War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality

Mark Slouka
New York: Basic Books, 1995
185 pp., $20.00 hc

Josef S. Verbanac

It certainly seems a strange thing to find myself in the role of mediator. And yet, the polarization and zealotry, the outrageous claims and savage reproofs, the downright silliness of much debate regarding Internet culture begs negotiation. In an increasingly Balkanized, fractious discussion, Mark Slouka is yet another voice raised in opposition. Not simply to the technology per se, but the human uses of it. He sees this as an ongoing trend: the combination of a reliance on technology and the subsequent inability to distinguish between the virtual and the real, to "accept the copy as the original" (1).

This is primarily what distinguishes Slouka's arguments from a good many other critiques of this particular engine of change: he quite openly rests the blame for our fall not on technology as an abstract, yet forceful entity, but on humanity, particularly the individuals who have allowed, nay encouraged, this beast to tempt and engulf us. According to Slouka, we are not without fault in our own capacity for seduction and gullibility.

Popular/mass and consumer culture, late capitalism, postmodernity, these are only symptoms not necessarily causes for Slouka. Unlike fellow social sentinels such as Neal Postman or the neo-Luddites, the burden of guilt is ours and it is up to us to reclaim the humanity, the reality which we have pawned for five hundred channels of television, for "net-sex" in MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons), and for a subsequent dumbing of the populace. Slouka illustrates, through the progression of numerous examples, the events which he posits as having led contemporary culture to the morally, ethically, and intellectually bankrupt homeostasis it has reached.

In his estimation the process is at least as long-lived as Modernity (although he doesn't identify it as such). And actually, it seems to coincide with the advent of electrically-generated mass-communication, i.e., the telegraph and radio broadcasting. The most damning example is the book title's allusion to Orson Wells' infamous 1938 radio broadcast, the first modern, widely publicized separation of reality from a simulation via mass-media.

This perception is precisely what disturbs Slouka. Things have changed; the world is no longer understandable as a rational, linear, and causal reality. The idealized (some would suggest mythic) culture, which has harbored his intellect and secured his position as an authority has altered, mutated, and shifted. Such a schism, to Slouka, only verifies our distance both from each other and from the very capacity for ethical existence: "...the world provides context, and without context, ethical behavior is impossible" (13).

But what, exactly, is ethical behavior and how absolute is the context which fosters it? In War of the Worlds, these are everything that contemporary culture, and by extension, the Internet, are not. Our world-view is now, as Slouka describes it, "untroubled, childlike, essentially pre-ethical" (26). For both detractors and defenders, these qualities portend a dramatic change in what it means to be human. While this may sound surprisingly millenarian for an unabashed humanist, it is for Slouka an impending apocalypse rather than the rapture heralded by the cyber-boosters and futurists.

At one point in his tirade, Slouka aptly points out the rather sinister ramifications of the cyber-visionaries' Netopia. While burrowing through the quite frequently libertarian rhetoric of the likes of Wired's Kevin Kelly, he notes the ironically authoritarian slant that becomes evident in most discussions of what, ultimately, must happen for the "Digital Revolution" to be complete. That being the subsummation of the individual into a "...network-connected, packet-switched, distributed consciousness" (96)--or, that perennial western culture bogeyman, the Hive Mind (witness public and critical responses to this past summer's pseudo-epic sci-fi film, Independence Day). There is indeed something sinister in this abject willingness to immerse the individual more fully, more totally into a greater whole. But it would seem that over the course of human evolution and participation in social groups, there is ample evidence of a basic, if not tenacious, capacity for people to resist just such an assimilation.

Slouka also identifies a "politics of virtual reality," but he makes a curious point: the overt nature of this agenda is somehow more perturbing and heinous than less obvious cultural machinations (111). And this identifies several of the major flaws I see in Slouka's critique: those of selectivity and vacillation. Throughout the book, he makes grandiose and absolute claims regarding the import of phenomena. Then, he just as quickly concedes that, well, actually this is not the case in all instances. As a rhetorical strategy, I find it just as slippery as those dreadful deconstructionists whom Slouka faults.

Ultimately, Slouka advocates a kind of essentialism which, it seems, belies his position and privilege. The cure, he argues, for this technological malaise, for the separation and distance endemic to the world in which we reside, is to "...refocus our attention on actual communities, on real friends and neighbors, on the significance and value of our physical rather than virtual environments" (emphasis Slouka's, 133).

Clearly, that reclamation can, and I'm certain, does occur amongst a fairly limited element of the populace. But that element is, for the most part, a relatively affluent elite, with much the same demographics as the cyber-futurists with whom they share most of their hotly contested debates.

I'm certainly not an advocate of what fiction writer William Gibson's console cowboys call "a disdain for the meat." And Slouka doesn't lugubriously present this wished for reality as a neo-Walden Pond, a trap that other cyber-critics have fallen into (most notably D.W. Moore, in his 1995 book, The Emperor's Virtual Clothes). Most of us do, and will continue to, exist somewhere between the "wired consciousness" and "getting real."

There are things of value both on-line and off, from scathingly self-reflexive critiques of the Web and Popular Culture (á la the online magazine Suck) to the very practical advice doled out (perhaps too loquaciously) in precisely focused Newsgroups. Articulate, cogent, useful, and, yes, even delightfully crafted information exists in the electronic ether. Yet, much as the history of human discourse has demonstrated, there is also a tremendous amount of pap. Whether in virtual chat rooms or face to face, dialogue is more often than not inane, absurd, inconsequential.

Obviously, I am not very sympathetic to Slouka's plight. I am, however, particularly interested in the various strategies he employs to criticize technology, humanity, and culture. His vantage point is one which acknowledges embedded ideologies and propagandas advanced by the various vehicles of culture.

And yes, I too see criticisms such as these as necessary, a means of drawing in and focusing the various discourses on this tremendously contested site of struggle. But, the application of technological tools will not simply go away, regardless of whether we shut our eyes and hold our breath, stomp our feet, or become teary-eyed while reminiscing about more ethical and/or real times. These are simply reductionist responses to a more complex world.

Rather than immersing ourselves in pointless cultural nostalgic eulogizing, it would be more responsible to understand and work with the culture we exist in. It is a participatory activity, and not one that should simply be entrusted to either its self-professed guardians or visionaries alone.

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