The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading: Tales of the Computer as Culture Machine
by Peter Lunenfeld
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011
144 pp. Trade, $21.95/£16.95
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
In this essay, which expands in a more systematic way on some of the ideas already defended in his previous book USERInfoTechnoDemo (2005), Peter Lunenfeld puts the stakes very high. Well known as one of the best analysts of digital culture, he opens here a certain number of historical, cultural, political, and ideological questions that make this book a real must-read for all those looking for new answers to the problems that modern technoculture has been facing since the end of what he calls 89/11 (“eighty-nine eleven”, the years of transition between the fall of the Wall of Berlin to the Twin Tower attacks).
Despite the author’s modesty, who emphasizes throughout participative and collaborative action and thinking, The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading is a book whose political importance can be compared to that of McLuhan (readers of this book, which proposes an inspiring blend of metaphorical short-cuts and more classic argumentation, may intuitively remember The Medium is the Massage), Adorno (given the highly personal tone of Lunenfeld’s style one will think here of Minima Moralia, as much as of the texts on the culture industry), and Dewey (and behind him the American pragmatist tradition of critical inquiry −as far as I am concerned the revival of Dewey in this context is one of the many good surprises of the book).
The title of the book is a perfect synthesis of what it is all about. Lunenfeld does not only argue that our culture is a technoculture (culture and machine have become exchangeable terms), and that this culture has now become a digital culture (the machine of our age is the computer), but also that the currently dominating device, the personal computer, is far from a simple continuation or remediation of previous machines. It is radically different from the machines that created and structured the previous periods of our culture (photography in the second half of the 19th century, cinema in the first half of the 20th century, and television in its second half), or at least virtually different. The problem with the computer is, indeed, that it allows for two possible uses, downloading (reception, consumption) and uploading (creation, participation) whose necessary balance is now dramatically disturbed to the sole profit of the former. We use the computer mainly as a downloading device, thus continuing and exacerbating what Lunenfeld considers the major failure of television culture: its exclusive focus on dissemination and on passive reception by its users, who suffer in various degrees a disease coined “cultural diabetes”. In the television age, 24/7 quantity has wiped out the search of quality, and the cultural and ideological consequences of this tendency are utterly deleterious: on the one hand, the reduction of culture to entertainment; on the other hand, the incapacity to invent new and hopeful answers to the problems and threats coming from all those, both from the left and the right, who challenge the heritage of Enlightenment’s secular and optimistic culture. From the left: Lunenfeld is targeting the negative self-criticism of modernist culture, its refusal to counter the anti-universalist stances of contemporary obscurantism, its refusal to recognize the deleterious effects of the vanishing of high culture, and its difficulty in finding positive models for future action and creation. From the right: here the author gives a thorough critique of all forms of, mostly theocratically inspired, anti-pluralism, outside the West but also within our Western technoculture.
At the same time, The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading takes very seriously the radical condemnation of modern civilization as a purely market-driven and amusement-oriented zombie or potato couch culture. Yet the answer he suggests is not a return to a mythical past, to a unified, patriarchal and theocratic society, but an attempt to rethink the openness, complexity, creativity, and collective dimension of secular, technologically enhanced Enlightenment. This attempt, which Lunenfeld does not present as a set of tailor-made answers, is very critical of some movements that have tried to bring cultural uploading to the fore: The author admits that avant-garde has proven perfectly compatible with the lowest and most despicable forms of the culture industry, just as he is aware of the limits of the “prosumer” culture (which does not always escape the only alternative of modern interactivity: either “buy now” or “buy later”).
Lunenfeld’s book is a cry for freedom––freedom from the market, which forces us to download and prevents us from uploading, but also freedom from all the reactionary forces whose hidden or overt agenda goes even much further. It does so by making four claims. First, the necessity to face the reality of technoculture, and to face it as something positive (the machine is not a devil, but part of our humanity). Second, the belief that these positive aspects have to do with the possibility of inventing (without the invention of a new future there is the risk of repeating the errors of the television era, which infamously continues to destroy our culture). Third, the urgency of doing so (after 9/11 we live in a culture of fear, which is crippling us). Fourth, the craving for a collective, that is collaborative and shared use of the possibilities of the computer, which is more than a “personal” or individual tool (hence for instance Lunenfeld’s insistence on Creative Commons and the aesthetics of “unfinishing”).
The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading is a deeply committed book by a man who is a no less a passionate lover of modern, i.e. both man- and machine-made culture, than a critical voice eager to make a plea for values that are heavily under attack: pluralism, high culture, gift economy. Its highly appealing style and healthy sense of polemic and provocation should make it a hotly debated work in the years to come.