Prefiguring Cyberculture

Do not be fooled by its glossy exterior. While Prefiguring Cyberculture might look like a coffee table book, it does indeed fill the function of coffee table book admirably. It is big, it prominently features the word “cyber” on the cover, and it even has pictures. In short, those in the market for these display items could do worse than to seek out a copy to strategically place in a prominent spot.

Those daring to pick up the ever so slightly oversized tome and open its pages, may or may not be delighted to find that it was published in the early 00s. The dividing line between dismay and delight lies with one’s familiarity with literature pertaining to things cyber. Newcomers might harbor the intuition that this is an outdated scripture whose insights have been superseded by actually existing history, useful only as a way for historians to keep track of what happened when. Aficionados of the genre, however, know that the future is not what it used to be, and that 90s and (very) early 00s cyberoptimism was a radically different beast than what came before or after. In short, knowing its publication date informs a prospective reader of what manner of reading is to come.

This temporal aspect runs though the anthology at every turn. Indeed, its preface even acknowledges that readers in some distant and yet unknown cyberfuture might find its speculations quaint, fanciful or accurate in equal measure. In the same vein, the book’s project to investigate the roots of cyberculture – to prefigure it – means that the “now” is an ever negotiated position. The history of cyber is not only a future endeavor, but is also something that harkens back to decades and centuries well before there were learned books on the subject. Historically speaking, merely looking at things prominently featuring the word “cyber” does not tell the whole story.

Those familiar with the genre, will not be surprised that one of the first essays is on the topic of Cartesian dualism as it relates to fictional portrayals of artificial intelligence. In more ways than one, this is a prototypical choice of topic for an essay of this era – it takes something really, really old and applies it to something really, really new. The ensuing discussion regarding how Cartesian dualism has been criticized just about every way it could possibly be criticized (and then some), yet somehow finds purchase in literary depictions of computer intelligences alive without corporeal form – is par for the course. Indeed, I suspect not a few readers will nod and think “yes, this is the content that I crave”. A subset of these readers might then happen upon the second thought: why don’t people write this way any more?

It is a question that radiates from every page, all the while the individual essays are busy discussing this or that historical aspect in detail. It is tempting to propose that one reason might be that the arrival of the cyberfuture itself, which has served to make casual longform writing obsolete; we have online video essays, podcasts and extensive subtweeting to replace the old style communicative form of structured written words. The nature of technological change means new technologies are used (lest it not be much of a change). Given the new capacities of our cyberreality, it would be somewhat archaic to keep doing it old style. To phrase it in contemporary parlance: blogs do not generate engagement or drive traffic.

Framed this way, the book finds itself in the ironic position of painstakingly outlining how the written word has predicted futures (plural) up until the point where the written word is firmly something of the past. Once we got here, the tools of our ancestors were replaced with something more modern. The future arrived; time to let go of the past.

On that note, another chapter features a lengthy account of medieval sponges capable of storing the spoken word (replayable upon the proper squeeze), which then transitions into a pondering of just how we think about the various memory devices we use every day. Memory is not just a number ascribed to hard drives, but also the very thing we use to navigate our way through the whole ordeal of being alive. If we do not remember something, it in some sense ceases to exist. If we outsource our memory processes to external machines, then what becomes of the subject, left to its own devices?

If history and memory are cyber, this raises the question of just what is not cyber. Careful analytical readers will possibly object that this all seems a case of overreach, of overapplication of an underdefined concept. This is, potentially, true. But it also pokes at a contemporary trend of things going post-digital. The 90s ended, cyberculture became the default mode of everyday life, and we are now able to grapple with such complex phenomena as tinder dating rituals without having to discuss at length the various interface affordances of the platform. In very short order, we have gotten past the changes and barged into a future without hesitation or the nostalgic foresight of erecting milestones. One of the few visible legacies remaining is the seemingly mandatory introductory sentence “the improved capacity in communication technologies over the last decades have changed our ways of communication”, with its countless variations on theme. Indeed, bewildered cyberyouth often find themselves wondering how people did these things (for any given definition of ‘these things’) back in the old days.

The book, ultimately, tries to answer part of the question of where the big ideas of cyber came from. Inadvertently, it also raises the question of where the big questions of cyber went.

Prefiguring Cyberculture

Lindner: Walks on the wild side

The subtitle of Rolf Lindner’s Walks on the wild side is “a history of urban studies”, a nod to the fact that most historical research on urban places consist of literally walking into the wilder, seedier parts of town. The first urban explorers – an apt title for the 19th century journalists acting as anthropologists in the white spots of their own cities – made an entire genre out of describing their descent into the uncivilized wilds. According to the genre conventions of travel literature, such accounts began not at the thresholds of the wilder sides, but in the dressing rooms of the journalists themselves; the more detailed and exotic the description of one’s preparation for the Descent, the more titillating the read. Ideally, not only the outward appearance of the intrepid explorer would change, but their demeanor and behavior had to undergo a transformation as well. Famously, cleanliness and proper manners were the first virtues to go. Walking on the wild side is not as easy as simply ambulating there – you have to look and act the part of a slum-dweller, lest the natives know you’re not from around and close ranks, sealing off access to their strange ways forever.

It goes without saying that there is something of a class bias inherent in these early journalistic endeavors to depict the wild men at home. What does not go without saying is how much of this sentiment remains in contemporary urban studies, and how the endeavor to this day resembles those early exploratory efforts. Those in the know – the civilized world, the academes, the middle classes – step outside the safe zones of their everyday lives and walk into the dark unknown. The resulting travel reports made for great newspaper pieces back in the early days, and those of a critical bent might suggest they make for great articles in the scientific journals of today – with the important difference that the lengthy description of wardrobe changes have been replaced with lengthy descriptions of methodological considerations. Sometimes, the two coincide.

This historical account serves as a backdrop for Lindner’s discussion of the Chicago school sociologists and their urban escapades. Said escapades usually consist of leaving the confines of the university campus and venturing out into the cityscape in search of interesting places to become familiar with and at. Not in the descent into darkness fashion of earlier eras, but in a more horizontal fashion – the study of sociology requires you to be in social situations, and thus the way to go about it is to find yourself in these very same situations. Not as observer, but as participant. Often, the way to go about it is to simply show up and ask if you can tag along (especially if you are a young student of average delinquency), and then see where things take you. At some point, a return to the campus area is necessary, but it is not the end all and be all of sociological activity. The world under study is, and will always be, out there.

What emerges between the lines is an unfettered fascination with the wide range of different forms of life humans can evolve despite being physically proximate to each other, a happiness over being able to partake in a multitude of contexts, and the sheer joy of exploration. These are not typical traits associated with academics (stereotypical or actual), and the contrast can be seen even more starkly in the dissertation titles from that era. A Columbia dissertation styled itself Modes of cultural release in western social systems, which (with a small dose of counterintuitive thinking) can be parsed to be about the consumption of alcohol. Meanwhile, a Chicago dissertation had the slightly more locally flavored title Social interaction at Jimmy’s: a 55th St. bar. One need not too much imagination to picture the different styles of sociological account given under each heading.

Lindner’s methodological move from being an outside observer to becoming a part of the gang (at times literally) is not only an historical account. It is also a methodological poke at the present. The journalistic descents of old into the uncivilized parts of town were unabashedly meant for a middle-class readership, and it would be a minor scandal indeed if one of the dangerous classes had the temerity to point out that these accounts were by definition limited in scope and accuracy. The Chicago sociologists, meanwhile, had the advantage of knowing the ins and outs of the situations they integrated themselves into, but inevitably ran into the problem of how to generalize from particular situations to general tendencies (whether this is an inevitable feature of human social life is a question for another post). Both genres had the advantage of knowing just who their target audiences are (the middle classes and the social context being investigated, respectively), but the same can not be said about contemporary researchers of urban phenomena. Just who do we, as researchers and explorers, write for? Our employers, our editors, some abstract notion of shareholders, our patrons, the zeitgeist, our friends, our enemies?

Whether or not you have an interest in sociology or urban studies, Walks on the wild side will leave you methodologically confused. Perhaps it will even encourage you to do something as radical as taking a walk into a neighborhood you are not overly familiar with, just to see what’s there. I suspect you will find it is not too different from your current circumstance. But one can not be sure before taking the methodological step of going there.

Lindner: Walks on the wild side