September 1998

Peeling the Cyber-Onion

Book Review: Mapping Cyberspace: Social Research on the Electronic Frontier
Edited by Joseph E. Behar
Dowling College Press, 1997
$17 (US)
ISBN: 1-883058-43-0

Book Review: Virtual Culture: Identity & Communication in Cybersociety
Edited by Steven G. Jones
Sage Publications, Ltd., 1997
272 pages
ISBN: 0761955259

Book Review: Composing Cyberspace: Identity, Community, and Knowledge in the Electronic Age
Edited by Richard Holeton
McGraw-Hill, 1998
480 pages
ISBN: 0070295484

Reviewed by Terri L. Kelly

Marshall McLuhan said the best way for academia to understand the implications of new communication technologies is to keep one step ahead of their popular use, so that the academician could observe their impact while it occurred. This is an advantage that is available to us now, more so than any other time in the history of technological revolutions, with the increasingly widespread use of computer-mediated communication in the public sector. But like a lot of good advice, McLuhan's was not widely received, and the academy has been playing catch-up, for the most part, when it comes to analyzing the many layers of the "cyber-onion" for effective discourses for use in the classroom. The measure of one view of the onion over another is usually not a matter of the quality of the writing or the diversity of subject matter, but simply how fast the editor can get his or her collection into print before the issues discussed become obsolete.

It was with this perspective and these measures in mind that I read three collections of computer-mediated communication-related essays, with the intent of providing a comparison review. I also included one other measure that I tend to view as points on a spectrum: does the collection present the information revolution as a good thing, a bad thing, or just an interesting thing? All three themes have their place, but it is the latter that makes for a collection that can successfully overcome the problem of timeliness.

I'm happy to report that all three collections fall under the latter part of the spectrum -- the editors were careful to balance the good, the bad and the interesting in such a way as to make for collections that are timely in their individual focuses and will have long-term usefulness in the classroom. I would recommend all three for an introductory course in computer-mediated communication, with some emphasis on Holeton's collection, Composing Cyberspace, which of the three is the only one that includes guides for class discussion at the end each chapter.

Mapping Cyberspace: Social Research on the Electronic Frontier, edited by Joseph E. Behar, Chair of the Department of Sociology at Dowling College, begins with a brief introduction by political theorist Langdon Winner, professor of political science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and author of several studies in contemporary social thought. Behar has collected works that examine cyberculture through three distinct but related lenses. Part One is a selection of case studies that look at four spontaneous "virtual communities" -- each arising from a central need or theme. In these examples we observe how these communities start, how they progress, and how they work through conflicts either related or not to the medium. The only thing missing from this collection is an example of a dismal failure. It can be argued that there are more of these than any other, and as much (or more) can be learned from the failures as the successes, the least of which is a measure of what constitutes success and failure in social relations dependent on computer-mediated communication.

In Part Two, titled "Virtual Worlds and Social Theory," Behar includes two interesting views on "the usual suspects" of the online world when examined by the offline world -- cyberaddiction and cybersex. The validity of the social diagnosis of "cyberaddiction" is challenged in the first essay, by Myron Orleans, and the validity of the same for "deviant behavior" is challenged in the second, by Steven R. Cornish and Craig B. Nerenberg. The arguments against the unexamined popular diagnoses are well-thought and compelling. There is the suggestion in both that our current views on what constitutes "addiction" and "deviance" are in flux, not only online, but in the real world. However, online we can learn how these definitions are changing for both virtual and real world views. A third article, by Robert M. Kitchin, takes that thought one step further and examines other realities that cyberspace puts in flux -- space and time. By comparing "geospaces" to "cyberspaces" we get a feel for how much in flux we truly are about our collective social definitions of what is real. Part Two, then, of Behar's selection seems to beg the question: "If the very nature of how we understand place and time is in flux, where do things like 'addiction' and 'deviance' fit in?"

In Part Three of the book we observe how all of the above is impacting or can impact the political order of societies. A logical extension to the questions brought up in Part Two is reflected in the question "An End to Mass Society?" that constitutes part of the title of the first article in Part Three, "Cyberspace and Political Order," by Marc A. Triebwasser. Following two more essays in this section is Behar's own coda, "Beyond the Year 2000 in Cyberspace," where he offers a few insights on what to expect not only in the technological landscape of the next century, but how the technology may shape the social landscape, and therefore how the patterns of such shaping in the past can be imposed (or not) by social scientists mapping cyberspace now and in the future.

It is the cultural identifiers we give the "social landscape" of the Internet that interests Steven G. Jones, at the University of Illinois--Chicago, as editor of his second collection of CMC-related articles. Included in this collection are 11 selections loosely connected along the thread of the book's title, "Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety." Articles address the usual suspects (cybersex, hate groups, cyberfandoms), interspliced with articles that view cybersociety from fresh, interesting angles; such as how virtual community hierarchies carry out "punishment" of their offenders and how collective organizing principles are spontaneously formed within such communities. The myth of anarchy as the principle idealogy of cybercommunities is subtly challenged in a number of Jones' selections, making this a logical peeling of the onion examined in his first collection, CyberSociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community. Jones points out in his introduction the written word is a form of technology that needs further examination in the context of cyberspace, which is still timely for now, but it can be argued that the written word as a cultural identifier of cybersociety will soon fall prey to the same forces that overpowered it earlier this century: voice (phone) and visual (television) information technology.

The third and final title under review is Composing Cyberspace: Identity, Community, and Knowledge in the Electronic Age, edited by Richard Holeton, Information Resources Specialist for the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at Stanford University. The most obvious thing that sets this collection apart from the rest is that it begins with a FAQ -- Frequently Asked Questions -- the earmark of all things 'netted. The collection also includes earmarks of hypermedia -- the use of sidebars, pullquotes, footnotes, creative font segregations, and thematic segmentation of book and chapter sections. Each chapter in the collection's three parts is further segmented by sections called "Forward Thinking"; a collection of multi-authored articles based on themes, including one thematic fiction piece, and a section called "Second Thoughts" at the end of each article; "Discussion Threads" for academic study modeled on the structure of discussions online; and finally "Research Links" that suggest further study and include resources on and offline. The book includes a "Cyberspace Glossary" and two indexes. Flipping through the book is not unlike browsing a connected series of web pages. The eclectic feel of the book is further enhanced by the selection (and seemingly intentional juxtaposition) of authors from all walks of life, on and offline: Sherry Turkle, Dave Barry, Langdon Winner, E.M. Forster, Amy Bruckman, Jorge Luis Borges, and many others.

Holeton has done well to include everything in the onion here -- the core, the crux, the flower, the mold. Though a reading of the book is not as well accomplished by "browsing" as a reading of something comparative online, the book has the feel of a text with multiple entry points -- a sort of hardcopy hypertext. However, this collection cannot be relegated to the proverbial short-attention-span digerature about and on the web. Holeton has carefully collected works that speak to the crux of what constitutes identity, knowledge and community in cyberspace, a new world still in the midst of discovery. If there is an overall theme to this book at all, it focuses on the journey as opposed to the destination. The final chapter, "The Classroom of the Future," brings together this overall theme and makes the book a critical example of the changes in structure and content of knowledge currently in flux in academia. The final fiction piece, "The Giant's Drink" by Orson Scott Card, is an extraordinary allegory on the ultimate question facing us in the 21st century: Where does the human end and the machine begin?

Just as the printing press nurtured a metamorphosis of social and cognitive definitions, the Internet is bulldozing quickly into the layers of society that traditionally make up our world view and by virtue of our collective experiences, we are again challenged to re-invent ourselves. These three collections together afford the student of societal re-invention a rich picture of the many layers inherent in the role of cyberspace in that re-invention. Most of the articles in the first two books have been published online in various popular and peer-reviewed cyberjournals, while all of the third book, Composing Cyberspace, has its own web site. The realization that the three collections could be assigned for a post-secondary level CMC and/or cyberculture course, and all three for the most part need not be purchased in hard copy in order to be read, is one of many examples of the new layers forming the cyber-onion examined in these three fine collections.

Terri L. Kelly is a graduate student at Portland State University.

Copyright © 1998 by Terri L. Kelly. All Rights Reserved.

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