Cybersociology Magazine: Issue Five

VIRTUALITY MADE VIRTUOUS

Book Review by Adrian Mihalache: "Virtual Futures. Cyberotics, Technology and Post-Human Pragmatism". Edited by J. B. Dixon and E. J. Cassidy. Routledge, London and New York, 1998.


 

This book is a collection of essays on cyberculture, attempting to grasp the deeper meanings of technological development, its involvement in the reshaping of our imaginary, the subtle trends which underline our rapid gliding into the future. The peculiarity of the book, which distinguishes it from the classsical futurologists' prospective approaches, is the fact that the various discourses it assembles act, each at its turn, upon a plausible future, they tend to make it happen, not merely to describe it as a neutral possibility. The heterogeneity of the individual contributions made it hard for editor Eric J. Cassidy to develop his overall presentation, which opens the book. However, he pointed out that the collected essays practically fill up the entire range of cyber-ideology, from Bloomsbury-based commonsensical technorealism to Californian radical thinking. The scheme he draws (page IX) in order to facilitate the systematic overview is sensible as far as its horizontal axis - which orders the essay according to their outspoken options is concerned, but remains rather vague and slightly indebted to hermeticism when trying to depict the complex mirrorings the essays portrait so-to-speak unawares between Microcosm and Macrocosm, between technology and magic, between Heaven and Hell. This difficulty persists in the classification of the material according to the various sections of the book.

Many contributors are focused on the transformation of the human "body" under the impact of the information technology. Hakim Bey discusses the fact that technological practices which involve mainly symbol-processing, that is second-hand experiences, are apt to modify our perception of the body, which is no more constrained in its activity by the limits of time and space and does not experience its integrity and its opposition to the environment to the same extent as before. The result is a sort of de-materialization, our body becoming closer to a relatively stable configuration of symbols rather than to a biological beast. Hakim Bey seems surprised how easily many thinkers (Baudrillard among them) accept de-corporalization as inevitable and consider it an almost accomplished process. He wonders why practically everybody (everybody that matters, that is) takes it for granted that we have begun to eat bytes, instead of bites, and to drink cocktails of symbols instead of fresh water. Hakim Bey notices that postmodern informational processing, in spite of its amorality, has similar effects to those brought about by the ascetic practices of passionate pilgrims and hermits. His ideal and advice is to recuperate the naturality of the body, so that the harmonious completeness of body-and soul should be restored. He seems to forget that such a harmony never really existed, it so happened that our consciousness has always been torn between Shelley's lark - a disembodied spirit - and D. H. Lawrence's down-to-earth virility. "Born under one law, to another's bound" seems to be our fate, and I think that Information Technology can hardly remedy matters.

However, it can change much of our erotic practices and also much in our erotic awareness. Or so it seems, reading Stephen Pohl, Sadie Plant and the litterary version of the game All New Gen, created by VNS Matrix. This last one is amusing, except for such excerpts as " Cunt [] talked dirty equations, algorithmically slid up and down on his double density, read only his memory et. Etc."(p. 41), which reminds of the technical jargon mildly sexualized by teenager nerds. Sadie Plant offers a lucid and sensible view on the subject, examining multiple sexual personality, the mitigated virtual relationship to the otherness, the falsification of pleasure etc. On the contrary, Stephen Pohl favors a sort of delirious discourse, which would be gladly welcomed in Alan Sokal's anthology of intellectual pretense. It is not the only essay in the book, which cannot be examined within a rational framework, but Nick Land's Cybergothic has at least the coverage of a good litterary identity. As it is, Stephen Pohl shares with Matteo Mandarini (From Epidermal History and Speed Politics) and Iain Hamilton Grant (Black Ice), the last two classified under the meaningless heading of "Anarchomaterialism", the ineffable charm of nonsense. It is to note that there are also language constraints against such approaches. French is more appropriate for letting reins loose and running on under the spur of inspiration. English has (unfortunately, perhaps) this uncomfortable capacity of setting off the absurd and, moreover, not to its advantage. That is why Peter Brook has avoided to stage Ionesco's plays.

The safest way to look clever without risking being funny is to turn towards the past, under the pretext of investigating the future. This is the safe choice of two obviously distinguished scholars, David Porush (Telepathic Alphabetic Consciousness and the Age of Cyborg Illiteracy) and Manuel de Landa (Virtual Environments and the Emergence of the Synthetic Reason), justly grouped together as 'Cyberculture Singularities". The first starts from the startling concept of TMT (Technologically Mediated Telepathy) and he points out that it is, of course, a very old story (eine alte Geschichte, as Heine would put it), so that it should be properly studied by starting from its beginnings. Consequently, Porush examines the alphabetical writing and its peculiarities in various cultures, eventually focusing upon the cognitive, epistemic and sociological effects of the Jewish writing. It is a good story, but a long one, so that when, after a long journey along the Western culture, Porush finally comes to VR as an up-to-date device for TMT, he treats the subject rather perfunctorily. However, his distinction between Parousia and Porushia is noteworthy and should be developed further. Manuel de Landa's discourse is sound and didactical. His essay is an outline of the change of paradigm from the analytic, closed-system thinking of the sixties to the synthetic, dissipative, self-organizing systems approach of the eighties. This is a very good account of a closed chapter in the history of science. However, the parallelism between scientific and political ideas should be more carefully analyzed. For instance (p. 67), the author claims that the thermodynamic equilibrium is the counterpart of Adam Smith's "invisible hand", which keeps the right balance between offer and demand. As a matter of fact, the theories of static equilibrium in mechanics are the actual inspirers of early liberalism, while cybernetic feedback models spurred the advent of neoclassical economy. Thermodynamics, promoting the concept of irreversibility and the metaphor of "the arrow of time", enabled history-based ideologies like evolutionism and Marxism to act as sciences.

Last but not least, the section on post-human pragmatism is brilliant and moving. Stephan Metcalf uses in Autogeddon well selected litterary examples (Crews, Ballard) in order to illustrate the new type of relationship between men and machines, their intertwining and mutual sa do-masochistic erotic involvement. Stelarc (From Psycho-Body to Cyber-Sytems: Images as Post-human Entities) presen ts the New Man, the post-human being, an intricate technologically organic complex. The body is not "solved into thin air", but redesigned according to its functions, not to its drives. It is modular, its components can be replaced upon failure, it is invaded by technology and completely wired to the world. Birth and Death lose their meanings, since the body can be maintained in eternity using active redundancy and efficient renewal policies, thus losing its identity in the classical sense, similarly to Theseus' ship. The concepts of tradition, community, ethnicity are bygones, each post-human being completely self-contained. However, it should be noted that its self is sufficiently comprehensive to encompass the whole Universe: he is the new Adam Kadmon.

 


 

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Adrian Mihalache (mad@dnt.ro) (MSc 1971 in Electronics Engineering, PhD 1979 in Reli ability Theory) is a professor at the "Politehnica" University of Bucharest Romania. He teaches courses in Applied Statistics, Reliability Theory, Total Quality Management. His areas of research are Software Reliability, Statistical Process Control, Information Quality & Cultural Diversity on the WWW. He published "Theoretical Reliability" (1983, in Romanian), "Reliability Fundamentals" (1989, Elsevier Editions, in English), "A Chance to Fail. Essays on the Cultural Dimensions of Technology" (1994, in Romanian), "When Computers Fail. Software Reliability (1995, in Romanian). He has a permanent column entitled "Wired Culture" in a Romanian cultural magazine. He presented some papers on cyberculture at international symposia, such as: Le virtuel et ses vertus - Bucarest 1995, Hypermédia et l'utopie du livre - Neuchâtel 1997, Je est un autre - Un trajet culturel au dix-neuvième siècle - Québec 1996, Quasi una fantasia - The phantheme in the history of sciences, Predeal, Roumanie, 1997.

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