Sociology 304

March 23, 1999

Introduction to Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age

A. Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age

1. Overview. Stone's approach is to present some ideas concerning changes in society in the contemporary era, changes associated with the development and application of new technologies. These ideas are presented in two forms: (i) through conventional discussions of theoretical issues, and (ii) through stories about people involved in the new technologies.

These stories concern the beginnings of some of the new technologies, some unexpected applications of these technologies, and some social issues surrounding the development and use of the new technologies. Most of her analysis is at the micro level, examining how individuals relate to the technologies, and how they interact using these new technologies. Much of her analysis deals with new forms of interaction, new ways in which groups form and are structured, and new forms of community. Some of the stories concerning these may seem bizarre, but they are presented to explain some of the possible implications and meanings of these technologies.

2. Stories. A large part of the book is devoted to five stories that deal with different forms of experience and interaction in the new technologies. The five major stories in Stone's book are as follows. In addition to these, there are some shorter stories or examples. Each of these stories is intended to illustrate some aspect of the new technologies and the implications for how human interaction and relationships with these technologies in contemporary society.

a. Identity in Oshkosh. (Ch. 2). Multiple personalities and identities and the meaning of rape in these circumstances.

b. Cross-Dressing Psychiatrist. (Ch. 3). This is the story of Julie, a cyberspace character created by a male psychiatrist. Julie developed a considerable following, but was eventually discovered for what she was.

c. CommuniTrees. (Ch. 5). This story describes the development of the first electronic bulletin board, originating in the Bay Area in California. Some of the difficulties of developing a virtual community, and some of the lessons learned from these experiences are described in this chapter.

d. Atari Lab. (Ch. 6). This chapter deals with the Atari lab that was set up when Atari was a very profitable corporation. The programmers hired by Atari were initially allowed great freedom to work and play at their own pace and at whatever they wished. Eventually though, those who controlled the corporation dominated - there was a clash between the creative, freewheeling programmers and the essentially conservative business approach of the corporate executives. The lab was dismantled and all the programmers were fired when the corporation began to lose money and was sold.

e. Wellspring Systems. (Ch. 7). This is another hi-tech lab where development of computer games occurs. Stone notes the conventional, authoritarian, and sexist structure of this lab, and the seeming lack of concern with these problems on the part of the programmers there. She expresses disappointment in how the young programmers, who have great power in directing the new technologies, do not perceive this power, let alone use it in what she would consider to be a positive direction (p. 164).

Self and Identity. In telling these stories, Stone grapples with some of the issues concerning the new ways in which individuals act, and with the possibility of new forms of interaction and community. An important aspect in this is who interacts, who the individuals is, and the distinction between individuals, the "I", selves, and bodies. We may have assumed that these were all identical, but Stone shows how aspects of these may differ considerably.

For example, on p. 86 Stone notes that there are various ways in which bodies and selves are connected or disconnected:

Traditional approaches assumed a single body and a single self, with these being human and connected to each other with clear boundaries of where the body and the self started and ended.

3. Theory. Part of Stone's analysis is a more conventional discussion of some important technological developments and theoretical issues. Stone examines a range of technologies, and sets the new information technologies within the context and history or earlier communication technologies.

Some of the issues that concern Stone are:

The last main paragraph of the book (p. 183) outlines how the future of these may be unclear, but how these developments are important for those involved in them, and for contemporary society.

Part of Stone's aim is to outline the consequences and give examples of the above.

Desire and Technology. The war of desire and technology is perhaps best described on pages 170-171. Here Stone notes how technology cannot change the world for us, or produce a better world, even if the Microsoft advertisements claim that it is technology that can do this. Stone argues that it will be up to individuals and society to produce better social arrangements for the future, if these are to exist. New technologies may appear to point the way to a better society, but these technologies are associated with "commodification, simulation, political power" (p. 171) and these may clash with "the inexpungible human desire for sociality and love." (p. 171). The conflicting forces may create new forms of identities and these may be difficult for people to absorb. Traditional customs and forms of knowledge may be difficult to overcome, and what the individual is and what the individual's space and boundaries are, may all be difficult to sort out as the technological forces become stronger. Much of the argument of Kroker is similar, and one of the main parts of the critique of Stone and Kroker is similar to that of Marx: the gap between the possibilities of new technologies and new forms of economic organization (almost unlimited possibilities), and the situation in which individuals find themselves (often poverty and limited social possibilities).

4. Themes. Stone raises many issues and themes in her book, and the implications of these are not always clear. That is partly because the conditions which she is describing are not necessarily generalized and because the technologies are continually changing and developing, so that the direction they and human society will go is not always clear. Some of the themes and issues that Stone highlights are as follows.

Interaction. pp. 10-12.

Presence. p. 16.

Public and private space. pp. 18-19.

Selves, bodies, and identities.

Multiple identities, personalities, and selves.

Boundaries and closure.

Tool, prosthetic, or cyborg?


Presence and warranting. p. 16, p. 40, p. 79.

5. Academic approach. In constructing the book in the manner she has, Stone is trying to change the manner in which academic analysis takes place. While she presents conventional academic articles and analyses, her approach may be postmodern in that she juxtaposes "clashing styles, … shifts of mood and voice" (p. 166). Her website provides information concerning her other activities, and she presents her work using a variety of different technologies and approaches.

B. Virtual and Cyber

For Kroker and others, this is the electronic frontier of 21st century society. This is the replacement or redefinition of our biological human senses with new ways of hearing, seeing, and touching, and of the replacement of travel in territorial, geographic space by travel in cyberspace - across the internet and in other programmed or open ended electronic forms such as electronic games and simulations. Each of the ordinary human senses become redefined and travel and communication also become redefined. How often have you heard someone say "Let's go to the Voyager site" or on TV the commentator says, "We will now go to Paris or to Kosovo" while you do not move from the chair. While virtual reality games and experiences may represent an extreme of this type of reality, there are a number of ways that we experience various aspects of this - using computers, working on the internet, playing video games, watching TV, etc. A 1998 Chrysler advertisement makes it appear as if the Dodge Intrepid was designed by a virtual system, and some auto dealers have virtual test drives.

Virtual denotes images, models, or simulations that appear real, but in fact are not physically existing. Of course, there are physically existing computer codes, hardware, and software that create these images, just as there are physical devices like lenses or mirrors that create virtual optical images. The computer codes may originally derive from physically existing objects but can be altered and take on a recombinant form.

Virtual reality may seem to be a joining of two terms together in a way that does not make sense, but it has been used to denote the creation of images, models, and simulations in cyberspace that may appear to be real or appear to exist physically. While this term is now commonly used with reference to computer games and other electronic forms of simulation, Kroker is also using this in the way that Baudrillard does, where "the simulation models become more real than the actual institutions, and not only is it increasingly difficult to distinguish between simulation and reality, but the reality of simulation becomes the criterion of the real itself" (Best and Kellner, p. 120). The Carillon reviewer of a Jane Siberry concert at the Students' Union several years ago noted that she had never heard an actual concert that reproduced the record (or disk) as well as Siberry had done. K. Anderson defines virtual reality as "the reality created by using a computer, a reality that can be seen as virtual or artificial in the sense that it is located in the user's mind as a result of an interaction with an electronic device, rather than one in the material world" (p. 457).

Virtual. Root appears to be virtu, manliness, valour, worth and vir or man. Virtue was used as a quality of persons or a quality of things. Virtual as possessed of certain physical qualities, or that is so in essence or effect, although not formally or actually. This word has a long history in English, with varied meanings, but was used in optics in the 1700s to denote the apparent focus or image resulting from the effect of reflection or refraction upon rays of light. Applied in physics and then in computer science to denote "not physically existing, but made by software to appear to do so from the point of view of the program or user" (OED).

Cyber. Steer or control. Cybernetics as the field of control and communication theory, in machine or in animal. Norbert Wiener, 1948. Theory or study of communications and control in living organisms or machines. OED Supplement.

Douglas Kellner. "The term 'cyber' is a Greek root signifying 'control.' and the term has been absorbed into the concept of 'cybernetics,' signifying a system of high-tech control systems, combining computers, new technologies, and artificial realities, with strategies of system maintenance and control. The roor 'cyber' is also related to 'cyborg,' describing new syntheses of humans and machines and generally signifies cutting-edge high-tech artifacts and experiences." (p. 310 of Media Culture). Cyborg as "union of nature, society, and technology" (K. Anderson, p. 456, from D. Haraway). Kellner notes how this was connected to 'punk' from "the edge and attitude of tough urban life, sex, drugs, violence, and antiauthoritarian rebellion in lifestyles, pop culture, and fashion" to produce 'cyberpunk.' Together this meant "the marriage of high-tech subculture with low-life street cultures ... or to technoconciousness and culture which merges state-of-the-art technology with the alteration of the senses, mind, and lifestyles associated with bohemian subcultures" (p. 310) Cyberspace comes from William Gibson.

Cyber and cyberspace are related terms. These come from control or communication theory in machine or electronic technologies. Cyber has often been connected with other words to denote ways in which these electronic technologies are joined with traditional ideas such as space and culture, to denote that these traditional ideas take on a new form. Cyberspace has no physical, geographic, or territorial location, but has a certain reality, in the sense that we operate in it, act and interact with it, get help from it, put information into it, assemble and reorganize this information, and retrieve new forms of information from it. Michael Benedikt defines it as

a new universe, a parallel universe created and sustained by the world's computers and communication lines. A world in which the global traffic of knowledge, secrets, measurements, indicators, entertainment, and alter-human agency takes on form. (from K. Anderson, p. 458).

Cyberspace was coined by William Gibson, the science fiction writer, in 1984, to describe a sphere where people are connected by digital communication. For Gibson, this is

A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts ... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding… .(Gibson, Neuromancer, p. 51).

With the advent of the internet, this has taken a qualitative leap, but is also part of daily communications, finance and banking, and the workplace of many workers.


Anderson, Karen L., Sociology: A critical introduction, Scarborough, Nelson Canada, 1996.

Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, New York, The Guilford Press, 1991.

Dery, Mark, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, New York, Grove Press, 1996.

Farganis, J., Readings in Social Theory: the Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism, second edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1993.

Gibson, William, Neuromancer, New York, Ace, 1984.

Kroker, Arthur and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: the theory of the virtual class, Montreal, New World Perspectives, 1994.

Porter, David, Internet Culture, Routledge, New York, 1996.

Notes from March 23, 1999 class. Last edited on April 1, 1999.

Return to Sociology 304, Winter, 1999.