Arthur and Marilouise Kroker are the hipsters of Canadian media theory. The media love them because their presentational style is urbane and sexy, their ideas steeped in savoir faire, cyberpunk, and pomo lit crit. The Krokers have a great deal of writing on the Web: while some of it is promotion for their publications under the imprint of New World Perspectives, there are substantial selections of published books (Texts), interviews and articles about them, and essays collected in the online journal CTheory. Visit their homepage : http://ctheory.concordia.ca/krokers/.
[The following is excerpted from www.mcmaster.ca/ua/opr/times/fall97/cyber.htm, a 1997 overview of the Kroker's contribution to Canadian media theory. Fair dealing applies.]
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker are creating a language to help us navigate the wired world.
In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan put Canada on the modern intellectual map with his penetrating analysis of communications technology. His definitions of "hot" and "cool" media, his warning that "the medium is the message" and his concept of the "global village" made him the communications guru of the age. The terms he coined still endure more than 30 years later as fundamental references to the massive paradigm shift of the mid-20th-century. Continuing and expanding that legacy--much as the internet has continued and expanded the cultural network created by television and the movie industry--are Dr. Arthur Kroker ('75) and his wife, Marilouise (Gosselin '73). The two McMaster political science grads have gained worldwide celebrity for their "takes" on technological advancement, both as academics contributing to scholarly theory and as cyberpunk performance artists. The explosion of the internet and the rapid growth of its newest persona, the World Wide Web, have given them plenty to take on.
"We are all being suckered by a vision of technotopia, which is being promoted by everyone with power," says Arthur, who is a tenured professor of political science at Concordia University in Montreal. "We are being told that technology is leading us to heaven on earth, but also that anyone who doesn't bond instantly with every new gadget will go straight to hell."
"Rather than going down on bended knee to the rising sun of technotopia, we need to ask, 'What social changes do we wish this technology to serve in our culture?' and to have that question come first. We have the imagination to think of other futures and the political will to insist on them."
Arthur and Marilouise are just beginning to become well known in Canada--in the last year and a half, they have been the subjects of major features in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and Saturday Night magazine (in an article titled "Geek with an argument"); have appeared on the CBC's Rough Cuts and Pamela Wallin Live and on CTV's Imprint with Daniel Richler, and, this past March, Arthur was the keynote speaker at York University's McLuhan conference.
But they have already established an international reputation for themselves on "the forward, breaking edge of postmodern theory and practice," as one observer says. Lewis Cohen, a Montreal video-maker, is working with the CBC and Channel 4 in Britain to produce a one-hour documentary on the Krokers' work; they have been invited speakers at universities throughout Europe and the U.S. (this past June they were the keynote speakers at "6Cyberconf: The Sixth International Conference on Cyberspace" in Oslo); and they were written up (as "Way New Leftists!") in Wired magazine, perhaps the best-known magazine on internet culture.
Arthur's 1994 book, Data Trash, sold more than 20,000 copies (most of them in the U.S.), which makes it a best-seller in Canadian terms, and like many other of Arthur and Marilouise's books, has been translated into German, Italian and French.
Arthur and Marilouise met at McMaster, where Marilouise was completing a BA in political science and Arthur was working on his PhD. "McMaster had a good reputation in political science in the States when I was doing my MA at Perdue," recalls Arthur. "It was a good place to do serious work."
The pair married, graduated, and moved to Manitoba, where Arthur had a teaching position at the University of Winnipeg, and there they founded a critical journal, Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, on theory, technology and culture. Sixteen years later, the electronic journal, now called Ctheory, has 3,500 readers in more than 100 countries around the world.
After moving to Montreal in 1981, the Krokers expanded their publishing activity with their own book imprint, New World Perspectives. In the U.S., New World Perspectives books are published by St. Martin's Press in its Culture Texts series. One early title was a study by Arthur called Technology and the Canadian Mind (1984), which he calls his intellectual autobiography. The book laid out Arthur's central moral concern - how to respond ethically to technological change - while analysing the contributions of three Canadian champions of the same struggle: McLuhan, George Grant (Lament for a Nation) and Harold Innis (Empire and Communications).
Arthur concluded that the Silicon Age, which none of them lived to see in its fully realized state, would only magnify the central paradox of the modern world, which is that "technological experience is both Orwellian and hopelessly utopian."
Arthur and Marilouise's earliest work centred on the medium of television. "The influence of TV is endlessly fascinating, particularly in the way it mediates political news," says Marilouise, who has co-authored or co-edited with Arthur almost all their publishing projects and who has initiated titles in their repertoire such as The Hysterical Male: New Feminist Theory and The Last Sex: Feminism and Outlaw Bodies. "But TV is an obsolescent medium - it's taken the content of the wired world and reduced it to the advertiser," she says.
Which is not to suggest that the Krokers shun TV or the internet nor wish to see them disappear. "TV can do some things well, although the viewer remains essentially passive," says Marilouise, adding with a laugh that she and Arthur have missed "that brilliant gleam" since moving into an apartment in Old Montreal where cable is unavailable. "And digital reality - the internet - can be really creative and individualistic and can expose you to new ways of thinking. The Web is a fantastic source of information for the discerning browser. There's junk out there, but it's like any real-world bookstore: there's junk and there are good books."
"What we're concerned about," says Arthur, "is the attempt to take over the internet by powerhouse suppliers of technology, like MicroSoft, Compuserve, America on Line, and so on. Like TV's power-brokers, they want to reduce the content to the advertiser. They try to control net behavior, to shut down its flexibility; they try to impose policies; they are obsessed with security devices; they create panic about freedom of information. We want people to resist this kind of thing - we want everyone to become active and creative, to think in terms of value, of how something like the net will affect the human condition."
The Krokers' latest book, Hacking the Future: Stories for the Flesh-Eating '90s (1996), reflects a recent new direction for their work - active participation in the creation of culture. A collection of stories, poems and journalistic observations, the book comes with a CD that features Arthur and Marilouise narrating the vignettes to the synthesized music of composers Steve Gibson and David Kristian. The book-cum-CD essentially recreates the kind of performance art the Krokers have developed over the past few years in live appearances at art galleries, museums and concert venues in both North America and Europe.
"Hacking the Future continues McLuhan's concept of artists as probes - with this key difference," explains Arthur. "For McLuhan, artists were early radar systems for detecting major transformations in technology, probes that went ahead of the general population much like the earlier tradition of the artistic avant-garde. Hacking the Future is about going faster, deeper, and with greater intensity into the interface between being digital and being human."
Asked why Canadians dominate technological theory, Arthur offers, "For purposes of national survival. The U.S. is the Empire of Communication. We have a small population and an unrelenting geography - if we don't think about culture we'll get steam-rolled. Canada has highly original, critical and eloquent perspectives on culture and how it is affected, and it's important to maintain our own perspectives, so as not to receive them directly from Silicon Valley."