Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet
Author: Tim Jordan
Publisher: London and New York: Routledge, 1999
Review Published: October 2000
Reviews are like buses . . .
You wait ages for a review of the book you've laboured hard to produce and then two come along at once. I found both reviews enlightening and only occasionally in the sense that they found things in my book that I didn't realise were there. There are some related issues that cross between the two and then a number of more particular points I'd like to respond to as briefly as I can make myself.
Both authors treat Cyberpower as a text-book and both explore problems of over-complexity and over-simplification. There are contradictions in their characterisations here. Cyberpower was not written as a text-book (though I'm not sure how my publisher is characterising it in North America); it was written to be accessible and to keep cyberspace at the centre of the picture. As reviewers note, there are some 'text-book' features such as key concepts but they don't define the text as introductory. I wanted to write a book that was ambitious in its attempt to grasp power within cyberspace and the Internet and to express these ideas in ways most people could read. This of course makes it possible that it will be used as a text-book, which makes my publisher and me quite happy, and where 'text-book' really means 'accessible' then I am grateful for the reviewers' high praise. However, there is a contradiction between seeing Cyberpower as the first comprehensive attempt to 'raise and analyze some important circuits of power in cyberspace,' as Mihalache does, and treating it as a text-book that is over-simplistic. I feel the reviewers' assumption that Cyberpower is a text-book gets in the way of an assessment of theoretical innovations I've attempted and that these innovations get little direct treatment. One example is the failure in both reviews to explore the pivotal (to me) attempt to define the reasons why cyberspatial technology is constantly spiralling upwards in complexity and how this results in the simultaneous empowerment and disempowerment of both the digital grassroots and digital elites. Of course, as reviewers they have limited space but it was disappointing to see confusion in which my sins are to be both over-simple and over-complex.
Apart from the comments just made, I found little to disagree with in Sarah Stein's review. She has not presented the more complex ideas within each chapter but has outlined the broad area of each chapter. Her criticism that there is too much content is interesting; I had made an effort to ensure there were stories and empirical support for all claims and perhaps this is the source of the problem. I was puzzled why it is a problem to begin with a myth of the electronic frontier that is factually untrue as I clearly say that the factual status of a myth is irrelevant to the myth's function.
Adrian Mihalache's review also raises some interesting questions and a number of points with which I disagree. In particular, towards its end it seems exhausted with itself and makes a number of, to me, misguided comments. I will deal with these at the end of my contribution, I hope all readers who read Mihalache's review will ensure they read my second to last paragraph as well. First, I feel Mihalache is unfair in several times taking an anachronistic approach to my book. ICANN and Lessig are used as examples when they would have been difficult for me to discuss. Though Mihalache notes this of Lessig he uses that author twice and at no point is fair enough to tell the reader that this review comes nearly eighteen months after publication of my book. Second, and without wishing to attack Lessig's book in anyway, I feel Mihalache does not present the detail of my argument in a way that allows comparison to Lessig's on power in cyberspace and that my argument is substantially different. Most important, though Mihalache presents the notion of technopower (not my invention but drawn from a wide range of work), he does not present the particular nature of technopower in cyberspace that I theorise. This is an ever-spiralling dance between grassroots and elites in which elites, through their control of technology or the fabric of cyberspace, both create tools that empower grassroots individuals and enhance the elite's control of cyberspace. The statement Mihalache quotes may have the 'authority of the obvious' but it does have a significantly more complex explanation than is allowed for in the review. Sadly, academia is not like the Olympics and while I don't mind being first I'd rather have my ideas presented clearly.
Third, Mihalache interestingly takes issue with the notion that information can be given away without loss to the giver. His own reasoning seems to depend on the fact that giving away information means the giver loses their competitive edge. First, the point in the section of Cyberpower being discussed related to the distinction between material and immaterial goods. In this context, Mihalache's criticism does not work as it simply is the case that you can give an idea away and keep it whereas you cannot give your horse or stereo or car or book away and keep it. Mihalache's criticism here is unfair in its failure to take account of the specific argument at stake. However, it is an interesting general point and within the category of immaterial goods like ideas, is it possible for there to be competitive advantage through secrecy? Of course this would seem true in some cases (though no criticism of my own argument because I was dealing with the distinction between immaterial and material goods). What Mihalache does not seem to allow for is that the opposite is quite possibly just as true. The multiplication of certain immaterial goods such as software can enhance not undermine the value of my particular copy. If I am the only one with an email programme what is it worth? But if I copy it to many other people who then also use it, my programme is quite likely worth more to me? These are interesting questions and Mihalache provides a beginning point for their discussion.
Finally, Mihalache's review contains a couple of sections near the end that are dismissive and misleading. The most important claim that seriously misrepresents my arguments paints me as a libertarian simpleton. Mihalache argues Lessig has already over-ruled my utopian case that cyberspace is a frontier in which government is not needed. First, I hold my hand up I had not taken into account Lessig's arguments published only a year after my own -- my crystal ball was clearly on the fritz. But, putting that aside, the more important point is that I do not argue as Mihalache suggests I do. The section being referred to comes from an examination of the myth of frontier as applied to cyberspace and it notes two interpretations of this myth, though Mihalache only mentions one. One interpretation claims the frontier is a place of community beyond government and the other that frontiers are places of colonialism and conquest. I explicitly hold up people's accounts to explore what such seemingly opposed versions might have in common. Mihalache drags these arguments out of context, entirely ignoring the fact that I explicitly address flaws in the libertarian utopian conception of the electronic frontier. I do not endorse the libertarian utopia of the frontier or argue it is true but explore how it and conceptions of the frontier as a place of rapine, conquest, and death might be related and what that says about cyberspatial conceptions of the electronic frontier. The second major difficulty I find with this review is Mihalache's throwaway paragraph on my analysis of the imaginary. This paragraph bears little resemblance to the actual chapter and its ideas (nor does the book end on p.212 with the words Mihalache quotes). I can only ask readers to ignore the second to last paragraph of this review.
I feel honoured for Cyberpower to be included within Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies excellent series of reviews. I hope my own, Stein and Mihalache's views on my book make it seem worth a look.
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