Virtual Worlds: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cybertechnology
Author: Pramod K. Nayar
Publisher: New Delhi: Sage, 2004
Review Published: April 2007
In his Preface, Pramod K. Nayar, a professor of English at the University of Hyderabad, explains that "Virtual Worlds seeks to explore the highly technologised cultural conditions of our times. Cyberculture, as the condition is commonly termed, comprises the technologised, wired and networked environments in which daily life is lived in metropolitan cities across the world" (11). The latter, according to Nayar, is undergirded by the idea of the posthuman -- "the technologically enhanced, wired, and chemically/surgically altered human who arrives with cyberculture and the informatisation of life" (11), which is "the ghost that insinuates itself into the pages of this book" (21).
The book is divided into five chapters. The function of the first chapter, "Technoculture," is scene-setting; it comprises a discussion of culture, followed by introductions to 'Theories of the Information Society,' 'Key Concepts and Terms,' and 'Technologies.' In chapter two, "Art, Aesthetics, Popular Culture," the author describes the impact of new technologies in the realms of literature; popular visual culture (i.e. movies, music videos, computer games, computer painting, animation, and other visual arts); music; dance, choreography, installation, and performance art; architecture; and computer-mediated learning. Chapter three, entitled simply "Politics," is composed of sections dealing with individual identity in cyberspace, community in cyberspace, production and consumption in cyberspace, and a section on 'Cyberpolitics' that introduces concepts such as cyberpower, cyberdemocracy, cyberwar, and cyberterrorism. In chapter four, "Body," which is the most technical, the reader is introduced to the concept of posthumanism and then acquainted with “some of the developments and features of bodies in cyberspace” (212), including: cyborgs; body modification and techno-bodies; the Visible Human Project and the Human Genome Project; info-medicine and nanotechnology, including natural organ transplants, realvideo surgery, cybernetic human reproduction, and pharming; cutting edge research in genomics; cosmetic surgey; cyberporn; cyborg soldiers; and posthuman body arts as exemplified in the work of Orlan. The final chapter, which "zeroes in on gender as a category where technocultural themes of identity, body, community and politics can be located" (263), begins with an introduction to feminist critiques of science and follows up with sections on ecofeminism; feminist readings of technology; gendering ICTs, development and globalisation; and cyberfeminism, including a section devoted to the work of Donna Haraway.
Having provided an overview of the text, my comments on Nayar's Virtual Worlds fall into three broad categories relating to content, structure, and aesthetic.
With regard, first, to content: I found the title of this text to be quite misleading. For Nayar "cyber" is taken to mean "digital" or even "technological," which results in a rather broader definition of "cyberculture" than I found myself comfortable with. The book deals only tangentially, in my opinion, with the "virtual worlds" of the title; indeed, if one were drawn to the text as a result of an interest in Second Life or similar realms that are popularly understood as "virtual worlds," one would find very little to interest one here, with less than a dozen pages devoted to exploring computer gaming, virtual reality, etc. The book's subtitle Culture and Politics in the Age of Cybertechnology is slightly more representative of the book's content, though there is only a single chapter dealing with politics and, again, the meaning of "cybertechnology" could be questioned: the "cyber" component of cosmetic surgery is unclear to me, for example.
The vast bulk of this text is descriptive, rather than analytical. In fact, it reads rather like an extended literature review, albeit one that doesn't advance any significant argument that I could discern. For example, the lengthy first chapter -- it runs to seventy pages -- is offered as a scene-setter, providing descriptions of definitions, theories, key concepts and terms, and technologies that are identified as pertinent to the succeeding chapters. Unfortunately, however, Nayar fails to synthesise these or signpost the ways in which they might be employed to think about the issues described later in the text. The reader is essentially left to figure this out for herself. Nor do the various sections flow into each other, with a number of jarring disconnects exemplified by the movement from a discussion of cyberporn to one of cyborg soldiers at page 251 -- maybe there's a link, but it certainly isn't explicated.
It is true that Nayar warns in his Preface that "The book is intended as a modest introduction rather than a critical appraisal of contemporary technoculture. Discussions of major issues and concerns such as eco-feminism or reproductive technologies are kept brutally and unsatisfyingly short because the aim is to provide a survey of various technologies and debates rather than in-depth analyses of particular ones" (11). The question that must then arise is one of audience. A "modest introduction" might be assumed to be targeted at an undergraduate audience; on the other hand, undergraduate texts must include clear and regular signposting. In addition, the following (and others not listed) are all name-checked in the first chapter: Louis Althusser, Arjun Appadurai, John Barlow, Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin, Pierre Bourdieu, Manuel Castells, Michael Crichton, Jacques Derrida, Paul Feyerabend, Michel Foucault, Donna Haraway, William Gibson, Clifford Geertz, Antonio Gramsci, Martin Heidigger, Stuart Hall, Thomas Kuhn, Ernesto Laclau, Bruno Latour, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Karl Marx, Marshall McLuhan, Orlan, George Ritzer, Herbert Schiller, Vandana Shiva, David Silver, Stelarc, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, Paul Virilio, Max Weber, and Raymond Williams. How many of these is open to recall by the average undergrad? Michael Crichton perhaps?!
In terms of a summing-up of the book's content: it has significant breadth, but lacks depth; it acts as a taster, a starting point only. The reader is introduced to a little bit of information about a galaxy of things/issues/ideas, but is disappointed at coming away from the text not having learned a significant amount about any one of the issues touched upon.
The second major issue I wish to speak to here is the structuring of the text. Let's stick with the undergraduates for a moment: I constantly remind my students that there are certain ways in which scholarly analysis is presented and, while open to innovation with regard to the way in which material is imparted, the one thing I do not want to be presented with is a list or lists masquerading as analysis. This text contains an untold number of lists, some of which even contain sub-lists. The lists are, however, the least of this text's structural problems, the most glaring of which for me were the lack of adequate introductory and concluding chapters. As already stated, the first chapter fails to function as an introduction in the accepted manner nor does chapter five, although it is the final or "concluding" chapter, actually function as a "conclusion." The author claims that this chapter "organises the issues thrown up by the preceding ones," that "the focus is on gender as a 'case study' for contemporary cyberculture studies" (263), and that this final chapter "serves the purpose of a critical evaluation of cybertechnology" (11). In some ways this is true, though the descriptions provided in the preceding four chapters seemed unnecessary to me with respect of the description provided in this final chapter, which could easily have existed as a stand-alone paper and the critique provided is not that of the author, but is simply a retelling of those critiques that have already been put forward by feminists. So while the gender issue might have been an interesting hook on which to hang the entire project, that's not what's attempted here. Instead, the gender issue is introduced, the work of some major contributors in this area described, and then the book simply ends. While the reader may have expected such a termination due to the lack of a conclusion to each of the preceding chapters, it still comes as a bit of a shock to be reading one moment about 'Postcolonial and Multicultural Feminist Science Studies' and the next to be faced with the bibliography.
This brings me to the issue of aesthetics: it strikes me that rather than publishing the information contained in this text as a regular book, it ought to have been published online. Was this perhaps the author's original intent? This would go some way to explaining the books extraordinary lack of structure—publishing the information online would obviate the need for a beginning, middle, and end; an introduction, a conclusion, and the like—along with the bite-sized nature of the various descriptions. Essentially, the traditional linear format in which this information is presently presented is all wrong, Nayar ought to have published this 'text' online where the information could be accessed differently by different audiences, where all the links could be live, and where the writing could be 'illustrated' with photos, cartoons, line drawings, music, video, etc. Virtual Worlds would work much better as a modern multimedia extravaganza than as a traditional hard-bound.
Maura Conway teaches in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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