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Copyright

Title: Resisting the Virtual Life
Editors: James Brook and Iain Boal
Publisher: City Lights
Copyright: 1995
ISBN: 0-87286-288-2
Pages: 278
Price: $15.95
Rating: 85%

Let’s go back in time for a few minutes. Dateline: 1995. Netscape was still in version 1, its IPO due for August, Wired was in its third year, the ubiquitous URLs were not yet appearing in every magazine ad, and the United States (and some other industrialized countries) were discovering the Information Superhighway. Vaunted by then-vice president Al Gore, this system, also called the National Information Infrastructure (NII), was supposed to change our lives. This book is a collection of essays by some of the earliest techno-naysayers, and is a cogent discussion of the fears and realities that new technologies may bring us. 

No one can deny that our lives have been changed in just a few, short years. Only seven years after this book was published, the Internet has become commonplace in industrialized countries, and is making inroads into developing countries as well. But back in 1995, many people were questioning the type of life this new technology would bring. As the editors say in their preface, “As computing becomes ubiquitous […] the details of particular technologies […] are less interesting to examine than is the life that these technologies express and help form.” 

Technologies engender new values, and lead to shifts in existing value systems, causing instability and a risk of societal implosion. The oft-cited example of the Luddites, English weavers who destroyed the machines that would replace them, is used as a metaphor for those who question these new values. But the Luddites acted out of corporatist, economic fears - they saw a technology that was going to cut them out of the system of production, and eliminate their gainful employment. Today’s Luddites are different - they try to raise awareness of the hypocrisy and complications that may arise from these new technologies.  

This is a collection of papers by a diverse range of authors, some with a good amount of technical knowledge, others with less. Their quality varies, and some of them do not stand up well to the passage of time; sometimes, the authors are way off the mark. Herbert I. Schiller equates the NII with a system designed for “none other than transnational corporations.” But, while the Internet has become a marketplace, at least in part, its greatest influence has been on individuals. E-mail remains the killer app of the Internet, peer-to-peer has usurped traditional distribution models, and instant messaging (and its cell-phone sibling, SMS) have surprised even those companies who have developed these applications. 

Nevertheless, many of the papers present food for thought. The Internet has certainly helped increase U. S. cultural influence around the world (Schiller), led to a decrease in privacy (Gandy), and computers can turn people into “even more of a machine” (Lakoff), and lead to a sharp increase in repetitive strain injuries (Hayes).  

I have always been a bit of a curmudgeon concerning computers, even though I make a good part of my living from them. I watch as families in my entourage spend more than a month’s salary to buy computers for their children, with little idea what they will really do with them; they hesitate to spend a little more money to buy a book that will help them understand and truly use their new tools. But I cannot deny that computers, and the Internet, have changed my life. I am able to live and work in a village in the French Alps, offering my services to customers around the world, and unite good living conditions for my family and myself with the possibility of working in a truly global market. 

Unfortunately, none of the authors address this issue - what sort of permanent changes the Internet and computers will bring about in our life and work. Perhaps it was too early for people to realize the effect that telecommuting could have on the workforce, and how some societal structures could change in positive ways. 

This book is an interesting snapshot of the way people thought in 1995. Some of what the authors discuss and predict has come true, and some has not. Some of the papers in this book are little more than academic waffling, but, in the end, this collection does achieve its goal of opening “a dialogue outside the official channels of discourse where only ‘sanctioned’ controversies are taken seriously.”

--Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn (kirk@mcelhearn.com) is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site, http://www.mcelhearn.com.

Contents

 THE NEW INFORMATION ENCLOSURES

 A Flow of Monsters: Luddism and Virtual Technologies

Iain A. Boal

Proposes a historic context for the new machinery of domination, assaying the possibilities and limits of resistance against further virtuality and paranoia.

 The Global Information Highway: Project for an Ungovernable World

Herbert I. Schiller

Scrutinizes Washington’s proposal to make the information superhighway a world project-- an initiative that extends a half-century-old U.S. effort to achieve global information mastery.

 It's Discrimination, Stupid!

Oscar H. Gandy Jr.

Examines how personal information is gathered and how it is used to extend control over the distribution of options available to citizens, employees, and consumers. 

Women and Children First: Gender and the Settling of the Electronic Frontier

Laura Miller

Argues that the "electronic frontier" metaphor tends to impose on women "on line" the same all-too-familiar, invidious, traditional feminine identities. 

From Internet to Information Superhighway

Howard Besser

Assesses the likely future of on-line information flows: passive consumption, bland cultural productions, pay-per access, and reduction of public space and unprogrammed experience.

 Media Activism and Radical Democracy

Jesse Drew

A pioneer of "guerrilla television" places his experience in the history of communications media used as a democratizing tool. 

Making Technology Democratic

Richard E. Sclove

Shows how technological systems in effect legislate social life and sets out principles for a politics of technology that deepens rather than diminishes participatory democracy. 

REWIRING THE BODY  

Soldier, Cyborg, Citizen

Kevin Robins and Les Levidow

Examine the psychotic splitting -- induced by military and civilian cyborg technologies -- that leads to the paranoia and phantasies of omnipotence like those displayed during the Gulf War.

 Body, Brain, and Communication

George Lakoff interviewed by Iain A. Boal

Deconstructs the "conduit metaphor" of human communication and understanding, whereby the rich, embodied experience of language is travestied by its reduction to circuits of information.

Out of Time: Reflections on the Programming Life

Ellen Ullman

Gives a practitioner's account of the masculinist world of software engineers who, in living "close to the machine," are asynchronous with the rest of humanity.

 Sade and Cyberspace

John Simmons

Contrasts the emotionally empty realm of Cartesian rationalism with the Sadean space of the real, contemplative body.

 DEGRADING WORK

 Info Fetishism

Doug Henwood

Debunks the myth that in the "information economy" symbol-mongers will rule and reemphasizes the materiality of information and its role in the circulation of commodities.

 Digital Palsy: RSI and Restructuring Capital

R. Dennis Hayes

Lifts the shroud of ignorance and denial around the intensified use of the new "knowledge machines" to reveal an exponential rise in computer-related injuries.

 Computers, Thinking, and Schools in "the New World Economic Order"

Monty Neill

Exposes the fallacies underlying the computerization of schools and offers an analysis of the role of education of workers in a world dominated by transnational corporations.

 The Aesthetic of the Computer

Daniel Harris

Looks into the screen past the machine's utility and, in the decor of screen-savers, detects the enthralling boredom of the office.

 THE REPAINTING OF MODERN LIFE

 Banalities of Information

Marina McDougall

Brings cyberspace down to earth in a photo essay that looks at the integration of communications technology into everyday life.

 The Garden of Merging Paths

Rebecca Solnit

Beginning with the Winchester rifle and the maze of the Winchester Mystery House, maps the metaphors and ecologies of the transformation of Silicon Valley from orchards to high-tech industrial park.

 The Shape of Truth to Come: New Media and Knowledge

Chris Carlsson

Speculates on the odds of a rich, less mediated life breaking through the web of virtual interactivity woven by "the integrated spectacle:'

 Drowning by MicroGallery

Chris Riding

Wanders, without particular nostalgia for canvas and pigment, through the reproduction of the British National Gallery on CD-ROM.

 In the Tracks of Jurassic Park

Phil Tippett interviewed by Iain A. Boal

Discusses the impact of new digital technologies on the craft of animation and special effects in the motion-picture industry. 

Reading and Riding with Borges

James Brook

With Borges as guide, threads his way through the hell of information and the labyrinth of hypertext to... the book.