Cyberspace as Marketspace:
    The imart?

One of the most significant effects of the Net, then, is its current tendency to deterritorialize and reterritorialize institutions simultaneously in the performativity of markets and bits. Connectivity can disintegrate, or at least disrupt, many longstanding forms of institutionalized action in markets, governments or cultures that presume fixed built environments and face-to-face human engagement. Such actions relied upon physical sites of political power (agency offices, election booths, service bureaucracies), economic production (corporate headquarters, sales offices, managerial suites), personal consumption (brokerage offices, new bookstores, car dealerships), and cultural reproduction (public libraries, civic centers, graduate schools), to frame familiar forms of action, but these venues easily can be morphed into on-line sites in a manner that reduces costs, cuts employment, enhances service, and raises consumer satisfaction by creating new forms of e-havior. Physical collocation and geographic contiguity continue to be important on many levels, but "electronic proximity"1 is cross-cutting organizational practices that have evolved in the real-time, real-life, real-space of Gibson's "meatworld".2 In these cross-cuts, the shapeshifting outlines of "e-proximate" interactions surface out of every e-commerce transaction, e-media page download, e-schooling lesson, and e-governance contact.

Consequently, new virtual structures, or "e-formations," are being patched together to shape the surging flows of bits, both into and out of, the e-proximities of on-line environments. The quasi-anarchic practices of the Net before 1994, which emphasized user autonomy, individuality, mutual aid, creativity, and collective chaos, are still preferred by some, but state regulators, corporate salespersons, religious authorities, and economic planners all are increasingly struggling to impose more familiar forms of bureaucratic regulation, self-interested profit seeking, and conventional morality upon cyberspace.

Most of their new first-generation adaptations to the time and space compression of the Net also are uncomfortably, but perhaps all to predictably, privileging the corporate practices and free-wheeling markets of transnational enterprise, which already is running roughshod over most of the world's territorial jurisdictions.3 B2B commerce will be around $400 billion in 2000, but it is predicted to rise to $7.4 trillion in 2004.4 And, many of the "inefficiencies" it is removing online from "the supply chain" or "enterprise transactions" are, in fact people's jobs, national industries, and regional ties in the offline world.

The regimen of e-commerce, despite the daily pronouncements by dot com utopians being pushed everyday on MSNBC or CNNfn, is not yet fully defined or finally sealed with respect to its specific operations. It is instead ironically imagined now in the very collectivist rhetoric of transnational business: personal connectivity determines social utility, intrusive smartness colonizes the objects of everyday life, data mining everyone's net work accelerates the surveillance of services, and general productivity depends upon individual e-lancing labor. Even though Bill Gates pretends "the road ahead" will be a friction-free path to greater economic liberty, most of the goods and services defining this freedom presume that those who experience e-proximity must endure tremendous levels of unrelenting psychodemographic monitoring--both online and offline.

Recreating economies and societies around the e-proximating abilities of telematic networks will create new infrastructures, like Dertouzos' "The Information Marketplace," or "I-Marts," out on the Net. Dertouzos asks us to picture this I-Mart as a three-story building where the bottom floor is full of the hardware and pipes of connectivity, the middle floor is stocked with network command and control groupware, and the top floor is packed with software applications for users on the roof. With this metaphor in mind, one can see how this superb new machinery,the information infrastructures that make up the Information Marketplace, will work. The hundreds of millions of people and their computers on the roof will buy, sell, and freely exchange information and information services using their interfaces and applications programs. Many of the "users" will be unmanned computers running automatization procedures on the behalf of their owners. Whether humans or machines, the users will employ interfaces and dive into the middle floor, where a host of shared software tools will coordinate their desires, and transport the information required to fulfill those desires through pipes on the bottom floor. At any given time, these millions of people and machines will be carrying out their designated activities, spanning an equally huge number of economic and personal objectives.5

Whose service, who serves, whom is served, what kind of service, when service works, how service happens, however, all depend upon economic, political, and social decisions, not technical choices per se. Those troublesome realities are glossed over by Dertouzos; indeed, digital technics completely occludes the essentially hyperpolitical nature of the I-Mart in his account of online commerce.

Open 24x7, these electronic sites are marvelous "e-proximate" space in which "people and computers buy, sell, and freely exchange information and information services" in round-the-clock transactions that "involve the processing and communication of information under the same economic motives that drive today's traditional marketplace for goods and services."6 Although Marx warns us that the ever-growing socialization of production, including such online domains, will always be coupled with the increasing privatization of ownership and control in such digital domains, these possibilities do not trouble Dertouzos. Instead, he opines "the profit motive" drives traditional markets, so there is no reason for it not to persist in cyberspace. The Information Marketplace exists for digital beings in order to amplify and extend their existence by collecting more consumers, satisfying their needs with need satisfactions, and reselling the information about all or any of their individual and collective choices in the name bigger, better, and bolder service.

Developing such I-Marts, however, is not "friction-free." Instead, digital formations show how much, as Lyotard suggests, "economic powers have reached the point of imperiling the stability of the State through new forms of the circulation of capital that go by the generic name of multinational corporations," and these new modes of revalorizing exchange "imply that investment decisions have, at least in part, passed beyond the control of the nation-states."7 Emergent knowledges framed as bits begin "circulating along the same lines as money, instead of for its 'educational' value or political (administrative, diplomatic, military) importance; the pertinent distinction would no longer be between knowledge and ignorance, but rather, as is the case with money, between 'payment knowledge' and 'investment knowledge'--in other words, between units of knowledge exchange in a daily maintenance framework (the reconstitution of the work force, 'survival') versus funds of knowledge dedicated to optimizing the performance of a project."8 Online, bits can meld payment and investment knowledge into a single performative flow that pays out by drawing new investments, and draws new investments as its payoff.

By fabricating virtual structures, and then continuously struggling to master their telemetrical terrain, global networks fulfill Lyotard's prophecies about "the postmodern condition." That is, "knowledge in the form of an informational commodity indispensable to productive power is already, and will continue to be, a major--perhaps the major--stake in the worldwide competition for power," in fact, the struggle over cyberspace intranationally and transnationally illustrates how fully the residents of nation-states must fight telecracy for "control of information, just as they battled in the past for control over territory, and afterwards for control of access to and exploitation of raw materials and cheap labor."9 Online agents work through data/information/knowledge in accord with familiar liberal humanist goals. Online and offline, information "is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorized in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange."10

 

Telematics allegedly will create complete transparency for capital to the delight of labor, which is ever more willing to be served by capital through their consumption. The collective capability to survey commodities and commerce intelligently, however, leads to a capable surveillance collective where every new technical capability presumes accepting such mettlesome circuits of commodification. While some believe this is the friction-free market's opportunity for sellers freely to ask willing buyers to state their requirements, these changes represent, in fact, a use by sellers of the networks to stipulate that their sites are where certain goods and services must be purchased. If data telemetries stream through every object within domestic space to track health conditions, buying decisions, and work situations, a collectivism beyond the wildest dreams of state socialist totalitarianism can be willingly fabricated out of living online. As heterogeneous embedded intelligence colonizes the most mundane implements and many architectural structures, there will be no privacy, less autonomy, and more cyberguidance. Under this new normalizing oversight, Dertouzos celebrates a world where "people on a free-will basis use the Information Marketplace as the great matchmaker between those with a natural willingness to help and those with a natural need to be helped."11 Unfortunately, as Lyotard suggests, the collectivist impulse behind such controls are neither natural, nor willing nor helpful.

In these digital spaces, everything in society, the marketplace, and culture,is made conditional on performativity. The redefinition of the norms of life consists in enhancing the systemís competence for power. That this is the case is particularly evident in the introduction of telematic technology: the technocrats see in telematics a promise of liberalization and enrichment in the interactions between interlocutors; but what makes this process attractive for them is that it will result in new tensions in the system, and these will lead to an improvement in its performativity.12

After chiding states for decades about their regulation, taxation, and administration, corporate authorities have stumbled upon the virtues of digitalization in their on-going neo-liberal campaigns against government, and these elites find the online environment perfectly adapted to fulfilling the mythos of market culture.

Despite what Negroponte claims about our desires to leave the messiness of atomic life behind us as digital beings out on the Net, the old contours of inequality, abjection, and powerlessness experienced in the world of atoms can be commonly found out in the realm of bits.13 While a quite few affluent suburb Americans have become online agents, they are a small minority that dreams of buying "smart house" systems that allow them to start dinner, raise the thermostat, and run the dryer from work on their Palm Pilots. A visit, on the other hand, to the homes of Black South Africans--and South Africa is the richest and most developed African country--would find telephones in only 2 percent of them, while another visit to Afghanistan would reveal that almost no Afghan homes have phones and most Afghanis never have made a phone call.14 In fact, over half the entire world's people live on $3 a dollar or less, about half of the world's population has not made or taken a phone call, and one-sixth of the planet's people--over 1 billion persons--cannot read or write. So "becoming digital" seems far more like another comforting liberal myth to those who already have too much; and, it is a sorely misplaced hope for those who already have so little, simply because they historically have not dominated others, controlled nature, and possessed intelligent machines.15

In the new world spaces of informational exchange, everything is subject to sale, and the sale is everything to the subject. The digital domain greatly accelerates how all solids dissolve into thin air as well as the profanation of all that is holy. The e-migration of digital beings and their lifeworld into cyberspace brings "the system" almost all the way home as "a lifeworld." Online agency becomes us, because, as Baudrillard observes,

The consumption of individuals mediates the productivity of corporate capital; it becomes a productive force required by the functioning of the system itself, by its process of reproduction and survival. In other words, there are these kinds of needs because the system of corporate production needs them. And the needs invested by the individual consumer today are just as essential to the order of production as the capital invested by the capitalist entrepreneur and the labor power invested in the wage laborer. It is all capital.16

A crude functionalism is not in play here. One instead sees the digital architectures of the Net remediating the elective affinities of capital by drawing technologies of the self (consumer decisions to exercise purchasing power) together with technologies of production (producer choices to organize adding value) in 24x7 I-Marts that provide new goods and services recast as bits. Information and goods might even be "given away" as "free" in online opium war of ads, promos, and banners known as "service provision", but ideologies of exploitative hypercompetition are enscribed on each and every commodity delivered to consumers as proof of their collective liberation.17

Footnotes



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