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Roger Clarke's Book Review of 'Escape Velocity'

BOOK REVIEW
Mark DERY
'ESCAPE VELOCITY: Cyberculture at the End of the Century'
Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1996, 376 pp, RRP $24.95

Roger Clarke

Version of 13 July 1996

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1996

This Book Review is an entry in the service 'Australian Computer Journal Reviews Published Electronically'

It has been re-published in slightly modified form in Information Technology & People 10,1 (1997) pp.87-92

Some people take Stephen King novels away as their holiday reading. I took a more intellectually respectable troika of horror-stories: a Bruce Sterling sci-fi novel ( 'Heavy Weather', one of his best), the film 'The Net', and Mark Dery's heavyweight paperback. This last was trumpeted on the cover J.G. Ballard's opinion that this is "without doubt the best guide I have read to the new computer culture that will soon dominate our lives". As a long-time participant in things Internet, I was looking forward to instruction.

Many of us might mean by 'cyberculture' the dynamics of the current and rapidly mutating environment in which we are working and playing. Unfortunately not Mr Dery. He is concerned with the big picture and the long term: the nature of the 'posthumans' who may (or may not) be our not-entirely-natural descendants.

Dery describes himself as 'a cultural critic'. That presumably means, in relation to the current decade's multi-media, something like what 'literary critic' used to mean. The book certainly shares with the lit. crit. genre the self-granted freedom to make large numbers of glib comments, and allude cleverly to all of the writer's other recent reading material, without being constrained to structure an argument or even articulate a point of view.

Nominally, the book examines the emergent myth that the human mind will soon be transposed onto the net and thence off the planet (which provides the the reference to 'escape velocity' and the alternative metaphor 'lifeboats for our minds'); and that this is occurring fast enough that we can afford to use up the planet through over-population, resource depletion and environmental degradation. It is then meant to argue that this myth is dangerously wrong.

Unfortunately, this 'theme' is only evident on pp. 10-17 and 316-319. Presumably the editor wanted a veneer so that the book would seem like a cohesive whole rather than the disjointed collection of essays it really is.

Despite my presumably all-too-apparent disappointment, Dery's work does have merits that warrant reading at least a book review, and for many people also the book itself.

The first essay (pp. 19-72) provides an interestingly contentious review of what Dery refers to as 'cyberdelia'. By this he means the combined "bohemian and technician" (or "transcendentalist" and "technophilic") orientations that characterise contemporary netizens, and whose archetypes are John Perry Barlow (Grateful Dead lyricist and electronic freedom activist) and "Myst's seamless union of mysticism and technology" (p. 55).

"High-jacking technology [from 'the military-industrial-entertainment complex'] for personal empowerment, fun and games" (p. 31) is a motivation that extends far beyond the readers of Wired magazine, and neatly describes the game-playing and electronically communicating masses that make up such a large proportion of the new entrants to the Internet world during the 1990s.

The next essay investigates the links between cyberpunk literature and the music of the 1980s (pp. 73-107). Usefully, Dery traces the term 'cyberpunk' to a 1983 short story of that name by Bruce Bethke (but unfortunately doesn't provide a reference), and a 1984 lit. crit. article. These appear to have just preceded the publication of the definitive cyberpunk sci-fi novel, William Gibson's 'Neuromancer' (1984). 'Neuromancer' is a recurrent source, and is analysed and re-visited on pp. 55-56, 91-93 and 248-252. (Dery also runs to ground the reference for Gibson's post facto interpretation of his term 'cyberspace' as "a tailored hallucination we all agreed to have", in 'Count Zero', the 1986 sequel to 'Neuromancer', at p.119 in the Ace Books edition).

Overall, the critique of the cyberpunk genre that is scattered throughout the book, especially in Chapters 2 and 6, offers some interesting thoughts; but to my mind it still doesn't match the insight that Bruce Sterling provided in his editor's preface to a collection of short stories called 'Mirrorshades' (1988).

The third and fourth essays consider several art-forms, in particular kinetic sculptures (pp. 109-180). These are formed in some cases from hard technologies, and in other from artists' own bodies enhanced by robotics, tele-presence and tele-operation. Dery is at pains to distinguish them from the anodyne, business-serving forms provided by the Disney industry. To an aging conservative, some of the contrivances seem to be just plain silly, but some are interestingly odd. I was previously unaware of Melbourne-based Stelarc's artistically pain-denying (and even body-denying) implementations of cyborg principles (pp. 153-163).

This segment of the book, even more than the rest of it, left me with the impression that Dery was trying to treat a scatter of 'outliers' as though they together represented a trend. To use Dery's own term, the book studies "cyberculture's fringes" (p.285), rather than the mainstream.

In his fifth essay, Dery addresses the question of how the concept and practice of sex may be affected by cyberspace (pp. 183-225). This segment is seriously concerned about the association of sex with male-dominance and death, and the deep connections between sex and throbbing, hard technology [mixed metaphors intended]. For example, he points out how much of our technical jargon is rife with sexual innuendo (hard drive, male- and female-connectors, slot, joystick, etc.); but he appears to miss the point that most of these were derived from an engineering arena that has long been a bastion of male supremacy.

Dery's desperate search for posthuman sexuality and disembodied coitus seems to me to contribute precious little to our appreciation of the nature and impacts of technology and what to do about them. An exception is the useful description and interpretation of sex-related uses of Internet services (pp. 199-206). On the other hand, the discussion of pornographic images (pp. 206-211) contains nothing new or particularly insightful, and is insufficiently comprehensive to be useful. For a more pragmatic approach, see Clarke (1996).

The final, and longest, essay resumes the first chapter's review of human as cyborg (pp. 227-319). Morphing is treated as though it were more than just an image-manipulation technology. Bionics, on the other hand, is; and Dery provides some interesting and accessible comments on the nature and potential impact of prosthetics. He begins a promising line of analysis of the 'discorporation' of individuals arising from their "longtime immersion in a simulated world (TV viewing, PC gaming, Internet surfing, computer hacking, arcade virtual reality)" (p. 234), but fails to carry it through. One mini-review that is of considerable interest is of the two 'Terminator' films (pp. 263-270). He finishes by drawing attention to one of the fundamental inadequacies of mainstream AI models, which assume that the brain is localised inside the head, rather than being distributed around the body.

I felt that Dery did not adequately draw out the implications of one of the most obvious cyberculture themes, the relationship between cyberspace and consciousness-altering substances. Huxley, Castenada and Leary needed drugs in order to achieve out-of-body experiences. The various 'real-life' 'virtual-reality' initiatives seek it by technological means. Meanwhile, the cyberpunk fiction of Gibson, Sterling, et al. blends the two. I suspect that, for the audience that he was mainly writing for (familiar as they would be with Rolling Stone, Mondo 2000 and Wired), he feared that lengthier treatment of this topic would have been somewhat trite. For the much broader audience that the book is actually being marketed to, I feel that an additional early chapter would have been helpful.

There are many other aspects of the work that annoyed me. Dery has the hide to attack the material of several people he disagrees with as 'cyberbole' (presumably a contraction of 'cyber-hyperbole'); yet reproduces with apparent approval equally extreme claims of others, and even indulges himself on occasions, e.g. "cell by cell, she is being replaced by the new flesh, the video flesh - as we all are, in cyberculture" (p.298). He also accuses one theorist of 'a bit of sleight of mind' (p.299), when a great deal of his own treatise could be described the same way. And he quotes approvingly one critic's use of the phrase 'the scandal of metaphor' (p. 311), but continually perpetrates it himself.

Some readers will find the language and expression pretentious. Neologisms and aphorisms flow from his fingers (although admittedly not all of them are his own invention), including 'cyberdelia' and 'cyberdelic' (used frequently to invoke the conjunction of cyberspace with Timothy Leary-championed, LSD-induced psychedelia), 'the loneliness of the discarnate mind' (p.254), 'digital doppelgänger' (p.256), ''roid rage' (a pun on steroid and android - p.261), and 'dictatorship of the neurotariat' (p.306). Annoying and pseudo-intellectual as many of these may seem, Dery's writing style is accomplished, and he always provides the reader with enough cues that the code can be decyphered and the source and significance of the pregnant new term appreciated.

The appreciation Dery shows of I.T. in general, and of the net and net services in particular, is not as high as one might expect, and, despite its recent publication, the book contains no URLs and no Internet contact points. In addition, there are frequent mis-uses of the terms 'science' and 'scientist'. In some cases, 'technology' and 'technologist' would have been appropriate, but in others to use any of those terms would be 'cyberbole'. One of the more comical such mistakes is in the apparently unwitting oxymoron 'scientific speculation' (p. 308).

Rather than clear and usable Harvard-style referencing, the book uses the archaic, dysfunctional and often infuriating legal style, with endnotes, ibid., op. cit and loc. cit. (in spirit if not in name), and no reference list or bibliography. Some authors and publishers clearly don't try to use their own works: it's anything but straightforward to locate a reference among 813 endnotes, and to navigate backwards from an incomplete reference to the full citation (e.g. Chapter 6 note 199 refers back to a work cited in full at note 7).

Dery's perspective is almost exclusively North American, and heavily Southern Californian. Yet one of the most interesting tensions at present is the question as to whether the net will be a vehicle for yet more U.S. cultural imperialism (because such a large proportion of content, especially video, originated and continues to originate there), or whether the geographically unconstrained nature of the Internet will see many cultures project themselves more widely and actively than ever before.

At various points, Dery recognises the venerable age of many of the concepts that he depicts as cyberculture (e.g. Teilhard de Chardin's 'noosphere" and 'ultra-humanity' from the 1950s - p. 46; various ideas of McLuhan's from the 1960s, and Toffler's from the 1960s and 1970s; Samuel Butler's depiction of man "as a sort of parasite upon the machines", in 'Erewhon' in 1872 - p. 90; Capek's invention of the term 'robot' in 1921 - p.114; automata, starting in ancient Egypt - p. 140; Nietzsche's 'Übermensch' or 'superman' from the last century - p. 302; and Wiener's original cybernetic model of the human in 1948 - p.309).

In other cases, however, he appears to overlook the roots of important ideas. For example, he attributes the well-worn (although eternally valuable) 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic' to Arthur C. Clarke as recently as 1979 (p.50). Less trivially, he concludes the book with a quotation from a 1991 novel: "I can't remember what it feels like to have a body ... He wanted to scream in frustration, but he had nothing to scream with" (p.319). That notion was used in a sci-fi short story decades earlier, and is traceable to at least Franz Kafka's 'Metamorposis'.

Moreover, Moravec's assertions about the impending obsolescence of the unenhanced human through 'downloading' of the mind to computer memory (1988) are used as though they were new ideas, rather than just sci-fi ideas outrageously re-packaged in the form of nominally scientific pronouncements.

In fact, there are hardly any 'technology-enhanced human' / cyborg concepts anywhere in Dery's catalogue that do not appear in Asimov's half-century's worth of robotics fiction published between 1940 and 1990 (see my own paper, Clarke 1993-94). In his endnotes he mentions Cohen (1967) and Channell (1991), but not other important analyses of robotics, such as Geduld & Gottesman (1978), Reichardt (1978), Warrick (1980) and Frude (1984).

Naively, he quotes a recent writer as saying that "if we do create creatures that are smarter than you, they become the principal actors ... If we got in their way, whether they'd rub us out ... would probably depend on the expense" (p.312). That was the very scenario that Capek's robots followed when he invented the word in a playscript 75 years ago. Is it too much to expect commentators to read the existing literature, and help our analysis to progress a little?!

But my real disappointment with Dery's book is that so much of it is just an exercise in postmodernist intellectualism. Rome's burning, and there's real work to be done, as we try to make the space usable, keep our sanity, and find suitable balances and intersections between the real and the virtual components of our lives.

The theme that I kept wanting to emerge was the capacity of our individual, group and social psychologies to adapt themselves to net-based services, and to adapt the technologies to match real human needs.

Several times Dery tantalised me with sentences about "political radicalism" and "organised activism" (p.32), "a time when realistic solutions are urgently needed" (p.49), "our interactions ... take place, more and more, in electronically mediated spaces; ... transnational corporate power is increasingly dependent on, and exercised in, cyberspace; ... in computer mediated human interaction, ... description is indistinguishable from action" (p.68), "technological progress will exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, ... inequity" (p.69), "themes of power relations in a high-tech society" (p. 134), "telecommuting ... is proving to be more of a curse than a blessing [for the housewife]" (p.245), "[we need to be concerned about] how [these] changes will affect the lives of, say, the indigent elderly in South Central Los Angeles or unemployed high school dropouts in Long Island suburbs" (p.277), and "issues of power are anchored in the physical bodies of the governed, at least for the foreseeable future" (p.310). Yet every one of these leads was left hanging in the air.

Dery castigates Mondo 2000's founders for not being motivated to "change the system" (p.34), and social anthropologists for failing to examine the impacts of the phenomena they are studying (p. 276-277); but he then commits precisely the same sin himself, by merely describing and interpreting, without contributing to the next round of maturation in our social processes. He contents himself with a limp assertion that "liftoff ... is ... held fast by the gravity of the social and political realities, moral issues, and environmental conditions of the moment" (p.315). Like the term 'escape velocity', it seems very much as though the contention was borrowed from someone else.

My expectations were that the book would be written for the active participant in cyberspace, with instrumentalist / utilitarian overtones and clear political implications. My expectations were unfulfilled, because Dery's purpose was much vaguer than that, rooted in the humanities rather than the social sciences.

Read with these many qualifications in mind, however, I believe that Dery's contribution joins Benedikt's collection (1991), Rheingold's enthusiastically descriptive book (1993), Rushkoff's treatise (1994), Stoll's scatalogical attack (1995), Turkle's observations (1995) and Kling's collection (1995) as a must-read for those many of us who are trying to chart the directions of development of electronic services and communities, and to participate in and influence those directions.

Postscript

A genuinely useful practice guide to the contemporary net remains to be written. To pre-counter the criticism that I've levelled at Dery's book being applied to this review as well, I offer an indication of what I think we all need in the way of a seriously useful analysis of cyberculture.

References

Benedikt M. (Ed.) (1991) 'Cyberspace: First Steps' MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1991

Channell D.F. (1991) 'The Vital Machine: A Study of Technology and Organic Life' Oxford University Press, 1991

Clarke R. (1993-94) 'Asimov's Laws of Robotics: Implications for Information Technology' in two parts, in IEEE Computer 26,12 (December 1993) and 27,1 (January 1994) 57-66 Abstract

Clarke R. (1996) 'How Do You Cope With Censorship? An Analysis for IT Services Executives', Invited Address to the Conference of the Australian Universities' Directors of IT (CAUDIT), 23 August 1996 , at http://www.rogerclarke.com/II/CensCope.html

Cohen J. (1967) 'Human Robots in Myth and Science' A.S. Barnes, Cranbury NJ, 1967

Frude N. (1984) 'The Robot Heritage' Century Publishing, London, 1984

Geduld H.M. & Gottesman R. (1978) (Eds.) 'Robots, Robots, Robots', New York Graphic Soc., Boston, 1978

Gibson W. (1984) 'Neuromancer' Ace, New York, 1984

Kling R. (Ed.) (1995) 'Computerization and Controversy Value Conflicts and Social Choices' 2nd Edition, Academic Press, 1995. 1st edition: Dunlop C. & Kling R. (Eds.), Academic Press, 1991

Moravec H. (1988) 'Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence' Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1988

Reichardt J. (1978) 'Robots: Fact, Fiction & Prediction' Thames & Hudson, London, 1978

Rheingold H. (1993) 'The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier' Addison-Wesley, Reading MA, 1993

Rushkoff D. (1994) 'Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace' HarperSanFrancisco, New York, 1994

Sterling B. (1988) 'Mirrorshades': The Cyberpunk Anthology', Preface, Ace, New York, 1988

Stoll C. (1995) 'Silicon Snake Oil -- Second thoughts on the Information Highway' Doubleday, 1995

Turkle S. (1995) 'Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet' Orion, 1995

Warrick P.S. (1980) 'The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction' MIT Press, 1980



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