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Technospaces: Inside the New Media

Editor: Sally R. Munt
Publisher: London and New York: Continuum, 2001
Review Published: March 2003

 REVIEW 1: Helen Kennedy

Technospaces: Inside the New Media is, as editor Sally Munt puts it, about the technology/human/space conjunction. The collection addresses two current concerns, technologies and spaces, and, in doing so, it aims, to paraphrase the conclusion to Munt’s introductory chapter, to evaluate and reflect upon the social, ethical, and moral implications of new technospatial practices. Forming part of Continuum’s ‘Critical Research in Material Culture’ series, its concerns are primarily cultural, yet like much literature in the field of cybercultural studies, it has an interdisciplinary feel, drawing on key thinkers from the humanities, social sciences, and beyond, so that it is not easy to locate the collection firmly within one particular discipline. Technospaces is not an introductory text, for example, to be used with first year undergraduates; again, like many edited collections, there is inevitable variety in the theoretical complexity of the contributions. As a consequence, different chapters would be of interest to final year undergraduates, postgraduates, and scholars concerned with techno-spatial relations.

Munt introduces the collection by locating it within the theoretical context of current debates about space. She points out that previous assumptions about space as fixed, static, and concerned with being (in contrast to time, which is concerned with becoming) are being replaced with newer notions of space as not fixed and absolute, but relational, contingent, contested, political, historical, dialectical, turbulent. These increasingly commonly accepted conceptualizations of space emerge from a growing, interdisciplinary interest in spatial paradigms which, in turn, owe a debt to the foundational work carried out by Henri Lefebvre in the 1970s (Lefebvre 1991). As well as drawing attention to the qualities of space outlined above, his work is also significant because of his insistence on the importance of focusing on the specific as a basis for analysing spatial relations, an endeavour which the collection as a whole appears to aspire to realize.

Munt moves through an analysis of space/time relations – space is temporal, we cannot analyse space without time – via Foucault to a brief discussion of the spatial relations of new media technologies, without providing any specific definition of this latter term. New media technologies appropriate space, she claims, and, at the same time, spatial concepts are mobilized in discourses of new media technologies – depth, surface, liminality, transcendence, emplacement, positionality are some such concepts which she lists, alongside other examples of the spatiality of new media, such as mobile computing and telephony, wearable devices, spatial metaphors in graphical user interfaces, and the World Wide Web. According to Munt, spatial theory is implicit in thinking about new media technologies, but it has not been "coherently identified and interpreted by current research" (9). As a result, there is a need, in her words, to examine "how we use notions of space to appropriate novel technologies and to translate them into extensions of ourselves and our cultural lives" (9). This, then, is the rationale for the book.

The remainder of Technospaces is divided into two parts: the first concerned with critiquing models – in other words, it is more theoretical – and the second focused on analyzing practices – in other words, it is more empirical, although it is fair to say that all chapters are, to a greater or lesser extent, both theoretical and empirical. Bringing together as it does moments of intersection between technologies and spaces, the term ‘technospaces’ necessarily covers a broad remit. Consequently, the scope of new media technologies covered is wide-reaching, spanning television, video (including CCTV), cinema, and computer interfaces, but focusing primarily on cyberspaces. The range of contributors is global, though all except one, from Stockholm University, are located in the English-speaking Western world, notably the UK, North America, and Australia.

There is a commitment to moving theory forward in all of the chapters in Technospaces and the standard of contributions is generally high, but it is inevitable that any reader of this collection, like any reader of any collection, will find things to like and things to dislike. In the first section, entitled "Spatial Modelling: Critical Paradigms in New Media Technologies," the contributions by David Sanford Horner and Radhika Gajjala stand out, in particular because of their attention to two of the central aspirations of the collection – first, to address moral and political concerns in technospaces and, second, to focus on specificities. Sanford Horner’s contribution, "Cyborgs and Cyberspace: Personal Identity and Moral Agency," makes explicit his concern with the moral implications of cyborgs, cyberspaces, and cyberidealism from the outset, by drawing on the work of the British scientist JD Bernal and his pursuit of a fuller, more intellectual, and more moral life through his fantastical anticipation of cyborg futures. Mapping cyberidealism through the amoral Extropians to the moral and political work of cyberfeminists like Donna Haraway, Sanford Horner addresses the ethical question of accountability which, he argues, gets lost in celebrations of posthuman, cyborgian bodies. "We should not be seduced by the evocation of fantastic conceptual possibilities: there is simply a categorial difference between fact and fiction," he writes (83). Whilst his contribution gets at some of the social concerns of the book, and he makes important moral points in his concluding comments, I am not sure I could separate virtuality from reality, or fact from fiction, as easily as he suggests is possible.

Gajjala’s contribution, "Studying Feminist E-spaces: Introducing Transnational/post-colonial Concerns," operates a more complex model of virtual/real relationships. She points out that as material social realities produce digital social realities, as cyberspace is produced within structures of power, as virtual interactivity is embedded in materiality, the virtuality/reality binary distinction is, in fact, a myth. Gajjala’s argument that the virtual is part of the real – constituted by it and constitutive of it, indeed – is a point that other contributors could heed, as elsewhere in the collection, an over-simplistic model of the virtual as separate from the real sometimes operates. Gajjala acknowledges the important work that cyberfeminist theorists have done in questioning the material realities in which cyberspaces are produced and in which cyberpractices take place, but she is critical of their prioritizing of gender as an analytical category. Western-centered feminist approaches result in an essentializing of gender, she argues, suggesting that feminist netiquette, or definitions of what constitutes flaming, are built on white, middle-class, Western standards. She emphasizes the need to look not just at women’s cyber-experiences, but at these experiences as they intersect with other categories of identity, such as race, class, and geographical power – that is, experiences in their materially embedded locations – and for cyberfeminists to learn lessons from postcolonial feminism. In other words, Gajjala draws attention to a whole theoretical trajectory concerned with problematizing identity politics which should not be ignored when the object of study is cyberspatial.

A couple of issues arise in some of the contributions in this first, more theoretically-oriented section of Technospaces, deriving, perhaps, from their slightly less empirical focus than those in the following section. The first can be identified in Peter Dallow’s "The Space of Information: Digital Media as Simulation of the Analogical Mind." In his discussion of the experience of interactivity with new media, he makes claims such as the following: "we experience the sense of actualizing the networks of pathways, the potential routes through the informational space presented on the screen" and "we quickly feel frustrated waiting for ‘links’ to open to these remote ‘sites’" (61). The problem as I see it is in the use of the pronoun ‘we’ – who is this we? To whom does it refer? Who is included and who is excluded? In the absence of an empirical base, the universality of such claims becomes questionable. The second issue arises from a lack of definition of the object of study and can be seen in Per Persson’s "Cinema and Computers." Here, the author compares the spatial practices and visualization processes of cinema and ‘digital technologies.’ The latter term appears to refer primarily to computers, though this point is not made clear. This becomes problematic when Persson makes claims such as "digital technologies are primarily visual" because, although this may be true of computers, it is certainly not true of all digital technologies. As a result of this lack of definition, Persson’s own claims about graphical user interfaces – that they lack depth, appear to be shot by an immobile, static camera – do not apply to all of the GUIs he cites as examples, such as the more contemporarily cinematic interfaces of some computer games.

The over-generalized ‘we’ in the first example and the under-defined ‘technologies’ of the second lead to a problem which Nina Wakeford has characterized as "conceptual leakage" (Wakeford 1997: 54). She uses this term to refer to the practice common in the early days of cybercultural studies of applying the claims and conclusions derived from a study of one specific new media technology to others, sometimes to all others. In order to avoid conceptual leakage, questions such as the following need to be addressed: what technologies, exactly, are under examination? What aspects of new media? In which cultural contexts, with which social groups? These questions, not always rigorously addressed in the individual contributions in Technospaces, need to be attended to in cybercultural studies in general, in order for it to be able to claim maturity as a field of study.

The issues outlined above are of less concern in the second, more empirically-oriented section of the collection, entitled "Smart Spaces: Strategies and Tactics in New Media Technologies." The contributions here are wide-ranging, with topics spanning the influence of Star Trek on the design of digital technologies; online fan spaces as affective communities of imagination; and the ways in which the word ‘fat’ is resignified in online discussions. The questions that these chapters raise, for this reader at least, are more like queries about issues of academic interest than major critiques. For example, of Kate O’Riordan’s chapter, "Playing with Lara in Virtual Space," an exploration of the relationship between the computer game and its players, I would want to ask whether to claim, as she does, that the avatar is a representation of the player, that "the viewer is on the screen" (230), that the avatar is the player’s virtual self, and that the self is "self-and-avatar" (236) is to make the same claim, or, in fact, several different claims, in which player/avatar relationships are differently conceptualized, with different implications for our understanding of digital bodies and identities. The Sussex Technology Group’s contribution "In the Company of Strangers: Mobile Phones and the Conception of Space," based on research undertaken in 1996, examines how we use mobile phones and whether, in the words of the authors, these technologies are "machines for public use" or "devices for private talk in the company of strangers" (205). It would be good to see this research updated, as patterns of mobile phone usage have shifted in the intervening years, and for the authors to say more about the ways in which mobile phone usage reconstitutes space – drawing, perhaps, on Michael Bull’s concluding contribution to this collection about personal stereos and the complex ways in which uses of these mobile technologies reconstitute notions of connectedness and disconnectedness.

In sum, the contributions in Technospaces address a variety of relevant concerns and cover a broad range of topics, so that scholars interested in technologies and spaces will find something to their liking in the collection. It is not always clear how, or whether, each contribution is about space, or new media technologies, or the social, moral and political considerations which Munt outlines in the introduction, but to expect clarity on all these things in all of the contributions in such a broad-ranging collection would be to expect too much. Technospaces is an enjoyable read, but, given its breadth, is to be dipped into, not read from cover to cover.

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space (translated Donald Nicholson-Smith). Oxford: Blackwell (first published 1974).

Wakeford, N. (1997). ‘Networking Women and Grrrls with Information/Communication Technology’ in J Terry and M Calvert (eds) Processed Lives: Gender and Technology in Everyday Life. London and New York: Routledge.

Helen Kennedy:
Helen Kennedy is senior lecturer in multimedia studies in the School of Cultural and Innovation Studies at the University of East London in the UK. She has just completed research about digital identity formations, using an autobiographical approach to explore the relationship between theoretical frameworks, grand claims and lived experience. She is co-editor of Cyborg Lives? Women’s Technobiographies, published in 2001 by Raw Nerve Press. Her multimedia practice includes a range of collective projects, most recently in collaboration with media arts organizations.  <h.m.t.kennedy@uel.ac.uk>

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