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Cyberfutures: Culture and Politics on the Information Superhighway

Editor: Ziauddin Sardar and Jerome R. Ravetz
Publisher: New York: New York University Press, 1996
Review Published: February 1998

 REVIEW 1: David Silver

One of the most valuable assets academics bring to the table is context. Historians lend historical context to a particular situation; theorists offer theoretical frameworks to a select condition. When done correctly, context fosters new layers of understanding and generates incisive connections, relationships, and meanings.

Unfortunately, academics too often substitute context for content. Enter Cyberfutures: Culture and Politics on the Information Superhighway -- a collection of essays edited by Ziauddin Sardar and Jerome R. Ravetz. In some ways, the collection is a testament to the utility of contextualization. When it works, it works well, and it works well often in Cyberfutures. Indeed, the chapters by Jay Kinney and Vivian Sobchack examine the narratives surrounding the Net and cyberculture, with Kinney analyzing the Net-as-electronic democracy myth and Sobchack critiquing the techno-libertarian discourses put forth by the technozine Mondo 2000. While interesting and thought-provoking, the collection could, however, be titled Cyberpasts, for the anthology spends much of its time, energy, and column space exploring the historical contexts of cyberculture. At times this contextualization of cyberculture works to dismantle the hype and hyperbole surrounding the Net. Yet at times it works to lead readers away from the topic at hand, leaving us with little information directly related to our topic.

The essays found in Cyberfutures are critical. Its predecessor is less Clifford Stoll and Kirkpatrick Sale and more Resisting the Virtual Life and Ellen Ullman. For unlike Neo-Luddites Stoll and Sale, the contributors to Cyberfutures are not proposing the elimination of cybertechnologies, but rather the examination of them (1). Further, like the contributors to Resisting the Virtual Life and Ellen Ullman's wickedly incisive Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, the writers in Cyberfutures are less inclined to promote cyberhype than to deflate it (2). As noted in their introduction, "Reaping the Technological Whirlwind," editors Sardar and Ravetz attempt "to examine the underlying assumptions and values of the cyberspace revolution that is unfolding before our eyes. Our goal was not to furnish a balanced set of sensible surveys of various aspects of Cyberia, nor to provide a 'blueprint' for action or even suggestions of the sorts of institutions and attitudes that will be required if this new technology is to serve humanity and not derange us. We set out to question the absolute faith that is being exhibited in the goodness of cybertechnologies and their ability to enhance the quality of life" (5).

Besides the brief introduction, the book is divided into seven chapters. The first chapter, "alt.civilizations.faq: Cyberspace as the Darker Side of the West," is written by Ziauddin Sardar, the book's co-editor, a visiting professor of Science Policy at Middlesex University, and consulting editor of Futures magazine. He begins the chapter with an all-too-familiar discussion of the Net-as-frontier and cites the usual suspects: Mondo 2000, Howard Rheingold, and the Progress and Freedom Foundation's "Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age." Similar to the destruction of Native Americans and their cultures brought about by the original conquering of the frontier, this new colonization, according to Sardar, "is particularly geared towards the erasure of all non-Western histories. Once a culture has been 'stored' and 'preserved' in digital forms, opened up to anybody who wants to explore it from the comfort of their armchair, then it becomes more real than the real thing" (19) (3).

Next, the author puts forth two hard-to-digest generalizations. The first regards content -- "A great deal of this stuff is obscene; much of it is local; most of it is deafening noise" -- the second covers access: "most of the people on the Internet are white, upper and middle-class American and Europeans; and most of them are men" (24). Citing single articles in the International Herald Tribune and The Independent, Sardar explains emphatically that most Net users are male college students, who, in what may be the most patronizing description of Net demographics and use this reviewer has witnessed, are portrayed as groveling Yahoos: "Seven out of ten institutes of higher learning in the United States provide free Internet access to their students. Apart from spending most of their time 'netsurfing,' game-playing, chatting online, these students also create 'home pages' as advertisements for themselves. There are countless such home pages on the World Wide Web containing 'information' on what they eat and excrete, what they would look like if they were Martians, and their musings on God, Hegel, Chicago Bears, and the Grateful Dead" (25).

Besides male college students, Sardar informs us, the rest "are genuinely psychotic," the types that make bombs, kidnap kids, and make snuff films. Um, ok. Things continue along a similar pattern -- "hypertext generates hyper-individuals: rootless, without a real identity, perpetually looking for the next fix, hoping that the next page on the Web will take them to nirvana" (27) -- with a few worthy pitstops: online communication does not necessarily constitute online community; that the Net is not a panacea for society's ills; and that online democracy is really, really problematic.

In chapter two, "The Microcybernetic Revolution and the Dialetics of Ignorance," Jerome R. Ravetz begins with a single question: "What sort of revolution is occurring in microcybernetics?" (42). Forgoing any definition or explanation of what he means by the term "microcybernetics," Ravetz, the co-editor of the book and author of Scientific Knowledge and Social Problems, focuses instead on what kind of revolution networked computers engender. While acknowledging the profound changes networked computers have on material production and social systems, Ravetz locates the truly revolutionary tendency within the realm of consciousness. He continues by questioning the word "we" when describing the Internet, virtual communities, and online democracy, and notes the ways in which the network -- distributive or not -- serves to reinforce such social structures as consumer capitalism and Head Evil Man Bill Gates (49-50). To further this argument, Ravetz uses a single review of a single computer game to note how microcybernetics are not only consumerist, they are addictive. The author concludes on both sides: "We can expect to find enhanced citizenship and enlarged consumerism, awareness and druggedness, activity and passivity, perhaps even riches and poverty, all mixed up within communities, families, and individuals" (57).

If Ravetz is ambivalent, George Spencer is positively apocalyptic. In chapter three, "Microcybernetics as the Meta-Technology of Pure Control," Spencer argues that unlike previous technological revolutions, the microcybernetic revolution will most likely eliminate more jobs than it creates. Noting that previous technological revolutions such as industrial manufacturing and the shift to service industries have created more new jobs than displaced old ones, Spencer cautions, "but as microelectronics develops, it displays features that make it different from all previous technologies" (62). The reason, according to Spencer, is the nature of microcybernetic, meta-technologies "whose effects are realised through the control level of other processes that it enters into" (63). Although provocative, Spencer's chapter makes no mention of the supposed topic at hand -- the Internet -- and instead offers an interesting treatise on Marx's "labour theory of value" and Henry Ford.

In chapter four, "Democratic Franchise and the Electronic Frontier," Vivian Sobchack examines critically the concept of "democratic possibilities" of new technologies by analyzing the word "franchise." Sobchack, a professor in the School of Theater, Film, and Television at UCLA, notes the double meaning of the word, which on the one hand connotes "freedom" -- "the right to vote in public elections" -- and on the other designates "privilege" -- "a privileged and exclusive corporate entity like McDonalds or the Los Angeles Rams football team" (79) (4). Sobchack then applies this double meaning to the ideology of the "electronic media guerrilla" -- hackers, crackers, phreakers, and cyberpunks -- promoted and glorified by the early technozine Mondo 2000 to reveal a contradictory stance between cyberutopian and cybermarketeer. The author concludes, "here, the dream of democratic enfranchisement is grounded not only in the desire for free access to information and free interactive communication and social participation, but also in the desire for the freedom to buy and the freedom to sell, for a freely interactive and capitalist commerce" (86).

In chapter five, "Earthing the Ether: The Alternating Currents of Ecology and Cyberculture," Nigel Clark strikes an interesting comparison between the ecologist and cyberculture ethos or movements. According to Clark, a professor of Sociology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, both movements are historically rooted in the 1960s counterculture, they share a mutual absorption in alternative realities, and are both seeking their respective Edens: "Like the notion of a pristine wilderness, the idea of a limitless, fully immersive cyberspace serves to separate in from out, ideal world from fallen imperfect world. In each case, the privileged zone is the sanctuary of the essential, of pure form, of the way things should be in everyday life, but are not" (93-94).

To attain such ends, each movement employs each others' means. Thus, in an attempt to promote "natural" wildlife, preservation groups produce elaborate, technologically-sophisticated films, documentaries that often seem more natural than nature. As one theorist notes, "any given piece of coastline, any single craggy peak cannot measure up to the standards set by the nature photographers and the Sierra Club calendars" (98). Conversely, digital media often use representations and simulations of nature to appear more "natural" and interactive. Thus, we have games like SimEarth and SimLife and films like Jurassic Park, a largely computer-generated film that is closer in kin to Sierra Clubesque "photorealism" than, say, Tron.

In "Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture," Arturo Escobar delivers a detailed bibliography covering anthropological readings devoted to cyberculture. Besides providing an outstanding reading list, he also puts forth three useful categories with which to approach the study of cyberculture, which he states "refers very specifically to new technologies (particularly computer and information technologies) and biotechnology" (112). These categories include theoretical formulations, ethnographic domains, and anthropology and complexity. Escobar, a professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, begins by fusing works from science and technology studies and anthropology to produce cyborg anthropology and briefly reviews the work of Donna Haraway and Evelyn Fox Keller. Next, the author explores the field of ethnography. This includes Sherry Turkle's work in the use of new technologies; Brenda Laurel and "interface anthropology"; popular culture of science and technology; the growth and development of computer-mediated communication; and the political economy of cyberculture. Escobar concludes with a rushed, somewhat simplistic discussion of the contributions of chaos theory and complexity to the study of cyberculture. Almost by definition, Escobar's review of the literature became obsolete the moment of publication. That said, it provides a rich collection of ideas, readings, directions, and strategies with which to approach cyberculture.

The final chapter, Jay Kinney's "Is There a New Political Paradigm Lurking in Cyberspace?," contrasts two potential scenarios for online democracy. The first, Track A, is the familiar hype-ridden road traveled by Al Gore and Bill Gates: "Vote from the comfort of your own home! Take as long as you like to make your decisions! Access readily-available candidate information and statements online! E-mail your congressperson! Sign that electronic petition!" (138). The second, Track B, is a corporate-sponsored public sphere reduced to the following equation: "Digital Revolution = Global Integration = New World Order = Marketplace Uber Alles" (147). Much less academic than the other chapters, Kinney's contribution is more of an essay, and weaves together popular culture with a clear knowledge of the Net, the Web, and online culture. Hardly the optimist and having a good time informing his readers of this, Kinny, the publisher and editor-in-chief of GNOSIS: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions, concludes: "Perhaps the World Wide Web will be like really good crack: cheap and affordable until you're thoroughly addicted, then you wake up one day to discover the meter ticking and you've got an insatiable hunger for online infomercials" (152).

Cyberfutures: Culture and Politics on the Information Superhighway is a much needed collection. Indeed, like its predecessor, Resisting the Virtual Life, Cyberfutures seeks to go beyond the hype and hyperbole of the Internet and to enter into a critical analysis of it, its underlying conditions, and its economic and political contexts. At times, this analysis of contexts replaces an analysis of content. Yet, at times, especially with the essays by Vivian Sobchack, Arturo Escobar, and Jay Kinney, a healthy dose of context ismixed with content, resulting in useful jumping-off points for cyberculturalists.

1. Clifford Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil : Second Thoughts on the Information Highway (New York: Doubleday, 1995); Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995).

2. James Brook and Iain A. Boal, editors, Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information (San Francisco: City Lights, 1995); Ellen Ullman, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents (San Francisco: City Lights, 1997).

3. To make this point, Sardar unfairly -- and incorrectly -- conflates a number of media technologies to be synonymous with cyberspace. Suddenly, the Internet = CD ROMs = the Gulf War = Nintendo.

4. Ahh, the good 'ol days of 1996, when Los Angeles actually had a professional football team. The Los Angeles Rams are now the St. Louis Rams.

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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