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Mindy Seu, 2021Photography Alexa Viscius

Mindy Seu: cyberfeminism ‘has shifted from utopia to dystopia’

Liara Roux talks to the New York-based writer about her new book, The Cyberfeminism Index – a comprehensive study of the radical online movement, tracing the work of Donna Harraway, VNS Matrix and Sadie Plant

Mindy Seu is a New York-based designer and technologist who has spent her career working with digital archives – and now, she’s made one of her own. The Cyberfeminism Index is a compendium of cyberfeminist works from the 1980s to the present day. Appropriately, it first came into being in 2019 as a Google Sheet that went viral, before metamorphosing into a website, and now a book.

Cyberfeminism is a word that links many people who write, think, and make art about the internet, from a feminist perspective. When I asked Seu to define it, she offered the elusive response that “everyone has a different definition of cyberfeminism” which only opened further questions in my mind. Despite its unresolved state, one thing is clear: cyberfeminism is of utmost importance. In an era where the wild growth of the web is choked out by social media-walled gardens, we need ways to talk about our digital experiences – both for fending off corporate control and envisioning alternate futures. 

With Cyberfeminism Index, Seu has made something of a canon for anyone who wants to get up to speed, featuring mainstays like Donna Harraway, VNS Matrix, Sadie Plant, and Radhika Gajjala, but she stresses that cyberfeminism itself is in a constant state of flux. It lends institutional validation to works that might have otherwise disappeared into the noise of information overload. A hefty tome; not quite a Bible, but an archive – and a beautiful one at that.

What inspired you to make an index for cyberfeminism?

Mindy Seu: I’ve always leaned on spreadsheets as a way to organise my thoughts, as a journal, event planner, or resource guide for myself. But as I searched for net artworks or writings on critical technologies, I found it really difficult to find more information. This was surprising because people in my own community were so active in this space, so I was inspired to make this resource compendium for them and myself. When I shared it with people to see if they had something to add, the list went mini-viral, and everything snowballed from there.

Do you feel like being able to share information via digital spreadsheets has unique potential?

Mindy Seu: Spreadsheets have been around almost since we’ve had the ability to write. Think about clay tablets; they’ve long been a form of record keeping. Now with Google Drive and other cloud-based tools, they’re so easy to share. People have started using spreadsheets in unusual and unintended ways, from diaries, timelines, or multi-tab publications that are open access. Spreadsheets can be quite personal, too.

There have been a lot of viral spreadsheets in the past few years. What was that popular one – the problematic media men?

Mindy Seu: Yes! They’ve become a beacon for calls to action. This really boomed during the pandemic and Black Lives Matter. Info-activism became another form of protest – people compiled and allocated lists of resources or even Google Drive folders full of PDFs and readings. It was completely open source, and it felt like a grassroots public library. 

The first time I interacted with your Cyberfeminism Index, it was no longer a spreadsheet. It was a website. What was the process of making the website like?

Mindy Seu: I worked with my good friend, Angeline Meitzler. We were really thinking about two primary questions. First, how do we visualise citations? And second, how do websites age? 

Many of the websites that I tried to include, whether they were educational or artworks, had degraded. Because of this, many of the websites in the Index link back to preservation tools or digital emulators like the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine or Rhizome’s Conifer. However, the sites that stood the test of time, nearly three decades later, were static sites using HTML and CSS without the use of third-party libraries or novel scripts. Whether it was intentional or not, those websites seem to be future-proofed. Because of this, our website looks a bit like a Web 1.0 static site. That design decision wasn’t meant to feel nostalgic – it instead refers to what we learned from those sites that manage to live on today. So as long as I keep renewing that domain, it will stay online, hopefully for the foreseeable future.

‘Everyone has heard the warning that if you put something online, it’ll be there forever. But sometimes [they] die, or we’re so inundated with content that you’re no longer able to find it. Because there’s just so much content’ – Mindy Seu

I like the experience of using it. It feels very natural. I know it wasn’t intended to be nostalgic, but it made me think of my time on various GeoCities sites.

Mindy Seu: Totally, it does feel like a throwback to those platforms. But as you interact with the site, these conventions become unusual. Buttons grow, text glows green. As you click through each of the entries, they’re added to the side panel or what we call the “trail.” It’s a record of how you’re surfing, thus creating associative links. Afterwards, you’re able to download your selections as a custom PDF reader. We don’t store any of that information on the backend; it’s a selection only for the reader. I’m fairly pro-piracy and many digital archivists believe duplication is essential for longevity.

How did you feel about the process of translating this website into a physical book?

Mindy Seu: Working in online spaces for so long, I’ve seen how quickly these websites end up with link rot. Books tend to have more posterity. It also felt like a hack – in certain academic writings, citations or sources are weighted depending on where they’re from or who wrote them. Some systems weight citations of printed matter higher than digital matter or new media because it’s considered more legitimate. It’s a form of gatekeeping. The book also acts as a document or snapshot of the online index, a living complement that’ll continue to grow. The hard copy of the soft copy. I’ve always felt like books and websites are very complementary. 

People have this idea of the internet being forever, but if you’ve ever spent time clicking on old links, or visiting old sites, it’s evident that websites are a very ephemeral medium.

Mindy Seu: Absolutely. I’m sure everyone has heard the warning that if you put something online, it’ll be there forever. Sometimes that’s the case. But sometimes two other things happen. One, website lifespans are only a couple of years on average; so it’ll most likely die. Or, two, it may stay online, but we’re so inundated with content that you’re no longer able to find it. Because there’s just so much content. Information overload can also be a form of opacity or erasure. 

Information overload is a sort of psychological warfare. Russia and the US and probably China all seem to use it as propaganda, as a population control mechanism.

Mindy Seu: It’s also representative of what information is overloaded, so others are buried. That seems to be quite strategic as well.

Do you feel like cyberfeminism has shifted a lot over the years? What’s your take on its birth, and how it has evolved?

Mindy Seu: There has always been a feminist lens of new technologies. People were doing this in the 50s, 60s and 70s. However, the Index starts around 1991 when “cyberfeminism” was coined simultaneously by VNS Matrix, an Australian art collective, and Sadie Plant, a British cultural theorist. It’s a commentary on how marginalised people could envision what cyberspace or techno-utopia could be. Prior to this, the mainstream understanding of techno-utopia was driven by “hard” science fiction novels written by men. They focus on toys of the future and treat women as objects or assistants, cyberbabes or femme bots. It was a very two-dimensional view of cyberspace.

Many cyberfeminists in the early 90s were citing Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto. There were experimental net art sites and static web pages. Much of it was educational, explaining how to get online. At this time, commonly called Web 1.0, personal computing and access to the internet were not widespread. To this day, up to 40 per cent of people in the world do not have access to the internet. That limits how we might think about this “ubiquitous” tool. 

During the shift into Web 2.0 and the rise of platforms, the internet started to feel a bit more templated. People were no longer coding and publishing their own websites; they were using pre-existing pages on websites to publish materials. The focus shifted to content. There was more hashtag activism, more social media activism. People could find others that were thinking about similar things, even without close proximity. Social media became a way to aggregate these various online movements. The internet then became extremely commodified through platform oligopolies and we saw widespread disillusionment about the internet’s potentials. 

Now, as we segue into Web 3.0, there’s a shift away from a screen-based internet towards a physical one, as well as towards economy and ecology. The internet and its infrastructure have a massive environmental impact. Cyberfeminists push back against commodification and colonisation, creating new avenues for resource allocation. It’s fascinating to see these different waves. It also differs depending on the region, because cyberfeminism in the US is different from cyberfeminism in Latin America or in East Asia. The book tries to map out these very rhizomatic threads.

For better or for worse, scepticism and dystopic leanings have increased. That said, there are definitely pockets of people who feel that work can be done, and that the internet can be salvaged’

Do you feel like cyberfeminist theory has shifted over the years from an optimistic vision of technology to anti-surveillance and anti-capitalism?

Mindy Seu: In the broadest overview, it has shifted from the promise of utopia towards dystopia. It’s now mainstream to see the dystopian uses of these tools; my mum mentioned something about tracking and I was amazed that it even crossed her mind. The danger here becomes the appropriation of activism as an advertising tool, like Apple’s privacy campaign. For better or for worse, scepticism and dystopic leanings have increased. That said, there are definitely pockets of people who feel that work can be done, and that the internet can be salvaged. I would agree with that.

What do you think is the future of cyberfeminism?

Mindy Seu: It’s exciting and eye-opening because everyone has a different definition of cyberfeminism. It has always had a multiplicity of voices. Cyberfeminism feels like a co-authored, rhizome that is built by the people who need it. For our opening of the WETWARE exhibition at Feral File, Amy Ireland interviewed Shu Lea Cheang about this, who answered using the language of the pandemic, of virality. She said, “The mutation is the most normal process in our proceedings; the way we perceive the world should always be in mutation. Maybe the next generation of cyberfeminism doesn’t need to be named: neither cyber, neither feminism, but definitely mutating. When you talk about a mutating medium, do you still use the same name? Or do you call it C.F. Variant 10.0?” I thought this framing was very generative.

I wonder how we can think about variances, about mapping multiple legs and observing how they evolve and continue to branch. This language of mutation has been embraced in a lot of the cyberfeminists’ work. This is my roundabout way of saying cyberfeminism does not have a singular definition, but it will always exist.

The Cyberfeminism Index is out now

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