Future (in)human: becoming third nature

McKenzie Wark reviews Darren Tofts and Murray McKeich’s Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture

Murray McKeich, Memory Trade

Murray McKeich, Memory Trade

There is hype and there is cyberhype: what distinguishes the latter from the former is its exponential quality. It is hype about hype itself, and it ramped up so fast in the 80s and 90s that it ended up pointing straight up, like a giddy soundbite version of John Glenn’s space shuttle launch.

Cyberhype, as Darren Tofts writes, was the consensual cliché of the times. Everything was digital, hyper, info, multi, techno, cyber, as if the whole world was about to go through some kind of gestalt-snapping paradigm shift right before our eyes. But as Michel Foucault once reminded us: perhaps we are not really living through revolutionary times. Perhaps this moment is just a coffee break in history—and a decaf coffee break at that.

As challenging as it may seem, this is one way to read Darren Tofts and Murray McKeich’s Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture. McKeich’s Photoshop art, in particular, gives a somewhat scary flavour to the notion that the transformative power of technology, to remake who we think we are and can be, has always been part of what it is to be human. Or in other words it is the inhuman in us that makes us human—our capacity to become otherwise makes us always other than ourselves. If this is so, then the hubris of cyberhype gives way to something darker, to technofear. If this is not the first and only great revolution in our being, that we can’t really be sure who or what we are, going in to this next transformation.

Tofts argues that there are silent antecedents for the information revolution. He wants to map a possible history of what came before it. Or rather, a prehistory: “histories record: prehistories invent.” It’s a matter of assembling, out of unlikely elements, a working model for history itself.

Central to Tofts’ prehistory is the concept of cyberspace, which he calls “a tantalising abstraction, the state of incorporeality, of disembodied immersion in a ‘space’ that has no coordinates in actual space.” William Gibson named it ‘cyberspace’, and imagined how it might look 15 minutes into the future. Tofts asks rather about its 2,500 year past.

It’s a widespread perception that “community no longer conforms to the classical notion of a group of people living in a fixed location.” But did it ever? The idea that, as I’ve put it before, “we no longer have roots, we have aerials” and that “we no longer have origins we have terminals”, may in a sense have always been true. We can read in books or on websites about mythical, organic communities that existed always in some once-upon-a-time, but the very act of reading about such a world is the mark of our distance from it.

That there was always and already a ‘cyberspace’, without which there is no concept of history, is, as Tofts says, “a dizzying abstraction to grasp.” The trouble is that we humans are so embedded in communication technologies that they seem like second nature to us. Or perhaps they seem, to use a term of mine that Tofts borrows: a third nature. Humans build a physical environment more hospitable to them, and this becomes a second nature. Humans build an information environment more hospitable too, and this becomes a third nature. Only these new worlds don’t just make our old selves more comfortable, they transform what it means to be human.

Murray McKeich, Memory Trade

Murray McKeich, Memory Trade

A characteristic of cyberhype is the idea that the old communication technologies are alienating, but the new ones will restore us to a whole and organic way of life —what Marshall McLuhan called the global village. From Tofts’ point of view, this fantasy starts to look like exactly that. There is no Adamic pre-communicational world to return to. There is no millennial transformation in the offing. Rather, the relationship between culture and communication is a matter of permanent revolution.

Tofts is also sceptical about all of those books that announce the end of the book, and all the cyberhype about hypertext, as if clicking a few buttons on the screen could revolutionise the act of reading or writing. Reading is always hypertextual. This is obvious to anyone who has ever picked up a nonfiction book, scanned the index and the contents page, and then accessed the information in the order of their choice. Only fools with brains addled by an unrelieved diet of novels could ever fall for this nonsense about the book being ‘linear’ and computer based hypertext ‘nonlinear’ or ‘multilinear.’

To dispel some of the cyberhype, Tofts embarks on a prehistory of cyberspace that looks at 3 of its dimensions. He examines the history of writing, the construction of abstract spaces, and the invention of technologies of memory.

Writing is a technology. The way people who use this technology think and feel is just not natural. Tofts acknowledges the hostility of some of the more hide-bound lit-crit crowd to thinking deeply about this, but really writing is just one of a series of technologies that have transformed how humans think and feel, and transformed what it means to be human.

There is something inhuman about writing. The act of externalising sense, making it something cold and hard and apart from a human body, is downright weird. For Tofts, writing is where cyberspace begins. With writing, it is possible to detach human thoughts, feelings, expressions, from the time and place of their creation, and transport them to another time and place.

Even stranger, writing does not just externalise something human into something inhuman. It also does the reverse. Strange gaggles of abstract signs, little squiggles marked on a surface of stone or wood or paper, suddenly speak to us in our heads, addressing us and making us pay heed. How strange this is! A human who may be miles away, or may even have been dead for years, is making meaning inside me. Writing, in short, implicates any reading human in an inhuman world, a world where stones and leaves speak to us in our own language.

One of the reasons what were loosely called ‘poststructuralist’ theories of writing aroused so much misunderstanding is that they were often very much about this strangely inhuman side of the way writing works to make meaning. But this is really not a new concern. Tofts revisits Plato’s Phadrus, one of the first texts in the western canon to express an intimation of technofear, the disquiet caused by the inhuman side of technology. The irony is that while Socrates and his mates appear to discuss things like writing as a matter of conversation between humans, it is through the inhuman form of Plato’s written text that they ‘speak’ to us.
What is this strange space within which the dead and distant can communicate with us? It is cyberspace—and we’re already in it. As Tofts writes: “Literacy involved a series of subliminal acts that invoked a virtual space of shared meanings and understandings, the ambience otherwise known as communication.”

Following Derrida, Tofts argues that anything that can be the object of perception in this internal space is ‘virtual’. “The virtual is the link or bond that unifies our experience of the world and our conceptual understanding of that experience.” I think this is rather too restricted an understanding of the virtual, a reduction of a more sublime phenomenon to a special case. In Deleuze’s understanding, virtuality is a much broader category of radical possibility.

All the same, there is plenty to think about in terms of the radical possibility for otherness in human existence that Tofts assembles in his prehistory. Writing is just one instance of a technology, or group of technologies, that provide for an encoding of information in a more or less permanent and stable form, external to the body, which creates a time and space of sense making beyond the scope of the body, and which in turn invades and transforms the body, making it over into a machine for producing and reproducing communication.

While cyberhype wrongly sees the current crop of technologies as something more than an incremental development, it would also be an error to dismiss the current moment of extension and transformation of cyberspace altogether. Tofts identifies one particular key change: “The shift, within technologies and economies of memory, from the specific location that contains a finite archive of knowledge, to decentred networks of ambient information, requires a new metaphor to facilitate social orientation to the changing role of memory and memory trade within the information economy.” A new metaphor, or perhaps a new practice of thinking, both within and about the communication process.

Tofts stresses that the act of making meaning always takes place somewhere. This, for him, is the significance of Plato’s cave: representation always unfolds within a space. The space he proposes for rethinking the current state of third nature is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a text notable for its “ecology of sense” of the media world. Following Beckett, Tofts sees Wake as a writing that is not about something, it is that something.

A great one liner: “the pun is the nanotechnology of literature.” It sums up what it is about Wake that makes it such a radically virtual space. In Joyce’s book as in Murray McKeich’s art, anything and everything can be transformed into anything and everything whatever. Here is that space Burroughs announced, where “everything is permitted and nothing is true.” I think Finnegans Wake is less a metaphor for cyberspace in the 20th century, than a metonymic part of it. It is a richly complex part of a space in which humans find themselves, immersed in the noise of what Joyce called the “bairdboard bombardment” by the “faroscope” of TV.

Tofts is here sufficiently past the now unworkable orthodoxies of structural and poststructural semiotics to show why those theories have now to be surpassed. “To be immersed in information is to be information, not a sender or receiver of it.” The ‘linguistic turn’ posited a separate world of signification, which represented a world of things external to it. Poststructuralism undid the assumptions of such an epistemology from the inside. But it’s time to move on, and one of the joys of Tofts’ prehistory of cyberspace is that it lays some conceptual and historical groundwork for thinking media theory free from the limiting assumptions of poststructural dogmas. But it does so by pursuing poststructuralism to its limit, rather than by retreating from it.

“Any use of technology modifies what it means to be human”, Tofts writes—in full recognition that the technology of writing in which this expression appears is also included within its scope. It’s not enough to write about the technology of writing, or of communication in general, as if from without.

Writing is the key to Tofts’ prehistory of cyberspace. Cyberspace “continues the ancient project that began with the introduction of writing, whereby proximity was no longer a defining characteristic of communication between human beings.” He is aware that architecture and transport also play a role in this transformation of the relation between near and far, living and dead, but I think there is more to be said about this vectoral side of the prehistory of cyberspace. Tofts has more to say about the codes of encryption than the vectors of distribution of the memory trade, and these are I think complementary areas of research in contemporary media theory.

Cyberspace is an ongoing revolution, not one that restores a lost world, but rather one that carries us further and further from ourselves, differentiating the future human from the past human by inhuman means. Cyberspace “threatens to transform human life in ways that, at the moment, are still the province of science fiction.” But, increasingly, also the province of media theory.

What I think distinguishes contemporary media theory from, say, poststructuralism, is a much more critical relation to the means of communication within which theory itself forms and disseminates. As such, Darren Tofts and Murray McKeich have made a valuable contribution to an emergent field. The irony of course is that rather than recycle outdated ideas in fancy computer hypertext, they have come up with an original way of thinking and writing the world in the familiar form of the book.

Darren Tofts and Murray McKeich, Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture, 21•C/Interface Books, Sydney, 1998

RealTime issue #28 Dec-Jan 1998 pg. 17-

© Dr McKenzie Wark; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1998