The Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies at the University of San Francisco chose Follow for Now as its book of the month for September, 2008. Ellis Godard, who is Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University, Northridge, wrote a deep and insightful review of the collection.
As the Internet, cyberspace, and online worlds exploded, one ironic consequence was the printing of a tremendous amount of cruft about that explosion. On the bookshelves of the future, when that cruft has long been purged, one can imagine what might remain. Some of it will somehow have come to be regarded as canonical, if only due to the historical accident of intra-disciplinary fads. Some of it will have been retained for its prophetic accuracy, also partly accidental, and some for its visual presentation.
The prophetic aspects of Roy Christopher’s Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes are often more conceptual than could be found to be accurate. The book probably won’t be in any canon, and it won’t stay around because it’s pretty (although its cover is worthy of some attention, provided below). But Follow for Now is likely to stick around, if only due to its efficiency. Christopher has long been regarded as an insightful (and sometimes inciteful) inquisitor of Internet-age antics. He produced eight years of interviews with the illuminati on six main topics including science, technology, media, music, culture, and literature for his former website frontwheeldrive.com. In Follow for Now, he provides a powerfully selected, edited, and organized collection of forty-three of those interviews. The result is notably impressive and concise despite its broad reach.
The interviews are nominally organized by those same six topics, though Christopher acknowledges (xii) that many selections could fit in more than one section. They cover seven years, beginning in 1999, as the excitement of the five-year-old Internet Boom peaked and its financial tides shifted. Most stray far from anything computerized, and some bear no explicit connection to anything Internet related. They vary almost as widely as Howard Bloom’s suggested list of possible interests: “pop songs, ancient Egyptian graffiti, Shirley MacLaine’s mysticism, neurobiology, and the origins of the cosmos” (37). Nonetheless, or perhaps because of it, they represent a time period when everything seemed fast, connected, and in flux, and billions of individuals were each at their own center of it all.
The snapshot includes voices ranging from Howard Bloom (a pop music PR star who’s become a biological science fanatic) and DJ Spooky (an aspiring science fiction writer who’s become a hip hop music star), to Howard Rheingold (the virtual anthropologist who interpolates the present through a futuristic lens) and Bruce Sterling (the etymological founder who extrapolates the present into futuristic fiction). Follow for Now thus drops sufficiently many known and intriguing names in its table of contents (and on its cover) to stay on the shelves of both snooty philosophers and free-thinking subculturalites for decades. But the nuggets those names provide are intriguing enough to justify that stay, on those shelves and others. In short, the content is as intense as the cast.
Many of the interviewees effectively encapsulate important parts of their life work, including first books, early research, and newest ideas. The content is thus an intriguing record of both the voices on those six topics and the contributions behind those voices. The content is also a telling record of the larger cultural milieu in which those voices came to be and to which their contributions added shape and texture. It suggests (if it does not evidence) a perceived connectedness of the most diverse of topics. Further still, the content evidences a subtextual focus of that period (one we have perhaps not yet escaped). A number of interviews advocate expansive, interdisciplinary inquiry. Bloom, for example, offers a “manifesto” for “omnology” (37-38) and claims to cross inter-disciplinary boundaries without friction. But beyond those prognostications, much of the subjects’ actual work, and much of what they say, is focused on something common to many disciplines, though less poly-disciplinary than they imply: individual people.
Some examples of this are not surprising given the roster, such as Douglas Rushkoff on “coercive marketing” (189-191) or Terence McKenna on the “self” as a “transdimensional vehicle” (54). But it also emerges in other ways. While Christopher attempts to move several interviews towards cultural, sociological, and economic explanations, many of his own ideas are decidedly about the mind. He even reports conceiving of the book as a network node within the “mind as an ecology” (xii). It’s less surprising, then, when interviewees avoid the invited opportunity for supra-individual explanation: When Christopher suggests that Sterling’s use of transportation imagery might connect to cultural change, networks, and trading structures, Sterling offers merely a personal account for his interest (339-340).
For many readers, the emphases on the self and the mind, combined with bits of personal history and reflection, and heaps of confident ambition, will satisfactorily resonate with their interest in the book, their own understandings of the world, and their memories of this time period. And an extensively psychological context that overemphasizes the self is far from unique to this collection. However, its presence in this collection highlights something perhaps not entirely obvious: There was plenty of talk (and printed cruft) about things wired and wireless, virtual and real, customized and globalized. But many of the core ideas, assumptions, and explanations were (and continue to be) about individual people. For the growing number of those focusing on sociological explanations — from relationship marketing in industry, to pure sociology in academia — the emphatic over-emphasis on individuals represents a detrimental gap in understanding. The self (like Ptolemy’s earth) is the center of the universe, and perspective on everything else follows — for now.
As to the book’s visual presentation, Cynthia D. Hutto’s cover, too, is notably individualistic: A slightly blurry, unidentified person peers darkly at the reader through the two mechanical holes of a now-archaic analog cassette tape. Is it the reader, marginally self-aware and peering beyond the book through the lens of its interviewees’ visions? Or is it Christopher, casting his vision through the recorded answers to his own questions? Either way, the cover conveys the book’s invitation towards temporal acuity (whether Christopher’s or the reader’s). We may have followed during the boom. But the questions and answers here invite (and represent that boom’s invitation to) not simply following, but vision towards what follows.
The book may come to be seen in a different light as new visions emerge, in part from these interviewees (and, perhaps, the interviews). Though Christopher’s friends and heroes haven’t ceased making their marks, each will begin to recede (like city lights) as new waves of friends and heroes, artists and scientists, visionaries and worry warts emerge. He even acknowledges a hope “that this collection will help inspire a new crop of thinkers to pick up the torch” (4). That next generation, having developed retrospection and no longer simply following, may develop some cohesive understanding of these collected voices that stands at odds with some coming emphasis. The book may, then, get purged as outside the canon. It may also get purged if it fails to be recognized as cohesive, particularly if the connectedness of its diversity is a myopic function of the recentness of the excitement. But if only because it captures the breadth of that excitement, the book will remain on my shelves for quite some time.
Ellis Godard is Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University, Northridge, where he primarily teaches statistics, research methods, and the sociologies of law and deviance. His research addresses patterns in the handling of conflicts between those who know relatively little about each other – from flame wars in virtual settings, to personal violence on reality shows. <ude.nuscnull@dradoge>
Founded and directed by my friend and colleague David M. Silver, The Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies is an online, not-for-profit organization whose purpose is to research, teach, support, and create diverse and dynamic elements of cyberculture. I am damn proud to have Follow for Now acknowledged by them.1 comment