An adequate account of electronic communications requires a theory that is able to decode the linguistic dimension of the new forms of social interaction. As a step toward that end I am offering the concept of the mode of information. The term “the mode of information” plays upon Marx ’s theory of the mode of production. In The German Ideology and elsewhere Marx invokes the concept of the mode of production in two ways: (1) as a historical category which divides and periodizes the past according to variations in the mode of production (differing combinations of means and relations of production); (2) as a metaphor for the capitalist epoch which privileges economic activity as, in Althusser’s phrase, “the determination in the last instance.” By mode of information I similarly suggest that history may be periodized by variations in the structure in this case of symbolic exchange, but also that the current culture gives a certain fetishistic importance to “information.”
Every age employs forms of symbolic exchange which contain internal and external structures, means and relations of signification. Stages in the mode of information may be tentatively designated as follows: face-to-face, orally mediated exchange; written exchanges mediated by print; and electronically mediated exchange. If the first stage is characterized by symbolic correspondences, and the second stage is characterized by the representation of signs, the third is characterized by informational simulations. In the first, oral stage the self is constituted as a position of enunciation through its embeddedness in a totality of face-to-face relations. In the second, print stage the self is constructed as an agent centered in rational/ imaginary autonomy. In the third, electronic stage the self is decentered, dispersed, and multiplied in continuous instability.
In each stage the relation of language and society, idea and action, self and other is different. Some of these differences are discussed in chapter 3. Here I want to stress that the stages are not “real ,” not “found” in the documents of each epoch, but imposed by the theory as a necessary step in the process of attaining knowledge. In this sense the stages are not sequential but coterminous in the present. They are not consecutive also since elements of each are at least implicit in the others. The logical status of the concept of the mode of information is both historical and transcendental. In that sense the latest stage is not the privileged, dialectical resolution of previous developments. In one sense, however, a sense that Marx anticipated, the current configuration constitutes a necessary totalization of earlier developments: that is, one cannot but see earlier developments from the situation of the present. The anatomy of the mode of electronic information, to paraphrase Marx, necessarily sheds new light on the anatomy of oral and print modes of information. The danger that must be avoided in Marx’s formulation is progressivism. I prefer to consider the present age as simply an unavoidable context of discursive totalization, not as an ontological realization of a process of development.
If the stages prove to have heuristic value they will become integrated into the repertoire of standpoints through which we understand our past and in that sense they are “historical.” As Marx notes in The German Ideology, the test of any theory is determined in empirical studies informed by its concepts. In this spirit , my book is to be taken above all as an attempt to suggest the value of poststructuralist theory to the history of communications, to promote a new direction of research in that field, and therefore to be considered one theme in what Foucault called the history of the present.
For now I want to mention some peculiarities of the term “information” and suggest that it takes on a special valence in the third stage. In a sense all signs are now considered information, as in cybernetics and often in popular parlance, where “information” is contrasted with “noise” or non-meaning. Information has become a privileged term in our culture. TV ads for information services warn consumers and corporate executives alike that they or their children will fall behind in the race for success if they do not keep up with current information. Information is presented as the key to contemporary living and society is divided between the information rich and the information poor. The “informed” individual is a new social ideal, particularly for the middle class, a group to which in the United States everyone but the homeless claims to belong. The term “information” in the title then evokes a certain feature of the new cultural conjuncture that must be treated with suspicion.
With that warning in mind, I want to suggest some of the chief areas of concern in the study of the mode of information. It must include a study of the forms of information storage and retrieval, from cave paintings and clay tablets to computer databases and communications satellites. Each method of preserving and transmitting information profoundly intervenes in the network of relationships that constitute a society. After the population attains a certain size, for example, government cannot expand without written records. Human messengers, relying only upon their memory, impose a severe limit on the power of the state. Only so much of resources can be allocated to communication before military and economic sectors begin to suffer. Cheap, reliable, durable communication is a necessity of empire.