4/24/2009

The Poverty of National Calling Plans

The small-scale buzz around Bruce Sterling's SXSWi talk is pretty amusing, mostly because as he put it, "this offhand speech of mine -- truly a rant, delivered from notes -- is provoking a remarkable response specifically BECAUSE there is no crisp digital record of exactly what I was saying."

I love this sort of stuff (even when it doesn't involve shadowy Internet well-knowns). Literature is archaeology, man. And it's like we're digging through a city (well, maybe a hamlet) wiped clean by the sandstorms only a month ago. Is that a toothbrush? Maybe it's a shamanic scepter! Nah, maybe just a toothbrush.

But as our French Philosopher Phriends would remind us, the archaeology of truth is the sandstorm itself. None of this theology of the book! It's the Internet, after all. We all love the fact that it's okay that we make it up as we go along.

I'm pretty good at the making stuff up part. I have a degree in philosophy. The rule of philosophical scholarship is that you can make a dead guy say anything you want--you just have to manipulate the puppet strings. These puppet strings can be quotes taken almost of of context, the abstracts of papers somebody else wrote about someone else, or if you're of Zizek-stature (or first-year undergraduate) the mere name-drop may suffice.

Unfortunately, I also have these interests in stuff. Stuff makes me think. This means I can't quarantine my bullshit into academic papers alone--unfortunately for me, these reinterpretations, quotations, appropriations, and exhaltations are constantly circulating in my head, driving me slowly, but surely, to a state of being entirely boring. Unfortunately for you, I have a blog, which you seem to be reading. Hmm. I wonder what will happen next...

So, let's play the game.

WHAT DID BRUCE STERLING REALLY MEAN WHEN HE SAID THOSE THINGS?

What did he say anyway? Well, no one really knows for sure (this is going to be so easy).

Always start with the text.

"The clearest symbol of poverty is dependence on ‘connections’ like the Internet, Skype and texting. ‘Poor folk love their cellphones!’ (Sterling) said.”

"connectivity will be an indicator of poverty rather than an indicator of wealth," (note taken by Rohde).

The internet is poverty? Cellphones are poverty? What is he saying? These things GO AGAINST EVERYTHING MY INTERNET MARKETER TOLD ME!!!

Here is some actual Sterling text. From his short story (architectural fiction, no less) "White Fungus":

"Cell phones are the emblems of poverty."

Interesting enough. Would probably make some liberal cell phone users nervous.

But look at this--"symbol of poverty", "indicator of poverty", "emblem of poverty". Are we noticing a trend here? Call the semioticians!

Also of note: the quote from "White Fungus" is placed, in its original context, with the phrase "computers are not sources of wealth."

So what do we have here? We have wealth and poverty opposed. We have "source" as a flow of wealth, whatever wealth might be. We have "connectivity" as a given, of some sort. We have poor people with cell phones. And we have symbols, emblems, and indicators.

Wealth and poverty, the meaning of which these statements seem to circulate, have different applications. They are material concepts, but social as well. Generally involving value, the value may flucuate. Are we talking about social value? Are we talking about material value? Or are we talking about material value derived from social value? Or the other way around? What sort of poverty do cell-phones represent, and of what sort of wealth are computers not the source? Who is poor, and who is rich as a result?

The Twitter-phobic Internet folk have interpreted the point as purely social in message, and therefore at root, idealistic. We spend a lot of time on our cell phones, and therefore the precious, bourgeois "free-time" in which we would otherwise pursue such worthwhile, humanistic goals such as good, honest fire-side conversation, staring whistfully at clouds, and playing polo, suffers as result. It is an ironic musing worthy of a minor scenario of the Odyssey: through our frantic attempts at universal communication, a female cell-phone beast eats our ears, eyes, and mouth. Odysseus sails away on a plank, born on the gentle breeze of Athena's brain waves, thankful he never signed up for the cursed free internet-service.

If anybody is losing anything of value, it's happening materially. Material, of course, extends into the consciousnesses and compound consciousnesses of people, in less than solid, i.e. symbolic forms. But just because we assume a loss of something that never existed, like "true, meaningful conversation", does not mean we can declare a robber. Because somebody kicked over your invisible dandelion wine is not a cause for blows. If you're not talking to other human beings in a meaningful way, that's your problem, buddy.

We've written up the Internet to be some grand form of communication. It certainly is a form of communication (by way of good old fashioned reading and writing) but how grand is it? Those singularity morons aside, what exactly do we expect from the Internet, and how has it either surpassed or fallen short of our goals? These sorts of material questions deserve attention. So put down that pen and paper, junior Thoreau. Turn up your headphones, and let's dance.

Communication, as a flow of symbols throughout our conscious perceptions of the world, are not strictly the material facts of life, but they are the way we understand them, as the capacities of our sentience dictates. In addition to providing a smooth flow of sensation in the way we would hope between the ideally closed confines of our mind and the cold, cold world, they also get a bit tangled in the intermedium, the interpretive membrane of flesh. Is what you feel what's really there? Is what's there what you really feel? How sure are you that you feel what you feel? In these tossing seas, in which there is no Ithika, there is as much agonism between every drop of water as there is undifferentiatedness in the silence of drowning. Don't worry, we're pretty good swimmers. And maybe the gods do exist; you never know.

So we can worry about the hubris of the "real world" at the same time as we kick and thrash in the liquid of our minds. But you best not forget strictly material world--or else you will find yourself floating face down. The interfaces between the worlds of consciousness and the hard rock that may in fact be out there is important, but only important when we have a bit of each in both hands. Think about the world, but also world about the think. Right? Right?

In other words, cell phones: what do they do for us, and how do they work? What they do for us only goes so far as we know how they do it. Otherwise we're just plugged into our own sensory feedback loop. There are clear benefits of communication that don't require a list. But how do they work?

Poorly. And I'm not just talking about signal strength. Look at the material models for our high-tech communication networks. It's full of "pay as you go" reverse indentured servitude, credit/fee contract scams, and monopolies. I pay over a hundred dollars in "connection fees" per month to stay networked in the way I find useful. WTF? That's more than my car insurance. I could set up my own telegraph station a hundred years ago for less, probably. What future is this?

Not to speak of the hardware itself. Dropped calls, bad operating systems, bricked phones on their way to the e-waste fields of China. App stores? Fart programs? Are we serious?

Materially, (in the strict sense), we are all slaves. When I build a transistor radio set, perhaps I'm connected. But with a cell phone, I've mortgaged my flow of information.

This is the ongoing rebuilding of the credit economy. Housing collapsed--wait for the information infrastructure. People can't pay their data bills, and drop off the network. The content begins to shrink. There is a rush to "flip" domain names, but nobody is reading anyway. Eventually, land lines shut down, or are taken over by the government because they the tubes are too big to fail. It's not dot-com VC sink holes, its the crash of information itself.

So in a class sense, we are the texting, twittering, blogging poor, the proceeds of ill-gotten AdSense all being eaten by the Company to pay for our web hosting fees. If you advertise, you are basically sharecropping.

And I haven't even mentioned the fact that a cell phone will not make anything edible, does not cure a single disease, or reclaim a single molecule of CO2. All it does is call people! We'd be better off giving every person a good pocket knife than a RAZR.

Is ubiquitous connectivity useless then? A tool of the oppressing class to profit off our work, and nothing else? Should we burn the factories, and shove our clogs into Web 2.0?

Is there no benefit for the poor having cell phones? What about teenagers? I think it is safe to say there is a benefit. When I was trying to find an apartment and a job at the same time, with no mailing address or reliable internet connection, my cheap, free-with-contract cell phone was my only link to the material world. It was my access, and the only one I had--not to community or SMS, but to anything. Access is good--because then you can use it however you want and make it as utile as you wish, even if it is for mostly LOLing. In this world when few material things are concrete these days (think of rural Africa, where a cell phone connection is more likely than a water and sewage line) this shard of access is the only thing many can depend on--and we are rapidly re-organizing our material lives around this anchor. The problem is that we are kept poor by these anchors, because someone else is dolling out the rope.

The material use of a tool or object is a certain sort of value, and the control of that object, via less-material pathways such as "contracts", "property", and "debt" is another sort of value. I believe a bearded man other than myself wrote something about that once. Along with the rise of Access as a new axis in our material lives, other sorts of value appears, connected in different ways. There are various sorts of social value, with different amounts of relative worth.

For example, cell phones are status symbols, by which we judge relative wealth. Just like cars, before people decided they'd rather drive electric flat-screen TVs than new SUVs. The cell-phone is a commodity as well as a tool, and there are certain values of having a certain connectness; being able to say "you can always reach me on my blackberry" has a value in addition to anything that might be said in the email. And this is before you cover the damn thing in pink rhinestones.

But the act of communication, can be a commodity, as much as it is the use of a tool. Lots of people buy into the idea of communication more than they actually communicate. My Loyal Internet Marketers for one. (Yes, I have about twenty or so. They all follow me on Twitter. The best part is, they are just as useful whether I read them or not! And they are free! If one quits, s/he is replaced by two more!)

There is a certain idea of the Internet going around, one which you might be familiar with. It is a familiar story (though not perhaps as familiar as The Odyssey), and one much loved, especially in this country. It is a love story--Demos, our perennial hero, falls in love with Techne, and they decide to start a family. Because they believe their love is so perfect, they decide to adopt a child: Kratia. Kratia, unfortunately, is not a child, but a dark spirit from way back. Because of their love, Demos and Techne were blinded to the spells of Kratia, and did not see it in its true form. They thought, oh, its only a kid, give it a cell phone, and it will be fine. But then when the monthly bill came back...

We think that technology, somehow, is the final proof of democracy. We've merged our belief in the destiny of capitalism and freemarkets with our sleepy trust in democracy to maintain a fair balance of power. These two great tastes actually don't taste like anything together, but in fact continuing doing what they do best--democracy consolidates the power of the people into commodity leaders, away from the economy where it belongs; and technology continues to evolve like a tool, according to the actions of those who wield it.

As our economy gets more technologically rigorous, the powers that control the economy also control more technology. In the interest of maintaining this power, they use the tools they have at hand, lulling Demos to sleep with Techne's sweet songs.

Don't know those lullabys? Ever heard of American Idol? Vote early, vote often--the true democrat's popularity contest. How about the Obama SMS network? Feel connected? Feel like one of the people? Yes we can? How much do you get charged per text message?

The technology of the Internet has given democracy its return to populism, all right. You feel more like Demos when you're with Techne, don't you? You are so in love with her, you can't even remember who you were before. But don't blame Techne. She's under the spell too. It's the product of your love, that demon, bastard spawn that crawled off into the dark woods when you two were busy humming little love songs... Power... what gave birth to evil itself...

Anyway, that's enough with the stories. But wait, one more:

"The Internet — we used to call it a ‘commons’. Yet it was nothing like any earlier commons: in a true commons, people relate directly to one another, convivially, commensally. Whereas when they train themselves, alone, silently, on a screen, manifesting ideas and tools created and stored by others, they do not have to be social beings. They can owe the rest of the human race no bond of allegiance." - Sterling, in "White Fungus"

Did the true commons ever exist outside of the Arendtian notion of the agora, and those other high-minded Greeks and liberal humanists? Sure, we commune all the time. But humanity is not a commune--never was. There were always tools, people, and power. The relations shift around, but the players stay the same.

So what is worth? Where does the true value lie? Not in any particular person or tool, certainly. It's in the relationships between them. The pathways that guide certain people to use certain tools for certain goals. The path of a hammer to hit a nail; the text message to offer a friend a job; the processing of information to sort out a story--a story that might teach someone how to use a tool better. The objects, and even the people are mere symbols, emblems, and indicators of power and potential power. The symbols only have the value we give them, as we use them to mediate between ourselves and the world. Cellphones are emblems of our poverty. Computers don't make value (unless your desktop is at Moody's). And here we are, back in the beginning--people and symbols, symbols of people, people symbolizing tools, and tools symbolizing people.

Poverty--who is poor here? I suppose in the end, everyone with a cell-phone. They are the least common denomenator of Access these days. So we're all poor, in the respect of technology. Only some of us more than others, and and some of us, decidedly more materially than others. But maybe some day, a cheap, open-source free access to the networks will be devised... and then we can all be the salt of the earth. After looking at the bailout packages, I would rather we were all equally poor, frankly.

What does Bruce Sterling think? Hell if I know! Shit, that guy is crazy. Every read any of his stuff about global warming?

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