- Information PoliticsA review of Tim Jordan, Information Politics: Liberation and Exploitation in the Digital Society
You can order the hardback of Tim Jordan’s Information Politics: Liberation and Exploitation in the Digital Society from Amazon.com for $60.19, or you can pay $21.98 for the paperback. That the two versions have different prices based on different materialities does not seem remarkable. But you can also “purchase” the book for $20.24 and read it on Kindle or on a computer with the Kindle app. “Purchase” is in quotes because if you choose to access the information that Jordan has authored in this way, you are not actually purchasing the book. You are rather purchasing a license to access the information according to certain terms and conditions set out by the publisher and by Amazon. You are renting access to the information. The fact that in this third case, the same information is presented to you at a radically reduced material cost (no printing), yet you only save $1.74, is a peculiarity of the digital age we have constructed. (There is of course a fourth option here: if you are privileged enough to have access to an academic library, you can read the information at no direct cost by checking out the book.) Information Politics seeks to explain how the same information comes to be available through a variety of means, yet with marked differences in materiality and cost. What are the circumstances that inform information structures and that politicize them in this way?
Jordan’s central tenet is that information is a new site of political struggle, and that to understand political power in the twenty-first century, it is necessary to engage the handling of information. Any theory that seeks to explain exploitation in the twenty-first century must now evaluate information as one of the sites of exploitation. Jordan is clear from the beginning that information is not some new master category that subsumes all other political antagonisms, but rather is one of multiple sites of engagement; he argues that information should be added alongside class, race, gender, and other more established sites of political struggle. Starting with this framework is one of the strengths of the book. Jordan recognizes that political struggle is multiple and takes place across myriad antagonisms, and that isolating one point of conflict allows for a deeper understanding only on the condition that it is then connected back to other political struggles. This is what the book sets out to do: to examine the forces that use information to structure exploitation and to use this investigation to expand our understanding of exploitation.
To make this argument, Jordan divides the book into three sections. The first explains the theory of information politics, analyzing both what it is that allows information to be leveraged for political gain, and also, perhaps more importantly, what about the digital makes information an especially powerful (and perhaps new) site of struggle. The second section examines particular patterns that develop as a result of these information structures, and the third is dedicated to engaging case studies meant to demonstrate the argument.
The idea that asymmetrical access to information produces inequality is not new to the twenty-first century, or even the twentieth: there is a long history of thinking about information as a central locus of power. Through one lens, the Protestant Reformation developed from a question about access to information, structured around changes in the material conditions of the reproduction of information. One can think about the field of communication studies as the study of how information helps to structure communities and distribute power; the work of James Carey is particularly instructive in this regard. As many critics have noted, the digital era has reshaped our relation to information because its substructure is now digital, not analog. One of the strengths of Jordan’s book is to provide specificity to this claim. Rather than asserting that digital information is a different type of information, Jordan supplies three reasons why the power of information has grown exponentially. The primary...