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Tucson Weekly Electronic Nightmares

In Cyberspace, Everyone Can Hear You Scream.

By Gregory McNamee

NOVEMBER 16, 1998: 

Digital Delirium, edited by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker (St. Martin's). Paper, $16.95.

THEY SAY THE cause of revolution is hunger in the interplanetary spaces. One has to sow wheat in the ether." Thus Osip Mandelstam, the great poet of the Russian Revolution, just before he disappeared into the Gulag.

Mandelstam knew wheat, and he knew hunger. About the ether that surrounds our time he could hardly guess, but he had it right: to feed our demand for information, for the constant revolutions of fashion and culture, cyberspace has to be cultivated--and weeded--constantly.

We hardly know better than did Mandelstam what the ether is really like. Is the Web an electronic cottage, a virtual village, the global mind? Is the Internet a common carrier, like the railroad, or a twist on the telephone system, or a fancy radio with text and images added, a tool out of Brazil? Does information want to be free? Does technology liberate or enslave? Do androids dream of electric sheep?

Crammed into the overstuffed bookstore shelves devoted to computers, among the endlessly repetitive idiot's guides to Windows 98 and HTML programming, among the C+ manuals and Macintosh bibles, are a growing number of books that aim to address such questions. Digital Delirium, one of a series of St. Martin's Press books devoted to "hypermodern society," is a fine representative of a new genre: what might be called cybercriticism.

Like the genre as a whole, Digital Delirium is relentlessly postmodern in outlook, all doorbell and no house, and often postlogical and postgrammatical to boot. It contains a fair share of inanities: about half of the book is given over to tuneless poems and playlets, to fetchingly elegant but utterly pointless political treatises, mostly by Europeans, who attach more symbolic significance to the whole business of cyberspace than do their practical if unpoetic North American counterparts.

Not that the Americans are always helpful. The editors, academics to the last, are fond, for instance, of whispering such pleasant McLuhanesque nothings as "Today, things have speeded up to inertia" and "In California, nobody fears nothingness." Say what?

But for all that, and despite its willfully sloppy organization, Digital Delirium is studded with little gems of intelligence. Some come from the editors, who construct a smart, coherent argument for the decentralizing possibilities of cyberspace, the possibilities of remaking a mass media that "replace reciprocity with false simulation, exchange with the tyranny of information overload producing a numbed culture that shuts down for self-protection, interaction with a dense operational network substituting polls and focus groups and high-intensity marketing warfare for genuine human solidarity, data for communication, speed for meaning." (It's a tangled and tortured sentence, but never mind: the point is a good one.)

Other gems come from contributors who, in postmodern and cybercultural circles at least, constitute the usual suspects: R. U. Sirius, Bruce Sterling, the French technotheorist Paul Virilio, the ubiquitous Jean Baudrillard. Sirius, the mad genius behind the first few volumes of Mondo 2000, examines the corporate monopolization of the media, relentlessly spreading to the Web, and observes, "The net is a terrific environment for guerrilla warfare. It's a great jungle in which to hide and from which to make attacks." (If only the Unabomber had had a Mac to go with his camos.)

Sterling seconds Sirius, noting that the Information Society has little use for corporate models of old, and takes a refreshingly simple-minded view of what the cyberstream really means: "The Internet is a vast machine for finding somebody else to write your term paper for you." For his part, Virilio is wacky in a Gauloise-smoking, certain-of-the-truth way, taking snippets of arguments to extremes, but to sometimes entertaining and thought-provoking effect: "Imagine that all of a sudden I am convinced that I am Napoleon: I am no longer Virilio, but Napoleon. My reality is wounded. Virtual reality leads to a similar de-rationalization. However, it no longer works only at the scale of individuals, as in madness, but at the scale of the world." (If only the Unabomber had had a cocked hat to go along with his Mac and camos.)

And Baudrillard, in an uncharacteristically lucid exposition, wonders about the ability of the Web to make history an indeterminate, undefined proposition--to drive out good information with bad, to make the historical fact of the Holocaust disappear, to erase cultural memory as easily as we format a diskette.

There's other good stuff here as well. Ken Hollings, an English writer, has great fun examining the semiotics of Godzilla, whose name, we learn, combines the English word gorilla with the Japanese kujira, "whale." And Frank Lantz, one of the twisted minds behind the cybersplat game Quake, takes a semiotic turn of his own: "All-sucking, all-spewing, the Quakebody is projectile and target, monster and hero, author and interface, key, switch, and trap. It is the body with nothing but organs, irrupting and transmitting, and always forever the barricaded global variable in an infinite cascade of light-speed calculations." (Thank heaven, at least the body counts for something in the physicality-denying world of cyberspace.)

It's a mixed bag, Digital Delirium, like the online medium it attempts to analyze. And it's one of the better books in a library choked with webspeak and two-bit sociology.

We need better still, of course. The first shock wave of the computer revolution has passed. In the rubble lies space to plant a little wheat--and to satisfy some righteous hunger.

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