- Whither the Actually Existing Internet?
Anyone with an interest in political and cultural developments in and around cyberspace would welcome new books by McKenzie Wark and Vincent Mosco. Coming from different angles—Wark from critical theory (with a clearly evident debt to the idiosyncratic work of Paul Virilio) and Mosco from the political economy of media—both writers have already made important contributions to a still-emergent body of literature on new media and the Internet. Though one can point to exemplary Internet scholarship like Slater and Miller’s The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach, too few critical texts address the Internet as the technocultural phenomenon it has become. In 1999, such a problem would have been regrettable, yet understandable, given the relative novelty of the Internet as a medium for political advocacy, mass and micro cultures, and webs of commerce; today, it is nothing short of lamentable.
Mosco and Wark thus deserve credit for having done a great deal, in texts like the former’s “Webs of Myth and Power: Connectivity and the New Computer Technopolis” (2000) and the latter’s Virtual Geography: Living with Global Media Events (1994), to throw light on the practical and theoretical dimensions of the network society. In the article noted above and in other recent texts, Mosco has assiduously tracked how the realities of the global division of labor and capital’s movement to radically reconfigure media markets give the lie to utopian claims about the democratization effects supposedly inherent to the ever-wider spread of information technologies. Wark’s pioneering discussion of global media events in Virtual Geography established an early theoretical framework useful for later examinations of some of the key cultural factors bearing on the dissemination of information on the Internet.
In Wark’s A Hacker Manifesto and Mosco’s The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power and Cyberspace, the authors attempt to surpass the reach of their previous work. On the one hand, Wark postulates that hackers, understood in a broad sense to include intellectual laborers who use information technologies in their work, constitute a new “class” equipped with a revolutionary capacity to do battle with capital via the “vector,” Wark’s term for the global circulation of information; on the other hand, Mosco provides a broad examination of the discursive bases upon which popular and academic understandings of cyberspace have tended to be uncritically associated with dubious concepts like “the end of history” and “the disappearance of geography.” Wark thus delivers up an argument that is in some measure rooted in political economy, while Mosco departs from the terrain of political economy proper to investigate the ideological underpinnings of cybercultural myth-making. In both cases, these ambitious projects provide valuable insights into Internet culture and politics. Before getting to a discussion of these, however, I want to indicate a general problem with the methodology employed by both projects. In the spirit of Wark’s manifesto, I will call this problem “the filtering out of actually existing cyberspace.”
An unfortunate feature of these books is the degree to which they speak about hackers (however broadly categorized) or the mythical “digital sublime” while paying little attention to what actually happens when hackers become involved in or are subjected to Internet social networks, institutional protocols, and cultural genres. One can search almost entirely in vain in these texts for specific instances of cybercultural practice. Now, it is possible to identify certain understandable reasons of method for this omission. In Wark’s case, the form of the manifesto does not permit detailed discussion, and Mosco self-avowedly seeks to analyze the “myths” framing academic and popular understandings of the Internet rather than talk about what netizens are actually getting up to online. That said, this review will show that the cogency of Mosco’s and Wark’s arguments is weakened by the absence of sustained consideration of actually existing cyberspace.
Since its release earlier this year, A Hacker Manifesto has attracted a lot of attention, including a review by Terry Eagleton in the 25 October 2004 issue...