No. 5, Fall/Winter2000

Special Issue:
The Arab World

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Reviews

Andrew Calcutt (1999) "White Noise: An A-Z of the Contradictions in Cyberculture." London: MacMillan. 180 pp. ISBN 0-333-69955-6

Reviewer: Brendan Murphy, Central Queensland University, Rockhampton, Australia

There is no doubt that the blossoming of the Internet as a space for representation and communication has been remarkable. But has it been revolutionary? Calcutt's "White Noise" cautions us to be careful in accepting some of the common utopian (and dystopian) readings of emerging technological-cultural spaces. There is a common tendency in writing on culture and technology to mistake the new spaces opened up by communications technology for new forms of culture. According to Calcutt, writers on cyberculture often "invest digital communications, and the Internet in particular, with an autonomous momentum they simply do not have" (ix).

Calcutt provides 26 arguments that problematize the notion that the nature of the cultural exchanges that occur in and around the Internet are primarily determined by the technology that enables them. By considering "cyberculture" as a mode of culture appropriate to contemporary society, the essays in this volume help to place the forms of expression and modes of culture found on the Internet in a broader social, historical, and political context. In doing so he attacks the binary which would oppose online and offline culture, and champions the tendency that contemporary, Internet-suffused culture has to break down simplistic binary oppositions.

Calcutt marries form and function to a largely successful degree in this book. The selection of topics covered is eclectic, and their arrangement in an A-Z form is quite arbitrary. As pointed out in the preface, the burgeoning spaces of the Internet promote juxtaposition and arbitrariness. However, any selection of alphabetically adjacent topics illustrate that the structure of the book does follow a pseudo-narrative logic: Gates/anti-Gates, Hacking/slacking; Overload/information, Play/work. While the alphabetical organization may be a literary conceit, the consonance between the diverse range of topics demonstrates the consistent approach Calcutt takes in analyzing issues of cyberculture.

One of the chapters that most overtly takes on the utopian views of writers (such as "Rheingold and the Wired school of writers") is "Democracy/diversity," in which Calcutt effectively deconstructs several influential claims on the Internet as a radically democratizing cultural space. As in many other chapters, Calcutt reintroduces a historical perspective to critique the common, naive representation of cyberdemocracy. By considering the cozy relationship between the Electronic Freedom Federation, champion of online democracy as a political space representing diversity, and the Clinton administration, he provides an example of the tension between claims of diversity and democracy. The tension between the notion of the public sphere and individualism is particularly evident when cyberspace is promoted as a democratic site.

In "Equality/elitism" Calcutt extends this analysis. Much contemporary commentary boosts the Internet as a space where subjects enjoy a special egalitarianism while at the same time suggesting that shopping is the Web's "killer application." Calcutt extends this analysis beyond the boundaries of cyberspace by considering the flaws in the simplistic division between global and local that much writing on contemporary culture and politics reproduces without question. Other chapters, such as "Free/fee" (considering the status of online information in the race to commercialize cyberspace) and "Gates/anti-Gates" (which considers the ambiguity that the business world has towards Microsoft) provide similar analyses. Such analyses are particularly important against a mediascape saturated with dot-com frenzy.

The politics and economics of the Internet is by no means the major focus of "White Noise." Calcutt's arguments and analyses are at once subtler and more far-reaching. Other chapters, such as "Subject/object" and "Universal/particular," deconstruct the nature of cyberculture, and provide interesting insights into the nature of subjectivity and representation in this era of the Internet. For example, Calcutt considers the role of the Internet, television and the global market in the creating for the individual a feeling of connectedness with the world, while positing that the individual's search for connection is really only a search for his or her own self. Similarly, he questions the ability of communications technology to obliterate the historical through a thought-provoking reading of cyberpunk literature.

"White Noise" is essentially a survey or primer of current social and political issues that are situated in, or at least commonly seen to be situated in, cyberspace. While the individual chapters are useful starting points, they serve more to indicate contradictions than to provide alternative models of contemporary culture that would bring to light the ideology acting to submerge these contradictions in cyberculture rhetoric. Although this lack of depth might be seen as a weakness in other texts, in this case the effect of demolition job after demolition job provides a constructive sense of denaturalization, and provides an impetus for the reader to continue questioning cyberculture. TBS

Copyright 2000 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo

E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu