Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


Cultures of the Internet

Rob Shields (editor)
London: Sage
ISBN 0 8039 7519 8
37.50 (hb); 12.95 (pb)
208 pp.

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Cyberspace Cyberbodies Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment

Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows (editors)
London: Sage
ISBN 0 7619 5085 0(pb); 0 7619 5084 2 (hb)
45.00 (hb); 14.99 (pb)
228 pp.

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Sociology and the social sciences more generally, have been slow in coming to terms with the world they operate within. Such inertia may be explained by Marshall McLuhan's thesis that as extensions of the human body, technologies often imply numbness. In the case of information and communication technologies, for example, this numbness can be felt (a paradox?) in the growing discrepancies between the worlds of social scientific concepts and interactions. Academics are among the most networked social groups on the internet, but very little of the internet, or even e-mail (we might add fax, telephone and telegraph), has actually affected mainstream social theory. There has been some empirical as well as theoretical research, but most of it has remained marginal within the social sciences. However, this may be about to change. In 1996 Sage has launched two publications on subjects related to the social and cultural implications of advanced computer technologies.

Rob Shield's edited book called Cultures of the Internet, is in many ways an extraordinary work. It is a collection of essays mainly written by internet users, many of whom occupying the lower strata of the academic hierarchy. This is no coincidence, since students were the first to start using e-mail regularly. Moreover, much of the computer-supportive work in academic settings has a low status. As a result, the book presents to us not the speculative desires of cutting-edge high flyers, but people who understand the technology from within and who have experienced what it is like to exist in virtual communities.

Many of the essays in Cultures of the Internet paint the worlds of e-mail, usenet and the internet with a remarkable intimacy, bringing their own experiences of these worlds in relation to more abstract theoretical elaboration with considerable ease. For example, in one of the chapters Katie Argyle shows us how her understanding of that which sociologists refer to as 'the social' changed after she became an internet user. To undermine the claim that computer technology fosters cultures of distance, of indifference, a blasé society, Argyle (in another chapter called 'Death on the Internet') presents us with an illustration of the way internet users dealt with the death of one of their virtual community members. Other more experiential essays concern issues such as censorship (Leslie Regan Shade), using e-mail in Jamaica (Joerge Drytkton), an essay by a collective called 'Interrogate the Internet' focusing more critically on the politics of domination and hegemony that characterize the internet, and an essay by Heather Bromberg on 'Identity, Belonging and Consciousness in Virtual Worlds'.

More theoretical essays by Lemos, Hillis, Nguyen & Alexander and Plant deal with respectively the socio-cultural complexities of electronic communication, virtual reality, cyberpolitics and the specifically gendered practices of networking. The main ethos of these essays is critical but always on the basis of an informed analysis. Only Mark Lajoie's essay 'Psychoanalysis and Cyberspace' is more openly hostile. However, the distinction between virtual and material reality which he emphasizes, prohibits him from seeing cultures of the internet as anything other than expressions of paranoia and narcissism. Far from being an odd one out, however, such a dissonant voice is indicative of the range of perspectives that Shields has been able to gather in one collection, illustrating the relatively open and contradictory nature of the internet itself. As Shields writes in the introduction 'technology mediates presence'; the internet is not a place of separation but of intimation, 'making the distant and foreign, present and tangible' (p. 5). This communicative ethos can be traced back to the very form of the book itself. The book introduces an innovative way of writing, using a system of footnotes, which provide a venue for a counter-reading that disrupts the grain of the text, alongside the more conventional endnotes that signal scholarly erudition and referencing. Although it remains a printed form of communication, this system of footnoting allows for a satisfactory approximation of the hypertext-hybrid as far as print goes.

In many ways, despite its more adventurous title, Cyberspace Cyberbodies Cyberpunk is more conventional than Cultures of the Internet. The fifteen contributions are all of a rather standard academic format, and - with the exception of Nick Land's essay, entitled 'Meat (or How to Kill Oedipus in Cyberspace)' - all relatively accessible and geared towards introducing the reader to the central issues of the presented topic(s). The central concerns of this book are the immanent social transformations set in motion by the advent of a new wave of information and communication technologies and particularly focus on the way such processes operate upon and affect the body. The book is less specific about what kind of technologies are seen as most performative in this respect, and the term 'technology' itself is used to cover a wide range of aspects varying from a pair of spectacles to the yet-to-be- developed high-tech applications of Virtual Reality. The introduction by the editors, Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows, provides a very useful overview of the book and discusses the relationships between its main concerns and the central concepts that have been used throughout this volume.

As in Cultures of the Internet, Cyberspace covers a wide range of perspectives and opinions, varying from the celebratory to the openly hostile. However, it is well organized around three themes: cybertechnology, the body and forms of sociation. These themes are connected in the concept of prosthesis. Whereas at first glance, the term prosthetics refers to the replacement of organic body parts by 'artificial' ones, its application to cybertechnologies allows for a more extensively 'social' conceptualization. For example, Alison Landsberg (in an essay entitled 'Prosthetic Memory: Total Recall and Blade Runner') discusses the implications of prosthetic memory which deeply affect the identification processes that are central to human being. Similar concerns are raised by Clark ('the Recursive Generation of the Cyberbody'), Lupton ('the Embodied Computer/User'), Belsamo ('Technological Embodiment'), Robert Rawdon Wilson ('Prosthetic Consciousness') and Kevin McCarron ('the Body and Cyberpunk'). Samantha Holland's essay ('Mind, Body and Gender in Contemporary Cyborg Cinema') provides a sophisticated feminist critique of the particularly selective and masculinist forms in which prosthetics have been appropriated in films that feature cyborgs. Particularly strong is her critique of the mind/body dualism that pervades the cyborg imagery.

In many of the essays in this volume, the work of the novelist William Gibson, and in particular his famously acclaimed Neuromancer, is central. This shows the way in which apart from the near-total crash of the disciplinary divisions in academia (at least as far as the social sciences are concerned), we might be witnessing another transgression: between the worlds of 'fact' and 'fiction'. The notion of virtual reality implies nothing less than the impossibility of separating the real from the symbolic. This is why the two most negatively critical essays, by Kevin Robins and Vivian Sobchack, both question the optimistic promises of cybertechnologies and criticize its alleged ethos of (desire for) disembodied omnipotence. The basic premise upon which this critique operates is the distinction between the 'real' which is associated with facticity, materiality and 'the body' and the 'representational', which is associated with the symbolic output of communication and information processes. This binary opposition thus functions to invert the alleged devaluation of the real by denouncing the excesses of virtual reality as either immoral and unethical (Sobchack) or escapist and banal and (therefore?) invalid (Robins).

A more complicated (complicit?) perspective can be found in the chapters by Tomas, Plant (which is almost the same essay as in Shields' collection), Heim, Poster and Lupton. In these essays more general issues of cybertechnology are introduced in relation to their psycho-social, cultural and political consequences. Of all the chapters in this book, Mark Poster's 'Postmodern Virtualities' is perhaps the most accessible. He rehearses his well-known argument that the 'mode of information' has generated a new type of social organization based on forms of discipline and control that bypass modernity's dualistic conceptualization of the individual and the public sphere (which he subsequently terms 'postmodernity'). Invoking the post-structuralist notion of the de-centered subject, Poster argues for a new participatory 'public' sphere in the form of virtual communities that allow for more fluid subjectivities.

A similar argument can be found in Deborah Lupton's 'The Embodied Computer/User'. Here she discusses the intimacy involved in using computers on an everyday basis. The body, the location of such intimacy, exists in a multiplicity of relationships to computer technology, varying at its extremes from desires to escape the body to incorporating the machine. Most interesting in this essay is her final session on risky computing, where she discusses some of the implications of the blurring boundaries between computers and humans, which are often associated with negative, if not apocalyptic, consequences: computer crime, viral epidemics, pornography, and anti-social subversiveness. Both positive and negative desires regulate the way humans relate computer and constitute the human-computer interface.

To conclude, both Cultures of the Internet and Cyberspace, Cyberbodies, Cyberpunk offer the reader a wealth of insights, from a variety of perspectives, which are not always consistent and often discontinuous. Indeed, this is the very charm of such collections. They embody the debates and tensions of people actually struggling to come to terms with the worlds we live in. Despite these discontinuities and inconsistencies, both works have a thematic-conceptual integration of their own, allowing the reader to map out the heterologies of theorizing technocultural embodiments and sociations. If social scientists are to make a real impact on our relationship to information and communication technologies, the persistent focus of the body and the social as presented in these writings on information and communication technologies will undoubtedly be one of their major assets.

Joost van Loon
Culture, Organization and Management, Free University of Amsterdam

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996