June 13, 1996

Article at The Age

FEATURE | It’s time we had a Ministry of Change

Dale Spender is a feminist, academic and author

DOING LUNCH with Dale Spender

Dale Spender is a feminist, academic and author. Nattering on the Net (Spinifex), released here last year, is now on sale in the US. She was interviewed by Wilson da Silva.

How is Nattering on the Net doing in the US?

Quite well from what I understand, though I think it’s very difficult for an Australian to sell there. Also I think they like to see the person.

I’m actually going for a (speaking) tour in October. One of the things that was quite interesting is that the bookstores wanted a “showreel” - I thought showreels were things that TV stars did! What they want is a couple of minutes of video showing what I look like; how I talk.

That shows how much being an author has changed. A few years ago, that wouldn’t have happened. Now you can’t sell a book without selling the author.

It’s seeing the author as a media performer. 

It’s authorship as a commodity. Most authors today get paid more from the “performance” of their work. I earn much, much more from public speaking than I do from authorship.

Isn’t that what’s going to happen on the Internet? I can’t see how I’m going to sell things on the Internet apart from myself, or sell my potential to do things.

It’s the author as a brand. “Dale Spender” becomes a brand.

The interesting thing is you can’t copyright your image. If I’m going to be a brand name, I don’t want someone else copying my brand, or putting up messages that I wouldn’t say, like anti-feminist things for example.

That would be “identity theft”.

That’s the big issue, isn’t it? The implications are quite extraordinary. It doesn’t have to be someone hacking into your system and sending messages in your name. They can actually adopt your persona, have your photo somewhere endorsing something.

What do you do? I can’t see any way that you could legally stop them.

Do you subscribe to the argument that content creators - authors and so on - will become more powerful in a digital world?

Aren’t we tired of talking about the size of fonts, or design style, or how long it takes to produce a book? What we want to know is, what’s in the book.

So would you agree with Nicholas Negroponte that content will be king?

Or even queen! There’s also a sense in which content is another medium. That content can be me speaking, or writing. There’s a way of calling something content that is not to divest it of its technological qualities.

A lot of people are worried about digitisation, about the breakdown of barriers between telephony, text, video, music, pictures - what is being called disintermediation. The kind of ultimate post-modernism, really.

I think it’s the most exciting thing that’s happened for ages.

I can’t go to sleep at night for thinking about it: what about this, what about that. I’m sometimes quite horrified by the number of people who see it as sort of de-humanising or anti-intellectual thing.

We need a Ministry for the Management of Change. The one thing we can say about every area of life at the moment is the extraordinary pace of change. But not in policy, not in universities, not in schools, not in the political sphere - is anybody treating it as the fundamental topic!

A Ministry of Change would help?

Oh yes. To address the human implications and what’s unsettling people. Everybody I know suffers from information anxiety.

Acutely. In all shapes and forms. People who don’t know about the Internet, are anxious about what it means, are anxious about keeping up. There’s insecurity about past traditions.

Everything’s going to be challenged.

I think in terms of feminism: for thousands of years, women have been wives. In the last two decades, in the space of one generation, all the information that mothers have handed on to daughters about being wives - it’s changed. It doesn’t work any more. That’s extraordinary change. There’s no way that the older generation can hand on their wisdom to the next generation because of the change in medium.

Our values, unless we “electronicafy” them, are not going to be passed on. It’s almost as bad as the Koori case, where whites came in and disrupted their process of wise people handing things on to the next generation, and then the younger generation saying, “That’s not how the world works any more”.

There’s as much disruption in our own white culture. There are huge gaps between parents and children. How often in human history has the younger generation known more about the medium of information than the older one? That’s a recipe for extraordinary disaster. You’ve got the technical skills and no wisdom, or the wisdom and no technical skills.

Ninety-five per cent of our senior executives are computer illiterate and are making decisions. They are what Negroponte calls the digitally homeless. They’re making decisions about the digital world. Would we do better if we had 10-year-olds making the decisions? You can see the absurdity of it. Many of them would have the technical skills, but of course no wisdom!

No-one’s addressing this. There’s a Ministry for Multimedia in Victoria, which addresses the technology, but how about the human dimension?

That’s what the 1980s and 1990s have been about: science and technology as seen in purely economic terms. What does this mean for industry? It’s not about: “what does this mean for society?”

You know . . . the new definition of a permanent job is one that lasts six months. No wonder people are terribly insecure.

Parents say to me, “I have no idea what career advice to give my children”.

Is it a powerlessness about the future?

I think so. And a confusion and a total lack of government strategy or policy addressing it. There’s no vision.

Lynne (Spender, executive director of the Australian Society of Authors and Dale’s sister) gave a talk the other day at Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School. Mothers and fathers were there. She told the girls how they would have to prepare for three careers in the future. Then she added that you would also have to prepare for three partners throughout your life. And of course, the men went berserk. Built-in obsolescence for men, they hadn’t heard of that before.

Perhaps they saw it as a “feminist plot”. And yet, a lot of men as well as women might find the thought liberating as well as angst-generating. It’s equally applicable, and that’s deeply anxiety-ridden for everybody. Setting up and maintaining relationships and changing relationships is terribly emotionally draining.

You get bad press as a feminist. But feminists have never killed any men, in fact we’ve never even castrated any. It’s men who do that to each other. All we’re interested in is a better deal for women and children.

Are you a feminist first or a technophile first?

A feminist. I got married, then out of necessity became a feminist! Partly because of the absolute injustice of it. . . We’re talking about 30 years ago. We both worked, and he would come home and say, “Where’s dinner?” And I’d say, “I don’t know. . .

I wanted to do my PhD at the University of London. In the early ‘70s, in this country, you had to have your husband’s permission to leave the country. . . And you ask why why am I a feminist?