Sign of the Times


An introduction to cybercultures

By: David Bell

Author Bio: David N. Bell is a retired professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He published two dozen books, a hundred articles, and many book reviews. His book is an accessible guide to the meanings of the rapidly-growing field of technology.


By: Peyton Schabillion

Cybercultures. In a word, author David Bell introduces a series of ideas, issues and questions about two conjoined words. In Bell’s, An Introduction to Cybercultures, he explores the unnoticed advancements in technology and how it affects a person’s everyday life. His book provides an accessible guide to the practices and meanings of the rapidly-growing field of technology. From the expansion of hardware and software to the developments of cyberpunk, hackers, films, and fiction, Bell introduces his readers to the major aspects of cyberculture including, email, the internet, virtual realities, computer games, digital special effects, and the many different implications of technology in everyday lives.

Bell establishes his humorous yet informative voice and tone, as well as an overview for the rest of his book in Chapter 1. In Chapters 2 and 3, he dives into the true meanings of cyberspace and then continues to describe how people merge “hardware, software and wetware with memories and forecasts, hopes and fears and excitement and disappointment.”1 In saying this, Bell asserts how technology is a part of people’s everyday experiences. He also exemplifies technological advancements in the military and the continuously increasing number of scientists participating in the war efforts: “the need for machines for computation in the fields of ballistics, ordnance, information management, battle control, training, military intelligence and command systems led to cornerstone innovations in post-war digital computing: graphic interfaces, virtual reality simulations, and artificial intelligence.”2 The virtual reality aspects not only aided in training military recruits and practicing situational tactics, but also in entertainment such as videogames and movies, as discussed in Chapter 3. Bell delineates 3 Dimensional (3D) enhancements in Image MAXimum (IMAX) theatres, cinema and entertainment, as well as games, and simulations. He states how 3D has made a positive impact in the entertainment world due to its promise of “immersive and interactive environments,” however, he argues it is not as widely accessible as the internet.3 And, therefore Bell claims that the internet is the most impactful technological invention because it brings people together and is something most people use on a daily basis, which he addresses in later chapters. Bell also uncovers the many technological advancements and their uses within the medical field, including but not limited to, computer-meditated cyberspace (CMC) and the human computer interface (HCI), which both are worked through in terms of cultural practices in daily experiences, and also new medical imaging technologies (NITs) which are utilized to reveal the body’s innards and aid in surgery. Additionally, he discourses computer-generated imagery (CGI) in movies, personal computer software (PCs) and text messages and how they are cable of creating a beam of communication and knowledge halfway around the world in an instant. He shares several personal stories growing up, along with how he obtained and interacted with such technology throughout his life, and its effect on him and his entire family.

Bell proceeds in Chapter 4 by discussing different theorists and their personal understanding and takes on cybercultures. He outlines several points including seeing the internet as a “productive cultural site and element of social relations” and “recognizing the banality...flow of economics, ideology, everyday life, and experience of the internet.”4 He proceeds to cover several debates on cybercultures, which helps define cybercultures amongst some of the great masters of technology including Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman, who both argue for “technological determinism”—which they define as a “mode of understanding that prescribes a one-way relationship between machines (technology) and people (society), in which technologies change, and that change impacts people.”5 Bell then distinguishes between the two quarreling sides participating in the notorious “Science Wars”: the social construction of technology (SCOT) and the actor-network theory (ANT). These two groups dispute between technological determinism vs. social determinism and when they can overlap. Next, in Chapter 5, Bell takes the readers into the most interesting and contested areas of cyberculture. The topic is about community, and how it affects human interaction and culture. Bell traces the debates about online or virtual communities and highlights the tensions between different standpoints on the “promises and limitations” of cyberculture.6 He also talks about globalization and how it increases the “connectedness between people and places dispersed around the world.”7 The globalization of technology has created fluidity and connections between people. It is through the internet that people have found a new sense of belonging and community within the World Wide Web. The internet allows them to share common interests or they can diverge and create their own “cyberculture” or community. Overall, the internet has broadened social, economic, political and cultural processes and communities.

Bell further explores the implications of cyberspace and cyberculture in Chapter 6, and the ways that we think about who we are, including key sociological and cultural markers. He questions the social or cultural identity through the lenses of race, class, gender and sexuality in order to illustrate the issues raised in the context of cyberspace. He compares a human’s personality to a “homepage of a website produced by an individual, couple, or family, which is centered around the personality and identity of its author(s).”8 Bell believes labels that group people into stereotypes can cause problems and confusion when identifying oneself because people are more complicated than a label; everyone is a unique individual and do not fit within a word. He covers questions that expert Jon Kolko ponders such as: “does race disappear in cyberspace?” and “do narratives that depict racial and ethnic minorities in cyberspace simply recapitulate the old racist stereotypes, do they challenge them, do they use the medium to sketch out new virtual realities of race?9 Bell agrees with Kolko’s observation that the use of cybertechnologies is causing “issues of language in online interaction, and the implications of notions such as cyborg for the formation of new ‘cyberethnicities.’”10 This examination also goes for all cultural markers—even women. Bell draws from feminist critics of science and technology, who suggest “computer technology represents yet another sphere of exclusion or domination for women.”11 However, in order to avoid discrimination, women have created their own, different types of cybercommunites. Katie Ward describes the types as “online feminism and online cyberfeminism;” where women can further “feminist politics generally through global communication, consciousness-raising, and so on, while others engage in technology itself, seeking to rewire it for new cyberfeminist politics.”12 Bell then finishes the chapter with sexulaity online. He attempts to explain Gareth Branwyn’s definition of “compu-sex” as being a “curious blend of phone sex, computer dating, and high-tech voyeurism.”13 Bell analyzes how sites do not “concern themselves directly with issues of sexual identity, other than perhaps to remove some of the stigma attached to practices of voyeurism, exhibitionism and the consumption (and production) of pornogrphy.”14 Bell is disheartened and ashamed that technology is being used for cyberbullying. He can’t seem to grasp why the normalizing of homosexuals or exclusion of any kind should be taking place on the internet, which in his opinion, should be a safe place for connection, communication, and community. However, he knows cyberbullying and exclusion is an inevitable reality. Bell discusses in, Chapter 7, the disembodiment and re-embodiment in cyberspace, and the exploration of the cyborg and the posthuman. He defines the ‘body in theory’ in which the body is everywhere and yet simultaneously nowhere in the social theory of today. He explains other parts of the complicated theory, specifically how bodies thought to be “reconfigured as fluid, multiple, fragmented and dispersed”—much like the fluidity of a computer or the internet.15 Bell questions what exactly makes up humans and whether or not humanity and society should retain or transcend humanness. Bell further explains that many people have this ultimate “dream” of giving up the “meat,” or body, and becoming a walking, talking computer—a real cyborg. However, he follows with pointing out that “translating this dream into practice, moreover, appears to require a working version of Gibson’s “consensual hallucination,” not just because the direct interfacing of the mind and machine has yet to become a reality, but also because the ‘meat’ is not readily discarded—it’s the meat that sits at the screen, typing and reading.” This dream can’t and never will be achieved because the body can never be fully left out of the equation; it contains the human soul, brain, and emotions essential for life.

Bell further examines the “subcultural” or “countercultural” uses of cyberspace in Chapter 8. He elaborates on the ways technology dominates social norms and formulations. He then reveals the grey areas in which technology might not be a central part of identity, but where “its characteristics have certainly reshaped the way the group works.”16 He looks further into online fan cultures, conspiracy theories and various other groups; the second category was illustrated by MUDers, cyberpunks, and hackers.17 Because of the sheer amount of accessible material, it encourages subcultures to form. Bell’s purpose in Chapter 9 is to think through the possibilities and constraints of researching cybercultures. He defines search engines and research engines and offers “hot links and cool sites”18 in order to inform and give his readers access to more information on cybercultures. He encourages his readers to continue to educate themselves on cybercultures and learn how the cultures affect human interaction and community. Lastly, in Chapter 10, Bell offers some final words and closure. He concludes with redefining cybercultures as “a way of naming the relationships between the objects, images and experiences that together constitute cyberspace as culture and cultural artefact.”19

Bell’s overall message and purpose in writing An Introduction to Cybercultures, is to define cybercultures as the relationships between objects, images, and experiences constituting cyberspace. He then exemplifies the different types of cybercultures and how they create community and advance human’s way of life.

David Bell grew up in a time where technology was being refined and growing into its glory today. He talks and reminisces fondly throughout his book about his personal stories with his first computer and using the World Wide Web. He observes the advancing technology throughout the 2000’s and how it has affected not only his life but everyone’s life in some way or another.

Technology in the 2000’s was being refined and wasn’t necessarily new or inventive, however, perhaps it was overlooked and taken for granted in many ways, as Bell asserts. Also, racial, sexual, gender, and class identity was being embraced, so the general attitudes of advancing technology continued to aid in bringing society closer. People were starting to accept a lot more and easily and therefore, by 2015, President Barack Obama legalized gay marriage rights and the gaps between human beings began to shrink due to advancements in technology and a general feeling of nationalism and globalization. Technology, and therefore knowledge and acceptance, brings people closer and offers a sense of belonging—a community where everyone is one in the same.

Elena Maceviciute, in January 2003, reviewed David Bell’s An Introduction to Cybercultures in order to educate herself on cybercultures because the “book is meant [for] a beginner.”20 Maceviciute argues the book does not provide anything “beyond initial introductory material and in some cases needs better historical coverage and wider and deeper insights into methodological approaches or literary discourses.”21 Furthermore, Maceviciute challenges that “the book is already lagging behind in recent developments in intellectual property ownership, electronic security developments, or actual “hot” pleasures provided by virtual reality and other technologies (beyond MUDs).” She did, however, acknowledge that the book was an easy and understandable read, following more or less, the “same outline: definition of the basic concepts, introduction to the central theories used by the different authors (and/or by Bell), and development of the theme.” However, she concluded her snarky review: “it seems writing books about cyberspace is a hopeless race against time,”22 giving Bell the benefit of the doubt and lending some of her admiration in covering as much as he did in what little time he had. Technology will forever change with the flow of time.

Søren Lindbo has also reviewed Bell’s book in January 4th, 2011. He states the volume “aims to cover the whole spectrum of cyberspace and related new technologies to explore the ways in which new technologies are reshaping cultural forms and practices at the turn of the century.”23 Lindbo really enjoyed Bell’s An Introduction to Cybercultures, he remarked, “[It’s a] great introduction to web and cyber cultural studies. [It has an] introductory and [a] good weight of different angles on the issues at hand.”24 Lindbo goes on to summarize Bell’s main points, including his theoretical approaches to cyberculture, portrayal in film and fiction, the development of distinct cyber-subcultures, and the feminist, queer, and racial approaches within cyberculture. He then ends his review with exclaiming, “Bell’s introduction to cyberspace served its purpose!”25

Bell’s book defined terms, gave some historical context, delineated on several basic concepts and introduced several beginning level theories from several different authors and experts in their respected fields. However, Bell hardly tied his main points back to a central theme or time period going on in the 2000s. If he had done so, it would have made his explanation more compelling and understandable since his readers can think of his arguments pertaining to historical context. Since there was no ‘contextualization’ or ‘synthesis’ in his book, it made it difficult to realize what his ‘big picture’ or vision was. However, Bell’s voice was humorous and entertaining. He kept his book light and refreshing by integrating other author’s and expert’s opinions and sprinkled in a bit of his own personal stories growing up as a kid in a time of evolving technology. Overall, Bell’s book was an easy and enjoyable read filled with interesting topics however, his book did not contain a lot of historical time periods to give context to what he was trying to prove.

An Introduction to Cybercultures reveals a time of prosperity and growth in the American faith and humanity. People became more accepting of identities and have the accessibility to countless amounts of information and contacts from a push of a button. As for the Cold War ending and the fear of terrorism, Bell does briefly discuss the technological advancements in military warfare and training such as virtual reality simulators to train soldiers and put them into situational practices. However, technology also changed the way we release news. We found ways to enhance radio, theatres, entertainment, and video games which gives youth a twist and taste of culture and offers different takes on historical events. Technology provides the American people with various accounts of information so that they can come to their own conclusions instead of relying on political leaders to give them their news and truth.

Bell notes the social, political and economic impacts of technology in America by discussing all of the different medical, entertainment, community, subcultures etc. created from the advancements in technology. He then further deliniates on how those advancements affect individuality, identity, freedom, knowledge, and community.

Bell addresses cybercultures and all of its major and yet overlooked impacts in society today. Although he is at a race with time in discussing technological advances, what he exemplifies rings true to this day and technology will continue to grow and better society.

[1] Bell, David. An introduction to cybercultures. New York: Routledge, 2001. 2.
[2] Bell, David. 10.
[3] Bell, David. 15.
[4] Bell, David. 73.
[5] Bell, David. 73.
[6] Bell, David. 92.
[7] Bell, David. 95.
[8] Bell, David. 117.
[9] Bell, David. 119.
[10] Bell, David. 119.
[11] Bell, David. 127.
[12] Bell, David. 123.
[13] Bell, David. 127.
[14] Bell, David. 127.
[15] Bell, David. 138.
[16] Bell, David. 165.
[17] Bell, David. 184.
[18] Bell, David. 190.
[19] Bell, David. 205.
[20] Maceviciute, Elena. (2003) Review of: Bell, David. An introduction to cybercultures. London: Routledge, 2001. Information Research, 8(2), review no. R077 [Available at: http://informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs077.html]
[21] Maceviciute, Elena.
[22] Maceviciute, Elena.
[23] Lindbo, Søren. (2011) Review of: Bell, David. An introduction to cybercultures. London: Routledge, 2001. [Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3725205-the-cybercultures-reader]
[24] Lindbo, Søren.
[25] Lindbo, Søren.