What’s so Wrong With “An Age of Optimism” in “societies structured in dominance” Anyway?

 

Written 20 years ago at the nascent start of what would become the digital era, readings from Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital (Chapter 13 and Epilogue) strike me as simultaneously prescient for its understanding of the ways technology would change our consumption of media, and problematic for its universalizing optimism. Negroponte’s emphasis on a sort of universalism fails to adequately account for ways in which capital and centers of power will (and have) seek to direct and control the digital environment. However, considering Negroponte’s claims in relation to Stuart Hall’s “Race, articulation and societies structured in dominance” allows us to achieve a more nuanced understanding of the limitations of what Negroponte calls the era of “post-information.” Hall’s consideration of articulation enables us to envision a more nuanced and complicated understanding of the digital era than Negroponte’s overly positive approach.

The Uneven Internet

Negroponte reveals the idealism with which he approaches the digital realm in claims such as “the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography” (165), and “time zones will probably play a bigger role in our digital future than trade zones” (228). Negroponte is imagining a possibility latent within the technological connectivity of the internet, a simultaneity which (potentially) enables fluid and uninhibited access across physical borders like mountains and seas. Of course, we can easily find contemporary instances of governmental censorship which challenge Negroponte by displaying the ways in which information can remain constricted, for instance in China’s substantial use of state surveillance of the internet, or in Egypt shutting down Twitter and Facebook during Arab Spring. The ruling classes’ control over the internet (as well as class based considerations of who has access to the internet— for instance possession of the required computer or cell phone) present the internet as another area of struggle over access to information and power. In a similar way the trade zones Negroponte thinks will become unimportant, by operating off of differences between different national economies, in fact further enforce various people’s complicated and uneven encounters with the internet. Chinese prisoners who “farm” computer game gold seem to challenge Negroponte’s dream of a “seamless digital workplace” (228) motivated more by various “disciplined workforces” than the availability of “cheap manual labor.” In other words, Negroponte envisions a more homogenous liberalist world as arriving with the internet, when in fact it would seem to be as (or more?) heterogeneous than before (I could imagine some counters to this claim). This is because, as Hall shows us “articulation considers economic agents from different ethnic groups in a set of economic relations, which ‘while articulated into a complex unity, need not be conceptualized as either necessarily the same or inevitably destined to become so’” (321). In other words, while the internet may involve various groups operating in economic relations with each other, complicated differences (like motivations, living conditions, etc) will remain.

Negroponte’s Capitalist Future

Negroponte proposes a future in which a computer will message you with information about a sale on a particular Chardonnay, or send you a review of a new restaurant, all “based on a model of you as an individual” (165) (these days we might call such messages “Spam”). Yet all these examples operate within and off of a capitalist model of information dispersion motivated by profit. In other words, while the internet may allow for new possibilities for the spread of information, what will motivate the computer? As Gramsci points out (via Hall) the aim of the “educative and formative role of the State… [as] always that of creating new and higher types of civilization; of adapting the ‘civilization’ and the morality of the broadest popular masses to the necessities of the continuous development of the economic apparatus of production” (332). I think it’s important to consider ways in which developments like Facebook further the “economic apparatus of production.” We might consider, for instance, ways in which the “bizarre economic model” (168) Negroponte points to in regards to television programming and advertisement, has developed into new “bizarre economic models” like CandyCrush. Even as bizarre as the CandyCrush economic model may appear, it has real world effects, and derives from real world motivations. Hall points out that “Articulation requires… the existence of non-class contents—interpellations and contradictions—which constitute the raw materials on which class ideological practices operate. The ideology of the dominant class, precisely because it is dominant, interpolates not only members of that class but also members of the dominated class” (Hall 335). Thus even CandyCrush is shown to take part in ideological practices of the dominant class. In other words, while the internet may connect, it can also replicate ideologies of domination.

All of this points towards the benefit of consider how articulation can help one “conceive of a social formation as composed of a number of instances—each with a degree of ‘relative autonomy’ from one another—articulated into a (contradictory) unity (Hall 326). While Negroponte points towards few complications which will arrive with “Being digital” (software piracy, invasion of our privacy (227)), he remains optimistic, believing that the digital age will entail “decentralizing, globalizing, harmonizing, and empowering” (229). I feel Hall presents us with an another model of approach painted in less broad strokes, in which “the object of inquiry must be treated as a complex articulated structure which is, itself, ‘structured in dominance’” (320). The benefit of this is that we (hopefully) gain more insight into the ways in which these complex articulated structures operate, without reducing these structures. As Hall points out “The scientific analysis of any specific social formation depends on the correct grasping of its principle of articulation; the fits between different instances, different periods and epochs” (326). In order to understand these different fits, then, I think we must carefully pay attention to different ways in which the internet and digital era operate in different ways, and for different purposes, for different people.

 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

 

 

2 comments

  1. Chy

    What would an ethical use of the internet look like? It’s important for us to understand that the internet is not inherently democratic or accessible, yes, but how might an implementable plan look? Would it have to be a school program? A government enactment? It feels, really, as if the ethics of the digital environment aren’t high on the global priority list–not on the priority list for countries with access, anyway. This problem is similar to other issues–environmental / resource concerns, big business, etc. We purport to care about issues concerning access and privilege, but when it comes to enactment, we seem to stop short. There are also probably certain qualities about the digital that we couldn’t democratize (unless we were to fix inequities in other areas). So this kind of turns into an argument for addressing all structural inequities. To fix one thing, you have to fix everything–but obviously that’s not going to benefit those with the most access and control.

  2. I agree with a lot of what you’ve posted. The “digital age” is not a radical break with human history; it is a product and a production of humanity(ies). As you point out, a given ideology (let’s say, CandyCrush Capitalism) can be replicated, massively reproduced, and even more firmly entrenched, as it hides the means of its implantation… the “articulation” of an ideology into discourse, far from being irrupted by a unilateral subject onto a tabula rasa of the democratizing digital, is ALREADY a privileged and power-infused act.

    What often goes “by the wayside,” I feel, is the enormous physical & economic (not to mention social, political, environmental, etc) cost associated with creating a “digital” reality. The very classification of the “digital age” as a de facto world condition initiates (or reifies) the relative valuation of different states, societies, religions, classes, etc. In other words, while I agree with you that concern and care must be taken in analyzing the specific operations of the “digital era” within and between individuals and pluralities, I think a further step must be taken: namely, we must also interrogate the dynamics involved in the declaration/assumption of a globalized epoch of digitization.

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