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Cyberspace: The Human Dimension

Author: David B. Whittle
Publisher: New York: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1997
Review Published: September 1997

 REVIEW 1: David Silver

I was initially attracted to David B. Whittle's Cyberspace: The Human Dimension for three reasons. First, the book's title seemed to allude to one of the first scholarly collections on cyberculture, the Michael Benedikt-edited Cyberspace: First Steps. Perhaps, I thought, this was written as a sequel? Second, the book's press release contained high praise from Howard Rheingold, who remarked that Whittle's book was "well worth reading if you want to know what is really happening." Finally, I was attracted to the author's experience. Online since 1978, David Whittle was employed for twelve years at IBM and was instrumental in launching the company's initial forays into the Net.

Upon reading the 456 pages of Cyberspace: The Human Dimension, I was sorely disappointed on each of my three expectations. The book is not the sequel to Benedikt's Cyberspace and hardly qualifies as an academic book. Further, as a loyal reader of Howard Rheingold and as one who enjoys the stranger, less mainstream online territories into which his work explores, I am thoroughly baffled as to why/how he would/could give Whittle's book such praise. And finally, although Whittle often presents his experiences at IBM in an unintentional humorous manner, he seems to have acquired no unique vistas from which to view the cyberspace(s) of today and tomorrow.

The book is divided into two parts: "Cyberspace" and "The Human Dimension." Chapter One, "Cyberspace, an Introduction: A Virtual State of Mind," provides an ample, if not a bit newbie-esque, introduction to cyberspace, along with its key concepts and terms. It concludes with a brief discussion of a few significant benefits and purposes, including communication, education, entertainment, convenience, and commerce. Chapter Two, "Cyberspace Communication: New Reasons for Reasoned Exchange," continues with the general introduction and sheds light upon the various forms and characteristics of online communication. This includes familiar descriptions of the main modes of computer-mediated communication -- email, conferences, mailing lists, and chat rooms -- along with a short discussion of acronyms (btw, FAQ), emoticons ( ;-) or =-o ), and standard online etiquette. The chapter concludes with a seventeen page section on rhetoric and logic that baffles this reviewer as to what its purpose or relevance is. The third and final chapter in Part One is entitled "Cyberspace Culture, Ethics, and Law: Quality in Progress," a chapter which, as its title suggests, broaches a number of issues and concerns related to online culture, ethics, and law. Among the many issues discussed are: privacy and security, intellectual property, civility, and the role of government. Following a quite obvious list of online rules, or netiquette, is a brief section on ethics with interesting discussions on issues of propriety, representation, anonymity, and pseudonymity. The chapter ends with a relatively concise overview of law-related issues, including trademark, copyright, freespeech, censorship, and pornography. Although extensive, Whittle's (and others) discussion of online law proves obsolete the moment it reaches publication, as witnessed in the outdated comments on the recently struck down Communications Decency Act.

In Part Two, "The Human Dimension," Whittle discusses the role of the individual, the community, business, and government in cyberspace. This is where things get weird. In "The Individual and Excellence: Freedom Through Discipline," for example, the author discusses what is the "proper" conduct online. He begins with a tale from 1991, the beginning of the end for Whittle's tenure at IBM. At a gala launch for the newly released OS/2, Whittle becomes sour for being assigned a seat at a drinking table. Things get worse when he witnesses IBM Chairman Akers drinking wine in public and -- gasp! -- uses the word "fannies" in his speech (166). According to Whittle, this behavior signals the imminent deterioration of IBM's Basic Beliefs -- Respect for the Individual, the Best Customer Service in the World, and Pursuit of Excellence.

Whittle juxtaposes this "debaucherous" culture with a set of standards -- discipline, constraint, restraint, and responsibility -- that, according to him, should comprise online culture. Whittle notes: "We cannot escape our responsibilities to ourselves and to one another if we wish to enjoy the fruits of society and association with others, because rights cannot long exist in a vacuum independent of our responsibilities to one another. Restraint is especially needed in cyberspace -- where we are tasked with the responsibility and opportunity of forging a new culture" (183). Whittle continues by discussing what he calls the "Pitfalls for the Wired Individual." He notes: "Many of the pitfalls in cyberspace can be described under the category of self-betrayal. Ill-adjusted individuals can often find, in cyberspace, the illusion of validation and attention that might elude them in the real world. Online, the absence of visual and other aids that generally guide us in our communications can encourage damaging, insensitive behaviors" (189).

Besides self-betrayal, Whittle warns readers about other online pitfalls, including addiction, anxiety, seclusion, cynicism, and despair. On a roll, he then attempts to fit the "menaces of cyberspace" into the Seven Deadly Sins. Yes, you read that correctly -- somehow the author manages to fit the perils of cyberspace neatly into the seven sins: pride, avarice (informed by a brief discussion of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations), sloth, gluttony -- "it's always interested me that there seem to be more overeaters per capita among the cyberspace crowd than one might typically encounter" (201) -- wrath, envy, and lust.

The informed cyberculturalist will no doubt ask, "is Whittle familiar with the work of Sherry Turkle?" Indeed, much of Turkle's findings in her 1995 book, Life on the Screen, contradict his conclusions. The strange thing is that he is aware of Turkle's book. Unfortunately, he grossly misrepresents her work. Discussing the influential psychologist's findings on potential empowerment and identity development within online environments, Whittle takes Turkle out of context, and uses a few sentences which, when decontextualized, appear to support his warnings regarding online self-betrayal. One can only imagine how Whittle would use the work of Sandy Stone...

The chapter concludes with a plea to readers to take heed of the principles put forth by the Founding Fathers and their contemporaries: "Identify those unifying values and purposes that give your life meaning and offer fulfillment. Read Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and The Road Less Traveled if you haven't already."

Considering Whittle's experience in the private sector, it is not surprising that the book's strongest chapter, "Business and Economics: Information, Innovation, and Prosperity," revolves around the various intersections between business and the Net. Especially useful is his brief discussion of a number of information-for-a-fee models, including the bookstore, subscription, menu, donations, advertising, and shareware models. Next, going beyond the Wired mantra of information wants to be free, Whittle cross-examines the notion of information and derives a number of values, including convenience, quality, granularity (the size of the piece of information), accessibility, suitability, and scarcity. Whittle continues with the predictable rant against bureaucracy and standards and concludes by listing the many commercial adventures waiting to happen on the Net. Those in marketing should study closely this chapter; those nostalgic about yesterday's (often romanticized) commercial-free Net should avoid it at all costs.

David B. Whittle's Cyberspace: The Human Dimension is the kind of book Al Gore would write. It is sensible yet stiff. It seeks to list, categorize, and compartmentalize cyberspace and avoids any exploration and/or experimentation.

It is utterly devoid of postmodern play.

It tells it "like it is," not "how it could be" or, more interestingly, "how it may be for others." For those interested in online law or commercial adventures on the Net, Whittle's Cyberspace may serve as a useful primer. For those interested in better understanding the dynamic richness of cyberculture, save your cash and cache and look elsewhere.

David Silver:
At the time of this review, David Silver was a Ph.D. student in American studies at the University of Maryland. He is now an assistant professor in Communication at the University of Washington.  <dsilver@u.washington.edu>

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