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Cyber Culture

By :

Yassir Ammisse
Table Of Components

I. Overview Of Cyber culture

II. Introduction

III. Current Concepts Of Cyber Culture

IV. Early & Contemporary Cyber Cultures

V. Cyber Cultural Narratives

VI. Conclusion
Overview

Since the boundaries of cyber culture are difficult to define, the term is
used flexibly, and its application to specific circumstances can be
controversial. It generally refers at least to the cultures of virtual
communities, but extends to a wide range of cultural issues relating to
"cyber-topics", e.g. cybernetics, and the perceived or predicted
cyborgization of the human body and human society itself. It can also
embrace associated intellectual and cultural movements, such as cyborg
theory and cyberpunk. The term often incorporates an implicit
anticipation of the future.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists the earliest usage of the term "cyber
culture" in 1963, when A.M. Hilton wrote, "In the era of cyber culture, all
the plows pull themselves and the fried chickens fly right onto our plates.
» This example, and all others, up through 1995 are used to support the
definition of cyber culture as "the social conditions brought about by
automation and computerization. » The American Heritage Dictionary
broadens the sense in which "cyber culture" is used by defining it as,
"The culture arising from the use of computer networks, as for
communication, entertainment, work, and business". However, what both
the OED and the American Heritage Dictionary miss is that cyber culture
is the culture within and among users of computer networks. This cyber
culture may be purely an online culture or it may span both virtual and
physical worlds. This is to say, that cyber culture is a culture endemic to
online communities; it is not just the culture that results from computer
use, but culture that is directly mediated by the computer. Another way to
envision cyber culture is as the electronically-enabled linkage of like-
minded, but potentially geographically disparate (or physically disabled
and hence less mobile) persons.

Cyber culture is a wide social and cultural movement closely linked to


advanced information science and information technology, their
emergence, development and rise to social and cultural prominence
between the 1960s and the 1990s. Cyber culture was influenced at its
genesis by those early users of the internet, frequently including the
architects of the original project. These individuals were often guided in
their actions by the hacker ethic. While early cyber culture was based on
a small cultural sample, and its ideals, the modern cyber culture is a much
more diverse group of users and the ideals that they espouse.

Numerous specific concepts of cyber culture have been formulated by


such authors as Lev Manovich, Arturo Escobar and Fred Forest.
However, most of these concepts concentrate only on certain aspects, and
they do not cover these in great detail. Some authors aim to achieve a
more comprehensive understanding distinguish between early and
contemporary cyber culture (Jakub Macek), or between cyber culture as
the cultural context of information technology and cyber culture (more
specifically cyber culture studies) as "a particular approach to the study of
the 'culture + technology' complex"

Introduction

In much of reflection on ICTs, the term cyber culture can clearly be


identified one of the frequently and flexibly used terms lacking an
explicit meaning. Generally, it refers to (as the prefix indicates) cultural
issues related to “cyber-topics”, e.g. cybernetics, computerization, digital
revolution, cyborgization of the human body, etc., and always
incorporates at least an implicit link to an anticipation of the future, to a
kind of Lunenfeldian “not yet”. However, any more explicit
understanding of the referent of cyber culture varies from author to
author and is actually often absent.
A wide range of miscellaneous phenomena are referred to as cyber
culture – the term can be used as a label for historical and contemporary
hackers’ subcultures and for the movement connected to the literary genre
of cyberpunk,i[3] as an expression describing groups of computer
network users, even as a futuristic metaphor for various prospective or (as
some claim) actually emerging forms of society transformed by ICTs. At
the same time the term refers to cultural practices of ICTs (or solely
Internet) users or to past or current new media research and theory.

Thus cyber culture is an ambiguous, confusing, unclear term describing a


set of issues. It can be used in a descriptive, analytical or ideological
sense. It has a multiplicity of meanings and thus everyone willingly uses
at least one of them. You can hardly make a mistake when you use it as
the word cyber culture is one of the most significant Para textual
characteristics of ICTs theory that will let the reader know that he is right
in the realm of chip-mythology.

However, thanks to this polysemous nature of the term I can “borrow” it


and doubtless make it more precise, provide it with a clear meaning at
least in the context of this essay.

The goal of this essay is to develop the concept of what I call early cyber
culture, a concept to be employed in a critical rendering of the cultural
and ideological aspects of ICTs. I understand early cyber culture as a past
socio-cultural formation,ii[4] which was at the birth of current computer
technologies (e.g. of the currently dominant segment of ICTs) and of the
discourses and narratives which framed them. For early cyber culture
ICTs were a futuristic myth of a “new hope” and a “new menace” and
stood behind one of the most significant narratives of the 1980s and
1990s, the story of the power of a new technology, which dramatically
and fundamentally changes the world of humans and humans themselves,
a story that was grasped and adopted by the cultural mainstream, by
western societies and their political representations.

With regard to the multiplicity of previous concepts of cyber culture, this


essay opens with a brief critical summary of the most important and
known approaches to this issue. Following the summary I outline the
field of cyber culture and make a distinction between early cyber culture
(on which I focus in this text) and contemporary cyber culture (which,
however, lies outside the scope of this essay). In the following I define
early cyber culture at the levels of social groups, discourses/practices and
narratives; I periodicize it and describe its origins, historical development
and disappearance through its fusion with the mainstream. In the final
part of the essay I focus on cyber cultural narratives which I view as the
key defining characteristics and the most important symbolic inheritance
of the mainstream from cyber culture.

Current Concepts of Cyber culture

Close and a more systématicien approach to mention ways of thinking of


what can be understood as cyberculture enables me to develop a helpful
typology of existing concepts. This typology – based on simple analysis
of the basic point of views of concepts of cyberculture – spans utopian,
information, anthropological and epistemological concepts of
cyberculture.

Utopian Information Anthropological Epistemologica


concepts of concepts of c. concepts of c. l concepts of c.
cyber culture
Brief - c. as a - c. as - c. as cultural - c. as term
charact form of cultural practices and life for social and
er. of utopian (symbolical)co styles related to anthropologica
the society des of the ICT l reflection of
concep changed information new media
t through ICT society - analytical,
oriented to the
- - analytical, present state and
anticipating partly to history
(„futurologis anticipating
m“)
Example Andy Hawk – Margaret Morse Arturo Escobar – Lev Manovich –
s of Future Culture – Virtualities: Welcome to New Media from
authors Manifesto Television, Cyberia: Notes on Borges to HTML
and Media Art and the Anthropology of (2003)
books (1993) Cyber culture Cyber culture
(1998)
(1994, zde 1996)
Lister a spol. –
Pierre Lévy – New Media: A
Kyberkultura Lev Manovich – Critical
The Language of David Hakken – Introduction
(1997, česky a New Media. Cyborgs@Cyberspa (2003)
2000) (2001) ce (1999)

Cyber culture as utopian project – Utopian concepts of cyber culture

Probably the oldest and narrowest concept of cyber culture refers to the
initial discussions on new media and denotes the cyberpunk movement,
hackers’ subculture and (more generally) the first computer and network
users and, for example, members of the early virtual communities
developing via computer networks in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Douglas Rushkoff, author of Cyberia (1994, in Czech 2000) and Mark
Dery, who in his Escape Velocity: Cyber culture at the End of the
Century (1996) identifies cyber culture with “computer-age subcultures,”
are two representatives of this understanding of cyber culture. Members
of these “computer-age subcultures” perceived cyber culture as an
initiation of some kind of a futuristic regeneration of society, as Andy
Hawk (one of The Cyberpunk Project creators)iii[5] demonstrates in his
article Future Culture Manifesto.iv[6] For him, the cyber culture of the
“here and now” is in its infancy; nevertheless it is an already existing
foundation of a “new future”. Actually, in the case of Hawk’s manifesto
the hackers’ cyber culture, which developed from cyberpunk and a rich
variety of older subcultures, was to be the culture of the information
society. This orientation toward the future and the focus on
technologically catalyzed social change is typical of discourses
appropriating cyberpunk (see below) and it ushers in futurological and
utopian visions emerging from the academic world, but inspired by sub
cultural narratives.

Pierre Lévy’s extremely optimistic vision represents one of the most


powerful and most famous explorations of cyber culture. Lévy, a French
humanistic philosopher widely known as the author of the sophisticated
concept of the virtual and an apologist of new media (in the European
context he played a similar role as the digerati in the U.S.)v[7], offers his
conceptual framework in his Cyber culture (Lévy 2000).

Lévy employs the term cyber culture to refer to the Internet as to a


Barlowian cyberspace.vi[8] Lévy argues that with the spread of the
Internet new forms of knowledge and new forms of its distribution
emerge, these new forms transform not only the ways we manipulate
information, but the society itself. Cyber culture is synonymous with this
change, it refers to the “set of techniques (material and intellectual),
practical habits, attitudes, ways of thinking and values that develop
mutually with cyberspace” (Lévy 2000: 15) and embodies “a new form of
universality: universality without totality” (ibid: 105). For Lévy this new
universality symbolizes the peak of the Enlightenment project of
humanity – the humanity of free, empowered subjects oppressed neither
by the power of the unity of language and meaning nor by unified and
binding forms of social being. For Lévy cyber culture proves the fact that
we are close to this humanistic paradise, it points to the possibility of
“creating a virtual participation on your own self (universality) in a way
that is different from the identity of meaning (totality)” (ibid: 107).

Lévy’s cyber culture cannot be termed a realistically conceived


exploration, rather a conservative and utopian vision closely related to the
eager technotopist of the turn of the 1980s and the 1990s. There is no
cyber culture in the sense of a formally unified and at the level of content
diffused cultural modus that is as a relatively homogenous cultural
formation. Lévy advances his vision of the future and he links it directly
to the actual spread of digital technologies, for him the massive spread of
the Internet clearly indicates the forthcoming changes. However, he does
not distinguish between his visions regarding the nature of these changes
and the current situation; he conflates a project of the future with a
reflection of the present.

The weakness of Lévy’s vision is in its dimness and roughness, his


transformation of the society into the “new society” characterized by
“universality without totality” lacks clear contours. Lévy simply knows
that new technologies bring about social and cultural change and thus he
tries to detect and capture the character of this change. In relation to his
argumentation, which is influenced by the fact that his “The Second
Flood: Report on Cyber culture” was written within the framework of a
Council of Europe project, Kevin Robins and Frank Webster write the
following:

What, in fact, is significant about Lévy’s discourse is the co-existence of


a radical techno-rhetoric with a social and communitarian political vision
that is actually quite conventional and even conservative. And we would
say, moreover, that it is this combination of radical and what we might
call pragmatic aspirations that particularly marks Cyber culture as a
representative text of the late 1990s. (Robins and Webster 1999: 223)

Cyber culture as cultural interface of information society –


Information concepts of cyber culture

In her book Virtualities: Television, Media Art and Cyber culture (1998)
the American theoretician of media Margaret Morse defines cyber culture
in a way that partly corresponds with Lévy’s and Hawk understands. She
approaches cyber culture as an emerging, juvenile and thus a predicated
rather than a retrospectively reflected phenomenon. Similarly to Lévy,
she defines cyber culture as a set of cultural practices enabling us to deal
with new forms of information. Her understanding is, however, far from
Lévy’s technotopist teleology. The vision of cyber culture as a cultural
level of the information society links her to Hawk’s approach but in
contrast to Hawk’s manifesto, her text does not share any characteristics
with the language of cyberpunk.

Starting from Raymond Williams’s thesis on mobile privatization


(Williams 1974) Morse moves on to argue that computer networks not
only strengthen the tendency to separate and mobilize private worlds but
at the same time, as they question the whole centralized model of
information distribution, they change the nature of information itself.
While television offers a connection to a nationwide, centrally distributed
communication channel and thus participation in the wider social and
cultural context, computer networks supplement this with an intimate,
interpersonal level of communication. However, in this case
communication is realized via digital information within computer
networks, such information is depersonalized, de-contextualized and too
sterile to form a basis for human relationships. According to Morse
(1998: 5), “information is impersonal and imperceptible, knowledge
stripped of its context in order to be transformed into digital data,” which
is a price to be paid for making information a “freely convertible
currency” (ibid). However, the information society cannot be experienced
at the level of abstract digital information thus an individual, unique,
subjective level of cultural uses of technology and digital information is
created, an interface between culture and technology, which creates space
for uniqueness and imagination. And it is precisely this cultural level that
Morse terms cyber culture.

Morse, like Lev Manovich, a visual culture theorist, emphasizes the role
of visual representations in the television and “post-television” society.
Due to the similarity of their approaches it is not surprising that Morse’s
concept of cyber culture partly matches Manovich’s concept of
information culture (but importantly not his concept of cyber culture, see
below).

“[Information culture] includes the ways in which different cultural sites


and objects present information. [...] Extending the parallels with visual
culture, information culture also includes historical methods for
organizing and retrieving information (analogs of iconography) as well as
patterns of user interaction with information objects and displays”
(Manovich 2001: 39).

Morse’s cyber culture and Manovich’s information culture can be


understood as more down-to-earth, language-oriented variants of Lévy’s
approach. Similarly to Lévy, they explore the cultural processing of
computer-mediated information (CMI), i.e. information carried, created
and distributed by computers as meta-media. But, in contrast to Lévy,
their approaches lack the ideological visionary component and the
corresponding aspirations as they were not intended to promote or
advocate technologies, but rather to provide a theoretical analysis of the
impact of technologies on the field of cultural information codes.
Cyber culture as cultural practices and lifestyles – Anthropological
concepts of cyber culture

Compared to Morse, the social anthropologists Arturo Escobar and David


Hakken offer a somewhat wider concept of cyber culture. In his essay
“Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyber culture”
(1996) Escobar understands research on cyber culture, i.e. Research on
“cultural constructions and reconstructions on which new technologies
are based and which they, conversely, contribute to shaping” (Escobar
1996: 11), as a new domain of anthropological practice and a challenge to
anthropology. “The point of departure of this inquiry is the belief that any
technology represents a cultural invention, in the sense that technologies
bring forth a world; they emerge out of particular cultural conditions and
in turn help to create new social and cultural situations.” Nonetheless,
Escobar’s concept of cyber culture is actually not explicit, in general it
remains contextual. Cyber culture, he claims, is defined by its relation to
computer and information technologies, which “are bringing about a
regime of technosociality” (Escobar 1996: 112), and by its relation to
biotechnologies, which “are giving rise to biosociality” (ibid). These
cultural regimes, a kind of discursive and narrative framework, “form the
basis for … the regime of cyber culture”. Escobar conceives cyber culture
as a cultural mode that involves

“...the realization that we increasingly live and make ourselves in techno-


bicultural environments structured indelibly by novel forms of science
and technology. [...] Despite this novelty, however, cyber culture
originates in a well-known social matrix, that of modernity, even if it
orients itself towards the constitution of a new order – which we cannot
yet fully conceptualize but must try to understand...” (Escobar 1996 :
112).

Escobar’s language, similarly to Lévy’s, is obviously shaped by the sense


of upcoming change and an urge to name this change and capture it in a
textual form. This atmosphere of excitement was typical of early
cybercultural reflection at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s and it could be
illustrated by Z. Sardar’s and J. R. Ravetz’s “Introduction” in Cyber
futures: Culture and Politics on the Information Superhighway, the
volume in which Escobar’s essay is published. When describing their
“era,” e.g. the mid 1990s, Sardar and Ravetz write that

“we are now getting a first taste of ‘Cyberia’ – the new civilization
emerging through our human–computer interface and mediation” (Sardar
and Ravetz 1996: 1).

The ethnographer David Hakken, one of the pioneers of the ethnography


of cyberspace adopts a more realistic and rather sceptical approach to the
already noted excitement that uplifted as well as disheartened the
defenders of the barricades of the “computer revolution”. Hakken’s
scepticism, comparable to Kevin Robins’, is the scepticism of critical
deconstruction and pre-empirical mistrust; it evolves from the necessity
to empirically and critically explore the roots of this excitement and to
question its taken-for-granted nature.

Hakken (1999) does not use the term cyber culture, rather he talks about
cyberspace. However, his concept of cyberspace is defined by features
that connect it to Escobar’s and Morse’s concepts of cyber culture;
moreover, Hakken’s criticism perfectly complements Escobar’s and
Morse’s approaches.

Exploring Barlow’s post-Gibsonian vision, Hakken describes cyberspace


as a technologically mediated social arena entered by everyone using
ICTs (i.e. Advanced Information Technologies, AIT – in Hakken’s
terminology) in social interaction. This approach, Hakken claims, refers
to all potential life ways linked to cultural being and (re)produced via
ICTs.

“Life ways based on AIT are not only real and distinctly different; they
are transformative. The transformative potential of AITs lies in the new
ways they manipulate information. The new computer-based ways of
processing information seem to come with a new social formation; or, in
traditional anthropological parlance, cyberspace is a distinct type of
culture” (Hakken 1999: 1-2).

Hakken is fully aware of the speculative nature of this claim, it is thus not
surprising that he labels himself “a cyberspace agnostic” and emphasizes
the need to empirically verify the proclaimed “distinctiveness” of the
cultural formation emerging around cyberspace and ICTs. Indeed he
presents his formulations in the form of hypotheses and at the same time
pays due attention to the unpredictability of the continuous and yet
unfinished development of ICTs. Hakken coins the term proto-
cyberspace in order to distinguish the current level of the development of
ICTs and their current cultural context from a hypothetical “resultant”
situation.

Cyber culture as theory of new media – Epistemological concepts of


cyber culture

Last but not least, the term cyber culture is in the above mentioned senses
used metonymically to label the theorizing on cyber culture or on ICTs.vii
[9] The term is in this respect used, for example, by Lev Manovich
(Language of a New Media, 2001) and Lister et al. (New Media Reader,
2003). Manovich distinguishes between cyber culture and new media as
two distinct areas of research. Manovich understands new media theory
as an exploration of the information culture (see above), while for him
cyber culture involves:

“...the study of various social phenomena associated with Internet and


other new forms of network communication. Examples of what falls
under cyber culture studies are online communities, online multi-player
gaming, the issue of online identity, the sociology and the ethnography of
email usage, cell phone usage in various communities; the issues of
gender and ethnicity in Internet usage; and so on. [...] To summarize:
cyber culture is focused on the social and on networking; new media is
focused on the cultural and computing” (Manovich 2003: 16).

Lister et al. use the term cyber culture “in two related, but distinct, ways”
(Lister et al. 2003: 385) – the first, in contradiction to Manovich’s
differentiation between new media and cyber culture, broadly
corresponds to Escobar’s and Morse’s approach to cyber culture as a set
of cultural and social practices, codes and narratives. However, the first
way smoothly flows into the second one. Lister et al. conceive cyber
culture as a cultural context of ICTs, a context characterized by its themes
(communication networks, programming, software, artificial intelligence
and artificial life, virtual reality, etc.). Works of fiction and film such as
Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Cadigan’s Synners (1991) or Scott’s
movie Blade Runner that map the rise of the technological world and
provide it with a language, meanings, stories and values, played (or still
play) a key role in this respect.

“Secondly, cyber culture is used to refer to the theoretical study of cyber


culture as already defined; that is, it denotes a particular approach to the
study of the “culture + technology” complex. This loose sense of cyber
culture as a discursive category groups together a wide range of (on many
levels contradictory) approaches, from theoretical analyses of the
implications of digital culture to the popular discourses of science and
technology journalism” (Lister et al. 2003: 385).

Cyber culture can thus be seen as a meeting point of works of fiction with
discourses, concepts and theories of the social and natural sciences as
well as engineering – which permeate, shape and transform each other.
Cyber culture is deeply self-reflexive because the theories are part of its
(cybercultural) narratives and these narratives then inspire emerging
theories. Therefore, the categorization of cyber culture into a socio-
cultural formation and an assemblage of theories is a seeming and
probably misguided one.

Early and contemporary cyber culture

The definitions of cyber culture are, as we could see, miscellaneous. They


refer to the (already gone) subcultures, current cultural practices, and
potential forms of future society, social groups, cultural discourses and
institutions even theoretical visions figure as referents of cyber culture.
However, these understandings are not necessarily contradictory – they,
like pieces of a mosaic, complement and influence each other. With a
slight exaggeration, which can seem to be quite premature at this
moment, I will claim that all the above mentioned definitions of cyber
culture are part of the “same story” and the search leading to this story.
Every understanding of cyber culture refers to particular themes arising
from cybernetics, robotics and informatics and to the relation between
culture/society and new technologies. The story of cyber culture is always
the story of the cultural colonization of the world of ICTs, of the
accommodation and signification of this world by cultural practices. And
each of the already explored definitions concentrates on one particular
segment, one part of this story.

When approaching cyber culture it is misleading to reduce it to some of


those segments and ignore others, which cyber culture connotes as well.
It may seem that a widely conceived concept of cyber culture, which
would include previous definitions, is too wide and imprecise, yet
importantly, such a concept enables a unified approach to the constitutive
colonization of the world of ICTs understood as a gradual process with its
own history and whose constitutive elements include social groups,
discourses (sub cultural, literary and theoretical), cultural practices and,
not least, narratives.

Within this wide framework, cyber culture is characteristically


categorized into two different phenomena and this categorization is, as
opposed to the categorization mentioned in connection with Lister et al.,
really significant for understanding cyber culture. The imaginary axis of
the categorization is, as I will argue, the relationship between cyber
culture and the majority society (namely cyber culture and the
social/cultural mainstream). From its formation in the 1960s until the
beginning of the 1990s, cyber culture was by its members manifestly
articulated in contradiction to the mainstream. Then, after a transitional
period in the first half of the 1990s, cyber culture definitely became one
of the defining parts of the mainstream. In this context, i.e. at the level of
the relationship between cyber culture and the mainstream, I make a
distinction between early cyber culture and contemporary cyber culture.

The “story of cyber culture”, an illustration of the process of


institutionalization as elaborated by Berger and Luckmann (1967), begins
with the inventors of the technology and their original vision and
intentions. It strengthens with the oncoming users-innovators who played
the role of a spearhead of the technology. These users-innovators further
developed the inventors’ visions, they subjected them to the first literary
and theoretical reflection (in which they set a discursive framework and
characteristic themes and topics), and they extended the original visions
by new, wider contexts and spread the “word” and the technology itself.
In response to this part of the story (whose techno-optimistic and novelty-
eager protagonists consciously identified with the innovators), Mark Dery
(1996) approaches cyber culture as the “computer-age subcultures” and
Pierre Lévy sees in their future-oriented members a foundation of a
forthcoming new cultural order. It is exactly this part of the story which
Douglas Rushkoff talks about in his Cyberia (1994) and to which Josef
Kelemen refers in Kybergolem (2001) when he claims that his thoughts
were formed “under the intellectual pressure exerted by groups of young
people linked to the cybercultural circles,” and adds that he will not
define cyber culture because his “book is aimed particularly at those who
have already adequately ‘experienced’ the meaning of the term”
(Kelemen 2001: 13). Cyber culture of this part of the story, i.e. early
cyber culture, is the project of the insiders; its story is the tale of their
“guild”.

As long as the computer remained only a specialized work tool or a


sophisticated plaything (e.g. until the end of the 1980s), the innovators
could define themselves in contrast to the mainstream, they could hold a
mirror to it and look forward to the future. But as the new technology
spread, as it became a widely accepted technological standard and as the
computer transformed into a relatively cheap and affordable medium, the
innovators left centre stage. The majority society adopted the technology
including their visions and the “story of cyber culture” acquired a novel
dimension. Cyber culture, whatever we mean by the term, is no longer the
cyber culture of a relatively closed group of people. Technology, which
cyber culture is bound up with, became omnipresent and spread through
the entire society.

Did cyber culture spread simultaneously with technology? A conviction


that it did makes Morse and Escobar use an old term in a new way,
appropriate to the new situation. Cyber culture of the second part of the
story is not an actual project of a virtual future, neither the “guild of the
insiders” and technological avant-garde, rather cyber culture is now an
assemblage of cultural practices, discourses and narratives, an
assemblage accompanying a new technology and originating in the
previous part of our story.

It is obvious that there is a significant difference between the first and the
second part of the story, we talk about two different phenomena separated
by a vague historical dividing line. The first one contributed to the rise of
the second yet the two cannot be conflated and they require distinct
methods of exploration. Early cyber culture, which played the role of a
cultural lab, is a closed chapter, a past cultural text. Contemporary cyber
culture, the living and changing cultural matrix, is (and Morse, for
example, is right in this respect) in its infancy. Although the exploration
of contemporary cyber culture is one the greatest challenges facing the
socio-cultural exploration of ICTs, it is impossible to embark upon this
task without an adequate exploration of early cyber culture and an
understanding of its “message”.

As mentioned in the introduction, the focus of this essay is solely cyber


culture, a no longer existing socio-cultural formation originating in the
U.S. And it is early cyber culture that I refer to hereafter when talking
about cyber culture without an adjective.

Periodization of early cyber culture

Early cyber culture was a heterogeneous social formation constituted


around ICTs at the time of their emergence and initial development. I
outline early cyber culture at the level of cybercultural groups,
cybercultural discourses and practices and cybercultural narratives.

Evidently, it is impossible to precisely delimitate early cyber culture at


the levels of groups and discourses – these levels overlap with a range of
other social groups and worlds, most markedly with SF Fandomviii[10]
and the academia. For a variety of reasons the delimitation of early cyber
culture in time is only partly precise. It is possible to claim that the very
first foundations of cyber culture originate at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology (M.I.T.) at the turn of the 1950s and the 1960s. Early
cyber culture reached its peak in the late 1970s and in the 1980s. Its
decline can be detected on the silver screen, on pages of popularizing
magazines and bestsellers, in ads on electronics and in FBI offices in the
first half of the 1990s that is at a time when cyber culture definitely
abandoned its marginal position in relation to the mainstream and became
its irrevocable part and was subjected to normative power. Nonetheless,
an exact definition of the two limiting time points is quite problematic
and speculative.

The key to the understanding of early cyber culture is provided in the


typical thematic structure of cybercultural narratives. Nevertheless,
before dealing with them in more depth, I outline the historical
development of cybercultural groups and discourses. Every attempt at
periodization can be somewhat misleading because it sets artificial
dividing lines in a continuous flow of events, but in this case, with regard
to clarity, it is necessary. The periods necessarily overlap with each other
and their delimitation is, again, speculative. However, every turning point
marks a qualitative change of cyber culture (in the sense of a “Kuhnian
revolution”) which differentiates each period from the previous one.

In terms of cybercultural groups cyber culture can be described as a


heterogeneous, continuously growing set of more or less cohesive
subcultures, communities and individuals sharing (in the role of inventors
or first users) access to ICTs and an interest in their development and
impact on society and culture. This interest, or the theme of technologies,
their use and their transformative potential, forms the core of
cybercultural discourses and cybercultural narratives and determines
their character. Cybercultural discourses conflate technological jargon
with the language of literary science fiction and with the language of
social theory, cybercultural narratives generally focus on the issue of
technologically determined social and cultural change (see below).

The First Period

Early cyber culture originates in the American hackers’ subcultures. At


the beginning, until at least the 1970s, it involved only young students,
mainframes programmers, researchers and academics from the fields of
cybernetics, computer science and informatics.

The beginning of this period of cyber culture is marked by a set of crucial


events in the field of computing, among others they include the formation
of the first community of hackers at M.I.T. in 1959, M. E. Clynes’ and
S. Kline’s concept of cybernetic organism (cyborg) in 1960,
T. H. Nelson’s concept of hypertext at the beginning of the 1960s and the
Arpanet project, ancestor of all subsequent computer networks, launched
in 1963 and terminated in 1968.

A community of a few programmers, called the Tech Railroad Model


Club, was formed at the turn of the years 1959 and 1960 at M.I.T... The
TX-0 computer formed the centre of its universe, which Steven Levy
describes in his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
(1984). In relation to this community it is probably possible to talk about
the roots of a continuous academic hacker subculture. This community
coined the first jargon,ix[11] including the key terms hacker and
hacking,x[12] and formulated the “silently agreed” bedrocks of hacker
ethics, which influenced the whole cyber culture (Levy 1984). Similar
communities came into being at the Stanford AI lab, Carnegie-Mellon
University or Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the following years.
Later they were in connection via the Arpanet, designed by Larry Roberts
upon a commission from the U.S. government.

The concept of cyborg presented an inspiring symbolic break of the


barriers between machine and human (organic) body and it became one
of the strongest cybernetic contributions to cybercultural discourses and
narratives. However, cyber culture adopted the cyborg later, after the rise
of cyberpunk in the mid 1980s and turned it into the basis of its politics of
embodiment.

The notion of hypertext became one of the most fundamental


cybercultural themes thanks to Nelson and Engelbart and is linked to the
work of V. Bush and to the structural and critical concept of writeable
text as developed by R. Barthes. The hypertext was attributed significant
emancipatory potential, stemming from the possibility of challenging the
totality of written text and from the opportunity to newly, creatively and
dynamically structure not only the text itself, but also the knowledge
carried by it.

Moreover, a wide range of texts, which later influenced cyber culture,


was published during this decade, the 1960s. In the field of the social
sciences, it was the work of the technological determinist Marshall
McLuhan, for instance; and in the field of fiction, the writings of the so-
called New Wave of Science Fiction. Nevertheless, these texts, as well as
the already mentioned concept of the cyborg, were taken up by cyber
culture only in its third period.

The Second Period

The second period of cyber culture can be broadly set to the 1970s and
the beginning of the 1980s, when cyber culture moved beyond the realm
of institutes and universities. The most crucial features of this era were
the increasing accessibility of technology, the invention of
microcomputers and their massive development, which spawned an entire
new industry. In addition to “classic” academic hackers, cyber culture
also comprised the so called phone phreaks (hacking the phone systems),
computer clubs hackers (interested in developing and programming the
first homemade as well as mass-produced computers) and later the first
de facto regular computer users.

The invention of the microprocessor by Intel in 1971 enabled the


miniaturization and cheapening of computer technology. Basically from
the moment its distribution started the first digital microcomputers were
made, these involved professional projects (developed by Xerox, for
instance) as well as home-assembled computer kits attractive especially
for the second generation of hackers, computer hobbyists. The first
widely known of these kits were Jonathan Titus’ Mark-8 (1974) and Ed
Roberts’ Altair 8800 (1974).

Mainly Roberts’ Altair 8800, in fact only a useless toy, similarly to


Mark-8, attracted considerable attention following its introduction at the
beginning of 1975. With the benefit of hindsight it is not surprising. For
hardware hackers, it was a symbolic event. “Hell, what did it matter?”
asked Steven Levy ten years later. His own answer was simple: “It was a
start, it was a computer” (Levy 1984: 189).

On March 25, 1975, in Gordon French’s garage in Menlo Park,


California, the Homebrew Computer Club (the now legendary group of
engineers and technology hobbyists, interested in home assembly and
programming of microcomputers) met for the first time. The meeting
revolved around Altair. Within a year the Homebrew Computer Club
developed into a forum with more than seven hundred members,
including many of the later leading figures of the computer industry of
the Silicon Valley. It is thus not surprising that the Club is considered to
be an important impulse for the development of this industry.

Among the members of the Homebrew Computer Club we find Steve


Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who, following experiments with an older
version of the computer, completed Apple II in the autumn of 1976.
Production started in 1977 and Apple II revolutionized the field of the
microcomputer industry and related commerce. Apple II – the first
machine called Personal Computer, PC – set the benchmark of quality
and Wozniak’s and Job’s company became one of the fastest growing
companies in the Silicon Valley. The Apple Computer was quickly
followed by other companies (well established as well as newly founded)
and within a few years tens of thousands of various types and brands of
microcomputers were produced.

Naturally, the Homebrew Computer Club was not the only cybercultural
group of the period. At the beginning of the 1970s technology hobbyists
found a new interest, the detection of “bugs” in the phone system and in
the security system of long distance calls, an involvement which extended
the meaning of hacking. We find also many hackers interested in
computers among phone phreaks – as phone hobbyists called themselves,
a subculture that for the first time extended some cybercultural practices
to the limits of the law. It was constituted around a newsletter YIPL
(founded in 1972, later renamed TAP) and could be understood as the
computer clubs’ forerunner. Although the security level of the phone
system was constantly improving, the technology of phone systems
remained the focus of the interest of the hackers’ subcultures until the
1980s.

The invention of the microprocessor understandably increased interest in


computers. As mentioned earlier, computer hacking, i.e. expert interest in
computer performance and programming, spread from the secluded
academic contexts and significantly influenced the development of
computer technology. The historical role of hackers and the contemporary
atmosphere are manifest in the “cyber-hyped” parlance of the authors of
The History of Computing Project (2002):

“For the very first computer hobbyists suddenly a vacuum is filled. The
“legion” of amateur programmers just jumps “en masse” on the micro.
With the first micro computer coming to the market it seemed that
everything just, as a kind of puzzle, clicked together. Lack of knowledge
was suppleted in a hurricane kind of speed by computer clubs that grew
like mushrooms. These clubs published newsletters that spread the word.
No software was in sight for these machines by far. But the micro will
conquer the world by storm and change the way we live and deal with our
work totally within two decades. A new world has opened up and without
them life is unthinkable as it is.”

This storm conquering the world was initiated by Apple II, the “spread of
the word” and the success of the microcomputer widened the rank of non-
expert users of the new technology. By the end of this period the personal
computer represented not only a technological challenge, it suddenly
changed into a tool of entertainment (the first computer games,
programmed originally for consoles and mainframes, spread probably
faster than any other type of software), of work (at the end of the 1970s
the first commercial office software appeared) and of education. It was
exactly these users, who viewed the computer as a tool rather than a goal
that took over the initiative in the next period.

The Third Period

The beginning of the third period was characterized by a significant


transformation at all the levels of early cyber culture (i.e. at the level of
groups, discourse and practices and narratives), a shift that was related to
the accelerated spread of microcomputers (in North America and Western
Europe gradually becoming an office tool and a resource of home-
entertainment) and to the development of public computer networks. This
period witnessed the formation of the cyberpunk literary movement
which became the first powerful loudspeaker of early cyber culture
leading to its increasing popularity.

At the end of the previous period, cyber culture started to evolve from a
narrow set of expert communities to a wide, diversified subculture of
computer users. Besides the next generation of gradually vilified and later
even criminalized hackers in the third period we find subcultures of
computer game players, the first virtual communities, and in connection
with cyberpunk the so called digital avant-garde that articulated the
aspirations and goals of cyber culture. All these groups were
metaphorically as well as literally connected by the computer. The
computer, as a technological novelty at first, penetrated universities,
where the cultural foundations of cyber culture were enriched by many
influences.

The most significant of these inspirations were literary and film science
fiction (cyber culture overlapped, as mentioned above, with American
fandom), some fragments of the past hippie counterculture and the
subsequent punk counterculture, and theoretical influences from the field
of social theory of the 1960s and the 1970s.xi[13] These inspirations and
influences were creatively melted into the language of cyberpunk, into its
view of the social reality and its powerful anticipatory vision. Cyberpunk,
a literary movement named after Bruce Bethke’s short story, invigorated
by William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and brought to life by Bruce
Sterling, developed themes of the New Wave of SF and can be
characterized by a critical, dystopian futurism, on the one hand and by an
adoration of technology and its use for individual subversive purposes, on
the other. A discursive bricollage and a re-writing of symbolic inputs at
the literary level resulted in cyberpunk’s peculiar cybercultural ethics,
esthetics and political orientation. Thus, cyberpunk stressed the
independence of cybercultural discourses and narratives and implied that
their specific character is above all determined by the structure of
cybercultural themes. Cyberpunk writers and even their epigons can be
seen as cultural spokesmen of cyber culture, who, in their fiction,
formulated the foundations of an exploration of the rapidly
technologizing world.xii[14] The colorful language of cyberpunk fiction
formed the background for the social theory of the new media and of pop
cultural and media representations of cyber culture.

Hackers, who formed the core of cyber culture until the invention of the
microcomputer, gradually became separate from a “users’ cyber culture.”
Hackers’ subcultures became increasingly younger (hacking became
more attractive for teenagers due to cyberpunk and the influence of very
popular movies, War Games from 1983, for instance), also the focus of
their activities changed as a consequence of the industrialization of
computer production, enforcement of copyright regulations and creation
of public computer networks and also under the influence of cyberpunk.
The hacker, not only as inspired by Necromancers, became a “data
cowboy” and cyberspace (in a Barlow’s words embodied by
contemporaneous networks) became his field of self-realization. The
hackers’ challenge was, of course, also transformed, some new forms of
hacking appeared, including software cracking or unauthorized entry into
computer systems and networks. This change contributed significantly to
a shift in the “myth” of the hacker. The word gained its current,
negatively connoted meaning and the hacker’s identity became an
identity of resistance. Even in the eyes of the preceding generations of
hackers these new hackers were synonymous with “‘computer criminals,’
‘vandals,’ ‘crackers,’ ‘miscreants’ or in a purely generational swipe,
‘juvenile delinquents’,” as Steve Mizrach (href 1) claims. They explicitly
follow the same ethics as the ‘old hackers’, but they were labeled and the
time of ostracization and stigmatization arrived. The change of context
transformed the evaluation of similarly motivated action – what was an
act of a “programmer’s heroism” in the 1960s, seemed to be almost (or
definitely) a crime in the 1980s.
The Fourth Period

The final, and for a variety of reasons key, fourth period of early cyber
culture, is the period of definitive fading of cyber culture into the
majority society. It is the period when cyber culture is subjected to
normalization, is tamed by the language of social sciences and politicized
and its culturally provocative edges are taken off. This period begins at
the end of the 1980s and ends in about the middle of the 1990s. However,
there is no point in defining the exact “end” of this period, because it
could be defined by any of the key events or processes that signalized the
massive and final shift of cyber culture to the social and cultural
mainstream.

The first of them was the continuing spread of computer technology and networks. The growing
acceptability of the technology and the metamorphosis of the computer to a new and specific type
of a widely used medium were enabled by a unification of hardware and software standards, by (a
relative) reduction in prices and increase in the capacity of the technology, and by making the
language of new mediaxiii[15] more accessible. With transition to the Graphical User Interface
(GUI) – “windows,” the computer-user interfaces became easier to understand. The same happened
to networks when the World Wide Web, currently the most known Internet service based on
HTML, was introduced. The digital media overcame the image of an expensive toy and a specific
office tool and at last became commonly accepted and easy to use in everyday life. A stigma of
exclusivity and curiosity that surrounded the computer user disappeared without a trace.

The “Nietzsche an” claim of some cyberpunk writers and critics, that
“cyberpunk is dead,” was another indication of the transformation of
early cyber culture. This bon mot (currently still discussed)xiv[16]
appeared seemingly paradoxically at the beginning of the 1990s when
cyberpunk (cybercultural) topics conquered the mainstream, cyberpunk
writers became celebrities and computer technology “got to the streets”.
However, the fact that the raw literary matter of cyberpunk and the
originality of its style and visions were lost and translated into the
schematizing language of the cultural industry (see Shiner 2001, Maddox
1992) combined with the fact that cyberpunk prophecies regarding a
computerized world were getting fulfilled, questioned the viability of the
genre. Punk could define itself in contradiction to the mainstream and die
at the moment of melting into it, and it is exactly what happened.

The above mentioned digital avant-garde that elaborated the themes


established by cyberpunk and was characteristically techno-optimistic,
adopted the role of a cybercultural platform. Self-appointed prophets,
artists and writers, academics and technologists conceived of themselves
as a spear of cyber culture. The strongest voice of the avant-garde was (in
G. Freyermuth words “stylistically most influential”) Mondo 2000
magazine, published from 1989 by R. U. Sirius linked to the older
hackers’ zin High Frontiers (in 1987 renamed Reality Hackers).
Although Mondo 2000 can be seen as one of the “culprits” of the death of
cyberpunk, cyberpunk writers, like Gibson and Sterling, contributed to it,
just like to the later Wired. Mondo 2000 was:

“...a cyberpunk upbeat underground paper from San Francisco. The full
color magazine was filled with techno fashion, drug fantasies, a parade of
the latest gadgets, DIY video tips, science fiction, with an occasional
theory essay. In retrospect we can say that _Mondo_ paved the way for
Wired (starting in 1993), which was more successful in packaging and
neutralizing the early, pre-WWW, cyber cultures of the US West Coast”
(Lovink 1999).

The release of Wired (the above quoted Geert Lovink does not think of it
highly) could be seen as the next of the neuralgic points of the upcoming
end of early cyber culture. Wired, with its high circulation rate,
transformed the lifestyle of hackers’ subculture into an object of pop
cultural adoration and market commoditization. At the same time Wired
became the most known narrator of cyber cultural “stories” and a
platform for justifying cyber cultural ideas and new technology.

Famous representatives of the digital avant-garde, computer industry,


technological journalism and academic research (the already mentioned
digerati) were among those who published in Wired. Their publishing
activities (mostly balancing on the edge of academic exploration and
popularization) significantly influenced the acceptability of cyber
cultural issues. These writings, which focused on cyber culture, but
aspired to reach a wider circle, represent another turning point in the
transformation of early cyber culture and they include, for example,
Rushkoff’s Cyberia (1994, in Czech 2000), Negroponte’s Being Digital
(1995, in Czech 2001), Leary’s Chaos and Cyber culture (1994, in Czech
1997), Rheingold’s Virtual Community (1993) and Sterling’s Hackers
Crackdown (1992).

The academic exploration and reflection of cyber cultural phenomena


gradually developed from the mid 1980s and was one of the defining
elements of cyber cultural discourses and an important determinant
shaping central cyber cultural themes and narratives (regardless of
whether the academic influence came from “outside” and was adopted, or
whether the authors of these theoretical writings identified themselves
with any cyber cultural groups). In this sense, cyber culture had a
strongly self-reflexive nature. One of the very first, pioneering, non-
fiction writings that helped to establish cyber culture as a phenomenon
worthy of the attention of the social sciences was Donna Harraway’s
Cyborg Manifesto, published in The Socialist Review in 1985.xv[17] For
a number of writers and theoristsxvi[18] within various paradigms
concerned with a wide range of themes, Harraway’s work, dealing with
embodiment and gender, formed a starting point. This early reflection had
a distinctly anticipatory and, as Kevin Robins points out, mythologizing
character. It turned largely to the future, with a more or less manifest
reference to cyberpunk, and formulated a vision of possible variations on
technologically moderated social change. In contrast to cyberpunk, it
mostly lacked the dystopian elements and offered more of an optimistic
or utopian view of future events.xvii[19] This reflection gradually became
critical, probably in reaction to the increasing politicization of cyber
cultural topics and the progressive, yet inevitable, normalization of
cyberspace (connected with outlawing some hackers’ groups, see below).
Typical representatives of this early critical camp are Arthur Kroker and
Michael Weinstein with their often quoted Data Trash – The Theory of
the Virtual Class (1993). They do not give up an anticipative attitude, but
at the same time critically explore the trends of capitalization and power
structuration of cyberspace, they warn against the possibilities of
ideological misuse of the seductively optimistic cyber cultural rhetoric.

Kroker and Weinstein react to the fact that at the beginning of the 1990s
in the U.S. new technologies became part of the public and political
agenda. Vice-president Al Gore introduced the project of the national
information infrastructure, known as the Information Highway project
(computer network technologies should become a powerful tool in the
global spread of democracy, see Gore 1994). The narrative of the positive
relation between new technology and democracy forms, since the 1980s,
one of the most significant streams of cyber cultural narratives (see the
next section) and made the cyber cultural vision politically attractive.xviii
[20] Gore explored older cyber cultural arguments and narrative figures
when proclaiming the support of technological literacy a national interest.
The issue of electronic democracy (or teledemocracy) still resonated in
the late 1990s in Clinton’s project of a “presidential town hall meeting”
(Dahlberg 2001: 159). Probably in relation to the growing power of the
computer industry and the increasing role of the economic-information
flows the novel theme of a “new economy” emerged. The concept of new
economy was stronger than that of new democracy, if only for the
presumption that the computer industry expanding over one or two
decades could ignite a new economic boom and a new economic order as
such.

Nevertheless, the politicalization of the narratives of early cyber culture


(which was the next significant proof of the terminal shift of early cyber
culture) was preceded by the legal normalization of the cultural and social
field of the cyber culture. It was symbolized by the growing ostracization
(see Meyer 1989: 17-20) and following massive criminalization of groups
of American hackers groups between the years 1989 and 1991 when
certain hackers’ activities were definitely subjected to normative power,
evaluated as dangerous and manifestly punished.xix[21] This important
conflict between the law and some cyber cultural activities, described in
detail, for example by Bruce Sterling (Hackers Crackdown: Law and
Disorder on the Electronic Frontier, 1992) and John P. Barlow (Crime
and Puzzlement, 1990), was already implicit at the moment of the
emergence of phone phreaking. It gained clear contours in the mid 1980s
when some hackers carried out network attacks on the servers of
important national institutions or influential corporations, such activities
attracted the attention of the United States Secret Service and led to the
establishment of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Task Force. After two
years of monitoring suspect hackers tens of them were raided all over the
U.S. and a series of trials followed.

Cyber cultural Narratives

The narratives of early cyber culture, emerging from cyber cultural


discourse and created and developed by members of cyber cultural
groups, equipped the arising world of new technology with meaning.
They created and embedded the cultural identity of the technology,
articulated its attributes and thus created expectations related to the
technology. The narratives blended original cyber cultural topics with a
wide range of influences and inspirations (which I have mentioned
already or which I will mention below) which they adapted according to
the narratives’ own internal logic. Cyber cultural narratives are found in a
rather substantial assemblage of texts ranging from fiction and popular
journalism to scholarly writings. The foundations of cyber cultural
narratives originate in the first period of early cyber culture and are
closely related to the ethos of academic hackers of the 1960s. However,
the narratives began to crystallize fully in the third period, after the
emergence of syncretizing cyberpunk, and they matured at its very end
with the digerati’s activities and the shift of early academic reflection to
criticism.

The significance of cyber cultural narratives is closely related to their


mythologizing nature. They establish the world of the new technology,
they name the forces and principles that form this world and the
narratives themselves become its archetypal patterns. They are more than
a simple explanation; they constitute, support, and stabilize.xx[22]

An image of the world of the new technology evident in the narratives


marks implicit as well as explicit references to the “natural” attributes of
ICTs – these attributes are taken for granted, they play the role of
narrative axioms. However, they are a cultural (symbolic) construct as it
is cyber culture itself that creates them and attributes them to technology.
Thus rather than a relevant account of technology cyber cultural
narratives are an account of cyber culture and cyber cultural notions of
the cultural, social and political potential of this technology. This fact,
however, does not decrease their value, rather the opposite.

Moreover, the fact that the narratives, due to their mythological nature,
tend to naturalize the mentioned attributes provides them with significant
ideological power. Their ideological potential made them attractive
enough as well as acceptable for the wider society and they became part
of the topography of power. Cyber cultural narratives are interesting not
only because with their help we can detect the image of the technology at
the time of its emergence and development, but also due to the obvious
assumption that they form a part of what we can call ICTs ideology – an
ideology that shaped the information policies of western states as well as
the marketing and persuasive strategies of the computer industry.

Cyber cultural narratives appear to be a bundle of mutually overlapping


themes and streams that are difficult to systematize. However, a closer
look reveals the fact that cyber cultural texts share a detectable structure
of basic themes which involve what we can term the narrative logic of
cyber culture. For this reason, I distinguish the core of cyber cultural
narratives (i.e. the shared core narrative structure) and themes of cyber
cultural narratives derived from the core (turning to particular levels of
social and cultural reality and linking the narratives to various paradigms
and topics such as embodiment, community, public sphere and
democracy, textuality, etc.). While the themes of cyber cultural narratives
that explore the potential of the narrative core resist a simple and
straightforward systematization, the relatively consistent core that in my
approach plays the role of the key to cyber culture can be subjected to,
and indeed almost offers itself for, a critical analysis.

The Core of Cyber cultural Narratives

Understandably, it is technologies, advanced information and


communication technologies, based on digital coding of information that
stands at the centre of cyber cultural narratives. Cyber culture links these
technologies to a number of fundamental themes within which
technologies are attributed characteristics that shape cyber cultural
narratives. Individual topics within the themes are mutually interrelated
and together they constitute the core of cyber cultural narratives. I
identify the themes as follows:

• Technology as agent of change

• Technology and freedom/power/empowerment

• Technology and the formation of the new frontier

• Technology and authenticity

I begin with the first two themes – technology as agent of change and the
relation of technology and freedom, power and empowerment.

Cyber cultural narratives are characterized by technological determinism


related to an assumption that information and communication
technologies are agents of change – of a paradigmatic as well as “factual”
change, of change in every context covered by cyber cultural narratives,
of social, cultural, economic even political change, of change occurring at
the levels of textuality, the individual, group and even the macro system.
The anticipation of the form or nature of this change directs the narratives
towards the future, cyber cultural narratives do not reflect the change,
they announce it.
The early academic reflection of cyber culture had its exploratory
foundations in relation to this theme in Marshall Mollohan’s argument
that technology is the cultural extension of the human body and that the
character of technology determines the character of the social and cultural
contexts and each technological innovation necessarily leads to their
change.

The relationship of technology, power and the subject, developed within


the second theme (technology and freedom, power and empowerment), is
understood in two contradictory ways thus dividing the authors according
to their evaluation of the benefits of technology into techno-optimists
(technologists or techno-utopists) and techno-pessimists (techno-
dystopias).

The optimistic attitude regarding this theme is based on the presumption


that advanced information and communication technologies will be
agents of empowerment, of strengthening individual freedom and
weakening of centralized forms of power. The emancipatory potential of
technology is determined by its decentralized/decentralizing character
that weakens hierarchical and centralized power structures and also by its
ability to strengthen and support the creative, communicative and
cognitive abilities of the individual.

The pessimistic attitude, on the contrary, stresses the presumption that


advanced information and communication technologies strengthen the
mechanisms of control and power and will thus lead to the creation of a
new order. The oppressive potential of technology lies in its ability to
create new tools of control and to develop the already existing ones thus
strengthening the position of power elites.

These contradictory versions of the narrative of technology, the subject


and power exist next to each other in a dialectical relationship in cyber
cultural narratives and they do not necessarily rule each other out. This is
clearly demonstrated, for example, in cyberpunk prose in which the two
variants co-exist and in which their contradictory character, their clash,
plays the role of one of the symbolic driving forces of the genre. After all,
critical theory, characterized by a similar contradiction between “utopian
vision” and “pessimistic reflection,” served cyber culture as an
inspiration in terms of arguments.

The origin of the first two themes, as already mentioned in the


introduction to this section, is closely related to the ethos of the university
hackers of the 1960s which formed the basis of the hackers’ code whose
various variants (these often differ from each other only in slight detail)
are still to be found on the Internet. Before turning to the other two
themes, let me devote some space to the legacy of these first hackers at
which I have so far only hinted despite its fundamental position within
cyber culture.

Steven Levy formulated the hacker ethos in his retrospective Hackers:


Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984, Chapter 2), summarizing the
beginnings of hacker culture in the following points:

• Access to computers – and anything which might teach


you something about the way the world works – should be
unlimited and total. Always yield to the hands-on imperative!

• All information should be free.

• Mistrust authority – promote decentralization.

• Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus


criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.

• You can create art and beauty on a computer.

• Computer can change your life for the better.

• Like Aladdin’s lamp, you could get it to do your bidding.

This ethos was born at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s in the
relatively authoritative environment of the technological institute within a
community of young programmers who were discovering the charm of
mainframes, the intellectual attraction of computer technology so far
basically hidden from the public’s view. At the time, access to computers
was significantly limited and subjected to educational and research
purposes, the majority of programmes were literally made on paper and
personal contact with a computer and personal experience of
programming were worth a fortune. This is where cyber cultural distrust
of authority, longing for emancipation and craving for unlimited contact
with technology is born.

In the 1980s it was the by then inevitable, more sharply formulated


cyberpunk elementsxxi[23] that enriched this code and shifted its meaning
in a similar way as they changed the myth of the hacker itself. Already
the pre-cyberpunk ethos (as described by Levy) stressed those
characteristic themes and values that permeated all of cyber culture,
namely personal autonomy and personal development, belief in the
transformative potential of the new technology (computers) and a clear
stance against the social and ethical mainstream. This ethos also brought
with itself an appeal for the quality of change brought about by new
technology.

Cyber culture further enriched the message of this code by the issues of
cultural colonization and the relativization of the authenticity of
experience and insights, these issues were reflected in two key themes
(technology and the formation of the new frontier and technology and
authenticity).

Cyber cultural narratives understand technology as a tool for the


creation of a new cultural space, a hyper real, symbolic space emerging
as a consequence of the technological implosion of the human world, a
space that is free from the power of formal organizations, a space that lies
outside normalization, a pioneering space, in a word cyberspace.

In relation to cyberspace cyber cultural narratives talk about the new


frontier, a new boundary, referring to the logic of the American tradition
of “conquering the West”. In the words of Gandalf Freyermuth (1997) the
physical frontier disappeared the moment America reached the Pacific
and it was cyberspace that was, according to the digital underground of
the 1980s, to become one of the new forms of the cultural frontiers, a
challenge of non-colonized space and creative chaos.xxii[24] The
mythology of the frontier incorporates the challenge of new cultural
expansion and colonization that provides space for the fulfillment of the
optimistic project of the subject’s empowerment and the reaching of
“true” freedom, at the same time, it is marked by the awareness of the
temporary nature of such a space, the limits of its seclusion from the “real
world”.xxiii[25] Thus the “twofold nature of expectation” regarding
power, characteristic for the previous theme, including utopia as well as
dystopia is demonstrated in it.

The fourth theme introduces the topic of technology as a source of


relativization of the authenticity of lived experience. The most important
concern of this dichotomically structured theme is the crisis of
authenticity, uncertainty that concerns the “truthfulness” or
“genuineness” of technologically mediated interaction and experience
and the possible consequences of in authenticity brought about by
technology.

On the one hand, these cyber cultural narratives develop Jean


Baudrillard’s thesis on simulacra and the simulated, hyper real nature of
mediated reality and the disappearing distinction between authentic and
inauthentic and on the other, the message of the New Wave of SF writer
Philip K. Dick who describes the schizophrenic world of uncertain
reality, discipline and manipulation of memories, induced by technology,
drugs and mental illness.xxiv[26] These two sources of inspiration
introduce a pessimistic overtone to the discussion, technologically
mediated experience and insight is inauthentic, technology distances us
from the authenticity of experience and deprives us of our ability to
distinguish and experience authenticity. The world of inauthentic
experience, the world of simulation, can, moreover, lead to manipulation.
It is within this context that the negative connotations of virtual as false,
artificial and unreal emerge.

Cyber cultural narratives, however, supplement this attitude by an


“optimistic twist”. The distance form reality at the same time, in line with
the message of the previous theme, means a distance from the “real
world”, from its norms and structures. A space created by technology
does not necessarily have to be a space open only to simulation and
manipulation, it can equally be open to creative interface which enables
self-fulfillment in a “really achievable” mode. Nostalgia for authenticity
is unacceptable as it is nothing more than a nostalgia for commitments of
the “world of flesh” that is the “physical,” non-virtual world.

Themes of cyber cultural narratives

From the core of cybercultural narratives a wide range of discursive


events evolve, within which all the four key themes are applied to a
variety of concrete topics which were reflected upon in early cyber
culture. As it was already stated in the vast body of texts we can detect
more or less clear themes which overlap and which enrich the language
and concepts of cyber culture by those of the arts and social sciences.
There is doubtless no significant value in a precise systematization of
these themes, yet leaving aside purely technological ones, it is possible to
at least draw attention to the most important ones, which mark the most
intense discussions, most of which survived till today. These are themes
originating from the discourses of literary studies, arts, aesthetics and
social sciences.

The subject of hypertext, a new form of textuality that is enabled by


digital technology,xxv[27] stems from the traditions of critical theory,
literary studies and linguistics, above all from their structuralist and post-
structuralist branches.

The themes dealing with new technologies as a tool of artistic creation


and performance, the relationship between new media and art – as a
change of visual culture enhanced by digitalization, visual aesthetics and
the language of the new media, virtual reality and simulation (not as
understood by Baudrillard in this case) – are to some extent linked to the
topic of hypertext.xxvi[28]

Other themes are connected with the discourses of the social sciences,
they include cybercultural narratives on the symbolic and physical
changes of the body, gender and personal identity as enhanced by
technology (the story of the cyborg, one of the most influential
cybercultural myths, resonates strongly in this respect), on the
invigoration of community (symbolized by the birth of the virtual
community, virtual agora), on cyberspace as a space of subversion, on the
possibility of creating a strong Habermasian public sphere and on
technology as a tool for the strengthening and spread of democracy, on
future or developing forms of community (which take the shape of dark
cyberpunk visions as well as considerably more optimistic ones on
information or network society and promises of entering the information
age), on the new global economic order and the new economy (promising
the lasting solution of the deepening economic recession that affects the
West already since the 1970s).

The texts that carry the themes of cybercultural narratives can be


understood as the basis of the ideology of new media, i.e. the rhetoric of
information policy, as well as the theory of new media, i.e. the reflection
of advanced information and communication technologies. The early,
cybercultural, shape of the reflection that grew out of the ideological,
mythological cybercultural narrative core marks the birth of ideology as
well as of critical reflection. It did not distinguish the project from the
reflection, the vision from its actual state, as I have demonstrated in
Pierre Lévy’s case, rather, in many aspects it became a self-fulfilling
prophecy and an important constitutive force for the world of new
technologies. Thus Geertz’s words on ideology are unquestionably valid
in the case of early cybercultural narratives:
“Whatever else ideologies may be – projections of unacknowledged fears,
disguises for ulterior motives, phatic expressions of group solidarity –
they are, most distinctively, maps of problematic social reality and
matrices for the creation of collective conscience” (Geertz 1993: 220).

The narratives of early cyber culture played a significant role in the


shaping of the generally accepted identity of new technologies, the
formation of their social dimensions and the articulation of their political
value. A critical reflection of advanced information and communication
technologies must, nonetheless, distinguish ideological or ideologizing
(mythological or mythologizing) mechanisms that stand at the centre of
cybercultural knowledge and must distinguish and name the ways in
which these mechanisms are imprinted into political discourses and
projects but certainly also into texts that result from critical reflection.

Conclusion

I understand cyber culture, within the conceptual framework that I have


outlined in this essay, as a wide social and cultural movement that is
closely linked to advanced information and communication technologies,
their emergence and development and their cultural colonization.
Previous concepts of cyber culture concentrated only on certain aspects of
what I consider constitutive elements of cybercultural phenomena and
they do not cover these in sufficient detail. Moreover, they glossed over
one of the most remarkable aspects of cyber culture, namely its
contribution to the emergence of the mythology or ideology of advanced
information and communication technologies. I make a distinction
between early and contemporary cyber culture. Early cyber culture,
dating from the beginning of the 1960s to the first half of the 1990s,
developed outside the cultural and social mainstream (or it developed in a
kind of dialectical relationship with them) and it is exactly this early
cyber culture that initiated the signification of the world of advanced
information and communication technologies.

Although I do not deal with contemporary cyber culture in more detail


due to its marked difference from early cyber culture, I understand it as
the further developed inheritance of marginal subcultures’ symbolic and
cultural practices linked to new media. In this text I only refer to
contemporary cyber culture as a further possible and certainly inspiring
subject of research that cannot be satisfactorily handled without an
exploration of early cyber culture.

Early cyber culture, which I understand as a diversified cluster of social


groups and their discourses and cultural practices, can best be
characterized in my opinion with the help of cyber cultural narratives, i.e.
accounts of the nature of advanced information and communication
technologies that emerge within its framework. Although these narratives
cover a wide range of topics they have an identifiable core that ascribes
certain typical characteristics to technology. They describe it as an agent
of social and cultural change, as a means of empowerment but also as the
tool of new forms of power, they link it with the emergence of a new
cultural space of temporary freedom and a catalyst of change in relation
to the authenticity of lived experience.

This essay leads to two important conclusions that can be generalized.


However, due to the speculative nature of my approach I consider it
appropriate to formulate the conclusions as hypotheses which should be
subjected to further research. The hypotheses can be formulated as
follows:

• Themes that I describe as the core of cyber cultural narratives


are common for all narratives originating from early cyber culture
and they were reflected in expectations connected with the
supposed characteristics of advanced information and
communication technologies.

• Values and expectations connected with cyber culture and


advanced information and communication technologies were
adopted by the majority society and became part and parcel of
everyday political and economic ideology of “information
technologies” and currently they play an important role in the
hierarchization of the world of new technologies.

A confirmation of these hypotheses could, I believe, be considered a final


“settling of accounts” with the sub cultural roots of the narrative of new
technologies and a significant step towards their critical reflection.
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