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November 05 , 2004 | Digital Culture: What Matters?

Place matters.

Sounds simple doesnít it? A no-brainer. And yet, sociologist Saskia Sassen at the University of Chicago has spent over a decade articulating precisely that point. In an era of increasing globalization and telecommunications, while most pundits laud the opportunities for decentralization, Sassenís observations suggest that economic production is centralizing away from national economies to an emerging network of "global cities." Because these global cities have closer ties to each other than to their surrounding regions or national economies, they mark a fundamental change in the nature of production. Or so the theory goes.

But what of digital culture? Does place matter? Is there a similar logic at work in the production and reproduction of digital culture? As Paul Gauguin once asked, "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"

The Global Cities Network

"Cities are strategic places that concentrate command-and-control functions for the global economy" — Saskia Sassen, The Global City.

The great economist Maynard Keynes warned against the effects of transnational capital mobility in the early 1900s. One hundred years later, we are just beginning to see those effects in the global economy. Because businesses depend heavily on a wide array of services — financial, legal, etc. — they must locate themselves in places that provide easy access to those services. Reciprocally, these transnational "producer services" must locate where their clients are. The net effect of this process has been the increasing importance of certain cities — New York, London, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Sydney, Miami — that not only support complex webs of businesses but also participate in a global network for the production and distribution of finance and capital. The rise of a city is less a property of the city itself, and more a property of its position and relation in the network of global cities. As economists are fond of saying, "A rising tide lifts all boats."

But Sassen points out that this tide only lifts a few boats: those within the global cities network. As the middle zone splits, a new topology of core and periphery emerges. This process creates increasing inequality not only between cities, but also within them. The forces that originally created the rising middle class are now gone, replaced by forces of polarization and marginalization. In the end, Sassen wonders if such inequalities are sustainable, or if they are grim omens of future conflict.

But the centralization of global finance is only one criteria one can use to discover global networks of cities. In fact, Sassen admits that different forms of production may have their own global networks. For example, Miami acts as both a hub in a regional network of capital flows, as well as a node in the global cities network. Its power in both networks is a condition of the fact that it acts a bridge, or gateway, between the two networks, filling what Ron Burt has termed "structural holes." But is there a network of cities that acts as the core of digital culture?

Cultural (Re)Production

Digital culture is potentially global culture. We find theatre productions from London, like "Les Miserables", becoming mega-hits on Broadway in New York City. The city scenes in the first Matrix film were shot in Sydney, the second in San Francisco, and yet on-screen they constituted an architecturally homogenous unidentifiable "global city." The increasing globalization of production creates a "global culture" that is cosmopolitan and robust in its diversity. Balancing this trend, however, we find a resurgence in international arts. Films like "Amelie" succeed because they inflect the emerging global culture with a local or regional cultural flavor. In addition, Chow Yun-Fat is not only a successful Chinese actor, but more importantly a successful global actor.

By contrast, Sassen notes that global cities take on a distinct identity as they disconnect from their regional geography. If this is reflected in cultural reproduction then we can expect to see changes in peopleís sense of identity. We might find individuals thinking of themselves as New Yorkers first and Americans second, or Parisiennes first and French second. This tension between global and locally inflected forms lies at the heart of digital culture.

The resolution (or exploration) of this tension is to be found in the fact that cultural production and reproduction does not rely on the same factors as Sassenís command-and-control economy. In fact, what are increasingly called "technologies of cooperation" create new ways of producing and reproducing culture.

Music: Owing to the decrease in costs and the computerization of production, music is increasingly self-produced and then distributed over the Internet. Standardized formats, such as MP3, have created an enormous "underground" music economy.

News: In what began as a primarily geek phenomenon at Slashdot.org, individuals now create and rate news through bottom-up participatory processes on sites like Kuro5hin.org and OhMyNews. In addition, weblogs are the primary news source for an increasing number of people who need up-to-the-minute coverage of important events.

Information: Where once centralized encyclopedias were the norm, now we find instead Wikipedia, huge and accurate information archives created and maintained by a decentralized global mass of users.

Money: Douglas Rushkoff has even suggested in "Open Source Money" that mobile technologies used for the creation, distribution, and consumption of culture could undermine governmentsí and businessesí stranglehold on money and capital, creating a boom in alternative currencies.

Tools: What Howard Rheingold has termed "tools for thought" provides a whole new market in cultural goods, a market that is extraordinarily crucial to digital culture. The development of Linux and the evolution of the pro-sharing norms of the open-source community are quite possibly the pre-eminent cultural explosion of our day. As Steve Weber has pointed out in The Success of Open Source, these new cultural norms can have profound implications for economic production.

Property: Our notions of property are being reshaped in the new era. There is a trend away from privatization and towards a "managed commons" method of production and distribution. From its beginnings as "copyleft" to the more recent "Creative Commons" licenses (explored by Lawrence Lessig in Free Culture), more and more individuals are being able to redefine property out of the hands of the "power elites" of yesteryear.

Sassen does briefly mention the emergence of a new social aesthetic in luxury consumption resulting in a proliferation of cuisine, fashion, boutiques, and art galleries, and she admits that the shift to global cities cannot explain this. However, she just as quickly writes off the trend as something that is not important because it isnít happening among the "power elites" of the multinational corporations. One is reminded of turn-of-the-century analysts predicting the future of horse-drawn carriages while ignoring the invention of the automobile.

Digital Cultural Networks

The point of all this is that Sassen may have her definitions of "the center" and "the periphery" exactly backwards. During the era of decolonization after World War II, nation-states were reducing their massively decentralized empires and re-centralizing their command-and-control structures, but this was a sign of decline, not of power. The same might be true of multinational corporations and their command-and-control network of global cities.

In The Future of Work, Thomas Malone suggests that we may be moving from "command-and-control to coordinate-and-cultivate." Insofar as telecommunications facilitates decentralized coordination, and "cultivation" — even etymologically — refers specifically to cultural modes of production and reproduction over economic ones, I think that Maloneís insight is a good one. Thus, analytically, we must move from understanding merely the wage economy to examine a broader definition of "work" including cooperation, non-profit work, work in the home, and the entire social economy.

In so doing, we may find that the inequalities Sassen notes in the wage economy dissolve when viewed under the broader context of social production. Perhaps, the middle class is now producing in a way that doesnít engage the wage economy but rather creates what is increasingly called "the sharing economy." Peer-to-peer networks, and "trash trading" networks like Freecycle.org or eBay constitute new forms of social reproduction.

There are definitely some questions to consider. Does the demise of mp3.com and Napster mean that the multinationals are "winning"? Lawrence Lessig is deeply concerned that they may be. Similarly, does the consolidation of global media outlets mean that "they" exercise increasing control over what we see and hear? And what of the privatization of most creative works emerging from universities and employees, called the "corporate confiscation of creativity" by Michael Perelman in Steal This Idea?

Here, as Iíve implied above, I must disagree with the doomsayers. In fact, it is my contention that as progressive centralization creates more inequalities and obstacles it summons into being the very drivers that compel people to create new modes of expression. (This is called putting yourself out of business). To paraphrase a famous pop-culture quote: The more you tighten your grip, the more slips through your fingers.

Persons act. Out of face-to-face interaction, discussion and debate, culture emerges. Cities offer us places to congregate, to rally, to express, to build, and even to conflict. They are the crucible of our evolution, a pressure-cooker for the social. To say that place matters, or cities, is to risk distraction, or worse misdirection, away from the true locus of value in any culture, even digital culture. What matters?

People matter. You matter.

 


Paul B. Hartzog is a political scientist and the creator of the postmodern theory of Panarchy. A self-styled futurist and techno-shaman, his interests include Complexity Theory, Cooperation, International Relations, Environmental Politics, Information Society and Economy, Information Technologies, Sustainable Development, Network Culture, and Ethics.

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