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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
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Thom Swiss

Academic approaches to studying the Web have often considered isolated uses such as self-presentation in the creation of personal Web pages (Miller & Russel, 1998) or the design principles of online newspapers (Aikat, 1998). The essays included in The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory, edited by Andrew Herman and Thomas Swiss, depart from this tendency, selecting a broader question to engage the Web at the level of discourse: how does the Web fit into and affect social discourses surrounding notions of progress, literacy, the public, and community? The strongest themes that emerge from this outlook include: a political economy critique of the commercialization of the Web and the dominance of corporate industries in driving Web media; deconstruction of the popular notions of a natural and positive progression of technology; and interrogation of the utopic/dystopic mythos of the Web. Several of the authors utilize this last thematic as a differential that leaves gaps for other metaphors and discourses, such as hypertext and cyborgs, to be revisited and revealed. Yet, with the overall thematics of the work running so . . . thematic, its ability to achieve a significant depth of study and analysis of Web related issues is limited by an ethics of scale. The inclusion of essays that vertically integrate cultural-critical analysis of social discourse with the everyday experiences and rituals of Web users might have served to synthesize perspectives on cultural and post-structural theory with other approaches for researching the Web. Future collections need to take on this project. The presence of only a few chapters that barely consider the Web at all demonstrates that this book was not intended to present new Internet research strategies. Instead, the authors challenge and deconstruct the hype of the Web. Some even ask if the hype is, in fact, the Web itself. This book, therefore, is a graduate-level read that I recommended for its ability to bring critical approaches to thinking about the Web, albeit ethically and empirically, at times, from a distance.

The chapters written by Robert McChesney, Vincent Mosco, and Andrew Herman & John Sloop each highlight some of the implications of the dominance of new technologies by global capitalism. In his chapter, "So Much for the Magic of Technology and the Free Market: The World Wide Web and the Corporate Media System," McChesney introduces several observations and critiques about the political economy of the Internet and the Web, directly challenging "the Web utopianism of Negroponte and others" (7). His concerns for the future of the Web are two fold. First, corporate sectors have been so adamant about securing the Web as a profit-making domain that the possible social and participatory benefits of Internet technologies might be eclipsed by the new services pushed by media/telecom giants. Second, McChesney, siding with McLuhan, notes that all mediums carry unintended consequences of use regardless of content. New technologies introduced for possible profit margins rather than for the social good, he argues, are likely to exacerbate social fragmentation and inequalities.

In "Webs of Myth and Power: Connectivity and the New Computer Technopolis," Vincent Mosco asserts that despite claims of the destruction of distance via Internet technologies, physical geographies still matter and are being transformed through the demands and initiatives of Internet capital. Both New York City's "Silicon Ally" and a district south of Kuala Lumper in Malaysia have been designated as target areas for high tech investment: "many of the technopoles including the New York and Malaysia cases, are not simply test beds for high-tech products; they also test new forms of governance, and of the social and cultural experience with significant implications of citizenship" (54). Mosco succeeds in articulating the tensions between the political, social, and economic disparities of non-virtual communities and the economic and social positivism rampant within Web discourses.

The political, social, and cultural aspects of the Web are foregrounded in most academic and popular discourses. In their chapter, "'Red Alert!' Rhetorics of the World Wide Web and 'Friction Free' Capitalism," Andrew Herman and John Sloop posit that the role of capital in driving technological innovation and distribution is anything but transparent although both the academy and society at large treat it as such: "questions about cyberspace's role within our material economy (that is, the relationship between cyberspace's utopian dreamscape and capital culture) are ignored or displaced" (83). Herman and Sloop interrogate the utopic/dystopic dichotomy, asserting a discursive alternative, the Cyborg vs. the Borg. As opposed to its predecessor, this new construct is offered as a new space of articulation where the hidden workings of the Net economy can be understood within multiple and heterogeneous layers of practice and meaning. While the Cyborg corrupts the cultural capital that commercial interests seek to amass and commodify on the Web, the Borg can represent both the seamlessness between desire and consumption that e-commerce seeks to offer, but also a "seamless noise that wipes out the individuality necessary for a dominant ideology of capitalism, free will, and progress" (87).

The very different work of David Tetzlaff and Sean Cubitt compromise the fifth and sixth chapters of the book, yet together they contrast at the level of engagement in considering the specificities of the Web. Tetzlaff's "Yo-Ho-Ho and a Server of Warez" is one of two chapters that analyzes actual user practices. He describes the use of a file-transfer technology by communities of "pirates" who seek to distribute and collect commercial software, circumnavigating copyright laws. This technology, called Hotline, is an Internet server and desktop client-based application that does not run off the Web at all. By focusing on a non-commercial, non-Web social and technological space, Tetzlaff seeks to investigate alternatives to the Web which he sees as being a technology usurped to capitalize on the visual-consumption model that the overlords of consumer culture have cultivated over years of commercial magazine and television development. Tetzlaff's observations demonstrate community practices and discourses that are creating resistant significations against official corporate doctrine and politics but are also still inscribed within techno cultures and economies.

In his chapter "Shit Happens: Numerology, Destiny, and Control of the Web," Cubitt also considers popular discourses in an attempt to conflate historic uses of numerology with discussions of technology and the Web as magic: a magic of the people. In a historical analysis of "Amateur Cosmologies," Cubitt argues that "popular number magic is based on the axiom that apparent randomness has a meaning, and that meaning will be revealed in the moment when the universe of values is overthrown" (132). The author argues that the computer and HTML codes that the Web is based on represent a numeric order ripe for a new popular cosmology of numbers to emerge. The potential he sees in the Web is not for the emergence of superstition and techno cults, but for a new number magic that holds the future, perhaps, of an emancipatory linguistics. This argument is made, however, with very little detail paid to the Web itself other than labeling it as a coded universe. Rather than considering the implications of the daily experiences of Netizens as Tetzlaff does, Cubitt inscribes the totality of the Web into his own discursive universe that is imbued with a numerological teleology; one, perhaps, that is more invested in the post-modern project of this essay than to its polemic. Despite radically different approaches, both Tetzlaff and Cubitt work to deconstruct and rearticulate how and what we think about the Web.

Jody Berland's chapter, "Cultural Technologies and the 'Evolution' of Technological Cultures," represents, for me, the keystone of the book, and locates the importance of this project in challenging the assumptions that conflate technological development as a natural course of human evolution. "The rendering of technological change as a law of nature," she writes, "works to defend economic and technological relations from social debate and critique, and thus from the production of communal rather than competitive spaces" (255). Berland views techno-evolutionary discourses as cultural practices that affect how and what we think about the Web and technological progress. It is her call for scholars to deconstruct, critique, and offer alternatives to the dominant discourses of new media and technology to which this book can be seen as responding. Furthermore, it is within this broad project, then, that a lack of interest in Web users and a lack of consistent theoretical or methodological application makes some sense. But, it is also within Berland's call to action that a more cohesive and fully developed cultural studies approach could have analyzed the depth at which technological discourses permeate modern ontologies and lived culture. With a few exceptions, a diversity of scale is thus what is missing in this book.

That the authors take a collective step back, however, can be an important example for scholars in the field of cyberculture studies. It is as if the persona of the book says in a wise old voice, "why don't we just pause to think about the Web for a minute?" The wisdom in stopping to consider the Web from a distance is at least two-fold. First, as Wakeford (2000) cautions, many of the modified methodologies from other disciplines that have been developed to study online interaction or cyberculture are set within the same "social and economic infrastructure within which this communication/information network has emerged" (41). Looking at the Web from a distance can thus help scholars to consider how techno-evolutionary discourses might influence how we understand and study the Web. Secondly, we must question whether the theories developed in other disciplines can continue to stand-in for a more cohesive cyberculture theory. The contributors of The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory consider the Web in broad and creative terms in an attempt perhaps to think outside of some of the methodological and discursive norms of both popular and critical cyberculture studies (Silver 2000). While some of the contributors, e.g. Steven Jones, have established careers within cyberculture studies, for others this work is a hiatus of sorts, allowing for a play of ideas and issues that might not be as possible in the presentation of empirical or cultural studies research projects. Furthermore, the book seemingly exhibits a strong influence from scholarly inquiries into the nature of technology and culture, which includes the work of academic celebrities like McLuhan, Innis, Ellul, Heidegger, Leo Marx, Foucault, and Raymond Williams. Further efforts to apply this diverse literature within cyberculture studies are badly needed, and this book can be seen as at least a partial attempt to do so. Although these sources are rarely discussed in the text, Herman and Swiss note in the terse introduction that "the Web can be understood as techne in Martin Heidegger's (1977) sense of the term; that is, as a technology that is simultaneously an instrument and an activity through which the self and world are cast into sense, thereby transforming 'being' in the world" (1-2). The socio-cultural significance of the Web is thus located both at the locus of personal uses and social-economic processes, although only the latter is at all analyzed by these chapters. While this work may attempt to make some sense of the Web, its nets are cast too wide and sporadically, and thus the 'being as such' of the book mirrors the anarchy and confusion of the Web, albeit to the benefit of further developments in cyberculture theory.

Aikat, Debashis. "News on the Web: Usage Trends of an On-line Newspaper." Convergence 4:4 (1998): 94-110.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harper, 1977.

Millier, Hugh and Mather, Russel. "The Presentation of Self in WWW Home Pages." IRIS '98 (1998).

Silver, David. "Looking Backwards, Looking Forward: Cyberculture Studies, 1990-2000." In Web.studies: Rewiring Media Studies for the Digital Age, edited by David Gauntlett. London: Arnold, 2000.

Wakeford, Nina. "New Media, New Methodologies: Studying the Web." In Web.studies: Rewiring Media Studies for the Digital Age, edited by David Gauntlett. London: Arnold, 2000.

Jonathan J. Lillie:
Jonathan J. Lillie is a Park Doctoral Fellow in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His interests include the cultural uses of Internet technologies, new media, 'information society' discourses, and Web pornography. He is currently developing his dissertation on the theoretical and methodological issues of Web site analysis.  <jlillie@email.unc.edu>

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