Book Reviews (the Cultures of Computing by Susan Leigh Starr; Cultures of Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies by Rob Shields, Editor)
Mason, Bruce Lionel, Ethnologies
The Cultures of Computing. By Susan Leigh Starr, editor. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. Reprint. 282 p., Index, bibliography, ISBN 0-631-19282-4.)
Cultures of Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies. By Rob Shields, editor. (London: SAGE, 1996. Pp. viii + 196, index, bibliography, ISBN 0-8039-7519-8.)
According to Rob Shields, editor of Cultures of Internet, the Internet is "Over-hyped, over-sensationalized...[and] under-examined" (p. ix). I am not sure I agree with the latter part; these two books represent the latest in the burgeoning wave of publications dealing with the ways in which computing, computers and culture inter-relate. However, despite two very similar titles, the anthologies present two very different perspectives.
Susan Leigh Star's The Cultures of Computing is already into its second printing and she describes it as having "four major themes: computers as a medium for building communities and networks; computers as a way of stretching and redefining specific cultural practices; problems in representing cultural practices for computing; questions of power and cultural conflict in the various worlds of computing" (p. 8). This description reads like that of an overstretched compiler and, sure enough, the anthology seems somewhat out of control as well as already out of date. This is a slightly harsh summary of an occasionally invigorating set of articles, but on the whole I found the anthology to be turgid going.
Susan Leigh Star's introduction is one of the high points of the collection and symptomatic of it; occasionally brilliant insight is lost in decontexualized esoterica and a frantic attempt to make things fit. For example, she spends a fair amount of the introduction detailing the "Geek Code," one of the more fascinating folkloric creations to come out of the Internet. Essentially, the code consists of a series of symbols that encode information about a user. For example if I were to sign my email Bruce Mason t+, then a reader could track down a Geek Code and decipher the "t+" as "Star Trek is a damn fine TV show and is one of the only things good on television anymore" (Star, p. 18). Her reporting of the code is fine, but she fails to ground her discussion to any extent, commenting only that it draws from a long association of computing professionals with the image of "the nerd" (p. 20). She gives us no clear idea whether the Geek Code is ever used and, if so, by whom, when, to whom and so on. As with Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblet's recent article on forms of Internet folklore (1995), Star substitutes some fun data for analysis. On the other hand I found her analysis of being "homed" and then, by extension, of being "wired" to be very stimulating. Drawing on the feminist perspective that "every marked category implies its opposite" (p. 22), she first deconstructs the state of being homeless then reconstructs its opposite being "homed:" for example, she claims that "being homed means I do not risk arrest in the process of conducting my bodily functions (eating, sleeping, passing waste);" (p. 25). She then extends this analysis to the "consensual hallucination" (Gibson 1984) of cyberspace in order to examine what it means to be "wired," the emic term for being connected to the Net. Such thoughtful scholarship is precisely the type of analysis that often goes out of the window in the desire to publish something to do with the Internet while it is still a hot topic.
With a few exceptions, the primary focus of this anthology centres on the use of computers in working environments. Two of the articles come from the Computer Supported Cooperative Work project (CSCW) at the University of Sussex in the U.K. According to Mike Hale in his article (p. 103-17), this project exists in a borderland between industry and academia and has pioneered a line of research into software ethnography. This exploration of how workers use computers and programs in the work environment is remarkably similar to Michael Owen Jones's conception of "corporate ethnography" and vulnerable to the same charges. …