Status report, and the difference of a decade

Posted: September 28, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

So my exams are rapidly approaching. I have about 20 days left. I have only 14 sources unread (out of 70), and I have 13 others that I have read but still need to review. Looks like I’m actually going to make it. So very much excitement there.

And in that vein, I’d like to talk about a book I just finished. It’s called Virtual Gender: Technology, Consumption and Identity Edited by Eileen Green and Alison Adam. It was published in 2001, and is a collection of essays. My major thought when reading through this was my amazement at what has changed in the past ten years.

When I think back ten years, the world in my memory doesn’t seem that different. Unless I look at the details. I didn’t have a blog then, but I think I was just starting this new thing called Livejournal. I had a cell phone (I think), but almost never used it. I didn’t have a laptop. I did have AIM, but that was the only messenger system I used. So as I look at the details, I see a pretty significant change.

I also see that change when I look through this book. When I read the chapter by Greg Michaelson and Margit Pohl titled “Gender in email-based co-operative problem-solving” and they mention findings that men talk more than women, that they tend to interrupt more, and that women are more supportive in conversations (28), I think that it’s a naive view of things. And when they describe the 1995 and 1998 experiments of e-mailing back and forth to solve a problem, they present it like it’s a new thing; I’ve done that exact thing at least a dozen times in the past 24 hours. But at the time, one continuous e-mail chain was a new thing. Now, it’s a standard feature of gmail.

And I move on to “Lives and livelihoods in the technological age” by Kate White, Leslie Regan Shade and Jennifer Brayton. I really like it when they write that “Technology is typically conceptualized in society as a neutral tool whose use determined whether it is positive or negative” (47). That seems like a great statement, one that I agree with and that I think is somewhat timeless. But then, later that same page, they start talking about ‘buzzwords’ like cyberspace, or world-wide-web; neither of which seem particularly ‘buzzworthy’ anymore. They’re just standard parlayance.

Linda Stepulevage has a similar great statement in “Becoming a Technologist: Days in a girl’s life” when she writes “Technology does not always have a distinct presence; it is interwoven into everyday life and involves continuous engagement” (80). Another timeless statement, one that I can see evidence of when I look around now, and can remember evidence of ten or even twenty years ago. When I was very young, I still knew that technology was everywhere. It was in my wrist watch that not only worked as a calculator, but also transformed into a little toy man. It was in the television, or the fancy new CD player that was roughly the size of a Buick. And it’s here now, in the laptop sitting on my lap, in the ipod a few feet away that has more music on it than I had even HEARD twenty years ago, and is nowhere near full. But what doesn’t track for me is the gender differences that Stepuvelage and others are presenting as far as access to the internet goes. Ten years ago, not everyone HAD access. (Still not everyone does, but a whole lot more than used to).

Moreover, I think Virtual Reality means something different now than it used to. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but when I was reading “VR consumption and the construction of gender” by Nicola Green, I just felt like it meant something other than those monstrous machines that fit over your head and (badly) render a world around you that you can experience. I think VR is better demonstrated with, say, a Kindle, which presents the Reality of a book in a Virtual (digital) form. Even still, when Green writes “In order to understand how virtual realities might rework conventional boundaries of body and identity, we must examine the multiple contexts in which virtual reality technologies come to be consumed” (169), I find that we are, to some extent, having the same conversation. I’m just looking at different VR technologies. Instead of something that replaces regular reality, it seems we’ve focused our VR tech into replacing little PARTS of reality, rather than the whole. If we have virtual bodies, then the boundaries of body and identity must necessarily become more flexible. But if we just have virtual novels, not so much.

So then I headed to the chapters that really interested me. Like Lynne D. Roberts and Malcolm R. Parks’ chapter “The social geography of gender-switching in virtual environments on the Internet.” While this seemed like it was far more up my alley than they rest of the book had been, it was here that I saw the difference a decade makes most clearly. When they wrote this chapter, they were talking about MOOs and MUDs, completely textual spaces; but textual spaces that are less variable even than the ones we have now. I can still be considered ‘completely textual’ while changing font, color, orientation, etc on the fly (something that would’ve taken me a LOT longer in 2000), and can even use real emoticons like 🙂 (as opposed to just >.< or such).

But regardless of what they were studying, they had some very cool stuff to say. Like that “The primary barrier to gender-switching [online] as the belief that it is dishonest and manipulative” (266), which really seems interesting to me. For some reason, I have been feeling like identity creation online is NOT a community act, but rather a very selfish one. The identities we form are formed for US, not for other people. Maybe I’m completely off base, or maybe things have changed. I don’t know.

What I do know is that online spaces are places where there is a lot of freedom to change and establish identity. Why? Because “Non-verbal cues regarding vocal qualities, bodily movement, facial expressions and physical appearance are simply missing in these textual worlds. Cues regarding social position or social status may also be missing” (268). When everything is non-verbal, the cues that we don’t even realize we see are absent, and the freedom to change emerges. (Of course, then we have the legitimization problem, which I’ve talked about before. But let’s put that aside for now, okay?)

What’s interesting is that even though there is no requirement that gender switching be a binary option (male to female or female to male), it is almost universally treated as if it is. In the study described in this chapter, there are a few (21.3 percent) that are non-binary, covering things like neuter (6.4%) and Spivak – which are gender-neutral terms like E, Em, Eir etc (4.3%), and the rest, which included second, the opposite, plural, shehe, shemale, etc, none of which had more than one case (275). Most people stick with the binaries. I have no idea why, except that they are pervasive and more easily acceptable. But saying that is like saying that something is green because it is a mixture of yellow and blue.

Anyway, some of the points Roberts and Parks make about the prevalence of gender swapping (most people do it, but not very often) and the reason for doing so are very interesting. Like when they say that they “believe gender-switching for most people is best understood as an experimental behavior rather than as an enduring expression of their sexuality or personality,” or when they suggest that gender-swapping is a method of exploration or personal growth (282).

As a whole, it’s an interesting book, but amazingly dated. I say amazingly because of how fast things are becoming dated. Aristotle’s On Rhetoric is probably dated, but is over 2500 years old. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca are still considered relevant, yet are almost five times as old as this book. When we look at this stuff and Turkle (15 years old), they seem ancient. It’s just a weird consequence of technology advancing so very, very quickly.

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