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Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiberoptics

by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun
The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006
360 pp. illus. 62b/w. Trade, $37.50
ISBN: 0-262-03332-1.

Reviewed by Martha Patricia Niño M.
Pontificia Universidad Javeriana


This enjoyable book examines the paradoxes of freedom in the age of fiber optics. The notion of light as knowledge, clarification, surveillance and discipline is interwoven by networks of light tubes, giving way to a literal materialization of enlightenment and at the same time serving as a metaphor of reality. There is a somewhat extreme but interesting discussion about concepts that we take for granted, such as freedom and liberty. Her position is akin to Zizek’s. There is no better way of enslavement, no better way to live a non-reflective existence than living in a free society, a free world, a free market with a free circulation of information and democracy. For him, enlightenment means "Think as much as you like, and as freely as you like, just obey!." Freedom is different from liberty. The act of liberation from an oppressive circumstance is linked to liberty while freedom is related to mobility. If in the past people longed for "liberty, equality, and fraternity" now we speak of "freedom, democracy, and free enterprise". Freedom in our society is more a characteristic of capital than individuals, regardless of how bourgeois they are or even exactly because of that very same condition, as Marx stated. This social shift towards a control and power society is not necessarily better or worse than a disciplinary society. These models will always have at some point internal contradictions such as the tension between liberty and equality. Chun also implies the impossibility of full democracy in a technocratic society in which the so-called "digital divide" has not disappeared, and will not disappear since it is what companies use to sell themselves as "the solution". It introduces new liberating and enslaving forces such as the emerging digital sweatshops.

Within the text you can encounter information about widely discussed topics but still very relevant such as when we sacrifice important rights, such as privacy in order to have security and to reinforce control as happens with militaristic approaches and the post September 11th terrorist paranoia. She also notices that paranoia is not pathological anymore but something that we perceive as logical. Justifying fear has become quotidian and acceptable.

Although there is a list of technologies and descriptions of software and hardware, the core of her analysis is not based on technology or military strategies, and she clearly states that control and paranoia form part of bigger political problems that cannot, under any circumstance, be reduced to technological ones. For that reason, the research is focused, instead, on the roles of race and sexuality in the rich and complex interactions between freedom and control. These discourses are symptomatic of larger changes in bio-power.

Internet is sometimes advertised as an utopist place in which there is no gender, age, infirmities, or other ways to be excluded. This is problematical, in particular, when it is portrayed as a race-free utopia because it ends up solidifying the stereotypes that they claim to erase. New media constructs notions of race that as Mongrel states are more than simple indexes of biological and cultural sameness, sometimes the ethnical conflicts are also carefully constructed. Race is a complex mental image that sometimes depicts the fear of otherness since sometimes it is built upon harmful stereotypes that don’t even exist. Some of the constructions about others also have colonial and conquest strategies. The chapter entitled Orienting the Future is particularly insightful in that it has interesting criticism of nerd-cool cyberpunk literature, such as Neuromancer, a narrative with high-tech orientalism that projects exotic and erotic fantasies that highlight the anxieties about the "impotence" of Western culture. It is not surprising that the main character, Case, is a primitive, emasculated, and suicidal cyber-cowboy. In a similar way, cyberspace is a sensuous "consensual hallucination," an addiction so powerful that one turns to drugs to get over it. For Burroughs, just as for Norbert Wiener, all language is all about commands in order to control people but also implies free will. Burroughs’ own addiction made him the perfect visionary of an age in which the body is the main battlefield. In a similar way, sexuality has been associated with relationships of power, viruses, and pornography, all discourses that dominate descriptions of networked contact to the point of talking of pornocracy.

The study in orientalism also includes Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, always taking into account the construction of both identity and otherness. Through interesting complex examples as, for example, how Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell create an "East" in order to create cyberspace. One difference is that U.S. cyberpunk depicts a Japanese future in order to register a forthcoming time gotten worse, inhospitable, dangerous, and thrilling. Meanwhile, cyberpunk anime perpetuates Japaniod (not actually Japanese but a created stereotyped image) in order to place the blame for the future’s problems on U.S. multinationals.

The book has many very relevant comments that will be too long to list in this review about investigations and inquiries regarding the important and contemporary issues of control, freedom, and paranoia from a fresh and intelligent perspective that make us also reflect upon subjectivity and identity. Useful information can be found at http://www.controlandfreedom.net/.



Updated 1st September 2006

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