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Times of the Technoculture. From the Information Society to the Virtual Life

Author: Kevin Robins, Frank Webster
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 1999
Review Published: October 2001

 REVIEW 1: Heidi Brush

Kevin Robins and Frank Webster's Times of the Technoculture touts itself as the antidote to Bill Gates' celebration of new technologies, The Road Ahead. Of course, as a book in David Morley's Comedia series and shelved under Media Studies/Cultural Studies, one may not be too surprised to find a critique of Gates. However, as Robins and Webster imply, many other authors also shelved under Media Studies/Cultural Studies (or the maligned "Cyberculture Studies") also typify Gates' celebration of technology and the narrative of technology-as-progress (a short list of such promoters of the "cyberculture agenda" include Pierre Levy, Manuel Castells, William Mitchell, Nicholas Negroponte, Michel Serres, and Alvin Toffler, in no particular order). Offered as a "pessimistic" and "jaundiced" corrective to the "simplistic technoculture," Robins and Webster attempt to dislodge the widespread belief in the emancipatory possibilities of cyberspace and virtual reality.

This 306 page book (46 pages of endnotes, inclusive) is divided into 4 sections: "Technovisions," "Genealogies of Information," "The Politics of Cyberspace," and "Living in Virtual Space." At first glance, these titles as well as the book's title seem to promise a book promoting the sexy "Cyberculture Agenda." Looking past the catchy titles, though, the reader is lead through a collection of chapters ranging from the Romantic imagination of the socialist-utopian filmmaker Humphrey Jennings ("A Cultural History of Pandaemonium") to a scathing critique of the elimination of distance implicit in the celebratory discourses surrounding cyberspace ("Prospects of a Virtual Culture").

In Part I, "Technovisions," Robins and Webster question the conventional wisdom that claims the we are living in the times of technological revolution. The decades of the latter part of the 20th century have been labeled according to the technological tropes dominant at the time: in the 1970s it was the "microelectronics revolution"; in the 1980s "information and communication technologies (ICTs)"; while the 1990s was known for the Internet as the "Information Superhighway" operating within a global "network society." Moving into the 21st century (the book was published in 1999), pundits promise that we're in the midst of a "cyber-revolution" and moving towards a "virtual society" (1). Robins and Webster reject the belief that a revolution has indeed occurred, and insist instead that we are merely experiencing an intensification of Taylorist Scientific Management practices instituted during the early 20th century. The authors attack the premises of the promoters of technoculture -- those who believe that technology enhances democracy, celebrate "virtual communities," and employ the trope of the cyborg to address issues of identity (2-3). Although the authors claim that they want to bridge the gap between political economy and cyberculture agendas (3), the authors remain disinterested in any online or virtual practices, focussing exclusively instead on "the way in which technologies mediate capitalist social relations" (4). Robins and Webster spend much time throughout the book attempting to prove that the virtual culture (from Toffler to Castells) "lacks critical edge with respect to the (capitalist) dynamics of the network society" (4).

After a concise introduction, the book takes an eccentric turn to a chapter practically indistinguishable from literary criticism, showing the influences of the writings of William Blake and the Surrealists on the British aesthete, Humphrey Jennings. As the authors never return to the issues raised in this chapter, this review will follow suit, turning to the more pertinent and provocative chapter two, "Engaging with Luddism." Robins and Webster attempt to revitalize the notion of Luddism as an alternative to the mythology of progress. Acknowledging that Luddites and Luddite violence has been met with practically universal disapproval, the authors find in Luddism an inspirational historical model for a resistance of capitalism and technology: "Luddism represented an attitude of resistance, of refusal by working people to be defined and dominated by capital, that was appropriate to the nineteenth century" (39). Many pages are spent detailing the widespread resistance to Luddism in Britain, citing examples from Harold Wilson of the Labor Party during the 1960s declaring "there is no room for Luddites in the Socialist Party" (42) to Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s calling all those who stood in the way of neo-liberalism "Luddites". Robins and Webster, in their eagerness to show that nearly everyone excepting the Unabomber and ruralist "neo-Luddites" as anti-Luddite, unfortunately fail to address other treatments of contemporary Luddism, such as Resisting the Virtual Life (1995), edited by James Brook and Iain A. Boal. In order to find examples of encouraging contemporary reinterpretations of the spirit of Luddism, Robins and Webster invoke new social movements in Britain, such as environmental groups acting against mining corporations or against development in Sherwood Forest. Apparently any kind resistance to global capitalism becomes a hopeful sign of Luddite resistance for these authors.

After invoking Luddism as a "moral response to capitalism," the authors proceed to debunk the myth of technology-as-progress. Bill Gates is again invoked as the spokesperson for the technoculture, as he compares the technological transformations of the 1990s as akin to the invention of the printing press and the impact of the industrial revolution (66). The authors also concisely and effectively argue against a belief in the neutrality of technology (again, Gates is used to establish this position) and they also masterfully summarize the problems inherent in technological determinism (predictably, McLuhan is used as the representative of technological determinism).

The work of Manuel Castells is positioned between the futurist Alvin Toffler and former U. S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich as their work attempts to describe a shift in the economic and socio-cultural landscapes revealing the centrality of information/knowledge. Reich describes the workforce shifting to "transferable skills" and Castells calls attention to the "horizontal corporation" created to meet the demands of global capital, while Toffler claims the "highbrow" firm is the corporation of the future (77). Robins and Webster dismiss Reich and Castells for suggesting that the centrality of "informational labor" itself caused a transformation in capital. Instead, Robins and Webster insist that capitalism remains unchanged, as this informational work merely serves the needs of capitalism as it stands (85).

In Part II, "Genealogies of Information," the authors argue that the so-called "information revolution" is not a recent phenomenon, having roots instead in the Scientific Management of Taylorism. Rejecting the division of Fordism and Post-Fordism, the authors reiterate their belief in a continuous history (despite the claims to genealogy in the section title) rejecting the notion of rupture implicit in any "post." The authors insist that the emphasis on information in today's world is nothing new: "information and information resources has always been a constitutive aspect of capitalist societies quite outside of any technological context" (91). Locating the roots of the information age in Taylorism, the authors describe the engineering of people and things, and the centralization of information in Scientific Management. Taylorism as a technique of social control emphasized such techniques as surveillance and control that are today enhanced by new ICTs. So, Robins and Webster repeat that no revolution has occurred. ICTs enhance the logic of Taylorism, as "technology now increasingly fulfils what previously depended upon bureaucratic organization and structure" (109). The authors continue to describe how ICTs affect both work and leisure through their Taylorist operations of automation, heightened surveillance, and the flexibility of labor.

Section II closes with a discussion of the move from a mass communication psychological model of propaganda (hypodermic model) to an emphasis on "public opinion" as a matter of scientific management and social engineering (139-40). The authors convincingly argue that a technocratic strategy of information management has been integral to 20th century political rule (142).

In Part III, Robins and Webster direct their attention to "The Politics of Cyberspace." Of the three chapters in this section, only one, "Cyberwars," actually addresses "cyberspace," while the remaining two chapters concern the increased emphasis on production of a flexible work force in the British educational system. "Cyberwars: the military information revolution" emphasizes the military roots of ICTs and links these technologies with the instrumental reason of the military. Strangely, this seems to be the only chapter in which the authors are not critiquing the object of study. Instead, they earnestly list the differences between "Industrial Warfare" and "Information Warfare," apparently agreeing to a sense of rupture in the history of warfare. The key points the authors advance in this chapter are that military needs and logics of control and domination are behind the "information revolution" (150-159) and that war has been the catalyst for the invention of many new technologies (160).

In Part IV, "Living in Virtual Space," Robins and Webster critique Pierre Levy's Cyberculture and William Mitchell's City of Bits, using these authors as representatives of the "cyberculture agenda." While Levy argues that new media allows widespread access to knowledge through global networks (223), Robins and Webster believe that this technocultural discourse acts to "promote and legitimate the prevailing corporate ideology of globalization" (225). While Levy argues that real-time "global knowledge space" or "deterritorialized communications space" (224) is an improvement (read: progress) over earlier organizational systems, Robins and Webster reject Levy's politics of the Third Way and reaffirm that "there is a desperate need for a richer debate of knowledges in contemporary societies -- in place of the shallow, progressivist marketing that attaches itself to the cyberculture slogan (and reflects the hegemony of corporate interests)" (227). Levy's argument becomes equated with Al Gore's promise of "a new Athenian age of democracy" brought about by the Internet and Howard Rheingold's belief in the Internet as a means of restoring not only a sense of community, but also "true spiritual communion" (229-30). Robins and Webster opine that virtual communities are devoid of both real community and politics, declaring "Virtual politics: a politics without power, a politics without antagonism, a politics without people. This is no politics at all" (232). I applaud Robins and Webster's corrective to an uncritical belief in the emancipatory possibilities of cyberspace as a significant contribution to discourses surrounding the Internet. However, I am dismayed that Robins and Webster completely ignored the political possibilities of the Net suggested by authors and activists ranging from the Critical Art Ensemble to cypherpunks, hackers, and cryptoanarchists. Furthermore, the authors' argument would be far more convincing and compelling had they not chosen such easy targets as Levy (and Gates, Gore, and Negroponte . . .).

The authors end their book with a critique of the belief in the emancipatory possibilities of virtual space, using William Mitchell's City of Bits as an example, "for here we may find all the elements of the modern technocultural vision, and especially the logic of unworlding" (239). Mitchell extols the elimination of distance made possible in virtual space, claiming that the constraints of geographical space will be lifted, allowing communities to form based on affinities rather than the accident of physical location. Robins and Webster call this belief in virtual culture a "retreat from the world" (245) as they advocate the "rescue of distance" as a social and political project (246). Against the technoculture, Robins and Webster conclude the book with a call for an urban cultural politics of disorderliness, and exposure to otherness through our passage through urban space (260). Against an orderly technoculture of Taylorised technologies in the service of capitalism, Robins and Webster propose the disorderly possibilities of contemporary urban reality (260). Robins and Webster's belief in the disorderliness of the city falls flat as the reader, after 260 pages of skepticism, may rightly wonder at a seemingly uncritical celebration of the urban as a refutation of the virtual.

Heidi Brush:
Heidi Brush is a Doctoral Candidate in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests focus on the intersections of information technologies, discourses of security, and warfare.  <hbrush@students.uiuc.edu>

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