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Previously in Digital Culture:

"The Unacknowledged Legislators of the Digital World," by Charles C. Mann (December 15, 1999)
In his new book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig offers a disconcerting vision of the Net's future. Too disconcerting, objects our reviewer. Plus, an e-mail exchange between Lessig and Atlantic Unbound editor Wen Stephenson.

"Exquisite Source," by Harvey Blume (August 12, 1999)
Heads turned in June when the Linux operating system was awarded first prize by the judges of an international art festival. How far, one wonders, can the open source model go?

"With Liberty and Justice for Me," by Mark Dery (July 22, 1999)
Is the Internet giving ordinary people more control over their lives? An e-mail exchange with Andrew L. Shapiro, the author of The Control Revolution.

"Bits of Beauty," by Harvey Blume (June 3, 1999)
Yes, it's art. Now what is there to say about it? An assessment of the first-ever Cyberarts Festival in Boston, where art criticism is forced to play catch-up with technology.

"The MP3 Revolution," by Charles C. Mann (April 8, 1999)
The recording industry may indeed have something to worry about. If the much-talked-about digital format (or something like it) catches on, we could be carried back into our musical and cultural past.

See the complete Digital Culture index.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.
Alternate Realities

Choose your technorealism. New books by William Mitchell and Douglas Rushkoff take starkly differing views of the Information Age

by Harvey Blume

January 13, 2000

Remember technorealism? It would be interesting to see the technorealist movement, or what remains of it, try to swallow and digest two recent books without exploding -- William Mitchell's e-topia: "Urban Life, Jim -- But Not As We Know It" and Douglas Rushkoff's Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" Say. Technorealism, you may recall, came into being in March, 1998, as a demand -- or perhaps a request, or maybe it was only a polite suggestion -- by a number of writers for an expanded "middle ground between techno-utopianism and neo-Luddism." If the movement appears to have faded away since its much-publicized debut, this is not a result of any punishing defeats; it's more likely because the initial statement of technorealistic principles was simply too noncontroversial. Who would go to war over pronouncements like "We are technology 'critics' in the same way, and for the same reasons, that others are food critics, art critics, or literary critics"? Technorealism was, in large measure, a victim of its own reasonableness.

From Here to E-topia
An interview with William Mitchell

An Optimist After
All These Years

An interview with Douglas Rushkoff

But the reasonable tone covered over differences in mood and attitude among supporters that would have become apparent had the movement sustained itself. In fact, it's a sure sign of technorealism's morbidity that it has not suffered technoschisms as the Internet continues to expand at a demonic rate. Yesterday the Web was home pages, today it's commerce, and tomorrow, who knows, it may be the human mind (implants, networked neural nano-technology comprising the real, the inner, and inescapable home page). This kind of runaway growth naturally renews expectancy, on the one hand, and alarm on the other. Those are the two moods expressed by Mitchell's and Rushkoff's new books. Though each lays claim to technoreasonableness -- Rushkoff, one of technorealism's founders, was "in the room" when the idea was formulated -- they put their emphasis in very different places.

e-topiaWhen William Mitchell, Dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning (and author of City of Bits) espouses realism, he speaks as a designer and city planner. In the course of clarifying his notion of e-topia, the electronic city, he lays about him on all sides, striking at Luddite and utopian alike, and warning readers they will get from him neither "techno-triumphalist, macho-millennial prophecies" nor "equally dogmatic and determinist Chicken Little inversions of these visions." As Mitchell sees it, technophilia and technophobia are two strains of an extremism that is of no use when it comes to dealing with the "messy, difficult, long-term task of designing and building for our future." Still, it is clear that Mitchell's own attitude is far more optimistic than cautionary about the prospects for e-topia. For one thing, he welcomes the fact that digitalization affords architecture an extra dimension: "Architecture," he writes, "is no longer simply the play of masses in light. It now embraces the play of digital information in space."

Mitchell is interested in all the ways that physical and virtual reality -- "biomass and infomass" -- intersect in the city of the future; he's concerned with the capillary connections between bits and atoms. If this sounds a lot like the wisdom currently coming out of MIT's Media Lab, it should. Mitchell happens to be the guy the Media Lab's director, Nicholas Negroponte, reports to in the MIT chain of command, and Mitchell identifies completely with the Lab's orientation -- an emphasis on folding the world and the network into each other like two strands of a futuristic double helix. (Hence the Lab's focus, in recent years, on things that think, computers that feel, and the world as the interface.) If, in e-topia, it is often the case that bits and atoms are inseparable, Mitchell also allows for significant instances where they remain apart. For example, he believes that virtual delivery systems will push bookstores as we know them to the verge of extinction. The bookstores that survive -- Paris's Shakespeare & Company, say, or San Francisco's City Lights -- will do so because literary history endows their physical existence with special meaning: how nice to browse where Joyce once walked or Ferlinghetti worked the cash register.

This concentration of some forms of distribution online, together with the highlighting of some kinds of offline activity, has a surprising side effect -- it reinstates the "aura," the loss of which was mourned by Walter Benjamin in his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936). Aura refers to the irreducible presence and singularity of the art object -- and by extension any place or thing -- that Benjamin found missing in photography and film. Whether Benjamin was right is another matter: who is to say there is nothing of the aura in the experience of seeing a great film in a movie house? What Walter Benjamin mistook for absence of aura may simply have been its relocation. In any case, what was arguably true in an age of mechanical reproduction will, according to Mitchell's argument, be much less so in an age of digital reproduction. Digitalization, like oil-eating bacteria, will attack the sludge of the social and economic world -- check-out lines, for example, and bulky, advertising-laden Sunday papers. When the clean-up is complete there will be, ideally, the electronic network, on the one hand, and physical presence, on the other. In Mitchell's e-topia, connectivity and the aura complement each other.

If e-topia could be reduced to a single, central point, it would be that the pliability and portability of information will give future cities a freedom to reinvent themselves beyond anything possible for urban centers in the past and will allow this reinvention to happen without excessive violence to old structures. "The path," writes Mitchell, "from what we have now to what we need in the future need not be one of cataclysmic change; we can follow the road of subtle, incremental, nondestructive transformation."

CoercionThis is pretty straightforward stuff, but it turns out that what looks like information to one technorealist may look like disinformation to another. In Coercion, media critic Douglas Rushkoff speaks as someone whose enthusiasm for the Internet has been tempered of late by the Web's increasing commercialization. Rushkoff argues that the fact that this has been called an Information Age misleads us about its real meaning; the moniker turns the spotlight on data rather than on people. Coercion brings the whole history of marketing to bear on contemporary media, and attempts to show how cyberspace is turning into yet another venue in which consumption takes precedence over communication. The book is chastening and intelligent, if occasionally seasoned with paranoia, and it has all the more impact because of who its author is.

Through his previous books, including Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace and Ecstasy Club, and his writings for The New York Times and other publications, Rushkoff has for years been a leading chronicler of the digital revolution. The very fact that he now issues dire warnings about it gives those warnings weight. (Reading Coercion is a little like reading an ex-Communist's account of all those years in the party.) The Web, Rushkoff points out, is a marketing dream come true, since our movements in cyberspace, and hence our tastes and habits, can be tracked with a precision impossible to achieve offline (absent the methods of a police state). The story told by Rushkoff is chilling because it details how we become our own worst enemy, how the way we behave (and these days go click, click, click) gives marketers the information they need to manipulate us -- in short, how we are seduced, or tricked, into joining the marketers' ranks.

Rushkoff's Web is a cold place where we do not recognize each other, but marketers identify us easily. The antidote he proposes is a rehabilitation of all the human values undermined by scientific salesmanship and obsessive consumerism. "Real friendships," he writes, "quiet the aspirational jitters that lead us to reach for our Visa cards at the slightest prompting." Of course, in Rushkoff's view the Web has done nothing to aid in the formation of real friendship and a great deal to facilitate use of the credit card. That Rushkoff has no solution adequate to the problem as he presents it is the chief weakness of Coercion. Rushkoff has painted the forces of marketing as so insidious that it is hard to see how the individual assertion of values such as friendship and inner peace stands a chance against them. The effect of the book can be to engender hopelessness.

But Rushkoff makes one point along the way that stands out as the most unnerving of all his charges. In describing the way the marketers' "coercive arms race" wears down our resistance, he writes, "So many of our corporate and personal resources have been surrendered to the battle that it seems the only way to avoid coercion is to join in the arms race ourselves. As a result, our new religion is to become more plugged-in, in whatever way possible, to the way the world works." And Rushkoff is right; getting ourselves and everyone else wired has been turned into a sort of missionary activity. It used to be the job of a technical or artistic vanguard to cheer on the future; now, with allowances made for degree of commitment, the vanguard is roughly coextensive with the number of users on the Internet. We are fascinated, as individuals and as a society, with every last effect wiring has on our lifestyles and our culture, caught in a sort of electronic narcissism. It is not too much to call this a religion; it is built on a kind of blind faith and electrified eagerness. We're ready to rise up and speak in digital tongues; afraid that if we were unplugged for any length of time first our intelligence and then our life force would drain away.

Having summoned such a negative vision, Douglas Rushkoff's book does little to dispel it. And Rushkoff, let's remember, is a technorealist.

From Here to E-topia
An interview with William Mitchell

An Optimist After All These Years
An interview with Douglas Rushkoff

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Harvey Blume is a contributing writer for Atlantic Unbound and The Boston Book Review.

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