McKenzie Wark on Wed, 9 Dec 1998 02:57:06 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Beyond Cyberhype

Beyond Cyberhype
McKenzie Wark

Darren Tofts and Murray McKeitch
Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberspace
Gordon + Breach Arts International

There is hype and there is cyberhype: what distinguishes the latter from
the former is its exponential quality. It is hype about hype itself, and
it ramped up so fast in the 80s and 90s that it ended up pointing straight
up, like a giddy soundbite version of John Glenn's space shuttle launch. 

Cyberhype, as Darren Tofts writes, was the consensual clich of the times.
Everything was digital, hyper, info, multi, techno, cyber, as if the whole
world was about to go through some kind of gestalt-snapping paradigm shift
right before our eyes. But as Michel Foucault once reminded us: perhaps we
are not really living through revolutionary times. Perhaps this moment is
just a coffee break in history -- and a decaf coffee break at that. 

As challenging as it may seem, this is one way to read Darren Tofts and
Murray McKeitch's Memory Trade. McKeitch's photoshop art, in particular,
give a somewhat scary flavour to the notion that the transformative power
of technology, to remake who we think we are and can be, has always been
part of the what it is to be human. Or in other words it is the inhuman in
us that makes us human -- our capacity to become otherwise makes us always
other than ourselves. If this is so, then the hubris of cyberhype gives
way to something darker, to technofear. If this is not the first and only
great revolution in our being, that we can't really be sure who or what we
are, going in to this next one. 

Darren Tofts argues that there are silent antecedents for the information
revolution. He wants to map a possible history of what came before it. Or
rather, a prehistory: "histories record: prehistories invent". It's a
matter of assembling, out of unlikely elements, a working model for
history itself. 

Central to Tofts' prehistory is the concept of cyberspace, which he calls
"a tantalising abstraction, the state of incorporeality, of disembodied
immersion in a 'space' that has no coordinates in actual space." William
Gibson named it 'cyberspace', and imagined how it might look 15 minutes
into the future. Tofts asks rather about its 2500 year past. 

Its a widespread perception that "community no longer conforms to the
classical notion of a group of people living in a fixed location." But did
it ever. The idea that, as I've put it before, 'we no longer have roots,
we have aerials' and that 'we no longer have origins we have terminals',
may in a sense have always been true. We can read in books or on web sites
about mythical, organic communities that existed always in some once upon
a time, but the very act of reading about such a world is the mark of our
distance from it. 

That there was always and already a 'cyberspace', without which there is
no concept of history, is, as Tofts says, "a dizzying abstraction to
grasp." The trouble is that we humans are so embedded in communication
technologies that they seem like second nature to us. Or perhaps they
seem, to use a a term of mine that Tofts borrows: a third nature. Humans
build a physical environment more hospitable to them, and this becomes a
second nature. Humans build an information environment more hospitable
too, and this becomes a third nature. Only these new worlds don't just
make our old selves more comfortable, they transform what it means to be

A characteristic of cyberhype is the idea that the old communication
technologies are alienating, but the new ones will restore us to a whole
and organic way of life Q what Marshall McLuhan called the global village.
>From Tofts' point of view, this fantasy starts to look like exactly that.
There is no Adamic pre-communicational world to return to. There is no
millennial transformation in the offing. Rather, the relationship between
culture and communication is a matter of permanent revolution. 

Tofts is also sceptical about all of those books that announce the end of
the book, and all the cyberhype about hypertext, as if clicking a few
buttons on the screen could revolutionise the act of reading or writing.
Reading is always hypertextual. This is obvious to anyone who has ever
picked up a nonfiction book, scanned the index and the contents page, and
then accessed the information in the order of their choice. Only fools
with brains addled by an unrelieved diet of novels could ever fall for
this nonsense about the book being 'linear' and computer based hypertext
'nonlinear' or 'mulitlinear'. 

To dispel some of the cyberhype, Tofts embarks on a prehistory of
cyberspace that looks at three of its dimensions. He examines the history
of writing, the construction of abstract spaces, and the invention of
technologies of memory. 

Writing is a technology. The way people who use this technology think and
feel is just not natural. Tofts acknowledges the hostility of some of the
more hide-bound lit-crit crowd to thinking deeply about this, but really
writing is just one of a series of technologies that have transformed how
humans think and feel, and transformed what it means to be human. 

There is something inhuman about writing. The act of externalising sense,
making it something cold and hard and apart from a human body -- is
downright weird. For Tofts, writing is where cyberspace begins. With
writing, it is possible to detach human thoughts, feelings, expressions,
from the time and place of their creation, and transport them to another
time and place. 

Even stranger, writing does not just externalise something human into
something inhuman. It also does the reverse. Strange gaggles of abstract
signs, little squiggles marked on a surface of stone or wood or paper,
suddenly speak to us in our heads, addressing us and making us pay heed.
How strange this is! A human who may be miles away, or may even have been
dead for years, is making meaning inside me. Writing, in short, implicates
any reading human in an inhuman world, a world were stones and leaves
speak to us in our own language. 

One of the reasons what were loosely called 'poststructuralist' theories
of writing aroused so much misunderstanding is because they were often
very much about this strangely inhuman side of the way writing works to
make meaning. But this is really not a new concern. Tofts revisits Plato's
Phadrus, one of the first texts in the western canon to express an
intimation of technofear, the disquiet caused by the inhuman side of
technology. The irony is that while Socrates and his mates appear to
discuss things like writing as a matter of conversation between humans, it
is through the inhuman form of Plato's written text that they 'speak' to

What is this strange space within which the dead and distant can
communicate with us? It is cyberspace -- and we're already in it. As Tofts
writes: "Literacy involved a series of subliminal acts that invoked a
virtual space of shared meanings and understandings, the ambience
otherwise known as communication." 

Following Derrida, Tofts argues that anything that can be the object of
perception in this internal space is 'virtual'. "The virtual is the link
or bond that unifies our experience of the world and our conceptual
understanding of that experience." I think this is rather too restricted
an understanding of the virtual, a reduction of a more sublime phenomena
to a special case. In Deleuze's understanding, virtuality is a much
broader category of radical possibility. 

All the same, there is plenty to think about in terms of the radical
possibility for otherness in human existence that Tofts assembles in his
prehistory. Writing is just one instance of a technology, or group of
technologies, that provide for an encoding of information in a more or
less permanent and stable form, external to the body, which creates a time
and space of sense making beyond the scope of the body, and which in turn
invades and transforms the body, making it over into a machine for
producing and reproducing communication. 

While cyberhype wrongly sees the current crop of technologies as something
more than an incremental development, it would also be an error to dismiss
the current moment of extension and transformation of cyberspace
altogether. Tofts identifies one particular key change: "The shift, within
technologies and economies of memory, from the specific location that
contains a finite archive of knowledge, to decentred networks of ambient
information, requires a new metaphor to facilitate social orientation to
the changing role of memory and memory trade within the information
economy." A new metaphor, or perhaps a new practice of thinking, both
within and about the communication process. 

Tofts stresses the fact that the act of making meaning always takes place
somewhere. This, for him, is the significance of Plato's cave:
representation always unfolds within a space. The space he proposes for
rethinking the current state of third nature is James Joyce's Finnegan's
Wake, a text notable for its "ecology of sense" of the media world.
Following Beckett, Tofts sees the Wake as a writing that writing that is
not about something, it is that something. 

A great one liner: "the pun is the nanotechnology of literature". It sums
up what it is about the Wake that makes it such a radically virtual space.
In the Wake, as in Murray McKeitch's art, anything and everything can be
transformed into anything and everything whatever. Here is that space
Burroughs announced, where "everything is permitted and nothing is true."
I think the Wake is less a metaphor for cyberspace in the 20th century,
but a metonymic part of it. It is a richly complex part of a space in
which humans find themselves, immersed in the noise of what Joyce called
the "bairdboard bombardment" by the "faroscope" of TV. 

Tofts is here sufficiently past the now unworkable orthodoxies of
structural and poststructural semiotics to show why those theories have
now to be surpassed. "To be immersed in information is to be information,
not a sender or receiver of it." The 'linguistic turn' posited a separate
world of signification, which represented a world of things external to
it. Poststructuralism undid the assumptions of such an epistemology from
the inside. But it's time to move on, and one of the joys of Tofts'
prehistory of cyberspace is that it lays some conceptual and historical
groundwork for thinking media theory free from the limiting assumptions of
poststructural dogmas. But it does so by pursuing poststructuralism to its
limit, rather than by retreating from it. 

"Any use of technology modifies what it means to be human", Tofts writes
-- in full recognition that the technology of writing in which this
expression appears is also included within its scope. It's not enough to
write about the technology of writing, or of communication in general, as
if from without. 

Writing is the key to Tofts' prehistory of cyberspace. Cyberspace
"continues the ancient project that began with the introduction of
writing, whereby proximity was no longer a defining characteristic of
communication between human beings." He is aware that architecture and
transport also plays a role in this transformation of the relation between
near and far, living and dead, but I think there is more to be said about
this vectoral side of the prehistory of cyberspace. Tofts has more to say
about the codes of encryption than the vectors of distribution of the
memory trade, and these are I think complimentary areas of research in
contemporary media theory. 

Cyberspace is an ongoing revolution, and not one that restores a lost
world, but rather than that carries us further and further from ourselves,
differentiating the future human from the past human by inhuman means.
Cyberspace "threatens to transform human life in ways that, at the moment,
are still the province of science fiction." But increasingly also the
province of media theory. 

What I think distinguishes contemporary media theory from, say,
poststructuralism, is a much more critical relation to the means of
communication within which theory itself forms and disseminates. As such,
Darren Tofts and Murray McKeitch have made a valuable contribution to an
emergent field. The irony of course is that rather than recycle outdated
ideas in fancy computer hypertext, they have come up with an original way
of thinking and writing the world in the familiar form of the book. 

McKenzie Wark's lastest book, Celebrity, Culture and Cyberspace, will be
published by Pluto Press Australia. 

This review originally appeared in Realtime magazine

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