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Sheila Rowbotham

The contributions in this collection chart new zones of contradiction and possibility by opening up the impact of new technology upon women as a global phenomenon. This 'second industrial revolution' is no longer confined to the old capitalisms of the richer countries; it is affecting poorer countries which have assimilated differing elements of that first industrial revolution. These new capitalisms, it is evident, can no longer compete by exploiting their resources of cheaper labour. The pressure of the international economy is pushing them towards new technology. Women, already recruited into the global assembly line, are yet again pivotal in this extraordinary process of transformation.

In differing ways these accounts pose the question: what kind of development will new technology bring for women? Gender stratification is already apparent within these very new technological processes. As Swasti Mitter observes, a reflex demand for equal opportunities is not sufficient. Although it is important that women rise through the existing structures, such an approach only accounts for the improvement in the circumstances of a minority. What is to become of the rest, concentrated in the lower echelons of information labour or indeed, of the women who vanish from view - the workers in manufacturing displaced by new technology? The material presented in this examination of new technology outlines the economic trends, but it also considers the differing social consequences for varying groups of women. Several of these essays moreover demonstrate that an exclusive focus on gender is misleading; ethnicity, race and class are just as significant. Gender in fact has no single meaning, but is affected by a whole complex of social relationships.

The questioning of how work is organized, how people relate within the structures of production and how paid work interrelates with daily life came out of the early women's groups in countries such as Britain, Italy, France and North America during the 1970s and early 1980s. There was, among socialist feminists, a concern to extend the opportunities for equality in workplaces and in society. But by the late 1980s this approach was being replaced by the preoccupation of popular media feminism with women on top. The meaning of 'feminism' narrowed. In contrast the women's movement in Asia and Latin America retained links with women workers and poor women's community groups, and presented a much broader social vision of the interconnecting changes necessary to improve women's lives. Despite the odds, these movements have been less susceptible to the fatalism which has paralysed the feminist movement in the west. The importance of internationalism is in the possibility of balancing strengths and weaknesses. Feminists in the richer countries do have institutional strengths and contact with other organizations, ranging from trade unions to churches. They also have a great deal to learn from women organizing at the grassroots in the developing countries.

These studies show how important it is to cast the questions about gender and the structuring of work in a global perspective. Workers in the North have already experienced that the body can be assailed as badly by the light 'modern' technology as it was by the steam-driven machinery of the first industrial revolution. In a few short years the hazards of new technology in conditions of intensified work and stress have wrecked many lives. Now, as the arguments for ergonomic workplaces, education about how hazards can be prevented and the necessity of changing patterns of continuous and stressful work begin to have an impact on unions, employers, legislators and - perhaps most important - insurance companies, new technology is reaching new groups of workers. It is important they too are able to communicate with groups working around the need to ensure that technology is geared to people's needs not profits.

The international character of capital is not of course entirely new, however the speed of change has accelerated. Recognition of the need for global links to exchange information about women's labour has led to the formation of several networks in the last decade, and these have interacted both with women at the grassroots, with NGOs, with trade unions and with the large international organizations. These ad hoc responses to vast new problems are fragile in contrast to the resources of large multinational companies, however they form a basis for comparing experiences and combining diverse skills. There is a real need for resources to strengthen exchanges which have been developed between women in the poorer countries, making sure that these involve both researchers and organizers, for direct contact enables comparisons and the interweaving of experience to occur. The structures of funding institutions and research are geared to richer countries, and there is a powerful tendency for information to be sucked towards the North and then get stuck in limited circuits of communication which move between academics. While it is important to extend intellectual enquiry and broaden the scope of study in the North, it is vital that the circuits are opened so that the information and ideas reach those directly affected. Women's studies after all had its origins not only in the desire to extend what was studied but to transform the power relationships in how knowledge was constituted and communicated.

All these accounts begin with what is happening, and there is no doubt at all that much of what they describe is a daunting picture; but as Swasti Mitter points out in her introduction they are all extremely particular, revealing considerable unevenness in the social contradictions generated by these new circumstances of labour. By gathering and comparing what has been done by women's groups and trade unionists, new technology ceases to be a Leviathan deskilling all and sundry, which was a determinism in the early 'labour process' thinking. It becomes instead a vehicle for various social possibilities. Beginning with what is does not make us accept that there is only one kind of production and that short-term gain is the only reality. But it does avoid the absolute utopianism which, being so total in its rejection of what is, fails entirely to engage with the actual happenings of the world. Instead this book takes on the transforming challenge of new technology, describing what is and suggesting what might be.

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