Monday, April 23, 2007

Thoughts on digital, sublime myths

This week's reading 'The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power and Cyberspace' by Vincent Mosco centers on the question of how and why the 'digital age' has been hailed. And unlike the readings of the previous weeks that emphasized the production and market functions, it sheds light on the cultural mindset as the major motivator. Especially the notion of 'myth' as the meaning-making mechanism through which people try to put value on the information and communication technologies(ICT) is discussed in great detail, ultimately incorporating the political-economical dimensions as well.

A short (and clearly oversimplified) recap of the Chapters:

Chapter 1: The need to look into the cyberspace with 'both eyes' is discussed. Not only the material conditions but the cultural dimension - the 'myth' - is required to understand how our society accepts the cyberspace.

Chapter 2: The key dimensions of the myth-making process of cyberspace is discussed. The 'mythmakers' include the academic, political, and business worlds and powerful supporting institutions via means of metaphors (most prominent examples: the digital library, information highway, electronic commerce, virtual community, digital ecology, and narrative stream).

Chapter 3, 4, 5 (the main body): Here, he provides invaluable critical summaries of the literature on the so-called 'post-industirial' information society theories. The myths of the cyberspace as being something sublime and completely world-changing are discussed in three major clusters - the end of history, geography and politics. he looks into the vast body of existing literature and explains how the mythmakers constructed discourses to make the society believe that digital communication will ultimately bring fundamental changes in time, space/place and power relationships. Especially in Chapter 5 he looks into the past historical moments of new communication technologies such as radio and television, and finds out that the principal pattern of the myth stayed similar.

Chapter 6: Here he uses the metaphor of 'Ground Zero' to emphasize that "history, geography and politics returned with a vengeance". The significance of political economical ('material') dimensions are revisited, and again the importance of incorporating cultural analysis (such as foregrounding the local, and taking historical contexts of discourse struggle into account) is emphasized.

Some questions worth thinking about:

- Why do sublime utopian myths of new technology seem to almost always win against the other possible form of myth - the dystopian one? Is it somehow inherent in mythical subliminality to neige to the bright and shiny ideal?

- According to Chapter 5, the principal pattern of the myth is repeated with new emerging communication technologies. Then, how do the outdated technologies lose their subliminality? Are there any myth-breakers at work, or is it simply that people forget their initial awe?

- On p.6, Mosco argues that the technologies become important forces for social and economic change after they have lost their role as source for utopian visions. Is it the case of the technology itself, or rather the utilization of it? For example, the recent utopian vision of the 'Web2.0' concept is mostly the same Internet technology as pre-dotcom burst, but the utilization pattern of that technology has changed so that many believe it is something new...

- What role have the 'sublime myths' played in the changes in labor relationships of the Information age we have discussed all along this semester? (For example, could it be the case that they have been covering up the fundamental exploitative labor structures by fostering a sense of being horizontally networked and decentralized?)

- To take it one step further... how does the concept of myths as the cultural meaning making process fit in the case of information labors? We have already discussed how programmers perceived themselves as active creators and how Video gurus became non-paid experts of the field. Are information laborers themselves myth-makers? Or even, do they need to be demystified to be part of the important forces for social and economic change?

PS. There is also a review on this book by G. Bowker whom we met earlier in our course. I think it provides a interesting link on how his research interests connect to this theme... Here's the link.