Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I.T. and the threat of commodification

Jeffrey Side yesterday posted to the Buffalo Poetics List a sobering reminder of how prone progress is to the forces of commodification. Apparently, forces have been set in motion whose goal it is to turn the Internet into another bourgeois institution. It must first be said that a valid argument can be made that the Internet is already a bourgeois institution, for the simple reason that computers are a bourgeois commodity to begin with. Nevertheless, through public libraries, school labs, and other outlets, there is an egalitarian aspect to the Internet beyond its formal parameters. Almost anyone who wants to get online can. Side's post hinged on large corporations wanting to wrest control of the Net from the people and charge fees for usage. This has serious implications for the Internet Theory (I.T.) I have been trying to develop. Firstly, I have claimed that the Internet, as it exists now, displaces the Marxist paradigm. The base of many exchanges on the Net is social, rather than material; the goal of the Net is free dissemination of information, rather than commodified information as a means of economic production. Corporate meddling will forge a Net that is as reified as a bourgeois institution as the Academy, or as the entertainment industry. This would be disappointing, to say the least, though the seeds of this take-over are (according to Side) still germinating. Nevertheless, forewarned is forearmed. I think it will be profitable, in building up structures of possible Internet Theory, to assume the worst and investigate what a Corporate Net would look like, how it would function, and what its reception among the populace (of America, Europe, and the rest of the world) would be. Would it become a free-floating Academy? Would the excitement of digital consciousness still translate? Would the allegory of Madeline's room still be applicable, if a leveling of class and privilege did not?

Let us situate ourselves in a new reality: corporations have taken over and effectively commodified the Net. Those with the funds to appease the corporations have unlimited Net access; those without sufficient capital have less access, perhaps little to no access. Side's post did not go into specifics, so I cannot hope to translate this into definite dollars and cents figures. Let's say the Net has reified into a privileged resource. I can see two things happening. First, among the bourgeoisie, the weight and the importance of the Internet will increase. This may seem, on first glance, counterintuitive, but it is simple psychology: people, especially the bourgeoisie, tend to value more what they pay for. Commodification creates mystique and fetishization; a commodified Net would have more lure to the bourgeois mind then it does now. An extension of this would be an increased presence of the Academy on the Net. The Academy is not any less prone to commodity fetishism then the rest of the bourgeoisie; dissertations would be disseminated online, professors might be obliged to have web-sites, blogs (the substantial ones, at least) would earn the respect they deserve. In other words, a commodified Internet would be legitimized in many eyes. People value print more now because (generally) they pay for it; the non-commodity status of the Net now makes it somewhat distasteful to the bourgeois mind. This is the first thing, and it would be naive to posit that all these adjustments in perception would be negative. The kind of discourse I am generating right here would benefit greatly; the benefits of commodification are often equivocal, but they are real.

That's the good news. The bad news is that commodification of the Net would reinforce class structures and hierarchies that it had been demolishing. Digital consciousness, if limited to the upper strata of society, would become a divisive phenomenon, rather than an inclusive one. The fast fluidity I see in the Net, and manifested in those who populate it, would (or could) degenerate into a flippant arrogance, another way of enacting Bourdieu's demarcative imperative: we, the privileged, have a velocity to our consciousness that those beneath us do not; we have access to another world that they do not; our ascendency above them will abide, and this is the natural order of things. Heteroglossia will diminish significantly; chances of shock and novelty (the conditions for orgasm in Freud's terms) will be reduced; recognitions of Otherness will be based more on an assumed sameness (you have money and so do I) than on any leveled playing field. Institutionalization will become wide-spread; things will harden and become standardized; the bizarre incongruities now visible will diminish; we will be left with a play-ground on which not everyone can play. Corporations will compete in offering the best "Web-deals"; money for books will become money for the Net; advertisements will inundate us and attempt to sell us digital consciousness. In short, the merchants will take over and the fun, free-wheeling spirit of the Net, the kind of digital picar-esque narratives we see now, will be a thing of the past. Internet Theory will instantly become academic, and will be the province of academicians. The Net will become American, in the pejorative sense of the term. As a realm of profit, it will cease, to a greater or lesser extent, to be a realm of spirit. This is the binary I see opening up with a commodified Net.

You could say that the Net just provides new forms for old discourses, and probably not be lying. I am not using a new form of English, and creating a palimpsest over another mode of discourse. Yet the fact that this discourse will reach many of you the day that it is written; that you have the immediate option of contributing to the discourse if you wish; that, crucially, the discourse takes place in written language rather than speech acts; creates a scenario that is truly novel. At precisely this moment, the merchants have not completely moved in. Nor do I think the merchants have the power to efface this discourse. Side prompted us to contact our local politicians and nudge them to prevent a corporate Net take-over. This is by no means a bad idea. It depends how much we, as a community of writers, value the egalitarian nature of the Net as it subsists now. I do not want this to degenerate into a manifesto, but I will simply say that it will be better for all of us if we can prevent commodification of this Net, our Net. The values of a commodified Net exist only as more privilege for the already privileged. While I do, realistically, recognize myself as one of the privileged, a concern for the rights of the Other is not far from my mind. Does this mean that I enjoy the Net only because I can pretend not to be privileged? I hope not. In any case, privileged or not, this is something worth fighting for. In a progressive world, digital consciousness should be for everyone.

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