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 Newcomers might harbor the intuition that this is an outdated scripture whose insights have been superseded by actually existing history, useful only as a way for historians to keep track of what happened when.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.