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Short Paper – Week 2 (Aug 30, 2010)

August 29, 2010

Poster, M. (2006). Information Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital Machines. Duke University Press. (Chapters 7, 9, and 10)

Chapter 7 presented Poster’s arguments pertaining to the issue of ethics in the age of new media. Specifically, Poster presents the hypothesis that traditional ethical principles that guided media and personal interactions seem irrelevant to the complex realities in today’s era of instant information and knowledge sharing. Poster calls for “new systems of evaluation” that would ideally be less parochial.  This new system is needed because the virtual has complicated what we know to be real. Poster also touches upon the fact that time/space constraints have ceased to exist as barriers to human interaction because we are globally connected 24×7. This ability, according to Poster, blurs the boundaries between our real and virtual relationships, between private and public, and a significant overlap occurs between these binaries.

Poster’s central thesis in this chapter is that digital portable technologies such as the Internet compel us to reconsider the ethical frameworks that guided media practices in the past. Digital information is being shared rapidly across the world across various media, thus complicating our ontological and epistemological assumptions about the nature of reality. It also makes the concept of culture more complex than ever, since portable media means that culture can now be deterritorialized and edited by prosumers of culture. Lastly, Poster claims that the opportunity for anonymity and/or temporary identities afforded to people by the Internet contributes to “ethically questionable behavior”. However, I am not sure how the new code of ethics that Poster calls for, would synchronize with the idea of free speech vis-à-vis issues pertaining censorship in new media.

Chapter 9 deals with the politics of controlling (or attempting to control) digital culture and a discussion about whether the word ‘control’ is even legitimate in the context of digital communication. Poster talks specifically about the music industry and how it is affected by peer-to-peer file sharing networks. Poster argues in favor of these networks facilitate a wider (re)circulation of audio/video files by individual – an act that challenges the recording labels’ efforts to protect their revenues by lobbying for intellectual property rights laws against these networks.

Poster posits that everyone must have the right to share music, films, books and other cultural ingredients in order to attain a truly “democratic culture”. While P2P file sharing is not going to be stopped or adopted by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), it is essential to consider the fact that the act of sharing cultural materials empowers individuals because they can produce, copy, and share information at almost no cost – an act that was impossible in the analog era. Such empowerment will (and should) challenge the controlling agents of digital culture and will blur the demarcation between producers and consumers of digital culture. Poster dismisses the arguments of the recording industry that P2P file sharing eliminates the incentive for creative musical efforts. Instead, Poster argues that P2P file sharing would actually allow many more artistes to be heard, seen, and read without being controlled by publishing labels that are primarily motivated by revenues and vested ideologies. Poster also posits that P2P file sharing is not tantamount to piracy because it is a non-market exchange (costless sharing), unlike the illegal selling of unauthorized books and DVDs.

Chapter 10 presents the interesting notion that what we know as our “everyday lives” is “a battleground over the nature of human identity”. Poster uses Lefebvre’s humanist framework to engage in a discussion about the ubiquity of computing today and how it transgresses the concept of physical location and time. Poster initially uses Lefebvre’s definition of ‘everyday’ as a product and claims that the everyday is created by destroying the old ways of doing things and erecting ‘modern’ society. Poster claims that not only has Lefebvre’s vision of human concreteness (the idea that freedom should be endemic to our ‘everyday’) not been realized in modern society, but that the media upholds an illusory reality that according to Poster is heavily ideological and repressive of all that is non-mainstream.  Poster concludes by arguing that Lefebvre’s humanist vision is not sufficient any more in the era of humachines and ubiquitous computing.

Information Please raises pertinent issues for a digitally based culture/society such as ours and I was particularly fascinated that Poster didn’t conceptualize either the machines or human beings as powerful or privileged – instead, he presented an interesting insights into the nodes of contact between machines and human and what such interaction entails vis-à-vis the cultural and social impact of knowledge/information sharing via digital media.  However, while I appreciated Poster’s attempt at providing a philosophical framework for comprehending the proliferation of digital technology today, I was rather confused by his treatment of subject matter in Chapter 10 which bordered on the diffuse. Not only did he take an inordinately long time to come to the crux of his argument, he also tried to present too many arguments – the connections among which were often hard to see.

Questions/comments/discussion topics

  1. In chapter 7, Poster explores the possibility that if new codes of valuation are required for media in the digital age, then perhaps the older system of ethics and principles was “flawed.” I don’t necessarily agree with this contention, but I do agree that media ethics need to be reconsidered. Just like laws and policies that are constantly updated to keep pace with developments in digital media, isn’t it possible that the need for a new system of evaluation is also simply a ‘sign of times’? I believe that the media (and the way we think about them) have undergone such a paradigm shift in the last decade that not even the most astute of scholars could have come up an ethical code that would suffice for analyzing and monitoring virtual spaces today. So it’s not so much a question of being flawed as it is a question of not being able to anticipate the disruptions causes by new technologies, which I am not sure is necessarily a bad thing!
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