Mark Poster, "What's Left: Materialist Responses to the Internet"

What’s Left: Materialist Responses to the Internet
Mark Poster

As the Internet developed greater and greater capabilities, from the mid-1980s onward, social and cultural critics began to speculate about the possibilities for democratization inherent in the new technology. After all, the Internet is, unlike the telephone system, highly decentralized and, unlike broadcast media, bi-directional; above all, unlike all previous communication technologies, it affords many-to-many links. In addition, the Internet has embedded within it copying and archiving abilities. These capacities pertain to the digital format of Internet communications, rendering copies cheap and exact, storage invisible and long-lasting. It also maximizes the openness of the connection. Anyone online can in principle connect with anyone else. Further it follows no border demarcations: one can communicate as easily from Los Angeles to Bangkok as from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Again, unlike most previous communication technologies, it is very difficult to regulate by the nation state. The postal system, telegraph, radio, and television all had territorial roots or posts that could be controlled by government officials. Not so with the Internet, which requires only a computer, modem, and protocols for a connection, one that once made allows any point to connect with any other due to its web-like structure.

Despite these technical capabilities, governments and their agents as well as corporations have striven to curtail the openness of the Internet in the interests of preserving the constraints inherent in their structures. Nation states, from the United States to China, have attempted to limit the ability of individuals to connect with each other in an unrestricted manner. The FBI attempts to monitor Internet exchanges in search of "terrorists"; China endeavors to restrict usage so as to prevent criticism of its policies; France wants all French websites written in the French language; Germany bans neo-Nazis on the right and xs4all, a Dutch anarchist group, on the left. Mexico would love to eliminate Zapatista sites; Singapore does not want gay/lesbian or erotic sites accessed by its citizens. Corporations want security for financial transactions, hoping to connect machines to users through biological signature systems. Businesses resent employees using their computers for personal email and games, claiming the right of property over workers' online activity. Internet Service Providers introduce monitoring and even censorship of chat rooms. Universities attempt to restrain the exchange of MP3 files by students, staff, and faculty. Nevertheless, the structure of the Net and the practice of many of its users easily defy the authority of governments and corporations.

What was surprising to me during the 1990s was not that some writers, extrapolating from these technical features, concluded that the Internet would produce a revolution. It is true that certain authors did draw this conclusion. I am thinking of diverse figures such as Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab, John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Pierre Lévy, a student of Giles Deleuze in France and author of numerous books on new media. In varying degrees of sophistication, these writers depicted social betterment as a direct consequence of the introduction of information technology. They accounted far too little for the incursion into that technology by existing institutions such as the capitalist economy and the nation state. Perhaps some of my own work might be included in this category (Poster, The Second Media Age, 1995).

But as I suggested above what surprised me was not this form of utopianism, insofar as it has been a consistent trend in Western thought since the introduction of the telegraph. What really surprised me was the extent to which critical social theorists tended to ignore the technology, almost completely, and simply assumed that capitalism and the state would totally take over the new communications facility. I find this most surprising because writers of this stripe often saw themselves within the Marxist tradition and Marx was always careful to examine the ways social innovations worked both in the direction of supporting existing institutions and in challenging, indeed even undermining them. Surely no starry-eyed idealist, Marx was ever vigilant for tendencies (in technology, in social organization, even in law and intellectual life) that resisted absorption within the existing power structure. He even went so far as to lend a kind of support to noxious happenings, such as the destruction of the Indian cotton industry, because they furthered the historical possibilities of socialism. The suspiciousness of so many social critics toward the Internet struck me therefore as deeply wrong-headed.

Examples of the anti-technology position are found across the board of social criticism. Feminist writers bemoaned the maleness of computer technology, even though by the end of the decade more women than men were online. Susan Herring, for instance, has studied extensively the language in Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards, making note of the persistence of sexism (Herring 1993). But she does not compare these conversations to incidence of sexism in face-to-face relations and she does not examine the effect of gender-switching on educating men about sexism. All too readily feminists like her are quick to find the new technology replicating old social patterns. Of course, one could list other feminists such as Sadie Plant who discover even essential women's characteristics in cyberspace. (Plant 1996).

Post-colonial critics were also quick to complain that those online were assumed to be white (Nakamura 1995), so that the Internet simply reproduces the racism extant in the "real" world. The inequitable distribution of the Net, with Africa barely in the loop and South America seriously under-represented by backbones and sites in general, is certainly a problem. Yet again by the end of the decade non-Americans online at least outnumbered Americans, not of course the same as racial categories but pointing to the inevitable diversity of the Internet. Too often anti-racial theorists dismiss the new media rather than organize political resistance against its current Western dominance. Too often the cry of imperialism is raised when this relatively cheap technology might become available widely and reconfigured by those who object to Western ways of doing things.

And Marxists had a field day with the spread of corporate web pages, the soaring prices of high technology stocks and their subsequent collapse, the proliferation of online retailing, the general shift of stock markets to cyberspace. For these writers, it was obvious that the Web was a new device to make the rich still richer and the poor still more exploited. Take for instance the collection edited by Gretchen Bender and Timothy Druckery containing essays by many prominent Marxists such as Herbert Schiller and neo-Marxists such as Stanley Aronowitz. In the Introduction to the volume, Druckery writes, "The goal of this project is to frame a critique of technological reason, to deconstruct the mythology that technology is a panacea....we have attempted to position technology as a cultural form as prone to manipulation. Its effects, though, are potentially more insidious and its privatization more alarming" (Druckery 1994, 12). What I find so disappointing here, in a volume that appeared in 1994 and represents one of the first responses by the left to the mass usage of the Internet, is that the authors theorize the technology as if it were being defined intellectually only by advertisements and other corporate propaganda. "Critique" here is no more sophisticated or intelligent than complaint. Druckery's "critique of technological reason" ought to have adhered more carefully to its Kantian heritage and defined critique as the limit of a phenomenon. It should capture aspects of the phenomenon in question, new media, as possibilities as well as impositions from above. If the utopians failed to consider deeply enough the impact of existing institutions on the Internet, these left critics failed equally to observe the characteristics of the technology that might not so easily be assimilated into the belly of the prevalent beasts. Of course, there were many other Marxist critics who took more nuanced approaches: for every Dan Schiller who denounced "Digital Capitalism" as just one more bourgeois swindle, (Schiller 1999) there were others like Nick Dyer-Witheford, who presented relatively balanced accounts (Dyer-Witheford 1999). My point is not that unrelenting critiques of new technologies are not useful: they are important in combating media hype and huge advertising budgets. The problem is that restricting the analysis to this outraged impulse, while understandable, actually works to restrict the options for resistance and rhetorically paralyzes the will to find beneficent applications. In a strange way, critique, at this level, becomes a kind of opiate.

After all there were lots of signs of media use in oppositional and even revolutionary contexts: from Tiananmen Square to Eastern Europe, from Bosnia to Chiappas, from Seattle to the global anti-Iraq war mobilizations, reform movements availed themselves of cheap communication systems to get the word out, to organize, to petition, to glean support, financial and otherwise. In fact, the media were, at a global level, becoming part of every international event. Politicians across the globe now were compelled to consider how their actions would appear not only to local populations, which might be controlled ideologically with relative ease, but to the world at large which now could witness the most obscure events. Right wing organizations, such as neo-Nazis, had access, of course, to the same technology.

Another phenomenon more strictly associated with the Internet that the left might have noted was the empowerment of youth and subordinated voices more generally that accompanied the spread of cyberspace. With apparent ease, hackers in their twenties were able to bring vast organizations to their digital knees. I need not rehearse the history of computer viruses, worms, Trojan horses, and invasions of all sorts perpetrated by graduate students, frustrated loners, teenagers out for a lark. Without exaggeration, one might say that never before in history had youth such power to threaten and to disturb the world's most powerful institutions. In addition a great many of the basic features of the Internet originated from young people in their twenties: Usenet, MUDs, MOOs, e-mail programs, file transfer protocol, web browsers, and so many others were invented by people essentially without authority. The example of the French Minitel comes to mind. While French Telecom created and distributed for free computers instead of phone directories, and imagined this would be financed by selling services online, such as train schedules, a young man in Strasbourg developed a message program that quickly overtook all other functions of Minitel in popularity. (Marchand, La Grande aventure du Minitel, 1987) To the astonishment of the French administration, people preferred the méssagerie to government sponsored databases.

Then most importantly there is the challenge to copyright and the culture industry engaged in daily by millions of (mostly young) people across the globe, willfully, impudently and with impunity, violating the interests if not the law that allows capital to control culture. The file sharing of music, vastly enhanced by a nineteen year of old programmer, Shawn Fanning, who wanted to exchange songs with his friends, and the defeat of copy-protection on Digital Video Disks by a fifteen year old Norwegian, Jan Johansen, aroused outrage among leaders of the culture industry such as Jack Valenti who are pursuing remedies in court. But the courts will not likely be able to settle this matter because it goes to the heart of the way culture in the West is produced and consumed.

Networked digital technology has rendered obsolete the industry that copies and distributes cultural objects. This enables a more direct relation between artists and audience and calls for the elimination of capital-intensive interests in the control of cultural production. New functions will of necessity arise such as editors and disk-jockeys who can match artist and audience. But there is a further implication to networked computing that is not often mentioned in heated discussions of Napster and DeCSS. A qualitatively new kind of culture is promoted by networked computing, one in which cultural objects like films, novels and songs are created not by a single or collective author but continuously by everyone who comes into contact with the work. Digital computing allows an audience to transform a work and pass it on, in its new state, to many others. Utopian, you think? Actually, this was the way culture (for example, the folk song) was experienced by all people before modern capitalism. The performance of culture was most often the rewriting or recreation of culture, with no two communities experiencing exactly the same work of art. In the absence of storage materials, artworks, from The Odyssey to Little Red Riding Hood, were performed from memory in various communities. The exception is the fixed work of art, such as one finds in books and paintings. But that too was a function of technology, constructed in mediation with law and politics, of course. The Internet enables a return at a new level of this sort of popular culture, enables but does not determine, is necessary but not sufficient.

Since we have learned from the Frankfurt School how devastating the culture industry is for working class and other democratizing movements, it behooves us to understand the potentials of the technology, to learn how they may be deployed in constructing cultural forms more appropriate to a democratic lifeworld, and not to become obsessed with every outrage perpetrated by the ruling class. Such an attitude of creative appropriation is encouraged by the discourse of cultural studies and by countless artists and creators across the globe. Certainly cultural critics need to attend to the moves of the establishment, but we must equally be sensitive to possibilities for democratization. Too often, it seems to me, critics perceive new trends through the lenses of ideology critique, through the categories of suspicion that make us aware only of the most obscure and least important abominations of the powers that be. Instead I urge a sense of fluidity in political choice and organizational potential. [2003-09-13]


Barlow, J. P. "The Next Economy of Ideas." Wired. 8 (2000): 240-242, 250.

Marchand, M. La Grande aventure du Minitel. Paris, Larousse, 1987.

Negroponte, N. Being Digital. New York, Knopf, 1995.

Poster, M. The Second Media Age. Cambridge, Blackwell, 1995.