A loom with a view

Variously described as "the woman primed for the 1990s to do what Germaine Greer did for the 1970s" and "the most interesting…

Variously described as "the woman primed for the 1990s to do what Germaine Greer did for the 1970s" and "the most interesting woman in Britain", there is no doubt that Sadie Plant has an interesting angle on the world at the end of the 20th century. Her new book, zeros + ones - digital women + the new technoculture, has been heralded as "a brilliant and terrifically sustained cyberfeminist rant" and "the best and most original book on the history and implications of ubiquitous computation". Such comments are of course a quintessential part of the hyperbole of these soundbite times, yet entirely apt for this diminutive 33year-old Birmingham-based writer who is more aware than most of the pitch of contemporary culture.

Whether she is re-imagining the new digital world as a triumph of the female (as many commentators have claimed), or more pragmatically charting the female contribution to this cyber revolution for posterity, depends on where you are standing in cyberspace - or indeed on terra firma. If you believe that the computer industry has been dominated by geek guys and computer nerds (male, by definition), then, yes, her thesis is altogether challenging. However if you believe, as she does, that women have always played a part - a leading role even - then Plant is simply filling in parts of the intricate jigsaw that is the history of the information age. Plant herself sees it from yet another perspective. "In a way, the time for reclaiming female history is over and I am not adding women into the standard male tale. What I'd like to think I'm trying to do is to complicate the notion of what the history of computers is. It's not a question of looking for the big equivalents to Bill Gates, that would be playing the same game. One of the things I am demonstrating is that it's often in the most unexpected, apparently minor details of history where things are played out."

Listen to this for example. Plant believes that the origin of the species (computers, that is) can be traced back to weaving, yes weaving. "In the world of computers, there are a lot of metaphors and analogies to weaving, such as the Web, the Net, websters, etc and far from wanting to add to this, I decided to look to see if there was a material basis to it. And I found that it really did all begin with the Jacquard loom which, in the early part of the 19th century, was the most complex machine of its time." In her book, Plant describes how Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage used the design of the loom for their "Difference Engine" - the first computer. "They discovered that if you could programme a machine to weave any pattern you liked, you could also programme a machine to do mathematics. They were 100 years ahead of their time in terms of precision engineering. However, post-Second World War, all the big US corporations claimed to have invented computers," explains Plant.

Her non-linear approach to her subject matter is a challenge of a different kind, not altogether welcomed by this writer. The book is a segmented ramble on a theme with no coherent introduction or logical progression of ideas developed over chapters. The threads of the story - biographical and whimsical details on the lives and thoughts of Ada Lovelace (the book's chief heroine), Anna Freud (an avid weaver) and others - are interspersed with chunks of information linking developments in psychoanalysis, sociology, neurology, genetics and biology to the history of information technology and contemporary culture. In her title, and later in the book, Plant upturns the application of the binary system to define men as ones and women as not-ones, or zeros. "Technology has been seen to be part of a male-dominated, control-of-nature ethos in which women were associated with the natural world which was in turn controlled. The moment for this kind of thinking has passed," says Plant. "Although the digital system is based on binary mechanism, it has a lot of other elements which allow for a new view of the world where there isn't a big break between nature, humans and technology. It is far more of a continuum and because people are able to see how things work on a very small scale which before was technically impossible, you can see the same patterns in, for example the shape of a leaf and a very particular mathematical formula played out on computers." While Plant believes that this dismantling of the binary system has not come about through any benign intervention on the part of those advancing computer technology, she thinks its significance is huge. "It's what the book is really about: the collapse of the binary world."


And what's more, zeros + ones proclaims that women will be the leaders of technology as its enters the 21st century. "While women were beavering away doing all the mundane work in the computer industry for years, they are now probably better positioned or least potentially in a better position than ever before," says Plant. This she sees as one of the great ironies of how the world is evolving.

Her comments on women's role in technology do, in fact, challenge traditional feminism (which views technology as being hostile to women) as much as traditional patriarchy (which didn't attribute any technical advance of note to women). Women seem far "better prepared culturally and psychologically" for the new economic conditions which have emerged at the end of the 20th century. They are advanced players of an economic game for which self-employment, part-time, discontinuous work, multi-skilling, flexibility and maximal adaptability were suddenly crucial to survival," she writes

"Women had been ahead of the race for all their working lives, poised to meet these changes long before they arrived, as though they always had been working in a future which their male counterparts had only just begun to glimpse. Perhaps, they really were the second sex, if seconds come after firsts."

The structure of the Internet (at its low-tech end of newsgroups and chatlines just as much as on the World Wide Web), and its communication possibilities for more and more people throughout the world, provide Plant with a perfect symbol of our changing times.

"You can have grass-roots connections between people anywhere, which is quite unprecedented." And although she identifies such trends as part of an increasingly chaotic world, she believes the current forces of control - social, political and religious - are just as strong, if not stronger. Now, this is where she nails her colours to the mast. "You could say that I'm pushing the chaotic side, partly in fear of the controlling forces taking over."

zeros + ones - digital women + the new technoculture by Sadie Plant is published by Fourth Estate. Price £14.99 in the UK.