Spending Cybertime

Written by Caryn Meller
Based on an interview with Dale Spender

Dale Spender is a woman worth listening to. She is author and editor of over thirty books, the most recent being Nattering on the Net, Women, power and cyberspace. while Man Made Language and Women of Ideas have previously won her international acclaim; founding editor of Pandora Press and the Athene Series; commissioning editor of Penguin's Australian Women's Library, associate editor of the Great Women Series, international; university lecturer, co-originator of WIKED (Women's International Knowledge Encyclopedia and Data) a database on women; and consultant in information technology and management for national and international government bodies and educational institutions.

Knowledge of attitudes to changes in the media in the past has endowed Spender with a 'fix it' optimism for the future. "There were monks who said the world would end when everybody could read. It would be the beginning of anarchy and the end of civilization if everybody could read what they wanted to and I suppose we think its the beginning of anarchy and the end of civilization if everybody can write whatever they want to and reach everybody else." The anarchy caused by the print revolution seems hard to grasp for a generation spoon-fed by the electronic media, where the concept of blissful ignorance is almost incomprehensible in the face of continuous information bombardment. The twenty somethings of the nineties could not imagine life without the electronic media, so it is likely that generations weaned on the net will become equally accustomed. Spender not only accepts, she embraces the new technology as a vehicle for 'transport to the promised land' where, at last, democracy will be a reality and not just a repackaging of old problems into new ones.

"What we're going to get in cyberspace is the opportunity for everyone to publish: the democratization of authors, it empowers everyone to become an author." She elaborates, "everybody can produce information, and publish it on the Internet. Until very recently, it's been a select few who've been able to reach millions, who're been able to be published. They have to go through all sorts of selection processes and sometimes the ones that we might have been interested in have been left out. One of Virginia Woolf's manuscripts was rejected for publication which was a bit of a joke." This is the kind of limitation that can be bypassed in cyberspace.

Rich Information and Poor Information

But not everyone can be reached via the Internet if the hardware and the software remains as expensive as it is today right? "Not necessarily", Spender begs to differ, "last century they said that everyone should have access to books but not everybody could afford them so they established the whole system of State libraries so books were available to everybody. I think you have to have a comparable leap of imagination to be able to think about how we could make sure that everybody has access to information production." This determination is what will help prevent information poverty, a vital task because, "the information rich will be those who make up the rules and the information poor will be those who just have to study them and obey them." So if the choice is between information poverty for the majority or higher taxes and a bit of old-fashioned financial poverty to afford the cost of distributing information-wealth, there will have to be a revolution in the values of our society as well as our hip pockets, something Spender is well aware of. "We're moving from a manufacturing age where it used to be that the only worth that we could imagine as human beings was in land, then it got to be products and now it is information."

But just what is this technology, really? "The Internet will be more than it is now, I talk about cyberspace because that includes everything from telephone calls from my office right through to delivery of television programs and to the Internet itself." There is an information function of cyberspace and an entertainment function. "Television as something that can only receive information has had its day. I can see that you will have the one screen and you're going to be able to have programs on demand, programming what you want, and that's going to apply to radio as well."


Information will become increasingly interactive, for example, "our leaders in technology could produce a radio that has a `tell me more' button so that after the traffic report, you can push the `tell me more' button and find out about the traffic in your particular area" enabling more precise, specified information accessible on demand.

The face of entertainment is going to change; not only what we are entertained by, but how we are entertained by it. "Sitting in front of the television and following the narrative as you would in reading a book is going to have limited appeal in the future, what's really going to be important to audiences is the interactive part, you're going to feel that you're only half there if you have to sit and follow someone else's argument, and not become involved and change and add to it."


Accessing information should become even more user friendly and more thorough. Spender describes computers as functioning in a butler-like manner, "I want to be able to turn my computer on in the morning when it has already sorted for me the articles in the international papers that I might be interested in."

Curious about this 'sorting', I asked if Spender thought that it was possible to become more narrow-minded. "I think in that selection, things are going to come up which you might never have looked up anyway. So I think you're going to have plenty of surprises that are going to keep you from being narrow-minded."


Apart from all the excitement this progress inspires in Spender, she is equally conscious of the problem of concentration of ownership underpinning cyberspace. "Bill Gates owns 80% of the software. Men own 99% of the software and the hardware, so it's as much about white American males as anything else and at the moment it's their ball game, and anyone who wants to play has to buy their tools and play by their rules."

The eternal optimist in Spender enables her to see through the problems. "The solution is to do radio interviews and to get it onto the public agenda so most people realize that this is how it is. The really big thing is trying to change it." A daunting task on a good day, but Spender's confidence is in the power of the people, "I think in cyberspace, partly because you've got so many people able to have a say, of course you can be monopolized and you can be silenced and circumscribed, but I think the potential is there. It's always been the mouse and the elephant, you think about the Industrial Revolution and what we did was we organized unions.

Similarly consumer groups will emerge and say 'this isn't on' and boycott, saying, 'None of us will buy your product for six months'. There is a power there, you know, its not just one mouse talking to the elephant, there's quite a lot of mice around, and we shouldn't be so pessimistic, the odds are all with the owners at the moment but they are absolutely dependent on us using their product." So who says they won't listen to us.

The Effect on Our Lifestyle

The impact that this new information would have on lifestyles covers a wide spectrum. "Even growing food would be information-based; if you could get more information on the weather, the markets and getting things to the markets, you'd make lots more money than if you haven't got that, so everything will be information-based. That means lots and lots of new jobs and lots of old jobs will disappear but all of us will spend time every day being hooked up to find out what the latest information is in order to conduct our daily lives. So there will have to be people to produce that information. Information is almost anything you can sell that you can't drop on your foot." Those of us lucky enough to dread business trips can take heart in Spender's prediction that they will no longer be necessary, "I think we're going to become much less mobile and more virtually mobile, traveling might just be for holidays, not business in the future, particularly if you can video conference."

Couch potatoes can rejoice too. "I think our leisure pursuits are going to be very different; much more information-based leisure pursuits. Spend a huge amount of time in front of our computer and then go out and play sport as a break." So, we could still play sport, but we wouldn't have to as a form of entertainment, we could play sport on screen, with our cyberfriends instead. On a more serious note, wouldn't it be great if the Internet heralded the democratization of democracy as well as that of authors? "People talk about everybody being connected to government to register and protest, and I think that's likely to evolve but not be a revolution. Well, certainly not in my time. I think that what we do need to be able to do is on our computers be able to access question time for the last two years and see what Keating has said and what Howard has said (on a given issue). I'd like to see for myself half the time rather than just have the press coverage. . . (er) . . .You could personalize it a lot more, look at the bits that interested you."


The thought of putting our legal and political system on line needs to be considered in the face of cybercrime. Cybercrime includes everything; censorship, extraordinary fraud and invasions of privacy, selling of information and blackmail. Blackmail's going to be the biggest crime of all in the future. There's also going to be pornography and red light districts in the future, I think there's going to be as much crime in the cyberworld as we've got in the world. I think there'll be a parallel." Not the most comforting thought, given that life details seem that much more vulnerable when they're all plugged into a computer.

This kind of fear is what drives legislation that tries to keep up with the Net, but Spender does not consider regulation as a realistic goal, "We have to face the fact that you can't regulate cyberspace, what you can do is develop protocols, develop ways of having certain things not shown on your screen". Ironically, the very freedom of speech that cyberspace boasts is the same freedom that allows criminal or potentially destructive material to be published on the Net, "if everybody's going to have a say, it's very difficult to stop people from saying certain things and it's very difficult to stop people producing some products, I think its what free speech is." This knowledge does not sit easily with the feminist in Spender, knowing, "the red light district that some people are creating in cyberspace with images of women that people can chop up and do things to - that's not pornography, that's prostitution, virtual prostitution." Equally bad are the types of web sites such as How to rape a woman and get away with it - advice and information but Spender says "I'm sure that there'll be organized crime associated with cyberspace just as there is organized crime associated with the real world," but who will be the police, detectives, law-defenders and SWAT teams in cyberspace?

Australia's Role

Australia might be thought of as insignificant on a global scale but Spender points out, culturally, Australia can be a major player. "Australia has the potential to become a great cultural centre in lots of ways and that's partly because of our multicultural background, our ability to bring and absorb so many languages in so short a space of time. We can provide more translators than anybody else outside Israel. I think our education system which has to be considered in some ways, our cultural values and our open mindedness, our position in Asia, all put us in a commanding position to be a cultural capital and to produce cultural forms that are needed by the rest of the world, like the open learning programs which people like sitting and watching even when they're not doing the courses."

The fact that Spender's company is Australian is of great advantage, in her opinion. "Australia is the inheritor of two traditions; the British and the American, so I know more about the British than the Americans do and more about the Americans than the British do and I'd even have an element of transfer to non-English speaking countries." While some members of the older generation find the skills transfer all too scary, the future for Australians willing to capitalize on their national inheritance looks bright. The concept of cyberspace and its impact on our lives in the future is really quite simple. "Everybody's had a read at some time and has been receiving the information but now everybody's able to produce it, that means that the emphasis is changing." The alphabet will not become obsolete either. "It is not so much that print is redundant as that it is no longer primary, if you talk about multimedia, you've got to have some text in there. Its just that print is not the one carrying the major weight of meaning anymore." The outcome is resoundingly reassuring. It's as if nothing lies ahead that humanity has not encountered in the past, it is simply taking a new form. It's just going to be like moving from pencils with erasers to pens with ink, and even some of those are erasable! now.

Ever thought you would turn a paler shade of green if you read another article about Claudia Schiffer? Well, put your feet up, sit back and relax, tomorrow you won't have to, that is, of course, unless you want to. Dale Spender tells Caryn Meller why.

Caryn Meller 1995

Copyright Macquarie University 1995