Culture Rover

#171 - The Network Culture Critique

In the Winter 2007 issue, N Plus 1 issued a mighty screed that decried the insidious decline of intellectual life in the information age (an excerpt that focuses on email appears on the N Plus 1 website, but the longer essay also addresses cellphones, blogging, marketing, internet porn, wireless cafes, etc.).

The piece functions as a kind of anti-Adbusters. It doubts the effectiveness of "culture jamming," of burrowing deep into the electronic bloodstream to reshape, divert, or simply derail capitalism. Instead, the editors of N Plus 1 argue, in essence, that resistance is futile, that capitalism can outlast and absorb attempts to utilize technological communication devices to further a libratory, democratic, and fulfilling public life.

This is an update of the mass culture critique of the 1950s. Call it the Network Culture Critique. N Plus 1's essay identifies many troubling ironies of the information age: the tyranny of email, which is good for flirtation and not much else; the thin intellectual gruel of so much of the blogosphere, the creep of glib consumer-marketing language into electronic discourse; the strange convergence of labor and porn on computers; the panoptic disciplinary control of wireless cafes over the work lives of their freelance-laboring customers; the unrelenting cacophony of cellphone chatter in public spaces; the way in which the benefits of electronic communication devices in emergencies (a cellphone when your car breaks down, for instance) wind up enslaving us in daily life (thousands of emails to which one must respond); and the flourishing of microcommunities at the expense of a unified public sphere (think listservs and Myspace networks). The myriad links of the network society, N Plus 1 contends, might just prove to be so much chainlink.

However, the essay's bleak perspective takes on a reactionary air. It wants to avoid the mess of the electronic network for a purity of intellectual experience. There is a rightly expressed exhaustion at the speed of information, a speed that, as the N Plus 1 essay points out, is not unlike commuter traffic: fast machines forced to plod along in a crush of density. But instead of probing the dizzying array of byways, cul-de-sacs, and high-speed data packets in the network society for their strange mixtures of alienation and connection, of control and liberation, N Plus 1 gives up, shrugs their shoulders instead of putting their shoulders to the LCD screen. You can hardly blame them. It's frantic and enervating out there (in there?).

The issue is time: its uses, who controls it, the overwhelming of it by information. Maybe what we need to grapple with this historical moment is something like Walter Benjamin's conception of history. His sense of time involved letting go of linear connections and, instead, exploring how the very onslaught of events themselves -- even catastrophes and tragedies -- always invoked counter-histories, alternative narratives, bits of utopian hope, shards of critical awareness within their suffering.

Benjamin's is a dialectic of despair and dreams. Pro-network society advocates and corporate shills (The Long Tail) emphasize the dreams but not the despair. N Plus 1 gets the despair but misses the dreams. We need both, since in the end, they are strands of the the same world wide web, that space of social stickiness where humans and their machines labor and play. And maybe with a dialectic of despair and dreams in mind, we might develop what Benjamin writes of as "a conception of the present as the 'time of the now' which is shot through with chips of Messianic time."

Perhaps those "chips of Messianic time" are microchips.

(For a critique of N Plus 1's Network Culture Critique, see Rob Horning's Marginal Utility blog.)

22 August 2007

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