10.4 Men and Women

I argued above (Section 10.1) that human nature is universal, that we all receive the same conception-day gift. There is, however, one exception. We are all hunter-gatherers, but all we men are hunters and all we women are gatherers. Traditional history based on conflict is largely about men, as pointed out by feminists who argue whimsically for a parallel "herstory". In rewriting history as the story of communication rather than conflict, I find, to my embarrassment, that once again it focuses on men. The cast of characters tends to be the obsessive tinkerers - Johann Gutenberg, Alexander Graham Bell, Douglas Engelbart, to name just one from each generation - who have invented those extrasomatic tools.

This boys-with-their-toys emphasis is finally broken only with the fourth generation of media:

  • The story of the extension of thought using computers begins with two teen-age girls - Mary Wollstonecraft Goodwin and Augustus Ada Byron (alas, still best known by their married names - Mary Shelley and Lady Lovelace).
  • While wandering around the world exploring multimedia in the early 1990s, I was impressed by the fact that many of the most significant figures were women. The Apple Multimedia Laboratory was directed by Kristina Hooper-Woolsey and the experimental classroom in Marin County, generously supported by George Lucas of the nearby Skywalker Ranch and Industrial Light and Magic, was run by her sister.
  • Principal speakers at the conference on Virtual Reality in San Francisco were Sherry Turkle and Brenda Laurel [TURKLE 1984, 1996, LAUREL].
  • At that conference, Ted Nelson, the visionary behind the Xanadu Project and the hypertext concept, suggested I go to Glasgow to meet his European representative, Liz Davenport. Liz introduced me to two of her friends at Strathclyde University - Patricia Beard and Noreen Mac Morrow - who were publishing Hypermedia, the first scholarly journal of multimedia.
  • While preparing a speech entitled What kind of cyborg do you plan to be? to be delivered to the International Cybernetics Association in Baden Baden, Germany, I found that two major figures in the area were women - Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles [HARAWAY, HAYLES].
  • While attending a conference on Avatars in Virtual Worlds at the Banff Center for the Arts, two of the major speakers were Sandy Stone and Janet Murray [STONE, MURRAY].
  • Two of the best first-person accounts of life on the internet - Confessions of an Infomaniac by Elizabeth Ferrarini [FERRARINI] and Cyberville: Clicks, Culture and the Creation of an Online Town by Stacy Horn [HORN] - were written by women.
Some feminists have argued that women were best off in a hunter-gatherer society where they had an important, if under-appreciated, role of supplying 80% of the food [MILES]. The shift into the agricultural society (corresponding to our assimilation of the second generation of media) reduced the status of women. Horticulture, the domain of women, was replaced by agriculture, the domain of men. Hence the familiar image of the man ploughing fields followed by the woman sowing seeds. The shift into the industrial society (corresponding to our assimilation of the third generation of media) further reduced the status of women. Production shifted from the home, the domain of women, to the factory, the domain of men. Hence the familiar image of the man supervising women laboring in a sweatshop. Perhaps the shift into the information society (corresponding to our assimilation of the fourth generation of media) may finally raise the status of women.

Leonard Shlain, in his book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, has argued that, after a brief period during the early stages of the agricultural society when society was matriarchal and we worshipped Goddesses more than Gods, society suddenly turned patriarchal [SHLAIN]. A number of theories have been ventured to explain this shift.

The domestication of animals made hunting easier and the domestication of plants made gathering easier. Men, deprived of hunting other species as an outlet for the aggression they had accumulated over millions of years, turned to fighting within our species.102 In fights between neighboring tribes, the winners would carry off their spoils - the plants, the animals - and subsequently the women of the losers. Capturing women served the evolutionary function of breeding outside the group. However, as an unfortunate side-effect, it encouraged the attitude of thinking of women as property.

Another theory is that, at about that time, by extrapolating from our observation of the animals we had domesticated, our species finally realized the relationship between intercourse and birth. The concept of property extended then to one's children. This too contributed to evolution since it motivated men to devote resources to raise children. Once again, there is an unfortunate side-effect. It was important to ensure that the children you were devoting time and energy to raise were indeed your children. This contributed to the further oppression of women, since they had to be closely guarded to ensure that their "provider" was not being cuckolded.

Some permutation of those factors may have been involved. However, Shlain introduces a new factor into the mix. He suggests that the alphabet (or, in our terms, the assimilation of print which coincided with the shift from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural society) introduced a communication system which was more congenial for men than for women. A hunter, who must focus on one thing in the environment, is more at home with a linear medium than a gatherer, who must scan the whole environment. Thus, men who already had more power because of their physical strength, were able to add further to this power because of this psychological advantage. Shlain surveys history and, time and again, finds that the shift to a patriarchal society coincided with the acquisition of print.

The theory of evolution has been the basic framework for this book. Evolution explains only how our species evolved to a hunter-gatherer society. Recent shifts to an agricultural society to an industrial society to an information society is too brief a time-frame for evolution. This book could be considered as the story of how a hunter-gatherer person acquired different extrasomatic tools to deal with those shifts into different societies.

We are thus all hunter-gatherers, regardless of how sophisticated our society has become. Or rather all we men are hunters and all we women are gatherers. That is, in the vast majority of cases, men tended to specialize in hunting and women tended to specialize in gathering [TOOBY & DE VORE]. Some scholars have suggested that our cognitive skills reflect this specialization.103

In a typical experiment, students learn how to walk from point A to point B on campus. They are then blind-folded. Men perform significantly better than women in now getting from A to B. The best explanation so far is that man-the-hunter must follow whatever erratic path the animal he is hunting leads them. To get back to his camp, he must depend on "dead reckoning" - that is, he must navigate by the polar coordinates. On the other hand, woman-the-gatherer can choose her own path to the plants which, unlike animals, remain in one place. To get back to her camp, she can depend on visual cues. Blind-folding a woman removes the visual cues and thus handicaps her in the navigation task.

Until recently, all the experiments on spatial cognition have favored men. However, Irwin Silverman and Marion Eals have designed experiments in which women may possibly excel in spatial cognition [SILVERMAN & EALS].104 In a typical experiment, subjects are in a room, ostensibly waiting to participate in an experiment. When they enter the experimental room, they discover that the experiment is to test how much they remembered about the nature and position of objects on a desk in the room in which they had been waiting. Women did significantly better than men in this task. The best explanation is that women must remember from season to season the relative locations of edible plants.

Further studies have demonstrated that women are better at multi-tasking, whereas men are better at concentrating on a single task. Women are scanning the environment (as befits a gatherer), whereas men are staring straight ahead (as befits a hunter). Men are better at focusing on a single task, as required in hunting, and women are better at dealing with a number of tasks simultaneously, as is required in gathering.

Some would argue that there is not enough difference between men and women in genetic terms to transmit such wide differences in cognitive abilities. Men differ from women only in having a Y chromosome, which is a sort of stunted version of the corresponding X chromosome in women. However, there are many sex-linked traits. For example, color-blindness is largely the domain of men. One in ten men are color-blind whereas only one in a hundred women are color-blind. Since plants are often color-coded, color perception is important in gatherers. On the other hand, color perception can be a drawback in hunters. Monty Roberts, the man who listens to horses, has remarkable visual acuity. He is said to be able to detect a gesture by a horse when others can't even see the horse [ROBERTS]. This acuity he attributes to his total color blindness. An artist friend wears dark glasses when sketching so that he is not distracted by color. In competitions to assemble jigsaws, participants are not allowed to turn all the pieces over, since it is easier to assemble it without the distraction of color.

Such studies are beginning to modify our conception of pre-history. Innovations in communication and cooperation have traditionally been attributed to the need for man the hunter to communicate and cooperate to outwit other animals which are stronger and faster than them. Perhaps the gatherer lifestyle resulted in innovations. The first tools may have been tools for digging, for carrying food, for carrying babies so that hands are free for gathering, and so on. Those tools may not have survived because they are made of more perishable materials than weapons.

The fact that women slung their babies over the left side so that they can continue to enjoy the comforting beating of the heart as in the womb may explain why we are right-handed. This is the hand which is free. This could in turn explain why the speech center would develop in the left hemisphere. As argued above, Leonard Shlain points out that man-the-hunter, with his single-task focus, find a linear tool more congenial than does woman-the-gatherer with her multi-tasking skills. Thus ironically this practice of women may have contributed to a male-dominated society. Is it possible that our fourth generation of media will lead to a more equitable balance of power?

Shlain argues that photography and film, in emphasizing the image, is creating a world in which women are more at home. Women have certainly had more access the the image industry, as attested by the success of Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Walters and others. However, even here, sexism prevails. A National Film Board (NFB) documentary, for example, focuses on the career of Alice Guy-Brach╚, the first film-maker, who has disappeared from the official history of film (Figure 10-2). A CD-ROM entitled Reel Women, narrated by Jodie Foster, document the undervalued contribution of women to film (Figure 10-3).

Shlain lines up Male and Female with a series of other dichotomies - e.g. Yang and Yin, left and right hemispheres, word and image, analysis and synthesis. While alert to the irony that he is writing a book bemoaning the emphasis on the word over the image and the further irony that the use of dichotomies is itself a left-brain, male activity as he pleads for a balance between left and right hemispheres, between male and female values. Perhaps we will move towards such a balance as we assimilate the fourth generation of media - Multimedia and Internet.

Parallel to this re-assessment of the relative power of men and women is the re-assessment of relative 'power' of the animals which men hunted and the plants which women gathered. Plants seem relatively powerless because they are immobile. Who has not get a secret thrill at the thought of a Venus fly-trap capturing and eating insects as the plant fights back? In Section 1.1, I used the example of giraffes eating leaves off tall trees. The eating of the leaves triggers a chemical reaction which makes the leaves bitter to taste. This reaction is communicated to nearby trees, so that the giraffes must move on to other clumps of trees before this clump is destroyed.105

In The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the World, Michael Pollan describes how plants use us as much as we use them. He describes how the apple, the tulip, the marijuana plant, and the potato exploit, respectively, our desires for sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control, in order to flourish [POLLAN]. We have co-evolved with our plants as well as with our media. The theory of evolution is a great leveler - the lowliest plant can be as well adapted to its environment as the most pompous animal. We are reminded that we are a part of nature and not apart from nature.

102   Some brave scholars have whimsically suggested that hunting evolved into fighting and gathering into shopping. Being "born to shop" may be demeaning but it is certainly more benign than being "born to fight".

103   This is treacherous territory to tread. Many people have used genetic differences as a rationalization for racism, sexism, etc. In broaching the possibility of genetic differences, you find yourself in bed with many people you would cross the street to avoid. However, if there are indeed genetic differences, then one must deal with them in order to understand our species. No matter how genuine differences turn out to be, they do not justify prejudice.

104   Note to Sheila Copps. Those experiments were conducted at York University in Toronto. Please consider this paragraph in assessing the Canadian content of this book.

105   I'm indebted to Dr. Fran┴oise Zurif for this insight.