Women in cyberspace

Angela McFarlane

Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace Dale Spender Spinifex, Pounds 11.95. The Internet for Women Rye Senjen Spiniifex, Pounds 12.95.

One thing the world of information technology has never been short of is visionaries. These latter-day soothsayers have been promising us, among other things, that schools and the rest of our world will be unrecognisable in five, ten or 25 years - the time scale possibly reflecting the heat of the fire in their belly at the time of the quote.

Well, for most of us, not surprisingly, the world is changing, but by a process of evolution rather than revolution. Surely schools of 1996 are very different places to work in than schools of 1980. But those changes have more to do with politics and legislative change than with technology.

But how much has the way students are taught, the degree to which they take control of their own learning and develop the skills of independent intellectual activity actually changed? For it is in these fundamentals that IT has always been hailed as the irresistible agent of change So far the computer-related movements from LOGO to IT across the curriculum have certainly failed to deliver the revolution. The latest phenomenon called on to carry the torch is, of course, the Information Superhighway, whatever that is.

In the last year, the most commonly heard of version, the Internet - a world-wide network of computer networks - has gone from a communication medium used almost exclusively by academics on a non-profit basis to something offered as a commercial subscription service in radio adverts.

There are international networks other than the Internet, the latest of which is Microsoft Network, a standard component of Windows 95 designed to get everyone with a PC and a modem to join in. "Everyone" in this context, according to Dale Spender in her thought-provoking Nattering on the Net, , means largely white professional males.

As with all computer-based technologies, the Internet often seems to be a culture created by 23-year-old adolescent males for 23-year-old adolescent males. Anyone excluded from this category who tries to break into this world may be left feeling excluded and de-skilled.

It comes as a relief then to find a book called The Internet for Women, where the basic information needed to feel confident enough to venture forth on the highway is presented in a straightforward, accessible way, free of any macho hype. The book seeks to empower women to take hold of the Internet culture and exploit it for their own ends.

This is all heady stuff, and possibly just the positive discrimination many women need. However, I was disappointed to find gender issues being confused with sexual orientation in some parts of the book. Both issues are important and meet the needs of an audience, but they are separate issues and it is not helpful to run one into the other as though they were one. This can be just as alienating to straight women as the macho versions.

Issues of exclusion and alienation might not be quite so worrying if the Internet was simply a personal communication system, a text-based equivalent of the telephone say. However, this communication network is much more than that.

It is possible through any version of these communications networks to access millions of people worldwide to exchange information. There are those who believe that ultimately everything ever published will exist on the Net, and anyone with access to the technology will have access to it.

This is a mind-bending idea. It sounds straightforward enough, but what will it actually mean to the student, the teacher, the librarian or the author? Of course access to information is not the same as knowledge. Just because you can call up Beowulf does not mean you have any understanding of the text or its cultural significance. Furthermore, and perhaps most significantly where the Net is concerned, just because someone has published a commentary on the text on the Net, there is no guarantee that that commentary has any real merit.

At the moment people publish material of questionable standing in any medium, so why is the Net any worse? Remember anyone can publish anything on the Net without any reference to any other person. Even the most scurrilous tabloid has an editor, and the law can protect individuals from the unpleasantness of unfounded or simply inaccurate information. There is no refereeing and, on occasions, no attribution on the Net - you don't have to reveal who you are.

The most widely known undesirable consequence of this is the prevalence of pornographic and racist material on the Net. A response has been the development of systems which restrict access to parts of the Net in schools, such as that offered by Research Machines' Internet for Learning.

This would horrify the defenders of free speech on the Net who believe that there are no limits to what should be published: if you don't like what you see, don't look. A more mainstream view, however, might be that it is worth sacrificing some freedom in order to protect the vulnerable from sexually or violently explicit material. Certainly the subscription rates RM was reporting earlier in the year suggest schools are happy with thecompromise.

For an in-depth and well-argued discussion of the widespread implications access to such an information source can have for issues such as literacy, equal opportunities and attitudes to the roles of teachers and learners, writers and readers, Spender's book is a must. The title tends to suggest it might have relevance only to those who are interested in the feminist or technical: in fact, the book addresses a much wider perspective and will prove thought-provoking to anyone interested in the implications of IT for education.

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