[30 October 2002]
Looking back now, 1997 marked a great divide in pop tech journalism. Before 1997, computers were rarely seen in the daily press. They were the domain of coke-bottle glassed geeks in grimy little warrens of academia and as a result they were easy prey for multi-culti, liberal arts theorizing. At schools like MIT and Carnegie Mellon, you could see all those philosophy and English majors eyeing the computer lab greedily, dreaming of the wealth of sweet pathology teeming inside.
As a result, the stories about computers in mainstream media, taking the early Wired and its precursor, Mondo 2000, as powerful examples, as well as the rare tech-heavy article found in the “Style” section of the daily paper, featured a bright future full of electronic vibrating phalli, cyber-sex and -art (often one in the same), the end of paper, and the amazing new technology that will change the world (touch screen handhelds, flat panel monitors, keyboards that don’t click when you type on them.)
Then the geeks came home from college and told their older brothers about some super thing called the Internet. It was a great medium for porn and allowed lonely boys (in college) to hook up to the celestial porn box and go nuts. Porn led to online payment systems, that led to ecommerce, which ultimately led to the marriage of man and machine in the form of Ask Jeeves and Amazon.com, which received more mainstream publicity than some presidential declarations of war.
But even though mainstream media were slow on the uptake, all this time, the comparative lit types were still churning out treatises on the wired world. Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, edited by Bruce Grenville and produced as a supporting document for a Vancouver exhibit of the same name, is a book chock full of these half-pop/half-intellectual riffs on technology, and makes for a pretty good read even outside of the classroom or gallery. It’s got Important Art on the cover, so somebody must have put a lot of thought into this one.
Uncanny’s focus is on the dehumanization of man by machine (think of the blue light of the monitor in a quiet dorm and we roll all the way back around to the porn idea). Grenville believes that everything coming out right now, from Palm Pilots on down, is a Western form of slavery that far surpasses the capital gains ever produced by the former, messier slavery we had in this country and that some countries still practice. Instead of chains, we’re wired to our cell phones. Instead of buying and selling our hides, the fat cats hold the threat of lay-offs over us and pacify us with digital cameras and the strident call of Eminem, and Grenville, to follow the drinking gourd straight out of Detroit falls on deaf ears.
In order to prove his point, he collects a number of articles and clips including an article by Freud on infant neuroses also entitled “The Uncanny” and a few chapters from the seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. Couple that with the story of an autistic boy named Joey who believed he was connected to a giant machine by wires and hoses and had to “maintain” a machine made of scrap parts that he laid out on his bed like a post-modern mandala, and there you have the extent of man’s slavery under the iron will of machines.
Why read The Uncanny? Well, first off it’s a good look at non-mediated thought on technology, which we all could use. Almost all major newspapers have technology sections and the fetishizing that goes on there is almost R-rated. It’s important to step back and take an alternate view, that cheap printers aren’t a good thing and that we’re all going to hell. Ultimately, the thesis fails under its own weight. Geeks create technology to one up each other, not to control the universe, and they usually just want to make something cool to show at the next computer club meeting. To ascribe plans of nefarious neo-slavery to Bill Gates and Microsoft is deluded and anyone who does so probably hasn’t suffered as Word chewed up a term paper. Hell, William Gibson wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter. Anyway, you can’t enslave someone with buggy technology. They never had to reboot the lash and the shackle.
So what is this book good for? It’s a lucid look at the fears that plague academics everywhere: Will I be replaced by a computer that can theorize in my place? Will my laptop break, causing me to lose a life’s work in an instant? Will robots take over the administration of the school and will I lose tenure to an intelligent toaster oven?
Well, Mr. Grenville, never fear. Technology will never leak into academia. There’s no money in it.