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The Cybercultures Reader

Editor: David Bell, Barbara M. Kennedy
Publisher: London, UK: Routledge, 2000
Review Published: May 2001

 REVIEW 1: Aimee Morrison
 REVIEW 2: Kate O'Riordan

First things first: The Cybercultures Reader, recently issued by Routledge, is a massive book, and demands the sort of numerically-weighted analysis we tend to reserve for the mind-bogglingly big or powerful. So here are some vital statistics: the anthology weighs in at 765 pages; it is divided into nine substantial sub-sections, each featuring an editorial preface; it contains a total of 48 articles, all previously published, by 42 contributors; it boasts not one but two introductions.

Because The Cybercultures Reader is so extensive, and because the material it contains has already been printed (and, one assumes, reviewed) elsewhere, this review will concern itself with how well the Reader functions as a collection and the extent to which it fulfills its own promises. I undertake this with the aim of determining to whose bookshelf it might most appropriately be added.

Without question, The Cybercultures Reader offers a substantial amount of scholarship on its avowed topic. Many of the articles therein are canonical must-reads, like Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto." All the entries are thought-provoking and intelligent without tending to any particular, overarching ideological position; for example, cyber-utopians of the Michael Benedikt ilk (including Benedikt himself) rub elbows with more pessimistic critics like Kevin Robins, who suggests that the utopian camp is downright irresponsible.

Perhaps in deference to the potential for intellectual chaos arising from collecting such widely diverging viewpoints in one anthology, the editors have sensibly chosen to arrange the Reader into nine sections, marking out potential genres within the larger field of cyberculture studies. These categories add structure and coherence to the mass of material without limiting the reader's options to delve in at will, or promoting one possible cyberculture over another. The sections are entitled "approaching cyberculture," "popular cybercultures," "cybersubcultures," "cyberfeminisms," "cybersexual," "cyberbodies," "post-(cyber)bodies," "scaling cyberspaces," and "cybercolonization."

Note the tendency to plural constructions in the section names, hinting at the robust argumentation and the invigorating cacophony of voices manifested in the articles they contain. Co-editor David Bell addresses this multiplicity of critical perspectives in the Reader's first introduction, which he describes as a 'user's guide.' In this essay, Bell carefully re-links the Reader's material into new conceptual knots, reading contributions against each other in ways not suggested by the subdivisions. Bell suggests alternate avenues of entry into the material, such as considering the interaction between humans and machines, the gendered (or not) nature of cyborgs, and whether 'cyberspace' is a political economy in and of itself, or one firmly embedded in real world structures.

The prefaces to each section, some written by co-editor Barbara Kennedy, but with a majority penned by Bell, are similarly careful to open up the material to a variety of readings. Each preface offers individual glosses of its section's articles; this is very useful. Each also refers the reader to pieces that appear in other sections of the book, as well as to outside sources, for which references are provided. As in the 'user's guide,' the section prefaces suggest alternate ways of structuring the Reader's contents. I found the prefaces to 'approaching cybercultures' (Bell) and 'cyberfeminisms' (Kennedy) especially noteworthy; here, the editors sketch out the outlines of some of the more contentious debates (Is 'cyberspace' really spatial? Is cyberfeminism a 'post'-feminism?), and offer clear terms for continued debate. In these prefaces and a few others (like 'cybersexual' and 'cybercolonization'), work in cyberculture studies is linked to preoccupations in other academic areas (the degree of fluidity of identity, the constitution of the body, the nature of community and public space), gesturing towards possible synergies between cyberculture and more established fields of inquiry, where we are perhaps more accustomed to see disjuncture.

The truly daunting amount of material is rendered digestible by subdivision into sections, and by the editorial essays that preface these sections. On a more practical level, the Reader features individual endnotes for each article (right where you want them; that is, at the end of the article, and not at the end of the book), and a full index of the entire tome (very helpful if you're seeking to read according to a different grain than one provided in the book's organization into parts). I also appreciate that the original publication history of the included articles was placed at the very beginning of the book, as was the set of contributor bios: this further helps the reader to navigate the book, and to contextualize the articles in personally meaningful ways. As an edited collection, then, I find The Cybercultures Reader well-organized and thoughtful.

I am more ambivalent, though, about the Reader's claims to comprehensiveness and representativeness in the field. The jacket blurb purports to "bring together key writings" in what it names the "interdisciplinary" field of cyberculture studies, and to offer "a comprehensive guide" to the functions and effects of technology on our millenial culture. I find myself in only partial agreement. While the writings included in the Reader are key, and range across a field of interests, as I've indicated above, the scope is distressingly narrow both in terms of time-span and in terms of disciplinary provenance.

If one were to judge from the original publication dates of the included articles, cyberculture studies explodes into being around 1994, and tapers off after 1997. Here are some more statistics: a full 25 (more than half) of the pieces date from 1996 or 1997; 36 of the 48 total articles were published between 1994 and 1997; the earliest article, predictably a piece of Gibson criticism, is all of 11 years old.

While there is a case to be made for constructing an anthology entirely out of material that has not yet lost its new-car smell, I don't think The Cybercultures Reader quite makes it, especially when one considers that most of the included material is still in print and quite readily available from easily located, fairly obvious sources. Any serious cyberculture scholar will find that he or she already has at least one copy of about half of the Reader in various previously-published incarnations.

This leads me to a related point: the Reader also fails in its quest for comprehensiveness by reprinting material from a fairly limited number and type of sources. Another numerical breakdown: nine articles are reprinted from monographs, nine from journals, and a whopping 30 from edited collections, most of which are, again, likely to be quite familiar to scholars in the field. Further, seven of these collections contribute two articles each to the Reader, and one, Routledge's The Cyborg Handbook (ed. Chris Gray), has three reprinted here. As well, although some material has been culled from seemingly unlikely and truly interdisciplinary sources like Amerasia Journal, and a book called Images of Aging (eds. Featherstone and Wernick), most of the sources providing pieces to this anthology feature 'cyber-this-and-that,' or 'virtual-something-or-other' in their titles, seemingly making more of a case for cyberculture studies as a new, self-contained discipline than for the interdisciplinary field of research referenced in the Reader's jacket text.

The Cybercultures Reader does demonstrate some interdisciplinarity and variety in its contributors: of the 42 writers here represented, six are graduate students, post-docs, or non-faculty academic staff. Eight others are either wholly unassociated or peripherally associated with the academy; this group includes thinkers-at-large like the Krokers, the late, lamented Timothy Leary, and at least one MBA-holding corporate technology consultant. This breadth is nice to see. Amongst the academic contributors, a number of disciplines are represented, such as architecture, political theory, writing instruction, and fine art. However, the mass of writers hail from departments tradionally associated with the Humanities: English, Film, Cultural Studies, and New Media.

My reservations are perhaps idiosyncratic; at the very least, though, I believe that any cybercultures reader of such a size should feature materials spanning a much longer timeframe. Certainly, to include a piece like Vannevar Bush's seminal "As We May Think" (1945) would have served the dual purpose of historically grounding current cybercultures work and of making easily available an oft-referenced but rarely reprinted early vision of what we have come to understand as 'cyberspace.'

Also, with two sections devoted to various forms of popular cyberculture, perhaps the inclusion of (excerpts from) fictional visions of cyberculture, both early and contemporary, might have been appropriate. Writers of fiction have long concerned themselves with the effects of technological or scientific progress on the course of human lives; Victor Frankenstein's dreams of organic alchemy spring most readily and obviously to mind here, but literary writers as varied as E. M. Forster and Kurt Vonnegut have all imagined what a cyberculture would look like, and explored its effects on notions of 'humanity.' In any case, such inclusions would again add at least a greater time span to the Reader's coverage.

Such reservations aside, I would whole-heartedly recommend The Cybercultures Reader as an undergraduate teaching text, or as an introduction to the field for newly-interested scholars: it's relatively cheap (US $30), covers a number of important, ongoing debates, and reprints important and representative pieces, in addition to recent work by emerging scholars. However, for those who have been working a little longer in cyberculture, the anthology is not so useful. As I mentioned above, these scholars most likely already own a significant portion of the reprinted material, and the Reader does not offer much by way of the really cutting-edge thinking (or historical depth) that those already deeply immersed in the debates are likely to be most interested in acquiring.

Aimee Morrison:
Aimee Morrison is a Doctoral Candidate in English at the University of Alberta. She has recently given papers on the rhetoric of technolibertarianism in Internet discourse, and on the sovereignty of minority cultures in the face of global networks. She is currently at work on her dissertation, entitled "Becoming the Universal Machine: Creating the Personal Computer in 1980s Literary and Popular Culture." 

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