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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

The patterns of virtual life are the subject of Tim Jordan's Cyberpower, a "cartography of the powers that circulate through virtual lives, a chart of the forces that pattern the politics, technology and culture of virtual societies" (3). This is an accessible and useful work that would fit in well to an undergraduate course with a cultural studies approach to cyberspace. Organized much like a textbook, each chapter begins with several key concepts and definitions elaborated further in the pages that follow. A brief glossary of computer culture acronyms is included at the end. Sprinkled throughout the book are nine "myths of the electronic frontier," that the author recounts as "founding morality tales of cyberspace." Jordan's retelling of these cyber-legends includes the moral lessons he believes they impart.

The concept of cyberpower is discussed on three levels: the individual, the social and the imaginary. The first chapter, "Power and Cyberspace," presents three theoretical frameworks for analyzing power. Jordan states that he will address these uncritically, as his aim is to introduce models for the analysis of forces that structure cyberspace, rather than engage all the problematics of the nature of power itself. He offers brief summaries of power as a possession (Max Weber), power as constitutive of social order (Barry Barnes), and power as domination (Michel Foucault). He ends the chapter with several questions that could be useful in triggering discussion among students.

Chapter Two, "Cyberspace and the Matrix," looks at science fiction, the actual state of networked computers, and the way these discourses combine to produce cyberspace as it is currently lived and understood. Science fiction, and in particular cyberpunk, is addressed both as fiction and in its claims as social criticism. Jordan follows with the contemporary reality of computer networks, with useful sections on the history of the Internet and studies on the demographics of Internet use. The first of the nine electronic frontier myths appears here, as Jordan cites studies that debunk the widely reported notion that ARPANET was designed initially as a communications network in the event of nuclear war. The chapter concludes by setting the foundation for the rest of the book: "We do not have cyberspace as Gibson described it and we do have a computer network that can just about be described. Between the two has emerged a social, cultural, economic and political space of virtual human interaction -- a real cyberspace" (55). From here, Jordan moves to the topic of the remaining chapters, power as it sustains and constrains virtual lives and possible virtual futures.

Chapter Three, "The Virtual Individual," looks at experiences in virtual communities such as the WELL and in MUDs and MOOs. It discusses the components of online life in terms of identity fluidity, its anti-hierarchical nature, and its constitution by information. Cyberpower understood as personal empowerment and the issues of access and online rights that result from this concept of power are addressed. The discredited Carnegie-Mellon pornography on the Internet study is described to lead into a discussion on cyberpolitics, particularly those of free speech and censorship. Power, as the experience of cyberspace, is examined here in the Weberian sense of individual possession. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the limits of understanding cyberpower at the individual level, and moves toward cyberpower as a collective force.

Chapter Four and Chapter Five deal with the virtual social. Jordan reverses his earlier focus: "Rather than individuals founding societies, now societies will be the foundation for individuals" and asks what forms of cyberpower appear in online societies (102). The first chapter, defining social power in cyberspace as technopower, explores the concept of "neutrality" in relation to technological tools and the social values embedded in the design and construction of those tools. Jordan applies Barnes' and Foucault's theories of power to this notion of technopower, using the LambdaMOO virtual rape as told by Julian Dibbell as a case in point. He considers the technopower of cyberspace in terms of information, information overload, and technoelites (corporate and individual), exploring cyberpower as "patterns of social relations that create systems of domination, whose articulation in cyberspace fuels an ever more dominant elite" (141).

Chapter Five furthers the analysis of the virtual social by exploring cyberpower as it appears in the intersections of offline and online societies, between virtual life and real life: "Cyberpower of the social here pursues the nature of power that both allows cyberspace to reach across into offline life and answers demands made on cyberspace by offline life" (143). Jordan classifies the three areas of production, consumption, and politics as those in which cyberspace has already played a crucial role in offline life, in the "space of flows" of informational socio-economies. The myth investigated in this chapter is the metaphor of the frontier, allowing for a fundamental conception of virtual life as a place: "Grasping cyberspace as a place allows notions of control and domination of purchase on the virtual lands. The informational space of flows becomes something that elites and the grassroots can try to control 'as their own'" (176).

Chapter Six, "The Virtual Imaginary" examines the utopian and dystopian imaginary sides of cyberspace, the immortality of the cyborg versus the "Superpanopticon" of total surveillance. Hans Moravec's fantasy of the human consciousness downloaded into a robot body is discussed, as is Donna Haraway's initial vision of cyborg consciousness. Jordan concludes by arguing that the effect of cyberspace's imaginaries of the future is to drive work and the formation of social bonds in the present and "in doing so, constitutes a third circuit of power coursing through the virtual lands. The imaginary binds the virtual social order [and] . . . creates the possibility of virtual community" (207). Finally, Jordan's Chapter Seven provides a summary of the theoretical frameworks of power he has used and a discussion of libertarianism on the Net that fuses individual liberty with free market forces.

Cyberpower is successful in driving home the complexity of issues of power in relation to cyberspace, and the ongoing struggle between individuals and the "cyber-elites" to control it. As an introductory text for undergraduates and interested publics, Cyberpower draws together many of the significant voices and events that have shaped cyberdiscourse over the past decade. Certainly, a reading of this volume would dispel any notions that virtual life is transparent, one of unconflicted good or evil.

My criticisms have to do with the author's attempts to cram everything that has or can be said about cyberspace into this one text. His chapters on the virtual social are dense and sometimes impenetrable, especially in the awkward choice of phrases such as "informational space of flows." I also found that Jordan's "myths of the electronic frontier" were confusingly framed and could have used better explication (perhaps the inclusion of Barthes' views on the naturalization of ideological myths would have been useful). It didn't help that Jordan's first use of a myth was to debunk the popular version of ARPANET origins, while later myths were validated accounts used to exemplify the cyberlore that form foundational principles of virtual life. But I would recommend Cyberpower for seminars aimed at introducing issues of power and the intricate interrelatedness of the individual and the social, current realities and future visions that continually construct cyberspace.

Sarah Stein:
Sarah Stein is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at North Carolina State University. She teaches media theory and criticism as well as film, video and digital media production. Her research is in the areas of visual communication and digital culture.  <sstein@unity.ncsu.edu>

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