Notes on Knowledge Economy / Cyberfeminist Perspective

Lecture at Skuc Gallery, Ljubljana.
City of Women International Festival for Contemporary Arts, 16th october 2008.
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This lecture is an attempt to sum up some general ideas as regards to what a cyberfeminist position might mean today in the so-called knowledge economy. It is inspired by the general disappointment and confusion of digital activism movements after the social web and the need to reconstruct a framework for tactical politics in the current informational economy from a feminist and gendered perspective. Using the word cyberfeminism is problematic as it is usually identified with some very precise experiences and approaches that took place in the nineties. Even though one of the main purposes at that time was to avoid a clear definition of what cyberfeminism was and keep an open scenario for further evolutions, in fact the word cyberfeminism ended up being a closed significant, historically and conceptually linked to that context. For me, to keep on using the word is a tactical gesture whose purpose is to claim for the necessity of a radical feminist position today as regards, not only to the cyberspace, but to the information economy as a whole, with all the different and often paradoxical levels it implies.

My purpose is to question the cyberfeminist slogan “Anyone missing?” and address, not only who, but also what is missing in the hegemonic discourses on knowledge economy. This implies a wider conception of feminism itself: not only a question of women, not even only a question of subjectivities – as it is often argued from the so-called post-feminist approaches- but mainly a question of perspective. What is the perspective from which you look at reality? How you position yourself towards hegemony. legitimacy, authority, History with big H and other languages of power? Claiming for a relocation of cyberfeminism is assuming that the context from which were formulated the main ideas of gendered digital critique have changed and thus, knowledge and radical actions need to be re-situated.

From who is missing to what is missing: relocating cyberfeminism

Cyberfeminism became a trendy word in the late nineties, sharing a common scenario with the first wave of media and digital activism. Keywords of the digital revolution were free circulation of knowledge, DIY media, collaborative networking and self-organized labor, among others. From the cyberfeminist perspective, the patriarchist shape of digital culture was identified as a cultural limit that had to be over-passed through technical empowerment and a playful and self-confident approach to technology. Which we did, with a lot of enthusiasm. Although cyberfeminism radicalism was pretty much confined to the art and cultural world, as many critics pointed out, it represented a rupture with the technophobic attitude of the institutional eighties’ feminism. From this point of view, it was innovative and in some extend, also revolutionary.

Those were times of active experimentation for digital movements, both on a practical and theoretical level. We had a lot of fun, we believed in the possibility of a techno-political emancipation and we build up a body of knowledge that helped us going through the dark night of cyberspace. Because in fact it was very dark. And I think we can say today that we didn’t stand the battle between critique and fascination, between our enthusiastic ideas about self-empowerment and what was really going on in -and specially through- cyberspace. Digital activism -and cyberfeminism with it- have been the perfect laboratories to explore the social and technological potential of the network: a phase of experimentation (with no costs and openly accessible) for what has later become the prod/user revolution. Whether we like it or not, social web or web 2.0 is the hegemonic and commercial result of the digital activism experiences.

For many, social web or web 2.0 is just a marketing strategy to pump up the financial investment on the net after the dotcom crash in 2001. For others, it represents some kind of emancipatory collective intelligence and a way for digital democracy. But what it represents for sure is an economical paradigm for the new knowledge economy as a whole. The technological empowerment made possible by the openness and accessibility of social software has lead to a paradoxical situation where the user is at the same time an anxious and over-controlled consumer and a free worker (and here the word free is not, as in Richard Stalman’s statement, free as in “free speech” but free as in “free beer”). In 2.0 model, big technological companies -more and more concentrated around the media, the entertainment and the military industries complex- put the software online (most of the time in beta versions) and the users do the rest: improving the apps, reporting bugs, creating and distributing the content, building the network and contributing to the economical value of the www.

Digital business has nothing to do with technology but with brand management: it is a form of speculative economy based on the commercial exchange of abstractions. Let’s take My Space, for instance. It is a huge repository of personal data, movies, texts, images, audio files and social relationships owned by one of the biggest media corporations in the world. Its economical value -its price in the market of internet business- is calculated on two main elements: one is the number of users, the number of visitors and the time of connection; the other one is the power of My Space as a brand, as part of our shared cultural imaginary. We the users increase its value not only when we connect to it, but specially when we consider it as being the biggest online social network. The Second Life phenomenon illustrates this very well. When many companies rushed to SL they did it because everybody was talking about that, even if at some point it became clear that in fact almost no one was using it. It was just valuable as a media phenomenon and, from that perspective, it was worth the investment.

Speculation, as the central element of immaterial economy, follows the pattern of financial capital, based on creating, selling and buying the most perfect kind of abstraction: money. Whereas in the industrial model, there was a direct relation between financial economy (money as an abstraction) and real economy (the goods or services it standed for), in knowledge economy this equivalence is lost: money and ideas are equivalent to nothing except themselves. Therefore, the reference with real economy is lost. The production of goods and services, the effective exchange relationships on a global level and the reality of labor conditions around the world are turned invisible.

Invisibility of real economy lies in some good slogans -like the factories have disappeared , material costs are insignificant and the like- which aim is to spread and legitimize a discourse that hides the deep historical and structural link between knowledge economy and free global market. Posfordism is itself a result of the long process of decision-making initiated by transnational corporations, first world countries and international institutions precisely at the time of the so-called decolonization in the sixties and seventies. At that time, the mechanisms of free global market started to be set up as an instrument to substitute the former political control by a new economical dependence. And, thus, a new form of coloniality reflected in the open circulation of goods, services and capitals, the limited circulation of people and a new global distribution of labor.

Of course factories have not disappeared but have just been moved away to countries where we don’t see them anymore so we can, from the first-world countries, keep on telling ourselves that in deed we have all turned up into immaterial and creative workers. But posfordism operates another strategic shift which is more difficult to identify for those who are not familiar with economical theory. With the sophisticated use of speculative patterns inspired by financial capital, it is argued that in terms of global economic growth, material economy is insignificant compared to immaterial economy. But this is true only if we accept to analyze it as regards to the price and not to the real value. Let’s take for instance the production costs of a computer: 10% of them are material production costs and 90% are management costs. But this does not mean that real production costs are less valuable that management costs: they are just cheaper because they have been delocalized to countries were labor and resources costs are not as expensive as in first-world countries. If computers were produced at 100% in first world-countries, material costs would be higher than immaterial costs. If production tasks were not delocalized, immaterial economy would still be insignificant compared to material economy.

Because of its direct link with the festival’s topic, I would like to present briefly some information regarding e-waste: the production and distribution of electronic components waste through the planet3. United Nations estimates that between 20 and 50 tones of e-waste are produced annually in the world. It represents 5% of global waste and is growing at a rate of 3%-5% per year, 3 times faster than any other kind of waste. E-waste is mainly being sent to China, India and Nigeria because transporting it there is 10 times cheaper than stocking it at home (mainly lead by illegal associations with the complicity of national governments and international institutions). Computers elements are rich in valuable metals (such as gold, copper and aluminum) and very toxic materials (mercury, lead and cadmium). To get the valuable metals back, computers are dismantled with no control or regulation. The toxic elements end up in the rivers, the air and the soil, polluting water, food and populations. The work is mainly done by women, children and migrants (Indians in China, Bengals in India). In 1997 the average life of a computer was 6 years. In 2005 it was already 2 years. A mobile phone’s one is less than 2 years. Moreover, e-waste is a good business: the commercial transactions derived from buying and selling e-waste are estimated to be up to 11 billion $ in 2009.

In fact, the more we look at the so-called immaterial economy, the less immaterial it appears to be. Even though we think we are living in the era of intangibility, the truth is that we are surrounded by hard industries, that we are deeply rooted to physical needs and material goods. And this to such extent that we don’t realize it anymore, as if all these commodities belonged to some kind of “natural environment”. The emergence of speculative economy has an impact on a theoretical or conceptual level, but also in our everyday experience. Aesthetically, power today is not represented anymore by monumentality, as in the 20th century, but by invisibility. The current use of soft power -as a political ideology or a new management tool- illustrates this tendency very well.

Either we call it “posfordism”, “knowledge capitalism”, “information economy”, we are using a language (words, ideas, concepts, arguments) that has been precisely created not only to describe what’s happening, but to legitimate it and produce it historically. And I believe this can be confronted from a feminist perspective because the ideological side of language has long been part of the feminist theory, very aware of the political implications of using one word instead of another one, very conscious of the fact that, by setting up a semantic universe rather than another one, we are in fact making up a certain interpretation of the world. A cyberfeminist position today should therefore analyze posfordism as an hegemonic theory and position itself clearly in a critical and strategic position connected with the feminist genealogy.

Reality hacking: Beatriz Preciado’s “Testo Yonki”.

Someone whose work illustrates very well this orientation -in the sense of a critical approach to knowledge economy from a radical feminist point of view- is Spanish philosopher and queer activist Beatriz Preciado, which last publication “Testo Yonki” is a brilliant exercise of situated knowledge. It is a philosophical essay on the rise of what she calls “pharmaco-pornographical regime” and a personal diary of her illegal and do-it-yourself testosterone treatment. One cannot be understood outside of the other, theory and practice go hand by hand.

Preciado does not take testosterone to “become a man” but to test in her own body the production of subjectivity connected with the porn and the pharmacological industries. The former is invisible, partially illegal and socially marginal. However, it is the most lucrative entertainment industry and digital business, as well as a productivity model for the knowledge economy as a whole: immediate satisfaction through connection, extreme delocalisation of workers, feminizations of subjects (mainly women and transsexuals technologically produced by plastic surgery or hormonal treatment and consumed through the digital network), commodification of experiences (what is sold and bought being the illusion of a sexual contact in all its possible forms, from dirty-talk chats to porn video streaming). The latter -the pharmacological industry- is also a leading global market, connected with bio-economy (genetics, legal and illegal drugs, hormones) and the military business (drugs are often tested at war before being industrially manufactured as western commodities). It also represents the most perfect form of political control. Hormones, as drugs, are invisible and easily internalized, both physically and mentally.

Very influenced by French philosopher Michel Foucault, Preciado explores the ideology behind bio-technology and medical protocols: how much testosterone makes you a man or a woman (biologically only a matter of proportion) and what institutional frameworks are put to work over pharmacological drugs to turn them into a form of bio-political control. If you are a bio-woman taking estrogen cocktails through oral contraceptives, it’s fine. Requirements and tests are relatively low-key and a quick visit to the doctor is usually enough. If you are a man cheering up his sexual life with Viagra, it is also fine: even if medical surveillance is recommended, the drug is easy to found and falls under the frame of free and often unregulated private market. But everything outside this pattern of bio-normality is illegal and morally perverse. And thus, institutionally managed. Men or women willing to undertake an hormonal treatment that might reverse their gender attribution are subject to strict medical protocols: psychological and clinical tests, treatment supervision, legal factors, etc. In the era of pharmaco-pornographical control there are private bodies -the straights, those who are free to use the commodified bio-technologies- and there are public bodies -the perverse, those whose biology and subjectivity is institutionally managed in the name of Public Wealth.

However, private bodies are not as free as they might think they are. Preciado clearly addresses the issue again in a very foucaultian manner that questions one of the best-established feminist struggles: reproductive technologies. In her opinion oral contraceptives would be a form of contemporary bio-technological panopticon that institutionalizes the private control over female sexuality. By lowing the testosterone levels, estrogene treatments might reduce sexual arousal, physical resistance and aggressiveness. Considering that they also have proved beneficial effects on the softness of the skin and the size of the breasts, they might be considered as a very efficient drug to build-up the perfect female: voluptuous, passive and unfertile. Preciado does not argue that those capabilities -sexual arousal, aggressiveness, physical resistance- are anyhow linked with bio-males from an essentialist point of view. But rather that they have been historically monopolized by them and that today, with the advance of biological technologies, they can be also induced on bio-females. Of course such a conclusion is very arguable from a feminist point of view and surprising coming from a queer activist. Nevertheless it can also taken as a radical approach that questions the artificial production of feminine bodies and the current reality of the bio-technological industry, opening the door to further experimental research on gender and sexuality with inspiring possibilities.

Even if she does not consider herself as a cyberfeminist, Preciado takes us back to the dream of the cyborg. Of course one of her main influences here is Donna Haraway. She reads her cyborg theory in an up-to-dated way that connects the real possibility of designing bodies through hormones, prosthesis and biological modifications and the current development of bio-technology industries and global bio-economy networks. From that point of view, Preciado acts like a hacker: knowing very well the system she is acting on, she subverts it in a creative and critical way. She addresses directly the basis of posfordist discourse -the possibility to design and trade commodified experiences: feeling and fucking like a man or a woman- questioning as well the entire frame where this discourse lies: the paradigmatic position of pharmaco-pornographical industries and its connection with the global free market and the political control over bodies (bio-guinea pigs, perverse subjects or bio-consumers).

I believe Preciado’ s work illustrates some of the strategical territories for a radical cyberfeminism today: the complex reality of technological industries and the rise of new markets and products (genetic engineering, digital entertainment or the growing economy of experiences); the political and economical agents involved (from the World Trade Organization or the International Health Organization to big transnational corporations operating in the field of media and pharmacology); the legal framework supporting the privatization of the common (knowledge or natural and biological resources); and the setting-up of a sophisticated scientific and social ideology to legitimize the former. In other words,it claims for the cyberfeminism concept of situated knowledge and up-to-dates it to the new mappings of technopolitics.

Ptqk 2008
Creative Commons 2.2 Spain

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