Fantasy, reality and futures collide on the Net

Fractal Dreams - Communication and Cyberspace - Cultures of Internet
February 14, 1997

People in the developed world are living through another period of disorientating economic and social change. Just like the steam engine or nuclear power in earlier times, the Net has become the technological metaphor for this rapid transformation of our lives. However, the "information superhighway" has yet to be built. Even in the United States, most people aren't online. But, far from harming its iconic status, the embryonic nature of the Net has enhanced its metaphorical power. New Left veterans can believe that the Net will finally create direct democracy. Neo-liberal ideologues can assume that cyberspace will be organised as a perfect "free market". Even New Agers can dream of abandoning the flesh to live as spirits in virtual worlds. Precisely because cyberspace is under construction, the Net can be used as a confirmation of almost any political or philosophical position.

Faced with so much hype, the job of intellectuals is to carry out a critical analysis of what is really going on. These three collections of essays are attempts to provide such an academic overview, primarily from a cultural studies perspective. Each text examines some of the hot topics emerging from the development of the Net: email, cyborgs, virtual reality, flaming, virtual communities, cybersex and so on. However, as with hippies, Thatcherites and mystics, these writers have their own peculiar fantasies to project onto the Net, such as postmodernism and poststructuralism. Reading these books proves that some academic discourses can be as much of a hindrance as a help in understanding what is happening in cyberspace.

Although sharing common theoretical perspectives, the three books are distinguished by their geographical origins. Not surprisingly, the English text - Fractal Dreams - offers the most pessimistic analysis of the impact of the Net. For instance, Kevin Robins, Sean Cubitt and Beryl Grahem dismiss the popularity of online services as a form of infantile regression. Unable to comprehend the social nature of cyberspace, they seem to believe that people use the Net to indulge in lonely high-tech masturbation. As well as this psychobabble, the book also deploys other one-sided forms of analysis. Fred Johnson believes that the Net is simply the technological expression of a "cybernetic capitalism" being developed by ambitious US politicians and their friends in the large corporations. Jon Dovey denounces those activists championing the emancipatory potential of the Net as dupes of big business because community TV failed to fulfil its libertarian promises back in the 1970s. Judith Squires ferociously assaults cyberfeminism as a step backwards from the heady days of 20 years ago. Although advertising itself as "essential reading for cyberpunks", this book really should be promoted as "technophobia for ageing babyboomers". Gripped by postmodern ennui, the authors have produced the 1990s equivalent of those 1950s books by concerned academics denouncing the pernicious influence of rock 'n' roll, coffee bars or other fashionable enthusiasms.

In contrast, Cultures of Internet provides an almost completely utopian examination of cyberspace. Written mainly by Canadians, this collection is an updated version of that country's infamous "cracker-barrel Socrates": Marshall McLuhan. The book therefore combines the sci-fi dreams of Californian Net hype with the most outlandish fantasies of French poststructuralism. For instance, intoxicated by reading too much Deleuze and Guattari, Dan Thu Nguyen and Jon Alexander proclaim that the Net is about to replace the nation state with "demassified direct democracy". Mesmerised by the same philosophers, Andre Lemos believes that French people sitting in front of Minitel terminals are really "rhizomic nomads" wandering across the world. Ken Hillis goes even further by announcing that virtual reality will bring about a gnostic transcendence by separating mind from body. Sadie Plant - the English cyberfeminist - announces that cyberspace will bring to an end 2,000 years of patriarchal oppression. Only the group called "Interrogate the Internet" are aware of any limitations to the wired world. But one article can't overcome the one-sided nature of this collection. While the writers in Fractal Dreams can only see the Net as pernicious, the contributors to Cultures of Internet are desperate to believe in every extravagant claim made about cyberspace.

Surprisingly, the most dialectical analysis of cyberspace is found within the US collection of essays: Communications and Cyberspace. The book presents more than one side of the argument. Some essays are almost English in their miserabilism. Stuart Moulthrop denounces cyberspace as "the last holiday orgy of the yuppies". Neil Postman ends the book with a neo-Luddite attack on the Net as the purveyor of information garbage. At the same time, the collection also has its moments of poststructuralist hyperbole. Mark Lipton too believes that people sitting at computer screens are "rhizomic nomads". Jay Bolter declares that cyberspace will abolish the Cartesian ego and the Kantian subject. But alongside such heady rhetoric there are also some more thoughtful articles. When not entranced by formalist philosophy, cultural studies can provide a way of examining how people act within their everyday lives, including within virtual worlds. Although touched on by the other books, Communications and Cyberspace includes the most interesting articles on the use of the Net by actual people. For instance, Judith Lee examines the peculiar rhetoric used in emails. Philip Thompsen writes about why normally sensible people can become vicious flamers in online debates.

Crucially, these and other essays examine cyberspace as a contradictory phenomenon. Both unthinking pessimism and naive optimism are rejected. Above all, the book is aware of what Sue Barnes calls the "Orwellian paradox" at the heart of cyberspace. At one and the same time, the development of the Net is increasing individual freedom and centralised surveillance. Mark Giese shows how this paradox has been present since the earliest days of the Net because it was jointly developed by the hierarchical military establishment and the egalitarian academic community. For him, the debate between advocates of commercial services and DIY culture about the future of the Net is a continuation of the same argument in a new form. The debate is continued across a series of other essays. On the one hand, James Beniger claims that the spread of the Net is creating an electronic form of Panoptican which uses interactivity to direct our behaviour more efficiently. On the other hand, Judith Lee, Michael Beaubien and Richard Cutler argue that cyberspace can only be built through open communications between people. This key feature of the Net ensures that we could have much greater control over our own lives in the future. Because it covers both sides of this fundamental contradiction, Communications and Cyberspace is the only one of these books worth recommending. For once, US academics provide the most dialectical analysis of a social phenomenon.

However, even in this book, the academic background of most of its contributors creates problems. One of the central forces behind the building of cyberspace is the transformation of work and commerce. Yet, whether for institutional or philosophical reasons, media and cultural theorists over the past 20 years have been allergic to any form of "economism". Even in Communications and Cyberspace, Neil Kleinmann is the only contributor to examine closely the economic transformation being catalysed by the spread of the Net. His article provides a fascinating discussion about whether copyright - as a legal form of industrial capitalism - can survive in cyberspace. This article shows the importance of including economism within any analysis of cyberspace. The tired discourses of poststructuralism and postmodernism are no longer sufficient. For a large part of contemporary culture, the protection of copyright remains a precondition of its production. This is why the process of technological convergence must be paralleled by a coming together of academic disciplines. Only then can intellectuals create a critical approach which can penetrate through the hype and hysteria around the Net.

Richard Barbrook is a member of the Hypermedia Research Centre, University of Westminster.

Fractal Dreams: New Media in Social Context

Editor - Jon Dovey
ISBN - 0 85315 800 2
Publisher - Lawrence and Wishart
Price - £12.99
Pages - 228

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