WELCOME, GIRLS, TO A NOVEL SITE


If Literature is still to have a cognitive function, instead of being reduced to sheer entertainment and escapism, if it is to regain the role it once enjoyed as the favoured channel of interpretation of the world in which we live, then it can no longer hold itself aloof from other media. In other words, novelists should not be unaware of the changes unfolding in society, language and technology. This is a two-way process, however: on the one hand the world outside enters into the work of literature as raw material ready for creative processing; on the other, today's writers have unprecedented opportunities to enter the media system themselves, as "personalities". I like to think that writers will not take advantage of this opportunity for the sole purpose of selling more copies, but also and above all so as to exercise the critical faculties on which every intellectual's thinking should be premised. A writer, even more so if she is a woman, can have the effect of a virus - infecting the media system with subversive messages.



It is a truth quite universally acknowledged, that I am becoming something of an expert in demolishing gender stereotypes, the kind which women have digested so completely as to believe, for instance, that they are naturally computer-illiterate. Two things which I have recently been working on, both closely connected, will serve to counter that particular commonplace on women's limitations, because both have to do with new technologies. One is a novel, the other a website ( http://www.carmencovito.com ), which I set up as a "novel site".



In the novel, Benvenuti in questo ambiente (Welcome to this Environment, Bompiani, 1997), one of the main characters is Sandrina Digrosso, a girl who is also an IT genius, designing and building advanced systems. She enjoys programming artificial intelligences and at the age of just 23 owns and runs a small but efficient group of management software manufacturers. One might ask whether a character like Sandrina is credible in the context of Italy today, but I prefer to ask another question: is her character probable? I think so. She represents what many Italian girls could in all probability become, if our social structure and our banks were not set in their gender prejudices, which hold that a women with technical and/or scientific interests is not viable either as a woman or as a business prospect. In order to exist in the real world, all that women like Sandrina need is creditworthiness. Until they get it, I'm proud of having given one such woman a literary existence at least.



The real heroine of the novel, however, is the mysterious "Computer Lady", who appears on the screen as an intelligent agent equipped with "standard sense of humour" and supplied with the virtual body of an avatar. Needless to say, I am not going to give the game away to any potential readers by revealing here whether the Computer Lady really is a chatterbot capable of passing all the Turing tests, or whether she turns out to be something rather more terrifying... What I would like to make clear, though, is that I do not write science fiction. The "environment" of the title is the one we are living in, the Western world of post-industrial capitalism, with all its contradictions, its mix of old mindsets and new technological fixes. It was precisely in order to underscore just how far the new technologies have already entered into our daily lives that I played on the dual meaning of the term "environment", by making the book's structure like an operating environment with "windows". These are the windows which open onto our mental structure, itself already consisting of fragmented rhythms, sudden openings onto areas of new experience, closings on flashbacks, re-openings in another perspective.



Some people may find it strange that a woman like myself, only just the right side of 50 and whose novels are far from falling into the "underground" category, should deal with subject matter drawn from information technology and the transforming impact of telematics on our identity. But it's not in the least bit strange. What better than the feminism of a fifty year-old who has no intention of letting the crisis of our Utopias get her down, who has always refused to see herself as a "different" part of the world, to enable me to relish the prospect of using IT to bust out of the gender prison?



Like cyber-feminist Donna Haraway, I'd "rather be a cyborg than a goddess". To exalt the so-called "feminine difference", which in my view is a mere cultural construct, is to fall back into the trap of inequality, restricting ourselves to the "sensibility" and "nature" which for some unknown reason are attributed exclusively to women, while the real power of culture is as always reserved for men. Women who want to run with the wolves (and be trapped as always in the same old cultural cage) are welcome to try; but I'll just sit down with a good PC, thank you. Although my studies were in the humanities and despite my lamentable ignorance of maths, I have no difficulty in thinking of the computer as a part of my own body, a kind of artificial extension no more complicated than my spectacles, just more powerful.



In order for us to arrive - for the benefit of all - at a new concept of what being human means, women need to get over their technophobia, which is not "natural" at all, but socially induced. As Haraway and Rosi Braidotti have put it, the way to avoid becoming "robot victims of IT dominance" is to renew the language of political struggle, relinquishing the tactics of head-on opposition and preferring instead a more specific and diffuse strategy, based on irony, oblique attacks, coalitions based on affinities between those who are socially marginalized from the currents of power. This is because power no longer functions the way Foucault saw it, by normalising differences. Instead it acts through multiple connections and communications networks, which to a great extent are based on the new technologies. Women still count among the socially marginalized, and as such they are "eccentric" enough to be able to make an original and creative contribution to what Derrick De Kerkhove has called "connective intelligence".



Getting on the Internet is thus not just necessary but inevitable. Which is to say, we women would be really dumb, if we let slip this historic opportunity to get our hands on the man-made world and go hacking around until we might actually change the rules of the game.



Meanwhile, we can at least score some points. The homepage I mastered to host my literary output and open a direct communication link with my readership has been far more successful than I dared hope. I don't think it's helped to sell that many copies of Benvenuti in questo ambiente, but it has put me in touch with large numbers of people with whom otherwise I'd have had no contact at all, and it has brought me some qualitative recognition. It was a pleasant surprise for me when the site won a "Cult98" award as one of Italy's top ten cultural sites: after all, my site has no back-up from any organisation, it's managed entirely by two people, one of whom is me while the other is a young philosophy student, so that neither has a science background. In fact the best result (also the one I wanted most) has been exactly that: the breaking down of the traditional barrier in Italy between humanist and technical/scientific culture. Because of the homepage, many specialist Internet or cyberculture magazines carried reviews of the novel. I might add that they tended to get the point rather better than the traditional literary critics.



I may as well confess that making up the website was a lot of fun. I took special care with the pages containing hyperlinks, the linchpins of Net logistics. The page which I called "Utilities for Bookmaniacs and Cyberfeminists" is a bit heavy: one of the sections follows up some of the novel's themes, with references to my sources, such as the essays of Sherry Turkle and Sandy Stone on transformation of identity, or the state of the art in respect of artificial life and intelligence; certain other sections provide a "social service", with links to women's organisations and support groups. There are also indications as to sites on Italian literature which I found interesting, dictionaries and so on. Another page, called "Six Characters in Search of Websites", is a Pirandello-style game in which every character in my novel can be given one or more sites according to character, or where the character and role in the novel can be guessed from those sites.



Those readers who enjoyed the net jargon used by my characters, especially the critic who kindly noted "the timely references to the tricks of the Web" and described the novel as "made to measure for surfers on the Internet", would no doubt be surprised to find out that my homepage was the result of all the research I carried out for the novel, and not the origin of it. But that shouldn't really surprise anyone. All my research was done off-line, in books, magazines and newspapers or on CD-ROM, because I, like many women, suffered from a lack of confidence with the medium: I thought that going on-line would mean loss of concentration and a great deal of time-wasting. But when I did finally get hooked up, I soon realised that "wasting time" is the most productive way there is of getting into the Internet's potential: surfing around areas that apparently have nothing to do with what I'm interested in, hitting links that take my fancy, joining forums and chatlines. I realised that, in order to get something serious done, I was first going to have to learn how to fool around.



That's one hang-up which women still have to get rid of, especially women of my generation. Men have always understood that curiosity is creative, that an apparently futile game can end up by giving a revelatory twist to one's awareness of reality, producing inventions. We have got used to taking life too seriously, and to feeling guilty about having fun. This attitude is being perpetuated in the ways that women use the Internet, so far as I can see from studies on the subject, including in Italy. A study by Infoperla found that women tend to seek useful information and contacts for their work, and use e-mail a lot. On the other hand, they use forums and leisure sites relatively little. I do not in the least believe that this is the result of a presumed "communication gender gap", meaning that men and women have a different language and different interests, and that there's a need to develop "feminine information". There are two reasons for my not accepting that idea. First of all, I may be a cyborg convinced that the salvation of the human race will depend on the creation of a non-gender condition, but biologically I am still of the female sex; secondly, in my journeys through the Web and other parts of the Internet I have noticed that young girls use language and modes of interaction that are no different from those of young boys. There may be some shyness at first, but who wouldn't be reticent when starting out in such a small minority? In site development, the many Webmistresses already operating show the quiet confidence that derives from full awareness of one's own skills (and they are often conspicuous by their originality, too). This leads me to think that all that is needed to facilitate Internet access for Italian women is to raise the visibility of those women already on the Net. The more of us there are, the more there will be. When the majority of other women find out that this is not an environment for men only, and that you don't need a specific technical/scientific "calling" to get started, then the fear of "wasting time" will disappear from our mentality, too, and we can all start having a lot of highly productive fun.




Lecture by Carmen Covito at Smau conferences 1998
"Women, Technology and Quality of Life"
Milan Trade Fair - 23 October 1998