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The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace

Author: Vincent Mosco
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004
Review Published: December 2006

 REVIEW 1: Dale Bradley

A lack of time for reflection is endemic to the analysis of cyberspace as writers rush to keep up with new developments in the field. There is no shortage of analyses that seek to address cyberspace's current practices and technologies, but analyses that review the recent history of cyberspace in order to place its development within broader socio-cultural frameworks are rather scarce by comparison. Vincent Mosco's most recent book is therefore a welcome moment of reflection that deftly weaves the political economic and cultural analysis of cyberspace together in a manner that reveals the profoundly important role of mythmaking in relation to the social deployment of ICT. Tightly argued, wide-ranging in its scholarship, and written in a very accessible style, The Digital Sublime is highly recommended to researchers and advanced undergraduates alike for its ability to bridge the gap between political economic and cultural approaches by clearly explicating the power of mythmaking to frame practices in both arenas.

A Canada Research Chair in Communication and Society in the Department of Sociology at Queen's University (Kingston, Ontario), Mosco is particularly well suited to the task of reviewing the development and deployment of myth in relation to cyberspace having written on videotex systems and early computing (Pushbutton Fantasies (1982) and The Pay-Per Society (1987) respectively). These books remain significant not only for their historical utility, but for their still relevant insights into the political economy of ICT. His discussions of the ability of ICTs to measure, meter, and monitor populations, and to the production of audiences as commodities have greater resonance today than they did two decades ago. Mosco thus has the advantage of experience when it comes to addressing the myths that surround, inform, and flow from ICTs because he has witnessed their development from a critical, and often prescient, perspective.

While his earlier books tended to lean most heavily upon political economic analysis, Mosco set out to build a bridge to cultural analysis with his very well received The Political Economy of Communication (1996). The Digital Sublime is, as Mosco describes it, a continuation of this process of bridge building but this time from the other direction -- from the cultural to the political economic (6). His analysis of the content of cyberspace's myths thus goes beyond simply cataloguing the hype surrounding ICT to addressing the processes and effects of mythmaking itself. Drawing on David Nye's notion of the technological sublime, Mosco connects the ecstatic and awe-inspiring quality of the sublime with the process of mythmaking. The middle chapters of the book detail the ecstatic pronouncements made concerning the presumed ends of history, geography, and politics in a manner that reveals the creation of sublime myths which speak to sociocultural desires for community and empowerment, but which rally around neo-liberal notions of market driven capitalism and instrumentalized democracy. Cyberspatial myths thus provide a vital point of articulation between political economic and cultural analysis because myths are, at once, the products of collective social desires and expressions of hegemonic power. For Mosco, myth provides a means by which to demonstrate the mutually productive relationships between political economy and culture from the perspectives of both critical analysis and everyday practice.

The brief introductory chapter ends with a vital point concerning the relationship between myth and the political that will frame the entire analysis: that myth is as much a pre-political phenomenon as it is a post-political one. This is to say that myths are not simply ideological ruses introduced post facto in order to legitimate this or that regime of power relations, but are key moments in the development of power itself inasmuch as myths serve to mediate and mitigate the complex and contradictory nature of a society saturated with ICTs. Chapter 2 undertakes a detailed discussion of myth by first eschewing an approach to myth that seeks to analyze it terms of being true or false in favor of treating myth as being either alive or dead. This distinction allows Mosco to focus less on the distortions rendered by myths (an acknowledged facet of myth) and more on the way in which myth operates as a template of perception because "it is essential to understand this side of the mythic force of cyberspace because the visions it provides, particularly the ruptures it celebrates, make it difficult to focus on another way of seeing, one that would emphasize continuities with the past" (49).

The next two chapters constitute a trenchant critique of the celebratory mythmaking surrounding three presumed ruptures effected by cyberspace -- three breaks with the past presented by their proponents as being so radical that the ends of history, geography, and politics are declared. Mosco's individual critiques of these three ruptures rest on a shared foundation: that the suggestion of a radical break with the past serves to mythically sever cyberspace from historically continuous power relations in order to reinvent the world in the mythic image of a magically empowering array of ICTs. Chapter 3 provides a strident critique Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" argument -- the neo-liberal claim that market-driven capitalism marks the culmination of historical struggle -- and contrasts it with Daniel Bell's more nuanced elucidation of the contours of post industrial society. The difference here is that Fukuyama's theorizations devolve into myth by dint of radical claims concerning the rupture wrought by ICTs. In contrast, Bell's analysis seeks to identify the processes attendant to the proliferation and integration of ICTs into political economic formations and the vital role played by the discourse of economism in those processes. For Mosco, the problem with the end of history thesis is that, as myth, it "creates the condition for social amnesia about old politics and older myths" (83). Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Nicholas Negroponte, Raymond Kurzweil, and Douglas Rushkoff are all shown to fall into the camp of Frances Fukuyama, as is that most famous of futurists, Alvin Toffler.

Toffler is addressed in more detail in chapter 4 as Mosco turns his attention to critiquing the mythic discourse informing claims about the end of politics and geography. Beginning with geography, he notes that the works of Frances Cairncross, Kenichi Ohmae, and William Mitchell celebrate the death of distance in a manner that ends up seriously undermining the political and cultural dimensions of social space. Cyberspace is here mythologized as a transcendent realm wherein all the hopes and dreams of the enlightenment are fulfilled in a virtual utopia sustained by ICT. Mosco's worry here is that the very real world of the local tends to vanish from the theorization of (cyber)space, leaving very real political problems either unaddressed or somehow automatically resolved by the shifting of human activity from the physical to the virtual. Surprisingly, there is very little mention of the work of Manuel Castells in this section, whose work could have provided Mosco with excellent rebuttals to the myths he critiques.

The end of geography myth separates cyberspace from lived social space and this, when combined with the myth of historical rupture, allows for the myth of the end of the political to be addressed. Targeting the neo-liberal Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF) -- a think tank guided by Toffler, Newt Gingrich, and George Gilder -- Mosco finds that the underlying political myth of cyberspace values corporate technocracy over all else. The promise of ICT is reduced to the automation of politics and, ultimately, the erosion of any viable notion of an engaged public or, for that matter, publicly accountable forms of governance. The entrenchment of neo-liberal ideals is thus facilitated by the mythic promotion of ICT in the name of a radical reconfiguration of the political. Cyberspace is made to stand mythically for the radical realignment of political processes which, while ostensibly framed as communitarian, tend more often to be practically deployed as disenfranchising.

Having addressed what he views as the three major myths of cyberspace and the ruptures that they posit, Mosco sets about reconnecting cyberspace to its past. In chapter 5, he addresses earlier technologies (electricity, telegraph, telephone, radio, and television) in order to demonstrate that each one went through a very similar process of mythmaking to that of cyberspace. An entertaining chapter replete with sublime, and often rather humorous, one gets the feeling that Mosco indulged a bit of a devilish inclination to mock North America's obsession with things technological. The crucial point made here, however, is not so much that the technological sublime always seems to appear in relation to new technologies, but that the most active moment of mythmaking tends to come when a technology is on the verge of becoming banal. The implication is clear: the pre-political nature of mythmaking is most acutely revealed when myth is at the point of becoming fully woven into the social fabric of everyday life. Mosco points to the "powerful banality" of earlier technologies in chapter 2:
    the real power of new technologies does not appear during their mythic period, when they are hailed for their ability to bring world peace, renew communities, or end scarcity, history, geography, or politics; rather, their social impact is greatest when technologies become banal -- when they literally (as in the case of electricity) or figuratively withdraw into the woodwork ... It is particularly important to view the computer with one eye on mythology today because the technology, in spite of early boom-and-bust cycles, is still in a strong mythic phase. (19-20)
Returning to this theme in detail in chapter 5, Mosco highlights the fact that digital sublime's mythic impetus acts as a means by which to rally and mobilize us around banal political economic projects by way of the cultural deployment of hyperbolic discourses:
    There is something powerfully compelling about the culture of today's communication technologies, including the digital sublime, but this magnetic power extends back in time ... we need to understand political economic pressures within the cultural context of meaningful myths that lift us out of the day-to-day and designate us as a special, perhaps even a chosen, people. Put simply, we want to believe that our era is unique in transforming the world as we have known it. The end is preferred to more of the same; the transcendent to the routine; the sublime to the banal. So we not only view our age as revolutionary. We forget that others looked at earlier technologies in much the same way. It is only when we see cyberspace as mutually constituted out of a culture that creates meaning and a political economy that empowers it that we can fully understand why it is that over and over again, people have encountered and believed in a genuinely living end. (118)
Myth is thus situated as a locus of articulation between the sublime and the banal as well as between culture and political economy. As such, myth becomes much more than simple hyperbole or some form of deception. It becomes a significant means by which the political economic practices of the present are informed and entrenched by cultural discourses which trumpet a sublime future at the expense of a banal past.

The relatively light hearted tone of Chapter 5 stands in stark contrast to the somber assessment of the attack on, and collapse of, the twin towers of the World Trade Center that comprises the sixth and final chapter. All of the concerns of the previous chapters are brought together in a fashion that utterly decimates mythic notions concerning the end of history, geography, and politics. The twin towers become the hard evidence that the presumably old relations attendant to history, geography, and politics are far from over. Rather, they matter as much as ever. The World Trade Center's development at the expense of New York's radio district, and its subsequent mythic status as the hub of the then emerging global economy, parallels the development and promotion of mythic cyberspace. Both the WTC and cyberspace are avatars for the post industrial age, and both function as sites wherein political economic and cultural processes are interwoven. The targeting and destruction of the twin towers effected a tragic demythologization of the neo-liberal project that prompts Mosco to provocatively suggest that we may have reached "the end of the end of history" (171-174).

Mosco's most important contribution in The Digital Sublime is the reconnection of cyberspace to everyday life by revealing how mythmaking tends to separate cyberspace from the everyday relations of history, geography, and politics. As he so clearly demonstrates, cyberspace is all too often figured as a utopian (neo-liberal) world wherein the old rules no longer apply and society can reinvent itself without the constraints of time, place, and power. This neo-liberal dream of forgetting the past by invoking a radical break with it (and its contradictions and inequities) can only be countered by taking time to reflect upon, and reconnect, the present with the past. As Mosco states:
    The myth of cyberspace can be seen to demonstrate Barthes' claim that myths are depoliticized speech because they purify social relations by eliminating the tensions and conflicts that animate the political life of a community. But if myths evacuate politics, then the critique of mythology can restore and regenerate it. If the telling and retelling of the mythic story shields cyberspace from the messiness of down-to-earth politics, then the critique of the myth, told many times over in many different ways, gives new life to the view that cyberspace is indeed a deeply political place. (31)
It is therefore the political itself that constitutes the bridge built by Mosco between political economy and cultural studies. The Digital Sublime goes a long way toward deflating cyberspace's mythic sheen. In so doing, it makes an important intervention into the ongoing process of mythmaking that continues to frame the power relations attendant to the development and deployment of ICTs in contemporary society.

Castells, Manuel. 1989. The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring, and the Urban-Regional Process. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

_____. 1996. The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture. Volume 1: The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

_____. 2001. The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Mosco, Vincent. 1982. Pushbutton Fantasies: Critical Perspectives on Videotex and Information Technology. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

_____. 1987. The Pay-Per Society: Computers and Communication in the Information Age. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

_____. 1996. The Political Economy of Communication. New York, NY: Sage.

Nye, David. 1990. Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

______. 1994. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dale Bradley:
Dale Bradley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications, Popular Culture, and Film at Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. His research interests include the discursive analysis of contemporary technoculture and the historical emergence of cybersociety.  <dbradley@brocku.ca>

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