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Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics

Author: Wendy Hui Kyong Chun
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: February 2008

 REVIEW 1: Jentery Sayers
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Wendy Chun

How is the desire for autonomy and democracy mobilized through information and communications technologies? What happens to the public/private binary, as well as race and sexuality, in the age of fiber optics and network privatization? And how might a better understanding of the vulnerabilities that we experience when using technologies increase the democratic potential of digital media? Engaging these questions and many others, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun's Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics examines how the Internet, as "one of the most compromising media to date" (144), became synonymous with freedom.

What makes Chun's approach refreshing is that she stresses how technologies actually operate, including their failures. By attending to material operations, Chun complicates liberatory rhetorics of cyberspace (e.g., "The Internet is race-free") and myths of empowered Internet users (e.g., "I can go anywhere today") while also considering the constraints imposed by computer hardware (e.g., male-to-female connectors) and Internet protocols (e.g., TCP/IP). Her primary argument is that "freedom is not the same thing as control" (viii), even if the two are often conflated in and through popular Internet culture. According to Chun, the control-freedom conflation "produces and is produced by paranoia" (viii), which reduces the political to the technological (3). This reduction simultaneously elides the structural and physical limitations of technologies and assumes too much end-user control over them. Consequently, Chun argues for the creation of "vulnerable systems" (viii) through which we can "seize a freedom that always moves beyond our control" (30). This freedom is neither conflated with control nor possessed by the individual. Instead, it recognizes how people and technologies participate in continuous feedback loops of influence and exchange.

Throughout Control and Freedom, Chun's argument is not only persuasive, multimodal, and nuanced, its numerous lines of inquiry also suggest promising new research on race, sexuality, technology, and the public sphere. In this review, I address three of these lines in particular, beginning with Chun's claims and evidence for the shift from a "public/private" binary to an "open/closed" one. I then turn to the role of passing, race, and sexuality in the book, and finally conclude the review with Chun's understanding of navigation, as well as noting how Control and Freedom might serve as a point of departure into future research (with an emphasis on technoculture studies).

In Chapter 1 ("Why Cyberspace?") Chun notes that, after the Internet went public through privatization in 1994-95, state owned, publicly accessible spaces began to disappear, while privately owned, publicly accessible spaces emerged, thereby reconstituting "public/private" as "open/closed" (38). This reconstitution matters for Chun because network protocols are in large part hidden from users' routine experiences with technologies. As such, users are often unconscious of how technology (and, by extension, ideology) operates and fails to operate, hence the all too familiar paranoia over a word-wide surveillance network (6). And yet a popular protocol suite such as TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) "precedes individual users, openly copying and transporting seemingly private requests and messages" (169). Here, "seemingly private" is crucial. Regardless of whether people treat their communications and computers as personal, user "privacy" is but an effect of software, since users are already a part of a socially interdependent network (169). Of course, these networks are often corporately owned. For example, companies typically own and can therefore open employee e-mail (169). The shift to open/closed, then, is also a shift to rhetorics of access. Importantly, this shift privileges information in and of itself, ignoring technoliteracy and frameworks for knowledge-making. "Open or free software may be nice" (72), but access to code and software alone does not determine democracy (152). Thus, a pressing issue for Chun is: "What happens when the entity seeming to enforce equality and equal rights is the private corporation instead of the state?" (72). Even if the Internet is open to all, openness may not guarantee that its discourse is public and indeterminate. Moreover, overestimating openness and access sidesteps how race and sexuality function on the web.

As with her articulation of the transformation of public/private to open/closed, Chun emphasizes freedom and access in her analysis of passing on the Internet, particularly in Chapter 3 ("Scenes of Empowerment"). In this chapter, beginning with a close reading of MCI's 1997 "Anthem" commercial, Chun argues that, in order to sell the Internet to a user base, corporations such as MCI "sought to blind users to their own constitutive vulnerability ... by conflating racial and technological empowerment, color- and technology-blindness" (130). Through the "Anthem" commercial, the audience is able to picture a new world, one without race, age, or gender. What is left, then? Apparently only minds (131). If the Internet is a mind-space, then it allows individuals to travel and communicate freely without the fetters of their own bodies (132). As a result, transcendence is the key to MCI's message. Because when the Internet is imagined as a space of emancipation, it "also naturalizes racism" by not only ignoring the institutional conditions that ultimately produce racism, but also paradoxically placing the burden of responding to discrimination on the discriminated (132). Succinctly put, Chun notes that: "The message is not even 'do not discriminate.' It is 'get online if you want to avoid being discriminated against'" (132-133). Accordingly, the goal for users is not to become anonymous online; it is to go public in a forum that the "Anthem" commercial describes as: "Where minds, doors, and lives open up" (131, emphasis added). In all of this "opening" up, actual bodies are to be left behind.

At this juncture in Chapter 3, the stakes of Chun's argument and its relevance to discourses on race and racism are clear. Yet she then makes a series of subsequent claims regarding race and embodiment by turning from "Anthem" to contemporary Internet practices and United Nations documents on the digital divide. She concludes that the racial utopia portrayed in the "Anthem" commercial is represented through how corporations conceive of and how users perceive the Net. Again, through appeals to access, and not to the tools and skills required to develop technoliteracy, the Internet is intentionally made attractive to particular, race-based markets (153-154). Race then becomes a consumer category on the Internet. Such a proliferation of race "encourages one to celebrate, or to identify with, another race by indulging in the same 'authentic' pleasures" (154). And Chun links this virtual consumption of race on the web with pornography. In other words, race is not just a consumer category; it is a pornographic category as well (130). Of course, as she asserts in Chapter 2 (ôScreening Pornography"), a gap exists between what users download or see on the Internet and their identity or how they act, respectively (84). In this sense, the Net becomes a space for thrill-seeking, an inconsequential frontier where you gawk at, but never quite encounter, deviancy (59, 84). By no mere coincidence, passing online therefore tends to erase race, reducing the embodied experiences of users to a commodity that is temporarily consumed and discarded (158). As a response to this erasure, Chun unpacks how artist groups such as Mongrel design hacks and web-tools in the service of disrupting the pleasures of everyday computer practices. These hacks and web-tools literally remove user control of the interface, exposing the problems with passing, "the limits of choice," and "the fallacy of the all-powerful, race-free user" (164). The user is forced into an encounter, suggesting that, as Chun argues throughout Control and Freedom, a truly public Internet (and, ostensibly, freedom beyond control) must remain a space of vulnerability and compromise.

In her readings of contemporary Internet practices, Chun gives great weight to the role of navigation in users' fears of vulnerability and compromise. In short, the navigability of the Internet is seductive (42). Beginning with Chapter 1 ("Why Cyberspace?"), where she stresses the fading of "cyberspace" from mainstream use, Chun connects the desire to navigate with "a mythical user" (42). The user is mythical because her or his sense of control-freedom is invented and misleading. Chun returns to navigation through "high-tech Orientalism" in Chapter 4 ("Orienting the Future") (177). In her reading of William Gibson's Neuromancer and Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell, she argues that "high-tech Orientalism seeks to orient the reader to a technology-overloaded present/future ... through the promise of readable difference, and through a conflation of information networks with an exotic urban landscape" (177). As Chun points out in Chapter 3, the promise of such difference is oppressive, a means through which to deny and displace responsibility for individual action onto others (133). Readable difference is always "their problem" (133). In the case of high-tech Orientalism, users imagine themselves bodiless and, to compensate for a "lack of mastery" (177), are lured by intimate and sexual relations with another. According to Chun, high-tech Orientalism thus flattens the other to pure, eroticized information -- to a stereotypical image of a "person" who represents an entire location or country such as Japan (177-178, 210). Yet Chun is also quick to acknowledge that high-tech Orientalism cannot be reduced to only domination. That is, it is also a way of dealing with and even enjoying vulnerability (29). And this gesture toward enjoying vulnerability, rather than insisting upon and desiring total control, is precisely the direction that Control and Freedom takes us.

My primary question about Chun's argument in Control and Freedom is how, exactly, vulnerability differs from victimization. Or, more specifically, where does the threshold of vulnerability end and victimization begin? This question obviously leads to subsequent questions, such as who determines what is vulnerability and what is victimization, how such determinations would operate through technologies, and to what effects. Regardless of these questions, Chun's re-thinking of freedom, control, and the Internet opens up a series of productive inquiries for future research, particularly in technoculture studies. In terms of the problematic imaginings of the Internet as a "race-free utopia," Control and Freedom builds upon and extends Lisa Nakamura's Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet, especially Nakamura's work on passing in the chapter, "Head-Hunting on the Internet." As the Net continues to develop through the spread of "real-time," video-based sites, attention to race, technoliteracy, and passing will be all the more important. At the level of code, Control and Freedom also intersects in engaging ways with Alexander R. Galloway's Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization and N. Katherine Hayles's My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. Both of these texts, as well as Chun's, suggest that critics from various disciplines need to continue researching code's relationship with language, compilers, politics, and societies of control. Finally, to follow Chun's readings of cyberpunk in this book, more critical work, such as Tom Foster's The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory, might be done on cyberpunk's relations with other cultural formations.

These are but a few connections that emerge from Wendy Chun's Control and Freedom, a text which no doubt demonstrates that technology does indeed have an outside. The next question, then, is how to go about using it without thinking like a machine.

Foster, Thomas. The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Galloway, Alexander R. Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

Ghost in the Shell (K˘kaku kid˘tai). Dir. Mamoru Oshii. Tokyo: Production IG, 1995.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1994.

Hayles, N. Katherine. My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

MCI. "Anthem." New York: Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, 1997.

Mongrel. "About Mongrel."

Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Jentery Sayers:
Jentery Sayers is currently pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Washington-Seattle, where he also teaches English composition and literature courses. His research focuses on the intermediations of sound technologies, subjectivity, and artistic production in Anglo-American modernism.  <jentery@u.washington.edu>

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