Once upon a time, a friend of mine accidentally took over thousands of computers. He had found a vulnerability in a piece of software and started playing with it. In the process, he figured out how to get total administration access over a network. He put it in a script, and ran it to see what would happen, then went to bed for about four hours. Next morning on the way to work he checked on it, and discovered he was now lord and master of about 50,000 computers. After nearly vomiting in fear he killed the whole thing and deleted all the files associated with it. In the end he said he threw the hard drive into a bonfire. I can’t tell you who he is because he doesn’t want to go to Federal prison, which is what could have happened if he’d told anyone that could do anything about the bug he’d found. Did that bug get fixed? Probably eventually, but not by my friend. This story isn’t extraordinary at all. Spend much time in the hacker and security scene, you’ll hear stories like this and worse.
It’s hard to explain to regular people how much technology barely works, how much the infrastructure of our lives is held together by the IT equivalent of baling wire.
Computers, and computing, are broken.Build it badly, and they will come.
For a bunch of us, especially those who had followed security and the warrantless wiretapping cases, the revelations weren’t big surprises. We didn’t know the specifics, but people who keep an eye on software knew computer technology was sick and broken. We’ve known for years that those who want to take advantage of that fact tend to circle like buzzards. The NSA wasn’t, and isn’t, the great predator of the internet, it’s just the biggest scavenger around. It isn’t doing so well because they are all powerful math wizards of doom.The NSA is doing so well because software is bullshit.
Eight months before Snowden’s first revelation I tweeted this:
It was my exasperated acknowledgement that looking for good software to count on has been a losing battle. Written by people with either no time or no money, most software gets shipped the moment it works well enough to let someone go home and see their family. What we get is mostly terrible.
Software is so bad because it’s so complex, and because it’s trying to talk to other programs on the same computer, or over connections to other computers. Even your computer is kind of more than one computer, boxes within boxes, and each one of those computers is full of little programs trying to coordinate their actions and talk to each other. Computers have gotten incredibly complex, while people have remained the same gray mud with pretensions of godhood.
Your average piece-of-shit Windows desktop is so complex that no one person on Earth really knows what all of it is doing, or how.
Now imagine billions of little unknowable boxes within boxes constantly trying to talk and coordinate tasks at around the same time, sharing bits of data and passing commands around from the smallest little program to something huge, like a browser — that’s the internet. All of that has to happen nearly simultaneously and smoothly, or you throw a hissy fit because the shopping cart forgot about your movie tickets.
We often point out that the phone you mostly play casual games on and keep dropping in the toilet at bars is more powerful than all the computing we used to go to space for decades.NASA had a huge staff of geniuses to understand and care for their software. Your phone has you.
Plus a system of automatic updates you keep putting off because you’re in the middle of Candy Crush Saga every time it asks.
Because of all this, security is terrible. Besides being riddled with annoying bugs and impossible dialogs, programs often have a special kind of hackable flaw called 0days by the security scene. No one can protect themselves from 0days. It’s their defining feature — 0 is the number of days you’ve had to deal with this form of attack. There are meh, not-so-terrible 0days, there are very bad 0days, and there are catastrophic 0days that hand the keys to the house to whomever strolls by. I promise that right now you are reading this on a device with all three types of 0days. “But, Quinn,” I can hear you say, “If no one knows about them how do you know I have them?” Because even okay software has to work with terrible software. The number of people whose job it is to make software secure can practically fit in a large bar, and I’ve watched them drink. It’s not comforting. It isn’t a matter of if you get owned, only a matter of when.
This is a thing that actually happened several years ago. To get rid of a complaining message from another piece of software, a Debian developer just commented out a line of code without realizing that it left their encryption open to easy attack (https://www.xkcd.com/424/)
Look at it this way — every time you get a security update (seems almost daily on my Linux box), whatever is getting updated has been broken, lying there vulnerable, for who-knows-how-long. Sometimes days, sometimes years. Nobody really advertises that part of updates. People say “You should apply this, it’s a critical patch!” and leave off the “…because the developers fucked up so badly your children’s identities are probably being sold to the Estonian Mafia by smack addicted script kiddies right now.”
The really bad bugs (and who knows which ones those are when they click the “Restart Later” button?) can get swept up by hackers, governments, and other horrors of the net that are scanning for versions of software they know they can exploit. Any computer that shows up in a scan saying “Hey! Me! I’m vulnerable!” can become part of a botnet, along with thousands, or hundreds of thousands of other computers. Often zombied computers get owned again and become part of yet another botnet. Some botnets patch computers to throw out the other botnets so they don’t have to share you with other hackers. How can you tell if this is happening? You can’t! Have fun wondering if you’re getting your online life rented out by the hour!Next time you think your grandma is uncool, give her credit for her time helping dangerous Russian criminals extort money from offshore casinos with DDoS attacks.
A map of things which were hacked for the Internet Census.
Recently an anonymous hacker wrote a script that took over embedded Linux devices. These owned computers scanned the whole rest of the internet and created a survey that told us more than we’d ever known about the shape of the internet. The little hacked boxes reported their data back (a full 10 TBs) and quietly deactivated the hack. It was a sweet and useful example of someone who hacked the planet to shit. If that malware had actually been malicious, we would have been so fucked.
This is because all computers are reliably this bad: the ones in
hospitals and governments and banks, the ones in your phone, the ones that control light switches and smart meters and air traffic control systems. Industrial computers that maintain infrastructure and manufacturing are even worse. I don’t know all the details, but those who do are the most alcoholic and nihilistic people in computer security. Another friend of mine accidentally shut down a factory with a malformed ping at the beginning of a pen test. For those of you who don’t know, a ping is just about the smallest request you can send to another computer on the network. It took them a day to turn everything back on.
Computer experts like to pretend they use a whole different, more awesome class of software that they understand, that is made of shiny mathematical perfection and whose interfaces happen to have been shat out of the business end of a choleric donkey. This is a lie. The main form of security this offers is through obscurity — so few people can use this software that there’s no point in building tools to attack it. Unless, like the NSA, you want to take over sysadmins.A well written encrypted chat, what could go wrong?
Let’s take an example computer experts like to stare down their noses at normal people for not using: OTR. OTR, or Off The Record messaging, sneaks a layer of encryption inside normal plain text instant messaging. It’s like you got on AIM or Jabber or whatever and talked in code, except the computer is making the code for you. OTR is clever and solid, it’s been examined carefully, and we’re fairly sure it hasn’t got any of those nasty 0days.Except, OTR isn’t a program you use, as such.
There is a standard for OTR software, and a library, but it doesn’t do anything on its own. It gets implemented in software for normal human shlubs to use by other normal human shlubs. By now, you know this ends in tears.
The main thing that uses OTR is another piece of software that uses a library called libpurple. If you want to see infosec snobs look as distressed as the donkeys that shit out their interfaces, bring up libpurple. Libpurple was written in a programming language called C.C is good for two things: being beautiful and creating catastrophic 0days in memory management.
Heartbleed, the bug that affected the world over, leaking password and encryption keys and who knows what? Classic gorgeous C.
Libpurple was written by people who wanted their open source chat client to talk to every kind of instant messaging system in the world, and didn’t give a shit about security or encryption. Security people who have examined the code have said there are so many possible ways to exploit libpurple there is probably no point in patching it. It needs to be thrown out and rewritten from scratch. These aren’t bugs that let someone read your encrypted messages, they are bugs that let someone take over your whole computer, see everything you type or read and probably watch you pick your nose on your webcam.
This lovely tool, OTR, sits on top of libpurple on most systems that use it. Let me make something clear, because even some geeks don’t get this: it doesn’t matter how good your encryption is if your attacker can just read your data off the screen with you, and I promise they can. They may or may not know how to yet, but they can. There are a hundred libpurples on your computer: little pieces of software written on a budget with unrealistic deadlines by people who didn’t know or didn’t care about keeping the rest of your system secure.
Any one of these little bugs will do when it comes to taking over everything else on your computer. So we update and update, and maybe that throws any intruders out, and maybe it doesn’t. No one knows!When we tell you to apply updates we are not telling you to mend your ship. We are telling you to keep bailing before the water gets to your neck.
To step back a bit from this scene of horror and mayhem, let me say that things are better than they used to be. We have tools that we didn’t in the 1990s, like sandboxing, that keep the idiotically written programs where they can’t do as much harm. (Sandboxing keeps a program in an artificially small part of the computer, cutting it off from all the other little programs, or cleaning up anything it tries to do before anything else sees it.)
Certain whole classes of terrible bugs have been sent the way of smallpox. Security is taken more seriously than ever before, and there’s a network of people responding to malware around the clock. But they can’t really keep up. The ecosystem of these problems is so much bigger than it was even ten years ago that it’s hard to feel like we’re making progress.People, as well, are broken.
“I trust you…” was my least favorite thing to hear from my sources in Anonymous. Inevitably it was followed by some piece of information they shouldn’t have been telling me. It is the most natural and human thing to share something personal with someone you are learning to trust. But in exasperation I kept trying to remind Anons they were connecting to a computer, relaying though countless servers, switches, routers, cables, wireless links, and finally to my highly targeted computer, before they were connecting to another human being. All of this was happening in the time it takes one person to draw in a deep, committal breath. It’s obvious to say, but bears repeating: humans were not built to think this way.
Everyone fails to use software correctly. Absolutely everyone fucks up. OTR doesn’t encrypt until after the first message, a fact that leading security professionals and hackers subject to 20-country manhunts consistently forget. Managing all the encryption and decryption keys you need to keep your data safe across multiple devices, sites, and accounts is theoretically possible, in the same way performing an appendectomy on yourself is theoretically possible. This one guy did it once in Antarctica, why can’t you?
Every malware expert I know has lost track of what some file is, clicked on it to see, and then realized they’d executed some malware they were supposed to be examining. I know this because I did it once with a PDF I knew had something bad in it. My friends laughed at me, then all quietly confessed they’d done the same thing. If some of the best malware reversers around can’t keep track of their malicious files, what hope do your parents have against that e-card that is allegedly from you?
Executable mail attachments (which includes things like Word, Excel, and PDFs) you get just about everyday could be from anyone — people can write anything they want in that From: field of emails, and any of those attachments could take over your computer as handily as an 0day. This is probably how your grandmother ended up working for Russian criminals, and why your competitors anticipate all your product plans. But if you refuse to open attachments you aren’t going to be able to keep an office job in the modern world. There’s your choice: constantly risk clicking on dangerous malware, or live under an overpass, leaving notes on the lawn of your former house telling your children you love them and miss them.
Security and privacy experts harangue the public about metadata and networked sharing, but keeping track of these things is about as natural as doing blood panels on yourself every morning, and about as easy. The risks on a societal level from giving up our privacy are terrible. Yet the consequences of not doing so on an individual basis are immediately crippling. The whole thing is a shitty battle of attrition between what we all want for ourselves and our families and the ways we need community to survive as humans — a Mexican stand off monetized by corporations and monitored by governments.
I live in this stuff, and I’m no better. Once I had to step through a process to verify myself to a secretive source. I had to take a series of pictures showing my location and the date. I uploaded them, and was allowed to proceed with my interview. It turns out none of my verification had come through, because I’d failed to let the upload complete before nervously shutting down my computer. “Why did you let me through?” I asked the source. “Because only you would have been that stupid,” my source told me.
But if I can’t do this, as a relatively well trained adult who pays attention to these issues all the damn time, what chance do people with real jobs and real lives have?In the end, it’s culture that’s broken.
A few years ago, I went to several well respected people who work in privacy and security software and asked them a question.
First, I had to explain something:“Most of the world does not have install privileges on the computer they are using.”
That is, most people using a computer in the world don’t own the computer they are using. Whether it’s in a cafe, or school, or work, for a huge portion of the world, installing a desktop application isn’t a straightforward option. Every week or two, I was being contacted by people desperate for better security and privacy options, and I would try to help them. I’d start, “Download th…” and then we’d stop. The next thing people would tell me was that they couldn’t install software on their computers. Usually this was because an IT department somewhere was limiting their rights as a part of managing a network. These people needed tools that worked with what they had access to, mostly a browser.
So the question I put to hackers, cryptographers, security experts, programmers, and so on was this: What’s the best option for people who can’t download new software to their machines? The answer was unanimous: nothing. They have no options. They are better off talking in plaintext I was told, “so they don’t have a false sense of security.” Since they don’t have access to better software, I was told, they shouldn’t do anything that might upset the people watching them. But, I explained, these are the activists, organizers, and journalists around the world dealing with governments and corporations and criminals that do real harm, the people in real danger. Then they should buy themselves computers, I was told.
That was it, that was the answer: be rich enough to buy your own computer, or literally drop dead. I told people that wasn’t good enough, got vilified in a few inconsequential Twitter fights, and moved on.
Not long after, I realized where the disconnect was. I went back to the same experts and explained: in the wild, in really dangerous situations — even when people are being hunted by men with guns — when encryption and security fails, no one stops talking. They just hope they don’t get caught.The same human impulse that has kept lotteries alive for thousands of years keeps people fighting the man against the long odds. “Maybe I’ll get away with it, might as well try!”
As for self-censoring their conversations in the face of hostile infrastructure, non-technical activists are just as good at it as Anons are, or people told to worry about metadata, or social media sharing, or that first message before OTR encryption kicks in. They blow.
This conversation was a wake-up call for some security people who hadn’t realized that people who become activists and journalists routinely do risky things. Some of them joined my side of the time-wasting inconsequential Twitter fights, realizing that something, even something imperfect, might be better than nothing. But many in the security scene are still waiting for a perfect world into which to deploy their perfect code.
Then there’s the Intelligence Community, who call themselves the IC. We might like it if they stopped spying on everyone all the time, while they would like us to stop whining about it.
After spending some time with them, I am pretty sure I understand why they don’t care about the complaining. The IC are some of the most surveilled humans in history. They know everything they do is gone over with a fine-toothed comb — by their peers, their bosses, their lawyers, other agencies, the president, and sometimes Congress. They live watched, and they don’t complain about it.
In all the calls for increased oversight, the basics of human nature gets neglected. You’re not going to teach the spooks this is wrong by doing it to them more.
There will always be loopholes and as long as loopholes exist or can be constructed or construed, surveillance will be as prevalent as it possibly can be. Humans are mostly egocentric creatures. Spooks, being humans, are never going to know why living without privacy is bad as long as they are doing it.
Yet that’s the lesser problem. The cultural catastrophe is what they’re doing to make their job of spying on everyone easier. The most disturbing parts of the revelations are the 0day market, exploit hoarding, and weakening of standards. The question is who gets to be part of the “we” that are being kept allegedly safe by all this exploiting and listening and decrypting and profiling. When they attacked Natanz with Stuxnet and left all the other nuclear facilities vulnerable, we were quietly put on notice that the “we” in question began and ended with the IC itself. That’s the greatest danger.When the IC or the DOD or the Executive branch are the only true Americans, and the rest of us are subordinate Americans, or worse the non-people that aren’t associated with America, then we can only become lesser people as time goes on.
As our desires conflict with the IC, we become less and less worthy of rights and considerations in the eyes of the IC. When the NSA hoards exploits and interferes with cryptographic protection for our infrastructure, it means using exploits against people who aren’t part of the NSA just doesn’t count as much. Securing us comes after securing themselves.
In theory, the reason we’re so nice to soldiers, that we have customs around honoring and thanking them, is that they’re supposed to be sacrificing themselves for the good of the people. In the case of the NSA, this has been reversed. Our wellbeing is sacrificed to make their job of monitoring the world easier. When this is part of the culture of power, it is well on its way to being capable of any abuse.
But the biggest of all the cultural problems still lies with the one group I haven’t taken to task yet — the normal people living their lives under all this insanity.
The problem with the normals and tech is the same as the problem with the normals and politics, or society in general. People believe they are powerless and alone, but the only thing that keeps people powerless and alone is that same belief. People, working together, are immensely and terrifyingly powerful.There is certainly a limit to what an organized movement of people who share a mutual dream can do, but we haven’t found it yet.
Facebook and Google seem very powerful, but they live about a week from total ruin all the time. They know the cost of leaving social networks individually is high, but en masse, becomes next to nothing. Windows could be replaced with something better written. The US government would fall to a general revolt in a matter of days. It wouldn’t take a total defection or a general revolt to change everything, because corporations and governments would rather bend to demands than die. These entities do everything they can get away with — but we’ve forgotten that we’re the ones that are letting them get away with things.
Computers don’t serve the needs of both privacy and coordination not because it’s somehow mathematically impossible. There are plenty of schemes that could federate or safely encrypt our data, plenty of ways we could regain privacy and make our computers work better by default. It isn’t happening now because we haven’t demanded that it should, not because no one is clever enough to make that happen.
So yes, the geeks and the executives and the agents and the military have fucked the world. But in the end, it’s the job of the people, working together, to unfuck it.
Jan 24 2015 / How our Tropes vs Women project has expanded and transformed
As I look forward to plans and goals for Feminist Frequency in 2015, I’m reflecting on our Tropes vs Women in Video Games project and how far we’ve come. Two years into this project, I’d like to share some thoughts with you about what we set out to do, and what we’ve accomplished so far.
The Original Plan
Back in 2011, I created a series of six relatively short videos called Tropes vs Women that examined a handful of harmful gender tropes primarily found in television and movies. After their release, I received many positive messages from viewers who had felt uncomfortable when they saw these themes in their favorite media, and after watching my video series, they could finally articulate why. Because of the positive feedback I decided to do a follow-up series. I had been wanting to do some extended episodes on video games and since many of the tropes on my list were highly prevalent in gaming, the Tropes vs Women in Video Games kickstarter was born.
Initially, I imagined that each of the five videos would be about 10-12 minutes, give or take, with episode structures similar to the original series: description of the trope, relatively quick overview, a handful of game examples from major titles, and a brief 101-style ‘why does this matter’ analysis. I envisioned my audience primarily as young women, largely feminists or those already dissatisfied or uncomfortable with the status quo. I budgeted the initial project at $10,000. I set the Kickstarter goal to $6,000 and was anticipating an additional $4,000 in grants. This would cover the costs of production, equipment, games etc. and I would continue to volunteer time to produce the episodes.
So What Happened?
Much to my surprise and delight, I raised the initial $6,000 within 24 hours. As support for the project continued to pour in, I quickly expanded the number of videos I was going to produce and set up more stretch goals including an increase in production quality and a classroom curriculum. It wasn’t until halfway through the fundraiser that the harassment campaign began, and it’s never stopped. Not only did this harassment change my life, but it also forced me to fundamentally change the way I approached this project.
Due to the attention, both negative and positive, I had a much bigger spotlight on my work than ever before. I had new supporters: passionate geeks, curious onlookers, those horrified by the harassment, and of course, detractors and dedicated harassers. Perhaps most interestingly, game developers started paying attention as well. While Feminist Frequency started as a literacy tool to help folks be more critical of the media they are engaging with, I was now talking to the people that actually make that media, giving me a chance to send my message directly to those who can make real and substantial change in the industry.
This felt daunting, but exciting! Attracting a broader audience outside of the feminist sphere meant that I could reach more people, but also that I could no longer assume that my viewers had prior experience with sociological or feminist theory. My new videos would need to break down basic concepts so that viewers could follow along without any pre-existing knowledge while simultaneously challenging the status quo in gaming culture (a culture where many enthusiasts react defensively or even aggressively to the idea that sexism is a problem at all).
Back in June of 2012, I never imagined that the initial surge of harassment would not only increase in volume, but continue for years to come. One thing was immediately apparent, however: the harassers had made it their mission to pick apart and distort every minuscule detail of my work and even my personal life in order to try to discredit, defame, and ultimately silence me. My arguments and examples had to be airtight; I felt I could not afford to make a single mistake or error. That was, and is, a lot of pressure.
Making these videos is a balancing act of trying to offer comprehensive theoretical frameworks stated in widely accessible language while also trying to be bulletproof. We aim to reach as many people as possible while making our arguments solid enough so that folks who are on the fence won’t be easily lured in by the harassers’ torrent of misrepresentations and fabrications.
It’s hard to quantify the emotional costs that accompany daily harassment both for me and those bystanders who support me online. Every time I post anything online there is a predictable wave of harassing messages in response. However, when I publish an episode of Tropes vs Women in Video Games the vicious wave of harassment can carry on for weeks or even months. Instead of the satisfaction that typically comes with completing and publishing a big project, I am often forced to turn off my computer and avoid Facebook, Twitter and email, sometimes for days at a time. In addition to the sexist harassment, the death and rape threats have been persistent and have ranged from annoying to criminal. Local and national law enforcement agencies are involved in investigating the worst of these crimes. While the harassment existed long before the mob began self identifying as “GamerGate”, the emergence of this organized backlash in August 2014 caused the hate and vitriol targeting women in gaming to intensify exponentially with widespread ramifications across the gaming industry.
While Tropes vs Women in Video Games was originally a project examining women’s representations, the extreme harassment that I experience has become an intrinsic and inseparable part of this project, fundamentally changing my life and the landscape in which I release my videos. Gendered online harassment is not a new phenomenon, but the intensity of cyber mobs, especially in gaming, is increasing in frequency and severity. It became apparent to me that I should speak up and use my experience to help expose the epidemic of online abuse. Nearly half of my time is spent raising awareness on the epidemic of online harassment and working to help change policies on the institutional level. Some of these efforts are done publicly through Feminist Frequency’s website and social media presence, as well as countless media interviews and at public speaking events. But there is also work being done behind the scenes in private meetings and consultations with major social media and gaming platforms, and by partnering with other organizations to form a task force with the goal of ending online harassment.
The Current Scope of the Project
The goals of Feminist Frequency have changed due to all these factors. Here’s an overview of the ways we have evolved and expanded the Tropes vs Women in Video Game project:
- Instead of examining a handful of examples for each trope, we sift through hundreds of games across a variety of genres and platforms. For example, we referenced 182 games in our coverage of the Damsel in Distress trope alone. We have also catalogued and documented over 548 examples of the Damsel in Distress throughout the history of video games.
- Originally, I anticipated creating 10-12 minute videos for each trope. However, as the depth and breadth of our analysis grew, so did the videos.
~ The Damsel in Distress became a three-part miniseries clocking in at just over one hour
~ Ms. Male Character was 25 minutes long
~ Women as Background Decoration became a two-part miniseries clocking in at one hour
- Our desire to be more specific in the analysis meant that we made connections to other related tropes, including some that we identified and named ourselves. For example, in the Damsel in Distress videos we also discussed new tropes such as the Helpful Damsel, the Damsel in the Refrigerator, the Disposable Damsel and the Euthanized Damsel. With all that and more, it’s easy to see how we ended up with an hour long multi-part mini series just on this one topic alone.
- Many of my previous videos were off the cuff and only half scripted. In this series I have become much more intentional. Every sentence and every word is carefully considered and evaluated. There is nothing flippantly or casually stated. This can lead to hours of discussion about the accuracy of a particular term or rephrasing a single sentence until it is just right. Rather than small, casual analyses, each trope video has ended up feeling like we are trying to put together a master’s thesis in just a few months.
What We’ve Accomplished
I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished with Feminist Frequency over the last two years. We’ve released six long-form episodes in the Tropes vs Women in Video Games series plus an accompanying animated video narrated by Jennifer Hale. Our YouTube channel has garnered over 17 million views and our Twitter account now has over 230,000 followers. Feminist Frequency writer and producer Jonathan McIntosh turned an article he wrote on male privilege into a highly popular video with the help of 25 male gamers including veteran games journalist Adam Sessler and beloved game developer Tim Schafer. I’ve done countless radio, television, and print interviews discussing online harassment and the representations of women in games, as well as speaking on these topics at dozens of schools and conferences globally.
We are one of several prominent voices that has helped bring about a paradigm shift and stronger awareness to the inequities in gaming culture. Just in the last couple of years there has been a significant transformation in the way gaming press outlets are reporting on issues of gender representation. Game reviews are beginning to include commentary on how women are depicted, and reporters are questioning developers and publishers more frequently on the lack of female protagonists in their games. After we released our episodes on the Damsel in Distress, several reporters at E3 asked Shigeru Miyamoto why he continued to use the Damsel trope in many of his popular Nintendo games and he said he hadn’t really thought about it before.
One of the most hopeful signs for me is how often developers have expressed their appreciation for my work. I have been invited to speak at game studios like EA DICE, Bungie, and ArenaNet. Developers at both indie and major game studios continue to reach out to me personally to tell me how our video series, and our larger work at Feminist Frequency has played a significant role in shaping internal conversations at all levels of production. Developers who were responsible for some of the games that I have critiqued in my series have graciously accepted the criticism and have promised to do better in the future.
Players, creators, and educators are taking our videos as a starting point and expanding the conversation about representations in games within their own communities.
When our kickstarter campaign ended on June 16, 2012 we raised a total of $158,922. Here is a breakdown of how the funds have been used:
Over the past two years Feminist Frequency has shifted from a side project I did in my spare time to a full blown organization. In May 2014, Feminist Frequency officially became a 501(c)3 nonprofit. This is exciting for a number of reasons, and will allow us to expand the organization and bring on additional support to help us do even more. It means more critical media analysis, more videos, and more efforts to raise awareness and develop solutions around the epidemic of online harassment. My long-term vision of Feminist Frequency includes a network with a variety of different programs and hosts analyzing media from a systemic/intersectional/anti-oppression lens. My team and I are growing the organization carefully and deliberately by bringing in new writing and support staff and by working to create compelling new educational programing. As a very young nonprofit and as we grow into a fully staffed organization, fundraising efforts will become increasingly important in sustaining our growth. If you are interested in learning more about Feminist Frequency as a nonprofit and our work, please take a look at our 2014 Annual Report [PDF].
I hope this update has provided you some insight into this ongoing project and our process in putting together each episode. I know many of you wish we would produce episodes faster, but each video is a massive undertaking and I do not want to compromise the comprehensive, in-depth analysis and high production quality that you have come to expect from Feminist Frequency. Tropes vs Women in Video Games is still my top priority and our next episode Women as Reward is currently in production. I am very proud of the work we are doing and the impact it is having on the industry at large.
I thank each of you for supporting this Kickstarter before you had any idea what these videos were really going to be about and I thank you for your patience as we continue on this rollercoaster of a journey.
Gender and Tech Pop-up Institute
Including Gender: New Approaches to Privacy and Security
Organised by Tactical Technology Collective and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), December 2014, Germany.
At the beginning of December last year, 76 women and a small group of men - human rights advocates, feminists, techies, activists - descended on an ageing East German 'Schloss' (manor house) near the border of Poland for seven days of training, collaboration, discussion, and knowledge exchange. (And potatoes! Lots of potatoes.)
As could probably be expected from that description alone, the Gender and Tech Pop-up Institute promised to be an intense, interesting, inspiring week.
But first: Why a gender and tech event?
The problem of online harassment and threats against women and their collaborators, coming from both governments and non-state individuals and groups, has become more visible in the last few years. Vocal women are too often trapped in a situation where the internet is crucial to their work - for coordinating actions, gaining wider reach, etc - but is also the place where they are surveilled, harassed and punished for speaking out.
For women, the internet is not a safe space, and it is all too common to see the work of feminists and activists being deleted, (self)censored, and actively prevented from being seen, heard or read. Logically, these trends diminish both the freedom of expression and privacy rights of the people targeted. Our aim with this event was to try to find new approaches to privacy and digital security that would include a gender and cultural diversity approach.
Through a process of rigorous review, 350 applications were pared down to 51 participants coming from a wide range of countries, including Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Egypt, Turkey, Bosnia Herzegovina and Macedonia, with six self-funded participants from Serbia, Canada, Germany, Sweden and the US.
We also had a great group of 18 facilitators, who came from organisations such as SAFE, Protection International and Donestech (as well as APC and Tactical Tech); add the logistics team and some visitors, and we were about 80 in total.
Tracks, skillshares, hands-on sessions, and a hackerspace
The mornings were mostly organised along two tracks: a Digital Security Training Skills track (for those who already had some tech background but who wanted to hone their training skills), and a Privacy Advocacy track, which looked at issues like mass and targeted surveillance, managing digital shadows and online identities and tackling tech-related violence.
Afternoons were reserved for hands-on sessions (ie, learning specific tools) and skillshares run by participants, including sessions on wikis and digital libraries, self-doxing, interviewing survivors of violence, feminist servers, self care, self-defence, VPNs, regional discussion groups, and others.
Movies, conversation, tech sharing, and making houses out of biscuits
After dinner the evening programme kicked in, including lots of self-organised, participant-driven sessions: movies, discussion groups, stenciling, board games, card games, creating a 'herstory' exhibition, gingerbread-house-making... as well as bar shifts at our makeshift bar 'Gabi's' for the night owls, complete with impromptu dancing and the occasional outbreak of balloon-volleyball.
Evenings were also when the self-organised and popular hackerspace got going, which became the go-to place to gain knowledge and share skills around practical tech stuff in a chilled-out atmosphere.
And because a week is never complete without some loud group singing, on Sunday night we put some fairy-lights around the piano, set up the guitars and speakers and projectors and enjoyed some exclusive one-night-only performances. Top acts included a piano song, a poetry reading, music-less karaoke, various guitar jams (with or without improvised rap), and of course the unforgettable 'Left-Handed-Declaration of Human Lefts'.
And suddenly it was Monday
While everyone was no doubt ready for some rest and quiet by the end of the week, those feelings were mixed with sad goodbyes. From our side, we learned a lot and hope that those of you who were there did too. Big thanks to our collaborators APC and to all our facilitators and to everyone who traveled halfway across the world to join the event; we're excited to see new partnerships emerge.
Thanks also to everyone who applied - the selection process involved some tough decisions. We are, however, currently working on supporting and developing similar, more regional events in other countries, so there will hopefully be more opportunities in future.
We're working toward releasing an edited version of the event documentation later in the year.
And if you have particular questions or suggestions around this new area of exploration at Tactical Tech, please contact alexandra[at]tacticaltech.org.
“There is something about the internet that isn’t working anymore,” is the line that opens filmmaker Jonathan Minard’s short documentary on Deep Lab—a group of women hackers, artists, and theorists who gathered at Carnegie Mellon University in December to answer the question of what, exactly, that disquieting “something” is. The film premieres on Motherboard today.
What Deep Lab represents is just as hard to pin down as the “something” invoked in the opening minutes of Minard’s short film. Is it a book, a lecture series, or Minard’s documentary—all of which were put together in under a month? Is it an ethos? Is it feminist? Is Deep Lab a charrette, a dugnad, or a “congress,” as its participants called it?
It’s hard to say what Deep Lab is in part because of its scattershot nature, both in terms of its products and its focus. The Deep Lab book—available for free online—is a 242-page collection of essays, fragments, and reflections on everything from encryption to cyberfeminism penned by a dozen different authors with divergent interests.
Deep Lab’s interdisciplinary approach is perhaps necessary to parse the complicated realities of the post-Snowden age. Since Snowden’s revelations regarding the scope of the US government’s online surveillance program broke in 2013, it seems as though the internet has taken on a new, dark, and confusing identity.
Larger-than-life interests in the form of corporate and governmental surveillance are now at play in our daily interactions on the internet, and interpreting those outsized realities so we can understand them is no small challenge.
“As an artist, I want to reinterpret culture in a way that society can parse.” said Addie Wagenknecht, the multimedia artist who organized Deep Lab during her ongoing fellowship at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon. “You take these big events and try to encapsulate them in a way that you can present them concisely and quickly so that it’s defined for people who experience that piece or exhibition.”
A chapter in the book compiled by data artist Ingrid Burrington is comprised of 20 pages listing objects pulled from the Pentagon’s 1033 program—which has supplied military hardware to local police for decades—in plain black text. After four solid pages of “5.56 MILLIMETRE RIFLE,” it becomes clear that Deep Lab is not only artistically compelling and tantalizingly oblique in how it approaches issues of life and death, but deadly serious.
According to Wagenknecht, Deep Lab is also a medium for women to do more than just participate in digital culture—the tech world has been notoriously resistant to opening its ranks to women—but to interpret and define it, and to share and create tools and techniques for survival within it.
“Maybe for women, we’re more aware of protecting ourselves online because it’s always been a social problem,” Wagenknecht told me. “Think of contacting friends before you leave a party late at night so people can make sure you got home safe—men maybe don’t think about that and women always do. And it’s those same roles on the web. How do you protect yourself from a hack or doxing? The power shifts to the person with more knowledge.”
Deep Lab member Ingrid Burrington. Screengrab: Deep Lab.
Deep Lab member Harlo Holmes, who works as the head of metadata for the Guardian Project, designed a system for victims of cyber bullying on Twitter to easily and painlessly map the digital connections between harassers called Foxy Doxxing.
There were also men present at Deep Lab, including Minard, though they weren’t collaborators per se. Multimedia artist Golan Levin is the director of STUDIO, where Deep Lab congregated. Playing host to Deep Lab, Levin—along with Wagenknecht, who was the group’s chief mastermind and organizer—was part of Deep Lab’s development from the very beginning.
“I’m enormously proud,” Levin said. “You’re looking at a book, a documentary, and a lecture series that was put together by a dozen people in a month. I think they’re side-effects of what Deep Lab actually was.”
So, to return to the question that started this article—what is Deep Lab?—Levin provided his own answer: “It’s punk.”
But even more than punk—more than a book, a documentary, a gathering, or a lecture series—Deep Lab is a beginning, according to Allison Burtch, a resident at the Brooklyn-based Eyebeam Art and Technology Center and Deep Lab member.
Addie Wagenknecht, Harlo Holmes, and two other Deep Lab members at work. Screengrab: Deep Lab.
“I don’t think Deep Lab has ended; it was the beginning of a camaraderie,” Burtch said. “Yeah, we did this thing and did some talks, but it’s not ending. This is the beginning of different affiliations with people. It was awesome. “
According to Wagenknecht, a Deep Lab lecture series is planned for later in 2015, and will take place at venues in New York City. Until then, we have a book, several lectures, and a documentary to contemplate what Deep Lab is, and what it all means.
CyberFeminism \\ˈsī-bərˈfe-mə-ni-zəm \\ : A wave of thought, criticism, and art that emerged in the early 1990s, galvanizing a generation of feminists, before bursting along with the dot-com bubble. The term was coined simultaneously by the British cultural theorist Sadie Plant and the Australian art collective VNS Matrix in 1991, during the heady upwelling of cyberculture—that crucial moment in which the connective technology of the Internet was moving into the public sphere.
CyberFeminism looked and sounded like this, basically:
That’s the 1991 A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, by VNS Matrix.
The CyberFeminists were techno-utopian thinkers who saw technology as a way to dissolve sex and gender divisions. Of course, they knew that the digital world, and the cultures emerging from it, speculative and otherwise, contained as many gendered power dynamics as the real world; the term “CyberFeminist” itself is partially a critique of the misogynistic overtones of cyberpunk literature in the 80s. Still, the CyberFeminists believed in the Internet as a tool of feminist liberation.
There was a lot to love on the web back then. Feminists emerging from a tradition of nonlinear writing and art practices saw potential in non-narrative hypertext as a medium, and feminist critics compared web connectivity to the consciousness-raising groups of 70s third-wave feminism, where women came together to discuss their similarities and differences. From Leonardo, MIT’s arts journal, in 1998: “the question is not one of dominance and control or of submission and surrender to machines; instead it is one of exploring alliances, affinities, and coevolutionary possibilities… between women and technology.”
A clear definition of CyberFeminism is almost impossible to pin down. In fact, at the 1997 First CyberFeminist International, the first proper CyberFeminist conference, attendees agreed not to define the term, instead collectively authoring 100 “Anti-Theses,” a laundry list of things which CyberFeminism was not. The list includes: not for sale, not postmodern, not a fashion statement, not a picnic, not a media hoax, not science fiction, and—my personal favorite—“not about boring toys for boring boys.”
Not boring indeed. For CyberFeminists, cyberspace was a sinuous alternate world ripe for creative experimentation. They made revolutionary CD-ROMs (like Linda Dement's "Cyberflesh Girlmonster") built web-based multimedia artworks, and tinkered with early Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) to worldbuild outside of cultural patriarchy, taking any form they pleased as they moved through the Internet seeking pleasure and knowledge. They even made video games. Most illustrious among them: All New Gen, another VNS Matrix project.
In All New Gen—seen above, in 1995, in a viewing kiosk at YYZ Gallery in Toronto—female “cybersluts” and “anarcho cyber-terrorists” hack into the databanks of Big Daddy Mainframe, an Oedipal embodiment of the techno-industrial complex, to sow the seeds of a New World Disorder and end the rule of phallic power.
Logging into All New Gen, the player is first asked: “What is your gender? Male, Female, Neither.” The only right answer is “Neither”—anything else will send the player into a loop that ends the game. Energy in All New Gen is measured in “G-slime;” in the battle against the Mainframe and his henchmen (“Circuit Boy, Streetfighter and other total dicks”), the player gets help from “mutant shero DNA Sluts.” Can you even imagine?
The DNA Sluts, still from All New Gen. Image courtesy of Virginia Barratt.
Revisiting CyberFeminism in 2014 is a joy. For one, it’s fun. The language is dynamite. There just aren't many feminists on the web curretly writing manifestos that include phrases like “the clitoris is a direct line to the matrix” or “we are the future cunt”—both memorable lines from VNS Matrix’s Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century—at least not on the blogs I’m reading. And the enthusiasm for the nascent possibilities of the web is palpable, even contagious.
“Cyberspace has the potential,” explained the novelist Beryl Fletcher in an 1999 essay for CyberFeminism: Connectivity, Critique + Creativity, “to stretch imagination and language to the limit; it is a vast library of information, a gossip session, and a politically charged emotional landscape. In short, a perfect place for feminists.”
Or, as the scholar Donna Haraway wrote, more succinctly, in her seminal 1991 essay, A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century: “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess.”
Of course, these techno-utopian expectations haven't exactly become our reality. CyberFeminist thinkers and artists had the Internet pegged as a surefire playground for female thought and expression, but being a woman online in 2014 comes with the same caveats and anxieties that have always accompanied being female in meatspace. Fears of being silenced, threatened, or bullied are as real in the digital realm as IRL. Women like the (sheroic) videogame critic Anita Sarkeesian are routinely harassed for simply pointing out that we can do better at representing women in the media wrapped around our technology.
And anonymity! Anonymity, which CyberFeminists championed as a method for transcending gender, is now a primary enabler of violently misogynistic language all over the web—in YouTube comments, on forums, and in the email inboxes and Twitter @replies of women with public opinions about technology. It’s not that the CyberFeminists failed. It’s that as the Venn diagrams of digital and real life have edged into near-complete overlap, the problems of the real world have become the problems of the digital world. The web is no longer a separate space; we are inseparable from the web.
VNS Matrix postcard, 1994. Left to Right: Francesca Da Rimini, Virginia Barratt, Julianne Pierce, Josephine Starrs. Image courtesy of Virgina Barratt.
Still, there is hope. As Virginia Barratt, a founding member of VNS Matrix, wrote in 2014, “cyberfeminism was a catalytic moment, a collective memetic mind-virus that mobilised geek girls everywhere and unleashed the blasphemic techno-porno code that made machines pleasurable and wet…as I watch pussy riot declining to be ‘clean and proper’ bodies in a most filthy way, i feel the morphing cyberg feminist lineage stretching through time and space.”
Quite literally, actually—next year, a “remix” of the VNS Matrix Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century will be sent into space as part of an art project called Forever Now.
Back here on Earth, powerful conversations about women, gender, power, and technology are happening all over the web. The platforms are different than the CyberFeminists anticipated. We don’t consciousness-raise through CD-ROMs, hang out as avatar Amazons in virtual worlds, or author non-narrative hyperlinked novels—instead, we share ideas in Facebook groups, launch online magazines, and deploy hashtags to try to bring issues to light.
It’s less countercultural, but we have a bigger audience than ever. And while touchstones of terribleness remain—the revelations of Jian Ghameshi’s abuse, Gamergate, Ray Rice punching his wife—at least we’re doing something with the attention shit brings to the fan: talking, educating, getting mad.
In the cultural aftermath of Gamergate, I’ve been holding onto CyberFeminism and its fruits as totems for a saner parallel world. It consoles me to see that while technology has always been gendered, the seeds of possibility have been there from the beginning. We can use technological tools to build the landscapes of our dreams, rather than to model the constructs of our existing reality. It’s not too late for us. While the past’s failed utopian aspirations demonstrate what could have been, they also show us what we could still become.
Headline from Australian newspaper The Age, about VNS Matrix, 1995.
What can we learn from the activists, intellectuals, prophets and weirdos of first wave Internet cyberculture? We lionize Stewart Brand, Lawrence Lessig, and their fellows (and rightly so) but we seem to have forgotten those who took stances that turned out unfashionable, made predictions which proved irrelevant, or spoke for voices that never quite found purchase online.
We need to remember CyberFeminism. We need draw VNS Matrix up from the depths and inject a little into our veins. It’s good medicine. These women’s voices—weird, angry, hilarious, and staunchly defiant of the (Big Daddy) Mainframe—are sorely missing from today’s many fractured conversations about feminism in online spaces. For every screed about “ethics in gaming journalism,” for every dismissal of women’s legitimate grievances about their portrayal in gaming or treatment in online comment sections, for every death threat or doxxing attempt lodged against a woman online, I long for the howling future cunts to come along and rattle some sense into the servers.
This story is part of a series on rediscovering feminist histories on the web. Read part two, "An Oral History of the First Cyberfeminists."
An Oral History of the First Cyberfeminists
Written by Claire L. Evans
December 11, 2014 // 10:35 AM EST
In the heady early years of the World Wide Web, four Australian women— Josephine Starrs, Julianne Pierce, Francesca da Rimini and Virginia Barratt—made fierce and funny feminist art under the name VNS Matrix. They were part of a cultural movement called Cyberfeminism, which peaked in the early 1990s and dissipated sometime between the bursting of the dot com bubble and the coming of Y2K.
VNS Matrix worked in a wide variety of media: computer games, video installations, events, texts, and billboards. In their iconic “Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century,” they called themselves the “virus of the new world disorder,” and “terminators of the moral codes.” With this irreverent, but keenly political language, they articulated a feminist aesthetic of slimy, unpretty, vigilantly nose-thumbing technological anarchy.
They coded. They built websites. They hung out in chat rooms and text-based online communities like LambdaMOO. They told stories through interactive code and experiences like the CD-ROM game All New Gen, in which a female protagonist fought to defeat a military-industrial data environment called “Big Daddy Mainframe.” They believed the web could be a space for fluid creative experimentation, a place to transform and create in collaboration with a global community of like-minded artists.
Over twenty years later, in the many feminist conversations happening online, groups like VNS Matrix and their compatriots in the Cyberfeminist trenches are not frequently cited. They should be. Their spirit of joyful subversion is more relevant, more cannily timely, more totally necessary today than it has ever been.
While putting together my story for Motherboard about Cyberfeminism, I began an email correspondence with the members of VNS Matrix. They were hugely generous, opening up their archives and sharing first-person stories about their experiences as pioneering woman artists in the early Internet age. We decided to put all of the material together into a history of VNS Matrix, told in their own words.
Together, we share this history with the Cyberfeminists past, present, and future.
VNS Matrix poster, mid 1990s. Image via Josephine Starrs.
Virginia Barratt: There is a narrative arc to the genesis of VNS Matrix which goes something like this: "The VNS Matrix emerged from the cyberswamp during a southern Australian summer circa 1991, on a mission to hijack the toys from technocowboys and remap cyberculture with a feminist bent."
Francesca da Rimini: Our group formed over 20 years ago, and it really was another world, another lifetime.
Virginia Barratt: We were living in Adelaide at the time. I was EO of the Australian Network for Art and Technology, a position Francesca had just left to move onto other works and projects. Julianne and Josie were both studying and making art and performance. We were all involved in a mess of generative creative production.
Josephine Starrs: Australia was avant-garde in the new media art scene, and Australians are generally early adopters of new technologies, perhaps due to physical distance. Australian female artists are also innovators and are not afraid to critique the establishment. That irreverence and humour could perhaps be the influence of our Indigenous culture, and the Irish convict culture?
Virginia Barratt: Francesca had been involved in a project of Australian Network for Art and Technology to connect artists with machines, facilitating artist access to institutions and their resources, specifically computers and software.
This kind of access was unprecedented, since computers were not personal and certainly not ubiquitous. It was the mission of ANAT to create connections between art and science. The outcomes were surprising and not-so-surprising, in terms of production—artists intervening in the processes of technological production—and socio-cultural interventions, as the machines were mostly in service to the patriarchal overlords of commerce, science, educational institutions. Access by women was limited and usually mediated by a male "tech.” The idea of "play" and "creative production" or simply "research" with no outcomes that were necessarily useful in terms of capitalism were anathema to the tech industries.
Josephine Starrs: VNS Matrix predated the 2000’s trend for game-art in the art world. We began by making up playful narratives around our female protagonist All New Gen and her DNA sluts. This was 1990, way before Lara Croft, when the idea of a female hero in a computer game was unheard of. We created art installations that included game stills for light boxes, narrative sound and video works, and interactive art.
Invite for All New Gen Exhibition,1995. Image via the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.
Virginia Barratt: The technological landscape was very dry, cartesian, reverent. It was uncritical and overwhelmingly male-dominated. It was a masculinist space, coded as such, and the gatekeepers of the code (cultural and logos) maintained control of the productions of technology.
Francesca da Rimini: In the early 1990s, informational capitalism hadn’t quite taken root. The internet was far less regulated, far less commodified. More of a maul and a maw than a mall. There seemed to be endless possibilities, it was a field of immanence, of becoming. And it was slow, low-res, glitch. Before ‘glitch’ became a cultural movement. But it’s easy to be nostalgic for that time.
Virginia Barratt: It was into this environment that VNS Matrix was spawned. We entered into the cultural space circuitously, imagining a feminist approach to the production of pornography—this was our starting point, and the way we generated an aesthetics of slime, moving quickly into a machine-slime symbiosis, as antithetical to the brittle beige fleshless gutless realm of technological production. A stream of consciousness writing session which was more like an exudation of slime and viscera morphing through critical, feminist, pornographic texts birthed the "Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century.”
By the latter part of 1991 the manifesto was the centerpiece of a large billboard image of the same name, framed by cybercunts, in a field of genetic material morphing into new representations of women, gender and sexuality in technospace, both primordial, ancient and futuristic, fantastical and active, not passive objects. The blasphemous text was badass and complex, hot, wet and mind-bending, in service to a feminism that was multiple.
The Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century in installation, 1995. Image via Virginia Barratt.
Virginia Barratt: At the same time that we portmanteau'ed cyber and feminism, Sadie Plant was working on developing a curriculum around the same name in another part of the world—simultaneous synapse firings across the matrix of slime. One of her students was on holiday in Australia and happened across the billboard, on the side of the Tin Sheds Gallery in Sydney, took a photo, framed it and presented it to Sadie. A connection was forged, flesh met. This is one understanding of how feminism entered cyber and the word became flesh.
Francesca da Rimini: The cyberfeminist community was crazy, wild, political, passionate. Deeply fun. It was lived politics and generated abiding friendships and networks. There was a whole lotta love. I guess it was very Euro, but then there were some powerful women in Canada and The States. Like Jamaican-Canadian digital artist Camille Turner. And Carmin Karasic from the Electronic Disturbance Theatre.
EDT did one of the first Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) actions—Floodnet—circa 1998, way before Anonymous, in solidarity with the Mexican Zapatistas. Their action provoked the US military into retaliating against the DDoS participants by launching hostile Java applets back to their computers, crashing them. I know, I was online in New York participating in the DDoS at the time. The military’s involvement only came to light later.
Virginia Barratt: We honored the lineage of Cyberfeminism—naturally Donna Haraway with her cyborg/goddess dichotomy was one of our sheroes. Others who were working in the field at the time were people like Brenda Laurel, Sherri Turkle, Allucquere Roseanne Stone.
Irreverence, agency, power, sexuality, intensities, guerilla feminism, porn, humour, music. Post-punk/still punk. The abject and subversion of the clean and proper body. These were some of the hallmarks of our productive approaches, influences and methods.
VNS Matrix postcard, depicting their concept of "G-Slime," 1994. Image via Virginia Barratt.
Josephine Starrs: It appeared that few women were playing computer games in the early nineties. One reason for this is that the games industry ignored women and girls for more than a decade, fearing that if girls joined the fun, the boys would be unhappy about losing their exclusive boy-zone.
So VNS Matrix had fun making our own art games for public exhibition, hacking the game engines, slashing the dominant game narratives and critiquing the content of game culture with humor.
From the enormous positive responses and feedback we received from young women artists and gamers from both in Australia and internationally, it was obvious that many women were really annoyed with being actively excluded from game culture, which was obviously becoming a huge cultural force.
Still from All New Gen. Image via Josephine Starrs.
Virginia Barratt: What happened to cyberfeminism? Why did the movement die out? What happened, of course, was that the narratives around liberation from racism, sexism and so on in the brave new virtual world were promises which were empty. New strategies needed to be developed for battling rampant bullying, bigotry, hatespeech and so on. Cyberfeminisms deployed multifariously and the idea of a *movement* was no longer relevant.
Francesca da Rimini: I think the political and cultural ideas that this movement inspired continue to evolve and shapeshift. Check out the Bloodbath collaboration with a roller derby team for example. That could be read as a cyberfeminist intervention. Chicks, machines, extreme sports. Or the growth of female hacker clubs, workshops and events like G.hack and Genderchangers. In the global South there are many projects fostering a critical socially-engaged technological literacy, and women are driving and participating in many of these. Such projects don’t need to be labelled "cyberfeminist," but they embody some of the cyberfeminist ethos and attitude.
Virginia Barratt: I think VNS Matrix was doing a job. And in a cultural space that was coded as heavily masculinist, our job as female-identified people, and as feminists, was to overthrow the gatekeepers in order to access a powerful new technology which had huge implications for domination and control by the patriarchy and by capitalist systems. We did what we had to do at the time. Then our job was done. Leave the definitions to someone else.
Later, the field became itself more fully, and was able to address the layered political aspects of the cultural conditions of the information technology field—but at the time we just needed to be fast and fierce and overthrow the gatekeepers. We had to break the safe.
Francesca da Rimini: Cyberfeminism is one of many feminisms, and feminism has not gone away.
VNS Matrix, Silicon Angel. Image via Josephine Starrs.
This story is part of a series on rediscovering feminist histories on the web. Read part one, "We Are the Future Cunt: Cyberfeminism in the 90s."
She's been a swimsuit cover model and a human trafficking victim, but Barbie has never really been touted as a working professional. The latest affront to basic decency in gendered toy marketing comes from a Barbie book that tells girls they can't be game developers or programmers.
The book is bafflingly called Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer. It was written by Susan Marenco and published by Random House. Despite its encouraging title, Marenco's book actually tells preteen girls that Barbie can only contribute to the design of the game she's building.
Geek girls remix that sexist Barbie book
This book, released last June, was paired with another career-minded book called Barbie: I Can Be an Actress. All five reviews for the two-book set on Amazon are from baffled parents wondering why a story called I Can Be a Computer Engineer is sending the opposite message. In fact, according to the site's only three-star review (the others each give one star), it might more accurately be called "I Can Manipulate Boys Into Programming While I Sit Back and Take Credit." Here's how the three-star reviewer, Roxanne M, describes it:
Basically what happens is she designs a game (but can't code it without her guy friends' help), infects her own and her sister's computers with a virus by accident (lolol), has her guy friends help her fix both of them, and then takes all the credit for the game and fixed computers in the end.
Oy. You'd think that, with a plot that hackneyed, Barbie would at least get a better title. After all, "I Can Be a Game Designer" is still a pretty cool title! But alas, as blogger and comedy writer Pamela Ribon quickly discovered when she picked up the book for the first time yesterday, it isn't intended to give girls even that much empowerment.
As Ribon describes in an increasingly cringe-inducing writeup about the book, Barbie is introduced as the designer of stereotypically "girly" games featuring cute little animals. Barbie's work resembles Pet Rescue or similar mobile games—you know, not the ones "real gamers" make.
That's OK, though, because Barbie is apparently perfectly happy with her second-class status. “I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie tells Skipper. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!” She's laughing when she says it, though, so we're assured that she's totally OK with her fate. Barbie appears to embrace her life as a pink-clad artist who gets waylaid by cute robot puppies and never makes a dent in the tech culture gender gap.
From there, the book unleashes a litany of sexist stereotypes, already all too familiar in the world of preteen girl marketing. Barbie signals her geek cred by wearing her flash drive in a giant pink heart-shaped necklace. Too bad that flash drive has a virus.
Barbie is also too dumb to notice that the virus exists before it crashes her computer. Maybe she doesn't have malware protection? She also can't restart her computer without her sister's help.
It just gets better (worse) from there: Barbie does indeed accidentally give Skipper a virus, and Skipper's reaction, as described by Ribon, makes her sound like an alien with no investment in her schoolwork or emotional attachment to her music collection:
“I forgot to back up my homework assignment!” cries Skipper. “And all my music files are lost, too!”
“I’m so sorry, Skipper,” says Barbie. “I have to run off to school now. But I promise to find a way to fix your laptop.”
“You better!” Skipper replies as she playfully hits Barbie with a pillow.
To recap the sophisticated narrative: Skipper has just lost her homework, all her music files, and her laptop, but the only thing she can think about now is a pillow fight.
Later, after receiving instructions from her female computer-science teacher, Barbie tries fixing her computer alone. That's when the aforementioned Steven and Brian arrive and tell her that things will "go faster" if she lets them help. Ribon points out that while the book portrays them as perfectly nice dudes, they represent the actual systemic marginalization that she and countless other women have experienced in the tech industry:
Steven and Brian don’t value design as much as code. Steven and Brian represent every time I was talked over and interrupted — every time I didn’t post a code solution in a forum because I didn’t want to spend the next 72 years defending it. Steven and Brian make more money than I do for doing the same thing. And at the same time, Steven and Brian are nice guys.
As if all that weren't enough, at the end of the book Barbie really does take all credit for the work that Steven and Brian do. She decides, without any actual coding experience, that "I guess I can be an engineer!"
Ribon notes that since the other story is juxtaposed and inverted against the engineering story, the book actually has one last passive-aggressive insult for girls reading it: "When you read Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer, it appears that you are so fucking dumb, you’re reading Barbie: I Can Be an Actress upside down."
Sadly, toys for girls are often blatantly offensive in their use of gendered stereotypes, if they aren't ignored altogether in the rush to produce action figures for boys. In that context, this kind of stereotyping is to be expected from a no-name toy product. But Barbie has been running its "I can be..." campaign for several years, explicitly to help empower girls by telling them they can be everything from professional surfers to the President. Sure, it's just class president, but we'll cut her some slack—assuming she didn't bribe boys to vote for her by offering to let them undo her perky pink hair bow.
At some point, maybe Mattel should just quit fronting and abandon the pretense that Barbie—whose body proportions are so unrealistic that a woman reportedly removed two of her ribs just to try to match them—has anything empowering to offer young girls. Mattel has already featured Barbie on a Sports Illustrated cover. After that, no amount of career ambition can mask where her true cultural value lies. Sadly, it's not in her programming skills.
Jean Jennings (left) and Frances Bilas set up the ENIAC in 1946. Bilas is arranging the program settings on the Master Programmer.
Courtesy of University of Pennsylvania
If your image of a computer programmer is a young man, there's a good reason: It's true. Recently, many big tech companies revealed how few of their female employees worked in programming and technical jobs. Google had some of the highest rates: 17 percent of its technical staff is female.
It wasn't always this way. Decades ago, it was women who pioneered computer programming — but too often, that's a part of history that even the smartest people don't know.
I took a trip to ground zero for today's computer revolution, Stanford University, and randomly asked over a dozen students if they knew who were the first computer programmers. Almost none knew.
"I'm in computer science," says a slightly embarrassed Stephanie Pham. "This is so sad."
A few students, like Cheng Dao Fan, get close. "It's a woman, probably," she says searching her mind for a name. "It's not necessarily [an] electronic computer. I think it's more like a mechanic computer."
She's thinking of Ada Lovelace, also known as the Countess of Lovelace, born in 1815. Walter Isaacson begins his new book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, with her story.
Augusta Ada, Countess of Lovelace, was the daughter of poet Lord Byron. The computer language ADA was named after her in recognition of her pioneering work with Charles Babbage.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
"Ada Lovelace is Lord Byron's child, and her mother, Lady Byron, did not want her to turn out to be like her father, a romantic poet," says Isaacson. So Lady Byron "had her tutored almost exclusively in mathematics as if that were an antidote to being poetic."
Lovelace saw the poetry in math. At 17, she went to a London salon and met Charles Babbage. He showed her plans for a machine that he believed would be able to do complex mathematical calculations. He asked Lovelace to write about his work for a scholarly journal. In her article, Lovelace expresses a vision for his machine that goes beyond calculations.
She envisioned that "a computer can do anything that can be noted logically," explains Isaacson. "Words, pictures and music, not just numbers. She understands how you take an instruction set and load it into the machine, and she even does an example, which is programming Bernoulli numbers, an incredibly complicated sequence of numbers."
Babbage's machine was never built. But his designs and Lovelace's notes were read by people building the first computer a century later.
The women who would program one of the world's earliest electronic computers, however, knew nothing of Lovelace and Babbage.
As part of the oral history project of the Computer History Museum, Jean Jennings Bartik recalled how she got the job working on that computer. She was doing calculations on rocket and canon trajectories by hand in 1945. A job opened to work on a new machine.
"This announcement came around that they were looking for operators of a new machine they were building called the ENIAC," recalls Bartik. "Of course, I had no idea what it was, but I knew it wasn't doing hand calculation."
Bartik was one of six female mathematicians who created programs for one of the world's first fully electronic general-purpose computers. Isaacson says the men didn't think it was an important job.
"Men were interested in building, the hardware," says Isaacson, "doing the circuits, figuring out the machinery. And women were very good mathematicians back then."
Isaacson says in the 1930s female math majors were fairly common — though mostly they went off to teach. But during World War II, these skilled women signed up to help with the war effort.
Bartik told a live audience at the Computer History Museum in 2008 that the job lacked prestige. The ENIAC wasn't working the day before its first demo. Bartik's team worked late into the night and got it working.
"They all went out to dinner at the announcement," she says. "We weren't invited and there we were. People never recognized, they never acted as though we knew what we were doing. I mean, we were in a lot of pictures."
At the time, though, media outlets didn't name the women in the pictures. After the war, Bartik and her team went on to work on the UNIVAC, one of the first major commercial computers.
The women joined up with Grace Hopper, a tenured math professor who joined the Navy Reserve during the war. Walter Isaacson says Hopper had a breakthrough. She found a way to program computers using words rather than numbers — most notably a program language called COBOL.
"You would be using a programming language that would allow you almost to just give it instructions, almost in regular English, and it would compile it for whatever hardware it happened to be," explains Isaacson. "So that made programming more important than the hardware, 'cause you could use it on any piece of hardware."
Grace Hopper originated electronic computer automatic programming for the Remington Rand Division of Sperry Rand Corp.
Hopper retired from the Navy Reserve as a rear admiral. An act of Congress allowed her to stay past mandatory retirement age. She did become something of a public figure and even appeared on the David Letterman show in 1986. Letterman asks her, "You're known as the Queen of Software. Is that right?"
"More or less," says the 79-year-old Hopper.
But it was also just about this time that the number of women majoring in computer science began to drop, from close to 40 percent to around 17 percent now. There are a lot of theories about why this is so. It was around this time that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were appearing in the media; personal computers were taking off.
Computer science degrees got more popular, and boys who had been tinkering with computer hardware at home looked like better candidates to computer science departments than girls who liked math, says Janet Abbate, a professor at Virginia Tech who has studied this topic.
"It's kind of the classic thing," she says. "You pick people who look like what you think a computer person is, which is probably a teenage boy that was in the computer club in high school."
For decades the women who pioneered the computer revolution were often overlooked, but not in Isaacson's book about the history of the digital revolution.
"When they have been written out of the history, you don't have great role models," says Isaacson. "But when you learn about the women who programmed ENIAC or Grace Hopper or Ada Lovelace ... it happened to my daughter. She read about all these people when she was in high school, and she became a math and computer science geek."
Lovelace, the mathematician, died when she was 36. The women who worked on the ENIAC have all passed away, as has Grace Hopper. But every time you write on a computer, play a music file or add up a number with your phone's calculator, you are using tools that might not exist without the work of these women.
Isaacson's book reminds us of that fact. And perhaps knowing that history will show a new generation of women that programming is for girls.