Cyberspace and the
    Evolution of Fordism

Perhaps we have never been modern, but one of the more promising paths for puzzling though the conditions of our New World Order leads back to critiques of postmodernity that have been put forward over the past two decades. Those writings, in part, wend through the riddles of metanational, metaterritorial, and metaoperational space by reconsidering the relationships of territory to the earth as well as anticipating how online systems of exchange can impose their deterritorializing remediations upon offline lifeworld domains.

On one level, following Lyotard, the concept of postmodernity marks the decline of modernity's grand narratives, which have until quite recently embedded Western capitalist humanity's technological practices in some deeper metaphysical substance. Those metanarratives, or the fables of reason and freedom, saw science and technology bringing gradual, but inevitable, progress to individuals and societies through the unfolding of history. Lyotard saw this period, however, closing during the 1960s and 1970s with the world's uneven transition to postindustrialism. His analysis is based "upon the perception of the existence of a modern era that dates from the time of the Enlightenment and that now has run its course: and this modern era was predicated on the notion of progress in knowledge, in the arts, in technology, and in human freedom as well, all of which was thought of as leading to a truly emancipated society: a society emancipated from poverty, despotism and ignorance. But all of us can see that the development continues to take place without leading to the realization of any of these dreams of emancipation."1 With this rising distrust in any metanarratives of truth, enlightenment or progress, Lyotard argues science and technology are falling under the sway of "another language game, in which the goal is no longer truth, but performativity--that is, the best possible input/output equation."2

On another level, following Jameson, the mediations of performativity can be found in "a new social system beyond classical capitalism," proliferating across "the world space of multinational capital."3 More specifically, as Harvey argues, a new multinational capital regime began disintegrating the Fordist regime of industrial production, capital accumulation, and state intervention patched together on a national basis during the 1920s through the 1970s by strong welfare states. In its place, neoliberal arrangements for flexible accumulation, productive specialization, and public deregulation have surfaced since the 1970s amidst many loosely coupled transnational alliances. As Harvey observes, "flexible accumulation typically exploits a wide range of seemingly contingent geographical circumstances, and reconstitutes them as structured internal elements of its own encompassing logic....the result has been the production of fragmentation, insecurity, and ephemeral uneven development within a highly unified global space economy of capital flows."4

On the horizons defined by flexible accumulation, Lyotard's vision of performativity is what anchors "the new world order" of the 1990s and 2000s, because most spatial barriers and all time zones collapse in the cultural compression caused by transnational businesses' acceleration of production and consumption. At this juncture, "the State and/or company must abandon the idealist and humanist narratives of legitimation in order to justify the new goal: in the discourse of today's financial backers of research, the only credible goal is power. Scientists, technicians, and instruments are purchased not to find truth, but to augment power."5 Global performance necessitates the re-engineering of states, the abandonment of nationalisms, and the streamlining of culture to suit the privatization of goals and meaning implied by performativity. Any discursive, ethical, or particular bump in the road of performativy can be problematic beyond the global rhetorics of identity politics; real differences are just too destabilizing. At this juncture, the operations in the best possible input/output equation ideally must be digitized, and these digital operations are turning many fragmented, insecure, and ephemeral elements of global production and consumption into a cohesive whole.

This change can be observed at many sites, but a particularly important one is occurring within existing industrial networks of production, which might be characterized as the shift from an "analogue" to a "digital" Fordism. The industrial compact between labor and capital that Henry Ford pioneered in the 1900s rested upon three key foundations: a) an integrated corporate structure that sought to process as much material, information, and energy as it could internally for mass production through vertically organized supply chains, standardized product assemblies and hierarchical management; b) an effort to create a global articulated system of automotive transport in which autos and trucks were relatively inexpensive to buy, easy to operate, cheap to maintain, and suitable for consumer needs; and, c) an agreement to pay a living wage to thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of workers to buy peace in the workplace and to create disposable income for these same workers to buy mass produced autos and trucks.6

The perfect summation of this analogue mode of Fordism was the Model T automobile, and Model Ts were the personal machinic analogues of horseless carriage, suprabicycle transport, and postpedestrian traffic that sparked a whole series of cultural, industrial, and social revolution. Ford built 15 million Model Ts from 1908 to 1927, and this incredible output of automobiles made Henry Ford the world's first industrial billionaire in 1919. Ford's approach to car production was to produce one basic model without annual changes in styling or design, and Ford had car plants assemblying its automobiles in 19 different countries in the 1920s. This mode of production sold products to meet an old need in a transformative new way, creating an era of automobilization.

Model T Fordism, however, met only basic needs, and simply having rudimentary automotive transport in any color one wanted as long as it was black soon faltered in more mature markets as early as the late 1920s. At General Motors, the associated marques of Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac, etc. offered a new vision of commodification under its president, Alfred P. Sloan by status grading the automobile market. Here the auto was no longer simply an analogue to physical transport, it also became the analogue of social status, personal prestige, sexual power, financial clout or individual freedom.7 Ford responded with the variants of its Model A cars and trucks in 1927, and in many ways analogue Fordism has only remediated these strategies since the 1920s in a profusion of automotive choices found in the Model A, B, C, D....Z of the global automobile industry. The mode of production kept much of Model T Fordism's industrial infrastructure, but it increasingly globalized and flexibilized its material sources. Model A Fordism attained its highest expression with "Toyota-ism," or "lean production" methods, in the 1980s and 1990s when Toyota became the decisive benchmark for global automotive production not long after Japan eclipsed the U.S. in total automotive production numbers in 1980. Similarly, it essentially used images to sell products, and thereby turned the media, semiotic goods, and psychosocial desires into industrial resources.8 Thus, it sold new needs to push its many different stylized products.

Model A Fordism, however, also has proven remarkably successful. So successful in fact that Model A Fordism is blamed for urban sprawl, environmental degradation, and social inequality as millions of car owners have pushed for new roads in old cities, drivers racked up millions of miles in high-pollution and low mileage automobiles, and car companies concentrated their investments, purchases, and wages in a few cities, regions, and nations. To respond, a digital Fordism seems to be developing. This mode of production will leverage the power of the Internet to bring new outsourced assemblies of just-in-time material goods together as Ford products in ways not unlike Nike's approach to building athletic shoes or Cisco's strategy for constructing network routers.9 Digital Fordism is tied to William Clay Ford, Jr.'s vision of a "Model E" car, meaning one that has high e-cological, e-lectronic, and e-xperiental content.

At the center of Model E car strategy at Ford and other manufacturers will be telematics. Model A...Z cars tied consummative functionalities to the machinic qualities of automobiles. This dimension is not disappearing, and the changing fuel cycles, ecological reengineering, and safety improvements of automobiles will keep machinic re-rationalization at play. Yet, at the same time, auto manufacturers will find new profit centers in the telematic qualities of automobiles.

Telematics is the combination of telecommunications and information systems in cars. Telematics tells you where you are in the world, how to get where you want to go, reads you your email, calls emergency services when your air bag inflates, reminds you to pick up flowers on your way home for your wife's birthday, etc. It's the fastest growing automotive sector. Telematics and the new car electronics will motive buyers to buy this year's model, and not hold their present cars for as long.10

In turn, the service and fee income provided by automotive telematics will reach $30 billion by 2008, and the subscriber base should grow over tenfold by 2004.

Model E Fordism, then, rests upon digital chains of commodification in which the mode of information plays a central role. Defining the image of mobility as electronic, ecological, and experiential, Ford hopes to use its products to sell images of ecological rationality, electronic connectivity, and experiential variation that are defined, designed, and delivered digitally. Experiential dominance is critical in digital Fordism; hence, one sees Ford Motor Company in 1999 and 2000 buying up experience-rich marques, like Land Rover, Volvo, Aston Martin, and Jaguar, while it seeks to maintain an image of safety, reliability, and security in its corporate reaction to the Firestone tire debacle of August 2000.11 This articulation of performativity readjusts most of the conditions for attaining the best possible input/output equation in the marketplace, and thereby sets lays the ground for the hyper-realization of capital.

From these conceptual readings, this era can be interpreted as a historical-geographic condition, a political-economic mode of production or a cultural-ethical regime of representation. Nonetheless, it has a unique spatial and temporal profile that closely matches the codes and connections of digitalization. While they are far from perfect, the qualities of online interaction satisfy the postnational, antispatial and acultural requirements of performativity. This radical materialist (re)encoding of societies and individuals up ends a politics of limits, rights, and identity in the end-to-end solutions of networked communications. E-havior is, in too many ways, no longer human in shape or substance; it remediates living subjects and informatic objects in new regimes of subjection to exchange. On the Net, as global business and high technology have found new operational patterns to interlock individuals and groups into the proliferating world spaces of transnational capital.

Corporate enthusiasts, such as Cairncross, see this propitious development as "the death of distance," because it is also the breaking of boundaries and denial of difference.12 In a similar vein, Jameson argues "we are back in the spatial itself," and critical analysis "infers a certain supplement of spatiality in the contemporary period and suggests that there is a way in which, even though other modes of production...are distinctively spatial, ours has been spatialized in a unique sense, such that space is for us an existential and cultural dominant, a thematized or foregrounded feature or structural principle standing in striking contrast to its relatively subordinate and secondary...role in earlier modes of production."13

This new spatiality might be an existential and social dominant, but its qualities remain vague. Jameson reaches for common household technological referents, like channel surfing on cable TV with a remote control, to substantiate his sense of this new consciousness. Unfortunately, this discussion lacks theoretical heft, because it ignores and underplays cyberspace, when it, in fact, seems to be a much richer instantiation of "the new space that thereby emerges involves the suppression of distance (in the sense of Benjamin's aura) and the relentless saturation of any remaining voids and empty places, to the point where the postmodern body...is now exposed to a perceptual barrage of immediacy from which all sheltering layers and intervening mediations have been removed."14 This is what saturates the final remaining hidden zones of world markets.

While he does not state it in these terms, Jameson captures some of the characteristics found in the digital environments of the Net. Online, the peculiar spatial qualities of cyberspace as a domain for dispersion, decentering, and discontinuity come into their own. Hence, "we," the networked subjects enveloped the world spaces of transnational capital, and then remediated in connected clusters of code, "turn out to be whatever we are in, confront, inhabit, or habitually move through, provided it is understood that under current conditions we are obliged to renegotiate all those spaces or channels back and forth in a single Joycean day."15 Jameson misconstrues these changes as an "unimaginable decentering of global capital itself,"16 when, in fact, it is the radical recentering of valorizing exchange. Moreover, this viral infestation of profit and loss in ones-and-zeros now can occur 24x7 in the digital domain and the offline worlds it infiltrates. Life online is concrete postmodernity lived as electronic ephemerality.

Footnotes



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