I’m in the middle of writing a short book on gender to come out next year with Anomalous Press, so I’ve been reading a lot of books about gender lately—mostly theory and first-person encounters with.
What I’m reading at the moment is an interesting mix of embryonic Internet criticism and gender studies called The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age. This is a collection of linked essays published by Sandy Stone in 1996.
Stone’s biography is worth dropping into for a moment. Stone was a star student of Donna Haraway, famously author of “A Cyborg Manifesto,” and Haraway influenced much of her subsequent works. Before that, Stone, a transsexual, was attacked by the radical feminist scholar Janice Raymond in a somewhat infamous altercation having to do with the feminist record company Olivia Records. Basically, Raymond accused Stone of not really being a woman and attempting to subvert the spirit of Olivia Records by smuggling in the patriarchy under cover of her female exterior. Out of all that came Stone’s essay “The ‘Empire’ Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” which is very readable and still interesting today, nearly 30 years after its original publication.
The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age has similarly worn well, even though one of its main subjects—networked computing, aka the Internet—has changed immensely in the 20 years since the book was first published. (For instance, Stone references the 200 megabyte hard disks that were state of the art at the time of writing.) The purpose of its inquiry may be (partially) summed up with Stone’s question, “What is happening to sociality and desire at the close of the mechanical age?”
As a thinker, Stone is fascinated by questions of gender, identity, prostheses, and cybernetics, and she locates foci where these interests intersect in the world of computing. So, for instance, an early anecdote in the book recounts a revelation she made when listening to Stephen Hawking lecture, wherein she realized that there was effectively no difference between the mechanical “voice” of Hawking that was coming out of the speakers attached to his wheelchair and the reproduced voice of his that was being played in loudspeakers in an overflow room next door. In a similar way, computing technology now allows us to reproduce our “voice,” with attendant questions for matters of just who we are, and what fragments of us are reproduced into the electronic world we all increasingly inhabit.
Stone is also very interested in how cybernetics connects back to questions of gender. For instance, she cites a statistic that at any given moment, roughly 15 percent of players of Habitat (an early, Japanese virtual community similar to Second Life) were inhabiting a gender opposite their birth gender. She also recounts an episode wherein a male therapist realized that women would tell him things they would not normally say face-to-face if they believed him to be a female while conversing electronically. This led him to create an entire secondary online personality for purposes of engaging with female clients as a woman (unbeknownst to them), with predictable eventual consequences.
As theorists go, Stone is very readable. She has a lively, clipped style of narration, a writing voice that’s a little punk. She alternates here between recounting case studies and theorizing—the former is easier to read, although the latter proves fascinating, if requiring a little more time to get through.
Ultimately, Stone is positing a new “virtual” age to succeed the mechanical one that ended around the time of the emergence of the Internet and mainstream computing, and she is interested in questions of desire and the social human in this new age. Her book is interesting and still makes relevant points, even though the computing communities she was looking at were archaic by current standards.