PRINT September 1995


James Brook and Iain Boal's Resisting the Virtual Life

The widespread popularity of computer-based games represents a fundamental and rampant confusion as to what constitutes pleasure.
—John Simmons, “Sade and Cyberspace,” Resisting the Virtual Life, 1995


Resisting the Virtual Life is a collection of essays critiquing the romantic corporate techno-juggernaut currently careening down the info hypeway. With The Gutenberg Elegies, by Sven Birkerts, and Silicon Snake Oil, by Clifford Stoll, it may constitute a full-fledged anticyber backlash. Resisting is the more important of these books, thanks to the essentially materialist, politically left view that most of the writers collected in it bring to the subject. The bulk of the articles here explode the high-tech rhetoric of empowerment and democratization with facts, figures, and historical analyses. As such, Resisting rarely gets as philosophically silly as Stoll and Birkerts do.

Mass economic marginalization is the dirty little secret of technological innovation. Like the longshoremen immortalized in On the Waterfront, the former working class has been transmogrified into a quasi-lumpenproletariat pool of servants known as temp workers, a class without job security, benefits, or political influence. The best of Resisting brings home this reality, and contrasts it with the slick, hip, happy-face rhetoric of the info/communications industry. It’s a particular pleasure to read Monty Neill’s savaging of the absurdly limp proposition advanced by the Clinton administration (personified by Robert Reich) that this problem can be resolved by “worker retraining” for “high-skilled jobs.” Unfortunately, Neill deflates the power of his piece with a flourish of pure industrial-age Marxist rhetoric (“Only egalitarian, collective, working-class power can assure that . . . technology will be used for its benefit”—yeah, and monkeys may fly out my butt) that has about as much to do with current reality as the right wing’s attempt to reinvigorate Victorianism.

Resisting itself—like the political left in general—owes much to the repressive mind-set, and therein lies the problem. The book is a joyless read. Even the title resonates of upright, decent, Christian resistance to temptation. The notion that pleasure—in this case, the pleasure of speed and digital self-amplification—might be unwholesome or sinful is brought home by approving references, in no less than three different essays, to the Amish way of dealing with new technologies—by severely restricting or even banishing them from their communities. And Resisting is bereft of a single essay that deals with virtuality (i.e., mediated communications) itself, the culture-binding, exteriorizing process peculiar to this species, from cave paintings to Web pages. Such a contemplation might require at least some mentation that didn’t view every little thing through the scrim of power relations. And such a contemplation might even inspire a generous embracing of the human experience that is missing from the book.

And that’s the irony. While many of these essays correct the misinformation being dished out by the infohype machinery, and the analyses reads largely true, Resisting the Virtual Life misses the party. Much more than those engaged in the push toward virtuality, most of these writers are resisting the actual life. This lack of generosity, this joylessness, is what makes them ineffective (and the political left unpopular). Nobody likes a party pooper.

R. U. Sirius cofounded Mondo 2000 magazine and is the author of Cyberpunk Handbook: The Real Cyberpunk Fake Book, New York: Random House, 1995.


Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information. Ed. James Brook and Iain A. Boal. San Francisco: City Lights, 1995.