Getting Over the Edge

Stuart Moulthrop
School of Communications Design
The University of Baltimore
1420 North Charles Street
Baltimore, Maryland U.S.A. 21201-5779


This essay appeared in Strate, Jacobson, and Gibson's collection, Communication and Cyberspace: Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment, Hampton Press (1996).

The only responsible intellectual is one who is wired.
-- Taylor and Saarinen

Millennium season has arrived. Every month now the rhetoric of technology salesmen, never much known for subtlety, re-sets the record for hyperbole. The airwaves are filled with trailers for the future. AT&T promises surfside faxes, power breakfasts in your skivvies, your medical history on a credit card. Maybe you do not desire this stuff just yet, but don't worry... you will. Meanwhile on MCI's side of the highway, Anna Pacquin lisps that everything is information -- digitized, lightspeed quick, annihilating distinctions of time and space. In the new regime there will be no more "there!" Or as we might also say, there goes the neighborhood. So begins "our violent descent into the electronic cage of virtual reality," says Arthur Kroker with trademark hysteria. Down we go into the "floating world of liquid media where the body is daily downloaded into the floating world of the net, where data is the real, and where high technology can fulfill its destiny of an out-of-body experience" (1994, 36). There goes the body, too, drowned in recombinant buzz. Shuffled off into "bodiless exultation" (Gibson 1984) we hang out in cyberspace awaiting further prophecies. Where do you want to go today? asks Microsoft, but it is less a question of going than of knowing -- knowing where we are. We have come to that liminal zone called "The New Edge" (Rucker at al., 1992). The gulf between the Now and the New yawns impatiently.

This is an ambiguous, ambivalent state. Here is Vivian Sobchack commenting on the cyberhip magazine Mondo 2000: "In my sober and responsible moments I bemoan our culture's loss of gravity and fear the very real social dangers of disembodied ditziness, but holding this Christmas present to myself, all I want is a head shot" (1992, 583). It is particularly easy to feel this way if one is of a certain age. Cyberculture may be the last holiday orgy of the yuppies, replete with silicon sugar plums for all. There is something seductively regressive about the New Edge, with its smart drugs, mind machines, data networks, body-piercing narcissism, and dreams of virtual sex without secretions. Personal computing these days seems little more than an exclusive toy shop, especially considering the present craze for CD-ROM and "multimedia." More often than not this buzzword refers to pre-recorded sequences of sound and video, a techne that seems distinctly familiar. As Greg Ulmer says, "[e]verything now, in its own way, wants to be television" (1990, 11). Except for television, of course, which wants to be something new, improved, and "interactive," but whose vision of the future turns out to be Oliver Stone's Wild Palms, or Beavis and Butthead in Cyberspace.

In large part the New Edge may be just another trompe l'oeil shadow; though it may not be entirely without significance even so. In the era of simulation, as Baudrillard pointed out, the production of illusions becomes a crucial enterprise. Consider the thesis of "digital convergence," the last "vision rollout" put on by John Sculley before he left Apple Computer for wilder company. Taken at its glossiest, this concept means the wholesale integration of personal data services: much the same thing that is intoned over that stolen Peter Gabriel riff in all those AT&T spots. If the industrialists get their way, then nearly all our information will be mediated by a very small number of boxes and perhaps a single skein of cable.

Consequences of this change could be great. No more personal computers, no more television sets, no more fax machines, just a single appliance strung into "the dataline," as Pat Cadigan calls it (1990). Nor would consumer electronics be the sole area of impact. Imagine a world without bookstores, where one has only to connect to a publisher's electronic catalog to download, in whole or part, anything that one can plausibly afford. The implications for retailing are astonishing, as Barry Diller and others in the media marketing business have recognized (Carlin 1993). Sculley's convergence seems likely to be realized any day now; it has considerable momentum both economically and politically. His vision maps closely onto Vice President Gore's National Information Infrastructure initiative, in which a "partnership" of communications companies, information providers, computer makers, and government will build the fabled digital superhighway. Since this strategy seems equally acceptable to the resurgent right (or at least the Speaker of the House), it seems sure to go forward.

Discussion of NII usually centers on its implications for business. Under "time-based competition" where product development cycles can be measured in weeks, some means of fast, copious, and efficient data exchange becomes essential (Peters 1992, Zuboff 1988). Complex, densely interrelated tasks must be adequately documented and represented for managers. Large engineering enterprises like the aerospace industry require flexible software tools for complex and dynamically changing work groups (Malcolm et al. 1991). But the implications of this development go well beyond industrial competition. Autobahns and interstate highways support commerce (and military mobilization) but they also change profoundly the way we organize ourselves as a culture. Just ask anyone who grew up in the suburbs and later returned to the urban core. As Fred Pfeil points out, the coming of the concrete highways contributed crucially to the atomized, post-Oedipal condition of the "PMC," Pfeil's shorthand for both Professional-Managerial Class and Postmodern Culture (1990, 32). The new fiber-optic data routes might bring similarly sweeping changes to cultural life. But what will these effects be? Can they be understood in terms not saturated by SF visions or pitchman hyperbole?

When Arthur Kroker writes about bodies "downloaded into the floating world of the net," he is of course fantasizing. Whether or not the "destiny" of "high technology" lies in "an out-of-body experience," even our highest technologies of the moment come nowhere close to that objective. The body, like the material world in general, turns out to be more complex and sophisticated the more closely we examine it. Digital convergence is one thing, digital conversion quite another. Uploading or downloading people into information networks is the stuff of Star Trek's 24th century (i.e., of television) not of the present era. What we transfer into the network, now or in the foreseeable future, is not our literal mind/body but some representation: some text. As Donna Haraway says: "Writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs, etched surfaces of the late twentieth century" (1991, 176). Questions about cyberculture thus lead away from "edges" (new or otherwise) and back toward surfaces -- or to scenes of writing.

At the moment our cyborg texts remain heavily invested in pre-electronic technologies. We are living in what Jay David Bolter calls "the late age of print," a moment in history when the old, industrial paradigm of alphabetic literacy collides with the younger agenda of electronic communication (1991, 2). Outlines of a new order have begun to emerge, yet the old regime remains stubbornly present. Though promoters of multimedia may try to turn everything into television, for a while the main front of development in electronic media remains verbal and textual; and there is good reason to think that the word will not wither away any time soon (Moulthrop 1993). "Cyberspace" as we know it in the nineties is largely a system of texts and intertexts. Consider the current most popular lane on the information highway, the distributed writing system called the World Wide Web. This vast congeries of information is really nothing like an electronic book or even a virtual library. The flow of information on the Web is much more dynamic and much less invested in stable objects than such metaphors suggest. Yet its component elements are still referred to (and to some extent designed) as "pages." Authors representing themselves on the Web organize their work around the comforting notion of a "home page" (December and Randall 1994).

If we recognize today's electronic environments as what Bolter calls "writing spaces"(1991, 10-12) then we may begin to understand the emerging cultural front of cyberspace. Is the library the home we never left? Or is it the object of our frustrated re-turning, the home to which we cannot come again? The cyberpunks and New Edgers dream about cyberspace in the comfort of pre-digital media. They operate in the book and magazine markets, old foundations of of the print age. They are often, strange as it may seem, staunch defenders of high literacy and even the canon (e.g., Stephenson 1993). Too often their projections assume that crucial aspects of print culture -- analysis, reductive formalism, Aristotelian agon, and discrete authorship -- will be carried wholesale across the new frontier.

They are probably dead wrong about this. In the environment of electronic communications, write the "media philosophers" Mark Taylor and Esa Saarinen, "all philosophy must be interactive. Monologue becomes dialogue or, more precisely, polylogue" (1993, "Ending the Academy," 1). Cyberspace may be a textual domain, but it is not the Gutenberg Galaxy same as it ever was. Textuality in the new writing space is not constrained by the rigid ordering principles native to pre-electronic media. This means that we must fundamentally re-think our position as subjects of electronic textuality. We must come to grips with yet a third kind of "convergence," a phenomenon George Landow calls "the convergence of contemporary critical theory and technology" (1992, 4). This intersection may have more significance, in the short run at least, than either the vision of integrated data services or the dream of human/machine fusion.

The subject of Landow's interest, like Bolter's, is a relatively modest item on the high-technology agenda, a form of electronic writing called hypertext. (For background on this concept, see Bolter 1991, Halasz 1987, Landow 1992, Nelson 1990, Slatin 1990.) The name was coined in the mid-1960s by the computing visionary Theodor Nelson to describe "non-sequential writing," a scheme for using interactive computing systems to deliver documents in variable form, as opposed to the strict sequence imposed by bookbinding (1990, 3/19). Hypertexts cannot be translated into print. They retain a dynamic or "interactive" component which no non-electronic reduction can adequately represent. In hypertext, a body of writing is formally divided into arbitrary units or "lexias" as Landow calls them, borrowing from Roland Barthes. The reader's path from one lexia to another is determined partly by active engagement: the reader selects a word in the present lexia, chooses an option from a menu, issues a command, or otherwise indicates some wish for further development. The program responds with another piece of writing which may or may not match the reader's desires, but which articulates in some way to the previous passage. In the most ambitious, "constructive" versions of this writing system (Joyce 1994), the reader may not only follow pre-defined pathways, but may alter the connections and add new lexias to the system, creating complex textual hybrids.

Hypertext is a characteristic product of the late age of print, which is to say, it is deeply ambiguous. While still dependent on alphabetic literacy, algorithmic programming, linearity, hierarchy, and other trappings of Gutenberg culture, hypertext implicitly challenges the episteme from which it sprang. Though any hypertextual document remains a limited and definable object, this object is much more like Roland Barthes's notion of "text" -- a dynamic network of ideas, indefinite in its boundaries and mutable over time -- than like a teleologically closed literary "work" (Landow 1992, 23). The precise nature and boundaries of a hypertext are hard to define. The experience of reading for any two people who traverse its verbal space may be radically different: "polylogue," not monologue. Where multiple writers are involved, authorial voice and intention come in for serious questioning. In the World Wide Web, for instance, a single document may contain scores of references to other texts stored at various far-flung points around the Internet. A single reading may involve writings (and writers) from Baltimore to Bombay; and since many documents on the Web are regularly revised and updated, both the authorial corps and the textual corpus are subject to change.

These aspects of hypertextual writing lead Landow to his particular vision of "convergence." As he sees it, the current interest in hypertext represents the happy union of two cultural forces that have worked for twenty years in adjacent ivory towers. On one side of this new synthesis are information scientists, men like Douglas Engelbart and Andries Van Dam who created the first practical hypertext systems. On the other flank stand poststructuralist theorists like Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva, whose critiques of print culture, or logocentrism, appear to parallel the hypertextual enterprise. As Landow sees it, the technology of the printed book

engenders certain notions of authorial property, authorial uniqueness, and a physically isolated text that hypertext makes untenable. The evidence of hypertext, in other words, historicizes many of our most commonplace assumptions, thereby forcing them to descend from the ethereality of abstraction and appear as corollaries to a particular technology rooted in specific times and places. (1992, 33)

Landow does not claim that hypertext represents an "applied grammatology," to borrow Ulmer's phrase, only that there is a compelling and useful analogy between poststructuralist theories of the text and the development of electronic writing. "What is perhaps most interesting about hypertext," Landow explains, "is not that it may fulfill certain claims of structuralist and poststructuralist criticism but that it provides a rich means of testing them" (1992, 11). What Landow means by "testing" here, or what anyone else might mean by it, remains very much at issue. Hypertext enables its users to invent new forms for arranging and passing on information. These forms do not map onto the claims of poststructuralist critics in any simple, literal way. But if Landow is right, hypertext should allow us to articulate poststructuralist concepts within the emergent practices of digital culture. "Articulation" here might mean a process of connection in which one creates contingent unities among moving differences (for the roots of this concept, see Grossberg 1992). This enterprise seems entirely in line with Haraway's cyborg politics. If such a process is possible, then hypertext might lend some substance to all that loose talk about digital highways, electronic frontiers, and a "floating world of liquid media." But this remains to be seen.

At the moment we face a more primary and practical cultural problem: the disturbing presence of the past. Contrary to the testimony of the sixties, print is not dead, nor is it merely sleeping. The cultural complex of print (a metonymy taking in publishing houses, academic institutions, reviewers, advertisers, and these days, multimedia conglomerates) is actually undead, which is to say that it lingers on, monstrously transformed, haunting us in the dead of night. According to Taylor and Saarinen, who have laid the strongest claim yet to Marshall McLuhan's mad media prophecies, technologies like hypertext portend a cultural paradigm shift. This would be a change from monologue to polylogue, from edifice to improvization, from Bildung to bricolage. "Expert language," they say, "is a prison for knowledge and understanding. A prison for intellectually significant relationships. It is time to move beyond the institutional practices of triviledge, toward networks and surfaces, toward the play of superficiality, toward interstanding" (1993, "Communicative Practices," 8). Neologism is an essential part of the game here. "Triviledge" indicates the privilege of institutional learning, or the trivilality of knowledge; "interstanding" names the way of knowing appropriate to hypertext, the exploration of what Joyce calls "interstices" and "contours," or what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call "lines of flight" (1987, 3). "When depth gives way to surface," Taylor and Saarinen write, "under-standing becomes inter-standing. To comprehend is no longer to grasp what lies beneath but to glimpse what lies between" (1993, "Interstanding," 1). In moving from the page to the interstice, from understanding to interstanding, we ostensibly reverse figure and ground, transforming the condition of textuality.

But how much is genuinely new here? As Pete Townshend might have said: Meet the new Logos; same as the old Logos. The problem is that scholars, critics, developers, and designers cling desperately to the same old ways of doing what we do. "Triviledge" represents our ultimate home on the page. Those optical networks and etched surfaces that might redeem us seem strangely hard to engage. Take Taylor and Saarinen's book as a depressingly perfect case in point. Like McLuhan and Fiore's The Medium is the Massage, whose design it emulates, Imagologies puts up a deeply irreverent front. "The triviledge that legitimizes the academic critic renders him impotent," Taylor and Saarinen proclaim. "Merely a Peeping Tom who gazes from afar but refuses to enter the fray, he becomes nothing more than a limp dick" (1993, "Ending the Academy," 7). But how much difference can these words make, even when they are made-up words or bawdy words? How much difference can a book make -- for though it is as irreverent and iconoclastic in design as it is in content, Imagologies is still very much a book. Taylor and Saarinen do consider this objection, but their answer fails to satisfy:

If an electronic text can be published in printed form, is it really electronic? The alternative would be to give up print and publish an electronic text. But the technology necessary for accessing electronic texts is still rather limited. Furthermore, most of the people we want to reach remain committed to print. There is no sense preaching to the converted. Our dilemma is that we are living at the moment of transition from print to electronic culture. It is too late for printed books and too early for electronic texts. Along this boundary we must write our work. (1993, "Telewriting," 5)

Much of this argument makes sense -- though the sense that it makes deeply undermines the primary claim. There is indeed no point in "preaching to the converted." If we understand hypertext we know that there is no point in preaching at all, just as there is no sense in worrying about the limpness of the next man's transcendental signifier, or your own. If technologies like hypertext really do open possibilities for cultural renewal, then as Taylor and Saarinen say, they ought to help us climb out of the muck of triviledge and simpleminded agonistics. This might mean that we can indeed give up print and do something other than write books -- that it is not too soon for electronic texts. The new networks ought to provide Landow's testing ground for poststructuralist critique, a space where we can ground for poststructuralist critique, a space where we can experiment with alternatives to the Logos as we know it. Have you ever reconceived yourself entirely outside the grounds of western metaphysics? You will...

Or maybe you won't. As any scientist knows, most experiments fail. Even after we have given up on print, the majority of "really electronic" text will be hopelessly contaminated with the old ways of knowing. What we must carry forward is a strong sense of foundational irony. The past is always present; we are Gutenberg creatures no matter how hard we play at revolution; there is no such thing as "non-sequential writing." We make our way by recursion, by folding a new order back upon and into its predecessor. The relations among media, as McLuhan discovered and as Neil Postman has clarified, belong to a complex, mutually modifying ecology (Postman 1992, 18). Drastic, monumental changes are rare in most ecologies -- and disastrous when they do occur. In the place of such upheavals, in our day-to-day survival, we find articulations, contingent complications of the old order which may, in their non-totalizing, fractal context, create some space for "interstanding." Or so we may hope.

So is there really a new world coming? If books are still being written about cyberspace (including this book), then it must be too soon to tell. There is only one thing about which we can be reasonably sure: we must stop writing our work along the boundaries. We must step off the edge and onto the shifting surfaces. This writing is finished -- or unfinished.

References

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