Screen-age children of chaos

Pat Kane surfs in from cyberspace to explain the digital revolution
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The Independent Culture
It's almost become normal, this place called cyberspace. Morning radio presenters reluctantly mumble "at-something-dot-co" for their listeners' correspondence. After-hour pub conversations, white collars askew, begin like this: "Christ, I had 40 e-mails today." Cybercafes pop up in the dreariest backwater high streets while net terminals quietly appear in public libraries and the homes of relatives. My mother-in-law bought a Pentium PC with her retirement money a few months ago. Like the Walkman, video and camcorder, the Internet looks like another of those world-shattering technologies that becomes slowly normalised by the muffled textures of British life.

So it's perhaps not the best moment for these three examples of American cyber-evangelism to hit our shores. The small but significant cloud raining on their parade is the recent collapse of the UK edition of Wired magazine. Despite the high numbers of computer enthusiasts in this country, there was no real market for Wired's Californian ideology about "the digital revolution" - nor also, perhaps, for its aggressively free-market politics. Given the opposition parties' joint commitment to a national information infrastructure, what seems more likely in Britain is a digital reformation - the Internet and its uses seeping into the cracks and pores of everyday institutions (the school, the hospital, the office), helping to lubricate a social cohesion that already exists.

When reading these books, however, a niggling question arises. If the British manage to make cyberspace boring, will we miss out on the Revolution? In Children of Chaos (HarperCollins, pounds 12.99), Douglas Rushkoff is already out there on the barricades, arguing that a whole new planetary consciousness is being created by Nintendo kids and Japanimation fans. Donna Haraway pushes the boat out even further in Modest Witness @ Second Millennium (Routledge, pounds 14.99), arguing for a feminist politics which sees no boundaries between computers and their users, human and non-human. Even John Seabrook - a New Yorker writer, whose Deeper: a two-year odyssey in cyberspace (Faber, pounds 12.99) is reassuringly bumbling - began his online journey thinking that "politics, ethics, and metaphysics - all the great disciplines of mankind - are ... yours to make again".

Deeper ends with Seabrook's computer making unstoppable fart noises during a crucial meeting with the New Yorker editorial team - which should alert you to the book's intentions. This is cyberspace as an extended episode of Friends, the dalliance of a talented young professional with the latest lifestyle option. Seabrook mixes wise-cracking and soul-searching in equal measure. Quill-pen British readers will also enjoy his brahmin background. While browsing through an on-line archive, he is reminded of "walking through the Princeton boathouse in the dim light after crew practice". Trying to account for the compulsiveness of net-surfing, he quotes a line from Eliot's Four Quartets - "distracted from distraction by distraction".

Where Seabrook renders the Net as extended conviviality, Douglas Rushkoff sees it as only one sign of a completely new civilisation. Children of Chaos refers to what Rushkoff calls the "screenagers" - those 12- to 25-year-olds in Britain and America whose consciousness is built from MTV, SuperMario, retro television, the joysticks and mouse-clicks of cyber-tech. Although his book sometimes reads as if dictated from under a virtual reality helmet, Rushkoff is to be commended for trying to link chaos theory and cultural critique so lucidly. When so much science is now invoked to limit our options - Darwinist psychology and sexual neurology being two recent culprits - it's a change to read something that emphasises play and creativity as a norm of human nature.

But Rushkoff embarrasses as much as he enlightens. The brilliant counter- intuitive readings of street culture that might work across a producer's table (Rushkoff "develops content for TV and the Internet", wouldn't you know) sometimes don't quite stretch to grown-up subjects. Bosnia's bloodbath, for example, tests the author's faith in the positive evolution of human culture. "If you take a goldfish that has been kept in a tiny bowl and release him into a lake," Rushkoff helpfully adds, "he will swim in tiny circles for quite a while before he realises he has more room." The goldfish, in case you don't get the analogy, is Bosnia.

Donna Haraway would probably regard the goldfish as a non-human ally in the struggle against piscean incarceration. Rarely has the much-maligned subject of cultural studies produced such a case for the prosecution. Her bizarrely titled Modest Witness@Second Millennium: Female Man (c)_Meets OncoMouse(tm) has one extraordinary premise, hammered through its appallingly written slabs of interdisciplinary babble. In the age of genetics and informatics, everything - whether human or non-human, organic or inorganic - is a political agent, and should be treated as such.

You don't believe me? Here we go: "Any interesting being in technoscience," writes Haraway, "such as a textbook, molecule, equation, mouse, pipette, bomb, fungus, technician, agitator, or scientist, can - and often should - be teased open, to show the sticky economic, technical, political, organic, historical, mythic, and textual threads that make up its tissues." Bonkers? Possibly.

What's irritating about this book is that there was never a greater need for an articulate critique of science, at a time when we are more than ever (in one of Haraway's happier phrases) "bodies of data". But how do you begin to grapple with the expanded range of human choices that digital tecnhnology and bioscience now offer if the guidebooks are as useless and hermetic as this?

Perhaps the difference between cyber-cultures across the Atlantic lies in our lack of a frontier mentality. Our national dream is not the American one - that of unlimited space traversed by sovereign individuals, improvising their society into being, using technology (whether gun or modem) to exploit the wilderness (whether natural, or digital). To his credit, Seabrook keeps making this connection - to his own parents, grandparents and great- grandparents, all hucksters and grafters in the grand tradition of American blue-sky enterprise.

No matter how pro-entrepreneurial the British parties of business claim to be, they will never infuse the next century with the same Whitmanesque fervour. They will sing the body electric; we'll curse the bloody electrics. Which is probably as it should be.

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