ENGL444: BOOK CRITIQUE – Mark Posters The Mode of Information
Mark Posters The Mode of Information can be seen as something of an attempt to establish a new discourse in socio-political theory. He does this mainly through the concerted criticism of several prominent philosophers, including Marx, Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard. Typically, his prime concern with the bulk of most of these philosophers works is their tendency towards totalization, or their failure to adequately incorporate an understanding of what Poster sees as the mode of information into their theorizing. From what remains of his counterparts theories, Poster attempts to assemble his new discourse, incorporating into the equation theories of globalization and information. My concern in this critique will largely be to highlight some of Posters own theoretical inadequacies, and perhaps provide a very brief overview of the core elements of his theory of information along the way. Of key interest will be his belief that the current global era of late Capitalism can be defined by the shift from the Marxist mode of production towards a mode of information, as well as his discussions around the concept of digitization. Other points of interest beyond these, but nonetheless related to them, will focus upon Posters belief in the decentering of the subject through the forces of new media, as well as his belief in the death of the Marxist Proletariat as a definitive social force within modern Capitalism.
Absolutely vital to the body of Posters book The Mode of Information is the assumption that the human race has moved into a new social era, defined by the cultural logic of Late Capitalism. Poster sees this era as being characterized by the globalized spread of information, typically in the form of new Media, via a complex and technologically advanced web of communications networks. Poster also sees as central to Late Capitalism a shift in primacy away from the mode of production towards the mode of consumption, and ultimately the mode of information. Poster essentially believes that the emphasis in contemporary Capitalism no longer focuses upon how goods are produced, but rather how they are sold ( or consumed, as the case may be ). Implicit in this belief ( and in fact expatiated by his belief in the demise of the proletariat ) is the concept of a knowledge economy, whereby the proletariat of the early Industrial era have been steadily replaced by mechanization and a new workforce comprised of technologically adept skills people. The old exchange of capital for physical labor has supposedly been outmoded by new developments in production technology, having been replaced by a new exchange of capital for technological skill or intellectual ability. For a certain few privileged nations, this could certainly well be the case. When contextualised globally, however, this premise becomes highly questionable . The fact of the matter is that for most of the worlds population, technological advancement is precluded by poverty and the simple fact that it is vastly unaffordable. In terms of the Proletariat, it could well be argued, and in fact has been by World Systems Theorists, that rather than disappearing with the advent of more efficient production methods ( such as computerization ), the exchange of raw physical labor for capital has simply relocated itself away from the wealthier nations ( often termed as the core nations ), to the poorer developing ones ( termed as the periphery ). Those nations not wealthy enough to be able to afford the cost of technological advancement have simply become the home of this new world orders Working Classes the horrors and injustices which once characterized the Wests early Industrial era can now be readily discovered in any number of developing countries backyards.
To be fair to Poster, however, there is no denying the far-reaching impact of the new communications media he focuses upon so much within The Mode of Information. Although the impacts of digitization are perhaps not so readily noticeable at the grassroots level of the majority of the worlds population, their effects have undeniably brought about huge changes internationally. Equally, there is no denying the fact that the global spread of communications media, not necessarily those related to digitization, has had a considerable impact upon social structures around the world. But firstly, let us focus in upon Posters discussion of digitization.
Poster sees the digitization phenomena as a not inconsiderable force for social, economic and political change. One of the core elements Poster attributes to the process is the ability to transfer information almost instantly across vast distances of space, thereby neutering the impact of spatial and temporal effects upon international transactions of information and capital. Up until very recently these elements posed considerable hurdles to the development of international relationships. On a purely economic level, this has resulted in the rapid development of global capital, a situation where literally billions of US dollars float between countries on a day-to-day basis. It has effectively opened up the way for the rapid development of Globalization, allowing not only the globalization of capital, but also the transnationalization of corporations to a never before seen extent. What this has meant at a social level, is that culture ( particularly US/Western culture ) has also become globalized. As cultures have become more sensitive to the fluctuations and differences in their foreign counterparts, Poster believes individual cultural identities have likewise become increasingly de-centered. Heightening this de-centering effect, according to Poster, is digitizations impact upon meaning, particularly in relation to text. One of the most obvious results of the digitization of text has been the increased ability to not only spread texts rapidly across the globe, but also to copy and modify those texts with a never before possible ease. Text has essentially become much more fluid, much more easily adaptable and transferable, and much more open-ended. In effect, much more like speech, or so it would seem Poster would have us believe. But then, on the same note, Poster goes on to discuss digitizations closure of meaning. This he believes is a potential result of the process of binary encoding, a necessary feature of the digital process whereby information to be transferred into digital format is converted into a series of ones and zeroes. The information, be it a Shakespearean text or a music video, becomes signified by binary code in such a fashion that it can only be re-rendered in one form and one form only ( as a Shakespearean text or music video, say ). It is for this reason that Poster believes digitization could potentially reduce possible meanings- unlike text, which can be interpreted as yielding an infinitude of meaning, Poster believes binary coding can yield only one meaning, the one it was programmed to yield. I feel Posters logic in this respect suffers somewhat. Poster seems to ignore the fact that meaning is not produced solely through the vehicles of language, be they either binary code or text. Its production is also facilitated through the interpretation of that language. Even on the most basic grammatical level, the textual term spring has several different meanings. Visually, however, it appears to us as only one word, composed of five letters of varying shapes. If we were to show that word to an individual with absolutely no knowledge of the English language it would mean almost nothing. The text itself means nothing, it is only what we as the reader/interpreter bring to the text that creates meaning. In the conversion of that text into binary code, how does this impact upon our interpretation of it, once it is converted back into its readily recognizable textual form? The answer of course would be very little; until the readers interpretation begins to become effected, no shift in meaning will result from a conversion to binary code.
If Posters analysis of binary coding is questionable, what of his discussion upon the de-centering effects of digitization, or more generally, new Media? His basic premise is certainly sound that the complex and sometimes contradictory messages sent through the format of new Media around the globe have resulted in a de-centering of identity, and a shift in cultural attitudes. For evidence of this, we need look no further than Japan, at the strange emulsion of traditional Japanese cultural values with American consumer culture. In fact, anywhere where capitalism and consumer culture exist, we can find evidence of what could be seen as the de-centering of identity via the messages and demands of new Media. The individual freedom which Poster believes a de-centering of cultural identity via new Media entails raises some doubts questionable, however. Poster believes that through this de-centering force, individuals gain freedom from pre-conceived notions of their potential identity and place in the world. Thus the de-centering of their previously ordained identity ( ordained in the sense in which it is established for them by their society ) opens up the freedom of establishing for themselves a new identity, or, even more importantly, the freedom of being unconstrained by any identity at all. What Poster either fails to notice or fails to mention, however, is how this force has manifest itself in contemporary Late Capitalist societies, for instance Japan. It could be argued that typically, loss of a well-grounded social identity via the effects of consumerism and new Media, can result in even further recourse to the processes of consumer culture. Increasingly in recent years, advertising ( one form of new Media ) has played upon the desire for identity within consumer cultures. It is commonplace for advertisers to sell their products not upon their merit or usefulness, but through their association with a lifestyle or cultural identity. Thus when you buy the product, you are buying it to associate yourself with an identity or culture. An individual with an insecure perception of his or her personal identity would make for an easy victim of this kind of advertising ploy, and might happily ( or unhappily ) begin constructing for themselves an identity based around consumerism. In this kind of situation, we could say that the establishment of identity no longer remains the responsibility of traditional society, but has become, in a sense, privatized, increasingly belonging to the domain of advertisers and their financiers.
Another interesting angle Poster takes upon the concept of freedom in the contemporary Late Capitalist age, is that it is further advanced through the effects of digitization and the Internet. At the core of Posters belief in the freedom enhancing properties of these two forces is a perception that the Panopticon of social control has no influence or presence within the domain of the Internet. Firstly, he believes the lack of any socially restraining force has allowed a greater exploration of individual identity than previously possible under the older social order of everyday society. Poster takes as his evidence the example of the chat-room, where people are given almost total control over what identities they wish to adopt. Poster himself, however, raises some doubts as to the extent of the freedom the Internet allows for. He goes on to point out the tendency for social constraints to follow internet participants through from external society into the Internet chat-room, or if not into the chat-room, at least into that participants psyche post-chat. What I believe Poster is attempting to say here is that despite the individual being given relative free-reign in the internet environ to create for his or herself an identity of their choosing, it is the society outside the realm of the internet which initially establishes for that individual their primary identity, and it is quite possible that this identity will manifest itself in this individuals actions whilst he or she is within the Internet, simply because of that identities primary status. This may result from a feeling of guilt on the part of the individual who engages in identity reconstruction whilst on the Internet, as their feigned personas values system conflicts with their real personas socially ordained values system in normal life. And of course, who is to say that some individuals may find the concept of identity reconstruction repugnant from the very outset? Certainly because some individuals engage in it does not warrant the belief that all peoples will find themselves so inclined upon encountering a chat-room. For many people, it is quite conceivable that the internet will offer very little in the way of individual liberation simply because their personal values system is so strongly against the process that they will refuse to even participate in it. What Poster believes is the Internets salvation, in terms of its freedom enhancing properties, is the lack of direct intervention which institutionalized social panopticons ( e.g. Governments ) actually maintain within the world wide web. Through the Internet, Poster believes the opportunities for dissenting voices to be heard, or at least voiced without fear of reprisals or silencing, are enormous. To a point, I believe this to be a fair statement for Poster to have made a decade ago, and even now. Of course, the benefit of hindsight allows the contemporary reader knowledge of the exception to the rule. It is now well known that governments, or more particularly the U.S. governments Central Intelligence Agency, actively sift the e-mail traffic of the World Wide Webs participants looking for communications they believe to be potentially dangerous. This could well be described as a prime example of direct government involvement with Internet goings-on, if not a good example of an external controlling social force within the World Wide Web. Hence, it would not be fair for Poster to assert the exclusion of the Internet from the controlling mechanisms of the social Panopticon.
Of key interest will be his belief that the current global era of late Capitalism can be defined by the shift from the Marxist “mode of production” towards a “mode of information”, as well as his discussions around the concept of digitization. Other points of interest beyond these, but nonetheless related to them, will focus upon Poster’s belief in the decentering of the subject through the forces of “new media”, as well as his belief in the death of the Marxist Proletariat as a definitive social force within modern Capitalism. Mark Poster’s “The Mode of Information” can be seen as something of an attempt to establish a new discourse in socio-political theory. He does this mainly through the concerted criticism of several prominent philosophers, including Marx, Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard. Typically, his prime concern with the bulk of most of these philosopher’s works is their tendency towards totalization, or their failure to adequately incorporate an understanding of what Poster sees as the “mode of information” into their theorizing.
Posters theorizing within The Mode of Information, then, contains some seriously flawed assumptions relating directly to the very core of his argument. The main problems we strike in a reading of his book relate to the assumption that the human race has moved into a new social era, defined by the cultural logic of Late Capitalism. Poster sees this era as being characterized by the globalized spread of information, typically in the form of “new Media”, via a complex and technologically advanced web of communications networks. Poster also sees as central to Late Capitalism a shift in primacy away from the mode of production towards the mode of consumption, and ultimately the “mode of information”. As we have seen, the assumption that the human race is moving towards primacy of the mode of information could be seen as dramatically incorrect, simply because the associated demise of the Proletariat this necessitates under Posters logic has not occurred. Even if we were to accept his definition of the Proletariat as a workforce comprised of manual laborers ( and not just any person working for less capital/reward than their work-input produces ), a brief study of the socio-economic composition of any developing country would reveal the very real presence of a global working-class. Combine this with Posters failure to adequately recognize the technologically debilitating problem of poverty most of the worlds peoples face, and we have a substantial oversight on the part of Posters book The Mode of Information and its theories.
Mark Poster, 1990, The Mode of Information, Polity Press, Cambridge,
Steve Hobden and Richard Wyn Jones, 1997, World System Theory, as found in The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations , edited by John Bayliss and Steve Smith, Oxford University Press, New York