Guest Post: Ashley Crawford on Prefiguring Cyberculture

Ricocheting from such subjects as The Matrix to James Joyce, Prefiguring Cyberculture (MIT Press) is a dazzlingly ambitious compendium. As in any collection of essays, it is a mixed affair, however, given its scope, and despite the occasional lapse into impenetrable jargon, it is an important addition to the burgeoning world of cyber-theory.

Prefiguring CyberculturePrefiguring Cyberculture is a strange hybrid. Published by both MIT Press and Power Publications in Sydney it is a pleasing blend of some of Australia’s best writers in the field alongside some major international names. And while by necessity it leaps and bounds in subject matter it is held together by the careful steerage of the editors.

Ostensibly a book that can be categorised as Media Studies, Prefiguring Cyberculture embraces a dazzling array of intellectual and popular culture subjects, from Cartesian philosophy to science fiction. There is an odd pantheon of gods in this realm of study: Plato, James Joyce, Alan Turing, Rene Descartes, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, William Gibson, Marshall McLuhan and most especially Philip K. Dick haunt these pages with regularity.

Contextualising cyberculture in a broader cultural history has been an obsession of co-editor Darren Tofts for some time. His 1998 book, Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture, delved into similar issues as Prefiguring Cyberculture with the premise that many of the themes popularized by Gibson’s Neuromancer and Ridley Scott’s BladeRunner have long ranging precedents through literature, theology and philosophy. As Tofts notes in his introductory essay, Prefiguring Cyberculture concerns itself with “disturbing, incomprehensible change,” the concepts of “artificial life, or disembodied virtual space, or the prospect of a future in which intelligent machines, rather than human beings, dominate life on earth.” Tofts notes that while this may be the stuff of popular culture today, it also reflects “much older encounters with change, of apprehension for the transformative impact of technology.”

The editors have broken up the essays into sections which embrace artificial life and intelligence, virtual reality and “cyberspaces,” artists statements and “postmillennial speculations.”

Most of the essays here are accessible and even riveting. Elizabeth Wilson writes on Alan Turing, who created the theoretical test to prove Artificial Intelligence — the Turing Test. Wilson manages to give the reader an insight into Turing’s theories and at the same time allows considerable insight to his troubled personality and the ongoing relevance of the issues he raised in the 1940s. Erik Davis, in his essay “Synthetic Meditations: Cogito in The Matrix,” manages to make Rene Descartes sexy and although his piece gets bogged down in the theoretical minefield of Slavoj Zizek’s work, he manages to end up critiquing The Matrix with Cartesian theory, no mean feat.

Margaret Wertheim’s discussion of Thomas Moore’s 1516 text Utopia, in the context of new communications technologies, takes some bizarre but relevant inroads into theology, communism, the boom and the lyrical waxing of such cyber-figures as Wired magazine’s Kevin Kelly and Stewart Brand, founder of the WELL discussion group on the Net. Wertheim, the author of The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, tackles her subject with informed journalistic flair.

One of the highlights of the collection is Donald F. Theall’s fascinating essay on James Joyce. Theall is one of the world’s leading scholars on Joyce and has been a leading voice in linking Joyce’s language with the cyber-world of today. In “Becoming Immedia: The Involution of Digital Convergence” he leads the reader through fascinating links between the writings of Tielhard, McLuhan, and Joyce, positing the Irish writer as decidedly prescient in his descriptions of new and, at the time of his writing Finnegan’s Wake, even unheard of communications technology and the merging of media.

Similarly, Scott McQuire’s analysis of Gibson’s Neuromancer allows a fresh reading of the cyberpunk classic. McQuire interrogates Gibson’s distinction between urban space and data space, a realm that Gibson has investigated further in his recently released novel, Pattern Recognition.

Prefiguring Cyberculture finishes up with the fire-cracker hot essay “Memories of the Future: Excavating the Jet Age at the TWA Terminal” by Mark Dery. Author of Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, Dery is arguably the hottest critical writer planet-wide when it comes to the archaeology of the future. Taking as his launch pad a description by British writer J.G. Ballard of the rusting gantries of Cape Canaveral, Dery takes a roller coaster ride through the architecture of travel as a motif for a broader critique of our lost futures.

At the end of the day, this is an indispensable tome jam packed with extraordinary insights from well-informed writers. Prefiguring Cyberculture is a roller coaster ride of historical and popular culture references that hammer home Tofts’ premise that both cyberculture — and its attendant technofear — have a long history indeed.

Ashley Crawford is the editor of the 21C Magazine compilation, Transit Lounge.