By Ray Sawhill
The sound you hear is academics crowing. The scientists and technicians may still be furiously inventing and perfecting, the businesspeople may still be jockeying for position. But the academics (who know an opportunity when they see one) have the digital universe figured out; they have already imperialized the very ether.
In textbooks and academic publications, a body of theory has taken form. The gist of it isn’t just that an era characterized by the myth of the heroic individual and the autonomous work of art is dying. It’s that in cyberspace — the electronic alternative universe whose physical components are phone systems and the computers that are wired up to them — dematerialized intelligence will always be able to outwit power. And that in hypertext — electronic documents you can interact with, and that you make your way through not in a straight line but by associative leaps — creativity is returned to the viewer/reader/consumer. The computer is necessarily a force for decentralization. You can get the feeling that, to the academics, the digital technology that is upon us is significant primarily because it makes Barthes, Foucault and Derrida look like prophets.
Right now, probably the easiest way to sample the digital universe for yourself is by logging onto bulletin board systems and online services (commercial bulletin boards). Once there, you very quickly realize that the notions of the academics don’t hold up very well (except, perhaps, as claim-staking careerism). Power, for example plays an important role online. One bulletin board I visited is mainly used by media types in search of that scary duo — the buzz and the proper liberal consensus. One night a young computer jockey barged in and scattered some obnoxious white-trash comments around. It was impressive to see how efficiently these media advocates of diversity and inclusiveness hurried the offensive outsider on his way. The consensus was that he should go, and he was gone.
Offline, you may wonder about people for whom the death of the author is something to be celebrated. Academics, in the habit of viewing reading and writing as a matter of assignments given and executed, may be more prone to resent the supposedly oppressive “authority of the author” than the rest of us. More basic are certain practical questions: are the traditional media simply going to go away? And even in the new media, will the author be dead or just present in a different form?
What’s impossible to dismiss is the excitement of toying with hypertext and zipping around cyberspace. Going online can knock you silly. It can give you the feeling that you’re entering a kind of hallucinated wild west — that you’re turning away from “the civilized” and stepping forth among the cacti, where experience is raw and unprocessed.
If discussing content and its relation to form is almost impossible, the temptation is to wonder: are these categories and concerns simply irrelevant in this new world? Not being able to tease out an answer is surprisingly pleasing: so this is what it feels like when anything seems possible. The propagandists of the computer fringe, rejoicing in the drug-style rush the technology gives, are more honest than the academics; the utopian excitement they express is like that present in the work of such early writers on film as Vachel Lindsay.
The enormous potential for far-out mind games is part of the appeal of playing with the new media. A small online service can have in its computer the equivalent of a couple of million pages of text. Should it be considered a simple heap of documents? A community work of art? The electronic equivalent of naturally-occurring, self-evolving structures such as coral?
Moving through a bulletin board, you get to know “characters” and you get to follow “stories” — perhaps a bulletin board deserves to be discussed as a work of fiction. Another impression poking around online can leave you with is of unfolding corridors and towers that dwarf the invisible cities and libraries-of-all-libraries of Borges, Calvino and Cortázar. Yet no one set out to give you this impression.
The academics are missing out on what’s most essential about this stage of the digital revolution, which is the high that comes from the fact that sense simply can’t yet be made of that new world. How do you discuss creations that have no material existence? (The information in a computer can always be moved to another one.)
Online entities can remind you of other recent category-confounders. In architecture, for instance, much of the work of Christopher Alexander and the team of Plater-Zyberk and Duany consists of codes and processes for other builders and architects to use to develop their own buildings and neighborhoods. And the work of the scientists in the field of artificial life results in computer-screen creatures that take on wills independent of the intentions of their creators.
The technology itself provides much of the kick. Erasing the line between thinking and doing, and observing and participating, has always been part of the attraction of technologies like video and computers. So it isn’t surprising that the topics that inspire the most consistently absorbing writing online are sex and computers. Taking part in these discussions is rather like looking at fractal images: the further you venture into cyberspace, the more what you find out about is… computers.
In fact, when you aren’t playing cowboy-philosopher, what you spend your time doing online is pretty silly. You gawp at the weirdoes, bump into a few like-minded individuals, pick up computer tips and eavesdrop on conversations. But some of these can be eye-openers.
My favorite is the ongoing debate among lesbians about “fisting”; some lesbians have evidently taken up the practice that male homosexuals have abandoned (although what women put their hands up are each others’ vaginas). A few lesbians love it; a number of them insist it must be painful; most are politically offended by the notion that the vagina might ever be thought to be a source of pleasure. It’s only thanks to cyberspace that now I know.
- Wikipedia’s entry on Roland Barthes is a good one.
- Visit Christopher Alexander’s website.
- Here’s the Plater-Zyberk/Duany website.
©1992 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.