Electronic Elsewheres

Irene L. Pynn
University of Central Florida

Berry, Chris, Soyoung Kim, and Lynn Spigel. Electronic Elsewheres: Media, Technology, and the Experience of Social Space. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. 312 pp. $25.00 (pbk also available in cloth) (978-0-8166-4737-8)

[1] People around the world exist in various places and states of mind, from their private homes to their community cubicles, from their electronic alter egos to their sense of shared nationalism. As technology progresses and more new media influence our lives, our cultural understanding of where, or, rather, "elsewhere" broadens, constricts, and transforms. The anthology Electronic Elsewheres provides a multicultural view of the sometimes surprisingly different ways in which people adjust to new media, not simply including them in their private lives, but at times allowing them to shape their communities and philosophies. This is an interesting contribution – with varying observations and opinions – to the discussion of the impact technology has had on the world.

[2] Part of the Public Worlds Series (edited by Dilip Goankar and Benjamin Lee), Electronic Elsewheres comprises 12 chapters by different scholars on topics ranging from smart homes in New York City to Turkish migrants living in London. Each article offers a unique view of the technologies that have had a profound impact on the world. Beginning with the structure of daily life and ending with the shaping of nations, this ambitious collection of studies covers a wide range of topics in new media.

[3] Three sections in this book group what would otherwise appear to be disparate articles into a fairly cohesive order. The first section, called "The Reconfigured Home," focuses on individuals, mostly in the Western hemisphere, whose lives are shaped by technology. David Morely's "Domesticating Dislocation in a World of 'New' Technology" leads off the overall direction of the anthology by asking questions about what distance means in a world where we're always connected to each other electronically. The ideals of utopia that some have hoped will come from the digital age, Morley points out, are similar lines of thought to the dream that the Victorian Internet (telegraph) would bring about world peace (6). Still, our sense of place has become dislocated, and this chapter introduces the book's search to discover where we have landed – and where we are going.

[4] The topic of gender issues first appears in Lisa Nakamura's chapter, "Avatars and the Visual Culture of Reproduction on the Web," though gender as a significant subject resurfaces several times throughout Electronic Elsewheres. Nakamura examines the online identities of pregnant women (or those hoping to conceive), providing a profile of the new female Internet user as a stay-at-home, conservative mom – "The rapid narrowing of the digital divide has resulted in a very different Internet user, one more likely to be female, less educated, less culturally elite" (21). Her evaluation of pregnancy message board members may focus on too small a web community to accurately represent the average female user. And yet, her analysis of how the female avatars and signatures of these conservative Internet users relate to cyberfeminist philosophies offers a fresh view on the issue of gender in new media.

[5] Jeffrey Sconce gives readers an historical view of the way in which media have interacted with people and larger communities in "The Talking Weasel of Doarlish Cashen." One of Sconce's most important observations is that, though we often perceive modernity as something other (and better?) than the past, we still include the same thematic devices in our stories. As he puts it, "certain chronotopic strategies for narrating media and space have predated modernity, survived post modernity, and remain current even today" (35). In other words, what frightened us a hundred years ago continues to frighten us now.

[6] The final chapter of this section, written by Lynn Spigel, is called "Designing the Smarthouse: Posthuman Domesticity and Conspicuous Production." The concept of a future where homes can meet the family's needs electronically has existed for so long that there is now a substantial "history" of smarthomes, and Spigel shows the evolution of the family's needs in this context. Here, readers find lasting divisions between male and female roles in domestic activities, and altered perceptions of the division between work and leisure. In all, Spigel describes a movement toward a human-machine collaboration that doesn't delegate work to robots, but instead allows people to work hand-in-hand with them. In a smart home, you aren't doing nothing; you are in fact doing more (69).

[7] In the second section, "Electronic Publics," five authors present their view of the impact that new media have on countries around the world. Chris Berry explores Chinese film styles in "New Documentary in China: Public Space, Public Television." In this essay, Berry looks at the concept of public space through the eyes of Chinese filmmakers, distinguishing the "independent" format of documentary making from television or government-backed films. This chapter follows the political climate of China through its recent adjustment to television, and through this process it identifies the importance of a "multidimensional understanding of public space and the variety of forces producing it" (112).

[8] "The Undecidable and the Irreversible: Satellite Television in the Algerian Public Arena," by Ratiba Hadj-Moussa, offers an enlightening look at the rise of international programming in Algeria. Hadj-Moussa takes readers to an "elsewhere" that is known as the houma (123), or the neighborhood that acts as a fascinating micro-culture of Algerian society. "The houma and the family are thus not separate entities," Hadj-Moussa writes. "They are both affected by what I argue is a new and important change: the incursion of men into women's space" (125). This change comes not only from satellite television, as the author herself admits, but the evidence in the chapter also gives striking demonstrations of how the shared community that surrounds television in Algeria brings questions of male and female roles to the forefront.

[9] Radio in Israel is the topic of "The Voice of Jacob: Radio's Role in Reviving a Nation" by Tamar Liebes-Plesner. Liebes-Plesner claims that Jewish culture in Israel puts a stronger emphasis on sound than on sight, and as a result, radio and television in the nation have come to focus on very different genres. "Hebrew radio at its birth was a truly 'imagined homeland,' a new medium in which to try out the Zionist utopia" (152). The article follows the formation of modern Israel and the integral use of radio in an effort to teach its citizens spoken Hebrew.

[10] "Rather than promote critical awareness, the media may strengthen identity formation within social groups while deepening the differences between these groups" (160). This quote, from Arvind Rajagopal's "Violence, Publicity, and Secularism: Hindu-Muslim Riots in Gujarat," may summarize the theme of a good deal of the articles contained in Electronic Elsewheres. In a sometimes personal account of observations, Rajagopal illustrates the people whose nationalism increased as they joined together in the collective notion that "It is the English newspapers that tell lies" (167), while their own news agencies are unquestioningly accurate and fair. This reaction of nationalism to news consumption is an important observation that international journalists may find useful to consider.

[11] The final chapter of Section II comes from two authors, Asu Aksoy and Kevin Robins, and it too focuses on the topic of national pride. However, "Turkish Satellite Television: Toward the Demystification of Elsewhere" investigates a different angle of nationalism: the sense of a "homeland" in the minds of Turkish migrants. In a study of focus group participants who had moved at various points in their lives from Turkey to London, Aksoy and Robins found that migrants often belong to a shared community that is, for the most part, imagined. These people who have left their homes eventually develop a fantasy homeland in their collective memories, and they want to see this represented in the television programming they view (181). The study presents many more interesting observations along this line.

[12] Electronic Elsewheres concludes with a third section called "The Mediated City." Taking a step back from the global view and a step out of the human experience, this section focuses on three major cities: London, New York, and Tokyo. "The Elsewhere of the London Underground" is Charlotte Brunsdon's contribution to this anthology, and her chapter analyzes the worldview of London as it is represented by depictions of its underground transit system. From the artistic maps to the iconic use of stations in films, Brunsdon explores a part of London that she says is as much a landmark as the Big Ben (203), though this article shows a deeper connection between London's culture and its subway than most tourists have ever realized.

[13] Marita Sturken, in the next essay, reimagines Ground Zero as a concept and even a work of art in "The Image at Ground Zero: Mediating the Memory of Terrorism." Remembering the cinematic "spectacle" of the World Trade Center as it fell, Sturken goes on to describe the countless images associated with September 11, many of them beautiful and memorable. "Photographs can serve to inspire awe and voyeurism through the spectacular, but they can also make catastrophe feel containable" (229). Some readers may question the total lack of images in this chapter, considering the level of importance Sturken places on visuals. Others may question the sensitivity of her rhetoric regarding an event like September 11: "Although few would initially admit it, especially in the first year after 9/11, the fact that a larger area in a major metropolitan city was destroyed created an 'opportunity' for architectural design and urban planning" (236). Overall, this is a provocative discussion on the memory of not only the people lost in the attacks, but the site of Ground Zero itself and its "haunting" emptiness (238).

[14] "Tokyo: Between Global Flux and Neonationalism" by Shunya Yoshimi finishes the anthology with a discussion of the problem of identity in Tokyo as it becomes a "world city." In a section about "The Politics of Hatred" (256), Yoshimi refers to a form of racism against foreigners, specifically the Korean and Taiwanese immigrants, known by the derogatory term sangokujin. This final chapter of the book brings up an important question: with the elsewheres we create and the places we reimagine, do we also give way to new forms of fear and mistrust?

[15] Readers of Electronic Elsewheres may prefer to thumb directly to specific chapters that address their personal interests in this sprawling anthology of history, theory, and general reflections on new media around the world. However, each chapter focuses, though sometimes loosely, on a common theme regarding the changing nature of our connected lives and the "elsewheres" our media have created.