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Cyberculture

Author: Pierre LÚvy (Translated by Robert Bononno)
Publisher: Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001
Review Published: May 2004

 REVIEW 1: Pramod K. Nayar

Pierre LÚvy's Cyberculture is a useful beginner's guide to the philosophical and cultural aspects of the digital age.

LÚvy, a Canada Research Chair in Collective Intelligence at the University of Ottawa, begins with a detailed study and history of the technology itself. He starts with the assumption that technology, like language and social institutions, is integral to humanity itself. Technology must be treated as both a product of a society and a culture and as a force that conditions culture and society. With these opening arguments, LÚvy locates his study firmly within social studies of technology.

LÚvy suggests that cyberspace is one of the key instruments of collective intelligence. Collective intelligence (the title of LÚvy's earlier book, actually) is the "synergy of skills, resources, and projects, the constitution and dynamic maintenance of shared memories, the activation of flexible and nonhierarchical modes of cooperation, the coordinated distribution of decision centers" (10). It is the "enhancement, optimal use, and fusion of skill, imagination, and intellectual energy regardless of their qualitative diversity" (147). Put another way, cyberspace enables cooperative learning and collaboration. Electronic forums can be created around shared interests. Lévy makes it clear that those who have resisted entering the participatory "virtual life" are doomed to be left behind. He thus characterizes it as a pharmakon -- a poison for nonparticipants and a remedy for those who are willing to enter (12).

For those familiar with the terms and the technology, chapters 2-5 can be skipped. These deal with the technical infrastructure of the virtual -- data transmission and programming, multimedia and email -- and define terms such as the virtual. Lévy sees the virtual as potential, waiting to be actualized. Thus for Lévy, the virtual is not opposed to the real, but to the actual, where virtuality and actuality are two modes of reality. Lévy suggests that rather than a "dematerialisation of information" (or what N. Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman has, in her elegant phrasing, described as "information losing its body"), digitization must be seen as a "virtualization." Lévy underscores the positive side of digitization with this shift in terms -- cyberspace is a "new universe for generating signs" because digital recordings are "implicit in their visible manifestation" (56). Thus, "the image is virtual in the computer's memory and actual on-screen" (55).

The more interesting section of the book is the second, where Lévy begins to address the theoretical issues of cyberculture. Reading the "essence" of cyberspace, Lévy argues that cyberspace presents "the universal without totality" (98). Cyberspace is empty and yet full. It accepts all content, regardless of the kind/quality of content. It is this that Lévy identifies as cyberspace's most significant feature -- a universality "without any centralized meaning, this system of disorder and labyrinthine transparency" (91-2). Lévy argues that when writing developed, it wrenched messages out of context, separated them from the point of origin. While on the one hand writing universalized thought, popularized it, it ensured that meaning remained unchanged by interpretation or translation (this, especially in religious texts). The significance of the message must be the same at all places and at all times. This is the universal with totality. In sharp contrast, cyberspace "dissolves the pragmatics of communication" (98). Any text can become a fragment, interconnected with other texts. Global interconnection ensures a form of the universal, but resists any semantic closure of interpretation. Cyberspace unites us through contact and general interaction. It enables communities to communicate among and with themselves. As Lévy puts it, this universal without totality "engenders a culture of the universal not because it is in fact everywhere but because the form or idea of cyberspace implicates all human beings by right" (100).

Lévy suggests that cyberspace is more the effect and result of a social movement than mere technological/infrastructural development. He lists the following "principles" of cyberspace: interconnectivity, virtual communities, and collective intelligence. Collective intelligence, for Lévy, is the "ultimate goal," the "spiritual aspect" of cyberspace. It seeks to "combine the experience, imagination, and spiritual energy" of the wired (111). Lévy predicts that with new ways of organizing human groups and relationships between individuals and collectives, cyberspace provides a range of possible solutions to political philosophy, management sciences, and organizational traditions. The "program" of the social movement of cyberspace is converging toward a form of communication that is unmediated, interactive, community based, nonhierarchical, and rhizomatic. The "universal" is this collective intelligence of deterritorialized interconnectivity.

The subsequent chapters look at the aesthetic dimensions of cyberspace. Cybercultural work, for Lévy, is rhizomatic -- with an "unidentifiable exterior, and interconnected . . . to people or data" (129). In "The Sound of Cyberculture," Lévy begins with the (now obvious) statement that cyberart is characterized by the participation of the audience/spectator. Lévy sees a universal-without-totality situation -- listening and musical habits that are planetary (hence universal) and multiplicity of styles that undergo transformation and renewal (hence without limiting totality). Lévy suggests that interconnectivity -- via MIDI or MP3 -- creates a virtual community. Every musician, in Lévy's view, becomes a producer of raw material, author, interpreter and listener in an "unstable and self-organized circuit of cooperative creation and concurrent appreciation," thereby producing a "collective musical intelligence" (125). For other forms of art, the intentional totalization by the author and the extensional totalization through recording are both negated with cyberart. A continuum exists between the visitor and the people who design the data. The visitor is immersed in the artwork, and illustrates what Lévy terms the "immanence of the message for its receiver" (131). Lévy concludes that cyberculture revives ancient and folkloric traditions of games and rituals -- it organizes our participation in events rather than spectacles (135).

Lévy, looking at the epistemological revolution initiated by cyberculture, argues that both new forms of access to information (such as search engines and dynamic data maps) and new forms of reasoning and understanding (say, simulation) emerge with cyberculture. Knowledge here is no longer abstract or transcendent; it becomes "increasingly visible" (142). The library, which structures knowledge through cross-references, condenses memory and ensures intellectual control. Knowledge may, Lévy suggests, come to be transmitted through living human collectivities rather than distinct media. Cyberculture also marks the transition of education from highly institutionalized forms to a generalized situation. Skills acquired by individuals based on singular life experiences will help construct collective memories. Virtualization will increasingly mean the virtualization of knowledge.

In a quick survey of the prospects of democracy with the new technologies, Lévy suggests that true electronic democracy consists in using the possibilities for interactive and collective communication to encourage the expression and elaboration of urban problems by local citizens themselves, the self-organization of local communities, the participation in deliberations by those directly affected by them, the transparency of public policies, and their evaluation by citizens (166). Lévy points out that cybertechnology provides nodes of power for direct control and mobilization of resources, skills, and markets. However, Lévy warns, the self-management of the city by its residents -- which such technologies facilitate -- should not serve as a substitute for diversity, physical interaction, and direct human exchange. Lévy concludes with a reiteration of his basic premise: the use of cyberspace for collective intelligence. He argues that such an articulation means that we use the virtual to "more fully inhabit the territory, to become complete citizens" (177).

In his last section, "Problems," Lévy outlines the central and as-yet unresolved issues that surround cyberspace. In "Conflict," he addresses the problem of monopolizing markets and intransigent governments. Lévy offers cyberspace not as a technological utopia but as a plural space. It offers the actualization of latent virtualities by opening up new planes of existence in our modes of relations, understanding, and cultural genres. While admitting that there will be attempts to control cyberspace just like any other media, Lévy argues that the very growth of cyberculture has been supported by the dialectic between utopia and business, the interplay of industry and desire in which neither side has as yet lost. He pins his hope on evidence of "co-optation" (209). Lévy asserts that fears of control and totalitarianism are more relevant to the other media, and cyberculture actually enhances singularities. Addressing common questions about exclusion, the issue of language, and fundamental values, Lévy argues that cyberspace does offer solutions to the problems of the previous epoch, though it is not free of problems.

Lévy's book is a well thought-out and lucidly articulated set of optimistic arguments about cyberculture. Lévy is essentially an enthusiast for the emancipatory and positive potential of cyberculture. Lévy's most significant contribution is one that proceeds from his earlier work -- collective intelligence. Treating cyberspace as a space where singularities "conjugate" (his term) to produce horizontal, rhizomatic resources and skills, Lévy believes that it heralds a new era of cooperation and democratization. The idea of a universal without totality is central to this reading of cyberspace. Dismissing the suggestion that the cybercultural turn marks the demise of the traditional cultural forms in a deadening homogenization, Lévy argues for the freedom and potential for revival of folkloric and oral traditions in cyberculture. The participatory rather than spectatorial roles in cyberart, for instance, symbolize the democratic potential of cyberspace. Lévy's arguments on the new forms and applications of knowledge are relevant to an understanding of the large scale changes affected within academia, organizations, and industry with the new communications technologies.

Lévy's work is neither an alarmist account of cyberspace nor a hagiography (though the ecstatic descriptions of collective intelligence come close to being the latter). It is meant as an introduction, and serves the purpose effectively. Lévy therefore does not address issues of the racialization or gendering of cyberspace -- something that numerous critical works have begun to analyze in exacting detail in the late 1990s (Eisenstein, 1998; Flanagan & Booth, 2002; Kolko, Nakamura, & Rodman, 2000; Plant, 1995). Some attention is, however, paid to the class and power inequities that inform the new techno-culture. The difference in approaches between what David Silver (2000) termed "critical cyberculture studies" and Lévy's kind of work can be explained away by noting the Lévy's work was originally published (in French) in 1997, and it may thus be unfair to accuse the book of blind spots such as these. However, considering that Lévy is concerned with democracy and oppression, freedom and totalitarianism, it is rather surprising that he chooses to ignore specific conditions and categories of cybercultural inequality. Other than recounting certain technological developments, Lévy is silent on the cultural conditions in which these technologies emerged. Thus the rise of hacker culture in the labs of MIT and other research institutions (detailed by Douglas Thomas in Hacker Culture, 2002) as a subcultural movement in cyberculture, or the rise of cybercrime -- a major cultural effect of the new technologies today -- find no mention here. Lévy chooses to dismiss these very real problems by stating: "rather than instilling fear by emphasizing aspects of cyberculture that are minimally important (cybercriminality, for example), partially relevant . . . I prefer to emphasize what is qualitatively new about the cybercultural movement" (193-4). This is a rather unusual way of looking at what is surely an extraordinarily serious "side-effect" of cyberculture! Admittedly, there is no need to recount in grisly detail cases of misuse of cyberspace, but to treat them as "minimal" is surely to live in an ivory (virtual?) tower.

Eisenstein, Zillah. Global Obscenities: Patriarchy, Capitalism and the Lure of Cyberfantasy. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Flanagan, Mary and Austin Booth, eds., Reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Kolko, Beth E., Nakamura, Lisa, and Rodman, Gil, eds., Race in Cyberspace. New York and London: Routledge, 2000.

Plant, Sadie. "The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics." In Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows (ed.), Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment, pp. 45-64. London: Sage, 1995.

Pramod K. Nayar:
Pramod K. Nayar teaches in the Department of English, University of Hyderabad (India). His latest book, Virtual Worlds: Cultural and Politics in the Age of Cybertechnology is forthcoming from Sage (India) in 2004. His other interests include the aesthetics of the sublime and English travel writing on India.  <nayarpramod@hotmail.com>

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