Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace

Dale Spender

The question of how women are faring in the on-line world is a timely and important one, and Dale Spender's recent work makes a thought-provoking contribution to the discussion of this subject. Moreover, her attention to the historical transition from oral and manuscript to print culture and its lesson for the contemporary shift from print to electronic culture make Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace relevant to communication studies in general.

Spender argues that there are critical lessons regarding the current "information revolution" to be learned from the last "revolution," during which print came into being. She begins the book by stating that the computer "is the site of wealth, power and influence, now and in the future. Women--and indigenous people, and those with few resources--cannot afford to be marginalised or excluded from this new medium" (p. xvi). Taking off from this premise, the book considers the characteristics of print culture; the claims of literature; and issues related to reading and authorship, the educational setting, and libraries, before moving on to a discussion of the specific challenges facing women wishing to participate actively in the electronic culture.

The chapter on print examines both the blessings and the burdens related to the advent of the printing press, but the focus is on the latter--in particular, the ways in which the uniformity and standardization which accompanied print actually meant a white, professional, male standard in such things as spelling, grammar, and word choices. In the case of English, for example, the goal was not necessarily improving communication through its use, but, rather, creating a clear division between elites and all others. Spender's main point in this discussion is that the new electronic media are based on pluralism and flexibility, thereby offering the opportunity for egalitarian participation and non-standardized content. In her consideration of literary canons, the selectivity of library systems, and the privilege--financial and otherwise--afforded "high culture" print authors, Spender proposes that the advent of electronic writing challenges the traditional print medium and its value, and presents opportunities for wider participation in the creation of meaning. The book's look at education contrasts the traditional "factory model" of schooling with the more flexible, personalized approach which Spender asserts is made feasible through electronic media--a point of considerable debate at the present time, I must note.

What might be considered to be the centrepiece of the book is the 87-page chapter entitled "Women, Power and Cyberspace." Spender reminds her readers of the ways in which "in the period after the introduction of print, the traditional knowledge of women was all but eliminated" (p. 165). In the current shift from print to electronic culture, her urging is that women not suffer comparable losses in the gains they have only relatively recently made; women must have a meaningful voice in the ongoing design of the cyberspace environment. However, barriers to women's full participation must be understood and addressed and Spender pays considerable attention to the gender differences in the ways boys and girls are socialized in relation to computer games and activities. Appropriately, she goes much further than this and analyzes the power dimensions at work in on-line environments which often spell out a highly masculine context in which women are "talked" over, ignored, "flamed," or sexually harassed in a variety of ways into retreat or at least silence. Nonetheless, Spender adamantly encourages women to appropriate computer networking, as they did the telephone, seeing the computer as a tool for communication, for "plugging into the biggest network to be devised, of making and maintaining friendships and contacts" (p. 192).

Nattering on the Net argues that "the most responsible stand that feminists can take is to find out how [cyberspace] works and to become decision-makers in the process" (p. 230). In making such a statement, the author makes an important call to women to embrace their potential role in staking a place on the net. Moreover, Spender wishes to see cyberspace as a potentially liberating space for women, one in which the print world's masculine standards are replaced by more egalitarian, pluralistic principles. For the potential that she sees and for the encouragement the book provides to women to get involved, I applaud Spender's efforts. On the other hand, her analysis of the barriers to involvement which women face is disappointingly lacking in its consideration of the related material obstacles. Instead of the very brief mention of the fact that women have, on average, less money than men to purchase a computer, training, and net time, a more thorough discussion of these matters might have been appropriate. Additionally, the "double ghetto" in which women tend to be trapped, which affords them considerably less leisure time than men on average, might have been examined as part of the dynamic of who is able to take time to learn and then use new skills. And, finally, although she concludes by laying out some of the pressing issues for cyber-society, some discussion of how women might avoid the marginalization she discusses at the beginning of the book and succeed in meaningfully influencing such debates would have been a worthwhile elaboration.

Nattering on the Net is an interesting read and Spender presents her ideas in an almost conversational manner--at times more like an electronic than a print presentation. The book is noteworthy in that it presents a feminist perspective on some aspects of the history of communication. Moreover, for anyone interested in developments in cyberspace, particularly as they relate to gender, it offers both an overview of some of the current issues and some intriguing propositions for consideration and debate.



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