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Digital Shock: Confronting the New Reality

Author: Herve Fischer (Translated by Rhonda Mullins)
Publisher: Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2006
Review Published: June 2009

 REVIEW 1: Jamie Switzer

The book jacket of Digital Shock: Confronting the New Reality describes author Herve Fischer as a "multi-media artist and a philosopher," a fact that is immediately obvious from the very first page. In the first three chapters alone, Fischer references Freud, Jung, Christopher Columbus, Magellan, Dali, Plato, Kant, Turing, Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Kurzweil, Tim Berners-Lee, Euclid, Pythagoras, Van Gogh, and Einstein, among many others. Indeed, the book is replete with references to philosophers, artists, writers, technology gurus, entrepreneurs, politicians, businessmen, and filmmakers. Additionally, a vast number of diverse disciplines are examined: references to and examples from the artistic, social, scientific, technological, political, psychological, and economic fields abound. When you consider Fischer's philosophical musings wrapped around the name-dropping and the vivid language he uses, the book has a tendency to be a dizzying and at times difficult read. (NB: the English version of Digital Shock, which is the version this review is based on, is a translation of the original book written in French.)

Fischer defines "digital shock" as the result of unusual circumstances brought about by the convergence of technology, the military, universities, the arts, media and the economy, along with the dot com boom and bust fueled by media attention. These variables, taken together, had an exponential effect and created a digital technology revolution. He describes the 21st century as a second Middle Ages, citing such disparate examples as body piercings and tattoos, reality television, George W. Bush, wars, gangs, religious fundamentalism, 9/11, Columbine, and cults. The more technology advances, the more humans regress into what he calls neo-primitivism.

He maintains we are entering the "digital age," a new age of humanity where the rapid development of technology has outpaced our ideas. The book expands on this theme and delves into Fischer's psychosocial analysis of "the hypnotic effect that new technologies exert over us, preventing us from thinking critically" (5). To do this, he briefly (the majority of the chapters are short) reflects on subjects such as artificial intelligence, convergence, education, digital economies, the religion, cyberwar, Big Brother, and the global village. And there are many, many more, too numerous to list here.

Fischer suggests that humans have, throughout history, substituted reality for the magical and religious. Today, however, he says we are basing our beliefs and behaviors on the digital and virtual. Computer technology has made possible "the extremely rapid deployment of a new transcendental world: the digital replica of the real world" (21) that monopolizes the arts, science, economy, politics, education, social issues, and communication. The digital realm is neither objective nor realistic, but is instead a return to transcendental idealism. That realm is, according to Fischer, a powerful apparatus "in the hands of what appears to be the new religion of the twenty-first century -- a religion based on the trinity of the economy, science, and technology" (248).

The book's main strength comes from what Fischer calls "paradoxical laws" of the digital realm. These are interspersed throughout the book, and are surprisingly straightforward and succinct. The paradoxical laws are extremely insightful reflections upon the impact digital shock has had on humanity as a whole. For example:
First Paradoxical Law: The regression of the human psyche is proportionate to the advance of technological power (254).

Ninth Paradoxical Law: The more powerful and sophisticated digital technology becomes, the greater the risk that the artificial memory it is meant to protect will become ephemeral (256).

Twenty-Fourth Paradoxical Law: Digital technology, while apparently the instrument of global integration, in fact creates societal fractures and a technological apartheid that separates the info-rich and the info-poor (259).
All thirty paradoxical laws are consolidated in the last chapter, which is the most compelling of the book. They are considerably thought-provoking and invite deliberation on the influence of all-things-digital. Fischer uses the preceding chapters of the book to make his case for each of the paradoxical laws, and it is an interesting read if you can keep up. But if you have a limited amount of time go straight to the last chapter and begin your own dialog on the validity of Fischer's assertions as to the impact of "digital shock" on the human condition.

Jamie Switzer:
Jamie Switzer is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Technical Communication at Colorado State University. Her research interests include societal impacts of new information and communication technologies, computer-mediated communication, and virtual communities.  <jamie.switzer@colostate.edu>

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