(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.
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