Postmodern Virtualities

An automatic summary (from the Mac OS X summarize service) of Mark Poster’s Postmodern Virtualities.

And if that’s too long, here it is as a tweet.

On the eve of the twenty first century there have been two innovative discussions about the general conditions of life: one concerns a possible “postmodern” culture and even society; the other concerns broad, massive changes in communications systems.   Postmodern culture is often presented as an alternative to existing society which is pictured as structurally limited or funda mentally flawed.   New communications systems are often presented as a hopeful key to a better life and a more equitable society.   The discussion of postmodern culture focuses to a great extent on an emerging new individual identity or subject position, one that abandons what may in retrospect be the narrow scope of the modern individual with its claims to rationality and autonomy.   The discourse surrounding the new communications systems attends more to the imminent technical increase in information exchange and the ways this advantage will redound to already existing individuals and already existing institutions.   My purpose in this essay is to bring these two discussions together, to enact a confrontation between them so that the advantages of each may redo und to the other, while the limitations of each may be revealed and discarded.   My contention is that a critical understanding of the new communications systems requires an evaluation of the type of subject it encourages, while a viable articulation of pos tmodernity must include an elaboration of its relation to new technologies of communication.   Finally I shall turn to the issue of multiculturalism in relation to the postmodern subject in the age of the mode of information.

For what is at stake in th ese technical innovations, I contend, is not simply an increased “efficiency” of interchange, enabling new avenues of investment, increased productivity at work and new domains of leisure and consumption, but a broad and extensive change in the culture, i n the way identities are structured.   If I may be allowed a historical analogy: the technically advanced societies are at a point in their history similar to that of the emergence of an urban, merchant culture in the midst of feudal society of the middle a ges.   At that point practices of the exchange of commodities required individuals to act and speak in new ways, ways drastically different from the aristocratic code of honor with its face-to-face encounters based on trust for one’s word and its hierarchi cal bonds of interdependency.   Interacting with total strangers sometimes at great distances, the merchants required written documents guaranteeing spoken promises and an “arms length distance” attitude even when facetoface with the other, so as to afford a “space” for calculations of selfinterest.   A new identity was constructed, gradually and in a most circuitous path to be sure, among the merchants in which a coherent, stable sense of individuality was grounded in independent, cognitive abilities.   In this way the cultural basis for the modern world was begun, one that eventually would rely upon print media to encourage and disseminate these urban forms of identity.

Critical theorists such as Benjamin, Enzensberger and McLuhan envisioned the democratic potential of the increased communication capacity of rad io, film and television.   While there is some truth to their position, the practical model for a more radical communications potential during the first media age was rather the telephone.   What distinguishes the telephone from the other great media is its d ecentralized quality and its universal exchangeability of the positions of sender and receiver.   Anyone can “produce” and send a message to anyone else in the system and, in the advanced industrial societies, almost everyone is in the system.   These unique qualities were recognized early on by both defenders and detractors of the telephone.

In the recent past the only technology that imitates the telephone’s democratic structure is the Internet, the government funded electronic mail, database and general communication system.   Until the 1990s, even this facility has been largely restricted to government, research and education institutions, some private industry and individuals who enroll in private services (Compuserve, Prodigy) which are connected to i t.   In the last few years Internet has gained enormously in popularity and by the mid-1990s boasts thirty million users around the world.   But Internet and its segments use the phone lines, suffering their inherent technical limitations.   Technical innovati ons in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, are making possible the drastic reduction of earlier constraints.   The digital encoding of sound, text and image, the introduction of fiber optic lines replacing copper wire, the ability to transmit digitally encoded images and the subsequent ability to compress this information, the vast expansion of the frequency range for wireless transmission, innovations in switching technology, and a number of other advances have so enlarged the quantity and types of in formation that may soon be able to be transmitted that a qualitative change, to allude to Engels’ dialectical formula, in the culture may also be imminent.

Faced with this gigantic combination of new technology, integration of older technologies, creation of new industries and expansion of older ones, commentators have not missed the political implications.   In Tikkun, David Bollier un derlines the need for a new set of policies to govern and regulate the second media age in the public interest.   President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore have already drawn attention to the problem, stressing the need for broad access to the super highway, but also indicating their willingness to make the new developments safe for the profit motive.   For them the main issue at stake is the strength of the United States in relation to other nations (read especially Japan) and the health of the indust ries involved.   Bollier points to wider concerns, such as strengthening community life, supporting families and invigorating the democratic process.   At this point I want to note that Bollier understands the new media entirely within the framework of moder n social institutions.   The “information superhighway” is for him a transparent tool that brings new efficiencies but by itself changes nothing.   The media merely redound to the benefit of or detract from familiar institutions–the family, the community, the state.

If Bollier presents a liberal or left-liberal agenda for politics confronted by the second media age, Mitchell Kapor, former developer of Lotus 1-2-3, offers a more radical interpretation.   He understands better than Bollier that the informat ion superhighway opens qualitatively new political opportunities because it creates new loci of speech: “…the crucial political question is `Who controls the switches?’   There are two extreme choices.   Users may have indirect, or limited control over when , what, why, and from whom they get information and to whom they send it.   That’s the broadcast model today, and its seems to breed consumerism, passivity, crassness, and mediocrity.   Or, users may have decentralized, distributed, direct control over when, what, why, and with whom they exchange information.   That’s the Internet model today, and it seems to breed critical thinking, activism, democracy, and quality.   We have an opportunity to choose now.”   With Kapor, the interpretation of the new media returns to the position of Enzensberger: socialist or radical democratic control of the media results in more freedom, more enlightenment, more rationality; capitalist or centralist control results in oppression, passivity, irrationality.   Kapor’s reading of the information superhighway remains within the binaries of modernity.   No new cultural formations of the self are imagined or even thought possible.   While the political questions raised by Bollier and Kapor are valid and raise the level of debate well beyond its current formation, they remain limited to the terms of discussion that are familiar in the landscape of modernity.

Before turning to the issue of the cultural interpretation of the second media age, we need to consider a further new technology, that of virtual reality.   The term “virtual” was used in compu ter jargon to refer to situations that were near substitutes.   For example, virtual memory means the use of a section of a hard disk to act as something else, in this case, random access memory.   “Virtual reality” is a more dangerous term since it suggests that reality may be multiple or take many forms.   The phrase is close to that of “real time,” which arose in the audio recording field when splicing, multiple track recording and multiple speed recording made possible “other times” to that of clock time or phenomenological time.   In this case, the normal or conventional sense of “time” had to be preserved by the modifier “real.”   But again the use of the modifier only draws attention to non-“reality” of clock time, its nonexclusivity, its insubstantiality , its lack of foundation.   The terms “virtual reality” and “real time” attest to the force of the second media age in constituting a simulational culture.   The mediation has become so intense that the things mediated can no longer even pretend to be unaffec ted.   The culture is increasingly simulational in the sense that the media often changes the things that it treats, transforming the identity of originals and referentialities.   In the second media age “reality” becomes multiple.

Already transitional forms of virtual reality are in use on the Internet.   MUDs or Multi User Domains have a devot ed following.   These are conferences of sorts in which participants adopt roles in a neomedieval adventure game.   Although the game is played textually, that is, moves are typed as sentences, it is highly “visual” in the sense that complex locations, chara cters and objects interact continuously.   In a variant of a MUD, LambdaMOO, a database contains “objects” as “built” by participants to improve upon the sense of reality.   As a result, a quasi-virtual reality is created by the players.   What is more each pla yer adopts a fictional role that may be different from their actual gender and indeed this gender may change in the course of the game, drastically calling into question the gender system of the dominant culture as a fixed binary.   At least during the fict ional game, individuals explore imaginary subject positions while in communication with others.   In LambdaMOO, a series of violent “rapes” by one character caused a crisis among the participants, one that led to special conferences devoted to the issue of punishing the offender and thereby better defining the nature of the community space of the conference.   This experience also cautions against depictions of cyberspace as utopia: the wounds of modernity are borne with us when we enter this new arena and in some cases are even exacerbated.   Nonetheless, the makings of a new cultural space are also at work in the MUDs.   One participant argues that continuous participation in the game leads to a sense of involvement that is somewhere between ordinary reality an d fiction.   The effect of new media such as the Internet and virtual reality, then, is to multiply the kinds of “realities” one encounters in society.

The information superhighway and virtual reality are communications media that enrich existing forms of consumer culture.   But they also depart or may depart from what we have known as the mass media or the “culture industry” in a number of crucial ways.   I said “may depart” because neither of these technologies has been f ully constituted as cultural practices; they are emergent communication systems whose features are yet to be specified with some permanence or finality.   One purpose of this essay is to suggest the importance of some form of political concern about how the se technologies are being actualized.   The technical characteristics of the information superhighway and virtual reality are clear enough to call attention to their potential for new cultural formations.   It is conceivable that the information superhighway will be restricted in the way the broadcast system is.   In that case, the term “second media age” is unjustified.   But the potential of a decentralized communications system is so great that it certainly worthy of recognition.

Electronic mail services and bulletin boards are inundated by stories.   Individuals appear to enjoy relating narratives to those they have never met and probably never will meet.   These narratives often seem to emerge directly from peoples’ lives but many no doubt are inventions.   The appeal is strong to tell one’s tale to others, to many, many othe rs.   One observer suggests the novelty of the situation: “technology is breaking down the notion of fewtomany communications.   Some communicators will always be more powerful than others, but the big idea behind cybertales is that for the first time the many are talking to the many.   Every day, those who can afford the computer equipment and the telephone bills can be their own producers, agents, editors and audiences.   Their stories are becoming more and more idiosyncratic, interactive and individualistic , told in different forums to diverse audiences in different ways.”   This explosion of narrativity depends upon a technology that is unlike print and unlike the electronic media of the first age: it is cheap, flexible, readily available, quick.   It combine s the decentralized model of the telephone and its numerous “producers” of messages with the broadcast model’s advantage of numerous receivers.   Audio (Internet Talk Radio) and video (The World Wide Web using Mosaic) are being added to text, enhancing cons iderably the potentials of the new narratives.   There is now a “World Wide Web” which allows the simultaneous transmission of text, images and sound, providing hypertext links as well.   The implications of the Web are astounding: film clips and voice readin gs may be included in “texts” and “authors” may indicate their links as “texts.”   In addition, other related technologies produce similar decentralizing effects.   Such phenomena as “desktop broadcasting,” widespread citizen camcorder “reporting,” and digita l filmmaking are transgressing the constraints of broadcast oligopolies.

The question of narrative position has been central to the discussion of postmodernity.   Jean-François Lyotard has analyzed the change in narrative legitimation structures of the premodern, modern and postmodern epochs.   Lyotard defines the postmodern as an “incredulity” toward metanarratives, especially that of progress and its variants deriving from the Enlightenment.   He advocates a turn to the “little story” which validates di fference, extols the “unpresentable” and escapes the overbearing logic of instrumentality that derives from the metanarrative of progress.   Any effort to relate second media age technologies with the concept of the postmodern must confront Lyotard’s skepti cism about technology.   For Lyotard, it must be recalled, technology itself is fully complicit with modern narrativity.   For example, he warns of the dangers of “a generalized computerization of society” in which the availability of knowledge is politically dangerous: “The performativity of an utterance…increases proportionally to the amount of information about its referent one has at one’s disposal.   Thus the growth of power, and its selflegitimation, are now taking the route of data storage and accessi bility, and the operativity of information.” (p.   47) Information technologies are thus complicit with new tendencies toward totalitarian control, not toward a decentralized, multiple “little narrativity” of postmodern culture.

For the new technologies install the “interface,” the face between the faces; the face that insists that we remember that we have “faces,” that we have sides that are present at the moment of utt erance, that we are not present in any simple or immediate way.   The interface has become critical to the success of the Internet.   To attain wide appeal, the Internet must not simply be efficient, useful, or entertaining: it must present itself in an agree able manner.   The enormous problem for interface design is the fear and hostility humans nourish toward machines and toward a dim recognition of a changing relation toward them, a sharing of space and an interdependence.   The Internet interface must someho w appear “transparent,” that is to say, appear not to be an interface, not to come between two alien beings and also seem fascinating, announcing its novelty and encouraging an exploration of the difference of the machinic.   The problem of the Internet the n is not simply “technological” but para-machinic: to construct a boundary between the human and the machinic that draws the human into the technology, transforming the technology into “used equipment” and the human into a “cyborg,” into one meshing with machines.

9 Mitchell Kapor, “Where Is the Digital Highway Really Heading?  : The Case for a Jeffersonian Information Policy,” Wired 1:3 (July/August 1993) p.   55.

12 Robert Lee Hotz, “Computer Code’s Security Worries Privacy Watchdogs,” Los Angeles Times (October 4, 1993) pp.   A3, 22.

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