Monday, 27 November 2006

New media and cyberculture - classic readings online

An inexhaustive student guide to key readings available online …

The Pre-History

Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Man a Machine (1748), Descartes’ most systematic, materialist disciple, arguing for the mechanical nature of biology and thus of man. It’s only a short step from this to contemporary cyborg and transhumanist theory … available at:

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818), written in the early phase of the industrial revolution, among other things a warning of the inherent dangers of technology, of experimentation with the laws and forces of nature and of trying to become ‘the modern prometheus’, the creator of artificial life and intelligence. Work out all the implications for cyberculture for yourself…

· Samuel Butler, Erewhon (1872), In chs. 23-5, ‘The Book of the Machines’, Butler discusses machinic evolution, artificial intelligence and the enslavement of humanity, 127 years before The Matrix! Ch. 23 is available at, then navigate forward for the next two chapters.

· E.M. Forster, ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909), a remarkable short story of a future world where everyone is cocooned in boxes they never leave, never meeting anyone in person but communicating via teletechnologies bringing the world to them live, all organised by a single (web-like) machine … and what happens when it stops… available at:

· F. T. Marinetti, ‘The Futurist Manifesto’ (1909), The founding document of Italian Futurism. ‘We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed’. A breathless paean to new technologies and their transformation of man and the experience of the world. Cyborg mythologies and the techno-optimism of virtual community enthusiasts and myspace teenagers all begin here. As did World War I and Fascism … Available at:

· Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), Benjamin’s essay on the transformations of society, culture, humanity and politics produced by mechanical reproduction and on both its democratic benefits and its implications for the ‘aura’ of real experience, relationships, uniqueness, singularity and temporal and spatial existence is still required reading. Think how much more digital reproduction has exacerbated these trends. Available online at:

The History

· Vannevar Bush, ‘As We May Think’ (1945), Bush’s famous article discussing the idea of a ‘memex machine’, allowing information to be stored and retrieved associatively – the genesis of hypertext. Available at:

· Alan Turing, ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ (1950), Turing’s famous discussion of artificial intelligence setting out the basis for the ‘Turing Test’, available at:

· Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (1950), his popularisation of the ideas set out in Cybernetics (1948). As he explains in chapter 1: ‘It is the thesis of this book that society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine are destined to play an ever increasing part’. He was right. Ironically, however, you can’t find any of his own work online!

· J. C. R. Licklider, ‘Man-Computer Symbiosis’ (1960), Licklider’s famous article – the first to discuss in detail the increasingly symbiotic, communicational, interactive relationship between man and machine. Available at:

· Douglas Engelbart, ‘Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework’ (1962), Engelbart - the person who invented the mouse, windows and teleconferencing - set out his vision of interactive hypermedia in this paper, available at:

· Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (1964), welcome to the wired world … part 1, chs. 1-7 available online at:

· Philip K. Dick Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), you could pick any of Dick’s books … but this one will do as it’s the best known thanks to the film adaptation, Blade Runner. Electric animals, indistinguishable human simulacra, emotionless human bountry-hunters, virtual reality empathy boxes and moebian narrative twists: this is where the human and machine meet and melt down. Not available online, but get the screen saver …

The Contemporary Era

· Jean Baudrillard, ‘Precession of the Simulacra’ (1978), in Simulacra and Simulation (1981), especially the first three pages discussing Borges and the map … part of it is available online at:

· Vernor Vinge, ‘True Names’ (1981), Vinge’s novella predates Gibson, describing an immersive virtual reality experience (based upon MUDs and the text-based fantasy game ‘Adventure’) as well as a remarkable virtual war, alien intelligence and the dreams of virtual immortality of an old lady…. The 1984 edition is available at:

· William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984), the cyberpunk classic, introduced and defined cyberspace. Online at: Or, better yet, get the cassettes/CDs of Gibson reading it – once you’ve heard his drawl you can’t imagine it in any other voice.

· Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1985), ‘By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs’. Haraway’s classic feminist essay, available at:

· Richard Stallman, ‘The GNU Manifesto’ (1985), the manifesto of the open-source movement, available at:

· The Mentor, ‘The Hacker Manifesto’ (1986), a statement of intent from a hacker, available at:

· Julian Dibbell, ‘A Rape in Cyberspace’ (1993), A classic essay on online behaviour in MUDs. Based on the case of ‘Mr Bungle’ who used the ‘voodoo doll’ subprogram on LambdaMOO to dictate the actions of and ‘sexually’ violate online characters owned by other users. The ‘rape’ highlighted the relationship between real life and virtual life. Available at:

· Vernor Vinge, ‘The Coming Singularity’ (1993), Vinge’s essay on the exponentially accelerating rates of technological change and the dizzying times that await us … sooner than we might think. Available at:

· John Perry Barlow, ‘The Economy of Ideas’ (1994), Barlow’s famous libertarian essay on intellectual property and economics, available at:

· Sherry Turkle, ‘Constructions and Reconstructions of Self in Virtual Reality: Playing in the MUDs’ (1994), a classic essay, following the arguments in her 1995 book, Life on the Screen about the performance and play of the self online, available at:

· KC, ‘The Unabomber Manifesto’ (1995), Theodore Kaczynski was the US domestic terrorist who, over an 18 year period, killed 3 people and wounded 28 as part of a campaign against technological development. His manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, was published by newspapers in the hope that it would help catch him. As well as bitter rants against women and the left etc. it contains a systematic critique of our love of and enslavement to technology. The full text is available at:

· John Perry Barlow ‘A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace’ (1996), ‘Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather’. Barlow’s classic libertarian statement of online freedom, available at:

· Tim Berners Lee, ‘The World Wide Web: Past, Present and Future’ (1996), an overview by the person who created it, available at: plus ‘The Future of the Web’ (1999), reflections on where it’s going, available at:

· Lawrence Lessig, ‘The Laws of Cyberspace’ (1997) and ‘The Death of Cyberspace’ (2000), US academic and Law Professor and best known proponent of the need to limit intellectual copyright restrictions. Unpopular with Governments and businesses but on our side, find the articles at:

· Andy and Larry Wachowski, The Matrix (1999), Can you now even imagine this film not existing? 3rd June 1997 script available at:

. 'The Cluetrain Manifesto' (1999), 'A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies'. Later a book but read the 95 theses at:

· Bill Joy, ‘Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us’ (2000), the Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems explains why humans are going to become an ‘endangered species’, available at:

And Now …

· Chris Anderson, ‘The Long Tail’ (2004), now a book of the same name (2006), Anderson’s original article on how new media changes business economics, available at: (see also ‘The rise and fall of the hit’, a selection from the book, at: )

· Tim O’Reilly, ‘What is Web 2.0? (2005), the essay that popularised the claimed current improved version of the web as it moves from static, limited web-pages to desktop style applications allowing greater participation, and user generated content and sharing. Available at

· Kevin Kelly, ‘We Are the Web’ (2005), on the past of the web, the now of the web and its living, knowing future! Available at:

· Windows Media DRM, ‘FAQ’ (2006), OK, it’s not a classic essay but it is the present and it’s going to be the future unless its stopped. Read it and shudder. Available at:


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