Geert Lovink on Wed, 16 Jul 1997 19:43:56 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> bandwidth interview with saskia sassen

Bandwidth and Accountability
An Interview with Saskia Sassen
By Geert Lovink

Held in Hybrid Workspace, Documenta X, Kassel
July 11, 1997

GEERT LOVINK:  What will be the topic of your lecture tonight and will you
speak about bandwidth?

SASKIA SASSEN: For me, no matter where I start. I will arrive at
bandwidth... The subject is cities as strategic places for economic
actors, and possibly, for a new kind of politics. In that new kind of
politics I am thinking of such diverse actors as immigrants, but also net

LOVINK: Let's talk about the geography of cyberspace. We have a
lot of maps on display here, in Hybrid Workspace, and they show the
inequality of (the distribution of) bandwidth worldwide. These figures are
giving a dry and precise picture.

SASSEN: Many people are of course aware about this basic architecture of
the networks. But to have the data so precisely is extremely important.
One of the concerns for me has been to understand the differences
between private digital space and the public one. A lot of theoretical
work has been done on public digital space, like for example about the
Digital City in Amsterdam. I have been concerned with private digital
space. And with what I see as a colonizing of public digital space by
private (i.e. corporate) actors. We have three phases of the Internet. The
first phase is that of the hackers, where access was the issue, making the
software available. The second one, when you begin to have the interest by
private actors that did not quite know how to use it. It still was
mostly a public space, in some ways protected. And now a third stage: (the
invasion of cyberspace by corporate actors: it's really combat out there.
So for me, the Internet becomes a space for contestation. I am here not
only thinking about multinational corporations.  I am thinking of all kind
of actors, including the misuses of the Net, which is something serious

The bandwidth capacity is forever a very difficult issue. It is not
clear to me if the capacity will be endless, like in the notion of the
old frontier, where you had 'endless land'. But it is not really
endless. It takes a number of events to discover that. Certain
laboratory production of capacity are enormous, in term of bandwidth.
But I am not sure what happens once it moves from the lab to people and
companies. There are two issues: the economics of introducing the new
technical capacities taht are possible. And economics matters. We
allready now have poor men and women's e-mail, where you wait forever.
If you can pay, you will have a high speed connection. The other issue is
a 'de-greening' of the pratices in the Net, which I find very disturbing.
The issue bandwidth consuming multimedia, for instance, where things could
also have been done via e-mail.

LOVINK: In order to have a broad, general debate about the issue of
bandwidth, it might be important to see how we can visualize this
topic. Which metaphors do we use, what kind of images? How would you
describe the bandwidth topic for a wider audience?

SASSEN: I grew up in Latin America. Anybody who has spent some time there
or in Africa, knows what it is to get a international, long distance
call going. You have to wait, sometimes for hours. You don't just get
on the telephone and get access. Why? Because it is a question of the
capacity. You will experience the notion of inadequate carrying
capacity. Today, those of use who use e-mail through institutions have
also had that experience. In Europe, in the afternoon it is difference
than in the morning. Why? Because it in the afternoon the USA has woken
up and has invaded the Internet. You get to wait a much longer time. If
you have a lot of money, believe me, you will have a fast lane. In
Bombay or Sao Paolo, you will find different circumstances. For
instance, there are poor and rich universities. Some universities in
the US, in order to save money,  shift part of their bandwidth to
commercial users after 5 o'clock. And you will sit there forever to get a

LOVINK: The campaign here, 'We Want Bandwidth', could be part of a
strategy to re-imagine what the public part of cyberspace could look like.
We could complain that the old parts of the public realm are disappearing.
But we could as well start reinventing new public spaces.

SASSEN: It is not disappearing, it is being colonized. One of the key
issues is to develop and promote more different sub-cultures. In Latin-
America there is a whole lot of net activity  in Spanish (Castillian).
The more diversity we have, the better. The colonizing of the space is
going in many different directions. It does not only have to come from
private companies. Even if it is just e-mail. Whether it is poor women in
India connecting directly with a group of poor women in New Jersey, or
labour unions that are beginning to do more international organizing
because they are on e-mail. It is really a question of maximazing the
activity on the Net, and militance, if you want.

LOVINK: On the other hand, we have this economics of the networks.
Simultaneously, with stiff competition and a drive towards
monopolization. Maybe this comes as no surprise. What may look like
chaotic markets, is in reality quite frightening. Specially if look at
the mergers between the telcoms.

SASSEN: This is a very real story, this joining of large firms across
borders. One of the ironies is that in sofar as fiber optic cables does
remain a very important way of getting the communication going, in
order to provide global services, these companies have to cover the
whole, actual geography of the globe. Hence the necessity of the
mergers. At the end we will have a limited number of very large global
companies. Going global is the name of the game.

When we talk about regulation today, we tend to give it a narrow
meaning, which has to do with the government regulating content. That
is a totally different notion, compared to regulation access and
accountability. We need to free the concept of regulation from what it
is. We should innovate and start to think how we can regulate those big
conglomerates. They are reshaping the topography of communications.
They are now moving into Latin-America, where the telecoms are being
privatized. For the upper middle classes and above,  this will be fine.
The problem are lower income communities, and more isolated places. Even
in the USA there are people who cannot even afford a  telephone. In sofar
as the global telecoms are dealing with a condition that is essential to
us, whether we look at it as people, who have forms of sociabilities.
Or if we look at it as democracies, where communication is necessary.
But now these firms are privatized and not accountable, which means we
might run into scenarios that are very nasty.

(Edited by Patrice Riemens)

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