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Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network SocietyReview - Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society
by Steven Shaviro
University of Minnesota Press, 2003
Review by Robert Ramos
Dec 21st 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 52)

Steven Shaviro's book is primarily a discussion about cyberculture or the network society.  Cyberculture is the collection of ideas, customary beliefs, values, and behaviors that arise from the use of computers and networks.  In Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society, among the variety of topics covered are: mp3s and file sharing; copyright laws and hip-hop; Web surfing; electronic and camera surveillance; and capitalism.  However, what makes his text unique is Shaviro method for addressing these issues.  Instead of a more traditional approach to media studies that would likely be empirically based and would follow a specific writing format and methodology, Connected is a speculative exercise using the concepts and the themes found in the genre of science fiction books and films.  In an age when technology has been a very significant player in popular culture, politics, and the economy, Shaviro argues that science fiction is essential for a more transparent understanding of cyberculture.  The book uses stories and themes written by such esteemed science fiction writers as K. W. Jeter, William S. Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson.

Now, it must be clear that Shaviro does not use science fiction because of its predictive power.  Rather, there is an edifying value to science fiction.  It is a genre that is an exercise in working out of the "what has not happened".  Science fiction removes us from the constraints of the immediacy of experience and the horizons of the possibilities of experience are expanded.  The imagination is at play and thinking is unconstrained by what we obtain from sensation and experience.

Why is science fiction so useful for understanding current and future trends in cyberculture?  In cyberculture, technologies are integrated into society at a faster rate than our ability to fully understand their implications.  The use and acceptance of new technologies comes prior to a complete understanding of the technology's inner structures.  We do not have an archive of experience to turn to when we deal with new technologies and related cultural practices.  Epistemologically, Shaviro suggests that our ability to understand and comprehend all the forces at work with technology is always a few steps slower than the pace at which technology and cyberculture moves.  Science fiction works "at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance, and transforms one into the other" (ix).  The essence of the book, then, is that we must find ways to revise and improve our descriptive abilities.  Shaviro suggests that we can use the genre of science fiction as a way of extending our vocabulary and imagination to help us understand the implications of cyberculture.  These fictitious stories give us a descriptive ability to deal with new and unforeseen developments stemming from the realities of new technology and new social practices.

However, it must be made clear that the themes and ideas from cyberculture are primary while science fiction is secondary.  Shaviro's text is not an anthology series in science fiction.  Instead, the book uses particular science fiction stories and talks about specific themes or plot points that are very similar and run in parallel to current issues in cyberculture.  The book successfully follows the maxim that the boundary between science fiction and reality can be blurred.   Shaviro does a good job of explaining the various science fiction stories and then making the relevant connections to our society.  For readers with little or no exposure to science fiction, the intricacies of these stories are explained well.  Other times, there is no science fiction is mentioned.  For instance, the discussion on censorship and file sharing is one of the best aspects of the book and there is no reference made to specific story.

Besides the use of science fiction, the other unique characteristic is the layout of the book.  Instead of a more traditional layout consisting of chapters and a cohesive structure, Connected is a series of long one-paragraph essays, each with an individual subtitle.  The book is a series of spontaneous and fragmented thoughts and there are times when it lacks cohesiveness.  What is troublesome about the structure is that there are times when adjacent mini essays do not relate to each other.  More importantly, Shaviro does not seem to follow up on some important conclusions and does not develop these points into greater depth and nuance.  Instead, it is often the case that as soon as one essay ends and other begins, the themes are not mentioned again.  The structure itself is something that Shaviro never discusses.  There is no question that the structure is done to parallel certain aspects of cyberculture.  But as to what aspect of cyberculture the book is imitating, this is not made clear.  As much as the organization and layout of the text is unique and prominent, it can also be difficult and dizzying at times.

Overall, the text is very insightful and worth reading, if one can handle its structure and fragmented themes.  But on the other hand, its structure can be distracting to the reader.  While some readers may find the organization and layout of the book refreshing, it is also takes away from the essential insights drawn from the method of using science fiction to help better elucidate what it means to live in a network society.

 

© 2004 Robert Ramos

 

Robert Ramos lives in New York City.


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