Reading Digital Culture

Reading Digital Culture, Blackwell Publishers (2001).

To say that we inhabit a digital world is an understatement. In recent years information technology has transformed many fundamental parts of life: how we work and play, how we communicate and consume, how we create knowledge and learn, even how we understand politics and participate in public life. It is nearly impossible to make it though a day without encountering a computer, a digitally mediated image, or a news report about the current technological “revolution.” Most of us carry encoded magnetic strips of digits that tether us to our identity and enable us to function through digital means.  From the supermarket to the stock exchange, virtually all commerce is now mediated by computers. In al of these manifold ways, our reliance on digital data storage, computation, and telecommunication has made us profoundly dependent on digital technology whether we realize it or not. Indeed, ubiquity and invisibility have become defining characteristics of the  paradoxical information age.

This book addresses the way people think about this paradoxical age, the facts and fantasies of which have produced what might be termed a “digital culture.”  It tells the familiar story of a widely held popular viewpoint countered by various less-than-sanguine alternative perspectives. Celebrating the new computer era is a massive discourse in both mainstream media and academic literature in which the figure of

utopia looms large.  Evoking traditions of technological determinism and free-market boosterism, the denizens of information technology have promoted digital culture as the culmination of the Enlightenment project and the economic panacea of the post-industrial world. This overwhelming positive view of the information age is supported on one level by the very computer and software industries that have created the  largest,  wealthiest, and most powerful corporate infrastructure in human history, and on another level by the enormous “information economy” of content producers, merchandisers, communication provides, and other ancillary services of the digital industrial complex. All of this is equated with a narrative of humankind’s ever advancing march of progress, as information technology is touted as the ultimate vehicle of mastery and transcendence. Indeed, to some this technology is seen as the key to overcoming the limits of material existence––the means by which we become “posthuman.”

This utopian enthusiasm has been met by a less ubiquitous, but frequently vociferous,  measure of resistance from a myriad assortment of skeptics, neo-Luddites, and conspiracy theorists—ranging from pacifists and ecologists who despair the ruinous effects of war machines and greedy businesspeople, to the countless peoples and nations who stand on the wrong side of the “digital divide.” As Bill Gates and Steve Case proclaim the global ubiquity of the internet, it is important to remember that the majority of non-western nations and a whopping 97 percent of the world’s population remain unconnected to the net for lack of  knowledge, access, or money. [ii] In this regard its worth remembering the advice of Frederic Jameson, who warned two decades ago of dangers of equating “progress” with “utopia.” The desire for a future that is both different and better is often more a symptom of our dissatisfaction with the present than a genuine improvement in our lives. Enveloped as we are by the ideologies and social structures that surround us, the imagination of anything like a true utopia may well be impossible.