From cyberspace to constant connectivity: the social ontology of socio-technical change

In a thought-provoking chapter from 1997, Roger Burrows reflected on cyberpunk as social theory. It’s interesting to read this twenty years later because the analytical concerns of digital sociology remain largely unchanged but the techno-symbolic register within which they’re being articulated couldn’t be more different. Much of this rests on a conception of cyberspace as a parallel world, free from the representational constraints of embodiment. This romanticisation of technology, with its “relaxed contempt for the flesh” as Gibson puts it, can be read as a symptom of a particular stage of capitalist development, with digital media providing a feeling of release from the anomie gripping Anglo-American society as the ‘end of history’ dawns. This is how Burrows describes the cyberpunk world view on pg 243:

It suggests that close face-to-face social relationships, outside those with kin and some others within highly bounded locales, are becoming increasingly difficult to form. Social and geographical mobility increase the fluidity of social life and undermine the formation of strong social bonds. The spectacle of consumer culture, manifest in the commodified ‘simulation’ of the shopping mall as authentic public space, although providing a forum for the display of self-identity and the outcomes of associated body projects, in the end only results in the construction of a ‘lonely crowd’. This promotes a retreat into an increasingly fortified technologised privatised world away from the increasingly remote and ungovernable spaces occupied by the repressed (Bauman 1988), which serves to further contract the more proximate ‘social’ sources of self-identity. For many all that is left is technology.

The dominant view of digital media couldn’t be more different. In contrast to the escape into cyberspace, we have the immersion in the real: constant connectivity throughout our mobile meanderings, deepening our participation in social reality to the extent that a panic emerges about the decimated interior lives of ‘millennials’. In fact one could go as far as to say these two framings are polar opposites, with escape-through-transcendence being replaced by parallel pictures of constraint-through-immanentization (digital pessimism) and escape-through-immanentization (digital optimism).

What’s changed in the meantime? Pretty much everything: technology, society, politics. To a certain extent I think the social theoretical value of cyberpunk can be seen as a red herring, in which what Burrows describes as the recursive relationship between the two leads to the reproduction of an emerging (inaccurate) common sense about a socio-technical development. Nonetheless, I still think turning to fiction as a ideational resource to make sense of our changing condition is a valuable thing to do, albeit with me now being a little more wary about the risks involved in doing this.

However there’s more to it than this. The problem that cybercultures analysis faced in 1997 is no different to that which digital sociology faces today:

Our inability to adequately account for our changing world in sociological terms has led, not just to an ontological insecurity but to ever more frantic attempts to provide some sort of sociological frame for a constantly moving target.

If anything this moving target is accelerating. Our entanglement in its operations is more comprehensive. If we refuse a retreat to empiricism, rejecting the empirical given of the platform as a adequate account of an emerging reality, it presents us with a tricky set of analytical problems that won’t go away. Drawing on fiction is one resource through which we can tackle it but we also need to build conversations over time, rather than letting older attempts slip away into the past. The social ontology of socio-technical change is continuous in a way which the superficial differences between contemporary ‘digital’ literature and older ‘cyber’ literature tends to obscure.

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