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Death in the Internet Café

(page 5)

Sue Turnbull: Val's letter points to the need for women to have power - and to use the power available to them - rather than being intimidated by those who push their weight around when using the new technologies.

However, even if we know that cyberspace and the new technologies need not be frightening to women, there are many films and crime books which explore and capitalise on this anxiety in exciting ways. In the film VR, for instance, the central character is Lori Singer, a computer whiz, who has inadvertently discovered a form of virtual reality which allows her meet people in their subconscious. She gets into their heads in order to talk and interact with them without them knowing (she) is doing it.

Cate Kennedy's story, Ether, which came second in the Melbourne Review Short Story Competition, also explores the possibilities of cyberspace for crime - without seeing VR, I might add. In The Net Sandra Bullock's character is an isolated computer genius who discovers a virus which is part of a massive conspiracy to bring down the government. But they are after her and in the process use computers to destroy her identity and her credibility. But in the end, it's a hero film and her wizardry is greater than theirs - and she saves the world. However, The Net taps into a particular anxiety about computers and the ways in which we are increasingly trusting so much information to them.

If sexual harassment is a part of workplace culture, then it is inevitable it will move onto the computers which are used for office communication. - Sue Turnbull
In Linda Grant's, A Woman's Place, PI Catherine Sayler is called into a company to investigate who is harassing the female members of Systech, a company manufacturing computer software which has recently amalgamated with an all male cowboy outfit called Keegovia. The twist is that the harassment is done by e-mail.

If sexual harassment is a part of workplace culture, then it is inevitable it will move onto the computers which are used for office communication. The same is true of pornography which predates the Internet by a couple of thousand years. In Denise Dank's novel Frame Grabber, the central character is Georgina Powers who is a technology correspondent on a computer magazine. She discovers a 'nasty' permutation on pornography which 'morphing' (the digital alteration of computer images) can make available. Needless to say, Georgina aptly named Powers - sorts it out.

Whatever your position your position on pornography, it seems worth pointing out that it will be extremely hard to control on the Net. But I myself have never encountered any because I don't go looking for it and nobody sends it to me. You have to seek it out - you don't fall over it.

One particular incident earlier this year helps to demonstrate that trying to censor the Net might have some unintended outcomes. It was reported that CompuServe, one of the big service providers giving people access to the Net, had responded to a law passed in Bavaria in Germany which forbad the publication and distribution of material relating to non-heterosexual relations by simply cutting/stopping all the e-mail lists which had the words 'bi' or 'gay' and such like in their title. This effectively wiped those lists all over Europe.

Now the purpose of many of those lists is not the propagation of pornography but support and friendship networks for gay men and women. Obviously, this is a crude form of censorship and all the owners of the lists have to do is change the names to "Fuzzy Bunnies" or such like. Suffice it is to say that the question of censorship on the Net is a difficult one and not one we are going to solve or address here tonight. Instead, let's look to the more positive aspects of women and technology, which involve taking control of it - in our lives, in our fictions and in our futures. Lindy Cameron's story Feedback, which was written especially for tonight, shows a detective in a future society, who is absolutely in control of 'new' technology, even if she is a bit of a speedster when it comes to personal transport.

We hope tonight has helped demystify and defuse 'real' anxieties about the new technologies - whilst revealing that popular fiction, crime fiction, is a wonderful place in which to deal with them . . and to stage that anxiety we find so pleasurable in crime fiction.

Cate Kennedy's poem, which links new technologies with the old, demonstrates that women have nothing to fear. Cate wrote this poem without knowing anything about the intimate history between weaving and computer programming. In the 1830s, Ada Byron Lovelace, arguably the world's first computer programmer, spotted the potential of the Jacquard card weaving system for computing.

Cate Kennedy

Relative Complexity

In my parents' loungeroom after Christmas dinner
I am talking to my brother the computer programmer
He is explaining to me the principles of cyberspace
"It is only relatively complex," he says finally, peeling the icing off his fruitcake,
"It is mainly a system of binaries, permutations of zero and one
So the data may be stored as, say, zero, zero, one one, zero, zero one"
My mother sighs
She is next to us, half-listening
She is knitting an Arran sweater
"I'll never understand how you get your brain around it," she says
"It's beyond me," she says, and turns half her attention back to her fair-isle pattern:

Purl purl plain, plain plain plain purl purl

Cate Kennedy

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