Interview: Sadie Plant : IT girl for the 21st century
Information technology will liberate women as surely as the washing machine and the Pill. So says this week's groovy cultural theorist. But don't call her a cyberfeminist - she can't stand labels
Sunday 12 October 1997
And why not? After all, she has been in academia for most of her rather short life (she is 33) and her new book Zeros and Ones: digital women + the new technoculture reflects that. It has flashes of brilliance but parts of it are also baffling. I tell her that I had some trouble with the bit about Freud, hysteria and sex and she says that I am the first interviewer who has even asked about that part of the book. I think to myself that I am not surprised because Zeros and Ones may be many things, but it is not a quick read and the hysteria bit is not at the beginning. But before we launch into virtual reality, I ask her a question about what it feels like to be a cyberfeminist.
Sadie looks rather pained at this. "I do not know where the cyberfeminist comes from," she says wearily. I point to the press release for her book that says she is a "self-proclaimed cyberfeminist who has been described as the most interesting woman in Britain". She shakes her head: "I think it is one of those things that the more you deny it the more people seem convinced that you want to be it. It was never a word that I volunteered or called myself." So what about being called the most interesting woman in Britain? She says she was flattered but thinks that the very idea of heroes - or even sheroes for that matter - is passe. "One of the things I am trying to talk about is that pulling out specific individuals as heroes or whatever is a thing of the past. So being called that really did have an ironic twist to it."
When we meet Plant is wearing silver loafers that match the cover of her new book. She has dark hair, an elfin look and a lop-toothed smile. She is reading How to Teach Yourself Arabic and her Camel Lights are never far away. Her publishers have lodged her at White's Hotel overlooking Hyde Park and it seems strange to be interviewing an anarchist over its white tablecloth with tinkling music in the background. After all, this is a hotel that has Horlicks on the bar menu and where the restrooms are labelled Gentlemen and Powder Room.
Plant takes the chandeliers in her stride. "They say that this hotel is like a home away from home. As if!" she says. I like her immediately because she seems so down to earth despite her CV. After all she is actually Dr Sadie Plant with a doctorate in philosophy who taught Cultural Studies for five years before helping to found the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at Warwick University. She doesn't flaunt her Foucault, though, and has a habit of zooming off on extraordinary tangents only to suddenly switch to something quite ordinary. Thus she ends a fast-talking foray into the world of Australian cyberfeminism with the statement: "If I could choose I would just call myself a writer, though I know nobody's going to be content with that."
Nor perhaps will they be content to discover that the origin of Zeros and Ones is as everday as Plant happening to be around when her university department was computerised five years ago. She began to investigate computer culture. "There was this notion that there was something inherently male about the Net and that you really did have to be a boy nerd to deal with it. This seemed to me to be quite ridiculous. So I started off simply trying to ditch this notion of it all being masculine and quite by accident I found all these fascinating characters - such as Ada - who really did tell a very interesting story."
Ada Lovelace, the only child of Lord Byron and his mathematician wife Annabella, was the first programmer of the first "thinking machine", itself based on the loom. Ada's story is just one of the threads of female history that Plant has woven into her extraordinary theory of a future in which women and machines emerge on top. "As machines become intelligent and self-organising, so does woman. Their mutation is also hers," she writes. But she takes her thoughts to much wilder shores too: the book delves into the Mona Lisa and the Inkspots, sperm and eggs, sex and sensibilities. Its 75 mini-chapters carry headings such as "cave man", "cyberflesh", "chemicals" and "cocoons". The best idea is to read it like poetry, let it wash over you and see what sticks.
The core belief of Zeros and Ones is that women are liberated by technology and that the current genderquake is just one part of this historical process. Now, finally, we are back to Freud, hysteria and sex. She lights a Camel and explains: "The historic irony is that computing is designed to be as logical as you can get. It really is the epitome of the whole Western logical system. But now there's a move being made away from the serial logic computing that's based on a male model of thinking. The new developments point towards the idea that every computer is going to be organised a bit like the Net in microcosm. In the future, computers will function in a way uncannily like what in the nineteenth century was described as hysterical thinking. They jump around, one bit breaks down and everything flips off to another bit," she says. "You know even Freud was often writing about hysteria with some admiration. I think it is increasingly thought that a lot of the attributes that have been denigrated in that way do turn out to be pretty useful." The one label that Plant likes is that of writer and she has now left Warwick to do just that. The next book may be a novel - she says that at least she wouldn't then have to pick a subtitle - or she may return to her ambitious project about the history, use and influences of drugs. She admits to her own life having had a "certain psychedelic quality at times" and thinks the brave thing to do would be legalise them all.
And then, suddenly, we are back on ordinary ground again. This time the subject is men. Not the theory of men, or male dominance, or serial logic but the real thing. She has just returned from what was supposed to be two weeks of sun and sand on a Greek island. She'd been there a few days when she decided to go on a day trip to Turkey. "Then I saw a road sign for Istanbul and so I got a bus there and stayed for a week. I didn't know anyone. I didn't even have a guide book. That's where I'm really in my element - getting on that bus. That's me at my best and happiest. I also meant a drop dead gorgeous boy in Istanbul - a 23-year-old from Boston - and had three days of good romance. That really was the icing on the cake. I can show you photos of you like!" And with that she uncrosses her quicksilver feet and flashes a grin that leaves me in no doubt where she'd rather be.
'Zeros and Ones' by Sadie Plant is published by Fourth Estate
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