Peter Lunenfeld’s book “The Secret War Between Downloading & Uploading: Tales Of The Computer As Culture Machine” (MIT Press 2011) presents a new way of looking at the cultural struggle for control of the Internet. Although the conflict between uploading and downloading may not seem secret since the Napster case a decade ago, and is indeed a common feature of net political debate, Lunenfeld is using the concepts of downloading and uploading to discuss not the copyfight but how human beings relate to each other culturally and socially through technology.
Lunenfeld immediately establishes both technical and poetic meanings for each term. Downloading is fetching data from a central server, or an animal eating. Uploading is sending data to a server and to other devices. It is also animal excretion and nesting, and the human creation of “superfluous” material goods such as paintings and experiences such as philosophy. Downloading for Lunenfeld is consumption, and in its current state dominated by broadcast media it is overconsumption leading to “cultural diabetes” in which mass culture plays the role of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
This is vivid, but the very definition of uploading that Lunenfeld starts with (sending data to other devices) also involves downloading (…to other devices). The “slow food” movement that he contrasts with super-sized, HFCS-laden American diets is a product of broadcast culture like any other hipster franchise. And outside the US, HFCS has never replaced sugar and state and independent television has provided an alternative to the HFCS of the brain that he describes network television as. If I am critical of this, and a (very) few of Lunenfeld’s other arguments, it is only because of the clarity with which the rest of them are presented and with which they are all developed. This is a serious, ambitious and forward-looking book about human use of networked computing machinery in an age when cybercultural lullabies and recanting cyberprophets have turned the field into an inward- and backward-looking one. It deserves serious critique.
As the subtitle of the book, “Tales Of The Computer As Culture Machine”, claims the computer, and particularly the networked computer, is indeed a culture machine. Computing machinery can imitate any other machine, and so any mechanically reproducible media (that is to say, all mass media) can be created, distributed and reproduced by computers. That the wide availability of computers and network access changes the balance of power in the media is a common claim, and one that it is easy to view cynically in the face of an Internet of lolcats and conspiracy theory blogs. But Lunenfeld takes us beyond this.
Lunenfeld builds up concepts and weaves them together into a coherent and thought-provoking worldview. Affordances, mindfulness, information triage, sticky vs. teflon objects, tweaking, toggling, continual partial production, unfinish, WYMIWYM, MaSAI. Some of these are standard in cyberculture and its critiques. Others are Lunenfeld’s own coinage. They build up to form a new vocabulary and a conceptual framework for new critical take on network culture. And, crucially, new possibilities for action on the basis of that critique. Like all the best Theory, Lunenfeld’s concepts identify something important in the real world and afford new ways of thinking about it and acting on it.
Having exhorted us to download mindfully through info-triage and to upload meaningfully, to make unimodernist media sticky and unfinished and to move beyond the revolutionary rhetoric of Web 2.0 to an evolutionary Web n.0, Lunenfeld describes a world of bespoke futures (“Creatively misusing scenario planning as a means toward crafting visions of the future”) and plutopian meliorism (the pluralistic pursuit of happiness within an open society).
The ultimate destination that emerges in the final pages of this new take on network culture is surprisingly high stakes. It is nothing less than an appeal to use the means of the aesthetics of the culture machine to pursue the ends of plutopian meliorism in the face of the closures of would-be theocrats and other totalitarians. That is, to use the net to reaffirm the enlightenment in all its ambition and seriousness leavened with and strengthened by the pluralism of postmodernism’s critique of modernity.
Is the framework that Lunenfeld has built up in the course of the book up to this task? Can it be used to address left and right-wing criticism from within and without mainstream Western society that Western culture is just, well, entertainment? Lunenfeld’s achievement is to build his framework from many small measures that can easily be applied practically and evaluated against vivid concepts. By the end of the book you can see how to act on this and to evaluate whether your actions succeed. And the effects of those actions, although not revolutionary (and Lunenfeld rightly points out that the rhetoric of revolution has been appropriated by theocratic and corporate reaction), will be in the direction of considered lives in a society that is more than simply entertainment as a result.
Lunenfeld finishes the main argument of the book by proclaiming that he will write utilities rather than manifestos. But he has written a fine example of both here: a call to action with a conceptual and practical toolkit to support it. With cyberculture at its most nostalgic and despondent at precisely the moment where network culture is showing its potential for both progressive and reactionary political change, the modesty of Lunenfeld’s means and the ambition of his ends are a much needed and easily embraced positive step forwards.