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  • Digital Beings & Virtual Times: The Politics of Cybersubjectivity
  • Timothy W. Luke
Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital (Knopf, 1995)

This review speculatively reconsiders some vital questions about personal agency and social structure in the cyberspaces generated by telematic systems. Its speculations depart from and return to the Wired commentaries that Nicholas Negroponte recently published as Being Digital. As the key overseer at MIT’s Media Lab, Negroponte has used his book to tout the exciting new world of “being digital” as it is being invented in his digitizing workshops. Bigger questions, however, go unanswered or unasked in this book, and this review begins to correct these omissions.

Most of these missing issues can be tied back to a basic distinction that Negroponte makes much of Being Digital out of as a rhetorical document. And, one long quotation gets us immediately to it. A consummate example of symbolic analyst yuppiedom, Negroponte begins his book by musing about the one-liter bottles of Evian water at two different meetings in Florida and California.

Unlike most of the participants, I knew exactly where Evian was from my timetables. Evian, France is more than five hundred miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Those heavy glass bottles had to traverse almost one-third of Europe, cross the Atlantic, and, in the case of California, travel an additional three thousand miles....Today, I see my Evian story not so much being about French mineral water versus American, but illustrating the fundamental difference between atoms and bits. In the case of Evian water, we were shipping a large, heavy, and inert mass, slowly, painfully, and expensively, across thousands of miles, over a period of days. When you go through customs you declare your atoms, not your bits....This is changing rapidly. The methodical movement of recorded music as pieces of plastic, like the slow human handling of most information in the form of books, magazines, newspapers, and videocassettes, is about to become the instanteous and inexpensive transfer of electronic data that move at the speed of light....the change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable. 1

Of course, these digital flows always require an atomic infrastructure of wires, circuits, transmitters, chips or relays to work, but Negroponte glosses over this messy detail to celebrate the conditions of “being digital.”

Given how pervasively cyberspaces are being constructed from the (con)fusions of computers with wired and wireless telecommunication networks, we need to explore more closely what new types of individual and collective subjectivity are becoming possible in such spaces. Although Nicholas Negroponte calls these existential modes “being digital,” I prefer the notion of “cybernetic subjectivity,” because it captures more fully the sense in which human beings experience new forms of consciousness and agency through the telematic channels provided by computerized calculations, communications, codes. 2 Subjectivity ordinarily suggests those qualities possessed by conscious beings with significant individuality, agency, personality, and I want to consider how these qualities could be rearticulated radically through cybernetic systems.

I. Some Varieties of Digital Being

Preliminary forms of digital being arise wherever a system of governmentality inscribes its power/knowledge codes upon large populations of human beings. In such settings, one can witness proto-digital beings taking shape in statistical populations (large pools of data) and among statistical persons (individual data packets) of various magnitudes and dimensions. 3 Popular wisdom in the ancient mainframe days of interfacing with the machine’s CPU through mechanical card readers acknowledged the possibilities for such a digital being by directing everyone not to “bend, fold, spindle or mutilate.” As subjectivities that can be variably configured out of data streams, which are forming, in turn, from the divergent discourses of their statistical manufacture, our digital ancestors first were fabricated as operational traces within disciplinary force-fields to be managed as consumers, citizens or clients by the bureaucratic apparatuses which become fused, or perhaps (con)fused, with them in all of their (wo)man/machine interactions. 4 Voting behavior in contemporary mass democracy discloses many of these traits. Voters are imagined as machinic bundles of stable pre-formed preferences inclined to make choices in predictable, transitive, rational decisions. One only must find their “hot buttons,” and then push them in...

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