Book review--Ars Electronica: Facing the Future

_Ars Electronica: Facing the Future_
Timothy Druckrey, Editor
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999)

Tim Druckrey has no profile. Turned to the side, he disappears. He flits
away, always dissolving into other texts, other personalities. A feature
for some, a liability for others. This intellectual persona may explain
the enigmatic attraction of Druckrey's latest editorial effort, "Ars
Electronica: Facing the Future." The anthology contains dozens of essays
selected from the last twenty years of Austria's annual Ars Electronica
festival, and is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the
history of electronic arts.

Like the average web surfer, Ars Electronica is around twenty years old.
Born in 1979, the festival grew up with the personal computer, with
MIDI, with broadband cable, with the Internet and all the other
trappings of our evolving information society. Hannes Leopoldseder's
simple summaries of the festival themes–"The New Computer Culture" in
'84, "Multi-Trends for Millennium III" in '90, etc.–serve as a useful,
preparatory chronology for the book. Druckrey's own (four page)
introduction, however, is less satisfying. He lumbers through an
abridged 30 year history of media culture, dropping names faster than an
AOL dial-up. Druckrey reads more like an annotated bibliography (and
this is where he is most useful) than a straight introduction. A book as
important as this deserves more.

The collection is divided into three sections: "History," "Theory," and
"Practice." While the difference between the first two sections is
negligible–heck, it's all just theory where I come from–the latter is
reserved primarily for documentation of specific art projects: projects
like Robert Adrian X's "The World in 24 Hours" (1982), or Knowbotic
Research's "smdk" (1993).

While the book shows a considerable interest in today (nineties material
outweighs eighties material two to one), several important essays from
the eighties are present, including Gene Youngblood's "A Medium Matures"
on video, and Vilem Flusser's instructive essay, "Memories."

In "Memories," Flusser guides the reader through a tutorial on anti-
entropic history. Put simply, entropy is the natural tendency for things
to fall apart. Anti-entropy, then, is the ability for certain entities
to resist the tendency to fall apart. To Flusser, this anti-entropic
tendency is what makes humans human–we don't fall apart. It's seen in
the very memes and genes that make up our minds and bodies, for these
are the units of information that refuse to fall apart generation after
generation. But computers can also resist this entropic tendency. He
writes that "electronic memories are simulations of a few of our brain
functions." And here's where the essay gets interesting. Flusser
concludes that our definition of the difference between humans and
computers must be scrapped, in favor of a more "intersubjective"

Per usual, Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) delivers with their essay
"Slacker Luddites," a creative twist on why being a Luddite is so fun,
and why you can't be one anymore. Instead of machine breaking, try
slacking. While the nineteenth-century Luddites hated technology but
were okay with working, CAE's present-day "slacker" Luddites hate
working but are okay with technology. They avoid the reactionary
pitfalls of their forbearers by disabling the source rather than the
symptom: "All high-end slackers know that it is the hallucination of
the workplace that must be destroyed, not that which conveys the
hallucination." Zero work here we come!

Sadie Plant's essay on viruses, "Becoming Positive," is another gem from
the collection. Here Plant uses her distinctive prose style to probe the
history of computer (and human) viruses–a must read for anyone
interested in this under-theorized topic. Manuel de Landa's "Economics,
Computers, and the War Machine" is an exciting, if brief, aftershock to
his first book on warfare, "War in the Age of Intelligent Machines."

The prolific and highly prescient Peter Weibel is also a highlight of
the collection. His essay "On the History and Aesthetics of the Digital
Image" charts the history of digital images, beginning with the simple
graphical computers of the early sixties, and ending with the digital
video of the mid-eighties (back when the Cray-1 was the world's fastest

All of the essays in "Ars Electronica: Facing the Future" have already
been published. Yet since many of these publications are difficult, if
not impossible to find, this collection is invaluable. Druckrey's book
is smarter than other new media anthologies, but less exciting. More
legitimate, but more mainstream. Where books like Nettime's "Readme!"
revel in personal polemics, Druckrey's book lapses into anachronistic
documentation. Surfers beware, but bookworms delight.

"Ars Electronica: Facing the Future" is the first volume in Druckrey's
new MIT Press book series–a promising beginning to what will surely be
a valuable collection.