Information Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital Machines

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Information Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital Machines. Mark Poster. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. 303 pp. $22.95 pbk.

Mark Poster's Information Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital Machines is the fourth volume in a series that applies critical cultural theory to questions of how networked digital media technologies might be affecting people's lives in today's world and what may be in store for global culture and politics in the near future. Poster argues against the humanist view of technologies as tools. Instead he works to extend the work of McLuhan, Heidegger, Foucault, and others who understand media as extensions of human senses, inseparable from who we are as individuals or a society, and profoundly affecting the ways we know, experience, and interact with the world.

Cultural theory has not been extensively applied to the issues and particularities of the new media. One of the main tasks of Information Please is to explore which theories and theorists are the most useful and which need updating, to better understand the contemporary coupling of humans and information machines. The theoretical review ranges from old favorites such as Freud (psychology), Marx (economics), Nietzsche (philosophy), and Lyotard (postmodernism) to modern-day critical writers such as Bhabha (postcolonialism), Butler (gender/feminism), and Negri and Hardt (globalization and empire). The book's chapters are arranged in three sections dealing with "Global Politics and New Media," "The Culture of the Digital Self," and "Digital Commodities in Everyday Life." Poster's theoretical synthesis in each chapter is typically applied to one or more critical reflections on poignant cases from older media and current technologies such as peer-to-peer networking.

Information Please starts with an interesting mini-case study of Evil Burt Laden. By examining how the Sesame Street muppet, Burt, ended up in an Osama bin Laden poster in Bangladesh, and the ensuing bewilderment in the Western media, the author effectively illustrates the impossibility for cultural objects to be successfully communicated and controlled in the morass of global culture. Burt's journey from children's television character to one of bin Laden's lieutenants began with a doctored photo on a spoof "Burt is Evil" Web site, to a "googled" bin Laden image downloaded by a Bangladeshi design firm, to global distribution of an AP photograph taken of the poster at a street protest, to diverse interpretations by multiple audiences of the New York Times, the Web, and other outlets. The ability to easily alter digital cultural objects to make new objects and meanings is one of the main properties of new media that Poster sees as having great potential as resistance to traditional power brokers in society. …


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