Felix Stalder on Tue, 23 Mar 1999 18:36:05 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> political economy of Internet

Oh, holy martyrdom of the radical left.  The world is a hopeless place and
you are going to be told about it in excruciating detail. If you do not
want to accept it and get depressed it only shows how deeply you're

The basic tenets of the argument are, of course, irrefutable: the
development of the Internet in terms of access and bandwidth is uneven; it
mirrors existing socio-political power structures;  commercial interest
dominate over non-commercial ones; and, individual profit comes before the
public good.  It is important to have those facts straight and the numbers
polished, no question about that.

But the argument is so simplistic it paints the picture in black and white;
with no white in it!  First, it creates a questionable dichotomy in the
discourse.  There are on one side the "Internetphilics" propagating "a
hyped ideology that sees in the Internet the cure for a number of ills
besetting contemporary society." While this might be an accurate
characterization of WIRED's attitude in its haydays, it's too hard a
stretch of my imagination to subsume Saskia Sassen or Michael Froomkin
under this definition. Never mind that Sassen hardly ever writes about the
Internet, particularly not in the book quoted.  Drawing the line between
'them' and 'us' in such a purist way, has no other effect that 99% of the
discourse finds itself on the other side. As the result of constructing
such a map any critique appears to be so marginalized that it is defeated
on the outset (though even more heroic).

On the one side of the division, we have the Internetphilic and on the
other side? Nothing! There is not even a name for 'us', which is not too
surprising since 'Internetphobic' would be the consequential name, not
every appealing indeed.

While rightly criticizing the Internetphilics of advocating a naive
techno-determinism, the heavy-handed political economy proposes a gloomy
'corporate determinism' as a replacement. While this is not entirely wrong,
large corporation do have a tremendous political influence, it's simplistic
beyond usefulness.  It is sensible to point out that "the two parts of the
Internet economy exist in a hierarchy, without the infrastructure there can
be no online activity or content", the conclusion that "infrastructure
determines content"  just doesn't hold. It would be the same to say that
the water monopoly determines the soup I cook. Yes, indeed, no water no
soup but that's obvious.

The connection between infrastructure and content is much more subtle and
bi-directional. Every technology has a certain ambiguity in its use and
information technology has a particular large degree of ambiguity, i.e.
different ways in which it can be interpreted and used, when compared to,
say, the previous high-tech project: nuclear power, be it in its civil or
military configuration. No technology is ever fully stable and the way the
inherent ambiguity is realized influences deeply the further development,
hence the new ambiguities, of the technology to an extent that it makes not
sense to separate the technology from its use. Neither does the technology
determine its use nor does ownership determine technology, the coporations
wish it were that way.

It is important to keep an eye on the sordid facts of the structure of
corporate ownership but only one eye.  The fact that a packet sent within
Latin America is routed through the US is problematic but, from the point
of view of the sender and receiver, largely irrelevant. Even under the most
commodified access conditions nobody pays for the way a specific data
packet travels nor does it really impact on the content of the message
sent. While there are and will be huge and troubling inequalities in access
and bandwidth, at least at the moment,  the bandwidth issue is more
important for those who want to sell huge files (e.g. videos) over the
Internet than for the end user whose 486 machine would not be able to
handle those files even if they could be downloaded swiftly.

But it is exactly in the low-bandwidth, low-tech applications --
commercially uninteresting for venture-capital driven Silicon Valley
start-ups and the conglomerates to which they hope to sell out -- where
some of the real power of the Internet lies. Not in revolutionizing the
world in and out of itself, but in giving tools to those in political and
cultural struggles and experiments.

While "gloomy picture of the Internet is not meant to evoke more Marxist
cynicism" the choice that has been presented between neo-liberal
techno-determinism and a 'corporate determinism' is deadly and has
primarily this effect.


Les faits sont faits.
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