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...The New Renaissance: Computers and the Next Level of Civilization

Robertson, Douglas S., The New Renaissance: Computers and the Next Level of Civilization, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998. ISBN 0 19 512189 9. 187 pp., US$25.00.

Gordon Fletcher

Robertson presents us with the idea that civilisation is information. This conflation of two amorphous concepts allows him to claim that advances in civilisation can be accounted for by the ability to store and process more information. Throughout the monograph the information being discussed is clearly restricted to "Robertson's" information - quantifiable and data orientated. Consequently, with this convenient but unacknowledged conceptual reduction, civilization can be systematised into 5 levels (starting at 0 - proof perhaps of Robertson's science background). The evidence for these neo-social Darwinist concepts is drawn from a series of vignettes that reflect the received and oft-recited history of computing technology - and Western science more generally.

Robertson also introduces 'uncomputable numbers' to his argument. However, despite being the most thoroughly argued section of the book, the importance of "Euclid's proof that the number of prime numbers is not finite" and "Cantor's proof that the real numbers are not countable" to the next level of civilisation is not readily apparent.

The capacity for computer technology to support, or even cause, massive social transformation is taken further by Robertson, who reduces the significance of the artefact to its mathematical precision. This 'theoretical and conceptual' background provides Robertson the opportunity to present boosterist opinions about computer technology in education, propose a 'universal language', to suggest a shift from decimal to quartal (base 4) numeracy and the definite advantages for using computers in the creative arts. There are a whole array of other really 'extraordinary and unprecedented' things that Robertson sees for this 'new level of civilisation' that will be part of 'every' home - from GPS, surveillance and security to air conditioning thermostats and targeted classified ads. Civilisation, in Robertson's schema, equates solely with a density of computer-enabled artefacts.

Robertson's should be congratulated for attempting a foray into cultural studies from his tenured geological sciences position. Whether this foray should have been committed to a monograph, however, is debatable. The New Renaissance is worthy not so much for what it proclaims for civilisation but for the insight that it provides into the academically legitimated 'hard' sciences and the manner in which these discourses are understood by their practitioners to articulate with 'civilization' at large.

However, reducing the complexity of contemporary cultural studies and social science debates to a single reified artefact - the computer - is a dangerous strategy for any serious contemplation of social structures, organisations or institutions let alone the future. But, despite the monograph's title, this is really a legitimation exercise for the mathematics that founds current computing architecture. The absence of any clear theoretical position or reference to any of the more recognised writers in the field - Latour or those found in Chia's collection, for example, positions The New Renaissance as a popular and boosterist manifesto rather than a critical engagement with the variety of issues at stake in these debates. Unfortunately, for Robertson, Benedikt's Cyberspace: First Steps better achieved this aim over ten years ago. Of greater concern, and probably the major motivation for Australians to read this work, are the wide-ranging series of assumptions that are ever present and unacknowledged in The New Renaissance. Civilisation in toto does not equate with specific privileged elements of American society, information is not data and no artefact, in itself, has ever engendered massive social change.

Benedikt, Michael (ed.) Cyberspace: First Steps, Cambridge MA, The MIT Press.

Chia, Robert C. H. (ed.) Organised Worlds: Explorations in technology and Organization with Robert Cooper, London, Routledge.