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Posted by Richard Barbrook on February 19, 1997 at 12:26:01:

Fractal Dreams: New Media in Social Context, Jon Dovey (ed.), Lawrence &
Wishart, 228pp, £12.99

Cultures of Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies, Rob
Shields (ed.), Sage Publications, 208pp, £37.50/£12.95

Communication and Cyberspace: Social Interaction in an Electronic
Environment, Lance Strate, Ronald Jacobson & Stephanie B. Gibson (eds.),
Hampton Press, 368pp, £55.50

At present, 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 inside and outside work.
However, the much-heralded 'information superhighway' has yet to be built.
Even in the USA, most people still aren't on-line. 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 still under construction, the Net can be used as a confirmation of almost
any political or philosophical position.

Faced with so much hype about cyberspace, the job of intellectuals is to
carry out a critical analysis of what is really going on. These three
collection of essays are attempts to provide such an academic overview,
primarily from a Cultural Studies perspective. In their different ways, each
text examines some of the hot topics emerging from the development of the
Net: e-mail, cyborgs, VR, 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 post-modernism and
post-structuralism. Reading these books proves that some academic discourses
can be as much of a hinderance as a help in understanding what's happening
out there 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 all
dismiss the popularity of on-line services as a form of infantile
regression. Unable to comprehend the social nature of cyberspace, they seem
to believe that people only use the Net to indulge in lonely hi-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 American 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 fulfill
its libertarian promises back in the '70s. Judith Squires ferociously
assaults cyberfeminism as a step backwards from the heady days of twenty
years ago. Although advertising itself as 'essential reading for
cyberpunks', this book really should be promoted as 'technophobia for ageing
babyboomers'. Gripped by post-modern ennui, the authors have produced the
'90s equivalent of those '50s books by concerned academics denouncing the
pernicious influence of rock 'n' roll, coffee bars or other fashionable

In contrast, *Cultures of Internet* provides an almost completely utopian
examination of cyberspace. Written mainly by Canadians, this collection of
essays 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
post-structuralism. For instance, intoxicated by reading too much Deleuze
and Guattari, Dan Thu Nguyen and Jon Alexander proclaim that the Net is
imminently about to abolish the nation state and replace it with
"demassified direct democracy". Mesmerised by the same philosophers, André
Lemos believes that French people sitting down 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 the mind from the body. Not to be outdone, 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 American collection of essays: *Communications and Cyberspace*. For a
start, the book presents more than one side of the argument. Some essays are
almost English in their miserablism. 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. Yet,
at the same time, the collection also has its moments of post-structuralist
hyperbole. Mark Lipton too believes that people sitting in front of 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
e-mails. Philip Thompsen writes about why normally sensible people can
become vicious flamers in on-line 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 both 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 current debate between advocates of
commercial services and d.i.y. 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 monitor and direct our behaviour more efficiently. On
the other hand, Judith Lee, Michael Beaubien and Richard Cutler all argue in
their articles 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 in the development of the Net,
*Communications and Cyberspace* is the only one of these three books worth
recommending. For once, American 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 driving forces behind the
building of cyberspace is the transformation of the world of work and
commerce. Yet, whether for institutional or philosophical reasons, media and
cultural theorists over the past twenty 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 the cyberspace. This article shows the
importance of including "economism" within any analysis of cyberspace. The
tired discourses of post-structuralism and post-modernism 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.

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