The concept of the Old Boys Network was based on the cyberfeminist strategy of irritation and elusiveness. The network could have been viewed as a motor for political mobilization, a self-help group, a service by/for techno-enthusiasts, a feminist task force, or an art project, a philosophical speculation, or a fiction. The opacity of the nature of the consortium effectively turned out to be its strength. It triggered speculation and created a mythology that was attractive to potential participants, who could project their individual ambitions onto what OBN might have become. The resulting inclusivity endowed OBN with the sense that it become a site for real difference; unfortunately, it was difficult to maintain. Among the various hegemonic ambitions were those of wings that worked hard to reduce the project’s deliberate complexity, and to force a unified conceptualization of cyberfeminism. After five years, the emergency plan for such a scenario—to shut down the system altogether, thus safeguarding its concept—was put into action.
As one of the co-founders of the project, I was motivated to create both “real” and imaginary spaces and situations, in which experimental anti-essentialist politics could be tested, and traditional and alternative institutions critiqued. As such, OBN as a laboratory for a politics of difference, an anti-organisation of experts committed to dealing with—even encouraging—contradiction. New technologies and the euphoria around them inspired the search for new feminisms, but also provided the opportunity and platform to build such a hybrid entity.
OBN’s slogan, “the mode is the message – the code is the collective,” served to indicate our emphasis on process, and our awareness of power structures. Our institutional affiliations were temporary and parasitic; our method of production was collaborative and voluntarily, participation being based on an individual’s own initiative, and open to anyone who called herself woman. My work on the concept, its organization, its realization constituted my artistic contribution to cyberfeminism. It was also reflective of my version of cyberfeminism: enabling and support of the formation of precisely such a structure, and its collaborative building and maintenance.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to fully assess the achievements of cyberfeminism, the validity of the OBN’s aspirations, the historical significance and continued role of networking in experimental feminist politics, or the strategies available to emerging generations of female artists, from the vantage point of 2015. It is possible, however, to outline hypotheses that might contribute to continued debate.
Digital networked technology undoubtedly unleashed a revolution. Nothing is the same as it was in the early 1990s: politics, economies, communication, and cultural production have changed very fundamentally. Yet the scenarios we are facing today are not what most of the pioneers of Internet culture had envisioned. The Internet has turned out to be the primary agent of neoliberal governance, and by enabling all-encompassing surveillance, it has given unimaginable power to corporate control and state espionage. Given the supremacy of technology and the forces behind it, attempts at criticism—to say nothing of the development of alternatives—have an air of futility. The motto of the 2013 International Symposium of Electronic Art (ISEA), in Syndey reflected this Zeitgeist provocatively, appropriating language from Star Trek’s Borg population: “Resistance is futile.” The political narrative fed into our brains on a daily basis is that there are no alternatives. What does that mean for critical art and cultural production?
A new generation of artists that has been subsumed under the “post-internet” label has ostensibly made itself at home in dystopia, responding to it with postmodern strategies such as irony and over-affirmation. Unlike the pioneers of Internet art—who were driven by curiosity, technological ingenuity, and to some degree, an institutional critique of utopian political thinking—“post-internet” artists take disillusionment as a starting point. Technology-based formal innovations are of no interest for them; likewise, critical and political thinking seem to have gone out of fashion. Instead, cultural phenomena spawned by the omnipresence of the Internet serve as content and material for what are otherwise formally rather traditional artworks, sculpture, installation, video, or performance. The art world, which has always been troubled by digital cultural techniques and their incompatibility with the requirements of the market, appears to appreciate this direction, and has responded enthusiastically.
Beyond the use and abuse of the Internet as an instrument for the centralized accumulation of economic and political power, the ubiquity of networked technologies has also fostered a large-scale implementation of cultural techniques that are actually at odds with the growing economization and political infantilization the Internet has facilitated. Projects such as Wikipedia and phenomena such as Free Software embody the emancipatory potential of digital networked technology. They highlight collaboration and sharing as renewed cultural practices that hold the keys to social and political innovation. The idea of the “commons” as collectively produced and managed resources has become increasingly popular, giving rise to new utopias of self-determined and sustainable life–both online and offline. Contemporary feminist politics and artistic production can be repositioned with regards to this shift.
The crucial importance of technical skill in revolutionary endeavors has also been demonstrated by the landmark activities of Wikileaks, and the revelations of Edward Snowden. These efforts have demonstrated technology’s inherent vulnerability to manipulation, and highlighted the capacity for a resistance propelled by precisely the same technologies behind surveillance and neoliberal political agenda. Even a cursory reality check reveals that feminist and emancipatory efforts in the field of communication technology have in no way become redundant. The gender problems that have always plagued technological development remain largely unsolved. The numbers show that female presence in IT and software development have actually declined since the 1980s. In the cultures of free software, hackers, and open source content—including Wikipedia—the percentage of women among those active is estimated to fall between 2% and 8%. These statistics reveal that the appropriation of technology by women encouraged by the first generation of cyberfeminists never took place. Recent controversy surrounding the sexism and misogyny that is rampant in gaming culture, which culminated in severe attacks on the feminist media scholar Anita Sarkeesian, provides further evidence of this sad reality. Early cyberfeminist ambitions may appear outdated in a “post-internet” context, but they are more relevant than ever; as a term and as a collectivity, Cyberfeminism did leave a trace legacy: for the first time, it provided role models for women with a political and critical agenda to include technical competence as part of the strategy, thus contributing to real empowerment. Pursuing individual careers is not enough: as a term and as a collectivity, cyberfeminism can still bring women together, and inspire creative and critical work.
 Sadie Plant, Zeros and Ones – Digital Women and the New Technoculture, 1997.
This text was first published in the magazine ART PAPERS issue May/June 2015.