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Author: Felicia L. Carr
Title: Peter Lunenfeld's The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
November 1999

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Source: Peter Lunenfeld's The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media
Felicia L. Carr

vol. 2, no. 3, November 1999
Article Type: Book Review

The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media

Lunenfeld, Peter, editor. The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999.

Based on a 1995 conference entitled "The Digital Dialectic: A Conference on the Convergence of Technology, Media, and Theory," this collection of eleven essays connects artists and their work to others in the fields of art and science. The editor and essayists hope to begin a serious discussion on new media—one outside the hype prevalent in many conversations on the merits and demerits of new digital technologies. They focus on raising questions about larger technological issues, not on answering practical questions. The contributors ask, not which HTML editor is best, but how does the world wide web influence subjectivity? They do not discuss how to publish a journal on-line, but rather how computers and virtual writing change literature, and, thus, the reader.

Despite the claim on the jacket that this collection of essays is different from "purely academic" discussions of new media because of its interdisciplinary approach and its inclusion of professionals other than professors, it falls short of its implied goal of accessibility. With terms such as "dialogic," "dialectic imagination," and "subjectivity," this book is likely to reach a limited audience. What we have then is a book for an academic audience that incorporates perspectives from outside the academy. Through the range of professions represented by the contributors, who include computer publishers, English professors, philosophers, and artists, the book is an attempt to merge theory and practice. Its strength is that it is grounded in practice and expert knowledge of the form it analyzes. Its weakness is that the collection overall suffers from the "conference collection syndrome," in that the contributions are uneven in accessibility and the sense of unity between the essays is strained.

The first section, entitled "The Real and the Ideal," sets out the dialectic as a useful model for technological discussions and outlines how the authors envision a technological dialectic. In addition, this section investigates the conundrum that emerges with the development of virtual reality, and the realization that through this development the opposition between the real and the ideal is no longer a tenable opposition. This section has the most theoretical leanings of the collection. In his essay "The Cyberspace Dialectic," Michael Heim argues that the use of a dialectical model in discussions of digital technology will "move beyond the polarity of fear and fascination that characterizes the continuum binding the fans of the antitechnology Unabomber to the millions who use computers to surf the Internet" (26). He proposes a return to the Greek model of the dialectic as a conversation and dialogue, as opposed to the Marxist sense of dialectics which he feels is too closely associated with the "transformational dynamics of social history" (25).

The second section, "The Body and the Machine" examines virtual reality, cybernetics, and the history of cyberspace to address the nature of the relationship between human beings and computers. The authors address the history of virtual technologies and how these technologies will influence our subjectivity. In her contribution, "The Condition of Virtuality," N. Katherine Hayles claims that even without implants "we already are cyborgs in the sense that we experience, through the integration of our bodily perceptions and motions with computer architectures and topologies, a changed sense of subjectivity" (91). As evidence for this claim, she draws on information theory, images of the virtual book in computer art forms, and the game Myst. In "From Cybernation to Interaction" Erkki Huhtamo provides a compelling overview of the history of automation and cybernation, and points to the danger of current debates that are not informed by this history.

The third section, entitled "The Medium and the Message," focuses on specific digital projects. For example, George P. Landow, in "Hypertext as Collage-Writing," provides a explanation of what makes hypertext unique and illustrates how hypertext blurs borders, stresses connections, creates fluidity, and changes the role of the author and the reader. In "What is Digital Cinema?," Lev Manovich proves an overview of how digital technology has and will influence film. He argues that the digital revolution in film will result in a shift away from our fixation on the real and bring films back to their animated beginnings as they become less copies of reality and more digital animation.

The final two essays in the fourth section, "The World and the Screen," are the most engrossing. Brenda Laurel's narrative, "Musings on Amusements in America, or What I Did on My Summer Vacation," calls our attention to the possibilities of the real world, the themed world as represented by Disney, and the virtual world. Robert Stein, in "We Could be Better Ancestors Than This," asks the most compelling questions in the collection. He wonders who is served by the developments and advancements in digital technology. He questions our desire to allocate enormous resources to technology and asks if we fully appreciate the potential harm it may create.

The collection praises the potential of the digital, and it begins to address the larger issues connected to digital technologies, but we need to hear more answers about how these technologies will transform our society, history, and ideology. Despite drawbacks, The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, is a surprisingly fresh collection considering the notoriously short shelf-life of computer-related information.

Review by: Felicia L. Carr
Cultural Studies Program
George Mason University