McKenzie Wark on Tue, 12 Jan 1999 01:45:38 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Celebrity, Culture and Cyberspace

by McKenzie Wark

extract 002
Monday, 11 January 1999

Here's another short extract from my next book. Thanks to nettimers who posted
some thoughts to me about the last chunk. The book will be published by Pluto
Press Australia in February:

>From Television to Cyberspace

Marshall McLuhan imagined print media as a sort of fall from grace, and
broadcast media as transcending the limits of print culture and launching us
into the collective consciousness of the "global village."1 In the 90s, the
promise of cyberspace also incited a range of responses. McLuhan's prophecies
about the coming of the global village enjoyed a revival, largely sponsored by
the Californian cyberculture magazine Wired. New York critic Mark Dery's
caustic term for this McLuhanite revivalism is "theology of the ejector seat."2
While there is much that is illuminating in McLuhan's instamatic aphorisms, I
find the inquiring scepticism of writers like Dery more consistently edifying. 

Australian writers were rarely as evangelical as McLuhan and his
seelf-appointed followers in their embrace of cyberspace. A more practical and
sceptical handling of it prevailed among writers such as Dale Spender, Jon
Casimir, Daniel Petrie and David Harrington.3 As if to (over) compensate, John
Nieuwenhuizen ranted against cyberspace as "cultural AIDS".4 Both Nieuwenhuizen
and his opponents in this debate tended to over-estimate the novelty of this
particular 'information revolution', as if there had not been a whole series of
information revolutions in the past century, each of which brought a unique set
of changes in its wake. 

It is simply not the case that cyberspace boots-up out of nowhere with the
internet. Nor is the internet a unique or radical break in vectoral history.
Even before the federation of the colonies, Australia was caught up in a whole
series of technological changes that generated new vectors for storing or
distributing information. Communications historian K. T. Livingstone lists
telegraphy (1840s), rotary printing (1840s), the typewriter (1860s),
transatlantic cable (1866), telephone (1876), motion pictures (1894), wireless
telegraphy (1899), magnetic tape recording (1890s), radio (1806) and television
(1923) as significant inventions that created new communication possibilities.5
Cyberspace is an emergent property that arises out of the cumulative growth of
ever more supple, subtle, pervasive and invasive vectors of communication. 

Rather than see things in a technological determinist fashion, where these new
vectors drive changes in everything else, I think it makes more sense to adopt
a 'technological possibilist' view. Livingstone has an interesting take on the
extent to which the possibility of telegraphy made it possible for the
competing colonies on the Australian continent to think about cooperation. He
points out that telegraphy was a significant topic of debate among political
leaders in inter-colonial forums in the long, slow process of federating the
colonies. New technologies make possible new vectors, along which information
can travel more quickly, more reliably, more accurately or in greater quantity.
These vectors create a matrix which makes it possible to generate new forms of
political or cultural action. These forms of political and cultural action can
in turn shape the way the next generation of vectors is implemented. 

The relationship between telegraphy and federation is an interesting late 19th
century instance of such a connection between a vector and the kinds of action
it enables, and which in turn further the development of the vector. Telegraphy
brought business and political elites into an emerging national space, while
many ordinary people lived in a more local matrix of vectors. In the 20th
century, television and the telephone extended the national space into ordinary
people's lives, while business and political elites connected into a growing
global network of communication. 

Television makes it possible to generate vast publics, attuned simultaneously
to the same message; the telephone makes it possible to coordinate personal
connections, exchanging particular and self generated messages.6 Through the
television and the telephone, quite different kinds of culture coalesce: one
based on normative and majoritarian messages; the other at least potentially
enabling the formation of marginal and minority cultures. Through the
television and telephone, quite different forms of political action can be

The election campaigns of the major parties use television to spray messages as
widely as possible, trying to catch the transient attention of uncommitted
voters. The telephone, on the other hand, is the weapon of choice of the
machine politician, lobbying and persuading one on one. Or as the conservative
parties learned, it can be used for aggressive "push polling", where party
operatives call voters and ask leading questions that are carefully targeted to
particular local issues. Push polling does not try to gather information on
voter intentions, but to change those intentions.7

Communications historians Graeme Osborne and Glen Lewis argue that there have
been three persistent themes in Australian debates about communication. The
first is a technocratic concern with building infrastructure for national
development. For a long time debate centred on which kinds of government
institution ought to implement which kinds of technology, but the rise of an
argument in favour of market led development in the 80s was not unprecedented.
A second theme is the view of communication as an agent of social control. The
critical literature which decries the controlling influence of media that rose
to prominence since the 60s really just reverses the value of long held
assumptions about the power of communication. Wartime propaganda managers of
the 40s saw control as a good thing, while journalists of the 90s who had to
work in the shadow of corporate media interests took the contrary view. The
third theme is the concern over the role of communication in community and!
culture. Some saw commercial media as having a particularly poisonous effect on
community; others, such as McGregor, adopted a more subtle view of the
relationship between communication and culture. 

Each of these three themes takes on a new inflection as pop gives way to
cyberspace. For Osborne and Lewis, the technological development of the vector,
from the telegraph to the internet, "does not appear to have overcome the sense
of social isolation or the existence of an inarticulate citizenship." It is not
enough, they argue, to improve the technology. There is also "a fundamental
sense in which the question of values needs to be addressed by students of
communication if its role in community creation is to be better understood."8
In Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace, my aim is limited to looking into the
development of values within the communications matrix emerging at the end of
the century. 

I agree with writers such as K. T. Livingston, Graeme Osborne and Glen Lewis
that the historical dimension to communication has been unjustly ignored, but I
would add that it is also necessary to develop concepts out of that history.
I'm looking for concepts that not only grasp the past, but can articulate
possible futures; concepts that not only grasp the technical and social aspects
of communication, but the subjective and experiential side as well; concepts
that might help articulate a debate about the fair go on the cusp between the
broadcast era of radio and television, and the postbroadcast era of cyberspace.

Conceptualising Cyberspace "I belong to the first generation in Australia born
into a world in which television already existed", writes Deakin University
academic Scott McQuire.9 I think he also belongs to the first generation of
Australian media theorists using this lifetime of experience as a background
for thinking about how media technologies transform both our conscious and
unconscious lives in an ongoing way. For those of us raised by television, the
so-called Generation X, it is clear that our perceptions are different to those
who preceded us, who were weaned on cinema and radio. We are no better, no
worse, just different. What is emerging in Australian media studies is a desire
to confront the changes to media form since television on the basis of this
experience of a prior transformation of which we are the product.

"Cyberspace is the defining figure for a sensibility produced by mediated
cultures", write Darren Tofts from Swinburne University, another of the TV
generation of media theorists.10 In his experience, "cyberspace... invokes a
tantalising abstraction, the state of incorporeally, of disembodied immersion
in a 'space' that has no co-ordinates in actual space". While it may appear to
some that technologies like the internet, multimedia, hypertext and so on
created this space ex nihil, Tofts insists that "cyberspace has its own
sedimentary record, and accordingly requires an archaeology". These are just
the latest gadgets in a long process of technologising the perceptions through
which our bodies negotiate the world. 

McQuire and Tofts go looking in different places for the conceptual prehistory
of cyberspace. Tofts is interested in technologies of writing, from the clay
tablet to the typewriter to the internet. McQuire traces the effects of
photography: "The ability to witness things outside all previous limits of time
and space highlights the fact that the camera doesn't only give us a new means
to represent experience: it changes the nature of experience". While he is shy
of using the term, he sees in photography a cause for the "anxious fascination
with cyberspace". 

In my first book, Virtual Geography, I tried to tackle a different aspect of
the evolution of cyberspace.11 Ever since the telegraph, technologies have
developed that permit the transmission of information that can move more
quickly than people or things.12 The telegraph, telephone, television are steps
in the development of telesthesia, or perception at a distance. Being able to
perceive events elsewhere makes it possible to think and act on a scale far
beyond the local but with the speed of the immediate. The internet extends and
refines these capacities. 

While I take a different aspect of the past evolution of media form as the
basis for thinking about the emergence and potential of cyberspace to Tofts and
McQuire, I share a similar experience to these other two children of
television. It is since television brought sound and pictures right into the
living room that the degree to which media pervade and transform social space
has really started to sink in, but it is only on the basis of being immersed in
television that it is possible to think about the further potential for the
transformation of culture by the development of these vectors.

There is a charming enthusiasm in Craig McGregor's experience of pop that I
think is a bit lost on me. Pop was already going stale in my time, and like
Tofts and McQuire I'm too old to experience the cyberhype about the internet
without some irony. For McGregor, pop was a potentially liberating force; for
some people cyberspace was also meant to liberate us Q from the tyranny of pop
culture and its mass media vectors. The art of writing media theory in the 90s,
having experienced more than one wave of media change fire up the imagination,
is to steer between the extremes of cyberhype and technofear. But this is not
just a matter of muddling through to a middle of the road position. Those who
stand in the middle of the road get run over. It is a question of examining
what the real potentials are that lurk as yet undiscovered in the media's
transformations of culture. The writers who gathered around the Melbourne-based
21C magazine, including Darren Tofts, Mark Dery and myself, !  tried to
articulate a historically and culturally sensitive reading of cyberculture that
could be critical but not too negative, creative but not too naive.13

Thirty years ago there was something of an unholy alliance of the new left and
the old right 'intellectuals' against new forms of media-driven culture. This
raised its head again in the 90s. The conservative pundit and veteran cold
warrior Robert Manne commanded support on both left and right by revamping the
bogey of "permissiveness" and arguing in favour of a return to censorship. He
thought the screen versions of Jane Austen's novels that were popular in the
90s were good models of family love. He seemed not to notice that they
portrayed an era when women were barred from real jobs, from public life and
could not even own and transmit property.14 

Meanwhile, Senator Richard Alston, as Minister for Communications and the Arts,
exerted influence to restrict our liberty to choose what we want to see on
television, film and video. He relied on rather cruder and more theological
scare mongering than Manne. There would be no more "electronic Sodom and
Gomorrah", like the popular commercial TV sex and relationship show Sex / Life,
if Alston had his way. As columnist Brian Toohey remarked, "Sadly, a wrathful
God has yet to turn Sex / Life viewers into pillars of salt."15 

Robert Manne's kind of nostalgia for a nonexistent past is no less absurd than
the McLuhanite cyberhype for an impossibly utopian future. But alongside these
tired themes of control and development, the third theme Osborne and Lewis
identify, the theme of community and identity, has opened up into a much more
productive debate. What I would call the virtual dimension of change, the
creative potential to make things otherwise, has opened up within the space
created by changing media vectors. Cyberspace contains within it many possible
forms of community and culture that have yet to be actualised. What I call
urbanity is the art, culture and politics of trying to realise the virtuality
the celebrities embody, the culture expresses, that cyberspace enables. 

1 Two key works were reprinted in the 90s: Marshall McLuhan, Understanding
Media: The Extension of Man, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., 1994; Marshall
McLuhan, The Medium is the Message, Hardwired, San Francisco, 1996

2 Mark Dery, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, Grove
Press, New York, 1996, p. 8

3 Dale Spender, Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace, Spinifex
Press, North Melbourne, 1995; Jon Casimir, Postcards from the Net, Allen &
Unwin, Sydney, 1997; Daniel Petrie and David Harrington, The Clever Country?:
Australia's Digital Future, Lansdowne Publishing, Sydney, 1996

4 John Nieuwenhuizen, Asleep at the Wheel: Australia on the Superhighway, ABC
Books, Sydney, 1997, p. 180.

5 K. T. Livingston, The Wired Nation Continent, Oxford University Press,
Melbourne, 1996, p. 9

6 The classic source for this argument is Harold Innis, The Bias of
Communication, University of Toronto, 1991

7 Richard McGregor, 'Unmasked: The Most Secretive Force in Politics', Weekend
Australian, 17th October, 1998, p. 4

8 Graeme Osborne and Glen Lewis, Communication Traditions in 20th Century
Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995, pp. 169-170

9 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity, Sage, London, 1998, p. 7, and below, p.
2 and p. 85

10 Darren Tofts, Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture, Gordon + Breach
Arts International, Sydney, 1998, p. 15

11 McKenzie Wark, Virtual Geography: Living With Global Media Events, Indiana
University Press, Bloomington, 1994

12 An argument first proposed by James Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays
on Media and Society, Unwin Hyman, Boston, 1989

13 Anthologised in Ashley Crawford and Ray Edgar (eds), Transit Lounge,
Craftsman's House, Sydney, 1997

14 Robert Manne, 'Strong Women, Stronger Morality', Australian, 8th April 1996

15 Brian Toohey, 'Naked Truth on Redheads', Sun Herald, 28th June, 1998


Celebrity, Culture and Cyberspace is published by Pluto Press Australia
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