Pit Schultz on Tue, 13 Feb 96 20:57 MET

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

nettime: Resisting the Virtual Life - ANDREW LEONARD


Resisting the Virtual Life


I had concocted quite a nasty strategy for reviewing the book Resisting the

Virtual Life, a collection of mostly anti-info age essays that's subtitled
The Culture and Politics of Information.

First I would strangle the authors with their own postmodern, neo-Marxist
jargon. Then I'd make vicious fun of all those deep thinkers staring into
their computer monitors and seeing nothing but fascism, homogenized culture,
and fantasies of omnipotence and paranoia reflected back at them. Finally,
as a last, sly low blow, I would dismiss this slick paperback published by
City Lights as yet another example of a bunch of hip intellectuals
capitalizing on the ultramarketable niche of cybercrit.

But all that was before I read the book.

I had scanned the table of contents and been enraged by a litany of blurbs
explaining how each essay was "exposing fallacies" and "debunking myths" and
"lifting shrouds." Must they be so goddamned obvious?

Then, midway through the brilliant first essay, "A Flow of Monsters,"
written by Iain A. Boal, one of the book's two editors, I took a step back
and reexamined my own motivations. As a fellow cyberjournalist asked me last
week, "Are we boosters or are we reporters?" Had I forgotten how to be


It's been a bad couple of weeks for info-age enthusiasts. The anti-digital
revolution backlash is well underway. With Time magazine's recent
inflammatory cover story on pornography on the Internet preparing the
battlefield for a right-wing assault on freedom of information, the last
thing I thought I needed was a clamor of voices telling me things I didn't
want to hear: things like the assertion that the migration to the Internet
by educated white people is just another form of "white flight." Or that
computer technology, instead of increasing productivity, has actually
increased the amount of labor required from workers. Or that sitting for
endless hours at a computer terminal, no matter how empowering it may seem
to be, is really a poor substitute for actually getting outside and taking a

Which is not to say that some of the 21 mercifully short essays in Resisting
the Virtual Life aren't tedious, profoundly mistaken, or downright absurd.
Daniel Harris is a good writer, but his contention that screen savers are a
new kind of opium, "the stimulant of false empowerment," and that their
widespread popularity is "in part the by-product of an occupational identity
crisis occurring among the upper echelons of the labor pool" is, shall we
say, a bit over the top.

I also have no patience for self-consciously pomo exercises that analyze the
dichotomy between the Marquis de Sade's emphasis on the body and Descartes'
emphasis on the mind via the metaphor of cyberspace. And I don't believe
that "extended replacement of in-person interaction with virtual interaction
decreases a person's ability to socialize comfortably with other people when
in their physical presence."

But that's quibbling. As one author put it, "Our cyberfuture doesn't want
for celebrants." We all need a cold-water dousing every now and then. And a
number of essays. Ellen Ullman's literary reportage on the culture of
software programmers is superb. San Francisco sex-toy doyen and alternative
press veteran Laura Miller argues that depicting cyberspace as a
"female-hostile" environment perpetuates stereotypes of women as the weaker
sex. And Iain Boal's three contributions, which include his essay and a pair
of riveting interviews, are worth the price of admission on their own.


One repeated theme bears examination, however--the thesis that the
information highway paves the way for enhanced exploitation of labor.
Certainly that has been the popular trend during these days of late
capitalism. But in making that argument, the authors in Resisting the
Virtual Life too often conflate the Internet with the information

And while it's possible that the Internet may evolve into the infobahn--and
certainly will do so if the telephone and cable companies have their
way--it's also true that right now the Internet is not an example of
centralized media monopoly control operating as an adjunct to the crushing
agenda of big capital. As it stands now the Internet is blissfully
decentralized, fully promotes the expression of dissident views, and offers
ways to subvert the distribution and publication strictures of the
established system.

Maybe that's a temporary phenomenon. Maybe five years down the line the
mid-'90s will seem like some lost golden age of information, before the
AT&Ts, MCIs, and TCIs locked up all the bits and bytes. In that case, we'll
need a lot more books like Resisting the Virtual Life.

*  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
*  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
*  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
*  more info: majordomo@is.in-berlin.de and "info nettime" in the msg body
*  URL: http://www.desk.nl/nettime/  contact: nettime-owner@is.in-berlin.de