- Not Just a Matter of the Internet
There is surely a double entendre at work in the title of Mark Poster’s book, What’s the Matter with the Internet?. In this matter, it is not just a question of what might have gone wrong, what danger lurks behind the Internet’s promise. We’re also asked to consider the ways in which the Internet and related technologies bear upon matter itself, upon the very real and material conditions of human culture.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the photograph reproduced in the front matter of the book makes a strong statement. The caption adequately conveys the immediate sense of the picture:
in a new configuration of the virtual, an orthodox Jew at the sacred site of the Wailing Wall holds a cell phone so that a distant friend can pray.
Here we are offered a jarring image of what for some is an unholy alliance between the old and the new. If the sacred can still be said to exist in our modern world, it does not merely exist alongside new technologies, but has, as this photograph attests, become inseparable from them.
This is an extreme example, but it captures a common theme shared by the essays collected in this volume. If the early context of critical theory was capitalism, Poster argues, today it is surely the mode of information. Information has assumed the form of a commodity, silently and invisibly working to reconfigure what we call “culture,” upsetting the bounds of tradition, redefining who we are, and troubling political terminologies and identities. Poster suggests that such a politics is outmoded: “culture has lost its boundary” (2). And this most certainly ushers in a crisis of identity and meaning no less than it opens up hitherto unavailable possibilities for subjects, citizens, races, classes, and genders to be configured anew. What are the possibilities for loosening rigid notions of ontogeny, epistemology, and identity in a recombinant world of 0/1/0/1...? And how desirable would this be? While Poster’s critics have often been quick to seize on the more utopian aspects of his analyses, they usually overlook the material import of his work, inadequately acknowledging the subtleties at play and the risks at stake.
Several of the essays collected in What’s the Matter with the Internet? have appeared elsewhere, but at the heart of these and especially in his new work, Poster is at his best. In the last two decades, Poster has earned a well-deserved reputation not least for translating and interpreting Baudrillard, but also for rendering the difficult theory of members of the Frankfurt School and of more recent thinkers such as Foucault, Habermas, Derrida, and Lyotard accessible to North American academic audiences. This book continues the tradition of lucid exegesis while at the same time firmly establishing Poster as an original thinker in his own right; in these pages he has really come into his own, and his voice is one worth listening to. Even more than in The Second Media Age (1995), these essays are theoretically rich and risk original analyses by adapting a political economy critique to the new media.
For instance, in chapter two, “The Being of Technologies,” Poster resituates the insights of Heidegger’s famous essay on technology for our current digital context.1 He argues: “The terms of the debate over technology must be reconceived in relation to the emergence of qualitatively new kinds of machines” (23). These new machines pose significant challenges. The traditional view of technology went only so far as conceiving machinery materially, as that which is of and which affects matter. Today, however, “the matter” with the Internet and related techno-machines is that their effects are profoundly symbolic, and therefore bear on society, culture, and politics in new and complex ways. Today’s techno-machines must be conceived as engaging in technical and rational activities; consequently, technology enjoys a kind of “agency”—a power traditionally preserved for human subjects. Poster continues to challenge us to think the ways in which the...