A review of some recent cyber theory


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A review of some recent cyber theory

  1. 1. A Review of Some Recent Cyber Theory MA Film and The Moving Image First Semester Essay Keith Devereux Student Number: 10154146
  2. 2. The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth it is the truth which conceals that there is none The simulacrum is true Ecclesiastes (Baudrillard, 1983:1) This quotation, taken from Jean Baudrillards pamphlet, Simulations, is as true for the ‘cyber age’, if that is where we are, as it was for Ecclesiates himself. If we are, to paraphrase Baudrillard living ‘entirely in simulation,’ then cyberspace is our new home. In this essay I would like to consider if cyber theory is rewriting some postmodern principles, whether we are moving toward a new plane of cultural existence, or if cyber theory is just another means of presenting the unpresentable.
  3. 3. What is cyber theory? Originally a term created by Norbert Wiener in 1948 to define the development of automata, cybernetics was appropriated to describe the enhancement or ‘re-imaging’ of the body ‘as a fundamental element in a machine culture’ (Tomas, 1995:23). Building on this foundation, Clynes and Kline in 1960 proposed that ‘altering mans bodily functions’ (Clynes and Kline, 1995:29) using machine technology would aid the U.S. space programme and coined the term cyborg. Defined as a self-regulating human-machine organism… which are integrated to enhance the body’s power potential (Featherstone and Burrows, 1995:2), the cyborg has emerged to be used in a range of scientific and cultural usages. In medicine, cyborgs may describe the use of prosthetics and aids such as pacemakers and in literature and mass culture, cyborgs such as the Terminator, or the Borg in Star Trek, are iconic figures in 80’s and 90’s cinema. The cyborg has even been used as a metaphor to discuss cultural studies.
  4. 4. Cyberspace During the 1980’s, new terms emerged, such as cyberspace –applied to the rapidly developing information system that is the Internet- and cyberpunk, literature which uses this new technology as the foundation for ‘visions of future worlds of cyberspaces’ (Featherstone and Burrows, 1995:3). Defined as a generic term which refers to a cluster of different technologies some familiar some only recently available some being developed and some still fictional (Featherstone and Burrows, 1995:5), cyberspace is the coalition of military, academic and hacker technology. Developed by the U.S. military as a means of maintaining control in the event of a nuclear attack, the early Internet was a tightly controlled network of linked computers. Following the break up of the Soviet Union, and with the advent of cheap, easily available personal computers, the internet grew slowly, but was still mainly confined to academics and hackers. It was only when Tim Berners-Lee, a British academic working at Berne in Switzerland, made his ‘www program’ freely available on the Internet that the medium really took off.
  5. 5. Berners-Lee wanted to create a common language that would allow different computers running different operating systems to be able to communicate with each other. As he said in an interview, he carefully chose three groups, the high-energy physics community because that s what I needed to justify my spending time on it… the hypertext community because I put it on the alt hypertext newsgroup and… the NeXT community because those were the people who could actually run the software (Berners-Lee, 1996). Ted Nelson at Brown University originally developed the common language known as Hypertext as an electronic text composed of nodes (blocks of text) which may be linked together non-sequentially. However, while hypertext provides ‘both a utopian vision of writerly artistic capabilities and dramatic cultural change’ (Landow, 1999:154) Nelson took a different path to Berners-Lee when he tried to commodify information, proposing a charge for the transfer of data by a process he called transclusion. Faced with this, most users of the Internet rejected this idea, preferring instead to use the free browsers that companies such as Netscape and Microsoft were making available.
  6. 6. Now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the Internet is a global network, and is as much a collection of communities as a collection of technologies, and as one commentator has stated: The real revolution of the Information Age will not be one of hardware but of the human spirit It will be the chance to be more than human (Frank Herbert, in a 1984 ad for Pacific Telephone’s ‘Infosystems.’) When Marshall McLuhan suggested that humans have ‘extended our nervous system itself in a global embrace,’ (McLuhan, 1964:11), he was talking about radio rather than cyberspace, which he could never have foreseen but which today is the perfect embodiment of his ‘global village.’ Posited as a utopian vision of the future, McLuhan suggested that by ‘abolishing both space and time,’ (Ibid:11) humanity could co-exist together in relative harmony.
  7. 7. Cyberspace has provided an avenue for new ‘virtual communities’ to spring up, and to users of the Web, cyberculture is a collection of cultures and cultural products that exist on and/or are made possible by the Internet along with the stories told about these cultures and cultural products (Silver, 1997). However, while cyberspace has certainly catalysed the formation and resurrection of a whole range of philosophical social economic and political beliefs (Collinson, 1998), and has provided for the development of new avenues of expression and social interaction, it has also been appropriated for extreme political and anti-social ends.
  8. 8. It was suggested that the freedom that has existed on the Internet was due to ‘a new form of radical politics: anarcho-communism’ (Barbrook, 1998). Barbrook proposed that the tribal gift economy proved that individuals could successfully live together without needing either the state or the market (Ibid.) and that this utopian vision of anarcho-communism has inspired community media and hacker- activists in cyberspace (Ibid.). However, while the gift economy revolutionised the use and transfer of information in cyberspace, these New Left libertarian ideals were also appropriated by the political right under the guise of what Barbrook calls neo- liberalism, and promoted a right wing agenda.
  9. 9. This usurping of a utopian ideal into a more dystopian regime was described as: cyberauthoriairianism a stridently pro-technotopia movement particularly in the mass media typified by an obsession… with emergent technologies and with a very deliberate attempt to shut down silence and exclude any perspectives critical of technotopia (Kroker, 1996:167). Both Barbrook and Kroker agree that neo-liberal journals such as Wired magazine, while promoting free speech are actually acting as ‘ideological opinion maker[s] for new capitalists rising in the digital industries’ (Stein, 1999:200). So while Wired appeared 'hip and trendy', they were actually promoting extreme right wing politics, and their prominent position in the marketplace, and location in Silicon Valley, California, meant that they became the benchmark for discussion about cyberspace
  10. 10. In an article called The Californian Ideology Barbrook and Cameron proposed that Wired manages to combine two apparently opposite views in the same ideology. On the one hand it draws on the hippie tradition of California, particularly the Bay area, where the counter culture arose, while on the other hand promote a combination of right wing ideals. The group behind Wired, the Global Business Network, is funded by several right wing multinationals. They have also given funds to such people as the former right wing leader of the House of Representatives, the Republican Newt Gingrich. His 'think tank', the Progress and Freedom Foundation received funds from the GBN, and leading members of Wired are also associated with the hard right PFF. The development of such a tradition, where the culture is shared by all but understood only by an elite, harks back to the English cultural studies of T.S. Eliot and Matthew Arnold.
  11. 11. In the cyber age, the so-called elite have been called the ‘digerati’ (and the masses are ‘netizens’), and celebrate their existence in self-congratulatory web sites such as The Edge: Who are the digerati and why are they the cyber elite ? They are the doers thinkers and writers who have tremendous influence on the emerging communication revolution They are not on the frontier they are the frontier The digerati evangelize connect people adapt quickly They like to talk with their peers because it forces them to go to the top of their form and explain their most interesting new ideas They give each other permission to be great That s who they want to talk to about the things they are excited about because they want to see if it plays They ask each other the questions they are asking themselves and that s part of what makes this cyber elite work http://www.edge.org/digerati/index.html Certainly there is a tendency to form information elites’, and evidence of this is found in the romanticising of the hacker as a counter cultural hero, or the portrayal of the digerati as the controllers of cyberspace.
  12. 12. More real than real Cyberculture posits a society that lives simultaneously ‘on-line’ and in the real world. This juxta-positioning of existence, is best seen in the study of virtual communities such as The Well, one of the first such communities, and the myriad chat rooms that exist on-line. But this exposes another issue: whether what we are experiencing is ‘real’ or ‘not real.’ When Walter Benjamin suggested that works of art possessed a ‘unique existence’ which determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence (Benjamin, 1935:214), he could not have foreseen the reproduction of works in cyberspace –nor the generation of original works by digital artists. But are digital works, or representations of traditional works, any less ‘real’?
  13. 13. Benjamin’s position is that the presence of the artwork is diminished by reproduction and that by making works available to a wide audience diminishes their impact. His comments on the Dadaists, that they intended to ‘outrage the public’ (Ibid: 231) reflects definitions of postmodernity. Lyotard suggests that postmodernism is a means of presenting the unpresentable, or challenging the aesthetic. But he goes on to say that a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern Postmodernism… is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state and this state is constant (Lyotard, 1979:44).
  14. 14. This continued forward momentum, first of postmodernity then of modernity is reflected in cyberspace. The creation of new works, or of performance artists like Stelarc, who designs virtual creations then attempts to recreate them in the real world, has led to cyber theory in general being classed as postmodern. However, other theorists have suggested that cyberspace is breaking down the boundaries… to revive utopian impulses coupled with… moving into a reconfigured world (Featherstone and Burrows, 1995:1). This ‘superpostmodernity’, which falls loosely in the definition proposed by Lyotard, has been radically explored by philosphers such as Baudrillard and Virilio. These two writers in particular, who make similar proposals but from a different direction, discuss the position of the ‘real’.
  15. 15. Baudrillard and Virilio We lived once in a world where the realm of the imaginary was governed by the mirror… Today that realm is the realm of the screen of interfaces and duplication of contiguity and networks… (Jean Baudrillard, Xerox and Infinity, in Transparency of Evil, p. 54) During the May 68 events in France, the Situationists, an important libertarian group came to prominence. They originated in a small band of avante- garde artists and intellectuals influenced by Dada and Surrealism. They were principally concerned with the "suppression of art", that is to say, they wished like the Dadaists and the Surrealists before them to supersede the division of art and culture as separate activities and to transform them into part of everyday life. Guy Debord emerged as an important figure, and publication of The Society of the Spectacle in 1967 argued that capitalism had turned all relationships transactional, and that life had been reduced to a "spectacle". Although the spectacle is the key concept in many ways they merely reworked Marx's view of alienation.
  16. 16. Debord’s argument that when the real world changes into simple images simple images become real beings (Debord, 1994:18) reflects Baudrillard’s concept of the nature of the real and pre-dates some arguments of cyber theory. In his discussions, Baudrillard suggests that human civilisation has changed in three major stages, each marked by a change in meaning of our symbol systems. During the first steps in civilisation, where speech and writing were created, signs were invented to point to reality. During the second step, which Baudrillard says takes place over the last century, signs were invented to hide reality, and in the third stage, which we presently inhabit, the sign hides the absence of reality. In a fourth step, Baudrillard suggests that there is no ‘real’ anymore, that we live in an age of ‘hyperreality’ which is ‘a way of presenting and receiving reality’ (Levin, 1996:274). For Baudrillard cyberspace, like Disneyland, could be said to be neither true nor false but- a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real (Baudrillard, 1983:25).
  17. 17. However, as Nunes states, for Baudrillard the shift from the real to the hyperreal occurs when representation gives way to simulation (Nunes, 1995), but in his denial of the real, Buadrillard’s argument ‘clings… to a real; he desperately needs a real to recognise we are in a land of simulation’ (Landsberg, 1995:178). Paul Virilio on the other hand does not deny the real, suggesting instead that reality in cyberspace relies on a process of ‘substitution’ rather than ‘simulation’. As Virilio explains: Here lies the big difference between Baudrillard and myself I don t believe in simulationism I believe that the word is already old-fashioned As I see it new technologies are substituting a virtual reality for an actual reality And this is more than a phase it s a definite change We are entering a world where there won t be one but two realities (Wilson, 1994).
  18. 18. Virilio sees cyberspace as a new form of perspective… free of any previous reference it is a tactile perspective To see at a distance to hear at a distance that was the essence of the audio-visual perspective of old But to reach at a distance to feel at a distance that amounts to shifting the perspective towards a domain it did not yet encompass that of contact of contact-at-a-distance tele-contact (Virilio, 1995). Like McLuhan’s ‘speed up of information’ (McLuhan, 1964:326) or David Harvey’s ‘time-space compression’ (Harvey, 1989:240).), Virilio sees that for the first time history is going to unfold within a one-time- system global time (Virilio, 1995). Virilio considers that the world is redeemable, if we are prepared to do something about it.
  19. 19. The Cyborg Manifesto At the start of the essay we defined a cyborg as a self regulating human-machine organism… which are integrated to enhance the body’s power potential and much of cyber theory has been based around this apparent symbiosis between man and machine. As a result, it is considered that the divisions between the body and the outside world –nature and technology- are being broken down. In her Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway, proposed that we are no longer able to think of ourselves as biological entities. Instead, we have become cyborgs, mixtures of person and machine, where the biological side and the mechanical/electrical side become so inextricably entwined that they can't be split.
  20. 20. Haraway insists that we are all chimeras theorised and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism in short we are cyborgs (Haraway, 1991:150). Haraway’s manifesto, which was ‘a reconstruction of socialist feminist politics’ (Haraway, 1983), used the cyborg as a metaphor to discuss how the categories of the biological the technological the natural the artificial and the human… are now beginning to blur (Featherstone and Burrows, 1995:3). The manifesto was also an early example of cyber feminism, ‘an alliance between women, machinery, and new technology’ (Sadie Plant, quoted in Hari, 1997).
  21. 21. As such, writers such as Plant and Allucquère Rosanne Stone have also used the cyborg and cyberspace to discuss feminist politics. Plant has suggested that the patriarchal society is threatened by a fear of the matrix and that cybernetic systems are fatal to his culture (Plant, 1995:62-3). In turn, Haraway took the argument one step further, proposing that the Gaia hypothesis, that the Earth is ‘a dynamic, self-regulating, homeostatic system,’ suggested that the earth itself was a cyborg, a complex auto-poietic system that terminally blurred the boundaries among the geological the organic and the technological (Haraway, 1995:xiii).
  22. 22. Conclusions In his introduction to The Digital Dialectic, Lunenfeld states that the dialectic has remained central to Western philosophy… [T]he dialectic is commonly understood to be a dynamic process in which one proposition is matched against another (often its opposite) in order to bring a third combinatory proposition into being (Lunenfeld, 1999:xvii). This definition also applies to cyber theory. Virtual reality provides ever closer integration between the two oppositional forces of the natural and the technological world, to provide the first inklings of the consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions (Gibson, 1984:12).
  23. 23. When Karl Marx presented his theories in Capital, he was looking towards a utopia of the proletariat (Lunenfeld, 1999:xviii), which many of the cyber theorists are also considering. In his suggestion that Marx’s dialectic moves from feudalism through capitalism to communism (Ibid:xvii), Lunenfeld raises the prospect of the ‘digital artisan,’ occupying a similar position today to the artisans of the feudal era -craftsmen with a specific set of knowledge. In this sense to continue the analogy, the ‘digerati’ are the feudal lords, seeking to control cyberspace.
  24. 24. Despite the proliferation of thought towards a blurring of the boundaries between the natural and the technological, as described by Haraway and others looking at empowerment of the body, especially women’s bodies, there is still a marked difference between the digital and the real. Whether this is the ‘yes no yes no’ (Gigliotti, 1999:62) or the zeros and ones suggested by Sadie Plant, cyber theory is still seen to some degree as an ‘otherwhere’. Cyberpunk novels such as Neuromancer, and films such as Ghost in the Machine, have even proposed that consciousness could be transferred to cyberspace, freeing the mind from the body: For Case who’d lived in the bodiless exultation of cyberspace it was the Fall In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh The body was meat Case fell into the prison of his own flesh William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984:12)
  25. 25. As Jones (1995:11) states, in modern everyday life it is difficult (and becoming impossible) to definitively classify experiences as ‘real’ or ‘not real’ it is more helpful to determine the ‘degree’ or accent of reality Most prominently shown by Baudrillard as the embodiment of the hyperreal, cyberspace is a denial of the real. When we are continually bombarded with images and experiences –from our TV screens and from cyberspace- the Baudrillian position is certainly tempting. But as Virilio points out, what we are experiencing is not ‘simulation’ but ‘substitution’. Like Haraway, Virilio keeps us on track, observing that we have emerged into a world that has nothing anymore in common with the world of history as we knew it (Oliveira, 1995).
  26. 26. Bibliography Baudrillard, Jean, Simulations (Semiotext[e], 1983) Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in Illuminations (1935) Clynes, Manfred and Kline, Nathan, Cyborgs and Space, in Hables-Gray, Chris (ed.) The Cyborg Handbook, (Routledge, 1995) Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1994) Featherstone, Mike and Burrows, Roger, Cultures of Technological Embodiment, in Featherstone, Mike and Burrows, Roger (eds.) Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment (Sage Publications, 1995) Gibson, William, Neuromancer, (Harper Collins, 1984) Gigliotti, Carol, The ethical life of the digital aesthetic, in The Digital Dialectic, edited by Peter Lunenfeld, (MIT Press, 1999) Haraway, Donna, A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991) Haraway, Donna, Cyborgs and Symbionts: Living together in the new world order, in Hables-Gray, Chris (ed.) The Cyborg Handbook, (Routledge, 1995)
  27. 27. Harvey, David, The Condition of Postmodernity, (Blackwell, 1989). Cited in Jones, Steven G, Cybersociety: Computer Mediated Communications and Community (Sage Publications, 1995) Jones, Steven, From where to who knows? in Jones, Steven (ed.), Cybersociety: Computer mediated communications and community, (Sage Publications, 1995) Kroker, Arthur, Virtual Capitalism, in Technoscience and Cyberculture, edited by Aronowitz, Stanley, Martinson, Barbara and Mauser, Michael (Routledge, 1996) Landow, George, Hypertext as Collage Writing, in The Digital Dialectic, edited by Peter Lunenfeld, MIT Press, 1999) Landsberg, Alison, Prosthetic Memory: Total Recall and Blade Runner, in Featherstone, Mike and Burrows, Roger (eds.) Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment (Sage Publications, 1995) Levin, Charles, Jean Baudrillard: a study in cultural metaphysics (Prentice Hall, 1996) Lunenfeld, Peter, Introduction to The Digital Dialectic, (MIT Press, 1999) Lyotard, Jean-Francios, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, (Manchester University Press, 1979) McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media, (Abacus, 1964)
  28. 28. Plant, Sadie, The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics, in Featherstone, Mike and Burrows, Roger (eds.) Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment (Sage Publications, 1995) Stein, Bob, “We could be better ancestors than this”: Ethics and First Principles for the art of the digital age, in The Digital Dialectic, edited by Peter Lunenfeld, (MIT Press, 1999) Tomas, David, Feedback and Cybernetics: Reimaging the body in the age of the cyborg, in Featherstone, Mike and Burrows, Roger (eds.) Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment (Sage Publications, 1995) Cyberspace Bibliography Barbrook, Richard and Cameron, Andy, The Californian Ideology, http://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/ Barbrook, Richard, The Hi-tech Gift Economy, (First Monday, Vol. 3 No. 12, 1998) http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue3_12/barbrook/index.html#author Berners-Lee, Tim (World Wide Web Journal, 1996) http://www.ora.com/www/info/wj/issue3/tbl-int.html
  29. 29. Collinson, Rachel, Heaven and Hell in the Hypermedia, (1998) http://www.collinson.com/rachel/heavenhell/ Haraway, Donna, The Ironic Dream of a Common Language for Women in the Integrated Circuit: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s or A Socialist Feminist Manifesto for Cyborgs, (1983) http://www.cc.rochester.edu/College/FS/Publications/HarawayCyborg.html Kunzru, Hari, You Are Cyborg, (Wired magazine, Feb 1997) http://hotwired.lycos.com/collections/genetics/5.02_donna_haraway1.html Nunes, Mark, Baudrillard in Cyberspace: Internet, Virtuality, and Postmodernity (Style 29 (1995): 314-327) http://www.dc.peachnet.edu/~mnunes/jbnet.html Oliveira, Carlos, Global Algorithm 1.7: The Silence of the Lambs: Paul Virilio in Conversation, (Ctheory, 1995) http://www.ctheory.com/ga1.7-silence.html Silver, David, Introducing Cyberculture (1997) http://otal.umd.edu/~rccs/ Virilio, Paul, Speed and Information: Cyberspace Alarm! (CTHEORY, 1995) http://www.ctheory.com/a30-cyberspace_alarm.html Wilson, Louise, Cyberwar, God And Television: Interview with Paul Virilio, (CTHEORY, 1994) http://www.ctheory.com/a-cyberwar_god.html