Review: Resisting The Virtual Life

I had concocted quite a nasty strategy for reviewing the book Resisting the Virtual Life, a collection of mostly anti-info age essays that's subtitled The Culture and Politics of Information. First I would strangle the authors with their own postmodern, neo-Marxist jargon. Then I'd make vicious fun of all those deep thinkers staring into their computer monitors and seeing nothing but fascism, homogenized culture, and fantasies of omnipotence and paranoia reflected back at them. Finally, as a last, sly low blow, I would dismiss this slick paperback published by City Lights as yet another example of a bunch of hip intellectuals capitalizing on the ultramarketable niche of cybercrit. But all that was before I read the book. I had scanned the table of contents and been enraged by a litany of blurbs explaining how each essay was "exposing fallacies" and "debunking myths" and "lifting shrouds." Must they be so goddamned obvious? Then, midway through the brilliant first essay, "A Flow of Monsters," written by Iain A. Boal, one of the book's two editors, I took a step back and reexamined my own motivations. As a fellow cyberjournalist asked me last week, "Are we boosters or are we reporters?" Had I forgotten how to be critical?Myths and truths It's been a bad couple of weeks for info-age enthusiasts. The anti-digital revolution backlash is well under way. With last week's inflammatory Time magazine cover story on pornography on the Internet preparing the battlefield for a right-wing assault on freedom of information, the last thing I thought I needed was a clamor of voices telling me things I didn't want to hear: things like the assertion that the migration to the Internet by educated white people is just another form of "white flight." Or that computer technology, instead of increasing productivity, has actually increased the amount of labor required from workers. Or that sitting for endless hours at a computer terminal, no matter how empowering it may seem to be, is really a poor substitute for actually getting outside and taking a hike. Which is not to say that some of the 21 mercifully short essays in Resisting the Virtual Life aren't tedious, profoundly mistaken, or downright absurd. Daniel Harris is a good writer, but his contention that screen savers are a new kind of opium, "the stimulant of false empowerment," and that their widespread popularity is "in part the by-product of an occupational identity crisis occurring among the upper echelons of the labor pool" is, shall we say, a bit over the top. I also have no patience for self-consciously pomo exercises that analyze the dichotomy between the Marquis de Sade's emphasis on the body and Descartes's emphasis on the mind via the metaphor of cyberspace. And I don't believe that "extended replacement of in-person interaction with virtual interaction decreases a person's ability to socialize comfortably with other people when in their physical presence." But that's quibbling. As one author put it, "Our cyberfuture doesn't want for celebrants." We all need a cold-water dousing every now and then. And a number of essays in Resisting the Virtual Life deliver. Ellen Ullman's literary reportage on the culture of software programmers is superb. San Francisco's own sex-toy doyen and alternative press veteran Laura Miller argues that depicting cyberspace as a "female-hostile" environment perpetuates stereotypes of women as the weaker sex. And Iain Boal's three contributions, which include his essay and a pair of riveting interviews, are worth the price of admission on their own.Internet or infobahn? One repeated theme bears examination, however -- the thesis that the information highway paves the way for enhanced exploitation of labor. Certainly that has been the popular trend during these days of late capitalism. But in making that argument the authors in Resisting the Virtual Life too often conflate the Internet with the information superhighway. And while it's possible that the Internet may evolve into the infobahn -- and certainly will do so if the telephone and cable companies have their way -- it's also true that right now the Internet is not an example of centralized media monopoly control operating as an adjunct to the crushing agenda of big capital. As it stands now the Internet is blissfully decentralized, fully promotes the expression of dissident views, and offers ways to subvert the distribution and publication strictures of the established system. Maybe that's a temporary phenomenon. Maybe five years down the line the mid-'90s will seem like some lost golden age of information, before the AT&Ts, MCIs, and TCIs locked up all the bits and bytes. In that case, we'll need a lot more books like Resisting the Virtual Life.

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