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The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory

Editor: Andrew Herman, Thomas Swiss
Publisher: New York & London, UK: Routledge, 2000
Review Published: September 2001

 REVIEW 1: Barbara Warnick
 REVIEW 2: Jonathan J. Lillie

The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory is a collection of lively, interesting essays examining such matters as the material production of the Web, the nature and circulation of its content, and how it is consumed. In the course of discussing these matters, the book's contributors consider how the Web is constructed and exploited as a medium, how discourse about it shapes public consciousness about new technologies, and how the experience of the Web and the rhetoric about it converge to compose a field of power. Because the editors of the volume made a concerted effort to bring together good essays on a range of topics, the book is useful as a resource for research and as a text for upper division and graduate courses on new media topics.

The volume gets off to a sound start with Robert McChesney's chapter "So Much for the Magic of Technology and the Free Market." As he did in his book Rich Media, Poor Democracy (Illinois, 1999), McChesney indicts the notion that U. S. media provide an open forum for public discourse or a marketplace of ideas. McChesney rejects the idea that the media market is a fair, just, and rational allocator of goods and services. Instead, he views the media landscape as controlled by a small handful of firms that dominate its output and keep others at bay.

To support his view, McChesney traces some of the history of the development of the World Wide Web. He explains the inherent advantages held by dominant interests such as telecommunications and cable television firms. He notes that, when the Web was born and broadband was on the horizon, these firms took advantage of their huge cash flow, their existing infrastructure, and their political influence to establish platforms so as to dominate commercial activity on the Internet. At the time of McChesney's writing, for example, Time Warner was connected to AT & T; Disney had alliances with American Online; and AT & T had purchased TCI. Microsoft laid the base for a strong Web presence through the design of Internet Explorer, the establishment of the Microsoft Network online service, the development of MSNBC, and its portals. Another resource enjoyed by media conglomerates is cross media advertising, which they can develop because of media partnerships and media investment.

McChesney bases his analysis on information from media trade publications and independent accounts of corporate media activity. He makes a strong, credible case for the corporatization of media, decline of journalism, and loss of media diversity. His occasional tendency to use loaded language and to overstate his case sometimes undermines his credibility as a media commentator, at least among readers who are not predisposed to agree with his position.

In his chapter, "Webs of Myth and Power," Vincent Mosco begins by discussing the death-of-distance argument -- that cyberspace permits people to meet anywhere at any time, thus making constraints imposed by geography, time zones, and other factors irrelevant. He finds this argument "breathless." He notes that networks of Web designers and software engineers do not locate in South Dakota or Nebraska but in lower Manhattan. Presumably, this is because proximity to infrastructure and concentrated resources continue to be important. Mosco then describes Silicon Alley -- the technical hub of New York's media industries -- and the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) in Malaysia. The former arose when vacant office buildings were remodeled to house short-lease, prebuilt, prewired offices, called "plug 'n' go's." The MSC was carved out of four hundred square miles of rain forest and palm oil plantations south of Kuala Lumpur. Despite their dissimilarities, each technopolis became an enclave of sorts with its own rules of citizenship and mores. Mosco's essay is an intriguing rumination on the connections of place and technology, in particular because it shows how "both New York City and Kuala Lumpur are pioneering in redefining the control of space by privatizing and internationalizing it in new, more penetrating ways" (59).

Andrew Herman and John H. Sloop's chapter, "'Red Alert!' Rhetorics of the World Wide Web and 'Friction Free' Capitalism," begins by recalling the group suicide of thirty-nine members of the Heaven's Gate cult in 1997. The cult's Web presence, physical demise, and gender ambiguity led some media commentators to speculate about dystopian influences of the Web on society. Herman and Sloop observe that both dystopian and utopian visions of the future of human-computer relationships circulate widely in the media. These include the fear that the human may get lost in the "nowhere/somewhere matrix of cyberspace" (80) and the hope and expectation that computing technology will promote the well being of humankind. Concerned about public preoccupation with the Web's relationship to the individual and how it displaces critical cultural analysis of cyberspace's role in our material economy, Herman and Sloop seek to interrogate the latter.

To do this, they consider how advertising of Web service providers conveys a utopian vision of how our quality of life and experience are shaped and changed by the technologies themselves. They examine advertisements for Microsoft Network that promise the user a "trouble-free space of consumption" (89), for MCI that replaces the "noise" of diversity with the "music" of a single [Caucasian] voice, along with another MCI ad that promises the erasure of race and difference on the Internet. Herman and Sloop conclude their chapter by calling on critics to join in the discursive struggle over how the Web will be viewed and what it will become.

In "Yo-Ho-Ho and a Server of Warez," David Tetzlaff offers an excellent analysis of Internet Software Piracy and some of its social and economic consequences. For readers interested in this phenomenon but unfamiliar with its features and consequences, this chapter will be accessible and informative. Tetzlaff begins by noting that the Internet has become stratified between the public and the personal, and he proceeds to discuss activities of those members of the computer underground who share music files and software on the Internet but off the Web. How (technically) do they do it? Is there a politics of software piracy, and what is its ideology? Is this just amateur defiance, or is it a real subversion of power? Tetzlaff's answers to these questions come together as one of the best chapters of the volume.

Theresa M. Senft's "Baud Girls and Cargo Cults" considers the much-discussed question of what constitutes community on the Internet. She begins with the idea of a "cargo cult," a Melanesian ritual in which island natives enacted performances designed to harken cargo ships and planes of their own. (This is a Field of Dreams, "if you build it they will come" idea.) Implied in this image is that many commercial phenomena on the Web have these characteristics, and one of them is commodified community. (Think of oprah.com, for example.)

Senft then recounts her experiences as Baud Girl, a cyberpersonality on Prodigy Internet who was supposed to write on Net-related topics and also on provocative issues so as to galvanize users' interest. It did not work. Ten months into her job, Baud Girl was told that her services were no longer needed. Presumably, the site had failed to attract sufficient interest and participation. At the same time, Senft noted that, while she had struggled to keep three people in a chat room on Prodigy, a bona fide Web community had formed to support Louise Woodward, the "Killer Nanny" accused of causing the death of a child in her charge. [For more on this case, as well as the online community that grew around it, see Christine Hine's Virtual Ethnography -- Ed.] Unlike the Prodigy site, the Woodward sites offered many forms of interactivity -- polls, bulletin boards, chat rooms, and message boards. Contributions to these sites were marked by user involvement, identity construction, recognizable cross references, and shared images. Senft's essay reminds us that it is not membership, user fees, or commercial activity that constitute community. Rather, community arises in part from shared interests, values, experiences, and communication.

In her chapter, "Literacy beyond Books," Nancy Kaplan offers a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of the implications of media shift for literacy. She spends much of the essay criticizing the widespread view among humanists that the rise of hypertext and the Web will erode the ability of children and adolescents to read and appreciate various forms of print literature. Kaplan observes that this concern arises from a certain view of literacy that emphasizes the ability to read bound volumes of continuous material. This view of print literacy tacitly excludes other print texts, such as pamphlets, newspapers, travel books, cookbooks, and textbooks.

Kaplan believes that Web pages and hypertext require a high level of attention because the reader is always making decisions about what to read next. Reading hypertext also requires awareness of the role of links and nodes in a larger context; otherwise one risks becoming disoriented and unable to navigate in the Web environment. Hypertext further differs from print in the sense that it exceeds the reader's ability to read it definitively. Because of its spatial dimension and multiple patterns of circulation, hypertext presents a nearly infinite number of possible readings and cannot be "consumed" by any reader in a given instance.

While Kaplan's description of the experience of hypertext reading is intriguing, it would have been even more useful if she had considered the literacy question more broadly. Inclusion of other issues, such as the impacts of the shift from print to electronic communication and the role of images and design in hypertext authorship, would have enhanced her chapter.

Other chapters in the book critically examine promotion and marketing on the Web, public discourse about the technology-biology-evolution connection, effects of media advertising, and how conspiracy theories operate on the Web. The book reflects some careful thinking about how essays on a wide range of issues can be brought together into a unified volume. The book will be newsworthy for readers interested in a cultural studies approach to Internet-based phenomena. It probably will also be well received by students sympathetic to cultural criticism and somewhat knowledgeable about the Internet's social effects. The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory would be even more useful if its accompanying Web site were updated. This site was evidently developed at the time the book went to press, but it now produces too many "404's" when one tries to use it.

Barbara Warnick:
Barbara Warnick is professor of Speech Communication at the University of Washington. Her recent work includes two articles in Critical Studies in Media Communication on cybergrrl discourse and political parody, articles in Rhetoric Society Quarterly and Rhetoric Review on new media criticism, and an article on "hypertext" in The Encyclopedia of Rhetoric. Her book, Critical Literacy in a Digital Era: Technology, Rhetoric, and the Public Sphere, will be published by Erlbaum in Fall 2001.  <barbwarn@u.washington.edu>

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