The world is not what it was twenty years ago; something like the Internet was kicking around in the back alleys of military institutions and isolated experiments, a shadow cast back in time of the series of tubes that managed to stage a quiet revolution by the simple expedient of making roughly the sum total of human knowledge (plus gossip and pornography) available wherever you could lay a bit of copper wire; and elsewhere, if you could catch the signal. William J. Mitchell's /ME++/ concerns itself with the consequences of this network and the associated recent growth of technology, with miniaturization and decentralization, and considers the effects of this progress on thought and human activity in general. In one section in particular he emphasizes both the reliance of the modern man on the vast societal network that feeds, clothes, and entertains him while suggesting a distribution of personality and, indeed, the individual out to the furthest ends of the network.
We need more than McLuhanish extensionism, and certainly more than unregenerate dot-com boosterism, to make sense of all this. It isn't simply that our sensors and effectors command more territory, that our webs of interconnectivity are larger and more dynamic, or that our cellphones and pagers are always with us; we are experiencing a fundamental shift in subjectivity. As Mark C. Taylor has succinctly summarized, "In emerging network culture, subjectivity is modular ... I am plugged into other objects and subjects in such a way that I become myself in and through them, even as they become themselves in and through me." I do not have a fixed identity, nor do I exist as a discrete individual. My spatial and tempora coordinates are diffuse and indefinite. My network extensions intersect and overlap with those of others.
. . . .
Many may mourn the passing of the (presumably pre-TCP/IP, pre-HTTP, pre-RFID) liberal humanist subject and its celebrants. Heideggerians and other critics of modernism may kvetch about totalizing technology and the allegedly alienating qualities of the wireless cyborg condition. Students of gender, race, and political economy may remind us (quite properly) that we are not all networked to the same extent, in the same ways. Defense and security specialists may worry (quite understandably) about the increasing destructive potential of network crackers and hijackers. Those who just want a simpler life may choose to unplug, and to live off the grid in Idaho. But for this particular early-twenty-first=century nodular subject, disconnection would be amputation. I am part of the networks, and the networks are part of me. I show up in the directories. I am visible to Google. I link, therefore I am. [Mitchell 61-2]
1. How is the increase in the size and dynamism of networks different from similar changes brought about by earlier technologies? Is it necessarily linked to the Internet revolution?
2. Mitchell talks about his dispersion along the network with an almost mystic reverence; how genuine is this dispersion and how necessary? Are those outside the network the unfortunates, the untouchables he paints them as, or something else?
3. Is the reliance on a vast human network for everday survival and maintained lifestyle anything new?
4. Is there anything ironic in Mitchell's final claims?
5. Are the tools and connections Mitchell discusses more like appendages or addictions? Is there a difference?
Mitchell, William J. Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
Last modified 15 September 2006