Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century
By Mark Dery
Grove Press, 376 pp., $23
Cyberjournalist Mark Dery's new book, "Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century," is an exhaustive, critical documentation of cyberspace and the popular culture surrounding it - from cybersex and cyborgs to religion and raves (all-night, electronic dance parties).
It is a comprehensive and fascinating book, crammed with juicy interviews and perceptive cultural criticism on such far-reaching cybertopics as "cyberdelia" (computer-generated images mixing 1960s and '90s counterculture), human-like robots, and technological body art.
But often the book's very breadth and intellectual leaps are its undoing. Each chapter includes an extensive historical background, and Dery demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of cultural theory. The information, however, can be overwhelming and unnecessary. Removing a few thousand words per chapter would have led to a tighter and more readable book.
And Dery only interviews individuals who live on the West Coast. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has been a leader in such fields as computers, robotics, and artificial intelligence, and whose denizens are in the vanguard of cyberculture is left out, while Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., and the University of California at Berkeley are both prominently mentioned.
Dery claims that he is examining curiosities on the "fringes of cyberculture." While some of what he covers (computerized "third limbs") is in fact "fringe," most of the phenomena he describes with such horrified awe are actually in the cultural mainstream. The industrial rock group Nine-Inch-Nails is one of the most popular bands in the United States; adult CD-ROMs and cybersex have been so overcovered by the media as to have become clichs.
Many facile generalizations do a disservice both to the inquisitive reader and to the members of the respective groups themselves. Indeed, much of the data Dery presents is absorbing and memorable. But his readers would have been better served by a book with more control over its data and less intellectual posturing.