Countdown to Collective Insurgence: Cyberfeminism and Hacker Strategies

by Anne-Marie Schleiner


08. In 1997 O.B.N. activist Cornelia Sollfrank stirred up trouble in the German art world by spamming a Hamburg art jury with submissions from 127 female net artists, each and every one a fictional character of her invention. In December 2000, after attending the CCC, (Chaos Communication Congress), an annual hacker conference in Berlin and noting a complete lack of female attendance, she created a fictional documentary interview with a girl hacker named Clara G.Sopht. Like many U.S. hackers, the American actress displayed a convincing disdain for authority and expressed anti-government individualist libertarian values. When prodded about her unusual gender she downplayed the significance while at the same time sharing anecdotal stories. [1]

07. In another part of the world, in 2001, in a the hyper-technologized Asian city state of Singapore, a group of female computer science students are unofficially reprimanded for stealing files off of non-campus servers. Apparently unaware that they were potentially committing a crime, these young Asian women simply reached and took what they needed using their knowledge of Unix and network operations. News of this real life "hack" does not travel outside the university.

06. Weekly on TV screens in North America and, (after a season delay), in Europe, "Willow", a sexy bisexual nerd character on the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" series, hacks into government server databases to retrieve necessary information for solving crimes and metaphysical mysteries. As her powers in witchcraft improve, she no longer finds it necessary to use the keyboard. Eyeballs glazed over into murky dark marbles, she positions her hand on the LCD screen and channels cyberspace through magical manipulation of bytes.

05. In November 2001 at the "Digitales" Conference in Belgium, in a morning workshop at the Interface3 center, unemployed Arabic and African immigrant women learn to open up PC’s and take apart their insides. In Linux workshops during the following days they learn how to install the GNU/Linux OS and set up a small LAN using Linux.

04. In December 2001 R.A.W.A. is invited to the O.B.N. cyberfeminist international conference in Hamburg, Germany. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan’s web site runs quite deep, featuring free mp3’s of women singing revolutionary anthems, photographs of assassinated R.A.W.A. martyrs, and a large e-commerce section of t-shirts and mugs for sale displaying the R.A.W.A. logo. R.A.W.A., unlike many feminist organizations in the West, also operates education programs for men. People murmur that R.A.W.A. should be the successors to the Taliban. [2]

03. In 1997 the Quake Women’s Forum Site is created by avid female players of shoot-em up network game Quake. The site hosts profiles of women players worldwide including their jobs and hobbies. The site also distributes a number of female "skin-pacs", custom-made textures to wrap around the female 3-D characters in the game. These skins are sometimes individually customized by gamer clans like P.M.S. (Psycho Men Slayers) or "Babes with an Attitude." Women within their Quake clans often support each other in non-game related matters such as career advancement and personal life issues.[3]

02. In June 2001 I posted an online collection of erotic digital artwork, electronic KiSS dolls, and Japanese Hentai computer games called "Snow Blossom House". I created a character for myself of an "otaku" girl. The term otaku in Japan is usually applied to boy geeks who obsessively collect games and anime. In my collection I intend to articulate a collective vision of female cybererotica, an alternative to pornography web sites intended for a primarily male hetero audiences. The site generates so much traffic I am forced to change hosts twice.[4]

01. In February 2002 protesters and activists gather simultaneously in Munich, Puerto Alegre and New York to protest corporate globalization and raise consciousness of corporate and government practices which exploit developing nations, workers and the environment. A version of Floodnet, created originally by the Electronic Disturbance Theater, a multi-gender artist team, to protest government treatment of the Mexican Zapitistas, is dusted off and lent out to the Federation of Random Action. Floodnet allows Internet users to participate as an anonymous "multitude" in virtual "sit-ins" that bog down a target server. In this instance the Java applet is directed at the World Economic Forum site in New York.


These real and fictional actions in my countdown do not demonstrate a grand international unified movement of cyberfeminists on the cusp of conquering the world. These events are more like bubbles bursting to the surface in distinct yet occasionally interconnected domains. In technocultural domains like computer games, women are beginning to play a role, first as players and game hackers, which may someday lead to inside industry positions. However the game industry remains very hostile and alienating towards women. In net porn women are making inroads into constructing female visions of desire. The amateur cam girl phenomenon is in some instances directed towards queer and bisexual women as well as men. Shu Lea Chang’s pornographic film I.K.U. is a delicious exploration of replicant cybersex in a Japanese setting. In the West, enrollment of women in computer science and engineering programs at universities is down but in the East it is increasing. These budding programmers form the population base for future hobbyist hackers. As more women live and breathe computers, code, gaming, and the Internet , female self-expression and action in the digital realm will be the "natural" outcome.

Not a "natural" outcome in the sense of Sadie Plants essentialist teleology of women’s cybernetic love affair with machines. Her research and scholarship is valuable in retelling a history of technology where women play a more significant role. It is important that she has inserted unsung female individuals, (Countess Ada Lovelace), and unnamed collectives, (female computational "computers" and secretaries), into the technological canon.[5] But, according to Caroline Bassett, Sadie Plant’s utopian portrait ignores the ways which these same technologies are components of systems which oppress women in subordinate positions such as secretaries and office workers.[6] Furthermore her portrait of the technologically superior female race is based on a biological category of "woman" as a unified gender which ignores the many possible in between configurations and gender mutations. What I mean by "natural" is that it is up to us to invent what is natural, to construct modalities for ourselves as women and others within technological worlds.

Here we move from Sadie Plant to the other cyborg grandmama, Donna Haraway. Coming from a material feminist background as well as a biology background, Donna Haraway, in her essay "Cyborg Manifesto" challenges women to "know how to build things, to take them apart , to play" rather than despising and fearing science and technology. [7] She proposes that we allow ourselves to become cyborg "others" as opposed to remaining luditte goddesses in an increasingly technologized world. On the other hand, in her book Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleManc_Meets_OncoMousetm, Donna Haraway cautions us to be wary of the underlying myths and values embedded in science and technology, and their applications, from the Humane Genome Project to experimentation on lab animals.[8] It is not enough for us to learn the tools of the master, we need to question and critique them, and when possible conduct scientific and technological research in more ethical and sustainable directions.

But although Donna Haraway analysis and criticism dig deep and her cyborg manifesto has proved a rallying point for cyberfeminism, she does not offer us models for how to subvert or rewrite the technological practices under critique as acting cyberfeminists. At this juncture I digress with the question what exactly is an acting cyberfeminist? My personal definition of cyberfeminism is not exclusive. On the one hand it seems necessary to recognize the basic "feminism" in cyberfeminism. Many domains of technoculture, outside of perhaps net art and web design, are male dominated in a kind of old fashioned way, domains where interwoven behavior patterns, power structures, and language actively exclude women as the other. Technological powress, gaming skills, programming, and hacking have come to be identified culturally as male.

"Feminism" in the old sense of the second wave feminists who broke down barriers in education and the workplace is still very necessary. In the 1950’s in America or Western Europe who ever heard of female doctor or a female truck driver? However, if I am a cyberfeminist, it does not mean that in certain situations I may not also or alternately be a post-feminist queer or an anti-globalization protester or whatever else. Like Donna Haraway’s mythical cyborg, I allow myself even ironic contradictions , strategic associations and genderless positions. We don’t like our identities to become cemented to our isms. And although as cyberfeminists we may share some of the same goals as feminists, we should also consider strategies of resistance and change which take into account the "cyber" aspect of cyberfeminsm. These tactics may be shared with and borrowed from other resistant factions. Cyber strategies are being adapted by women in differing situations globally, such as the women of R.A.W.A ., who use their web site to garner international support.

The last action, (01.), in my countdown points us to work of Electronic Disturbance Theater, an offshoot of the Critical Art Ensemble, whose 1994 booklet by the same title "The Electronic Disturbance" offered portent advice.[9] In the chapter "Nomadic Power and Cultural Resistance", Critical Art Ensemble propose that resistance to nomadic power, (global capital and supporting governments), could be acted out in the electronic sphere in addition to "the street," using the techniques of previously "unpoliticized" hackers. Politicized hacker "disturbances" are one means of making ripples in hegemonic structures. Cornelia Sollfrank’s spamming of a German net art jury at the Hamburg Galerie der Gegenwart by 127 female net artists brought a process to a standstill which was part of artworld practices favoring the collection and canonization of male artists. The use of Floodnet by E.D.T., the Electrohippies and others has drawn international attention to issues which might otherwise have been ignored by the media, although sometimes the press has cast hacktivism in a negative light. It is to be hoped that more activists and feminists will add hacktivism to their repertoire. (Not that street protests, puppets, and tango such as took place at the W.E.F. should not also be considered viable means of protest.)

Fictional female hackers play an important role too. Young women and girls need technologically skilled female role models to identify with and strive towards, and female hacker witches like Buffy’s "Willow" are quite motivational. As science fiction shows us, sometimes an act of imagination is required to tear open a space for real life women and girls to enter. And imagining female collectives rather than individuals into the void can be an empowering exercise for the sometimes lonely female computer geek/artist/programmer/gamer. Cornelia Sollfrank will always have her 127 female net artists to keep her company and at one time these fictional hackers seemed to pose a serious threat to an outside body. Natoshka Nesvanova, programer(s) of the NATO MAX patch for manipulating live video and sound, has populated the V.J.(Video Jockey) scene with fictional female representatives who lead international workshops in her stead. A collective, even if semi-constructed, rips a greater shred into reality than an individual. My project Mutation.fem exaggerates a female affront within violent computer gaming which is actually a small yet significant ripple.

And interestingly, sometimes while one woman may be committing an act of imagination or hyberbole, on the other side of the world, in an alternate universe so to speak, real women are hacking, as in the a case of the Singaporese female students. Outside of hacker conventions, hackers are notoriously difficult track down to their flesh bodies. Our stereotype in the West of the male hacker is culled from those few male hackers who have been apprehended, and if they spilled the beans on other hackers they may have mistakenly assumed the gender of their companions.

But I am also suggesting that we consider another aspect of hackerdom in relation to cyberfeminism. The term "hacker" not only derives its meaning from 1980’s and later electronic pranks, breaking into government servers and leaving a tag, and finding secret sever back doors. Hacking is not just about exploring for illicit thrills, thinking up cool handles for yourself, bragging about your exploits and Unix tricks, and posting trophies on hacker bulletin boards. "Hacker" in the sense of "tinkerer", was originally applied to some of the first programmers who would sneak onto expensive restricted university mainframe computers to create "frivolous" programs such as "expensive typewriter", the first word processor, and "Spacewar", the first computer game.[10] These "hackers" would share code openly amongst each other which allowed them to make rapid improvements. The Free Software Movement grew out this activity, which later bifurcated into the Open Source Software Movement and led to the development of the Linux/GNU Operating Sytem.[11]

The idea of open source has powerful implications beyond the development of robustly superior software code. My web site explores some of the cultural effects of applying open source related methods to the development of computer games and erotic digital art. I study communities of gamers and digital artists who create digital cultural objects (games, erotic dolls and art) in collaborative, iterative, hackerish ways. In the 1990’s some shooter game companies began to release the source code to their games. Ecosystems emerged where a couple programmers would write editors based on the raw source code of a particular game, which then allowed others to insert their own characters, level architecture, graphics, sound, physics, weapons and so on into the game. A side effect of opening up these games to a broader variety of developers than only the game industry was that suddenly active female characters began to appear in game modifications. Later female Quake players also made custom female 3D models and skins for themselves.[12] Also artists of various genders began to experiment with refashioning 3D game environments.[13]

The international KiSS community is another community of digital artists who create playful digital artifacts for each other in an open hackerish fashion, although, unlike shooter games, KiSS never was privately owned and is still free to developers and players. One could liken KiSS electronic paper doll creation and exchange to a form of opens source erotica. Many developers and collectors of Kiss dolls are women. These young women, for example, artists Kim Galvas and Jade Gordon, are articulating unique expressions of female eroticism that incorporate playful elements of Japanime characters, Furries, and Pokeman characters.[14] I think it is in networked communities like these, where development processes are opened in a hackerish fashion to alternative visions, that women and girls have a chance to redefine technoculture from the ground up and flourish. In the case of computer game mods, where the system is both open and closed, cyberfeminism becomes viral and infects the corporate host game engine with new gender mutations.

Open source, when applied at other organizational levels beyond software, has the potential to accomplish a democratization of electronic culture. When maker and consumer merge into one role, people take control over their own tools and environments. This process enables women to customize technoworlds more to their own liking. These alternative electronic gift communities hold potential for radically altering the way we entertain ourselves. If we no longer rely solely on broadcast mediums like television and film to feed us culture, (after all, not every television show is as daring and brilliant as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), but instead actively refashion our own computer games and erotic entertainment, we will change the world we inhabit.

Such a world not only would open up gender boundaries and wiggle space for cyberfeminism and other current technocultural outsider positions, it would shift the supposed economy of cyberspace from e-commerce to gift economy.(Indeed even through the e-commerce boom online gift economies remained strong.) How such a world could actually feed its users is another problem. During the dot com boom , it seemed economist Jeremy Rifkins’ prediction that large scale unemployment would necessarily take over our increasingly technologized world was a mis-prognosis.[15] Now that the bubble has burst, perhaps it is time to reconsider the notion of investing greater value in non-wage labor activities such as playing games and re-making games, playing music and listening to music, making digital erotic characters and playing with other people’s characters, and hacking and refashioning things.

The countdown is not yet finished.




End Notes:

  1. Cornelia Sollfrank’s lecture at the Technics of Cyber<>Feminism Conference, Thealit, Bremen, Germany, December 2001.
  5. Sadie Plant, Zeros and Ones, Doubleday Press, London, 1997.
  6. Caroline Bassett’s lecture "Self, Same, Cyborg?" at the Technics of Cyber<>Feminism Conference, Thealit, Bremen, Germany, December 2001
  7. Donna Haraway, "Cyborg Manifesto",
  8. Donna Haraway, book Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleManc_Meets_OncoMousetm, Routledge, London, 1997.
  9. Critical Art Ensemble, The Electronic Disturbance, Autonomedia, New York, 1994.
  10. Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Anchor Books, 1984.
  11. Richard Stallman’s lecture at TechBC, British Columbia, October 1998.
  12. Mutation.fem at
  13. Cracking the Maze at
  14. Luckykiss at
  15. Jeremey Rifkin, The End of Work , G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1995.