[Here's a review I wrote for the NYFA newsletter of a recent MIT publication, the excellent if pricey New Media Reader. This is the rough, and much longer, draft; it doesn't incorporate any of the changes that the editor (ok it's Alan Gilbert) made, so there are probably a few unforgivable gaffs and tedious attempts at humor -- please excuse them!]
The New Media Reader
Edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort
8 x 9, 837 pp., 325 illus.
Something in me misses the day when publishers used to put out supermarket-novel sized anthologies with names like “The Structuralists,” “The New Novel” or “The Lower East Side Scene,” kept the page count below 350 and put a whopping price tag of two dollars or so on the cover, and still managed to include the essential texts – by Roman Jakobsen, Monique Wittig or Paul Blackburn – associated with the title. The non-intimidating size of the book left a lot of room for subway-trapped laymen to acquire some pretty heady, relevant information without having to budget in for a new, potentially (self-)alienating library. Consequently, these egalitarian, bite-sized encyclopedias – thirty or so years after publication – have gone on to have rich afterlives as lucky-find additions to the Strand’s outdoor dollar paperback carts, providing minoritarian competition to their trade-sized Routledge, Zone or Princeton cousins costing ten times as much in the great air-conditioned indoors.
Luckily, the folks at MIT think otherwise, and their latest edition to the incredible shelf of books crossing the nexus between art, science and language – genuine encyclopedias such as Steve McCaffery and Jed Rasula’s Imagining Language and Stephen Wilson’s Information Arts – is a stunner, perhaps the most convincing argument for this handsomely, even lavishly, designed and edited series so far. A search of MIT’s online catalogue produces a welter of books that have come out in the past decade including in their titles the words “information” (60 at least), “digital, “new media” (including Lev Manovich’s seminal The Language of New Media ) and “hypertext,” but it would be hard to imagine any of these volumes being as complete or as energetically, even giddily, edited. The delight of brainy duo Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort — their other collaborations liberally speckle net.art space — comes through not just in the longish preambles to each of the book’s fifty-four chapters and the reams of text on the CD itself, but in every additional 8-bit Atari game, forgotten manifesto, “Aristotelian” comic strip, and chunky piece of Deleuze and Guattari they found a way to cram into the collection.
The New Media Reader contains most of the classic, if not often read, staples of digital cultural theory such as Vannever Bush’s 1945 article “As We May Think,” his argument for the conversion of wartime experimental research into pacifistic technologies such as the “memex” – created for secretaries, it’s the information-retrieval equivalent of the washer-dryer combos that were just coming out, one that types, talks and does much of what our present day iMacs do while storing everything on microfilm – as well as essays by AI guru Alan Turing and the inventor of the term “cybernetics,” Norbert Wiener. But this section of the reader, titled “The Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate,” starts with a short story by Jorge Luis Borges – “The Garden of Forking Paths” from 1941 – and ends with a brief but rich anthology of writing by the Oulipo, that French group of writers who devised complex mathematical formulas by which to compel – rather than write themselves – a “potential” literature, the prime example being “A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems,” by Raymond Queneau, ten sonnets whose lines are rendered interchangeable by cutting the pages, such that each line can substitute for its peer on another page — a paper computer. An essay by Allan Kaprow about the Sixties “happenings” and a bit by William S. Burroughs describing the “cut-up” method land in the middle of the section, pages away from the white paper “Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communications System” (1963) by Ivan Sutherland – replete with flowcharts and formulas, it describes the technology that would later produce graphical user interfaces – and “Man-Computer Symbiosis” (1960) by J. C. R. Licklider, a decidedly non-Burroughsian view of human and machine collaboration.
What Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort achieve by such a frottage of scientific and creative texts is manifold. The scientific papers, which can seem dated by the pace of technical innovation or obtuse by their jargon, are ironicized in a way that renders them more than quaint or insufferable geek-talk. In fact, they are melded into the very inner psyche (or outer superego) that produced some of our most iconic cultural visions, making us see the Strangelove in the heart of every (decidedly not roaring) mouse. Indeed, Douglas Englebert’s 1968 “mother of all demos” (included on the CD), spoken at a Stephen Hawkins pace, of a basic form of the mouse, hypertext, interactive teleconferencing and collaborative authorship, seems to argue for his species of researcher, and not that of the late Edward Teller, as the inheritor of the prophet function in society after the age of Einstein. These early struggles among cyberticians can then be seen as a search for human forms and practices — like the sonnet or the Heimlich maneuver — that are unlikely to be improved upon. This mingling also show how often “creative” writers have outpaced technology itself, a most obvious (though perhaps contentious) example being how very simple Oulipian writing such as Queneau’s “Yours For the Telling” – a ridiculous choose-your-own-adventure about “three tall, lanky beanpoles” who have “deliciously oneiric” dreams – provide many if not more of the transcendental delights that hypertext was supposed to bring about in the hands of a competent, if not necessarily brilliant, writer of fiction. Many fine hypertext works have succeeded remarkably well and move well beyond what a standard codex could do, and some of these, like Wardrip-Fruin’s own “Impermanence Agent,” which bases its story on a user’s indifferent web browsing, have no “author” at all. But much of the Tron-like rush of participating in the random-access universe while in pursuit of a negligible, however charming, “plot,” is contained in Queneau’s witty and concise literary parlor trick.
“Collective Media, Personal Media,” section two of the book, includes bits by Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, Raymond Williams, Hanz Magnus Enzensberger and Nam Jun Paik, and looks at more cultural ramifications of a virtual, mediated horizon that is constantly revising the very rules of approach. A chapter of Williams’ Television: Technology and Cultural Form is followed immediately by a very different work, the nearly Blakeian mixture of drawings and often “counter-cultural” speculations that signals perhaps the true end of the “white paper” approach to computer writing, Ted Nelson’s “Computer Lib / Dream Machines” — “the most important book in the history of new media” in the words of the editors. Nelson avoids the trap of writing about specific uses for known technologies that will be outdated in a decade’s time while adhering closely to precisely described visionary concepts, many of which he groups under the term “fantics,” a broad science of the study of humans and reactive or responsive machinic environments. “Design, Activity, and Action,” the third section of the reader, has its share of manifestos, and continues much of the man/machine speculation of Nelson’s, for instance through the model of Greek theater in Brenda Laurel’s famous book Computer and Theater , or through the image of the “cyborg” in Donna Haraway’s influential, if often misunderstood, “A Cyborg Manifesto.”
The real charge of The New Media Reader comes in the political inclusions in the final section, titled with much bravado “Revolution, Resistance, and the Launch of the Web.” One realizes, first, that little in the previous 600 or so previous pages has concerned technologies that are being actively used today: the internet, MP3s, digital film, P2P clients, recent video games or (not unexpectedly) blogs. But a dramatic shift in scale has also occurred: the discussion has progressed way beyond whether an isolated office worker will be able to locate an invoice via a pipe-infested thingamabob right out of Dr. Seuss (or the wet dreams of beans), but whether revolution itself — the physical kind, like what could have happened in Tiananmen Square — will be nurtured or squashed by, respectively, satellite communications or government surveillance technology — two sides of the same coin. “Cybernetic” and “haptic” space — the “global village” of MacLuhan — sheds any sheen of naive technological optimism when we read of the Hacktivismo group cDc (Cult of the Dead Cow)’s practice of “disruptive compliance” — an obtuse offshoot of “civil disobedience” that involves the enabling, through contraband software, of the free flow of information in such zones the “Great Firewall of China,” the mostly tightly controlled cyberspace in the world. (The romantic version of this is epitomized in the perhaps forgettable image of Ice-T transmitting the cure for AIDS through a dolphin in a football helmet in Johny Mnemonic .)
Internet technology has little left to prove in organizational practices — the anti-globalization and anti-war movements relied heavily upon it for the accuracy and efficiency with which it coordinates millions of people worldwide with hourly precision. Underrecognized themes by the more seemingly aberrant thinkers today, such as the theory of “copyleft” rights, “hacktivism” in the cDc style, and the Computer Art Ensemble’s concept of “nomadic power,” or even John Ashcroft’s (yes, he thinks, too) push for increased digital surveillance rights, may not always be, like suicide bombings and purchased elections, front-page headlines, but if any of this power is harnessed the way it could be — either for or against basic human liberties — you can bet they will. This would be a safe bet, if the scale of our “symbiosis” with the machine increases to the same degree it has from the first to the final inclusions in this reader. Its unwritten chapters are yours to write.
The New Media Reader is so generous in its witty, jargonless editorial commentary, rich bibliographies, informative sidebars, as well as in the content itself — I’ve touched on less than a percentage of it — that it almost seems as if the editors, hip to the new politics of information and intellectual property rights, struggled to make it seem free by going several extra yards, down to having it printed in small but very legible typeface (Michael Crumton’s elegant, interactive design made this possible). Whether this book will replace “The Lower East Side Scene” in the Strand’s outdoor dollar carts is beyond my overextended skills of prediction, but it’s hard not to believe that a blueprint for the next stage of world culture — even or especially from those areas where a computer is not to be found — is hidden in its pages.Posted by Brian Stefans at January 12, 2004 05:13 PM | TrackBack