Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History
The cultural practices surrounding new media and information technologies are the subject of the growing field of cyberculture studies. While most specialists in this area have focused on contemporary phenomena, others have begun to identify technical, social, and philosophical precedents for our interactions with new media. In twenty-eight essays (plus introductory sections by the editors), Prefiguring Cyberculture brings together a diverse group of media theorists, cultural critics, artists, futurists, and historians of science to imagine a past for cyberculture.
Darren Tofts's introduction defines cyberculture expansively as "a new conception of human life, a redefined ontology that goes by a number of different, yet complementary names: posthuman, cyborg, informatic. . . . Cyberculture is the broader, epochal name that has been given to this process of becoming through technological means" (pp. 2-3). Three of the book's four sections consist of essays in which contributors interpret a source text and argue for its significance in the history of cyberculture. These sections explore the themes of artificial life, virtual spaces, and imagined futures, drawing on sources that range from philosophy (Plato, Descartes) to technology (Norbert Wiener, Alan Turing) to science fiction (Mary Shelley, William Gibson). While no such anthology could claim to be definitive, the sources represent an intriguing cross section of influential thinkers, and most of the analyses are thought-provoking and original.
The final section comprises ten "artists' statements," each consisting of a single page of text accompanied by a color illustration. These artistic snapshots explore the corporeal and social boundaries of cyberspace in various [End Page 901] ways—Justine Cooper and Char Davies create virtual bodies or environments, Troy Innocent and Jon McCormack experiment with artificial life, Patricia Piccinini and VNS Matrix critique the politics of representation—but they seem only tenuously connected to the rest of the book and its explicitly historical agenda.
The contributors take their engagement with the historical texts in a variety of directions. Evelyn Fox Keller's essay on Wiener's Cybernetics does not discuss Wiener's work in detail but situates it within a larger history of the notion of self-organization in biology, showing how the cybernetic concepts of information, feedback, and emergent behavior provided developmental biologists an alternative to the reductionist explanations of molecular biologists. In contrast, Zoë Sofoulis provides a close reading of Donna Haraway's "Manifesto for Cyborgs" and its influence on feminist and cybercultural studies. John Sutton links media theory with cognitive science by examining historical theories and practices of memory, comparing data storage in cyberspace with Renaissance ars memoria, whose practitioners stored individual memories in the rooms of a "virtual palace" in the mind. Sutton argues that, in both cases, human memory is an integrated system of mind and artifact: "durable information storage is a cultural and psychological achievement, not a given, and it depends on the construction and exploitation of social and technological resources" (p. 131). Futurist Damien Broderick's essay offers little historical insight, instead presenting his case for what Vernor Vinge termed the "technological singularity," an anticipated moment when the creation of artificial intelligence will alter the human condition beyond our capacity to imagine.
With many contributions that successfully bridge cultural studies and history of technology, Prefiguring Cyberculture is rewarding reading for those versed in the history and sociology of information technology. It could also serve readers interested in reinterpreting one of the featured texts from a history-of-technology perspective. For others, the book may prove too specialized. Its major shortcoming is that is does not provide access to the primary texts themselves. Few readers will be conversant with all of the chosen sources, especially if not already immersed in the literatures of computing, science fiction, and futurist utopias. Some of the essays provide sufficient information in the form of synopses and quotations to render a sense of the text and its significance, but others do not. Readers new to studies of information cultures may prefer an anthology such as Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality, edited by Randall Packer and Ken Jordan (2001), which uses excerpts from primary sources to construct a history of today's media.
Dr. Abbate is an assistant professor in the Science and Technology Studies Program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.