Sometimes, pedantic affirmations are the most useful and refreshing pieces of criticism a student can encounter. Friedrich Kittler’s essay “There is No Software” asks us to remind ourselves, at each turn of our studies, how our actions are circumscribed and made possible by our machines. When we interact with machines in the course of riting in particular, how we understand that interaction depends on that awareness. If we remain ignorant of the technical (especially material and technologial dimensions of computing, then our insights into their cultural functions will remain correspondingly crippled. Kittler leaves off explaining how much an awareness, or a lack thereof, influences or determines our day-to-day behavior, but his demarcation of the stakes of the discussion forces that consideration. It also calls into question our political and historical investigations, tying them directly to the development of hardware. A seminal work, the essay concentrates on the abiding complexity that computing brings to simple changes of venue for discourse.
Jaron Lanier’s recent “manifesto,” You Are Not a Gadget, strikes a different caution. The virtual-reality prodigal and staunch, liberal humanist pieces together a radical critique of popular trends in computing and techno-social practices. An elegy for the agora, framed against the rise of the “antigora,” dominates the collection of essays. Lanier’s discussion of public-private distinctions online, including the details of their mutual reliance and construction, serves end-users well in this era of Anything-as-a-Service. Indeed, he provides perhaps the most faithful translation of Kantian ‘cosmopolitanism’ and hospitality that we are likely to engage with, for the internet. Episodic rather than holistically argumentative, Lanier’s individualized rants are collected and named a ‘manifesto,’ but if he follows this tone poem with a more focused, politically coherent program, researchers in the humanities and social sciences would be loathe to ignore it. Lanier’s position doesn’t serve the interests of the internet as such, of course, or of economic markets, or even of the agora that he observes as diffracting into silos. His technical expertise lends his rhetoric instead to a conflation between aesthetics and politics, and inscribes end-users as sovereign subjects. In short, Lanier insists that human-scale values and interests ought to drive our technological endeavors.
A social thinker, an eternal optimist, and a proponent of the significance of superstructural, cultural phenomena, Henry Jenkins maintains a remarkable attention to that human scale, scarcely considering the technical architecture behind Convergence Culture. As staunch a liberal humanist as one can find, Jenkins considers communities as spheres of production, especially of recycled work. Coursing through online content, tracing its recontextualization and reprogramming, he does present an extended, focused argument, if only suggestively, about the state of human affairs online. If Lanier serves as a latter-day Kant, then Jenkins is surely as close as we will see to a Habermas for the internet. To be clear, though, Convergence Culture does modify the “public sphere” paradigm for different mediations and technologies, rather than adopting it wholesale. But it maintains the same allegiances: class-agnostic, ahistorical, sweeping claims and categorical perspectives taint the text’s political whispers, because they lack a critique of real conditions under which connections are made online. The basis of convergence confronts that serious flaw, the digital divide, only tangentially. Its benefit, then, lies in its nuanced approach to the description and taxonomy of cultural objects online.
What spectrum makes these three thinkers’ works comparable? The garden path ends, not in a disciplinary triumph, but in the collocation of absent themes from their positions. First, agency – or, more properly, the conditions under which human agency confronts technological development – must find an account that does not privilege either machines or humans, ontologically. Second, the lack of a programmatic politics binds the three. Without claiming that the necessary prerequisite or outcome of scholarship and argumentation is a call to action, the distinction between liberal humanism (including Kittler’s liberal post-humanism) and a broader implementation of politically conscious data and interpretation would bridge these abysses. Finally, subjectivity informs each work, and in each work it appears as nothing other than a teleology. The minor differences between what counts for subjects in each text do not override the search for origins and endpoints in all three — as in so many other works of cultural critique. Their narrowness of foci limits what questions they can each ask about origins, instead leading them to take the advent of computing almost on faith. In contrast to this spectrum, further research must ruthlessly search out historical details, and deliver them in a broadly culturally conscious framework.