Sadie Plant's Zeros + Ones, Digital Women + The New Technoculture is a fascinating, enjoyable read that touches on several issues concerning women in the digital age. I highly recommend this book to those interested in Professor George Landow's Cyberspace, Virtual Reality, and Critical Theory class. Ms. Plant's brilliant and interesting subsections pasted together within Zeros + Ones work like footnotes to several of the course themes. I have selected about thirteen out of the seventy-five subsections that she has written to draw connections between her perceptions of the technoculture and digital women and cyberspace class.
In 1833, Ada Lovelace, a teenager at the time, became acquainted with the Difference Machine, a calculating machine on which Charles Babbage had been working for many years. Amazed by the ability of the machine to calculate numerals to the second and third powers, Ada took notes for Babbage and aided in creating a great deal of circumreferential information. At a time when notetaking always supported main bodies of texts, the assumption was that her notes were only additions to the main text, not the vital source of the body, but mere appendages. In the matrix of the future, however, notes are no longer superfluous.
Sadie Plant introduces Ada Lovelace as a woman whose awareness of peripheries, of indices, headings, prefaces, etc. gave her a new way of perceiving reality. In her footnoted, non-fictional texts, these peripheral details were crucial in contextualizing the texts in historical and social reality.
A piece of writing is its own mainstream. Its asides are backwaters which might have been--- and often are--- compiled by anonymous editors, copyists,... while they may well be providing crucial support for a text which they also connect to other sources, resources, and leads, they are also sidelined and downplayed. (Plant, 9)
In a world where the mainstream was controlled by the men, the female sex, despite its function as "crucial support," was nevertheless "sidelined and downplayed." It was through her work that Ada Lovelace became aware of her place as a woman, living on the peripheries of a masculine world. Her footnotes to Menebrea's text, though working to reinforce the text, were placed in a authorial context wherein "hierarchical divisions between centers and margins, authors and scribes" deemed them inferior. Plant's description of digital networks as threads and links without central points, organizing principles, or hierarchies suggests the potential of female subversion and revolution via networks and matrices, and ultimately, freedom from the male-dominated, hierarchical world.
In the world of the matrix, reality is not static. As Foucault states, "no topic is as regular and simple as was once assumed... Reality does not run along the neat straight lines of the printed page." Ada's world was one in which footnotes and peripheries revealed a new conception of the world, one in which she could see the "interconnectedness of everything" by "crisscrossing the complex topical landscape. (Plant, 11)" It is this new world order that overthrows male-domination and conceptions of linear, hierarchical, author-driven reality
Viewing the world as a system of all-inclusive interconnectivity, "what were once isolated words, numbers, music, shapes, smells, tactile textures, architectures (Plant, 12)" are now threaded together by their material essences. "The yarn is neither metaphorical nor literal, but quite simply material." Plant suggests that the world becomes one immersive reality in which all things relate in a structure that does not denote one thing as less important than another. Perceiving the world as a network, each part can dismantle the whole structure, like a removing a string from a woven blanket. When we surf the web, we transgress through multiple texts and perspectives, digital images and architectures that form our cohesiveness of the cyberworld as a whole. Any missing link can change the whole structure.
Freud's psychoanalytic approach to understanding the female lacks an understanding of multiplicities within the human mind. As he watched his daughter Anna weaving, and thought of her as "bound to weave a costume for a masquerade... an actress, a mimic, an impersonator, with no authenticity underneath it all" (25). Seeing the female as an inauthentic impersonator, Freud depicted woman as a void, as a lack, as absolutely nothing at all. Plant denounces Freud, ridiculing his failure to understand women, of seeing female sexuality and genitalia as a deficiency that can only be filled by male genitalia. Freud's Anna was a misinterpreted and complex woman that Freud, due to his single-mindedness, was unable to decipher. What was indecipherable to him, therefore, became the unknown, the mysterious nothing. Plant recognizes the trend in history of denouncing the female to a nothingness, an absence in a society where the only presence is a masculine one. She continues to describe the anxiety of the self that arises when one is a shadow, unrecognized in the world.
Plant talks more about Ada, her growing awareness of herself as a system of multiplicities. Seduced by mathematics, Ada Lovelace suffered from gaming fever and opium addiction through "which vast expanses, orders, and harmonies conjured by mathematics" (30) were made real. Ada's experience with opium is interesting in that it removed the "fretting eagerness and anxieties (Ibid)" by reinstituting a harmony that was unrecognized or unrecognizable in her world. Wandering, wayward and deluded, Ada explored her passions by wasting them on addiction:
The passions suffer no less by this gaming fever than the understandings and the imagination. What vivid, unnatural hope and fear, joy and anger, sorrow and discontent burst out all at once upon a roll of the dice, a turn of the card, a run of the shining gurneys! (29)
With the "heart of a fury, (Ibid)" Ada lost herself in a world where her passions could be released, where they could "burst out all at once" from within in a torrentous inner mixture of emotions and feelings. The suffering and agony she claimed to experience had been deemed by doctors to be hysteria, a condition that made Ada feel mad, desperate, and hopelessly reckless. In a world that denounced her female presence, she easily lost herself by turning to self-destruction and madness.
It is fascinating how the description of her medical condition relates to the entrapment of her life within a gendered hierarchy that denied women any outlet for self-expression: "She had what she described as a 'vast mass of useless and irritating POWER OF EXPRESSION which longs to have full scope in active manifestation such as neither the ordinary active pursuits or duties of life, nor the literary line of expression, can give vent to.' She couldn't concentrate, flitted between obsessions, restless, searching" (31).
Plant claims that Ada Lovelace was "searching for something that would do more than represent an existing world. (Ibid)" The fact that the world she lived in lacked a place in which she could "give vent to" her desires and multiple perspectives points to the problems of women trapped within patriarchal societies. In a world that was linear, structured by presence and non-presence, Ada certainly did not fit in. She died of hysteria in 1852, at the age of thirty-six.
In these two sections, Sadie Plant discusses further the effect of a binary world on the female presence or lack thereof, in male-dominated societies. She states "the zeros and ones of machine code seem to offer themselves as perfect symbols of the orders of Western reality, the ancient and logical codes" (34). In a world of binaries, "women 'function as a hole,' a gap, a space, a 'nothing--- that is a nothing the same, identical,... a fault, a flaw, a lack, an absence" (35). Living in this binary world, women were considered "single purpose systems... fit for just one thing. (Plant, 36)" Functioning instead as infrastructure, they go unrecognized as such by our society and culture, never "taking part as subjects. (Ibid)"
Cultures cannot be shaped or determined by any single hand or determining factor. There is no center of operations, no organizing core. (45)
The impossibility of getting a grip on a culture creates anxiety for those who are accustomed to being in control. Plant claims that men have always been in the "prospect of being in the position to know, and preferably control... crucial to modern conceptions of what used to be called man's place in the grand scheme of things." In a male-dominated world, losing orientation is equivalent to losing a control over the self. In a digital world where "revolutions in telecom, media, intelligence gathering, and information processing... coincided with an unprecedented sense of unease," those who attempted to organize the system became overwhelmed by the anarchy of it. In nets, Sadie points out how networks "epitomize the shape of this new distributed nonlinear world" (46). She describes the network as a "bottom-up, piecemeal, self-organizing" that emerged "without any centralized control" (49), It is the decentralization of power that dismantles hierarchical structures in the digital age, lending power to women as controllers of equally significant, bottom-up procedures that are now brought to light.
In this section the "Western philosophy... an elucidation and confirmation of the unity of one" (54) is rejected in the digital age where there exists no single truth or essence. Therefore, non-beings, women, are able to embrace themselves, changing their content, and still exist without being affiliated to any constant "one."
In flight, the ability to move between multiple systems is connected to the notion of flight. Plant draws a relation between the desire of witches to fly throughout space "crossing seas and mountains" (72). to the capability of moving through the information web. In the art of flight, one is capable of making instantaneous connections "with much more speed than any other terrestrial contrivances" (73). Therefore, the net is a place where the mind can be freed to flight, escaping actual physical boundaries by metaphorically travelling through non-physical realms. In the history of women's imprisonment within a predetermined social hierarchy, flight through the network is a metaphor for breaking out of these prisons, and freeing the mind from constriction.
More and more we realize how the net can legitimize the female mind described by Plant. In Plant's view, a woman's mind tends to make "rampant associations" (111) --- the kind of fluidity of association that describes the net. Where the "lack of control over the inhibition" of these associations has been often labeled as a psychological disorder, a destructive hysteria, losing inhibitions can also be seen as a positive "blending together in a complex unity" (135). Through these simultaneous and multiple perceptions of reality, the entire body of existence is revealed instead of a singular part--- integration between elements of reality create a new picture of reality. The connection made between these once segregated viewpoint allow "the digital zone to facilitate unprecedented levels of spontaneous affection, intimacy and formality" (143). With an appreciation of complexities, the world is now based on tactile relations.
Touch, the interplay of the senses, comes into power on the web. Despite men's fear of contact, touch replaces sight, denying the masculine tendency to separate and classify the world through visual devices. In wetware, the ambient, "immersive, multidimensional" (248) world creates direct physical contact between those living on land. Plant calls the net a "hypersea... a terrestrial sea of countless and interconnected conduits" (249). In ancient Greek mythology, where the fear of ocean and the body of the unknown linked "water and madness... in the dreams of European man" (250), the hypersea embraces the liquid, the mutable, the ever-flowing, the female.
Sadie Plant has created a brilliant, cohesive metaphor of the digital web as a feminist body; its attention to detail, its multiplicities and multidimensionalities all rise up against the unitary perspective of Western man, of wholes, of predestinated entitlements. Through her story of Ada Lovelace, Plant has exposed a woman that has suffered for her brilliance, who sought escape from a male-dominated world and was deemed a hysteric, a madwoman. But Miss Lovelace would not be categorized so today, not when the world has come to better understand the politics of femininity, the cultural and social hierarchies that have preyed on women and denoted them lesser beings, or in many cases, not existing at all. But Plant's book does not simply support feminism, it supports all marginalized peoples and cultures, who have been subjected to control or domination by Western man. It is a thoroughly interesting, enlightening read for anyone who is fascinated in the politics of cyberspace.