CMC Magazine: October 1998

A Mindset For The Next Millennium

by Christine Lapham

The Banana Republic is one of a handful of clothing stores where I seem to find those basic things that round out a working wardrobe. When shopping there recently, I was very surprised and even more disappointed to find clothing labeled size zero. How, I wondered, could a real woman be a size zero?

What were the clothing manufacturers and the retail chain thinking when they came up with this designation? Isn't a size two or four small enough for that real minority who actually are that small?

I was offended by seeing women's clothing labeled zero because it reinforced, for me, the societal pressure on us to be svelte, thin, small. If taken literally, it also means that a woman is nothing, zero, nada.

Yet there is a wonderful mystery in the designation and power of the zero, as we now bear witness to the many, many, companies struggling to deal with the Y2K issue and debate. (A friend of mind told me that quite a few computer programmers she knows are "heading for the hills." They plan to empty their bank accounts and lead a "Waldenesque" existence until things calm down.) The inability of powerful computers to correctly interpret the zero in the year 2000 has the potential to impact bank transactions, airplane travel, medical and government records--the fabric that many of us now know as our lives.

There is a paradoxical tension implicit in the binary relationship of zeros and ones (as there is in the numerous other relationships that make up our complex lives in the last years of the 20th century). And it is precisely the ever changing combinations of zeros and ones, the magical swirling of bits and bytes, that powers the computers that support our information society today.

Given this landscape, precisely what is the role of a woman? Is she the zero, the nothing, the no, or is she the 51 percent, the balancing force, the power to offset the one, to set things in motion, to keep things moving forward?

That's a very good question, and the answer is that she is both.

Women Perfectly Positioned

The online world has far greater potential to change most women's lives than it does men's, according to Wendy Groosman in net.wars. Many factors are contributing to create an environment in which women can benefit from integrating technological tools into their lives. The first is the availability of high speed, low cost computing power. That power has grown exponentially (and it continues to do so) as has the Internet, the network connecting women all over the world.

Also fueling this new, supportive environment is an acceptance among corporate America of alternative work styles and arrangements--the home office, telecommuting, hoteling, etc. that make life as a working mother much more realistic. And finally, there is the creative freedom and communication potential of the Internet, especially the World Wide Web, which experiences constant improvement and thus offers a blank canvas upon which women pioneers can now draw their dreams, hopes, and desires. In zeros + ones: Digital Women + The New Technoculture author Sadie Plant neatly explains the development of this environment:

The power of information technology is that it leads to multiple, independent and autonomous lifestyles....Given the changing transformation of work and social life because of information technology and the trends toward a knowledge-based economy, women are at an advantage.
And Plant puts that advantage in a historical perspective:
In the West, the decline of heavy industry, the automation of manufacturing, the emergence of the service sector, and the rise of a vast range of new manufacturing and information processing industries has combined to reduce the importance of muscular strength and hormonal energies which were once given such high economic reward. In their place come demands for speed, intelligence, and transferable interpersonal and communication skills.
Plant has put a new twist on the old "brains over brawn" argument. And she believes corporate America is supporting her:
At the same time, all the structures, ladders and securities with which careers and particular jobs once came equipped have been subsumed by patterns of part-time and discontinuous work which privilege, independence, flexibility and adaptability...

It's Time To Dream

Much of Plant's text centers around the life, work, and thinking of a truly visionary woman named Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron. Plant sees Lovelace as a woman who inherently grasped the power and potential of technology in a uniquely intuitive way:
In 1833, a teenage girl met a machine which she came to regard as a friend. It was a futuristic device which seemed to have dropped into her world at least a century before its time.

Later to be known as Ada Lovelace, she was then Ada Byron, the only child of Annabella, a mathematician who had herself been dubbed Princess of Parallelograms by her husband, Lord Byron. The machine was the Difference Engine, a calculating system on which the engineer Charles Babbage had been working for many years. "We both went to see the thinking machine....last Monday," Annabella wrote in her diary. To the amazement of its onlookers, it "raised several Nos. to the 2nd & 3rd powers, and extracted the root of a quadratic Equation." While most of the audience gazed in astonishment at the machine, Ada "young as she was, understood its workings, and saw the great beauty of the invention."

Because of her interesting collaboration with Babbage, Ada is sometimes called "the first computer programmer." She intuitively understood the power and potential of the Difference Engine (an early predecessor to today's computers) and helped to unleash its beauty and magic in an organic way.

Likewise, another computer programmer, Grace Hopper, one of only a few women admirals in the history of the U.S., pioneered the development of COBOL, the first computer language that allowed the programmer to speak to the computer with words instead of numbers. Hopper's innovation was prompted by a very practical need--"I couldn't balance my checkbook," she said. Her vision and her desire to meet a need fueled the innovation, not a hardware requirement nor a need for a business solution, which is often what prompts the development of new software today. (I wonder what an innovator and visionary such as Hopper would think about voice recognition technology that is available today?)

The thread that unites Lovelace and Hopper (and many other women pioneers) is a vision--the idea came first, the problem they needed to solve, the thing they wanted to create. They were proactive and creative, not reactive. Thus a highly creative cauldron fueled the development of new technology--such as COBOL or the Difference Engine--and not the other way around. The creative, inspirational drive to develop new technological tools is in sharp contrast to the impetus we most often see today when most applications are developed to accommodate already exisiting solutions.

For a new "Millennium Mavens" Web site I am constructing, I am collecting stories about contemporary women who, like Lovelace and Hopper, are pioneering creative applications of technology. The first story is included in this issue of CMC Magazine: it's about a Native American woman, Melanie Hope, who has discovered that technology can be a tool to express her artistic vision, which includes the traditional beadworking she learned as a child on the Tuscarora Reservation.

Becoming A New Pioneer

What truly amazes me about women such as Lovelace, Hope, and Hopper is that even though they come from such different environments and historical contexts, their works are quite similar in theme and content. They prove that it is possible for women in many different circumstances and abilities to practically harness the power and potential of technology and make it work for her. If you're wondering how, here's some questions to ask, steps to follow, things to consider:
  1. What is the one purpose of my life? My mission, my goal--the one thing that I need to do to feel totally satisfied. (It makes sense, doesn't it, that before we can create the right tools we must know what we want to accomplish.)
  2. What do I need to do to accomplish that goal, get on the path to achieve my mission? Ask yourself, am I confidently moving in the direction of my dreams? If not, then ask...
  3. What must I do to get on track with my mission? What are the barriers that are keeping me from moving forward on my path? Is it time, money, physical energy, geographic limitations, family responsibilities, lack of skills, lack of courage, etc. What is holding me back? Name it! And finally,
  4. How can I use technology to help me get what I want? Remember, the key is being proactive, not adaptive. This could mean anything from joining an e-mail discussion or Assent group to get help and support with your child's or /parent's chronic illness to creating a recycling program to get older computers into the home and hands of underprivileged women.

Carving A New Definition Of Technology

What this means is thinking about technology in a new, more personal way and carving a new definition that is broad enough to encompass all facets of a woman's life--not just her work life! All too often, women (and men!) think of technology as a tool to simply do work more efficiently--send e-mail, write reports, create graphics, distribute information--the list goes on and on. But women are multifaceted creatures--"natural multitaskers," as one writer has said--and the circles of competing responsibilities--wife, mother, friend, worker, communicator, athlete, volunteer, cook, leader, gardener, comedian--constantly overlap.

The reality of that existence--the tightrope, balancing act, the constant negotiation of conflicting demands--is fueled by the same paradoxical dance of the zeros and ones, the off and the on, the male and the female. Recognizing and negotiating this tension in a creative and visionary way--which means, of course, using technological tools--is perhaps a women's greatest challenge, responsibility, and also the source of her power. If we accept Ada Lovelace's notion that women have always been expert networkers, weavers, communicators, etc., then it follows that they have the instinctual potential to shape the new frontiers of technology. Wendy Grossman believes that "No one really gets to make rules for the Net, which makes it a place where the the proactive woman can thrive":

The Net is not a brave new frontier...women have always been there. The roundabout, circuitous connections with which women have always been associated and the informal networking at which they have excelled now become protocal for everyone.

Our Call To Action

What connects women from the past, such as Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper to women of today, such as Melanie Hope, is their classic struggle for power: we're back to the zeros and ones. Historically, women have struggled to not only take power and use it, but to understand and welcome it. Perhaps this is because this balancing battle--the dance of the zeros and ones-- has been performed on two fronts--internally, within herself, and externally, with her relationships and with society as a whole. Millennium mavens, new century pioneers, will prosper when they turn within, recognize the power of the "not", the zero, the creative energy that exists as the perfect compliment to the "one," the yes, and when they seize those external opportunities afforded them to create and adapt technological tools to solve real challenges in their complex lives.

Author Louise Hey, speaking at a conference devoted exclusively to empowering women, proclaimed that "Women are at their highest point in the evolution right now." I believe that is true. What's next, then. I suggest we begin by sharing our energy. Leslie Regan Shade, speaking in net.wars, gives voice to the call to action for millennium mavens:

One of the biggest challenges is widening access to the Net for women that aren't institutionally affiliated, whether in industry or academia, where they purportedly have "ready" access to both the hardware and software and technical expertise to successfully learn how to navigate the Net.
Let's work on that.

Christine Lapham is an editor of CMC Magazine as well as a freelance technology writer, communications consultant, and an instructor in the Communications Department of The Sage Colleges. She lives in the Capital Region of New York State.

Copyright © 1998 by Christine Lapham. All Rights Reserved.

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