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nettime: Three Book Reviews - Richard Barbrook
Pit Schultz on Wed, 19 Feb 97 01:15 MET


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nettime: Three Book Reviews - Richard Barbrook


Fractal Dreams: New Media in Social Context, Jon Dovey (ed.), Lawrence & 
Wishart, 228pp, £12.99

Cultures of Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies, Rob 
Shields (ed.), Sage Publications, 208pp, £37.50/£12.95

Communication and Cyberspace: Social Interaction in an Electronic 
Environment, Lance Strate, Ronald Jacobson & Stephanie B. Gibson (eds.), 
Hampton Press, 368pp, £55.50

At present, people in the developed world are living through another period 
of disorientating economic and social change. Just like the steam engine or 
nuclear power in earlier times, the Net has become the technological 
metaphor for this rapid transformation of our lives inside and outside work. 
However, the much-heralded 'information superhighway' has yet to be built. 
Even in the USA, most people still aren't on-line. But, far from harming its 
iconic status, the embryonic nature of the Net has enhanced its metaphorical 
power. New Left veterans can believe that the Net will finally create direct 
democracy. Neo-liberal ideologues can assume that cyberspace will be 
organised as a perfect 'free market'. Even New Agers can dream of abandoning 
the flesh to live as spirits in virtual worlds. Precisely because cyberspace 
is still under construction, the Net can be used as a confirmation of almost 
any political or philosophical position. 

Faced with so much hype about cyberspace, the job of intellectuals is to 
carry out a critical analysis of what is really going on. These three 
collection of essays are attempts to provide such an academic overview, 
primarily from a Cultural Studies perspective. In their different ways, each 
text examines some of the hot topics emerging from the development of the 
Net: e-mail, cyborgs, VR, flaming, virtual communities, cybersex and so on. 
However, as with hippies, Thatcherites and mystics, these writers have their 
own peculiar fantasies to project onto the Net, such as post-modernism and 
post-structuralism. Reading these books proves that some academic discourses 
can be as much of a hinderance as a help in understanding what's happening 
out there in cyberspace.

Although sharing common theoretical perspectives, the three books are 
distinguished by their geographical origins. Not surprisingly, the English 
text - *Fractal Dreams* - offers the most pessimistic analysis of the impact 
of the Net. For instance, Kevin Robins, Sean Cubitt and Beryl Grahem all 
dismiss the popularity of on-line services as a form of infantile 
regression. Unable to comprehend the social nature of cyberspace, they seem 
to believe that people only use the Net to indulge in lonely hi-tech 
masturbation. As well as this psychobabble, the book also deploys other 
one-sided forms of analysis. Fred Johnson believes that the Net is simply 
the technological expression of a "cybernetic capitalism" being developed by 
ambitious American politicians and their friends in the large corporations. 
Jon Dovey denounces those activists championing the emancipatory potential 
of the Net as dupes of big business because community TV failed to fulfill 
its libertarian promises back in the '70s. Judith Squires ferociously 
assaults cyberfeminism as a step backwards from the heady days of twenty 
years ago. Although advertising itself as 'essential reading for 
cyberpunks', this book really should be promoted as 'technophobia for ageing 
babyboomers'. Gripped by post-modern ennui, the authors have produced the 
'90s equivalent of those '50s books by concerned academics denouncing the 
pernicious influence of rock 'n' roll, coffee bars or other fashionable 
enthusiasms.

In contrast, *Cultures of Internet* provides an almost completely utopian 
examination of cyberspace. Written mainly by Canadians, this collection of 
essays is an updated version of that country's infamous "cracker-barrel 
Socrates": Marshall McLuhan. The book therefore combines the sci-fi dreams 
of Californian Net hype with the most outlandish fantasies of French 
post-structuralism. For instance, intoxicated by reading too much Deleuze 
and Guattari, Dan Thu Nguyen and Jon Alexander proclaim that the Net is 
imminently about to abolish the nation state and replace it with 
"demassified direct democracy". Mesmerised by the same philosophers, André 
Lemos believes that French people sitting down in front of Minitel terminals 
are really "rhizomic nomads" wandering across the world. Ken Hillis goes 
even further by announcing that virtual reality will bring about a gnostic 
transcendence by separating the mind from the body. Not to be outdone, Sadie 
Plant - the English cyberfeminist - announces that cyberspace will bring to 
an end 2,000 years of patriarchal oppression. Only the group called 
'Interrogate the Internet' are aware of any limitations to the wired world. 
But one article can't overcome the one-sided nature of this collection. 
While the writers in *Fractal Dreams* can only see the Net as pernicious, 
the contributors to *Cultures of Internet* are desperate to believe in every 
extravagant claim made about cyberspace. 

Surprisingly, the most dialectical analysis of cyberspace is found within 
the American collection of essays: *Communications and Cyberspace*. For a 
start, the book presents more than one side of the argument. Some essays are 
almost English in their miserablism. Stuart Moulthrop denounces cyberspace 
as "the last holiday orgy of the yuppies". Neil Postman ends the book with a 
neo-Luddite attack on the Net as the purveyor of information garbage. Yet, 
at the same time, the collection also has its moments of post-structuralist 
hyperbole. Mark Lipton too believes that people sitting in front of computer 
screens are "rhizomic nomads". Jay Bolter declares that cyberspace will 
abolish the Cartesian ego and the Kantian subject. But, alongside such heady 
rhetoric, there are also some more thoughtful articles. When not entranced 
by formalist philosophy, Cultural Studies can provide a way of examining how 
people act within their everyday lives, including within virtual worlds. 
Although touched on by the other books, *Communications and Cyberspace* 
includes the most interesting articles on the use of the Net by actual 
people. For instance, Judith Lee examines the peculiar rhetoric used in 
e-mails. Philip Thompsen writes about why normally sensible people can 
become vicious flamers in on-line debates. Crucially, these and other essays 
examine cyberspace as a contradictory phenomenon. Both unthinking pessimism 
and naive optimism are rejected. Above all, the book is aware of what Sue 
Barnes calls the "Orwellian paradox" at the heart of cyberspace. At one and 
the same time, the development of the Net is increasing both individual 
freedom and centralised surveillance. Mark Giese shows how this paradox has 
been present since the earliest days of the Net because it was jointly 
developed by the hierarchical military establishment and the egalitarian 
academic community. For him, the current debate between advocates of 
commercial services and d.i.y. culture about the future of the Net is a 
continuation of the same argument in a new form. The debate is continued 
across a series of other essays. On the one hand, James Beniger claims that 
the spread of the Net is creating an electronic form of Panoptican which 
uses interactivity to monitor and direct our behaviour more efficiently. On 
the other hand, Judith Lee, Michael Beaubien and Richard Cutler all argue in 
their articles that cyberspace can only be built through open communications 
between people. This key feature of the Net ensures that we could have much 
greater control over our own lives in the future. Because it covers both 
sides of this fundamental contradiction in the development of the Net, 
*Communications and Cyberspace* is the only one of these three books worth 
recommending. For once, American academics provide the most dialectical 
analysis of a social phenomenon.

However, even in this book, the academic background of most of its 
contributors creates problems. One of the central driving forces behind the 
building of cyberspace is the transformation of the world of work and 
commerce. Yet, whether for institutional or philosophical reasons, media and 
cultural theorists over the past twenty years have been allergic to any form 
of "economism". Even in *Communications and Cyberspace*, Neil Kleinmann is 
the only contributor to examine closely the economic transformation being 
catalysed by the spread of the Net. His article provides a fascinating 
discussion about whether copyright - as a legal form of industrial 
capitalism - can survive in the cyberspace. This article shows the 
importance of including "economism" within any analysis of cyberspace. The 
tired discourses of post-structuralism and post-modernism are no longer 
sufficient. For a large part of contemporary culture, the protection of 
copyright remains a precondition of its production. This is why the process 
of technological convergence must be paralleled by a coming together of 
academic disciplines. Only then can intellectuals create a critical approach 
which can penetrate through the hype and hysteria around the Net.

Richard Barbrook is a member of the Hypermedia Research Centre, University 
of Westminster.


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