionally male activities such as surfing, cruising and crawling
rather than weaving, spinning or looming. Henley and Kramerae (1991) points to
the macrolevel power of such linguistic usage:
Structural, male dominance favors the growth of faulty
linguistic systems, including dominant metaphors, which express primarily bmale
exoerience and further add to making women a muted group - leading to further
problems in communication. (Henley and Kramerae, 1991:40
-41)Moreover, researchers such as Spender (1993) and van
Zoonen (1992) have pointed out that discourses that emphasise the exclusion of
women from the information society or their lack of interest or pleasure in
such technology construct a social domain in which there is no place for women
or femininity. Frissen (1992) notes that what is striking in terms of research
into new information and communication technologies is the absence of gender
discussion on the research agenda. She refers to the research by Golding and
Murdock (1986) which outlines how the new communication media replicate
existing structures of inequality. Hepworth and Robins (1988) as cited by
Frissen in their case study of Northern England notes the existence of familiar
problems of social, economic and regional inequality in the adoption of new
communication technologies. Ferguson (1986) notes the dearth of research and a
`neo-technological determinism' where the advantages and disadvantages of new
communication technologies to differing social groups `remains remarkably and
perhaps deliberately underexplored'. At this stage, however, we can say that
potentially such a cyberspace realm is open to both genders - masculine and
feminine - and perhaps could also be made to cater to androgynous endeavours.
Web or archival space
We can look at the Web as cyberspace as archival space or cyberspace as media
space, most probably as both, much like the view of photo-energy as particles
and as waves. I draw the analogy to the library, not only because the Web acts
as a facility much like the library by archiving (storing) stacks (incidentally
the word `stacks' is also technical library term) of documents - hypertexts -
which may be both intertextual and interlinked. Accessing these `stacks' is, of
course, is characterised by speed and ease rather than by a lengthy process of
manual activities performed by the librarian on the instruction of the user. In
other words, the user and the librarian are conflated in the act. If we look at
the Web as such a facility , the potential for women harnessing the space is
both great and small. The keepers of the physical archive - the library - are
mostly women and there also many female `chief' curators. And the users
comprises both men and women. At the same time, the canons kept in libraries,
the books, are mostly male dominated. There are many more male writers than
there are female writers whose works are canonised in this manner. The process
of canonisation can be traced to the library's roots - that of the
monastic/religious archive where monks were both keepers and scribes. That is,
they were both the producers and managers of knowledge and information archived
in this way. Scholarly discourse surrounding the Internet in which the Web is
located has pointed out its masculine/militaristic origins - its link to the
US Department of Defense project, ARPANET. Researchers cited by Wajcman (1991)
and van Zoonen (1992) suggest that such origins may weigh heavily in the
interest of one gender at the expense of the other. They point to the common
patriarchal and sexual imagery which reflect ` the male domination of all
powerful public institutions' (Wajcman, 1991:38) and extend this to computing
technology which is also heavily dominated by men. So the analogy and link of
the web to the library in this way can be seen as an alternative to such
discursive determinist positions. At the same time, noting the masculinsation
of the archival canons, there is still course for concern about the equity of
access to women in terms of input into design and production, although in the
past twenty years or so women have been involved in changing the canon by
writing and publishing. On the other hand, Spender has warned that women are
being written out of the new communications techologiess, just as they begin to
make their presence felt in the old book publishing technology. In fact, the
new technologies such as the web will become the sites which replace book
stores, publishing houses and the old technologies of reading and writing.
Webspace as media space
We can also view the cyberspace of the web as another form of media space in
which all the various channels of the mass communications such as print, aural,
visual and kinetic media can potentially, and have been, webbed together.
Within such a framework if we were to consider webspace as media space, there
is greater concern regarding issues of gender equity when we take into account
the gendered history of mass communications. Most of the public media are
dominated by men to the extent that not only are producers and presenters of
the media mostly male, but their content and discourse reflect such
predominantly masculine presence. For example in the film industry in the
People's Republic of China, one of the world's most well developed film
industries which employ around 100,000 film workers, with a system sanctioned
by a communist government whose original project is a commitment to gender
equity in society, only around one-third of these are women. Elsewhere in more
capitalist countries, the record is extremely poor, not only for films, but
also for all the various forms of the media. At the same time, media
representations of women and their content reflect an agenda geared towards a
male `gaze' (Mulvey, 1989). Coupled with the common discourse of locating the
internet and the web in computing technology, again a domain heavily dominated
by men, the projection of the web as masculine may become self-fulfilling.
There are lessons to be learned here.
Gender opportunities and the Web
On the other hand, as work shifts into domestic space and away from corporate
offices with the possibility of working at home, women may be empowered in the
new technology which makes entry into the public sphere unnecessary. Women have
always been at home in both senses of the phrase with domestic technology, such
as for instances, kitchen appliances. It now remains to be seen which culture
will domesticate this cyberspace - cultural openness which permits new ranges
of femininities and masculinities or the old divisions which lock men and women
to different territories.
Technologies of the highways and vehicular transportation have presented no
barriers to use by any gender, although the technology that goes into building
cars may not be easily apprehended by the ordinary driver. Yet unlike cars and
highways, This new technology is about knowledge construction and cultural
construction, not just about usaging but about shaping knowledge and culture.
Knowledge should empower women as much as men to make forays into new
conceptual spaces and expand intellectual borders; it should empower those who
do not share equitable intellectual space. Kaplan and Farrell (1994), in
Weavers of Webs: A Portrait of Women on the Net, a study of a
group of young women's usage of the Web, cites one participant as saying that
`even as I was inducted into this world [of the net], I invoked changes in
it... You create the net in the act of accessing it'. Indeed, a search on Web
sites has revealed that women are also busy staking claims on the new
technological terrain.Women have already begun to stake claims on certain web
terrains. They have created, amidst a proliferation of web sites constructed
by men, certain spaces in which to explore their own cultural knowledge. For
example women's WWW sites include topics and domains for discussion such as
gender and sexuality, women's health, women in computing science and
engineering, women's studies programs amd women's centers, women in academica
and industry, women's handbook, womens's studies, women's wire etc.
The Web and the internet will continue to remorph gender, and in so doing
dissolves gender boundaries as well as discipline boundaries. In this way the
new technologies of knowledge in conjunction with the new technologies of
gender will enable the de-territorialisation of knowledge. It is at this point
that women should seize the opportunity for unless they are there to shape and
manage, they might find themselves/ourselves being shaped and managed once
again through the new technologies.
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