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Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet

Author: Tim Jordan
Publisher: London and New York: Routledge, 1999
Review Published: October 2000

 REVIEW 1: Adrian Mihalache
 REVIEW 2: Sarah Stein

Tim Jordan's view on "power" is systemic and structural: according to him, "power" is the name applied to that which structures culture, politics, and economics (1). Without the "lines of force," any field -- be it magnetic, electric, social, or other -- would be devoid of form. Power is, consequently, related to information because it in-forms; it provides a pattern for the contradictory and interdependent actions that take place in a specific area. The area Jordan selects for his approach is cyberspace and his book is an attempt to "chart the forces that pattern the politics, technology and culture of virtual societies" (3). He makes clear cut distinctions between (a) "power" from the individual viewpoint, which involves fluid identities, the restructuring of hierarchies and informational constructs, (b) "power" at the social level, including wired-rules within on-line communities and on-line/off-line communication protocols, and (c) "power" at the imaginary level, that is, the dominant metaphors, dreams and stories that deal with "power."

The first chapter examines three theories of power which Jordan thinks relevant in the context: Max Weber's concept of power as a possession of the individuals, Barry Barnes' one of power as the constituent of social order, and Michel Foucault's power as domination. While Weber's position stands clearly apart, the other two seem somewhat overlapping at first sight. However, the final distinction provided by Jordan is satisfactory: "Foucault argues that attempting to define power in the abstract is not necessary; instead a methodology for studying power is needed. [. . .] Foucault considers whether power should be studied as a relation or as a possession, while Barnes and Weber analyze whether power is a relation or a possession" (19, my own highlight).

In Chapter 2, cyberspace is analyzed from the perspective of cyberpunk and from the development of its underlying infrastructure. He reminds the reader that Internet was developed from the ARPA project of building up a distributed computer network that would survive partial destruction in the case of a nuclear attack. As a result, a myth of the intrinsic anti-hierarchical nature of cyberspace was born, clearly contradicted by the present-day centralized management of the assignment of IP numbers and names (41). However, Jordan does not get into the political controversy that the role of ICANN triggered in and out of cyberspace. As far as the intuitive perception of the latter is concerned, Jordan believes that its "spatial" features resulted form joining together "the visions of cyberpunk to the reality of networks," thus creating "a concept of cyberspace as a place that currently exists" (56).

Chapter 3 examines the issues concerning individual powers in cyberspace. Three aspects are enumerated as worth examining: identity fluidity, anti-hierarchism and information as reality (65). Jordan realizes that "online characters are constructed and judged through a number of markers that replace offline ones: addresses, handles, signatures, self-portraits and styles" (79). However, whether the style works or not, whether it is in fact a "correct" style, is determined by others (71). While the people-on-the-net went cyber in order to escape the stifling power relationships from "real life," cyber-behavior does not fail to induce new such relationships. Jordan examines one specific behavior, the "trolling," which consists of posting unobviously false statements in order to make fun of those who take them at their face value. He notes that "when trolling is used systematically to establish boundaries between those who can recognize and enjoy a good troll from those who cannot, then a system of dominance appears out of the individual actions of those able to indulge in trollingbecause of the powers they possess in cyberspace" (88-89). He also mentions how legislation from off-line tries to limit individual power on-line (95), but does not delve into the subject.

Chapter 4 takes up "The Virtual Social." When examining the social in cyberspace, Jordan is aware of "the constant oscillation felt by users of technology between operating technology as an inert, asocial 'thing' and manipulating technology according to alive, social 'values'" (100-101). He argues that social power in cyberspace is a Foucauldian form of power; it is made up of networks of dominated and dominator (104). The substance of the chapter is dedicated to the wired rules that induce relationships of power in cyberspace without people even realizing it. The analysis of the inherent regulating power of advanced information technology would have been outstanding, had it not been better deployed in Lawrence Lessig's excellent book, although more recent than Jordan's, Code and Other Rules of Cyberspace [Reviewed by RCCS in August 2000], Jordan tells Lessig's story in a more muddled way. However, he is the first to tell it.

In this "social" chapter, the author also takes up the issue of property in cyberspace and rallies to the common opinion of the irrelevance of property concepts in relation to informational products. He quotes John Perry Barlow, the author of the "Cyberspace Manifesto" saying that: "Property (tangible) can be taken from you. [. . .] If I own a horse and you steal it, I can't ride it any more and its value has been lost to me. But if I have an idea and you steal it, not only do I still have the same idea, but the fact that two people now have the idea makes it intrinsically more valuable (116).

This reasoning is as false as it is elementary, since giving information away necessarily involves a loss for the supplier, who loses his or her competitive edge with respect to the receiver. It is true that, at his turn, he may access freely more information than he is ever capable of supplying, but this is another matter worth looking into which Jordan overlooks. Moreover, the fact that the book as a knowledge repository was the first form of commodity also suggests that the issues of information property are more complex than Jordan's philosophy dreams of. The references to Microsoft's case (126) are, of course, obsolete, as any such examples from the immediate are bound to be. For example, Lessig's analysis of W2K suffers from the same cause. The conclusion of this section has the authority of the obvious: "creating greater complexity in the underlying technology of cyberspace distances individual users from cyberspace's fundamental fabric and transfers control of that fabric to an expertise-based elite (130).

Chapter 5 examines the social at the border between online and offline. This is a good opportunity for the author to state his views on globalization, and to draw a line between global and planetary. He describes the four categories of workers that globalization brings about: high-value producers, high-volume producers, raw materials producers, and redundant producers (143-144). Information has become both the central resource for and the key driving force of socio-economies. The human mind is a direct productive force, not just a decisive element of the production system. Consequently, offline production, consumption, and politics rely on cyberspace, the territory par excellence where symbols are manipulated and information is processed. As a result, "governments legislate about cyberspace, corporations build and rebuild it to their design, politicians apply it to electioneering and consumers demand its support" (144). However, cyberspace is not just a function of offline life, but has created its own social structures and forms of community. Hence, possible conflicts between online and offline, which have to be managed and kept within control. The main differences are, for the time being, ideological. Freedom, for instance, is rarely mentioned in mainstream media anymore, but it is ferociously defended -- and exercised daily -- on the Net (163). As Jordan puts it, "for democratic politicians to gain power they must receive the votes of people whose main, if not sole, source of information about the politics comes from the media, hence, the media (and, among them, web-based multimedia) fashion the politics" (165).

Jordan makes an interesting distinction between cyberspace, the Internet, and the informational space of flows. "Cyberspace includes the Internet and the space of flows but it also includes a number of other computer networks that may not be connected to the Internet and contains resources that are not part of the space of flows (for instance MUDs). The space of flows includes all parts of cyberspace and the Internet that contribute to the three core elements of the space of flows: global, real-time, never-ending" (170-171). Also, "the space of flows is, consequently, the peculiar set of abilities to manipulate information that cyberspace offers to offline space" (171).

When examining the alliances and conflicts between offline and online elites, Jordan claims that cyberspace, just like any other "Frontier" society, has no need for government because "social relations in such cases are either freely chosen or are a response to basic human needs" (174). This is a utopian argument, already convincingly overruled by Lessig's analyses.

In chapter 6, "The Virtual Imaginary," Jordan attempts to tackle power at the imaginary level, but does not get beyond such cultural constructs as "Utopia and Dystopia," "Cyberspace as Heaven," "Cyborgs" and "Bots" as mutants, the first indigenous species of cyberspace, and so on. He ends his book with the pertinent observation that "the imaginary does not so much connect to the individual and the social as permeate them (212).

Tim Jordan's Cyberpower was written as a textbook and, as such, it has the qualities and the defects of such an enterprise. It sacrifices complexity to clarity, depth to breadth, originality to completeness. However, it is a comprehensive attempt, the first to raise and to analyze some important issues on the circuits of power in cyberspace.

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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