A Topography of E-space - Electronic Networks and Public Space
A speech given at World-Information.Org, Brussels, July 13, 2000
I would like to address three issues: The first is a sort of mapping of where we are at now when it comes to the subject of digital networks; The second one is the distinction between public access digital networks and private digital networks; The third one is some kind of an experimental exploration of what could be a new form of politics and a new form of economics, located in the topography of digital space which is for me a topography that weaves in and out of digital space.
So let me start with the first one: If I thought about today and what marks the specificity of this current moment, I would say that it is the emergence of high performance networks. E-space has emerged not simply as a means for communicating, but as a major new theatre for capital accumulation and the operations of global capital. And, increasingly for new forms of transnational politics that are connecting people engaged in often very specific, local issues that they share with other localities. I will elaborate more on each of these subjects as the talk proceeds, but let me start with this first mapping.
In my reading we are now in the fourth stage of what we could call the internet. You know well that some people argue that there is no such thing as an internet, because it really is a network of networks and there are better terms than internet. But for the purposes of communication, I would use the term internet. Internet for me is characterized by public access networks: In order to gain access, you may need no money, or you may need a little money, or you may need a lot of money; But it is public access, unlike the digital networks within which much of global finance takes place. Internet Service Providers – no matter how much you are willing to pay – are going to give you access to.
So the history of public access networks – the internet for short hand – is to me already marked by four periods: The original period is well known for developing the primal features of the internet; The second one, which I see as a sort of exploding on the scene in the early 1980s, is the hacker-period (open source software, the real attempt to maximize access, connectivity, decentralisation, etc.); The third period really begins in fall 1993, with the actual installation of the World Wide Web; And the hitherto last period is marked by the dominance of a new type of software-production that is geared towards business and privatisation.
Now, let me focus just very briefly on the period that really begins in 1993, which is a period of not so much electronic commerce, but of firm-to-firm transactions. The World Wide Web therefore is a brilliant technique to harmonize and facilitate circulation among different computer-systems and different networks that are part of a single, world wide operating firm. In the past, there were enormous problems to harmonize these networks and to make one computer to talk to the other. Firms had to bring in experts, specialised and expensive service companies that focused on how to handle this. The invention of the World Wide Web now brings a solution for free to these firms to handle their enormously elaborate computer-networks and data-sets.
For me, there is a particular phase here in this third period, when basically the backbone of the World Wide Web is financed by a few governments – to a very large extent actually the United States government. So it was paid by the people of the U.S. as well as Europe and a few other countries. In that sense, what was happening by firms using the World Wide Web – saving enormous amounts of money and enormous operational problems by the way – was actually the private appropriation of what was at that point very much a public good. For the sake of communication, I conceptualised these fire-walled intranets that firms located on the World Wide Web as a sort of private citadels in public space. With the privatising of the backbone this particular formulation isless adequate, because it becomes in fact a public access network, rather than just public network. It is – straight forward – a question of access and connectivity.
As a researcher I use software as one of my key-indicators to understand what the internet really is about. So, if I look at software-production today, compared with what it was in the 1980s, I see a radical difference. What dominates software nowadays may be summarized in three points: Number one, the whole question of identification and security around identification; Secondly, firm-to-firm software that is absolutely the dominant software-production; And finally, billing. All of these kinds of software-production, on the one hand are shaping what constitutes this highly public space, which is digital space, public-access-digital-space. And they are also creating privatisations of various kinds. Now, these privatisations are linked in a way to fees, to money, to bills, to payments, to charges, but even if you have to pay, it remains a public access network mostly. And this is the biggest difference with the nature of softwareproduction well into the 1980s, what I described the hacker-period. So, this to me is a very important issue: On the one hand, what was a public space now becomes – to a large extent, not completely – a public-access-for-a-fee-space, and on the other hand, you have this enormous technical development of private digital networks.
Now, maybe I should actually move to my second subject, which is the distinction of public/private networks. A very quick sort of description, a bit more concrete of what it is that I am trying to say: If you think of global finance, most of it actually happens in private digital networks. They are not clandestine networks, they are not like the black net or what ever, they are simply private. And here one of the challenges, one of the agendas that lie ahead is to decode the term "private" within these networks. The private that is getting constructed in this world of private digital network, is a private that only partly inhabits the very classic division between public and private as it is constitutive for the national state.
It is a world where digital networks are characterised in principle by the same features that we use to characterise the internet: Simultaneity, connectivity, decentralised access. Three features which in the case of the internet, especially in its truly public portion, produce what we have come to call distributed power. Well, in the world of private digital networks the outcomes are not so benign and I think it becomes enormously important to make the differentiation. It signals to me as a social scientist that digital space is embedded in larger social, political and technical structures which inflect the characteristics of this digital space. In other words, the internet embedded in the hacker-culture produces distributed power, the internet embedded inthe global finance culture produces hierarchy and centralisation. So the kind of power that attaches to global finance is partly made possible because of the digital networks within which it operates, and partly made possible because of the role of globalfinance which is much more than the technical portion.
Now, let me just make it a bit more concrete when it comes to global finance which is a darling subject that I have been doing research on for a very long time. Just a few figures to illustrate: as you know, global trade has grown enormously (6 trillion dollars last year), foreign direct investment has grown enormously over the last ten years (another sort of 6 trillion), and the total foreign direct investment stock right now is something like 5.9 trillion at the end of 1999. These are enormous amounts ofmoney. But on the other hand you have a global financial market that is well over 80 trillion dollars by the end of 1999. 80 trillion compared to 6 trillion dollars – as I said global trade is enormous and yet it is dwarfed by this monetary value attachedto global finance.
What exactly those 80 trillion dollars are, nobody knows. Is that money? It is called money, it is measured in monetary terms. But it is really a different story and for me it is a story that is made possible in good part by the digitalisation of these markets: What the digital technologies have made possible is the enormous acceleration of transactions in an industry which has invented the ways in which transactions by themselves (buying – selling – buying – selling) make money. So, digitalisation has facilitated the dematerialising of a lot of transactions and a lot of outputs, and it has facilitated a raid of acceleration and a containment of the circuits within which this set of transactions takes place. Global finance today has nothing to do with commercial banking that we saw booming on the world – remember the trans-national banks of the 1970s and 1980s. Those were stodgy operations compared with global finance today.
The point that I want to retrieve here is the fact that because of the features of these global financial markets, the global financial actors have gained a power that goes beyond the raw economic power of the figures involved. This kind of power is something that I call the production of a new normativity, the capability of producing a norm that becomes the "proper" norm for economic policy for those governments that want to join the global game. Between that raw economic power and that normative power, the global financial players have gained an enormous amount of influence. And we are seeing how they are reshaping a lot of the stuff that is happening around us.
Now, the reason I talk about this particular subject in this meeting, which has to do with a world of information technologies, is because I think that this power is in a large part made possible by the properties of digital networks. But I am also sayingthat digitalisation – this particular aspect of digitalisation that we see in the world of finance – is highly embedded. And this embeddedness means that people, civil society, governments, NGOs and activists can still engage in that power. The topography of the operations of global finance is a topography that moves in and out of digital space. When it moves out of digital space, it very often hits the ground of massive concentrations, and they are literally physical concentrations of materialities and organizational complexities. For me then, this signals the possibility of new politics and of regulatory activities that right now are frankly not part of the discourse.
Now, let me just move to the third issue which relates to the new politics as well as the new economics. I think, I've talked enough about the new politics and the new economics of private digital networks by focusing on the question of finance, so let mevery briefly share with you some of my speculations about the question of the new politics and the new economics in public access networks. Here to me, the most exciting part is the politics. I described how we can use software as an indicator, in order to understand the features of public access networks. Now I am trying to open up what we experience as a line that separates two specific different zones: The hardware and the software or the code.
In this intermediate zone between the capabilities built into the hardware and the capabilities which are being mobilised trough the software and the code, only certain elements get activated and produced which we then experience as a naturalised condition of what networks are about. As a researcher, one of my first engagements with these kinds of events is that I was knowledgeable about private digital networks and interested in the political possibilities. What does this mean? This means that we can make features of the hardware work in ways that constitute more effective resistances to all these privatising moves that we see. Private interests have been able to mobilise the resources – and we know that they are enormous resources – to maximise the use of hardware-capabilities for a certain set of projects. And in that sense this era is so different from the hacker-era. How can we do the same thing? We have fewer resources, but we have intelligence and passion.
Second issue about the new politics: I think that what the public access digital networks make possible is a kind of politics of the global that consists of a series of localised efforts. By operating in digital space, localised initiatives are part of a global network. And I think, this is one of the key effects that digitalisation has on what we still may experience as local politics, although it is no longer local the way we used to think of it. Now there is a different kind of local that has been constructed which is really captured better with the notion of a micro-environment within a global span. In this sense, I think that a crucial political issue is to maximise the various types of local politics. We need to multiple the numbers of political groups, of activisms and of individuals that locate part of their projects on public access networks. That to me is an enormously important issue, because I think practice does make the form of these networks – I have seen it happen in global finance and I think that is also partly the story in these public access networks.
What I did not talk about was the new economics: I think one of the interesting empowering features of new economics in these public access networks is the notion that you can create your own business. So I have seen a whole number of instances around theworld – including Mayan women making handcrafted work – who have accessed global circuits. So one way of thinking about it is that a new form of economics, which is made possible by public access networks, is also an economy that can make the proverbial "small entrepreneur" part of the global circuit – keep in mind that global circuit does not quite mean global market but it means something – and this with very low entry-costs.
So concluding, as I like to say it is a big bad world out there in the world of digital networks, especially given the power of private digital networks, but it is also a frontier-zone for a new type of politics and a new type of economics that could produce a redistributing empowerment. I don't think it is a utopian vision that I have, I think it is very much routed in the capabilities that these new technologies make possible, but those capabilities have to be produced, coded as well as activated, and that takes a lot of effort, a lot of people.