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What's the Matter with the Internet?

Author: Mark Poster
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001
Review Published: March 2002

 REVIEW 1: Kathleen Fitzpatrick
 REVIEW 2: Rune Dalgaard
 REVIEW 3: Slavka Antonova

Mark Poster's What's the Matter with the Internet? contributes to the burgeoning field of the "digital culture" literature. It provides a rather detailed map of both theoretical roads and milestone categories of the postmodern discourse, which, assumingly, have the potential to pinpoint shifting relations and identities in our "virtual reality" existence. Yet, it is the challenge to this assumption, openly sustained throughout the book, that elevates this collection of hitherto partially published texts to the status of an innovative argument worth reading and contemplating.

The author's argument is driven by the conviction that the revolutionary potential of the new communication technologies (the Internet, in particular) has not yet received a proper recognition by both critical thinkers and cultural studies scholars. The author believes that we are witnessing, indeed, revolutionary changes linked to the pervasive new medium ("the Internet forebodes a reconstruction of the basic elements of human culture,"126). Consequently, he constructs the book with two intentions: first, to demonstrate the depth and scope of these changes; and, second, to experiment with "sharper" analytical lenses ("I suggest a focus on the specificity of the media in the process of self-construction"; "If we are to study the culture of new media we need to take into account the information machines that increasingly mediate our symbolic practices," 10).

With the former intention in mind, the book was designed as a nine-chapter summary of ample theoretical reflections on our "digital being" -- from subject and identity construction to virtual ethnicity and cyberdemocracy. The latter intention enables the author to critically reflect on a number of influential works in humanities and social sciences, and exhibit their analytical shortsightedness in regard to the human experiences and changes in social relations facilitated by the new media (see Chapters 2, 5, 6, and 7 for critique on works by Baudrillard, Virilio, Derrida, Heidegger, Habermas, Anderson, and feminist discourses).

At the core of Poster's account of the postmodern mentality is the revelation of its "inability to recognize practices that involve assemblages of humans and machines and account for their differential realization" (136), due to the ignorance of "the condition of the body, the material, the trace" (138), a critique aimed at Baudrillard's "failure" in theorizing the virtual.

With confidence stemming from the North American tradition in media studies (McLuhan's perspective is a strong reference point in the book), the author proposes the following explanation of this ignorance: "new technologies often arouse deep fears" (106); and "an important component of the anxiety is a sense of threatened authority" (107). The Internet, for instance, is often depicted by intellectuals as the Other, "the first real alien we have encountered" (113), and it is really regrettable, as the author implies, that leading intellectuals of the spectral cultures of TV and film are displaying "an ignorance and fear of the Internet, which, if not equal to that of the politicians, is not significantly an improvement" (113).

The above-quoted narrative contains, at least, two important ideas, which contribute to the contemporary gropings in cultural studies. First, categorically and convincingly, the emergence of a "new region of experience" is proclaimed, where new media and humans constitute relations that are different from industrial society's man-machine relations. The medium of the Internet, as any other "virtual" social object, is formed by distinct practices, discourses, and institutional frames, and, in this sense, is "overdetermined." Yet, by the virtue of its digital nature, it transgresses the limits of the print and broadcast models (in terms of providing instantaneous global network contact), allowing the self, who is no longer a subject, to operate "within a machine apparatus as a point in a circuit" (16). In this sense, the Internet is "underdetermined," because it is open to practice, does not direct agents into clear paths, and solicits instead social construction and cultural creation (17). As the author infers, "[a] type of object thus emerges into social space that is overdetermined in the sense of being structured through multiple contradictory practices but is also underdetermined in the sense that it remains an invitation to a new imaginary" (18).

Second, consistent with the author's critical thinking, the intellectual is assigned the proactive role of trying "to understand what is happening and attempt to shape the outcome in the best way we can" (61). What Poster calls for is "profound changes in the discourse of critical theory, and of academia in general, as a consequence of the digitization of writing" (60). Critical thinkers are compelled to undertake the "gigantic task of conceptual-empirical development," which "comes to terms with the transformation of mechanical machines into smart machines, into 'artificial intelligence,' self-regulating systems, and digitizers of images, sounds, and text," and commences from "an appreciation of the dissemination of these software-hardware systems throughout social space and the installation of interfaces that unite humans and machines in new configurations of agency" (146). The envisioned horizon, itself, is nothing less than the detection of "a new materialism, a new theory of the imbrication of technology and culture" (146).

Constructing, in this way, a new distinct object of investigation and burdening cultural studies scholars with its "conceptual-empirical development," the author presents the ultimate stakes of this endeavor: substantial analysis of an emerging global mode of information is anxiously awaited by the new political movements, in order to suggest a general new politics of radical democracy (147). As the author insists, the Internet holds "the possibility of developing a level of global interconnectedness that is outside the aegis of both the nation-state and the transnational corporation" (118), because it rejects the communications logic of autochthony.

The problem is, as Poster defines it, that neither Habermas' concept of the public sphere, nor the notion of identity as a fixed essence, as conceptual tools, suffice the requirement of a new understanding of technology and reassessment of the political aspects of the Internet. In the author's words, "[b]ecause the Internet inscribes the new social figure of the cyborg and institutes a communicative practice of self-constitution, the political as we have known it is reconfigured" (187).

Intriguing and involving as it is, the above argument challenges the already conventional postmodern critical thinking. The inventory has revealed the inadequacy of a bulk of conceptual tools, and new venues for theorizing our digital experiences have emerged. In this sense, Poster's book is an invitation for experimenting, inventing, and discovering.

The author's argument, projected on the broad canvas of cultural theory, nonetheless, shivers with differing intensity throughout the book's two hundred pages. It successfully emerges from the philosophical depths of subject interpellation and identity construction (see chapter 4, "Digital Subject and Cultural Theory"), or a phenomenology of technics (chapter 2, "The Being of Technologies"). Yet, on certain issues, the critical reflection does not go much beyond posing a challenge. It only strokes, for instance, the surface of the discourses on the new technologies' political and economic dimensions (see chapter 6, "Nations, Identities, and Global Technologies; chapter 8, "Virtual Ethnicity"; and chapter 9, CyberDemocracy: Internet as a Public Sphere?").

For a book that prioritizes "the question of politics in the age of virtual reality" (p. 146), it seems insufficient to only browse through the vast discourses on Globalization, "digital capitalism", and "new political movements". While the nation-state, in its present capacity, is threatened by the Internet's decentralized mobilizing power, it is, for its part, responding to the challenge by inscribing the medium in new and more effective forms of governance.

As Reinicke (1998; 2000) explains, the public sector, which was in crisis in the 1990s, attempts to close the governance gaps by creating global public policy networks, where part of the policymaking responsibility is transferred to non-state actors: businesses and non-governmental organizations. This new type of collaboration is enabled by the Internet, but it is initiated and managed by particular social actors in order to improve the legitimacy, acceptability, and efficiency of their policy making.

The "question of politics in the age of virtual reality," it appears, cannot be answered by emphasizing, exclusively, the Internet's communications logic of interconnectedness. In such a case, the resulting argument will possess questionable strength to convince the reader, as the following line of reasoning demonstrates:

    In regard to the print and the public sphere, "preexisting social relations were too strong to allow the new technical practice to develop a new kind of political practice" (123). In relation to the Internet, though, there are possibilities for new political regimes, forms, and practices to emerge. Yet, as the author links these possibilities exclusively to the medium's communications logic, one is compelled to wonder whether the presumption is that social relations in the postmodern age are not "too strong" (measured in what units, anyway?), thus allowing new political practices to emerge.

Mark Poster's What's the Matter with the Internet?contains, apparently, works-in-progress focused on outlining the contours of a specific field of investigation, sharpening the conceptual tools, and suggesting questions capable of guiding exploratory efforts. Presented as a well structured, elegant, and provocative argument, this works-in-progress constitutes, as the author intended, a challenge to scholarly authority to acknowledge that "there is something new in the world, and we are called upon to account for it" (12).

Reinicke, W. H. Global Public Policy. Governing without Government? Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1998.

Reinicke, W. H. and Deng, F. Critical Choices: The United Nations, Networks, and the Future of Global Governance. Ottawa, Cairo, Dakar, Johannesburg, Montevideo, Nairobi, New Delhi, Singapore: International Development Research Centre, 2000.

Slavka Antonova:
Slavka Antonova is a Doctoral Candidate in the Joint Ph.D. Program in Communication, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. Her research interests focus on the intersections of information technologies, public policy, and power dynamics. She holds a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication from Moscow University, Russia, and has published in both traditional and electronic media.  <santon@alcor.concordia.ca>

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