Volume 4, Number 2 (July, 2007).
Old Perspectives On New Technologies
David Silver and Adrienne Massanari (Editors). Critical Cyberculture Studies. New York University Press, 2006.
Reviewed by Pramod K. Nayar
(Department of English, University of Hyderabad, India).
Critical Cyberculture Studies usefully extends the aims, ideas and areas of cyberculture research. In the age of ubiquitous computing, mobile personal communication technologies and shifting experiences of “public” space, the Internet and communications technology have altered the contexts of everyday life. On the other hand social and cultural contexts inform the development and use of such technologies. Critical Cyberculture Studies addresses both sides of this technology theme.
David Silver’s pithy introduction maps the field, arguing a case for cyberculture studies as a discipline in itself. Silver proposes three crucial elements in critical cyberculture studies: historical contexts, social contexts and cultural difference. The first asks us to locate new media within the context of historical developments such as modern computing and television. The second draws attention to the social contexts – especially consumer capitalism – in which such technologies are developed and disseminated. Finally, the third asks us to pay attention to the racial, ethnic, linguistic and cultural contexts – personal and communal – that frame the “consumption” of cyberculture.
The first section of the book, “Fielding the Field” is a collection of essays that prepare the ground for Internet studies by situating it within other technological contexts. Jonathan Sterne notes the near-complete absence of sound in new media studies. Lisa Nakamura, who may be credited with initiating raced cyberculture studies, suggests that race theory and questions of racial identity (of users, technological design, the popular internet) should inform critical cyberculture studies if the latter has to have any respectability as a discipline within cultural studies. Espen Aarseth, working with the theme of “convergence” in new media, proposes a fascinating mode of analyzing cyberculture: via game studies. Silver and Alice Marwick shift zones, and locate Internet studies in a post 9/11 world and the “time of terror”, focusing on the military-media alignment in cyberculture. They argue that the extensive re-militarization of digital culture calls for a “digital artivism” – art that subverts hegemonic powers of “.mil”. Wendy Robinson’s rigorous examination of the new media shows how consumer capitalism has contributed to the development of the new information technologies. Robinson is particularly interested in the electronic consumer-material culture of “convergence between the computer and the television set, the mouse and the remote control … the mobile phone and the computer”.1 McKenzie Wark is alert to the institutionalization of cyberculture studies and argues that an “economics of exclusion”2 is at work in such discipline-formations where access to knowledge and media are controlled.
The second part of the book is more theoretical, and proposes several useful modes of analyses in cyberculture studies. Nancy Baym focuses on a problem that has haunted social studies of technology – qualitative research. Kirsten Foot proposes the idea of “web sphere analysis”, where the “web sphere” (consisting of web sites related to the object/theme, captured in their hyperlinked contexts and archived over a period) is a useful unit of analysis. Heidi Sarriera explores the psychology of the internet and the emergent forms of subjectivity. Christian Sandvig turns to cultural policy and underscores the importance of looking at the social and legal elements (especially public interest), besides the technological, when dealing with the new media. Beth Kolko’s essay is also situated within cultural policy studies, where using a case study from Central Asia, she looks at design policy. Anthony Fung visits the community-building aspect of cyberculture with his essay on online and offline interactions in Hong Kong youth. Blanca Gordo extends Fung’s concerns by examining community-based organizations and low-income communities’ use of the new media. Greg Elmer posits a “vertical integration” of the new media, where he argues that the narrative driven analysis of the world-wide-web (www) and the emphasis on its emancipatory aspect evacuates “power” as a critical tool. Elmer proposes that critical cyberculture studies must account for technological history, economic “layering” of the world wide web: from the upper layers (companies and their services) to the lower level layers (corporations and technologies with technological protocols). Stine Gotved explores online social interactions. Gotved shows how the complexity of cyber-sociality can be explained by their embededness and links with the basic categories of culture, structure and interaction, even as he calls for a cultural sociology of cyberculture.
The third section of the book focuses on cultural difference as an organizing theme. Emily Ignacio proposes a “nethnography” to study online communities and diasporas. Madhavi Mallapragada situates cyberculture studies within a postcolonial framework. Bharat Mehra gives cyberculture studies a different spin, proposing a social justice and enfranchisement agenda for Action Research. David Phillips explores that old hunting ground, surveillance technologies, while linking it to questions of identity. Proceeding from the assumption that the Internet is a collection of different online environments, Frank Schaap narrows questions of identity to masculinity, demonstrating that even when online “action” offered the potential of gender-swapping, “the vast majority of participants … [stuck] to more traditional roles of gender and gender relations”,3 while Kate O’Riordan does the same for feminine identities in cyberculture environment, focusing on simulated newsreaders and “digital beauties”.
Part four locates new media within political economy. Fred Turner looks the first Hacker’s conference of 1984 and the ethos it engendered in terms of libertarianism. E-governance possesses the potential to not only craft a more politically involved civil society but also in creating transparency in government procedure, Shanthi Kalathil demonstrates in his study. Adrienne Masanari locates Amazon.com’s rhetoric (mainly in the shareholder letters from the CEO) within the spectacular commercial success of the company. Gina Neff, in a related essay, looks at the “construction”, via media reportage of social events, archival data from companies and network practices, of Silicon Alley, New York city’s Internet industry, especially the way certain companies promoted themselves as part of the “social circle of production”.4
Critical Cyberculture Studies opens up the field (despite Silver’s cautionary note that it is only an “invitation to consider a few new directions”). Ranging across race theory to political economy, rhetorical and discourse analysis to cultural policy studies, the volume embodies a range of topics, approaches and agendas. We thus have an exploration of a commercial company (amazon.com) and state-run internet services (e-governance), the popular internet and militarization – all contributing to a comprehensive introduction to the new media. Where works like David Marshall’s (New Media Studies), focused on one approach (cultural studies), the Silver-Massanari volume takes care to see that no one approach is valorized. In fact, one of the nice things about this volume is that it showcases many approaches (especially in section II). James Katz-Mark Aakhus (2002), Nicola Green (2002), Owain Jones et al (2003), Katz (2006)5 and others have underscored the communications component of internet studies and explored the subjectivity-identity angle in various demographic groups and locations. Critical Cyberculture Studies expands this work, moving from communication to community, postcolonial subjectivity, racial identities and technology to political economy and the nation-state. The volume is an extremely useful critical guide to future researchers in cyberculture and new media studies.
1 David Silver and Adrienne Massanari (Editors). Critical Cyberculture Studies. New York University Press, 2006:57
3 Ibid.: 239.
5 See: James E. Katz and Mark A. Aakhus. “Conclusion: Making Meaning of Mobiles: A Theory of Apparatgeist”, In James E. Katz and Mark A. Aakhus (Editors), Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002:301-318; James E. Katz “Mobile Communication and the Transformation of Daily Life: The Next Phase of Research on Mobiles”, Knowledge, Technology, and Policy 19.1 (2006):62-71; Nicola Green, “On the Move: Technology, Mobility, and the Mediation of Social Time and Space”. The Information Society 18 (2002): 281-292; and Owain Jones, Morris Williams and Constance Fleuriot, “A New Sense of Place?”: Mobile “Wearable” Information and Communications Technology Devices and the Geographies of Urban Childhood’. Children’s Geographies 1.2 (2003):165-180.
©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2007)