I recently read Vincent Mosco’s The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace. It’s an interesting book, and it does a good job of ground-clearing of the «I read all these books so you don’t have to» variety, but I have some reservations about it.
The book has several big ideas. First, ideas about cyberspace and its impact are myths. Not myths in the sense of ideas that are «delusional and completely wrong,» but myths used by religious scholars— concepts that order our understanding of the world, that, as Alisdair MacIntyre put it, «are neither true nor false, but living or dead.» (29) Myths of cyberspace, promulgated by figures as varied as Al Gore, Thomas Friedman, and Nicholas Negroponte, helped drive the dot-com boom, the belief that the Internet would transform modern life, and predictions about the end of history, politics, and space. The digital library, information highway, e-commerce, and virtual community were all, in one way or another, representations of the myth.
Myths of cyberspace were also part of a broader discourse that developed in the years before Y2K, characterized by «a general willingness to entertain the prospect of a fundamental turning point in society and culture» (55-56). The Internet was assigned the role of driver of changes that were already under discussion. Most prominent among them were arguments about the end of history; the death of distance (something that’s been happening since at least the telegraph and railroad); and the end of conventional politics (exemplified by the arguments of the Progress and Freedom Foundation).
But it turns out that such technological myths aren’t new. When they were new, the telegraph, electric light, radio, and television all seemed to some to herald a new age in which war would be obsolete, economies would prosper, and the lion would lie down with the lamb. In each case, those predictions turned out to be false. Just as Brian Arthur argues that it’s after the boom that technologies like the railroad and telegraph really start to matter, so too does Mosco argue that «it is when technologies… cease to be sublime icons of mythology and enter the prosaic world of banality… that they become important forces for social and economic change.» (6)
It’s had some positive reviews in Technology and Society, First Monday (scroll down to the second review), SCRIPT-ed, Culture Machine, and University Affairs, among other places. Yet I find myself less impressed by the book. What’s there to object to? I think there are a couple small things, and one big one.
Technorati Tags: cyberspace, digital culture, end of cyberspace, pervasive computing, ubicomp