The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace (review)
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The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace. By Vincent Mosco. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. Pp. ix+218. $27.95.

There was much talk in the 1830s of an end to history being ushered in by the railway and the steamboat. With space and time having been annihilated, we would no longer be tied to locale, and in the future there would be no political struggles because communication would be perfect. Vincent Mosco's fascinating book is about the end of geography, time, and politics as it is being conjured today in the myths of cyberspace. It is a scrupulously well-researched history of a literature that can be hard to read without one's eyes glazing over, and it provides a rich discussion of the shortfall between the promise of the myths and the reality of the political economy.

In three core chapters, Mosco acts as sardonic guide on a magical mystery tour through the death of history, politics, and distance—reminding us frequently that the emperor's wardrobe is a little bare. His discussions are generally balanced and fair (one exception being his critique of Teilhard de Chardin and Marshall McLuhan, which is based on some irrelevant assertions by James Carey). He is at pains to argue that myth can be a force for good, that its positive features include giving meaning to life—surely no mean feat; posing an "attractive vision or template of perfection" (p. 49); and having "transcendent and moral force" (p. 53). However, Mosco excoriates mythographers for their poor grasp of reality. In a classic act of denigration, Mosco tells us that he is not concerned so much with revealing the weaknesses of Francis Fukuyama's position as with understanding the nature and power of his mythologizing—but then he spends several pages debunking rather than exploring. Mosco calls Daniel Bell's work "too complex, too dialectical, too challenging to leave any room for the purity, luster, and self-justification of myth" (p. 67). And, again, citing Yeats's loveless, lovely phrase, he writes that myths are forged "in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart" (p. 41).

This phrase, an appeal to our simple humanity—not shored up by conjurors' tricks—suggests that Mosco's book is indeed a call for an end to myth, the canonical battle of the secular humanist against transcendence. I found this something of a pity. Myths can be rich, complex, and dialectical; this is one of the great lessons of Lévi-Strauss's work. Having the myth as that which is simple, wrong, and yet strangely powerful mythologizes the myths themselves. Here Mosco makes the mistake from the materialist side that Mark Stefik (oddly uncited) made from the mystical side: not registering the complexity of their Other.

Still, Mosco's debunking is fascinating in itself: his superb grasp of the politics of communication and information technology is clearly evidenced here, as in his earlier work. There is a very evocative chapter in which he shows that similar claims were made for all the great network technologies [End Page 436] of the past one hundred and fifty years—electricity, the telephone, radio, television. I would have him go a little further back, to the steamboat and the railway, where I would locate the origin of many of the tropes discussed. This would have enabled Mosco to go beyond the idea that these myths are a feature of network technology and address them as a consistent feature of industrial society, coeval with the rise of governmentality. With a richer reading of myth and a deeper connection between myth and political economy he could have transformed this book from a relatively easy work of debunking into what it aspires to be: the exploration of a resilient set of myths that have accompanied the development of their inverse, as when a decentralizing force like the computer becomes a force for centralization, the end of history ushers in renewed ethnic strife, and the destruction of distance leaves boundaries ever more tightly policed.

Geoffrey C. Bowker

Dr. Bowker is executive director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University.