Culture Machine, Reviews

review63

Mark Poster (2006) Information Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital Machines.

Durham and London: Duke University Press. ISBN: 0-8223-3839-4

Federica Frabetti

Mark Poster's new book starts with a charming anecdote. 'Information please' was what one used to say to a switchboard operator after picking up the telephone if one did not know the number of the person one wished to call -- at the time, of course, when phone calls were still put through by operators. There have been a number of intriguing analyses of women operators' life and work practices in media studies, including those by Carolyn Marvin (1988) and Bruce Sterling (1992), but perhaps none as moving as Poster's. In the Introduction he recounts the autobiographical narrative of an anonymous blogger who, as a child, developed an affectionate relationship with the voice of a telephone operator (what today we would call 'a virtual relationship'), and who years later tracked her down, with unexpected and touching consequences.

Poster starts from the claim that today we increasingly retrieve information from (usually networked) machines, rather than humans -- i.e. that 'Information please' has actually become a machine -- to develop a fascinating analysis of what he calls the contemporary 'assemblages of humans and networked computing', or 'the humachine'. With its combination of theoretical inquiry and media analysis, Information Please continues the tradition of his earlier books on digitality. In a cunning parallel with software, Poster actually suggests that it could be regarded as version 4.0 of his 1990 book, The Mode of Information, with The Second Media Age (1995) and What's the Matter with the Internet? (2001) seen as versions 2.0 and 3.0 respectively. The parallel with software stands only to a certain point though, he muses, because books are not necessarily improved releases that substitute the previous ones. But neither, it seems to me, are software releases.

Information Please focuses on 'the cultural significance of the migration of information from humans to machines, the change in the nature of information, the way it mediates relationships and created bonds between humans and machines, as well as the political implications that ensue' (4). It investigates how texts, images, and sound change when they are mediated by information machines and what consequences these changes have for humans. Poster examines a vast range of cultural theories and tests their ability to explain the current conditions of the media. He travels back and forth between Homi Bhabha, Michel de Certeau, Judith Butler, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Gayatri Spivak and many others, arguing that in most cases cultural theory has not seriously thought through the implications of new media for the constitution of the self and culture. He thus aims to pinpoint 'the places where cultural theory would benefit from revision and alteration by attention to new relations of humans and information machines' (4). Such investigation is conducted via a broad range of case studies, including identity theft on the Internet, peer-to-peer file sharing, children TV show Teletubbies, and some perplexing visual representations of Osama bin Laden. Information Please points out that the task of updating -- and maybe even recreating -- cultural theory in today's world (challenged as it is by digitisation and networked computing) is huge, and that it is very difficult to even begin to formulate the right questions.

One of the reasons why this book is so important for all of us investigating digitality is the attention it pays to the materiality of new media. Poster emphasises that technological mediation is a general condition of culture, that it is not neutral (and certainly not to be understood under the sign of 'tool'), and that we need to look seriously at cultural objects (texts, images, and sound) as material constructs. For me, his argument becomes most interesting when it addresses the circulation of cultural objects in the global digital network, never forgetting their materiality, and especially when it looks at the practices of reading and writing in the digital realm.

The first part of the book deals with the relations between politics and digital media, and with the interactions of cultures in the context of planetary human-machine relations. It opens up with a snapshot of protesters against the bombing of Afghanistan by the United States, taken in Bangladesh in October 2001. In the photograph the protesters are carrying posters of Osama bin Laden -- but a close look reveals a tiny image of Sesame Street's Bert sitting on bin Laden's shoulder and grimacing at the viewer. This snapshot appeared in the New York Times on October 8, 2001, and elicited puzzled reactions from readers and commentators. Amy Harman, the journalist who unearthed it, could offer no plausible explanation for how Bert had found his way to Osama's shoulder, and what the protesters meant by that. This episode yields itself to many interpretations, which Poster explores. There are clues that the image of Bert sneaked into the posters because the posters were put together in a hurry by an advertising agency which had downloaded images of Osama bin Laden from the Internet and collaged them together, inadvertently including one image from a website that mockingly associated the image of Bert with that of bin Laden and other public figures. What is important, however, is that Bangladeshi protesters did not recognize Bert -- they actually did not see him - and happily carried him around without noticing. In this way, Poster raises the issue of the decoding of cultural objects in a globalized culture. Globalization (of which Internet is a component) imposes a heightened level of interaction between cultures that pushes them over the boundaries of the 'nation'. This interactivity changes cultures profoundly, mostly reducing their autonomy. The Internet thus enables planetary transmissions of cultural objects to cross cultural boundaries with little 'noise'. But - and here Poster follows Derrida's comments from The Post Card (1987) -- even when the message reaches its destination with little noise, it can still generate semantic and cultural confusion. 'All the bits and bytes are there all right, but the message does not always come across or get decoded' (10). In the digital realm, texts can be both noiseless and incoherent. The insularity of cultures wishing to maintain their separation from American culture leads to such episodes of 'aberrant decoding' -- to quote an expression used by John Fiske and John Hartley in their classic scholarly text on mass communications (1978). Not only does Poster follow here Jean-Luc Nancy's idea that, in a global culture, the logic of insularity does not work, but he also draws the attention of media scholars to the importance of looking at how the enhanced interaction between cultures does not leave them unchanged, and how a clear separation between media 'forms' and their 'content' is becoming more and more problematic.

For Poster the human-machine interface provided by digital media alters the general construction of the self, and therefore the fundamental characteristics of culture. For instance, the enormous changes introduced by digital media in the relations between the West and the non-West have serious consequences for postcolonial theory. India is for Poster an eloquent example of the transformed question of postcoloniality in the age of global digital networking. The adaptation of digital technologies to Indian culture (with the worldwide spread of commercial Indian cinema, the migration of highly qualified technical Indian workforce, and the dislocation of call centres to the Indian sub-continent) has complicated the understanding of India as a 'postcolonial nation'. Poster suggests that such new constellation of what he terms 'planetary culture' holds the potential for 'an instantiation of globalization that was neither foreseen nor desired by its neoliberal proponents' (45). At the same time, he takes issue with Hardt and Negri's theorization of Empire, mostly on the basis that they seek a form of resistance to Empire in a new political subject, 'the multitude'. For Poster a critical theory of globalization should not look for revolutionary subjects but rather for 'a matrix of dispositifs' that might, when extensively deployed, transform Empire into a planetary system outside the nation-state and capitalist market, and toward something closer to what Laclau named 'radical democracy'.

In order to explain how global networking holds the potential for contrasting hegemonic agglomerations of power, Poster makes what I consider a particularly interesting point. Digital machines, even though originally funded by the military and subsequently appropriated by corporations, have been implemented by academic researchers with the aim of transferring information quickly and efficiently - that is, without any noise. They have not been implemented to pay attention to 'who is authorized to speak, when, to whom, and what may be said on these occasions' (51). This is an example of Poster's emphasis on what he will later call the 'structural' aspects of technology. Although in this particular case it must be said that communication protocols do embed discriminations as to who speaks, when and to say what, such protocols ultimately enable technically noiseless channels of communication, without effectively limiting the circulation of cultural objects. In order to achieve efficiency, writes Poster, 'digital machines departed from the comparatively slow regions of spoken voice and writing by translating numbers, then text, then images and sound, into an electronic region governed by physical rules that are far different from those of voice and writing'. Therefore, on the Internet communication takes place by means of a very specific underlying material structure. Hardt and Negri tend to view networked digital information as 'immaterial', but there is nothing immaterial about it -- these systems are enabled to function as they do precisely by their materiality.

It is in a similar spirit that Poster revisits the figure of the 'citizen' (and its conceptual foundation in the 'human') by arguing that today we can build new political structures only in collaboration with machines. In fact, the new public space is mediated by machines -- it is nothing like the Greek agora. The very concept of the 'citizen' carries with it a baggage of connotations from Western history (not least the fact that it was developed in cultural worlds where information circulated through analogue media) that make it less useful in the globalized present. Of course, the Internet can function as a means for pre-existing political movements (from the Zapatistas to the neo-Nazi) -- but it also supports new political movements that are unique to it (such as the email protests against Lotus Marketplace of the 1990s and against the Clinton administration's attempt to control the Internet by means of the Clipper Chip). In fact, the still quite unexplored uses of the Internet around the world are likely to change global power relations, and the figure of the 'netizen' will then become a much more powerful critical instrument for the politics of democratization. In sum, even though the Internet is not a haven of equality, it 'holds the prospect of introducing postnational political forms because of its internal architecture, its new register of time and space, its new relation of human to machine, body to mind, its new imaginary, and its new articulation of culture to reality' (84).

The second part of the book focuses on the construction of the self in global networked computing. Poster analyses a number of case studies, including the recent construction of 'identity theft' as a crime, and its paradoxical double, the question of the 'security' of identity. While traditionally connected to the self or to the subject - Poster notices - identity must also be constructed as an object if it is to become vulnerable to theft. Such exteriorization is best accounted for through what Foucault named 'processes of subjectivation', but Poster also emphasises the role that media play in it. What is stolen today 'is not one's consciousness but one's self as it is embedded in (increasingly digital) databases' (92). Identity theft may be culturally enacted through digital media because these nullify the physical markers of gender, race etc., and, in doing so, extend the domain of insecurity to objects that had previously been seen as stable and 'safe'.

An even more radical questioning of identity can be found in the practices of artists such as Sharon Daniel and George Legrady, for whom works of art become collective creations, combining information machines, technicians, artists, and viewers in a way that reconfigures the role of each. Departing from Walter Benjamin's analysis of cinema, Poster shows how digital cultural objects constitute a break with the past (and specifically with the aesthetics of the analogue cultural object) by instantiating a culture of 'underdetermination' (116). With this term (already used in What's the Matter with the Internet) Poster indicates the unfinished character of the digital work of art, which is transformed by the viewer in the process of experiencing it. The same can be said for the digitisation of narrative: new media 'inscribe human-machine interfaces at such a profound level that one can no longer speak of a narrative with distinct functions of enunciation and reception' (137). Poster extends the characteristics of the processes going on in open source software to digital narrative and to culture in general: 'open source introduces a new principle as basic to mediated culture: the reversibility of all positions of writing and reading' (138). Poster calls the implications of open source for cultural objects other than computer programs 'open content'. Cultural objects developed in digital networking are not stable, and therefore they no longer sustain a 'grand narrative' in Lyotard's sense. The exploration of open content constitutes for Poster one direction that critical practice in cultural theory can take.

According to Poster, such instability and openness has profound consequences at the level of ethics. '[C]omputer-mediated communication places a thick interface between the phenomenological subject and the online subject, with the consequence that usual ethical issues must be set aside and another question raised in their place, that of identity' (156). Given the instability of mediated identities in networked computing, the question of the nature of the good becomes the question of the nature of the ethical subject. Poster even suggests an interesting moral imperative for the age of the Internet: 'act so that you will continue to maintain the identities you have constructed in relations with others' (151). Since digital media interrupt the flow of legitimised mechanisms of constituting subjects, require a back and forth movement between face-to-face, print, broadcast and networked information flows, and disrupt the identification with the same, Poster urges for a 'transvaluation of values' (160). The important point here is that ethics takes up a political dimension, because the establishment of ethical norms (e.g. netiquette in cyberspace) occurs in the process of forming new power relations, through the emergence and shaping of cyberspace. This provides the opportunity to rethink ethics.

But what happens to the body of the 'humachines' Poster deals with? Drawing on an understanding of the body that relies on Judith Butler's theory of performativity as much as on the critique of the naturalness of the body offered by feminist, queer and postcolonial studies, Poster argues that information machines have forever shattered the private space in which the bourgeois body thrived. While '[t]he Freudian body required as a necessary condition the privacy of the bourgeois home' (173), with digital media the child's body is libidinized in more ways than exclusively through object choices and identifications made with parents. In fact, these processes (object choice, identification) do not even grasp well the relation of the child with the information machine (175). Machinic mediation sets up desire in specific paths. For Poster, '[t]he family has been complicated by cultural objects from outside its private sphere, and the self of the child has been multiplied and dispersed, cathecting not only to the Oedipal triangle but to the mediascape' (180).

The third part of the book focuses on the influence of human-machine relations on social and political realms. For instance, peer-to-peer file sharing elicits questions about control. Again, what is interesting here is the attention Poster pays to the structural and material characteristics of digital cultural objects. Significantly, when dealing with the problem of copyright, Poster examines the history of bookmaking, and shows that the fetish for a stable text and for the inviolability of the author's work were not inscribed in the book from the beginning. The question whether digital media support, enhance or undermine practices of control has been studies at length, and many theorists (including Adorno, Baudrillard, Kittler, and Manovich) have already recognized that fundamental aspects of culture are transformed by new technologies. Nevertheless, Poster's argument is particularly important because he focuses on the opposition between fixed and variable cultural objects: he argues that modern society developed in the context of fixed cultural objects such as books, which could be owned, and whose alteration affected only one copy. Such objects maintained a sharp division between producers and consumers, and were marketed with specific exchange values or prices. Conversely, digital cultural objects do not fall under the law of scarcity and the market, because they require almost no cost to be copied and distributed. Poster goes as far as to say that '[t]here is no need for a capitalist market in the area of digital cultural objects' (195). In other words, digital object seem to escape the logic of the market for structural reasons. Their reproduction does not fall under the constraints of scarcity economy, and they resist market mechanisms. Poster views file sharing as a new culture of fluid selves since digital cultural objects enable the constitution of the subject in more heterogeneous forms than modernity (210). Therefore, cultural theorists are presented with the highly complex task of studying how particular media participate in the construction of everyday life. As a case study, Poster offers his own autobiography, where his relationship with the typewriter and the computer keyboard plays a relevant part. For example, he points out that, while a text produced via a typewriter brings the trace of labour (that is, of a physical effort), therefore indicating a clear separation between subject and object, computer keyboards allow the writer and the text to interact fluidly. The keyboard is a 'liminal apparatus' that sutures consciousness and networked information (226). Once more, the everyday life that emerges in information society is a site of struggle over the nature of human identity. For instance, the analysis of consumption should take into account the specificities of media and the concomitant construction of the consumer. Although postmodernity has recognized the complexity and creativity of consumption, and its role in self-construction, the significance of information machine has still to be considered in full. Media are not supplementary but essential to human culture, and always have been. Digital media radically transform the subject position of the consumer. When the cultural object loses its stability, so does the consumer, as a result of which new mediated practices are born. Cultural theory must account for this change and discern new modes of resistance. Poster rereads Dick's 1969 novel, Ubik, as a text that makes apparent capitalism's difficulty when it comes to attempting to commodify culture in the digital domain. Contradictions emerge between selling practices and privacy. Private information used by targeted advertisement are made ubiquitous by commercial companies, but only at the risk of a blowback effect of hackers-consumers on corporate databases: 'if the world, as in Ubik, is made available for the dissemination of commercials, the sources of that dissemination will be open as well to public scrutiny' (264).

To conclude, Poster's emphasis on the study of the structural and material aspects of digital technologies seems to me to be one of the most promising aspects of his work. Indeed, I am convinced that the question of the material structure of technology needs to be dealt with seriously if we want to begin to appreciate the role of technology in contemporary culture and society. In order to understand new technologies we need first of all to address the mystery that to some extent still surrounds their functioning and that affects our comprehension of their relationship to the cultural and social realm. This will of course ultimately involve a radical rethinking of what we mean by 'technology', 'culture' and 'society'. Furthermore, tackling the opacity of new technologies will mean having to deal with their materiality. We thus need to shift the focus of the analysis from the practices and discourses concerning them, I would suggest, to a thorough question about how new technologies work. In my opinion, Poster's book begins to outline to what extent and in what way such an investigation of new technologies can be pursued.

Of course, a number of issues come up when one starts to address such a complex question. For instance, a deeper understanding of materiality would be needed to explain whether and in what way the materiality of cultural objects is different from the materiality of what Poster names 'noncultural objects' (249), especially given that the production, reproduction and distribution of the latter adheres to more traditional market laws and leaves the functions of producers and consumer relatively unmodified. At the same time, such a reconceptualization of materiality might give account of the differences between digital and analogue cultural objects without necessarily recurring to a dialectic of 'old' and 'new' -- a binary that very often seems to find its way back into discourses about digital technologies, no matter how wary one is of progressive narratives about technology and the world. And finally, Poster is right in stressing that in the digital realm 'culture can no longer be understood as separate from technology' (9) -- but could it ever be understood in this way? For instance, Bernard Stiegler (1998) suggests that the inseparability (or rather, the mutual co-constitution) of culture and technology has been disavowed by Western philosophical thought from its very beginning, therefore influencing our way of understanding technology, knowledge, culture and society. If so, such a disavowal should be put under scrutiny in the first place. The raising of these issues does not in any way diminish the importance and strength of Poster's argument. On the contrary, it demonstrates that a re-examination of materiality is a much needed and very promising way to address 'new technologies'. Poster's fascinating book therefore opens up stimulating perspectives for the study of digital culture, with its materiality, its politics and its 'global but local' situatedness.

References

Fiske, J. & Hartley, J. (1978) Reading Television. London: Methuen.

Marvin, C. (1988) When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. London and New York: Oxford University Press.

Sterling, B. (1992) The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. New York: Bantam Books.

Stiegler, B. (1998) Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Federica Frabetti is a doctoral student at Goldsmiths, University of London, UK. She has a mixed background, both in the humanities and in ICT. She worked for a decade as a Software Engineer in telecommunications companies, making her own contribution to the birth of the second generation of mobile telephony (a geological stratum of current G3/UMTS). Her research interests include the cultural study of technology, cultural theory, the discourse of the 'posthuman', and gender and queer theory. She is currently attempting to conceptualize software as a form of writing through a deconstructive reading of the discourses and practices of Software Engineering.