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Cyborgs@Cyberspace? An Ethnographer Looks to the Future

Author: David Hakken
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 1999
Review Published: March 2000

 REVIEW 1: Adrian Mihalache

David Hakken defies the C. P. Snow-based much advertised gap between The Two Cultures. The British author has repeatedly warned against the communication problem which has arisen from the self-consistent development and from the closure of literary and scientific cultures, respectively. While traditional education still compels techno-scientists to be at least minimally familiar with the literary canon, few social scholars believe they ought to consider seriously cybernetics, information theory, or computer science. David Hakken is certainly not among them. As an anthropologist, he is committed to a multifaceted approach and he believes his proper place is in the no-man's land between Technoscience and Humanities, thus bravely taking the risk of being an easy target for both parties. Which he has, indeed, repeatedly been, and he justifiably complains of it in his interesting recent book, Cyborgs@Cyberspace.

Hakken begins by challenging the hype accompanying the so-called Computer Revolution, claiming that this is just a convenient label for such cause-effect analyses which outline the one-directional influences of technology on society, while completely neglecting the reverse conditioning that social factors may exert upon technology. The traditional scientific approach, which studies patiently the separate influence of each possible factor on a measurable response, ceases to be appropriate when applied to complex real life issues, such as the system which integrates science, technology, and society in a complexwhole. Understanding the intricate relationships within it requires expertise in the pattern recognition of reciprocal dependencies, rather than assessments of the influence some isolated entities named causes may have upon other measurable variables, arbitrarily named effects.

Because the complexity of the STS (Science-Technology-Society) system cannot be dealt with in the framework of one-directional, deterministic relationships, he favors the concept of TAN (Technology-Actor-Network) as a more appropriate one for describing the intricate new patterns that link advanced information technology to the society at large. The blend of human element and hardware/software commodities forms a network which channels all actions. In this network, the distinction between humans and machines seems less important than the one between the actants and the actors. The first merely react individually, while the second are capable of cooperating strategies. According to Hakken, the ensemble of these interrelationships between humans and computer technology, between actants and actors, forms cyberspace.

One cannot say whether Hakken believes that "the proper study of mankind is man," but he makes it clear that the proper method to study cyberspace is ethnography. He argues that the anthropological fieldwork -- which implies the selection of issues, communities, and informants and the methodology of participant-observation -- is a sound basis for a realistic approach of the cyberspace. However, he is well aware of the pitfalls related to the anthropological approach: "Anthropology manifests multiple ambivalences about technology. In theory, technology is important, but in practice, anthropology generally treats technology as an exogenous variable, a part of the given context" (67).

Hakken thinks he can avoid such pitfalls by using his prior experience in several projects: the study of the Nordic National Computing Systems (a comparison between Norway and Sweden systems); the study of the impacts computer technology had on a Sheffield community; and the reconstruction of social service through advanced information technology. He dwells on the bureaucratic impediments he encountered in these projects, on the lack of human understanding and cooperation, and on other similar miseries that account for any scholar's misfortune. However, he also believes that the experience thus acquired is valuable and readily applicable to the study of cyberspace.

The problem is that Hakken does not distinguish between the use of computers within the paradigm of the (post)modern culture -- say in Computer-Aided-Design, Computer-Aided-Manufacturing etc. -- and the advent of cyberculture, which accompanies the networking of computers via Internet. He pre-supposes a smoothly continuous transition from computer-supported cooperative work within a high-tech company (proto-cyberspace) and the more sophisticated forms of de-territorialized cyber-work, which are more meaning-based than knowledge-based.

Problems aside for the moment, Hakken's ethnographic approach to cyberspace has three important steps. In the first, he tries to define the entity which acts like a culture carrier in cyberspace, the so-called cyborg. He claims that the blend of technology and biology in the unitary being of an actant or an actor is by no means new -- humans have always been cyborgic, ever since they started to use tools. Although this seems quite reasonable, one could object that the present combination has completely new features. For instance, the main focus of techno-human activity has long been the modification of the environment to suit human needs while, in the case of the cyber-entity, the distinction between the interior and the exterior as areas of action is considerably blurred. Moreover, Hakken is somewhat ill at ease in his journey through the cognitive literature and, consequently, he is prone to the retrospective illusion which makes many of those who look to the future see only the past.

Once the cyber-entities are defined, Hakken attempts to study the meso-social relationships -- that is, the peculiarities of virtual communities involved in various forms of cooperation. His approach of the social relationships is postmodern in the sense of the penetrating observation that "the chief characteristic of the Postmodern analytic movement is to dissolve the macro into the micro." He focuses on the evolution of the workplace to a workspace and summarizes various other studies, but tacitly refuses to allow Web-based work any fundamental novelty. It may be inferred that, according to him, the Internet and the Web are only adds-on to the computer-based society, not a qualitative change. Although he outlines an interesting evolution of work in four stages -- manufacture, machino-facture, knowledge-facture and cyber-facture, each with its relevant characteristics -- he believes that the capitalist management of working relationships is stronger than any technological impact. As a matter of fact, when studying direct cooperative relations, Hakken does not really go into cyberspace; he remains confined in rather more traditional computer-supported environments.

The third step of Hakken's analysis is the study of macro-social relations in cyberspace. He considers the importance the concept of nation may still preserve in cyberspace and stresses the fact that a virtual community is first and foremost an imaginary one and, in this respect, very similar to the nation. The danger of seeing the nationalist fads re-enacted in cyberspace is seriously considered: "At their worst, cyber-rhetorics rehegemonizes the worst aspects of nationalism at an even more reified, global technotronically complete level. At their best, cyberspace imaginings offer a decentralized network alternative to hegemonic nationalism" (252). Moreover, contrary to the accredited cyber-pundit opinion, he does not believe that cyberspace is an ideally democratic space: "If democracy is largely dependent upon localized, face to face relationships, its viability in cyberspace is highly questionable" (216). One of the strongest points of the book is thedeconstruction of the globalist discourse. The inevitability of the transnational economy is bravely questioned: "The power of transnational corporations to control the conditions of their own reproduction has vastly expanded, but this is not inevitable. It is the complement of the rapid marginalization of most of the nationally-based public mechanisms to influence capital reproduction, mechanisms deliberately replaced by programs (NAFTA, WTO) advocated by Neo-Classical economists and designed to aid the accumulation of profit" (163). Hakken does not see any other alternative to the Neo-Classical discourse than a Neo-Marxist attempt to reaffirm the old contradictions between labor and capital ("Capitalists tend to select technologies that enhance their class power while eroding workers' control" - p. 189). The much-advocated teamwork, which aims mainly to substitute the indirect control of workforce to the direct one, encroaches upon the individual drive for self-expression. Consequently, the basic contradiction in cyberspace between the skilled computer-expert refusing to be treated as an employee and the disciplinary framework he works in would eventually reenact the Marxist contradiction between the social and technical relations of production.

In Cyborgs@Cyberspace, David Hakken suggests a powerful methodology for the study of cyberspace. However, he seizes the right tool but fails to make the best use of it. The reason for this is his tacit belief that the cyberspace is ultimately nothing new; it has been around for quite some time and the same actors (or actants) play on its stage under different masks.

Adrian Mihalache:
Adrian Mihalache is a professor at the Politehnica University in Bucharest, Romania, where he teaches Applied Statistics, Reliability Theory, Total Quality Management, and Communication Skills. Presently, he is a Fulbright Scholar at Western Michigan University, where he is involved in the research project "Information Quality Assessment and Cultural Diversity Promotion on the WWW." His work on cyberculture is based on anthropologic fieldwork methodology and together with professor Arthur Helweg, he is working on the book, "Ethnology of Cyberspace," to be completed next summer. 

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