Academic journal article Bucknell Review

New Media and the Natural World: The Dialectics of Desire

Academic journal article Bucknell Review

New Media and the Natural World: The Dialectics of Desire

Article excerpt

AN earlier version of this essay was solicited for a collection that languished for several years. After months of struggling to revise this antediluvian (ca. 1994) paper, I scrapped most of it in 1999 to confront the problems posed by the last half decade of technological and cultural change. As the twenty-first century arrived, I again had to revise this piece in order to keep pace with a range of technological transformations which have rendered most of the mainstream pronouncements about cyberculture from the 1990s unbearably quaint if not downright antiquarian. My original intention had been to demystify the evangelical rhetoric of the early 1990s which, you no doubt recall, heralded the Internet as a revolutionary leap in human consciousness and community. Now, on the eve of another great leap forward in information technologies--from text-oriented protocols and static multimedia to dynamic video and immersive interfaces--the clamor for hypertext, the Web, and virtual reality seems the echo of a bygone era, a casualty of a digital marketplace saturated by the language, values, and assumptions of late capitalism. (1) To underscore how the rhetorical scene has shifted since the early 1990s, I offer this anecdote: at the annual Apple Developers Conference in May 1998, a session on multimedia authoring tools featured a keynote speaker (a prominent software engineer), who derided hypertext and HTML as "sandbox technologies" and prompted the audience to laugh uproariously by reading passages by humanists and social scientists which declared that the Internet recasts democratically the relationships among identity, technology, and socioeconomic power. This essay, in one respect, is an effort to explain both that laughter and the ironies that underlie it, to explore critically our faith in the planned obsolescence that drives the new media revolution.

In their efforts to ride the crest of the digital wave, producers, critics, and consumers of new media confront a fundamental paradox: the more rapidly information systems change, the more prone we seem to revisit the oppositions that have structured our understanding of technology for (at least) several centuries: technological innovation versus "inherent" human nature, expertise versus craft-labor, investment capital versus wages, and managerial control versus democratic dissemination, to name only a few. (2) In practice, we face a standoff. While technophiles may have muted their evangelism for the transformations to be wrought by new media, they have not developed a coherent vocabulary--theoretical or philosophical--to describe the technological or social effects that they are in the business of engineering; neither, however, have those cultural critics who remain skeptical of what Donna Haraway termed in the 1980s the "infomatics of domination." (3) In fact, despite their differences, both defenders and critics of cyberculture share a common heritage of dialectical approaches to technology and nature, a heritage that seems to dead-end in various myths of human-machine synthesis. My purpose in this essay, in part, is to argue that our fascination with technoculture is itself part of a dialectic--an ideology of modernity--that discourages our thinking seriously about the relationships between new media and the socioeconomic conditions under which they are produced, upgraded, and reproduced. (4) At best, this fascination with net culture fosters ways to rethink the relationships among rapidly proliferating generations of new media; at worst, it reinforces the oppositional structures of thought that divorce nature from culture and separate "essential" human qualities (the mind and spirit) from the technological fixes that characterize our implication in complex socionatural ecologies.

To work through the dialectical logics described by the oppositions human/technology and nature/culture, I begin by redefining our conceptions of how media develop, then go on to consider the implications of such a redefinition. …

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