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Copyright

Title: The Digital Sublime
Author: Vincent Mosco
Publisher: MIT Press
Copyright: 2004
ISBN: 026213439X
Pages: 218
Price: $27.95
Rating: 86%

Mythic storytelling is a difficult art to master. What's more, mythic storytelling should not be confused with epic storytelling. J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy is a powerful, lasting epic that many readers argue is the best series ever. The Silmarillion, by contrast, details the creation myth behind Middle Earth and is a book I could never get through after five years of trying. Same author, different skills, vastly different results.

One difficulty in writing the mythos of an imagined world, one that could not possibly be, is that there is only other fictional text to hang one's words upon. When describing the world around us, mythic storytellers have the luxury of attributing real phenomena to mythical beings: thunder comes from Thor's hammer, the waves rise with Poseidon's ire, and Raven tricks travelers into time-consuming delays. The only problem is coming up with an internally consistent set of stories that accurately reflect the world as you know and that catch the imagination of your audience. Defining the metaphor is everything. As Vincent Mosco, author of The Digital Sublime, puts it:

"Myths are stories that animate individuals and societies by providing paths to transcendence that lift people out of the banality of everyday life. They offer an entrance to another reality, a reality once characterized by the promise of the sublime." (p. 3)

If that quote doesn't describe the visionist rhetoric behind cyberspace, nothing does. The internet has been variously described as foreshadowing the end of history (Fukuyama), the end of geography (Frances Cairncross), and the end of politics. The rhetoric of epochal change is rife with myth-making, and Mosco examines each of these arguments, and many others, in detail, exposing the truth behind the myth (not all thunder comes from Thor's hammer...at least some of it comes from cloud-generated lightning strikes) and showing how the rhetoric strikes familiar storytelling chords.

Perhaps the hyperbole redolent in John Perry Barlow's "Cyberspace Independence Declaration", which features passages such as:

 "Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter, There is no matter here.

Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge . Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions. The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule."

doesn't constitute mythic storytelling, but it's hard to argue against the notion that it makes one hell of a grab at the brass metaphor ring.

Mosco's analysis is, at times, a bit dry, though only because he is forced as a writer to tone down his rhetoric and disengage from the fight to define the digital metaphor. His job is to analyze and expose, which he does with great skill.

Curtis D. Frye (cfrye@teleport.com) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews.  He is also the author of three online courses and thirteen books, including Microsoft Office Excel 2003 Step By Step and Privacy-Enhanced Business. He was formerly an analyst for The MITRE Corporation in McLean, Virginia.