From the cyberfeminist writings of Sadie Plant to new novels by Lauren Oyler and Patricia Lockwood, the relationship between women and tech offers fresh and critical perspectives beyond stale Silicon Valley tropes
My book, The Disconnect, opens with questions about technology and its influence on my life. “Am I a mutant?” I ask, “A cyborg? Or just an ordinary human being?”
It all sounds a bit melodramatic – it is dramatic, deliberately so – but it’s also a reference to something from a long time ago in internet years; the 90s cyberfeminist group VNS Matrix, artists and self-professed “merchants of slime”. Their posters are fabulously unhinged, resembling quasi-pornographic glitch art (“GO DOWN ON THE ALTAR OF ABJECTION,” one commands. Another claims “THE CLITORIS IS THE DIRECT LINE TO THE MATRIX”). Their hallucinatory imagery and ‘bitch mutant manifesto’ challenged an historically male-dominated field, casting technology as a liberating force.
It didn’t quite work out that way, though. Technology could not, it turned out, draw a line under everything that preceded it and reinvent society; study its past, and you’ll realise that technology was always bound to reflect the flaws and biases of its makers. While the internet has helped feminism achieve many of its goals, it has also often enabled its blind spots. Technology itself is an example in plain sight; I’ve lost count of the number of ‘Women in STEM’ initiatives and ‘Lean In’-inspired conference talks I’ve seen in my time writing about tech, but for all those efforts, the number of women working the sector has declined since the 1980s, currently hovering around 17 per cent.
Every so often, I’ll notice references to VNS Matrix in writing today, often alongside Donna Haraway’s 1985 Cyborg Manifesto (I see Sadie Plant mentioned less often, though she’s every bit as relevant; her 1997 book Zeros + Ones unearthed a complex historical connection between women and machines). Part of why I think these ideas on gender and technology continue to interest us is that the future they envisioned hasn’t happened yet. Writing plays an interesting role in this issue; Haraway explicitly framed ‘cyborg writing’ as charting a path forward, saying that it’s “about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other.”
While writing The Disconnect I read everything tech-related I could get my hands on, including a number of brilliant and inventive books written by women. Something they shared, it struck me, was a perspective as ‘other’; they approached the industry as outsiders, even from inside, and this allowed them a particular clarity. They were also more likely to ground their critique in everyday life, discussing feelings, behaviours and subtle cultural shifts, without fetishising technology as a mystical force. This ‘otherness’ lends itself to writing (there is, very obviously, a similarly urgent discussion to be had around Silicon Valley’s other imbalance, that of race).
“While the internet has helped feminism achieve many of its goals, it has also often enabled its blind spots” – Roisin Kiberd
In terms of non-fiction, perhaps the most definitive study of technology in our times, Shoshanna Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, approaches the industry and its practises in a beautifully accessible and balanced way. Zuboff’s writing is lyrical and personal, her criticism of tech industry practises stemming from experience and empathy. It’s all the more convincing for its humanity; this is a book about the cost of life with technology, making a definitive case for change.
Then there are the memoirs and novels. Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley arrived in January last year; an account of uneasy times working at the heart of tech, it reminded me of another memoir, The Boy Kings by Kate Losse, once Employee #51 at Facebook, published back in 2012. Both books cover fraught work experiences, in many ways typical of the current employment climate, but they’re granted gravity, and darkness, by their context; the tech industry. This isn’t any workplace bro-culture; these are the most powerful bros in the world.
More recently, two new ‘internet books’ appeared, Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This. These are not career memoirs, nor are they particularly tech-fixated. Instead, the internet is a presence throughout them, serving more as an influence and a catalyst, and an inspiration in terms of tone.
Oyler’s novel begins with her protagonist discovering that her boyfriend is a popular online conspiracy theorist, before moving through dating apps and work on a faux-feminist content farm. There is a flatness at the heart of this book, a collapse of meaning and truth which makes for unexpectedly chilling reading. Lockwood’s, meanwhile, drops its reader in a sea of Tweets and memes, conjuring perfectly the experience of “internet poisoning” – a state of vacancy coupled with continuous engagement – before departing for something more intimate, urgent and indelible.
These books are about life with technology, rather than about technology itself. I had the same goal in writing The Disconnect: I wanted to capture the small ways that devices and platforms and apps inform our experiences, the way surveillance looms in the background of our lives. I also wanted to write about Dublin, the city I’m from, and how it has gradually been reshaped by the presence of the multinational tech companies.
It’s obvious to me that there’s no single idea of an ‘internet book’, nor do I think that writing about the internet is a particularly new, or modern idea. But it feels important, to me, to confront this industry with the realities of the world it has created. For too long Silicon Valley has flattered itself, sealed in its own luxurious filter bubble of conference talks and toothless business profiles of its CEOs. I wanted to question this; I wanted to capture precisely what it meant to live in the consequences of their decisions.
I don’t think any of the books I’ve mentioned here, my own included, deserve to be read only because they’re by women. I do, however, believe that gender plays a role in the perspectives they offer, whether critical, personal or in fiction. In an interview with the Irish Times from over 20 years ago, Sadie Plant discussed her cyberfeminist history Zeros + Ones, making a case for this way of writing, and reading. She said “It’s not a question of looking for the big equivalents to Bill Gates, that would be playing the same game. One of the things I am demonstrating is that it's often in the most unexpected, apparently minor details of history where things are played out.”
The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet is out now via Serpent’s Tail