Remember the days before the iPhone? Some indispensable part of our culture arrives at the same pace Apple releases major updates to OSX. Google, YouTube, MySpace, blogs, and the iPhone all arrived very recently, and while it's easy for most people over the age of 12 to remember a time before they became fixtures in the culture, there's hardly any point in doing so. Le mode retro, as the French called the vaguely historical style of the '80's and '90's, has itself gone out of style. Appearing immediately before the Internet became a ubiquitous force, le mode retro now seems to reflect a period in which we'd grown bored with the pace of technological change. Now that the pace has picked up considerably, people seem to be taking a more forward-looking stance. We're looking forward to the next upgrade in our culture's operating system.
But how do we define this moment, right now? Is Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism still of any help to us? Is this still a postmodern culture? Mark Poster's Information Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital Machines isn't as ambitious as Jameson's landmark study, but Poster also attempts a symptomatic reading of contemporary culture in an attempt to identify exact what has changed since the days when we called information for phone numbers. Unfortunately, Poster is more comfortable reading Arjun Appadurai than he is surfing the Web, so he doesn't have many insights to offer about how life has changed now that we can watch The Office while sitting in our cubicles.
Poster's basic thesis about culture and politics in the age of digital machines is we're experiencing an intensification of the decentralization, deterritorialization, and flattening of the difference between high and low cultures that Jameson (and a whole lot of other people) identified as the salient qualities of postmodernist culture. His overall thesis isn't likely to send Cultural Studies students running back to the seminar rooms, but there are some useful insights in the book. Perhaps his most ground-breaking claim is that post-colonialism, as it's conventionally defined in the academy, is over with. The subaltern can now be found everywhere in the developed world, and she has a Gmail account. A claim with broader application is Poster's suggestion that culture is now "open source," which is a good way to think about how literary and film cultures are changing with the rise of the blogosphere.
Poster knows there's such a thing as blogs, but he gives no evidence that he's ever read one, or even done a Google search. His maladroit use of technical terminology is telling. For instance, he insists on using the term "networked computer" to mean the Internet. While not every microprocessor is connected to the Internet, the networked/non-networked distinction isn't one that someone in e-commerce would make. Furthermore, Poster worries about things that aren't worth worrying about, such as private corporate networks. He warns darkly, "The massive flows of capital that course through the fiber-optic tentacles and radio waves are far more influential in undermining the power of the nation-state than the fledgling steps of netizen politics." Actually, the data that flows through extranets and other secure networks is the most regulated data on the Internet. It's your bank records and your medical files--the stuff you'd rather your fellow netizens didn't poke their noses into. The irony of launching into a discussion of identity theft only a few pages later is lost on Poster.
Granted, the academic publishing system (Poster's book is published by Duke University Press) is a hand-cranked press, and serious intellectual discussion about contemporary culture is tricky because insights can grow stale while waiting for peer reviews. The very few examples Poster cites from digital culture are actually pretty good, like the terrific Citibank ad campaign featuring ordinary people who appear to have made outrageously uncharacteristic purchases. Still, instead of devoting a chapter to identity theft, what about looking at a CEO's blog and comparing the identity constructed there with his identity constructed in the annual report?
What happens to us when we call up Firefox or open up Outlook? How can we describe the culture presented to us in a Google search? Is it fundamentally different than the one we watched on television when there were only three networks? Are our sentences still schizophrenic, our movies still made for glances, our music a collection of samples, our buildings citations of the past? Has YouTube changed anything important? These questions remain unanswered.