13th Nov2012

Teletechnologies, Place, and Community

by melissarogers

Wilken, Rowan. Teletechnologies, Place, and Community. New York: Routledge, 2011.

            Rowan Wilken’s 2011 Teletechnologies, Place, and Community explores the contradictory and shifting ways in which notions of place and community get taken up in discourses about teletechnologies, or “technologies of distance” (1). In this comprehensive and interdisciplinary media historiography, Wilken contests the argument that computer-mediated communication (CMC) transcends, or even signals the death of, space, place, and geography. At the same time, he challenges corollary statements that CMC enables disembodied online interactions in which identity is infinitely malleable, statements which thereby figure “virtual community” as either inherently transgressive and utopian or somehow weaker and less meaningful than face-to-face interactions. Through extensive discursive and textual analysis of writings on teletechnologies, Wilken not only provides useful evidence against the common position that online activities are separate from the “real” world, but also offers more productive ways to think through the relationships between teletechnologies, place, and community.

The first three chapters of the book lay the groundwork for Wilken’s later engagement with the uptake of computing technologies in architecture. The first chapter, “Techno-Sociality: Computer-Mediated Communication and Virtual Community”, examines the origins of the terms “cyberspace” and “virtual community” in the mid-eighties and early nineties as ways of describing online social interactions. He argues that whereas at first the use of the metaphor of community to describe what happens in what we know as cyberspace was implicitly accepted, in research on CMC since then this metaphor has come to be seen as somewhat accurate yet also problematic (15). Wilken then lays out key themes in debates over the use of “virtual community”: presence, geographical liberation, dis/embodiment, and identity. These themes are interrelated, as debates around telepresence (“the effect of being in a particular place while actually being somewhere quite different” [19, emphasis in original]) led to the argument that the primarily text-based medium of cyberspace could transcend geography and therefore rise above the limitations of embodied, place-based community formation. Wilken concludes the chapter by beginning to consider what might be distinctive about “virtual community”, arguing that much of the historical “baggage” (25) that accompanies the term “community” does not disappear in the attempt to use it in a computer-mediated context. This suggests that we “need to reformulate the very concept of ‘community’ in non-restrictive terms” (27). It is to this task that he turns in his next chapter, having offered a genealogy that usefully contextualizes some of the reasons why online interactions are commonly conceived as immaterial, placeless, and disembodied.

In his second chapter, “The Problem of Community,” Wilken historicizes the concept of community and then outlines its appearance in the theoretical frameworks of early twentieth century German sociologists Ferdinand Tönnies and Herman Schmalenbach, mid-twentieth century American sociologists George Hillery Jr. and William Goode, and late twentieth century poststructuralist philosophers Jean-Luc Nancy and Jacques Derrida. Approaching community in such a way enables Wilken to consider the usefulness of these scholars’ ideas for thinking about community’s translation to a virtual context. He establishes what he calls the problem of community, the cyclical disenchantment with and return to community amidst rapidly changing social, economic, and technological conditions throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: “How to formulate a model of community that accommodates the ‘other’? How to think afresh a model of in-common community that welcomes the ‘other’ which threatens its very commonality?” (32). From this problem he moves to a discussion of Tönnies’ much-debated terms, the communal Gemeinschaft and the more instrumental Gesellschaft, and Schmalenbach’s concept of the affective Bund, which can mediate between the two. For Wilken, these terms have the potential to make sense of the kinds of interactions occurring in CMC, yet they are ultimately undermined by their close resemblance to Anglo-American and European conceptualizations of community as a communion that subsumes difference, as well as by their appropriation by the Nazis (39). By contrast, Hillery and Goode offer an understanding of community that is “constituted by social interaction and commonality (as opposed to geographically determined criteria)” (41), and that emphasizes the “plural and layered” processes by which communities are formed (44), contributions that, according to Wilken, can move scholars past the argument that virtual communities are divorced from “real” or other forms of community. Finally, Wilken offers an exploration of the idea of community in the work of Nancy and Derrida, two poststructuralist thinkers who radically reconfigure this contentious concept by attempting to work toward a “politics of difference” (55), the former by imagining community as a kind of “being-with” and the latter by focusing on the promise or potential of gift-giving. It is their desire to “think the risk of the limit of community—or to think the risk that takes place through exposure of and at the limit of community” that holds the most promise for Wilken’s project (60), as it theoretically avoids the pitfalls of the somewhat static understanding of community offered by thinkers over the previous two centuries.

Wilken’s selective genealogy for the immense and longstanding “problem of community” is worth repeating in such detail here because it proves immensely useful for scholars who seek to make sense of community in the digital age. Indeed, Wilken shows that contrary to claims that increased connection has made community engagement more superficial or a somehow less central preoccupation, the attempt to shift community into a digital context has only highlighted the necessity of revisiting and reconceiving historical debates around community’s potentials and risks. Furthermore, his attention not only to the abovementioned thinkers but also to their critics and advocates offers proliferative avenues of future investigation and an extensive bibliography of resources on these debates. This critical engagement with multiple disciplinary perspectives and points of conflict is sustained throughout the book and, while occasionally requiring the reader to sift through paragraphs of quotes and in-text citations, makes for a wide-ranging survey that does not sacrifice depth for breadth.

Wilken’s third chapter, “Haunting Affects: Place in Virtual Discourse”, deals with the definitional imprecision of place in its general use and, more specifically, with its spectral presence as metaphor in discourses on CMC. He writes that place is usually associated with a specific and bounded locality, yet it has a pervasive influence on our everyday lives, functioning as the backdrop or even the material for experience (62). He also notes the need to dissociate place from community if community’s exclusionary tendencies are to be rethought (63). He then delves into the widespread perception of CMC as placeless while also able to connect far-flung places, arguing that place persists in our engagement with CMC through the use of place-based metaphors. These include navigation and transportation metaphors such as “surfing the web” or traveling the “information superhighway”, pioneer metaphors that figure the internet as a frontier or territory, and most importantly, architectural metaphors that shape graphical user interfaces as well as the naming of online social “spaces” like chat “rooms”. It is in this chapter that one of the main arguments of Teletechnologies, Place, and Community begins to be developed in depth. Following Derrida, who critiqued the use of spatial metaphor in philosophy, Wilken argues that the metaphors we choose are never neutral but fundamentally shape that which we are trying to describe: “the historical framing of the virtual as ‘unbounded’ and ‘dematerialised’ is a myth produced by the insistence on place as only metaphorical. Moreover, these metaphorical constructions are based on quite limited underlying conceptions of place which deny the full complexity of this concept” (79). In other words, conceptualizing space as empty or abstract rather than socially practiced, à la Lefebvre, leads to the privileging of space over place in discourses on CMC, as well as the assumption that cyberspace cannot be physical space and is not a part of “actual” or geographical space. By attending to spatial or architectural metaphor as the “suppressed term” in discourses on teletechnologies (79), Wilken is able to get to the heart of major debates on CMC, debates on presence, embodiment, and emplacement that have significant implications for how we understand virtual community.

In his next two chapters Wilken turns to the discipline of architecture in order to examine how it has taken up computing technologies and what influence it might have on place and community in discourses of the virtual. This turn to architecture is strategic and valuable in that architecture forms “an important but hitherto neglected chapter in the broader history of cyberculture” (115). “Machines of Tomorrow Past: Early Experiments in Architectural Computing” focuses on the early uptake of computing technologies by architects in the 1960s and 1970s, giving brief overviews of the work of Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander, Yona Friedman, Nicholas Negroponte, and Peter Cook. Wilken argues that despite their somewhat different reactions to the place of technological developments in architecture, these thinkers thought of the computer primarily as a problem-solving technology, linking it to architecture’s humanist agenda to improve living conditions (99). He also notes that although place and community do not appear explicitly in these early architectural engagements with technology, systems theory and cybernetics were “key influences” on these thinkers (99). The latter half of the chapter is a case study of the work of experimental British architect Cedric Price, whose unrealized design for the Fun Palace, an “anti-building” whose interior spaces would integrate computing technology in order to create maximum engagement with artistic materials and ideas, represents for Wilken the liberating potential of combining teletechnologies, architectural principles, and concern for place-based community interaction. This case study is where the overall arguments of the book become most tangible and salient, as the plans for the Fun Palace attempted to create unimagined forms of sociality through explicit use of teletechnologies for individual and group learning as well as play. The Fun Palace design built in the potential of the virtual as a fundamentally social project. If anything can approximate John Rajchman’s vision for a “virtual house” full of connections, openness, and multiplicity, it is Price’s unbuilt Fun Palace.

“Fantasies of Transcendence and Transformative Imagination: Architectural Visions of Cyberspace” continues the line of thinking developed in the previous chapter, shifting the focus to the 1990s, when computer-aided design (CAD) dominated architecture, “overturning or dismantling many of its foundational elements—the semantic units that make up the very language of architecture”: architectural representation, building materials, scale and proportion, spatiality, time, and architectural fixity (118-119). Thus the concept of cyberspace necessitated a “critical reframing” of architecture (126), what Wilken terms “neuromantic architecture”, paying homage to the science fiction novel in which William Gibson coined the term cyberspace as well as highlighting the somewhat Romantic aspects of new architecture, namely an idea of nature informed by cybernetic theory and global flows of information as well as an emphasis on taking imagination to the limits of representation. Wilken concludes, however, that despite neuromantic architecture’s imaginative promise, it continues to consider space in the abstract and does not attend to “the full complexities of ‘social space’” à la Lefebvre (145). In order to attend to some of these nuances, Wilken turns in his next chapter, “Domesticating Technology, Mobilising Place”, to the home as a site where discourses of place, community, and teletechnologies come into contact with one another. After historicizing “home” within a nostalgic tradition that figures it as the birthplace of community, Wilken problematizes understandings of home that take the universality of its privacy and secure enclosure for granted. He then theorizes the spatial practices of the “domestication” of teletechnologies in the home, exploring discourses on how uses of teletechnologies have not only become integrated with home life but how they have also become naturalized. Home therefore becomes one of the places in which we understand and experience mediated networked mobility, forcing us to question our understandings of place as stable and bounded. Wilken argues that transformations in uses of teletechnologies in the home, as well as in the use of mobile technologies, force us to shift our conception of place as stable to an understanding of place as mobile: “mobilitas loci (the renegotiation of place via networked mobility, and the interrogation of ‘questions of place, facility, equipment and the idiosyncracies of the users’ that this renegotiation prompts)” (179). Mobilizing place, Wilken argues, dissolves the rigid dichotomy between virtual and actual that plagues debates on teletechnologies.

It is to this dichotomy that Wilken turns in his final chapter, “Rethinking Teletechnologies, Place, and Community”, in which he proposes an alternate model for making sense of the relationships between these key terms. His three-part proposal for this model includes dissolving the divide between the virtual and the actual along the lines of Derrida’s concept of “actuvirtuality”, developing an understanding of social difference that can move “community” away from its association with exclusion, and establishing a model of place that emphasizes its relationality and its embeddedness in connectivity. Such a model, drawing heavily on poststructuralist positions that figure subjectivity as plural as well as the work of social geographers such as Doreen Massey who posit place as open and heterogeneous, offers tools for navigating the theoretical impasses created by strict binary oppositions imposed on the uses of teletechnologies. This is one of the key contributions of Wilken’s book, as he establishes a point of departure for scholars who grapple with the problems and limitations of community but who are unwilling to give up its promise and potential, in virtual form or otherwise.

Teletechnologies, Place, and Community is a must-read for anyone struggling to make sense of how increasingly pervasive and mobile technologies of distance have affected our sense of place as well as our sense of connection to communities that matter. Wilken’s in-depth and extensive discursive and textual analysis spans many disciplinary and geographic locations, shifting smoothly between different time periods and contexts in order to mark historical and conceptual shifts in discourses on teletechnologies. By refusing to let architecture remain the suppressed term that haunts our thinking on virtual space and place, Wilken opens avenues of exploration that otherwise remained closed due to an inability to think place and community outside of concrete boundaries, stability, and unity. His surprisingly readable and relatively jargon-free interpretations of poststructuralist thinking, furthermore, refute charges that such philosophers are apolitical or irrelevant to social concerns. This book represents a landmark study in trajectories of research on cyberspace and virtual community.

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