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The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age

Author: Allucquere Rosanne Stone
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995
Review Published: October 1999

 REVIEW 1: Robert Mitchell

Unfortunately, academic scholarship on the social and cultural impact of emerging communication technologies often shares the half-life of its objects. Trends and possibilities that seemed inevitable one year can vanish the next and unanticipated technologies, legislation, and policy decisions often relegate scholarship on information technology to the "of-historical-interest-only" backbin. It is thus exciting to find that Allucquère Rosanne Stone's The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age remains a remarkably fresh read a half-decade after its initial publication. While parts of Stone's treatise show signs of wear -- her style, for example, displays a self-reflexive modishness that betrays its early-1990s origins -- many of her insights should continue to inspire fruitful research into the coming millennium.

Stone does not use the opening chapter of the book to present a particularly coherent picture of her goals, but she does at least hint at two primary themes. Stone suggests that communication technologies are often best analyzed not in terms of the "work" they perform, but rather in terms of the "ludic social interactions" they facilitate. Stone's point, in other words, is that new forms of social interaction often emerge in the guise of "amusement," but these trends remain invisible to researchers who do not take play seriously. Stone's second claim is a bit more traditional and boils down to the notion that many of the communication technologies of the 1980s and 1990s are facilitating new forms of "identity" and "agency," or, more specifically, "multiple"-identities and "bodiless" agents. Stone also uses the introduction to justify the method of her analysis, a method that she characterizes as "a kind of adventure narrative interspersed with forays into theory" (21), and which results in a book made up of an "invented" first-person account of a real-life rape trial, several historical chapters that describe the early days of online BBSs, chatrooms, and the Atari and Wellspring videogame development labs, and two "theoretical" chapters in which Stone attempts to translate the implications of her narratives into the language of post-structuralism and post-modernism.

Stone's "historical" chapters are the most rewarding. "The End of Innocence, Part I: Cyberdammerung at the Atari Lab," Stone's sociological-historical analysis of the rapid rise -- and equally rapid fall -- of the Atari Research Lab is arguably her finest chapter, and it should be required reading for all start-up info-tech firms (and the corporate carnivores that continue to gobble them up). Here Stone deftly reveals the motivations and misunderstandings that both facilitated the emergence of the lab and eventually led to its disappearance. At the heart of this story is a conflict over the notions of "play and "interactivity." The researchers hired away by the Atari Lab (from institutions such as MIT) understood "interactivity" as the interactions between people that technology facilitated, yet the Atari management understood interactivity as a process in which "the user pushed a button and the machine did something as a result" (135). These two definitions were fated to clash, but Stone illuminates the "unlikely congeries of circumstances" that ensured that for a few years "those two conflicting attempts to control the meaning of the term interactive entertainment software were juxtaposed" (131). It is a fascinating account, and her histories of the early BBS CommuniTree project ("Agency and Proximity: Communities/CommuniTrees") and a CompuServe chatroom fraud ("In Novel Conditions: The Cross-Dressing Psychiatrist") are equally compelling.

Unfortunately, some of Stone's richest insights on "play" and interactivity are presented as almost parenthetical asides. Her very brief discussions of "bandwidth," for example, are essential to this book, yet they are left scattered throughout the text. Stone points out that while many commentators, industry advocates and politicians present increasing bandwidth as the answer to "desire" ("if only we had more bandwidth, then everyone could do everything they wanted!"), this equation misreads completely the relationship between technology and desire. Stone presents the counter-example of phone sex workers and their customers, for whom desire is facilitated not by increasing the bandwidth, but rather by limiting it; in the case of phone sex, "narrow bandwidth becomes a powerful asset, because extremely complex fantasies can be generated from a small set of cues" (94). Stone's claim - which clearly owes much to the pioneering work of Marshall McLuhan - hints at some of the useful ways in which McLuhan's work can be adapted to the analysis of virtual systems.

Yet Stone's observations on bandwidth also serve to highlight the major shortcoming of this book: Stone's failure to define either of the key terms of her title, "desire" and "technology." Both terms seem to have multiple definitions, which itself is a function of the fact that Stone is caught between two competing models of the relationship between humans and technology. Thus, Stone often operates with a McLuhan-esque understanding of technology as anything that extends human abilities, but she also uses "technology" as simply shorthand for a much more specific set of "bad" surveillance and identity-documenting technologies, an ambiguity that she only occasionally clarifies by calling these latter "location technologies." This ambiguity allows Stone to oscillate between two models of the relationship between humans and technology: sometimes technology facilitates interactive "play" and is thus on the side of desire; at other times, technology is figured as at "war" with desire. Unfortunately, "desire" is itself an equally ambiguous term. While much of Stone's book is based on the Deleuzian premise that "desire" is on the side of "multiplicity" (e.g., it promotes multiple "identities"), Stone occasionally slips into a Lacanian understanding of desire, in which desire is understood as covering over some fundamental "lack" on the part of the subject.

The perfect place to clarify this ambiguity would have been the second chapter ("Risking Themselves: Identity in Oshkosh"), in which Stone "narrates" an actual trial of a man charged with raping one of the several personalities of a woman diagnosed with multiple personality disorder (MPD). Insofar as MPD has been a rallying point for many psychoanalytically-inclined therapists and theorists, Stone could have used this chapter to distinguish between competing notions of desire and identity. Unfortunately, Stone opts instead to flex her "performance-artist" muscles - in addition to her academic position as Director of the Advanced Communication Technologies Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, Stone is a recognized artist and fiction author - and the result is a remarkably ahistorical account of MPD that Stone herself admits is much her invention as historical account. While Stone's next chapter ("In Novel Conditions: The Cross Dressing Psychiatrist") does a much better job of tying a discussion of desire and identity to historical analysis in the context of a male psychiatrist who successfully posed as a disabled woman in a chatroom, one is still left to guess what exactly Stone means be her term "desire."

These ambiguities are probably a function of the fact that Stone is simply trying to accomplish too much within this slim volume, but this is a fault which with one can live. For despite these flaws, Stone's book is still a rewarding read (and re-read), which cannot be said of many of the books on the relations between identity and technology that have appeared in this decade. Moreover, Stone's book is accessible to non-academic readers, a quality that is extremely rare in academically respectable books on this subject. Haraway and Baudrillard may heat the blood of their academic disciples, but they tend simply to bore non-academics. Stone's book, by contrast, engages the interests and intellects of the lay person while at the same time allowing all of us to approach the complicated relations between bodies, selves, and technologies in a sophisticated and nuanced manner.

Robert Mitchell:
Robert Mitchell is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. His dissertation focuses on Romantic-era theories of emotional communication, concentrating especially on the notions of "sympathy" and "identification." Robert is also interested in more modern - and technologically-mediated - forms of communication, and has helped teach several courses on the "Cultural Impact of Information Technology."  <rmitch@u.washington.edu>

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