NWSA Journal 15.2 (2003) 211-212
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Wired to the World, Chained to the Home: Telework in Daily Life by Penny Gurstein. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press, 2001, 256 pp., $75.00 hardcover, $27.95 paper.
Feminist scholarship has long been exploring technology and its links to gender, race, sexuality, and class issues. From the celebratory, collapsed boundaries between human and technology proposed in Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto" (1991), to documentaries linking the Internet and the global sex trade, to studies of the impact of reproductive technologies on women of color, technology and its (dis)contents have been at the forefront of feminist analysis in the last decades. And with the proliferation of technology and the growing role it plays in human experience, the need for increasingly focused feminist evaluations of technology's impact on lived lives becomes ever more urgent.
What happens, for example, when technology turns a home into a workplace, or when a worker's office overlaps with her living room? And what do the answers have to do with gender, work, and society? In her study on telework in daily life, Penny Gurstein sets out to examine these far-reaching questions. Citing the paucity of critical discourse concerning how technology directly affects everyday lives, Gurstein explores how telework restructures time use, spatial organizations, and personal relationships, often in intrusive and damaging ways. By looking with care at the position of women in this reordered world of work and home, she illustrates how the frequently lauded aspects of telework ("global access," flexibility) often have negative consequences, especially for poor women.
Of particular interest is the way in which Gurstein argues that tele-work is, by its very nature, linked to gendered issues of domesticity. Obviously, people telework for many reasons, but Gurstein's research clearly demonstrates that both the decision to telework and the experience of telework are often rooted in gender identity and gendered family roles. Her studies show that as women try to fill the roles of homekeeper, mother, and wage earner, telework is at first understood as a way to reconcile more easily these varied demands. The lived reality of telework, however, does not always solve the Superwoman dilemma. It often further complicates the issues, and the female teleworker feels pressure to successfully fill all roles--child caretaker, homekeeper, and office worker--simultaneously.
Gurstein's analysis does not shy away from numerous variables involved in evaluating the impact of telework, and Wired to the World cuts broadly across issues of social organization, spatial use, and gender. The study does not seek easy answers to complex questions and Gurstein remains willing to discuss the brighter sides of telework (such as the positive changes it can make in the lives of the differently abled). However, I found myself wishing that this project paid more attention to the issue of labor [End Page 211] as such, with a closer analysis of how telework functions within a larger system of corporate exploitation. Gurstein is aware that earning power itself is often gendered, observing that information technology has created a dual labor market where "mobile informational workers" (mostly men) fare better than the "vulnerable low-skilled pool of predominately women workers" (196). Yet, while the book is admirably sensitive to class and the ways in which low skills, low pay, multiple roles, and gender overlap, a reader may wish for a more direct link between aspects of telework and labor analysis. While union responses (and objections) to telework are mentioned in passing, the issue of how teleworkers might achieve better working conditions remains largely unaddressed.
Gurstein's arguments and conclusions are drawn from an impressive data set, and her research is based on teleworker questionnaires (reprinted in various appendices at the back of the book). Her studies took place over a ten-year period in the San Francisco area, Canada-wide, including Vancouver, and the effect of so much empirical evidence is to both powerfully convince and almost drown one in detail. For example, in the chapter "I Don't Have a...