Defining Cyberculture (v. 2)
(Translated by Monika Metyková and Jakub Macek)
This article offers a new concept of cyberculture based on an analysis of structures of cybercultural narrations. The author sums up previous concepts of cyberculture and offers an account of the distinction between early and current cyberculture. Thereafter he focuses solely on early cyberculture and offers its definition and historical periodization. The thesis deals with early cyberculture as a wide social and cultural movement closely linked to advanced information and communication technologies (ICT), their emergence and development and their cultural colonization.
This is the fixed version of the text (July 2005). The original Czech version is available in Média a realita (ed. by Binková, P. – Volek, J., Masaryk University Press, 2004, pp 35-65). In need of further information, please contact the author.
In much of reflection on ICTs[i], the term cyberculture can clearly be identified one of the frequently and flexibly used terms lacking an explicit meaning. Generally, it refers to (as the prefix indicates) cultural issues related to “cyber-topics”, e.g. cybernetics, computerization, digital revolution, cyborgization of the human body, etc., and always incorporates at least an implicit link to an anticipation of the future, to a kind of Lunenfeldian “not yet”. However, any more explicit understanding of the referent of cyberculture varies from author to author and is actually often absent.
A wide range of miscellaneous phenomena are referred to as cyberculture – the term can be used as a label for historical and contemporary hackers’ subcultures and for the movement connected to the literary genre of cyberpunk,[ii] as an expression describing groups of computer network users, even as a futuristic metaphor for various prospective or (as some claim) actually emerging forms of society transformed by ICTs. At the same time the term refers to cultural practices of ICTs (or solely Internet) users or to past or current new media research and theory.
Thus cyberculture is an ambiguous, confusing, unclear term describing a set of issues. It can be used in a descriptive, analytical or ideological sense. It has a multiplicity of meanings and thus everyone willingly uses at least one of them. You can hardly make a mistake when you use it as the word cyberculture is one of the most significant paratextual characteristics of ICTs theory that will let the reader know that he is right in the realm of chip-mythology.
However, thanks to this polysemous nature of the term I can “borrow” it and doubtless make it more precise, provide it with a clear meaning at least in the context of this essay.
The goal of this essay is to develop the concept of what I call early cyberculture, a concept to be employed in a critical rendering of the cultural and ideological aspects of ICTs. I understand early cyberculture as a past socio-cultural formation,[iii] which was at the birth of current computer technologies (e.g. of the currently dominant segment of ICTs) and of the discourses and narratives which framed them. For early cyberculture ICTs were a futuristic myth of a “new hope” and a “new menace” and stood behind one of the most significant narratives of the 1980s and 1990s, the story of the power of a new technology, which dramatically and fundamentally changes the world of humans and humans themselves, a story that was grasped and adopted by the cultural mainstream, by western societies and their political representations.
With regard to the multiplicity of previous concepts of cyberculture, this essay opens with a brief critical summary of the most important and known approaches to this issue. Following the summary I outline the field of cyberculture and make a distinction between early cyberculture (on which I focus in this text) and contemporary cyberculture (which, however, lies outside the scope of this essay). In the following I define early cyberculture at the levels of social groups, discourses/practices and narratives, I periodicize it and describe its origins, historical development and disappearance through its fusion with the mainstream. In the final part of the essay I focus on cybercultural narratives which I view as the key defining characteristics and the most important symbolic inheritance of the mainstream from cyberculture.
Current Concepts of Cyberculture
Closer and more systematical approach to mentioned ways of thinking of what can be understood as cyberculture enables me to develop a helpful typology of existing concepts. This typology – based on simple analysis of the basic point of views of concepts of cyberculture – spans utopian, information, anthropological and epistemological concepts of cyberculture.
Utopian concepts of cyberculture
Information concepts of c.
Anthropological concepts of c.
Epistemological concepts of c.
Brief character. of the concept
- c. as a form of utopian society changed through ICT
- anticipating („futurologism“)
- c. as cultural (symbolical)codes od the information society
- analytical, partly anticipating
- c. as cultural practices and life styles related to ICT
- analytical, oriented to the present state and to history
- c. as term for social and anthropological reflection of new media
Examples of authors and books
Andy Hawk – Future Culture Manifesto
Pierre Lévy – Kyberkultura
(1997, èesky 2000)
Margaret Morse – Virtualities: Television, Media Art and Cyberculture (1998)
Lev Manovich – The Language of a New Media. (2001)
Arturo Escobar – Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Atrhopology of Cyberculture
(1994, zde 1996)
David Hakken – Cyborgs@Cyberspace (1999)
Lev Manovich – New Media from Borges to HTML (2003)
Lister a spol. – New Media: A Critical Introduction (2003)
Cyberculture as utopian project – Utopian concepts of cyberculture
Probably the oldest and narrowest concept of cyberculture refers to the initial discussions on new media and denotes the cyberpunk movement, hackers’ subculture and (more generally) the first computer and network users and, for example, members of the early virtual communities developing via computer networks in the 1980s and early 1990s. Douglas Rushkoff, author of Cyberia (1994, in Czech 2000) and Mark Dery, who in his Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century (1996) identifies cyberculture with “computer-age subcultures,” are two representatives of this understanding of cyberculture. Members of these “computer-age subcultures” perceived cyberculture as an initiation of some kind of a futuristic regeneration of society, as Andy Hawk (one of The Cyberpunk Project creators)[iv] demonstrates in his article Future Culture Manifesto.[v] For him, the cyberculture of the “here and now” is in its infancy, nevertheless it is an already existing foundation of a “new future”. Actually, in the case of Hawk’s manifesto the hackers’ cyberculture, which developed from cyberpunk and a rich variety of older subcultures, was to be the culture of the information society. This orientation toward the future and the focus on technologically catalyzed social change is typical of discourses appropriating cyberpunk (see below) and it ushers in futurological and utopian visions emerging from the academic world, but inspired by subcultural narratives.
Pierre Lévy’s extremely optimistic vision represents one of the most powerful and most famous explorations of cyberculture. Lévy, a French humanistic philosopher widely known as the author of the sophisticated concept of the virtual and an apologist of new media (in the European context he played a similar role as the digerati in the U.S.)[vi], offers his conceptual framework in his Cyberculture (Lévy 2000).
Lévy employs the term cyberculture to refer to the Internet as to a Barlowian cyberspace.[vii] Lévy argues that with the spread of the Internet new forms of knowledge and new forms of its distribution emerge, these new forms transform not only the ways we manipulate information, but the society itself. Cyberculture is synonymous with this change, it refers to the “set of techniques (material and intellectual), practical habits, attitudes, ways of thinking and values that develop mutually with cyberspace” (Lévy 2000: 15) and embodies “a new form of universality: universality without totality” (ibid: 105). For Lévy this new universality symbolizes the peak of the Enlightenment project of humanity – the humanity of free, empowered subjects oppressed neither by the power of the unity of language and meaning nor by unified and binding forms of social being. For Lévy cyberculture proves the fact that we are close to this humanistic paradise, it points to the possibility of “creating a virtual participation on your own self (universality) in a way that is different from the identity of meaning (totality)” (ibid: 107).
Lévy’s cyberculture cannot be termed a realistically conceived exploration, rather a conservative and utopian vision closely related to the eager technotopism of the turn of the 1980s and the 1990s. There is no cyberculture in the sense of a formally unified and at the level of content diffused cultural modus, that is as a relatively homogenous cultural formation. Lévy advances his vision of the future and he links it directly to the actual spread of digital technologies, for him the massive spread of the Internet clearly indicates the forthcoming changes. However, he does not distinguish between his visions regarding the nature of these changes and the current situation, he conflates a project of the future with a reflection of the present.
The weakness of Lévy’s vision is in its dimness and roughness, his transformation of the society into the “new society” characterized by “universality without totality” lacks clear contours. Lévy simply knows that new technologies bring about social and cultural change and thus he tries to detect and capture the character of this change. In relation to his argumentation, which is influenced by the fact that his “The Second Flood: Report on Cyberculture” was written within the framework of a Council of Europe project, Kevin Robins and Frank Webster write the following:
What, in fact, is significant about Lévy’s discourse is the co-existence of a radical techno-rhetoric with a social and communitarian political vision that is actually quite conventional and even conservative. And we would say, moreover, that it is this combination of radical and what we might call pragmatic aspirations that particularly marks Cyberculture as a representative text of the late 1990s. (Robins and Webster 1999: 223)
Cyberculture as cultural interface of information society – Information concepts of cyberculture
In her book Virtualities: Television, Media Art and Cyberculture (1998) the American theoretician of media Margaret Morse defines cyberculture in a way that partly corresponds with Lévy’s and Hawk’s understanding. She approaches cyberculture as an emerging, juvenile and thus a predicated rather than a retrospectively reflected phenomenon. Similarly to Lévy, she defines cyberculture as a set of cultural practices enabling us to deal with new forms of information. Her understanding is, however, far from Lévy’s technotopist teleology. The vision of cyberculture as a cultural level of the information society links her to Hawk’s approach but in contrast to Hawk’s manifesto, her text does not share any characteristics with the language of cyberpunk.
Starting from Raymond Williams’s thesis on mobile privatization (Williams 1974) Morse moves on to argue that computer networks not only strengthen the tendency to separate and mobilize private worlds but at the same time, as they question the whole centralized model of information distribution, they change the nature of information itself. While television offers a connection to a nationwide, centrally distributed communication channel and thus participation in the wider social and cultural context, computer networks supplement this with an intimate, interpersonal level of communication. However, in this case communication is realized via digital information within computer networks, such information is depersonalized, de-contextualized and too sterile to form a basis for human relationships. According to Morse (1998: 5), “information is impersonal and imperceptible, knowledge stripped of its context in order to be transformed into digital data,” which is a price to be paid for making information a “freely convertible currency” (ibid). However, the information society cannot be experienced at the level of abstract digital information thus an individual, unique, subjective level of cultural uses of technology and digital information is created, an interface between culture and technology, which creates space for uniqueness and imagination. And it is precisely this cultural level that Morse terms cyberculture.
Morse, like Lev Manovich, a visual culture theorist, emphasizes the role of visual representations in the television and “post-television” society. Due to the similarity of their approaches it is not surprising that Morse’s concept of cyberculture partly matches Manovich’s concept of information culture (but importantly not his concept of cyberculture, see below).
“[Information culture] includes the ways in which different cultural sites and objects present information. [...] Extending the parallels with visual culture, information culture also includes historical methods for organizing and retrieving information (analogs of iconography) as well as patterns of user interaction with information objects and displays” (Manovich 2001: 39).
Morse’s cyberculture and Manovich’s information culture can be understood as more down-to-earth, language-oriented variants of Lévy’s approach. Similarly to Lévy, they explore the cultural processing of computer-mediated information (CMI), i.e. information carried, created and distributed by computers as meta-media. But, in contrast to Lévy, their approaches lack the ideological visionary component and the corresponding aspirations as they were not intended to promote or advocate technologies, but rather to provide a theoretical analysis of the impact of technologies on the field of cultural information codes.
Cyberculture as cultural practices and lifestyles – Anthropological concepts of cyberculture
Compared to Morse, the social anthropologists Arturo Escobar and David Hakken offer a somewhat wider concept of cyberculture. In his essay “Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture” (1996) Escobar understands research on cyberculture, i.e. research on “cultural constructions and reconstructions on which new technologies are based and which they, conversely, contribute to shaping” (Escobar 1996: 11), as a new domain of anthropological practice and a challenge to anthropology. “The point of departure of this inquiry is the belief that any technology represents a cultural invention, in the sense that technologies bring forth a world; they emerge out of particular cultural conditions and in turn help to create new social and cultural situations.” Nonetheless, Escobar’s concept of cyberculture is actually not explicit, in general it remains contextual. Cyberculture, he claims, is defined by its relation to computer and information technologies, which “are bringing about a regime of technosociality” (Escobar 1996: 112), and by its relation to biotechnologies, which “are giving rise to biosociality” (ibid). These cultural regimes, a kind of discursive and narrative framework, “form the basis for … the regime of cyberculture”. Escobar conceives cyberculture as a cultural mode that involves
“...the realisation that we increasingly live and make ourselves in techno-biocultural environments structured indelibly by novel forms of science and technology. [...] Despite this novelty, however, cyberculture originates in a well-known social matrix, that of modernity, even if it orients itself towards the constitution of a new order – which we cannot yet fully conceptualise but must try to understand...” (Escobar 1996: 112).
Escobar’s language, similarly to Lévy’s, is obviously shaped by the sense of upcoming change and an urge to name this change and capture it in a textual form. This atmosphere of excitement was typical of early cybercultural reflection at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s and it could be illustrated by Z. Sardar’s and J. R. Ravetz’s “Introduction” in Cyberfutures: Culture and Politics on the Information Superhighway, the volume in which Escobar’s essay is published. When describing their “era,” e.g. the mid 1990s, Sardar and Ravetz write that
“we are now getting a first taste of ‘Cyberia’ – the new civilisation emerging through our human–computer interface and mediation” (Sardar and Ravetz 1996: 1).
The ethnographer David Hakken, one of the pioneers of the ethnography of cyberspace adopts a more realistic and rather sceptical approach to the already noted excitement that uplifted as well as disheartened the defenders of the barricades of the “computer revolution”. Hakken’s scepticism, comparable to Kevin Robins’, is the scepticism of critical deconstruction and pre-empirical mistrust; it evolves from the necessity to empirically and critically explore the roots of this excitement and to question its taken-for-granted nature.
Hakken (1999) does not use the term cyberculture, rather he talks about cyberspace. However, his concept of cyberspace is defined by features that connect it to Escobar’s and Morse’s concepts of cyberculture, moreover, Hakken’s criticism perfectly complements Escobar’s and Morse’s approaches.
Exploring Barlow’s post-Gibsonian vision, Hakken describes cyberspace as a technologically mediated social arena entered by everyone using ICTs (i.e. Advanced Information Technologies, AIT – in Hakken’s terminology) in social interaction. This approach, Hakken claims, refers to all potential lifeways linked to cultural being and (re)produced via ICTs.
“Lifeways based on AIT are not only real and distinctly different; they are transformative. The transformative potential of AITs lies in the new ways they manipulate information. The new computer-based ways of processing information seem to come with a new social formation; or, in traditional anthropological parlance, cyberspace is a distinct type of culture” (Hakken 1999: 1-2).
Hakken is fully aware of the speculative nature of this claim, it is thus not surprising that he labels himself “a cyberspace agnostic” and emphasizes the need to empirically verify the proclaimed “distinctiveness” of the cultural formation emerging around cyberspace and ICTs. Indeed he presents his formulations in the form of hypotheses and at the same time pays due attention to the unpredictability of the continuous and yet unfinished development of ICTs. Hakken coins the term proto-cyberspace in order to distinguish the current level of the development of ICTs and their current cultural context from a hypothetical “resultant” situation.
Cyberculture as theory of new media – Epistemological concepts of cyberculture
Last but not least, the term cyberculture is in the above mentioned senses used metonymically to label the theorizing on cyberculture or on ICTs.[viii] The term is in this respect used, for example, by Lev Manovich (Language of a New Media, 2001) and Lister et al. (New Media Reader, 2003). Manovich distinguishes between cyberculture and new media as two distinct areas of research. Manovich understands new media theory as an exploration of the information culture (see above), while for him cyberculture involves:
“...the study of various social phenomena associated with Internet and other new forms of network communication. Examples of what falls under cyberculture studies are online communities, online multi-player gaming, the issue of online identity, the sociology and the ethnography of email usage, cell phone usage in various communities; the issues of gender and ethnicity in Internet usage; and so on. [...] To summarize: cyberculture is focused on the social and on networking; new media is focused on the cultural and computing” (Manovich 2003: 16).
Lister et al. use the term cyberculture “in two related, but distinct, ways” (Lister et al. 2003: 385) – the first, in contradiction to Manovich’s differentiation between new media and cyberculture, broadly corresponds to Escobar’s and Morse’s approach to cyberculture as a set of cultural and social practices, codes and narratives. However, the first way smoothly flows into the second one. Lister et al. conceive cyberculture as a cultural context of ICTs, a context characterized by its themes (communication networks, programming, software, artificial intelligence and artificial life, virtual reality, etc.). Works of fiction and film such as Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Cadigan’s Synners (1991) or Scott’s movie Blade Runner that map the rise of the technological world and provide it with a language, meanings, stories and values, played (or still play) a key role in this respect.
“Secondly, cyberculture is used to refer to the theoretical study of cyberculture as already defined; that is, it denotes a particular approach to the study of the “culture + technology” complex. This loose sense of cyberculture as a discursive category groups together a wide range of (on many levels contradictory) approaches, from theoretical analyses of the implications of digital culture to the popular discourses of science and technology journalism” (Lister et al. 2003: 385).
Cyberculture can thus be seen as a meeting point of works of fiction with discourses, concepts and theories of the social and natural sciences as well as engineering – which permeate, shape and transform each other. Cyberculture is deeply self-reflexive because the theories are part of its (cybercultural) narratives and these narratives then inspire emerging theories. Therefore, the categorization of cyberculture into a socio-cultural formation and an assemblage of theories is a seeming and probably misguided one.
Early and contemporary cyberculture
The definitions of cyberculture are, as we could see, miscellaneous. They refer to the (already gone) subcultures, current cultural practices, and potential forms of future society, social groups, cultural discourses and institutions even theoretical visions figure as referents of cyberculture. However, these understandings are not necessarily contradictory – they, like pieces of a mosaic, complement and influence each other. With a slight exaggeration, which can seem to be quite premature at this moment, I will claim that all the above mentioned definitions of cyberculture are part of the “same story” and the search leading to this story. Every understanding of cyberculture refers to particular themes arising from cybernetics, robotics and informatics and to the relation between culture/society and new technologies. The story of cyberculture is always the story of the cultural colonization of the world of ICTs, of the accommodation and signification of this world by cultural practices. And each of the already explored definitions concentrates on one particular segment, one part of this story.
When approaching cyberculture it is misleading to reduce it to some of those segments and ignore others, which cyberculture connotes as well. It may seem that a widely conceived concept of cyberculture, which would include previous definitions, is too wide and imprecise, yet importantly, such a concept enables a unified approach to the constitutive colonization of the world of ICTs understood as a gradual process with its own history and whose constitutive elements include social groups, discourses (subcultural, literary and theoretical), cultural practices and, not least, narratives.
Within this wide framework, cyberculture is characteristically categorized into two different phenomena and this categorization is, as opposed to the categorization mentioned in connection with Lister et al., really significant for understanding cyberculture. The imaginary axis of the categorization is, as I will argue, the relationship between cyberculture and the majority society (namely cyberculture and the social/cultural mainstream). From its formation in the 1960s until the beginning of the 1990s, cyberculture was by its members manifestly articulated in contradiction to the mainstream. Then, after a transitional period in the first half of the 1990s, cyberculture definitely became one of the defining parts of the mainstream. In this context, i.e. at the level of the relationship between cyberculture and the mainstream, I make a distinction between early cyberculture and contemporary cyberculture.
The “story of cyberculture”, an illustration of the process of institutionalization as elaborated by Berger and Luckmann (1967), begins with the inventors of the technology and their original vision and intentions. It strengthens with the oncoming users-innovators who played the role of a spearhead of the technology. These users-innovators further developed the inventors’ visions, they subjected them to the first literary and theoretical reflection (in which they set a discursive framework and characteristic themes and topics), they extended the original visions by new, wider contexts and spread the “word” and the technology itself. In response to this part of the story (whose techno-optimistic and novelty-eager protagonists consciously identified with the innovators), Mark Dery (1996) approaches cyberculture as the “computer-age subcultures” and Pierre Lévy sees in their future-oriented members a foundation of a forthcoming new cultural order. It is exactly this part of the story which Douglas Rushkoff talks about in his Cyberia (1994) and to which Jozef Kelemen refers in Kybergolem (2001) when he claims that his thoughts were formed “under the intellectual pressure exerted by groups of young people linked to the cybercultural circles,” and adds that he will not define cyberculture because his “book is aimed particularly at those who have already adequately ‘experienced’ the meaning of the term” (Kelemen 2001: 13). Cyberculture of this part of the story, i.e. early cyberculture, is the project of the insiders; its story is the tale of their “guild”.
As long as the computer remained only a specialized work tool or a sophisticated plaything (e.g. until the end of the 1980s), the innovators could define themselves in contrast to the mainstream, they could hold a mirror to it and look forward to the future. But as the new technology spread, as it became a widely accepted technological standard and as the computer transformed into a relatively cheap and affordable medium, the innovators left centre stage. The majority society adopted the technology including their visions and the “story of cyberculture” acquired a novel dimension. Cyberculture, whatever we mean by the term, is no longer the cyberculture of a relatively closed group of people. Technology, which cyberculture is bound up with, became omnipresent and spread through the entire society.
Did cyberculture spread simultaneously with technology? A conviction that it did makes Morse and Escobar use an old term in a new way, appropriate to the new situation. Cyberculture of the second part of the story is not an actual project of a virtual future, neither the “guild of the insiders” and technological avant-garde, rather cyberculture is now an assemblage of cultural practices, discourses and narratives, an assemblage accompanying a new technology and originating in the previous part of our story.
It is obvious that there is a significant difference between the first and the second part of the story, we talk about two different phenomena separated by a vague historical dividing line. The first one contributed to the rise of the second yet the two cannot be conflated and they require distinct methods of exploration. Early cyberculture, which played the role of a cultural lab, is a closed chapter, a past cultural text. Contemporary cyberculture, the living and changing cultural matrix, is (and Morse, for example, is right in this respect) in its infancy. Although the exploration of contemporary cyberculture is one the greatest challenges facing the socio-cultural exploration of ICTs, it is impossible to embark upon this task without an adequate exploration of early cyberculture and an understanding of its “message”.
As mentioned in the introduction, the focus of this essay is solely cyberculture, a no longer existing socio-cultural formation originating in the U.S. And it is early cyberculture that I refer to hereafter when talking about cyberculture without an adjective.
Periodization of early cyberculture
Early cyberculture was a heterogeneous social formation constituted around ICTs at the time of their emergence and initial development. I outline early cyberculture at the level of cybercultural groups, cybercultural discourses and practices and cybercultural narratives.
Evidently, it is impossible to precisely delimitate early cyberculture at the levels of groups and discourses – these levels overlap with a range of other social groups and worlds, most markedly with SF Fandom[ix] and the academia. For a variety of reasons the delimitation of early cyberculture in time is only partly precise. It is possible to claim that the very first foundations of cyberculture originate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) at the turn of the 1950s and the 1960s. Early cyberculture reached its peak in the late 1970s and in the 1980s. Its decline can be detected on the silver screen, on pages of popularizing magazines and bestsellers, in ads on electronics and in FBI offices in the first half of the 1990s that is at a time when cyberculture definitely abandoned its marginal position in relation to the mainstream and became its irrevocable part and was subjected to normative power. Nonetheless, an exact definition of the two limiting time points is quite problematic and speculative.
The key to the understanding of early cyberculture is provided in the typical thematic structure of cybercultural narratives. Nevertheless, before dealing with them in more depth, I outline the historical development of cybercultural groups and discourses. Every attempt at periodization can be somewhat misleading because it sets artificial dividing lines in a continuous flow of events, but in this case, with regard to clarity, it is necessary. The periods necessarily overlap with each other and their delimitation is, again, speculative. However, every turning point marks a qualitative change of cyberculture (in the sense of a “Kuhnian revolution”) which differentiates each period from the previous one.
In terms of cybercultural groups cyberculture can be described as a heterogeneous, continuously growing set of more or less cohesive subcultures, communities and individuals sharing (in the role of inventors or first users) access to ICTs and an interest in their development and impact on society and culture. This interest, or the theme of technologies, their use and their transformative potential, forms the core of cybercultural discourses and cybercultural narratives and determines their character. Cybercultural discourses conflate technological jargon with the language of literary science fiction and with the language of social theory, cybercultural narratives generally focus on the issue of technologically determined social and cultural change (see below).
The First Period
Early cyberculture originates in the American hackers’ subcultures. At the beginning, until at least the 1970s, it involved only young students, mainframes programmers, researchers and academics from the fields of cybernetics, computer science and informatics.
The beginning of this period of cyberculture is marked by a set of crucial events in the field of computing, among others they include the formation of the first community of hackers at M.I.T. in 1959, M. E. Clynes’ and S. Kline’s concept of cybernetic organism (cyborg) in 1960, T. H. Nelson’s concept of hypertext at the beginning of the 1960s and the Arpanet project, ancestor of all subsequent computer networks, launched in 1963 and terminated in 1968.
A community of a few programmers, called the Tech Railroad Model Club, was formed at the turn of the years 1959 and 1960 at M.I.T.. The TX-0 computer formed the centre of its universe, which Steven Levy describes in his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984). In relation to this community it is probably possible to talk about the roots of a continuous academic hacker subculture. This community coined the first jargon,[x] including the key terms hacker and hacking,[xi] and formulated the “silently agreed” bedrocks of hacker ethics, which influenced the whole cyberculture (Levy 1984). Similar communities came into being at the Stanford AI lab, Carnegie-Mellon University or Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the following years. Later they were in connection via the Arpanet, designed by Larry Roberts upon a commission from the U.S. government.
The concept of cyborg presented an inspiring symbolic break of the barriers between machine and human (organic) body and it became one of the strongest cybernetic contributions to cybercultural discourses and narratives. However, cyberculture adopted the cyborg later, after the rise of cyberpunk in the mid 1980s and turned it into the basis of its politics of embodiment.
The notion of hypertext became one of the most fundamental cybercultural themes thanks to Nelson and Engelbart and is linked to the work of V. Bush and to the structural and critical concept of writeable text as developed by R. Barthes. The hypertext was attributed significant emancipatory potential, stemming from the possibility of challenging the totality of written text and from the opportunity to newly, creatively and dynamically structure not only the text itself, but also the knowledge carried by it.
Moreover, a wide range of texts, which later influenced cyberculture, was published during this decade, the 1960s. In the field of the social sciences, it was the work of the technological determinist Marshall McLuhan, for instance; and in the field of fiction, the writings of the so-called New Wave of Science Fiction. Nevertheless, these texts, as well as the already mentioned concept of the cyborg, were taken up by cyberculture only in its third period.
The Second Period
The second period of cyberculture can be broadly set to the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, when cyberculture moved beyond the realm of institutes and universities. The most crucial features of this era were the increasing accessibility of technology, the invention of microcomputers and their massive development, which spawned an entire new industry. In addition to “classic” academic hackers, cyberculture also comprised the so called phone phreaks (hacking the phone systems), computer clubs hackers (interested in developing and programming the first homemade as well as mass-produced computers) and later the first de facto regular computer users.
The invention of the microprocessor by Intel in 1971 enabled the miniaturization and cheapening of computer technology. Basically from the moment its distribution started the first digital microcomputers were made, these involved professional projects (developed by Xerox, for instance) as well as home-assembled computer kits attractive especially for the second generation of hackers, computer hobbyists. The first widely known of these kits were Jonathan Titus’ Mark-8 (1974) and Ed Roberts’ Altair 8800 (1974).
Mainly Roberts’ Altair 8800, in fact only a useless toy, similarly to Mark-8, attracted considerable attention following its introduction at the beginning of 1975. With the benefit of hindsight it is not surprising. For hardware hackers, it was a symbolic event. “Hell, what did it matter?” asked Steven Levy ten years later. His own answer was simple: “It was a start. It was a computer” (Levy 1984: 189).
On March 25, 1975, in Gordon French’s garage in Menlo Park, California, the Homebrew Computer Club (the now legendary group of engineers and technology hobbyists, interested in home assembly and programming of microcomputers) met for the first time. The meeting revolved around Altair. Within a year the Homebrew Computer Club developed into a forum with more than seven hundred members, including many of the later leading figures of the computer industry of the Silicon Valley. It is thus not surprising that the Club is considered to be an important impulse for the development of this industry.
Among the members of the Homebrew Computer Club we find Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who, following experiments with an older version of the computer, completed Apple II in the autumn of 1976. Production started in 1977 and Apple II revolutionized the field of the microcomputer industry and related commerce. Apple II – the first machine called Personal Computer, PC – set the benchmark of quality and Wozniak’s and Job’s company became one of the fastest growing companies in the Silicon Valley. The Apple Computer was quickly followed by other companies (well established as well as newly founded) and within a few years tens of thousands of various types and brands of microcomputers were produced.
Naturally, the Homebrew Computer Club was not the only cybercultural group of the period. At the beginning of the 1970s technology hobbyists found a new interest, the detection of “bugs” in the phone system and in the security system of long distance calls, an involvement which extended the meaning of hacking. We find also many hackers interested in computers among phone phreaks – as phone hobbyists called themselves, a subculture that for the first time extended some cybercultural practices to the limits of the law. It was constituted around a newsletter YIPL (founded in 1972, later renamed TAP) and could be understood as the computer clubs’ forerunner. Although the security level of the phone system was constantly improving, the technology of phone systems remained the focus of the interest of the hackers’ subcultures until the 1980s.
The invention of the microprocessor understandably increased interest in computers. As mentioned earlier, computer hacking, i.e. expert interest in computer performance and programming, spread from the secluded academic contexts and significantly influenced the development of computer technology. The historical role of hackers and the contemporary atmosphere are manifest in the “cyber-hyped” parlance of the authors of The History of Computing Project (2002):
“For the very first computer
hobbyists suddenly a vacuum is filled. The “legion” of amateur programmers just
jump “en masse” on the micro. With the first micro computer coming to the market it seemed that
everything just, as a kind of puzzle, clicked together. Lack of knowledge was suppleted in a hurricane kind of speed by computer clubs
that grew like mushrooms. These clubs published newsletters that spread the
No software was in sight for these machines by far. But the micro will conquer the world by storm and change the way we live and deal with our work totally within two decades. A new world has opened up and without them life is unthinkable as it is.”
This storm conquering the world was initiated by Apple II, the “spread of the word” and the success of the microcomputer widened the rank of non-expert users of the new technology. By the end of this period the personal computer represented not only a technological challenge, it suddenly changed into a tool of entertainment (the first computer games, programmed originally for consoles and mainframes, spread probably faster than any other type of software), of work (at the end of the 1970s the first commercial office software appeared) and of education. It was exactly these users, who viewed the computer as a tool rather than a goal, that took over the initiative in the next period.
The Third Period
The beginning of the third period was characterized by a significant transformation at all the levels of early cyberculture (i.e. at the level of groups, discourse and practices and narratives), a shift that was related to the accelerated spread of microcomputers (in North America and Western Europe gradually becoming an office tool and a resource of home-entertainment) and to the development of public computer networks. This period witnessed the formation of the cyberpunk literary movement which became the first powerful loudspeaker of early cyberculture leading to its increasing popularity.
At the end of the previous period, cyberculture started to evolve from a narrow set of expert communities to a wide, diversified subculture of computer users. Besides the next generation of gradually vilified and later even criminalized hackers in the third period we find subcultures of computer game players, the first virtual communities, and in connection with cyberpunk the so called digital avant-garde that articulated the aspirations and goals of cyberculture. All these groups were metaphorically as well as literally connected by the computer. The computer as a technological novelty at first penetrated universities, where the cultural foundations of cyberculture were enriched by many influences.
The most significant of these inspirations were literary and film science fiction (cyberculture overlapped, as mentioned above, with American fandom), some fragments of the past hippie counterculture and the subsequent punk counterculture, and theoretical influences from the field of social theory of the 1960s and the 1970s.[xii] These inspirations and influences were creatively melted into the language of cyberpunk, into its view of the social reality and its powerful anticipatory vision. Cyberpunk, a literary movement named after Bruce Bethke’s short story, invigorated by William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and brought to life by Bruce Sterling, developed themes of the New Wave of SF and can be characterized by a critical, dystopian futurism, on the one hand and by an adoration of technology and its use for individual subversive purposes, on the other. A discursive bricollage and a re-writing of symbolic inputs at the literary level resulted in cyberpunk’s peculiar cybercultural ethics, esthetics and political orientation. Thus, cyberpunk stressed the independence of cybercultural discourses and narratives and implied that their specific character is above all determined by the structure of cybercultural themes. Cyberpunk writers and even their epigons can be seen as cultural spokesmen of cyberculture, who, in their fiction, formulated the foundations of an exploration of the rapidly technologizing world.[xiii] The colorful language of cyberpunk fiction formed the background for the social theory of the new media and of popcultural and media representations of cyberculture.
Hackers, who formed the core of cyberculture until the invention of the microcomputer, gradually became separate from a “users’ cyberculture.” Hackers’ subculters became increasingly younger (hacking became more attractive for teenagers due to cyberpunk and the influence of very popular movies, WarGames from 1983, for instance), also the focus of their activities changed as a consequence of the industrialization of computer production, enforcement of copyright regulations and creation of public computer networks and also under the influence of cyberpunk. The hacker, not only as inspired by Neuromancer, became a “data cowboy” and cyberspace (in a Barlow’s words embodied by contemporaneous networks) became his field of self-realization. The hackers’ challenge was, of course, also transformed, some new forms of hacking appeared, including software cracking or unauthorized entry into computer systems and networks. This change contributed significantly to a shift in the “myth” of the hacker. The word gained its current, negatively connoted meaning and the hacker’s identity became an identity of resistance. Even in the eyes of the preceding generations of hackers these new hackers were synonymous with “‘computer criminals,’ ‘vandals,’ ‘crackers,’ ‘miscreants’ or in a purely generational swipe, ‘juvenile delinquents’,” as Steve Mizrach (href 1) claims. They explicitly follow the same ethics as the ‘old hackers’, but they were labelled and the time of ostracization and stigmatization arrived. The change of context transformed the evaluation of similarly motivated action – what was an act of a “programmer’s heroism” in the 1960s, seemed to be almost (or definitely) a crime in the 1980s.
The Fourth Period
The final, and for a variety of reasons key, fourth period of early cyberculture, is the period of definitive fading of cyberculture into the majority society. It is the period when cyberculture is subjected to normalization, is tamed by the language of social sciences and politicized and its culturally provocative edges are taken off. This period begins at the end of the 1980s and ends in about the middle of the 1990s. However, there is no point in defining the exact “end” of this period, because it could be defined by any of the key events or processes that signalized the massive and final shift of cyberculture to the social and cultural mainstream.
The first of them was the continuing spread of computer technology and networks. The growing acceptability of the technology and the metamorphosis of the computer to a new and specific type of a widely used medium were enabled by a unification of hardware and software standards, by (a relative) reduction in prices and increase in the capacity of the technology, and by making the language of new media[xiv] more accessible. With transition to the Graphical User Interface (GUI) – “windows,” the computer-user interfaces became easier to understand. The same happened to networks when the World Wide Web, currently the most known Internet service based on HTML, was introduced. The digital media overcame the image of an expensive toy and a specific office tool and at last became commonly accepted and easy to use in everyday life. A stigma of exclusivity and curiosity that surrounded the computer user disappeared without a trace.
The “Nietzschean” claim of some cyberpunk writers and critics, that “cyberpunk is dead,” was another indication of the transformation of early cyberculture. This bon mot (currently still discussed)[xv] appeared seemingly paradoxically at the beginning of the 1990s when cyberpunk (cybercultural) topics conquered the mainstream, cyberpunk writers became celebrities and computer technology “got to the streets”. However, the fact that the raw literary matter of cyberpunk and the originality of its style and visions were lost and translated into the schematizing language of the cultural industry (see Shiner 2001, Maddox 1992) combined with the fact that cyberpunk prophecies regarding a computerized world were getting fulfilled, questioned the viability of the genre. Punk could define itself in contradiction to the mainstream and die at the moment of melting into it, and it is exactly what happened.
The above mentioned digital avant-garde that elaborated the themes established by cyberpunk and was characteristically techno-optimistic, adopted the role of a cybercultural platform. Self-appointed prophets, artists and writers, academics and technologists conceived of themselves as a spear of cyberculture. The strongest voice of the avant-garde was (in G. Freyermuth’s words “stylistically most influential”) Mondo 2000 magazine, published from 1989 by R. U. Sirius linked to the older hackers’ zin High Frontiers (in 1987 renamed Reality Hackers). Although Mondo 2000 can be seen as one of the “culprits” of the death of cyberpunk, cyberpunk writers, like Gibson and Sterling, contributed to it, just like to the later Wired. Mondo 2000 was:
“...a cyberpunk upbeat underground paper from San Francisco. The full color magazine was filled with technofashion, drug phantasies, a parade of the latest gadgets, DIY video tips, science fiction, with an occasional theory essay. In retrospect we can say that _Mondo_ paved the way for Wired (starting in 1993), which was more successful in packaging and neutralizing the early, pre-WWW, cybercultures of the US West Coast” (Lovink 1999).
The release of Wired (the above quoted Geert Lovink does not think of it highly) could be seen as the next of the neuralgic points of the upcoming end of early cyberculture. Wired, with its high circulation rate, transformed the lifestyle of hackers’ subculture into an object of popcultural adoration and market commodification. At the same time Wired became the most known narrator of cybercultural “stories” and a platform for justifying cybercultural ideas and new technology.
Famous representatives of the digital avant-garde, computer industry, technological journalism and academic research (the already mentioned digerati) were among those who published in Wired. Their publishing activities (mostly balancing on the edge of academic exploration and popularization) significantly influenced the acceptability of cybercultural issues. These writings, which focused on cyberculture, but aspired to reach a wider circle, represent another turning point in the transformation of early cyberculture and they include, for example, Rushkoff’s Cyberia (1994, in Czech 2000), Negroponte’s Being Digital (1995, in Czech 2001), Leary’s Chaos and Cyberculture (1994, in Czech 1997), Rheingold’s Virtual Community (1993) and Sterling’s Hackers Crackdown (1992).
The academic exploration and reflection of cybercultural phenomena gradually developed from the mid 1980s and was one of the defining elements of cybercultural discourses and an important determinant shaping central cybercultural themes and narratives (regardless of whether the academic influence came from “outside” and was adopted, or whether the authors of these theoretical writings identified themselves with any cybercultural groups). In this sense, cyberculture had a strongly self-reflexive nature. One of the very first, pioneering, non-fiction writings that helped to establish cyberculture as a phenomenon worthy of the attention of the social sciences was Donna Harraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, published in The Socialist Review in 1985.[xvi] For a number of writers and theorists[xvii] within various paradigms concerned with a wide range of themes, Harraway’s work, dealing with embodiment and gender, formed a starting point. This early reflection had a distinctly anticipatory and, as Kevin Robins points out, mythologizing character. It turned largely to the future, with a more or less manifest reference to cyberpunk, and formulated a vision of possible variations on technologically moderated social change. In contrast to cyberpunk, it mostly lacked the dystopian elements and offered more of an optimistic or utopian view of future events.[xviii] This reflection gradually became critical, probably in reaction to the increasing politicization of cybercultural topics and the progressive, yet inevitable, normalization of cyberspace (connected with outlawing some hackers’ groups, see below). Typical representatives of this early critical camp are Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein with their often quoted Data Trash – The Theory of the Virtual Class (1993). They do not give up an anticipative attitude, but at the same time critically explore the trends of capitalization and power structuration of cyberspace, they warn against the possibilities of ideological misuse of the seductively optimistic cybercultural rhetoric.
Kroker and Weinstein react to the fact that at the beginning of the 1990s in the U.S. new technologies became part of the public and political agenda. Vice-president Al Gore introduced the project of the national information infrastructure, known as the Information Highway project (computer network technologies should become a powerful tool in the global spread of democracy, see Gore 1994). The narrative of the positive relation between new technology and democracy forms, since the 1980s, one of the most significant streams of cybercultural narratives (see the next section) and made the cybercultural vision politically attractive.[xix] Gore explored older cybercultural arguments and narrative figures when proclaiming the support of technological literacy a national interest. The issue of electronic democracy (or teledemocracy) still resonated in the late 1990s in Clinton’s project of a “presidential town hall meeting” (Dahlberg 2001: 159). Probably in relation to the growing power of the computer industry and the increasing role of the economic-information flows the novel theme of a “new economy” emerged. The concept of new economy was stronger than that of new democracy, if only for the presumption that the computer industry expanding over one or two decades could ignite a new economic boom and a new economic order as such.
Nevertheless, the politicalization of the narratives of early cyberculture (which was the next significant proof of the terminal shift of early cyberculture) was preceded by the legal normalization of the cultural and social field of the cyberculture. It was symbolized by the growing ostracization (see Meyer 1989: 17-20) and following massive criminalization of groups of American hackers groups between the years 1989 and 1991 when certain hackers’ activities were definitely subjected to normative power, evaluated as dangerous and manifestly punished.[xx] This important conflict between the law and some cybercultural activities, described in detail, for example by Bruce Sterling (Hackers Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier, 1992) and John P. Barlow (Crime and Puzzlement, 1990), was already implicit at the moment of the emergence of phone phreaking. It gained clear contours in the mid 1980s when some hackers carried out network attacks on the servers of important national institutions or influential corporations, such activities attracted the attention of the United States Secret Service and led to the establishment of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Task Force. After two years of monitoring suspect hackers tens of them were raided all over the U.S. and a series of trials followed.
The narratives of early cyberculture, emerging from cybercultural discourse and created and developed by members of cybercultural groups, equipped the arising world of new technology with meaning. They created and embedded the cultural identity of the technology, articulated its attributes and thus created expectations related to the technology. The narratives blended original cybercultural topics with a wide range of influences and inspirations (which I have mentioned already or which I will mention below) which they adapted according to the narratives’ own internal logic. Cybercultural narratives are found in a rather substantial assemblage of texts ranging from fiction and popular journalism to scholarly writings. The foundations of cybercultural narratives originate in the first period of early cyberculture and are closely related to the ethos of academic hackers of the 1960s. However, the narratives began to crystallize fully in the third period, after the emergence of syncretizing cyberpunk, and they matured at its very end with the digerati’s activities and the shift of early academic reflection to criticism.
The significance of cybercultural narratives is closely related to their mythologizing nature. They establish the world of the new technology, they name the forces and principles that form this world and the narratives themselves become its archetypal patterns. They are more than a simple explanation, they constitute, support, and stabilize.[xxi]
An image of the world of the new technology evident in the narratives marks implicit as well as explicit references to the “natural” attributes of ICTs – these attributes are taken for granted, they play the role of narrative axioms. However, they are a cultural (symbolic) construct as it is cyberculture itself that creates them and attributes them to technology. Thus rather than a relevant account of technology cybercultural narratives are an account of cyberculture and cybercultural notions of the cultural, social and political potential of this technology. This fact, however, does not decrease their value, rather the opposite.
Moreover, the fact that the narratives, due to their mythological nature, tend to naturalize the mentioned attributes provides them with significant ideological power. Their ideological potential made them attractive enough as well as acceptable for the wider society and they became part of the topography of power. Cybercultural narratives are interesting not only because with their help we can detect the image of the technology at the time of its emergence and development, but also due to the obvious assumption that they form a part of what we can call ICTs ideology – an ideology that shaped the information policies of western states as well as the marketing and persuasive strategies of the computer industry.
Cybercultural narratives appear to be a bundle of mutually overlapping themes and streams that are difficult to systematize. However, a closer look reveals the fact that cybercultural texts share a detectable structure of basic themes which involve what we can term the narrative logic of cyberculture. For this reason, I distinguish the core of cybercultural narratives (i.e. the shared core narrative structure) and themes of cybercultural narratives derived from the core (turning to particular levels of social and cultural reality and linking the narratives to various paradigms and topics such as embodiment, community, public sphere and democracy, textuality, etc.). While the themes of cybercultural narratives that explore the potential of the narrative core resist a simple and straightforward systematization, the relatively consistent core that in my approach plays the role of the key to cyberculture can be subjected to, and indeed almost offers itself for, a critical analysis.
The Core of Cybercultural Narratives
Understandably, it is technologies, advanced information and communication technologies, based on digital coding of information that stand at the centre of cybercultural narratives. Cyberculture links these technologies to a number of fundamental themes within which technologies are attributed characteristics that shape cybercultural narratives. Individual topics within the themes are mutually interrelated and together they constitute the core of cybercultural narratives. I identify the themes as follows:
· Technology as agent of change
· Technology and freedom/power/empowerment
· Technology and the formation of the new frontier
· Technology and authenticity
I begin with the first two themes – technology as agent of change and the relation of technology and freedom, power and empowerment.
Cybercultural narratives are characterized by technological determinism related to an assumption that information and communication technologies are agents of change – of a paradigmatic as well as “factual” change, of change in every context covered by cybercultural narratives, of social, cultural, economic even political change, of change occurring at the levels of textuality, the individual, group and even the macrosystem. The anticipation of the form or nature of this change directs the narratives towards the future, cybercultural narratives do not reflect the change, they announce it.
The early academic reflection of cyberculture had its exploratory foundations in relation to this theme in Marshall McLuhan’s argument that technology is the cultural extension of the human body and that the character of technology determines the character of the social and cultural contexts and each technological innovation necessarily leads to their change.
The relationship of technology, power and the subject, developed within the second theme (technology and freedom, power and empowerment), is understood in two contradictory ways thus dividing the authors according to their evaluation of the benefits of technology into techno-optimists (technotopists or techno-utopists) and techno-pessimists (techno-dystopists).
The optimistic attitude regarding this theme is based on the presumption that advanced information and communication technologies will be agents of empowerment, of strengthening individual freedom and weakening of centralized forms of power. The emancipatory potential of technology is determined by its decentralized/decentralizing character that weakens hierarchical and centralized power structures and also by its ability to strengthen and support the creative, communicative and cognitive abilities of the individual.
The pessimistic attitude, on the contrary, stresses the presumption that advanced information and communication technologies strengthen the mechanisms of control and power and will thus lead to the creation of a new order. The oppressive potential of technology lies in its ability to create new tools of control and to develop the already existing ones thus strengthening the position of power elites.
These contradictory versions of the narrative of technology, the subject and power exist next to each other in a dialectical relationship in cybercultural narratives and they do not necessarily rule each other out. This is clearly demonstrated, for example, in cyberpunk prose in which the two variants co-exist and in which their contradictory character, their clash, plays the role of one of the symbolic driving forces of the genre. After all, critical theory, characterized by a similar contradiction between “utopian vision” and “pessimistic reflection,” served cyberculture as an inspiration in terms of arguments.
The origin of the first two themes, as already mentioned in the introduction to this section, is closely related to the ethos of the university hackers of the 1960s which formed the basis of the hackers’ code whose various variants (these often differ from each other only in slight detail) are still to be found on the Internet. Before turning to the other two themes, let me devote some space to the legacy of these first hackers at which I have so far only hinted despite its fundamental position within cyberculture.
Steven Levy formulated the hacker ethos in his retrospective Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984, Chapter 2), summarizing the beginnings of hacker culture in the following points:
· Access to computers – and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works – should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the hands-on imperative!
· All information should be free.
· Mistrust authority – promote decentralization.
· Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
· You can create art and beauty on a computer.
· Computer can change your life for the better.
· Like Aladdin’s lamp, you could get it to do your bidding.
This ethos was born at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s in the relatively authoritative environment of the technological institute within a community of young programmers who were discovering the charm of mainframes, the intellectual attraction of computer technology so far basically hidden from the public’s view. At the time, access to computers was significantly limited and subjected to educational and research purposes, the majority of programmes were literally made on paper and personal contact with a computer and personal experience of programming were worth a fortune. This is where cybercultural distrust of authority, longing for emancipation and craving for unlimited contact with technology is born.
In the 1980s it was the by then inevitable, more sharply formulated cyberpunk elements[xxii] that enriched this code and shifted its meaning in a similar way as they changed the myth of the hacker itself. Already the pre-cyberpunk ethos (as described by Levy) stressed those characteristic themes and values that permeated all of cyberculture, namely personal autonomy and personal development, belief in the transformative potential of the new technology (computers) and a clear stance against the social and ethical mainstream. This ethos also brought with itself an appeal for the quality of change brought about by new technology.
Cyberculture further enriched the message of this code by the issues of cultural colonization and the relativization of the authenticity of experience and insights, these issues were reflected in two key themes (technology and the formation of the new frontier and technology and authenticity).
Cybercultural narratives understand technology as a tool for the creation of a new cultural space, a hyperreal, symbolic space emerging as a consequence of the technological implosion of the human world, a space that is free from the power of formal organizations, a space that lies outside normalization, a pioneering space, in a word cyberspace.
In relation to cyberspace cybercultural narratives talk about the new frontier, a new boundary, referring to the logic of the American tradition of “conquering the West”. In the words of Gundolf Freyermuth (1997) the physical frontier disappeared the moment America reached the Pacific and it was cyberspace that was, according to the digital underground of the 1980s, to become one of the new forms of the cultural frontiers, a challenge of non-colonized space and creative chaos.[xxiii] The mythology of the frontier incorporates the challenge of new cultural expansion and colonization that provides space for the fulfilment of the optimistic project of the subject’s empowerment and the reaching of “true” freedom, at the same time, it is marked by the awareness of the temporary nature of such a space, the limits of its seclusion from the “real world”.[xxiv] Thus the “twofold nature of expectation” regarding power, characteristic for the previous theme, including utopia as well as dystopia is demonstrated in it.
The fourth theme introduces the topic of technology as a source of relativization of the authenticity of lived experience. The most important concern of this dichotomically structured theme is the crisis of authenticity, uncertainty that concerns the “truthfulness” or “genuineness” of technologically mediated interaction and experience and the possible consequences of inauthenticity brought about by technology.
On the one hand, these cybercultural narratives develop Jean Baudrillard’s thesis on simulacra and the simulated, hyperreal nature of mediated reality and the disappearing distinction between authentic and inauthentic and on the other, the message of the New Wave of SF writer Philip K. Dick who describes the schizophrenic world of uncertain reality, discipline and manipulation of memories, induced by technology, drugs and mental illness.[xxv] These two sources of inspiration introduce a pessimistic overtone to the discussion, technologically mediated experience and insight is inauthentic, technology distances us from the authenticity of experience and deprives us of our ability to distinguish and experience authenticity. The world of inauthentic experience, the world of simulation, can, moreover, lead to manipulation. It is within this context that the negative connotations of virtual as false, artificial and unreal emerge.
Cybercultural narratives, however, supplement this attitude by an “optimistic twist”. The distance form reality at the same time, in line with the message of the previous theme, means a distance from the “real world”, from its norms and structures. A space created by technology does not necessarily have to be a space open only to simulation and manipulation, it can equally be open to creative interface which enables self-fulfilment in a “really achievable” mode. Nostalgia for authenticity is unacceptable as it is nothing more than a nostalgia for commitments of the “world of flesh” that is the “physical,” non-virtual world.
Themes of cybercultural narratives
From the core of cybercultural narratives a wide range of discursive events evolve, within which all the four key themes are applied to a variety of concrete topics which were reflected upon in early cyberculture. As it was already stated in the vast body of texts we can detect more or less clear themes which overlap and which enrich the language and concepts of cyberculture by those of the arts and social sciences. There is doubtless no significant value in a precise systematization of these themes, yet leaving aside purely technological ones, it is possible to at least draw attention to the most important ones, which mark the most intense discussions, most of which survived till today. These are themes originating from the discourses of literary studies, arts, aesthetics and social sciences.
The subject of hypertext, a new form of textuality that is enabled by digital technology,[xxvi] stems from the traditions of critical theory, literary studies and linguistics, above all from their structuralist and post-structuralist branches.
The themes dealing with new technologies as a tool of artistic creation and performance, the relationship between new media and art – as a change of visual culture enhanced by digitalization, visual aesthetics and the language of the new media, virtual reality and simulation (not as understood by Baudrillard in this case) – are to some extent linked to the topic of hypertext.[xxvii]
Other themes are connected with the discourses of the social sciences, they include cybercultural narratives on the symbolic and physical changes of the body, gender and personal identity as enhanced by technology (the story of the cyborg, one of the most influential cybercultural myths, resonates strongly in this respect), on the invigoration of community (symbolized by the birth of the virtual community, virtual agora), on cyberspace as a space of subversion, on the possibility of creating a strong Habermasian public sphere and on technology as a tool for the strengthening and spread of democracy, on future or developing forms of community (which take the shape of dark cyberpunk visions as well as considerably more optimistic ones on information or network society and promises of entering the information age), on the new global economic order and the new economy (promising the lasting solution of the deepening economic recession that affects the West already since the 1970s).
The texts that carry the themes of cybercultural narratives can be understood as the basis of the ideology of new media, i.e. the rhetoric of information policy, as well as the theory of new media, i.e. the reflection of advanced information and communication technologies. The early, cybercultural, shape of the reflection that grew out of the ideological, mythological cybercultural narrative core marks the birth of ideology as well as of critical reflection. It did not distinguish the project from the reflection, the vision from its actual state, as I have demonstrated in Pierre Lévy’s case, rather, in many aspects it became a self-fulfilling prophecy and an important constitutive force for the world of new technologies. Thus Geertz’s words on ideology are unquestionably valid in the case of early cybercultural narratives:
“Whatever else ideologies may be – projections of unacknowledged fears, disguises for ulterior motives, phatic expressions of group solidarity – they are, most distinctively, maps of problematic social reality and matrices for the creation of collective conscience” (Geertz 1993: 220).
The narratives of early cyberculture played a significant role in the shaping of the generally accepted identity of new technologies, the formation of their social dimensions and the articulation of their political value. A critical reflection of advanced information and communication technologies must, nonetheless, distinguish ideological or ideologizing (mythological or mythologizing) mechanisms that stand at the centre of cybercultural knowledge and must distinguish and name the ways in which these mechanisms are imprinted into political discourses and projects but certainly also into texts that result from critical reflection.
I understand cyberculture, within the conceptual framework that I have outlined in this essay, as a wide social and cultural movement that is closely linked to advanced information and communication technologies, their emergence and development and their cultural colonization. Previous concepts of cyberculture concentrated only on certain aspects of what I consider constitutive elements of cybercultural phenomena and they do not cover these in sufficient detail. Moreover, they glossed over one of the most remarkable aspects of cyberculture, namely its contribution to the emergence of the mythology or ideology of advanced information and communication technologies. I make a distinction between early and contemporary cyberculture. Early cyberculture, dating from the beginning of the 1960s to the first half of the 1990s, developed outside the cultural and social mainstream (or it developed in a kind of dialectical relationship with them) and it is exactly this early cyberculture that initiated the signification of the world of advanced information and communication technologies.
Although I do not deal with contemporary cyberculture in more detail due to its marked difference from early cyberculture, I understand it as the further developed inheritance of marginal subcultures’ symbolic and cultural practices linked to new media. In this text I only refer to contemporary cyberculture as a further possible and certainly inspiring subject of research that cannot be satisfactorily handled without an exploration of early cyberculture.
Early cyberculture, which I understand as a diversified cluster of social groups and their discourses and cultural practices, can best be characterized in my opinion with the help of cybercultural narratives, i.e. accounts of the nature of advanced information and communication technologies that emerge within its framework. Although these narratives cover a wide range of topics they have an identifiable core that ascribes certain typical characteristics to technology. They describe it as an agent of social and cultural change, as a means of empowerment but also as the tool of new forms of power, they link it with the emergence of a new cultural space of temporary freedom and a catalyst of change in relation to the authenticity of lived experience.
This essay leads to two important conclusions that can be generalized. However, due to the speculative nature of my approach I consider it appropriate to formulate the conclusions as hypotheses which should be subjected to further research. The hypotheses can be formulated as follows:
· Themes that I describe as the core of cybercultural narratives are common for all narratives originating from early cyberculture and they were reflected in expectations connected with the supposed characteristics of advanced information and communication technologies.
· Values and expectations connected with cyberculture and advanced information and communication technologies were adopted by the majority society and became part and parcel of everyday political and economic ideology of “information technologies” and currently they play an important role in the hierarchization of the world of new technologies.
A confirmation of these hypotheses could, I believe, be considered a final “settling of accounts” with the subcultural roots of the narrative of new technologies and a significant step towards their critical reflection.
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Href 1: Mizrach, Steve. „Old Hackers, New Hackers: What's the Difference?“ The Cyberpunk Project. WWW: http://project.cyberpunk.ru/idb/old_and_new_hackers.html
[xxviii] This essay is a part of author’s MA thesis (Department of Media Studies and Journalism, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, the Czech Republic).
© 2003-2004, Jakub Macek
[i] ICTs – Information and Communication Technologies; also new technologies, digital technologies, information technologies or advanced technologies.
[ii] See below.
[iii] The term social formation (respectively socio-cultural formation) originally refers to Marx’s concept of socio-economic formation, but its meaning is different. Hakken (1999: 45) defines social formation as the “abstraction of preference in contemporary social thought with which we refer to social entities. This term does not give unwarranted priority to any one level, as is the case, for example, in standard uses of the term ‘society’, which privilege the national level. From a ‘social formation’ perspective, the basic questions are how social entities are reproduced from one period to the next, whether more or less the same, modified somewhat, or fundamentally different.”
[v] Future Culture Manifesto – MANIPHEST DESTIN-E: WHAT *IS* FUTURECULTURE? – A Manifesto on the Here-and-Now Technocultural [R]evolution. See http://project.cyberpunk.ru/idb/future_culture_manifesto.html.
[vi] Digerati – abbreviation for Digital Literati, in the mid 1990s describing the digital elite, the group of famous and powerful academics, writers and IT businessmen, who promoted and advocated new technologies.
[vii] The term cyberspace was coined by the American writer William Gibson
at the beginning of the 1980s. Gibson described it as a shared data
hallucination visualized as an imaginary space made up of computer
processed data, accessible to the users' mind only. Gibson's
metaphorical vision became a powerful inspiration for contemporary OS
interface developers as well as for other cyberpunk writers. The term became
established in the 1980s as an
[viii] There are many different terms for ICTs social and cultural research and theory such as c-theory or cyber-theory, new media studies/theory/research, cyberculture studies/theory/research, cyberspace studies/theory/research, AI research etc.
[ix] Science Fiction Fandom is an organized subculture of fans of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature, movies, media and games.
[x] A unique source that allows entry into hackers’ jargon and discourses is the document Jargon File 4.2.0 administered by Arjan de Mes, University of Amsterdam. This database of argots was created in 1975 and covers over 30 years of development of hackers’ subcultures. See WWW: http://www.science.uva.nl/~mes/jargon
[xi] These terms lacked the negative connotation of youth’s data vandalism in this period, of course. A hack was the act of creative rendering of a problem; a hacker was a talented person interested in understanding and solving these (mostly) technical problems. For a more detailed explanation of the origins of the terms see Levy 1984 (Chapter 1).
[xii] Namely Foucault’s approach to the relation of embodiment and power; McLuhan’s understanding of technology as a transformative cultural extension; Baudrillard’s simulative nature of modern society; Bell’s vision of the information society; Toffler’s futurology; Tourain’s thesis on new movements and on the related particularization of postmodern society; Deleuze’s and Guattari’s notes on the topography of new cultural spaces striated by power etc.
[xiii] Jolana Navrátilová gives a detailed exploration of cyberpunk as a specific form of social theory in her thesis (1998).
[xiv] The language of the new media is Manovich’s “umbrella term to refer to a number of various conventions used by designers of new media objects to organize data and structure user’s experience” (Manovich 2001: 34).
[xv] For more on this discussion, arguments and death of cyberpunk see Shiner 2001, Maddox 1992, Sterling 1991.
[xvi] Harraway adopted the cybernetic concept of the cyborg, developed it (in quite an ironic manner) and outlined it as a form of personal policy of technologically transformed embodiment.
[xvii] As examples of the most famous ones we can name Hakim Bey, Michael Heim, David Holmes, Mike Featherstone, Douglas Kellner, Peter Lunenfeld, Lev Manovich, Mark Poster, Howard Rheingold etc.
[xviii] “...[A]nalytical texts from our era are fully aware of the significance of computer’s takeover of culture yet, by and large, mostly contain speculations about the future rather than a record and theory of the present,” Lev Manovich (2001: 33) writes in relation to the nature of the cybercultural reflection.
[xix] The major frameworks within the discussion on democracy and new technologies can be found in Lincoln Dahlberg‘s Democracy via cyberspace: Mapping the rhetorics and practices of three prominent camps (2001).
[xx] The clash of hackers with state authorities was preceded by the passing of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and Electronic Communications Privacy Act in 1986. (See Sterling 1992-a.)
[xxi] Based on Dalibor Papoušek’s lecture on the comparative study of religion (as recorded by Jana Petøicová).
[xxii] As is shown, for example by Gareth Branwyn, contributor to the magazine Mondo 2000, who enlarges Steven Levy’s code by new rules: Do It Yourself, Fight the power, Feed noise back to the system and Surf on the edge. (As quoted in Sobchak 1996: 84-85.)
[xxiii] In this context Hakim Bey (1991) developed the concept of temporary autonomous zones, emerging and disappearing physical and symbolic alternative spaces of “guerilla culture” that position themselves in opposition to the State. Bey identifies the modern roots of these temporary autonomous zones with the beginning of settlement of the U.S.
[xxiv] The cybercultural story of the frontier is characterized by a sharp, extreme relationship to “Real Life” or “Real World”. The roots of this relationship can be detected already with the first generation of hackers who claimed that “in conversation talking of someone who has entered the Real World is not unlike speaking of a deceased person.” (Jargon File 4.2.0, WWW: http://www.science.uva.nl/~mes/jargon/r/realworld.html). The cyberculture of the 1980s and the 1990s distinguished between the “Virtual Life” with positive connotations that described social relationships formed in cyberspace and the “Real Life” with negative connotations that described the social interactions in the world of the flesh, in physical space.
[xxv] Some of Dick’s books and especially their film adaptations (in particular Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott, 1982, 1993 and Total Recall directed by Paul Verhoeven, 1990) became a key component of the cybercultural canon and icons of discussion on the relationship of authenticity, realness and technology. The already mentioned Alison Landsberg (1996) is the author of an interesting essay “Prosthetic Memory: Total Recall and Blade Runner” that deals with prosthetic (i.e. mediated with the help of media or technology) memory based on the film adaptation of Dick’s texts and confronting them with J. Baudrillard’s and other postmodern theoreticians’ theses (published in the edited volume Cyberspace/Cyberpbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment).
[xxvi] Technology enabled the change of literary, physically stored texts into a virtual textual medium that is made up of lexis (blocks of texts and symbolic objects) that can be (and is by the reader) mutually interconnected and which erase the difference between the reader and the writer. In the Czech context it is Z. Kobíková (2003-b) who provides a detailed account of hypertext, its theory and current use by internet media in “Hypertext a jeho podoby v online médiích”. For more on hypertext see also Bolter (2001), Bolter and Grusin (1997), Koskimaa (2000), Landow (1997, 1998), Lister et al. (2003).
[xxvii] In the Czech context the topic of new media and art is dealt with, for example, by F. Kùst (2003-b) in his study “Estetické strategie nových médií,” Svìtlana Hejsková in her MA thesis “Internet jako umìlecké prostøedí (nejen) pro ženy: net art a ženy-tvùrkynì, ženy-objekty” and A. Zbiejczuk (2003) “NetArt”. For more on this topic see also Koskimaa (2000), Lister et al. (2003), Lunenfeld (1999), Manovich (1999, 2001, 2002).