What's the Matter with the Internet?
Author: Mark Poster
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001
Review Published: March 2002
Mark Poster's What's the Matter with the Internet? is the latest product of his ongoing interest with the relations of information technologies and wider cultural issues. This book continues a course he set a decade ago with the Mode of Information (1990) and continued in The Second Media Age (1995). As in Poster's earlier books, his approach is mainly influenced by two theoretical traditions. The first is critical theory, especially as it has been rethought by a number of French thinkers such as Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, and Baudrillard, writers that often are referred to as post-structuralists or postmodernists. The second body of theory emphasizes the materiality of media and is usually dated back to the work of Harold Innis. The work of Innis inspired writers like Marshall McLuhan, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Walter Ong, and many others, who in different ways focused on the cultural significance of media such as writing, printing, and analogue electronic media.
Merging these two theoretical strands naturally raises the issue of what the relation is between technology and agency: are media technologies determining or neutral tools to human objectives? While rejecting technological determinism, Poster criticizes various approaches to new technologies for treating them as purely instrumental means for preexisting goals. Such approaches, Poster argues, fail to discern the deeper cultural reconfigurations at stake when the material basis of communication changes. Between the instrumental view of media as neutral on the one hand and deterministic views on media on the other hand, Poster proposes that we should view media technologies as having transformative powers. Consequently we have to formulate questions not only from within the horizons of current dominant cultural institutions but also focus our attention on the ways these very horizons and institutions are reconfigured in emerging forms of communication on the Internet.
From this position Poster, advances the general argument of the book: Subjects and identities are largely constructed through communication, and since different media provide different conditions for communication they in turn enable or further the construction of different identities and positions from which to communicate. The legacy of critical theory shows in Poster's focus on the critical potential of new media to empower multiple subject or identity positions and challenge the dominant cultural forms and institutions of modernity (i.e. the subject, capitalism, the author, the nation-state). Thus, the issue of modernity and post-modernity, especially with regard to the cultural construction of the subject, is framed within the history of culturally dominant media. Put in crude terms, the modern subject is tied to the media age of print, while more postmodern notions of socially constructed, unstable subjects and multiple identities are tied to the age of electronic media. This argument was largely developed in The Second Media Age but in What's the Matter with the Internet? Poster acknowledges that the Internet marks a departure also from analogue electronic media.
Poster argues that compared to the media ages of print and analogue electronic media, the Internet is radically underdetermined and that it underdetermines the stability of cultural objects and subjects. Not only is the Internet seen as reinforcing what is known as overdetermination, the attribution of many complex causes to a given historical object, it also solicits social construction and cultural creation (17). What Poster has in mind here is the ease with which cultural objects on the Internet can be accessed, altered and redistributed, which allegedly turns them into "an invitation to a new imaginary" (18). It is not only the cultural object that becomes volatile, the very relation between subject and object is argued to collapse or at least mutate radically. Thus, the Internet is not only framed within postmodern critiques of modernity but is also seen as radicalizing the destabilization of modern institutions and categories of thought even further than the postmodern tendencies attributed to analogue electronic media. Whereas earlier media are seen historically to have established more clear divisions of subject and object, Poster claims that such relations are now constantly renegotiated and reinvented under a condition of indeterminate complexity on the net. Thus, the next step is to study these "'virtual' configurations" more empirically with relation to different forms of communication and interaction on the Internet.
In the remainder of the book, Poster addresses such questions with relation to capitalism and commodities, the author, the nation, ethnicity, and finally democracy. This is done, although not consistently, through theoretical chapters on the topics followed in each case by chapters that explore the issues in more empirical ways. Before concluding with a general assessment of the book, a couple of these issues will be singled out for discussion here.
First, Poster addresses the issue of the information society, which he re-terms the linguistic turn of capitalism. General theories on modern technology such as those put forth by Martin Heidegger and Jaqcues Elull are criticized for their lack of attention to differences between technologies, especially the special nature of information technologies. Yet, for some reason Poster does not deal with the thinkers who have done precisely that, for instance Daniel Bell, James Beniger, and Manuel Castells who all have dealt extensively with the relation of information technology and socio-economic issues. Perhaps these are considered too instrumental in their approach but it seems strange that especially the recent work of Castells is missing in this context. One could argue that the first volume of Castells' Information Age would have provided Poster with a more substantial work to critically engage with than the works he deals with.
The reason for this omission might be that Poster is mostly interested in the alternative 'economy' of sharing information, which has been enhanced by the Internet, and which he sees as a possible collapse for the notions of commodity and copyright. Poster is correct in questioning the strategies of especially the music industry in their efforts to deal with a medium that has minimized the effort required for reproduction and distribution of digital cultural objects. Yet, while music-sharing on the net poses a threat to the current shape of the music industry, Poster does not present a new or convincing argument for a wholesale threat to the notions of commodity or copyright.
A more intriguing observation concerns the changing and probably increasing significance of editors of various sorts for the selection and organization of information. This touches on a theme that could be further explored: the culture of underdetermination that Poster speaks about is a culture of information overload. A critical theory with an interest in the materiality of media, I believe, would be well advised to theorize what critique might be under such a condition where navigation, selection, and being noticed are cultural issues of high importance when everybody can 'publish' on the net. Perhaps our dominant cultural problem is less the existence of copyright, the authority of the author or text, and more problems of overload and the cultural issued raised by this phenomenon? However, this issue does not fall easily within the larger framework of modern/postmodern cultural subjects and objects.
Thus neither of these examples can be said to provide compelling evidence of the more general thesis of the book. This raises the question of whether Posters general argument that such cultural objects are being appropriated and changed to a degree that threatens the notion of stable objects and creators is in touch with the practices on the net? I would venture that more than 99% of the MP3 files that are shared are not changed by users but simple copies; that the primary way to find them is to search on the name of the artist/creator; and that the patterns of popularity closely resemble CD sales figures. One could argue that the open source movement would have provided a better case for the viability of 'a culture of sharing,' because it does not depend as most MP3 sharing on outside creators of the cultural objects being shared. But even such a system is not without identifiable creators and reward systems of different kinds, personal prestige being an important value for example. In any case, a convincing argument would require that the overall hypothesis was supported by closer observations of actual practices on the net and less focus on 'potentialities.'
This criticism is also valid for Poster's discussion on authorship and textuality on the net, which draws on ideas formulated in literary theories on hypertext by people such as George Landow and Jay Bolter in the early 1990s. Bolter and Landow coupled earlier ideas of hypertext by Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson with Foucault and Barthes' criticisms of the author-figure and texts. They suggested that hypertext constituted a radical break with print textuality characterized by a blurring of reader and writer, as well as fragmented and dynamic texts. This interpretation of hypertext is largely accepted by Poster, which is somewhat surprising, since it to a large degree has not been supported by developments on the Web (and was not formulated with Web in mind). Where are all these authorless hypertexts that he speaks about for example? And what supports the claim that just because it is possible to edit a text after publishing it on the Web, this will undermine the praxis of not doing so? If we focus on actual use as opposed to 'potentials' even a cursory glance reveals that most hyperlinks and texts on the web do have an editor or an author that takes responsibility for them. Furthermore, the names of authors (fictive or not), editors, and publications are probably some of the most important cues we use to select and navigate the sea of texts and images on the net. Poster might disagree in theory but fortunately this has not kept him from creating a homepage for would-be readers of his texts. There is another more theoretic problem in Poster's use of hypertext theory, which reproduces a fundamental tension in that body of theory: how can post-structuralist theories developed about printed texts be used to argue for a radical break between printed and digital texts? Either the post-structuralist ideas were wrong at that time of their formulation or they are wrong as markers of a dichotomy between print and digital textuality -- it is not possible to have it both ways.
The point of these critical questions is not only to voice a disagreement with some of Poster's interpretations of the issues he raises. They are directed primarily at how Poster does not sufficiently tests his general arguments against the more specific phenomena he is analyzing. Instead, Poster often resorts to meta-theorizing without really engaging the different dimensions of the Internet being theorized. For this reason, Poster is best when discussing the historical and theoretical context of current cultural transformations but provides few penetrating and deep analyses of the actual cultural transformations themselves. Having said that, however, Poster ideas are very suggestive and frame many pertinent issues in a larger theoretical and historical context, which is often missing in writings on cyberspace-issues. Thus, for anyone interested in thinking about the relations between new media and culture in a way where intellectual depth matters, What's the Matter with the Internet? is well worth reading.
Rune Dalgaard is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Information and Media Studies, Aarhus University, Denmark. He has published work on hypertext (in English), scholarly communication on the net (in Danish), and philosophical conceptions of tecnology (in Danish). Other interests include the computer as medium, media history, cultural and critical theory, and sociology of knowledge.
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