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Ever since science fiction writer William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace,” computer users have struggled with the notion of what exactly that “space” means. For example, as I sit at a keyboard in Idaho preparing to send my review into this “cyberspace,” I can visualize what states it might cross, but I know that it will not travel through pathways mimicking interstate highways or continental air routes. The e-mailed manuscript seems to inhabit such a non-specific, disembodied, and abstract space that I think of Gertrude Stein’s description of Oakland, Calif.-“there is no there there.”

That troubling uncertainty about the meaning of cyberspace inspired Stephen Doheny-Farina, professor of technical communications at Clarkson University, to write a curious book. The author’s thesis, plain and simple, is that global computer networks are enhancing our isolation from one another, and that the growth of virtual communities is leading us away from the kind of neighborhood activism needed to restore decaying infrastructures in our real-life communities. He proposes trying to counter this tendency through net-bound neighborhood action forums. Defining himself in his preface as neither a “techno-utopian” nor a “neo-Luddite,” he pledges to chart a middle way through computer network communications.

It seems like a promising stance. After all, many authors highly critical of the social consequences of communications technologies appear to suffer from ideological baggage. For example, consider James Brook and Ian A. Boal, editors of Resisting the Virtual Life, who see new technologies in light of their ability to maintain social injustices within capitalism. Other writers are prey to sloppy overgeneralizations, like Clifford Stoll, whose Silicon Snake Oil defines electronic communication as “illusionary contact.” As for boosters of the new technologies, they are guilty of their own styles of too-loose or too-rigid thinking. Futurist George Gilder thinks computer technology will mystically contribute to the overthrow of matter, while cyber-philosopher and scientist Nicholas Negroponte would divide the world’s population into those “wired” and those not as blessed.

But the difficulty is that while Doheny-Farina claims to neither valorize nor demonize technology, he very much personifies and scapegoats it. He writes of “powerful cultural trends” that are “seducing” us into “technological immersion.” The “seduction” motif occurs throughout this book, as do other romantically charged terms. In his opening chapter he tells us that once we begin to “divorce ourselves” from “geographical place,” we “further the dissolution of our physical communities.”

In fact, the basic assumption that on-line communication means cutting ourselves off from our neighborhoods is itself worth noting. Proof? The author offers none. Instead, he constantly reasserts his monolithic opinion that the net “does not make the home into the center of our public and private lives but eliminates the center,” and that as a result “all centers-work centers, school centers, and living centers-become less and less relevant.” It is as if the act of turning on one’s PC cancels out the freedom to explore all places other than those glowingly and symbolically present on the monitor. Indeed, for a writer who proposes on-line community activism as the chief worthy use of communications technologies, Doheny-Farina has a curiously passive view of human nature. People are depicted as helplessly drowning in waves of technological invention.

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Tagged: Computing

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