Paranoia and yet seeing the positive

Posted on November 7, 2005 by jmonte

Mark Poster’s article The Mode of Information and Postmodernity left me with many questions and a good deal of paranoia.  On p. 64, he writes, “Computerized databases are another form of electronically mediated communication . . . [and] liberal writers have rightly been concerned that the vast data accumulated in this form and its relative ease of transfer pose a threat to the privacy of the individual” (64).  He goes on to mention how agencies gather information about individuals and let it flow across various systems without any control on behalf of the individual.  Poster lays out a fine example in the case of the electronic trails we leave using credit cards and cell phones, which allows corporations and other institutions to make pie charts of our day to day habits and plan for how to further target us as consumers.  I never realized what magnificent quantity of stuff my bank knew about me until they mailed me my year-end statement and Starbucks had its own category on my account.  While amusing, it’s a bit troubling to think that our lives, which seem more in-transit than for past generations, are so familiar to code reading machines.  On p. 66, he writes: “Databases constitute additional identities for individuals, identities which . . . take the place of those individuals” (66).  The shiftiness of my identity, according to the bank or any other credit company, is strongly influenced by how well I open credit card accounts, keep debt, and make payments.  So, I can’t just walk into a bank and buy a home—it doesn’t matter what your character is, what experience you have—it all boils down to how well you fit a healthy consumer profile.

Going back to my original statement, the article left me wondering more often than I normally would, who’s out to get me?  At the other end of the spectrum, electronic media provides me, as a reader and a reading consumer, with a bit more control over what decisions I make; in his discussion of hypertext and digital spaces, Poster points out that hypertext “encourages the reader to treat the text as a field or network of signs in which to create his or her own linkages, linkages which may become part of the text and which other readers may follow or change at their will” (70).  Using something like Wikipedia turns the tables on writer and reader so that now we’re merging and shifting toward and away from each other depending on where we are at a given moment.  In a Zen kind of way, it seems there’s both good and bad to come from electronic media; yes, Internet users and builders need to sort things out with privacy and censorship (I’m alluding to the AOL case and how AOL has done away with censoring its chat rooms because they were sued), and yet, digital and electronic media allows for readers and viewers to take control of how they learn (though that raises questions about whether or not viewers and readers are choosing their paths responsibly; of course, who’s to say viewers and readers shouldn’t have the choice to learn in a reckless, multi-path way?).

One Response to “Paranoia and yet seeing the positive”

  1. verna robinson Says:

    It was quite enlightening and frightening to read Mark Poster’s discussion of Foucault’s theory of the panopticon from Discipline and Punish, a notion which Poster says can “account for the social impact of databases.” The use of Foucault’s panopticon (a theory which has been used as a lens to investigate literature but not to investigate the impact of technology, to my knowledge) adds to the paranoia one feels in coming to understand what is really at stake for consumers of technological advances, i.e. databases as a method of accessing and using information in the age of postmodernity. To know that “databases … operate like a superpanopticon” to amass information, “continuously, systematically and surreptiously” about us and create a “virtual profile” of each person who goes about his or her “daily regular life” is unthinkable. Who wants to be the victim of a “technology of power” or “microphysics of power” just by accessing information from a database? What prisoners we are becoming to the very technology we so proudly boast as an advance of mankind. It is quite unsettling to know that even my identity is being “constituted” by the superpanopticon and my identity becomes a part of this diffuse system of power. This is enough to make the most steely hearted soul disinclined to participate in the seduction of technology so much a part of our Postmodern World. I am more inclined to toss my computer on the “dream heap” and escape what is rapidly becoming a postmodern nightmare.