Afghan Women Training for Role in Information Technology

What a difference a couple of years and a war makes. Under the Taliban, women in Afghanistan could not work outside the home and the Internet was banned because of all the immoral content it carried. Now, women in Afghanistan are training in computer networking to help kick start Afghanistan’s information technology industry.

Reuters ran a story in April noting that of the 17 people who graduated from Kabul University’s first certificate program in networking skills, 6 were women. Reuters quoted 18-year-old Nabila Akbari saying, “My personal goal is to share this knowledge with other Afghans, especially Afghan women.”

Rita Dorani, 23, another graduate of the certification program added,

My message for all Afghan women is to try as much as possible to learn about computers, because it is essential for every man and woman to be aware of this global technology. Men should allow women to learn this technology.

No, the U.S./Northern Alliance war in Afghanistan did not turn the country into a democratic paradise overnight where women have the same sort of rights they enjoy in the West — in fact, as Reuters notes, some rural areas of Afghanistan have reimposed Taliban-style limitations on women. But even with that in mind, there’s still no doubt Afghanistan is a much brighter place for women today than it was prior to the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban.


Afghan Women Usher in IT Age. Reuters, April 8, 2003.

Iranian Women’s Weblogs

In the United States, stories about computers and women typically revolve around how the male-dominated computer culture devalues women’s unique way of knowing. But in Iran, women are turning to Internet web logs to talk openly about topics that otherwise might get a woman in trouble in that conservative Islamic country.

Weblogging in Iran apparently took off after Iranian journalist Hossein Derkhshan wrote a simple guide in Persian about how to create a weblog. Seven months later, there are more than 1,200 Persian weblogs according to the BBC, with many written by women.

The women post anonymously and can talk freely about sex and other topics without the fears of violating some cultural taboo. One female weblogger told The BBC,

Womnen in Iran cannot speak out frankly because of our Eastern culture and there are some taboos just for women, such as talking about sex or the right to choose your partner. I have the opportunity to talk about the things and share my experiences with others.

At least someone appreciates oppressive patriarchal technology.


Web gives a voice to Iranian women. Alfred Hermida, The BBC, June 17, 2002.

It’s All Tolkein’s Fault

The New York Times this week ran a bizarre column by MIT sociology professor Sherry Turkle which decried the male-dominated computer culture and blamed JRR Tolkien, of all people, for its limitations.

The major criticism that Sturkle offers of both the computer culture and Tolkein is that, according to her, they both entail worlds bounded by extreme absolutes. Sturkle writes that, “In many ways, Middle Earth, the universe of “The Lord of the Rings,” is like a computer program, rule driven and bounded.” Of course, one of the reasons for this is that the ethics of Middle Earth are largely Christian, although this is nowhere near as explicit as it is in something like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles.

Turkle may be uncomfortable with moral absolutes, but in a world where people feel justified in hijacking planes and crashing them into buildings, young readers could do a lot worse than Tolkien’s vision of right and wrong (and especially, Tolkien’s warnings about the corrupting nature of power).

Turkle connects this obsession with rules in Tolkein, computers and role playing games, writing,

Like the rings, the inhabitants of Middle Earth behave according to a set of rules. This is part of what makes it so easy to translate Tolkien’s work into game worlds. In “Dungeons and Dragons,” for instance, character attributes like charisma or strength are assigned according to a point system. There is little room for psychological ambivalence or complex motivations in such a personality.

Frodo, the hero of “The Lord of the Rings,” is part of a fellowship, although it is more properly called a fraternity: in Tolkien’s world, the men bond. The few females are loved and feared as icons or charms.

And the computer culture, by and large, is a world built by engineers for engineers, by men for men. (This is a culture that found it natural to have “abort, terminate, and fail” as three choices on a screen prompt.) Like Tolkien’s world, most computer games are about mastery through violence; they serve as a socialization into the computer culture for adolescent boys.

Before proceeding to dissect this nonsense, note that not only does Turkle object to a lack of moral ambiguity, but she also has an ambiguous relationship with truth and accuracy. There was never a screen prompt with the three options, “abort, terminate, fail.” The actual prompt, given by MSDOS when a file could not be located on a disk, was “abort, retry, fail.”

In addition, it is absurd for Turkle to claim there are 856,000 web sites devoted to Tolkien. She seems to have arrived at this number by simply typing in “Tolkien” into Google’s search engine. That indeed returns 856,000 search results, but that in no way represents 856,000 distinct web sites devoted to Tolkien.

Most of her other claims suffer from similar problems — it is not that they do not contain a grain of truth, but rather that they are nothing more than one person’s biased observations not backed up by any data.

For example, she complains that since characters in role playing games like “Dungeons and Dragons” are assigned numerical attributes that this leaves “little room for psychological ambivalence or complex motivations in such a personality.” But, in fact, such numerical abstracts allow a lot of room for psychological ambivalence and complex motivations. In fact, such numerical ratings are rarely seen as the end-all be-all of a character’s motivations (and, of course, one could also point out that this is meant to be a game, which by definition must be simplified in order to be playable. Monopoly does not incorporate many of the complexities of real-life real estate markets, but it is nonetheless an enjoyable way to spend an evening).

Similarly Turkle complains that “most computer games are about mastery through violence.” You have to wonder exactly what she means by “most computer games.” Here is a list of the 20 top-selling computer games of 2001:

1. The Sims (EA)
2. RollerCoaster Tycoon (Infogrames)
3. Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone (EA)
4. Diablo 2 Expansion: Lord of Destruction (Vivendi)
5. The Sims: House Party Expansion (EA)
6. The Sims: Livin’ Large Expansion (EA)
7. The Sims: Hot Date Expansion (EA)
8. Diablo 2 (Vivendi)
9. Sim Theme Park (EA)
10. Age Of Empires 2: Age of Kings (Microsoft)
11. Black & White (EA)
12. Frogger (Infogrames)
13. Roller Coaster Tycoon Loopy Landscapes Expansion (Infogrames)
14. Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 (EA)
15. Backyard Basketball (Infogrames)
16. SimCity 3000 Unlimited (EA)
17. Backyard Baseball 2001 (Infogrames)
18. Age Of Empires 2: Conquerors Expansion (Microsoft)
19. Max Payne (GodGames/Take 2)
20. SimCity 3000 (EA)

Of those 20 games, only 6 (Diablo 2 Expansion, Diablo 2, Age of Empires, Command & Conquer, Age of Empires and Max Payne) involve “mastery through violence.” The really odd thing is that Turkle complains that computer games and players are excessively rule bound with no ambiguity, and yet half of these games are so-called “god games” in which a major feature is that there is usually not set winning/losing condition.

There is, for example, no way to “win” playing The Sims. There are no victory or loss conditions and the game can be played pretty much however the player wants. Some people, for example, play it by imposing such conditions — i.e. they try to have their characters accumulate the most money possible, etc. Others focus on extensive social relationships. Still others don’t play the game so much as use it a backdrop for telling stories about the characters. The game has some constraints, obviously, but contains a tremendous amount of ambiguity as far as what the goals (if any) of the game are.

Turkle’s claim that the computer culture, computer gamers and role playing gamers are rule bound binary thinkers is nothing more than an inaccurate prejudice of Turkle’s. In fact you could say that it is a rigid oversimplification that does not allow for any ambiguity. It is Turkle who apparently insists on seeing her world in black-and-white with no shades of grey.

Just as Turkle claims that “Tolkien’s work says more about us than it does about Tolkien,” so Turkle’s comments on computer culture seem to say more about her than they do about the computer culture.


Lord of the Hackers. Sherry Turkle, The New York Times, March 7, 2002.

Protesting Panty Raider

For whatever reason, Simon & Schuster agreed to publish computer game developer Hypnotix’s latest game, Panty Raider: From Here to Immaturity (the first time I read an announcement of this game, it was so bizarre I was convinced it was an April Fools-style joke). Apparently in the game the player strips a model down to her underwear and then takes pictures for aliens, of all things.

Hypnotix games tend to be attempts at parodies of traditional games or genres. After the success of the various Deer Hunter computer games, for example, Hypnotix developed Deer Avenger in which the deer turn the tables and hunt humans who were stereotypical rednecks. Panty Raider appears to be a lame attempt to spoof the “Mars Needs Women”-style B movies.

Unfortunately, that’s got the usual suspects all uptight (Naughty game has knickers in a twist). According to Diana Zuckerman of the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families, Panty Raider is not just going to be a stupid game, but is “extremely negative and dangerous to girls and women” because of the behavior it will encourage in young boys. Zuckerman’s complained to Simon & Schuster about the game. So has the group Dads and Daughters, which sent an email to Simon & Schuster urging the company to pull the game.

Simon & Schuster maintains that the game will have an M rating, meaning it is intended for mature audiences only, but that’s not good enough for Zuckerman and DADS. According to Zuckerman, the simple fact that the game involves aliens is proof positive that the game is being marketed to kids, while DADS resident expert Joe Kelly told USA Today that if it were really marketed only to adults, the models would strip to the nude (apparently the only sexually oriented content adults are ever interested in must contain full nudity.)

I’ve never understood why executives give the go ahead for crap like Panty Raider while other worthy games never get close to market (or why studio executives green light Danny DeVito movies for that matter), but the idea that this game is “dangerous” to women is beyond absurd. The only danger this game poses is to the suckers who waste their $19.95 on probably one of the most moronic computer game concepts ever.