Poster (2006): Information Please

Information Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital MachinesInformation Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital Machines by Mark Poster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Information Please, Mark Poster asks how information works differently when it is mediated through digital machines, arguing that much cultural theory has ignored the importance of specific media in understanding subjectivity, relations among people, and culture (4). He begins with the basic contention “that information increasingly appears in complex couplings of humans and machines” (9). One important aspect of this coupling for Poster is a “new hermeneutic, one that underscores the agency of the media,” meaning that we can no longer posit a simple subject/object dichotomy that sees subjects as fundamentally different and separate from objects (10).

Through his discussions of various schools of thought, including postcolonialism, Hardt and Negri’s theory of empire, theories of identity, postmodernism, and media theory, Poster argues that these theories, while informative and helpful, often fail to take into account the specifics of media, especially digital media, in their theorization. He argues that digital public spheres “constructs the subject through the specificity of its medium in a way different from oral or written or broadcast models of self constitution” (41). Digital media constructs users as producers, “who are present only through their textual, aural, and visual uploads” (41, 195-196).

He argues that digital technologies are “not prosthesis, not a mechanic addition to an already complete human being, but an intimate mixing of humans and machine that constitutes an interface outside the subject-object binary” (48). The self becomes embedded in various digital databases, which disrupts our understanding of identity as consciousness (92); information about oneself is exteriorized (100), and so “Digital networks thus extend the domain of insecurity to objects that had previously been relatively safe” (101). Identity thus can no longer be understood as consciousness: “Identity is thus a double operation of material trace and consciousness bound together in a configuration that solidifies the figure of identity” (112).

Poster also argues that perhaps we need to reconfigure ethics for digital media, because we are uprooted from local communities, come into contact with a wider array of human behavior, and disrupts the public/private distinction so that we encounter things that we’d prefer to think of as “evil” but would rather not encounter and just let be (149). Additionally, the ease of just removing yourself from a digital encounter raises ethical questions, and Poster posits that perhaps “virtual ethics entail a different, perhaps more demanding, type of obligation. The moral imperative might be ‘act so that you will continue to maintain the identities you have constructed in relation with others'” (153).

He argues that “The screen is thus a liminal object, an interface between the human and the machine that invites penetration of each by the other” (175).

I particularly enjoyed Poster’s discussion of how images travel and move in planetary ways online, how “identity theft” is a recent development, and other developments he discusses.

Poster, Mark. Information Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital Machines. Durham: Duke UP, 2006.

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