Gender and Sexuality in Cyberspace

I begin from a position of ignorance, my source of information hearsay, my assumptions sweeping and gross. As I understand it, digital literature is a male-dominated genre, just as the fields of computer science and scientific computing (and applied math and physics and and and) are crowded with testosterone. This is my base assumption: women are underrepresented as digital artists. And here is where I reveal my ignorance. Everything about computers is based on the binary system, yes? Complex patterns of ones (1s) and zeros (0s) that have infinite permutations. So I wonder, is the binary system the only way that computing can be done? Has anybody developed a computer, a hardware system, a programming language, that doesn’t take as its fundamental language, as its most basic units of creation, the 1 and the 0?

Here’s what I’m getting at. Here’s my wackadoo theory with a less than basic understanding of the technical voodoo that makes computing happen. I think that sexuality is encoded into the digital, and that digital sexuality is heteronormative and heteropatriarchal. The binary system, its ones and zeros, is a fundamental representation of the male and female, penis and vagina, the digit and the hole, the value and the lack of value, the unit and the place-holder. And get this. I’ve come to this theory not by reading, experiencing, interacting with dozens of digital poetry created by men, but by reading and interacting with Stephanie Strickland’s work. Which is not to say that I think Strickland, as one of the few women with a place at the bar at the boys’ club, perpetuates heteronormativity or heteropatriarchy, but I do think she’s playing with (and maybe playing into, or maybe just exploiting) the idea of the binary as sexual coding. Which probably means that my wackadoo theory isn’t my wackadoo theory, afterall; rather it’s Stephanie Stricklands. And in that case, it’s not wackadoo at all. It’s brilliant.

One for Male, Zero for Female

My first experience with Strickland’s work was the online version of “The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot.” At its inception, Strickland messes with gender associations, associating female Sand with silicon (the computing machine) and male Harry Soot with carbon-based life form (embodiment). At the same time, she attributes the female with binary number zero (0) and the male with the binary number one (1). This can be perceived as heteropatriarchal, associating the female with the lack and emptiness of zero. In the digital poem, Strickland links to each (heteronormative) pair of stanzas by a series of zeros (0s) at the bottom of the screen separated by ones (1s). The ones are not links. The zeroes are. And when the reader clicks on a zero, that zero brightens, lights up. The zeroes can be “had,” “bagged,” “experienced.” The zeroes are notches on the digital bedpost. The zeroes have been imbued (inpregnated? inseminated?) with meaning by the reader having clicked on it. The ones. Well, the ones are not clickable objects. They cannot be acted on. They cannot be had.

Zero as Seed
But not everyone will associate the zero (0) with emptiness, with “hole,” with a space that needs filling. I’m thinking specifically of Galway Kinnell’s image of the chicken and her eggs in the poem “Hen Flower” in his Book of Nightmares.

I have glimpsed
by corpse-light, in the open cadaver
of hen, the mass of tiny,
unborn eggs, each getting
tinier and yellower as it reaches back toward
the icy pulp
of what is, I have felt zero
freeze itself around the finger dipped slowly in. (part 4)

Beautiful, right? The idea of the zero (0) not as lack or as empty but as ova, as beginning, as essence. Strickand echoes this association in the first poem of the collection Losing L’una, “From Sails to Satellites”:

An order
makes itself know, inside a lower, only by zeroes
or by zinnia seeds. (1.6)

In both cases, the binary opposite to the zero (0), the one (1), would be sperm (though Kinnell keeps it digital with the finger), and the relationship between the 0 and the 1 wouldn’t be the zero’s lack of value to the one’s value, but a synergy. Two values combining to create something new.

Which is what some programmers may say about the binary numerical system as the basis for modern computing. The ones and zeros combine to create infinite numbers or programs or platforms (now I’m just spouting tech terms). But what neither programmers not Strickland nor Kinnell can avoid is that the binary is base 2. Two. One option or the other. One or zero. Hole or stick. Egg or sperm. So not necessarily heteropatriarchal (thought given computing’s history, I detect a whiff), but definitely heteronormative.

And so I wonder about LGBT work in digital media. I’m not sure if I’ve experienced any. Does it feel cramped by the binary? Is is marginalized? And what would have happened if some other numerical system had become the basis for modern computing. Say, some base 3 system. Would the heteronormativity that is digitally encoded into modern computing be all jacked up? Zero as female, one as male, two as what? Two as the space for homosexuality or the transgendered? I’ll end with a line from Three Dog Night. “Two can be as bad as one. It’s the loneliest number since the number one.”

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8 Comments »

  1. […] 15, 2010 by Justin Michele Battiste poses some fascinating, novice questions in a post titled Gender and Sexuality in Cyberspace. I begin from a position of ignorance, my source of information hearsay, my assumptions sweeping […]

  2. loveandpopsicles said

    I have 1 envy.

  3. Really great post, Michele. A couple links you might find interesting. One of my students wrote a brilliant blog entry this week about queer identity on the web, which seems relevant to your post: http://bit.ly/8XxK56. And, earlier in the semester, the rest of my Queer Rhetorics students had a rousing discussion online about queer identity, online gaming, and digital space: http://bit.ly/bC49sp.

  4. Jeremy said

    This is one the most brilliant sections of *prose* I’ve seen. But the content is totally whacked out! Bizarre, yet fun to read. Totally misconstrued, naive perhaps, but witty and highly imaginative – and very creative… and not correct.

    I’ll hopefully be able to add a few valid points. To being with, the first computers were analogue in nature. They relied on ratios of gears or operational amplifiers which simulated the calculus and fundamental arithmetic – very fast, hard to set up, temperamental. Programmed digital computing machines naturally needed to encode ‘information’ both in the form of data and instructions. It was Alan Turing who contributed most in this field by describing the Turing machine – a universal computer of most basic form, out of which all other computing devices could, in theory be constructed.

    1 and 0 is the most fundamental ‘bit’ of information that you can describe in classical terms – and since a switch is easy to manufacture, and it has two states, (on or off) then this is naturally the basis of a digital computer and encoding scheme. It’s as simple as encoding the outcomes of a fair coin toss. (ignoring the possibility of ‘edges’)

    But there are tri-state devices that could be used – off, on and something in between. There has been no practical reason to favor this over the simple switch.

    For the future, a relatively new encoding scheme – helped along by the likes of Peter Shor and his algorithm, is the qubit. The qubit is a non-classical quantum device that holds 1,0 and everything in between all at the same time. When a computer theoretically constructed from qubits is given a problem, it simultaneously computes all the possible states to the inputs (its initial conditions). The result is, therefore conducive to problems that can be processed in parallel and the quantum computer can do this many times faster than any classical computing device.

    The one and zero alas, has no fundamental characteristics linked with sexuality.

  5. mcbattiste said

    Hi Jeremy.

    Thanks for the quick lesson in the fundamentals of the binary system in computing. I’m barely familiar with the qubit, but given my lack of background in scientific computing and in math, it takes me forever to unravel the implications of its capacities. I am interested in tri-state devices, and recently learned from Justin Roby
    http://justinroby.wordpress.com/2010/04/15/ones-and-zeros/
    that there have been some computers invented that use a base-3 system.

    However, what interests me most is the theoretical space between the off and the on (the 0 and the 1), the movement between the off and the on. There must be a space/nano-moment (some miniscule chrono-vector) between the on and the off, yes?

    So, rather than suggesting that the 1 and 0, i.e. the binary system, encodes heteronormative sexuality into the computer, let me look at it a different way. From the other side of things, I can suggest that we can read the binary system as a trope for heteronormativity. That’s what Strickland is doing in her “Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot.” She’s using binary code as a symbol for the female and male in a heterosexual relationship.

    (And I guess what I’m getting at in my post is the suggestion that the binary system is so ingrained in the human psyche that the impulse that drives us to see gender as male or female is the same impulse that sees the duo-state device as the natural foundation for computing. Kinda like how in Flatland, the points that live in the line can’t conceive of a third dimension, but I’m digressing.)

    But here’s an interesting idea and where I’m going with my question about the space/time/movement between on and off. Lori Emerson, a professor here at CU Boulder, suggested that Strickland is attempting to inhabit the space between the 1 and the 0 (the on and the off). So I want to know if that space is more than theoretical. Does that space exist? And if so, what implications does that space have for computing?

  6. Jeremy said

    That space between 1 and zero does exist in the classical world. In a computer’s switch, ideally (theoretically) it requires no power to hold a one state or a zero state, but switching from one to the other requires power because it is not instantaneous. It is this ramp up or down to and from a voltage level that consumes power and generates heat. This is why your CPU needs cooling, and it’s why your computer generates more heat the harder you work it, and the faster you force it to go. Some expensive and very fast transistor switching holds the one and zero state out of what they call ‘saturation’ (the near zero power state) and this allows it to switch very rapidly, but it also consumes power even while holding either a one or zero. You don’t get something for nothing.

    But in the quantum world, electrons exist in probability-density clouds in narrow energy bands around the nucleus. There are several of these bands at various energy levels, each of which can hold a specific number of electrons – depending on the chemistry. The ‘ground state’ is a minimum energy state where all the required inner clouds are fully occupied. The electrons consume or emit no energy while in a particular band, but if one gets knocked into an available inner slot, this requires less energy in the atomic system to hold it there, and because of ‘conservation of energy’ the energy has to go somewhere and a photon is emitted. The photon has zero rest mass and therefore must travel at the speed of light in the form of electromagnetic energy. But the amazing thing is that to do this, the transition from one energy level to another (up or down) is instantaneous. In the quantum world, there is no in-between state.

  7. mcbattiste said

    But in a quantum world, the qubit IS the in-between state? Or does it just include both the on and off positions?

  8. Jeremy said

    A quibit is a unit of quantum information as represented by the surface of a bloch sphere. It is the quantum world analog (as far as you can take that analogy) of a classical bit. Whereas a classical bit has 1 or zero only, a qubit is described by the state vector of a two-level quantum mechanical system. It’s easy to get drawn in to think that a qubit represents all states between one and zero of a classical bit but that is flawed thinking. When you talk quantum stuff, only the maths means anything. There is never any suitable quantum analogy. This qubit is a linear superposition of two distinct quantum ‘thingies’ and it is described by statistical means. It’s tempting to show the maths but that will probably mean nothing, so I’ll give an example.

    If you take a photon,and pass it through, lets say with a horizontal polarizing filter, then block it with a vertically polarizing filter, all the light is blocked. That’s no surprise. But if you put a 45 degree polarizing filter in between the horizontal and vertical one, then instead of REALLY blocking it for sure, 1/2 the light will come out the other side. This is because even though the photon passed through the horizontal and 45 degree polarizing filters, it is in a state of superposition. When it is measured (by the final vertical filter), it is found to pass through or not with a probability of exactly 1/2.

    By the way no one on the planet really understands this stuff, and if they do, then they actually really don’t. You can get good enough to work with the maths, make predictions and build machines as a result, but no-one really really ‘gets’ it in the same what that you can ‘get’ the way the planets orbit the sun or a bullet fires from a gun.

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