Max Bruinsma on 14 Aug 2000 13:49:33 -0000

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<nettime> The New Culture? The New Economy!

Published in Dutch in the weekly De Groene Amsterdammer
volume 124, issue 32, 12 august 2000

Dutch version: "De Nieuwe Cultuur?":
English translation: "The New Culture?":

The New Culture?  The New Economy!
Max Bruinsma & Chris Keulemans

Much to their own surprise, more and more artists, cultural critics, and
their likes scrutinize the economy pages of their newspapers. Less than a
decade ago, they would have admitted only to have stumbled across them at
the dentist's waiting room table. This new interest of cultured folks for
such base things as money has less to do with curiosity than with sheer
necessity. Whoever wants to follow the development of new media and
communications technologies - and no-one in the cultural field can afford
to ignore it - has no choice: the real news on this subject is in the
financial pages, not in the cultural sections. 

Actually, it's quite odd that discussions about, for instance, the
possible split-up of Microsoft aren't taking place in the cultural
supplements as well. Isn't it is obvious that an application like Windows
doesn't merely have an economical impact but a rather profound cultural
one as well? The latter aspect is conspicuously absent from the discourse.
It's all about stuff (broadband mobile telephones! Interactive TV! Online
personal assistants!) and about what it's going to cost us. Much less
attention is given to what we're going to do with all this gadgetry, and
how this technology is going to influence our cultural interactions. Will
this new technology truly emancipate the citizens of the global village,
or will it relegate them more and more to being passive consumers under
the flack of an explosively growing artillery of buying impulses? The
interest invested in the economical aspects of technological change hugely
outweighs the attention given to its cultural aspects. 

Dutch State Secretary for Culture, Rick van der Ploeg, himself a seasoned
economist, seemed to argue along similar lines when he stated recently
that "technological matters are usually high-jacked by the technocrats of
the economical department. But artists and creatives might as well be
driving this field". He spoke at a congress in Amsterdam about the 'new
economy', Tulipomania dotcom. Interestingly, this one was not organized by
market analysts and representatives of start-ups and dotcoms, but by a
group of cultural critics and media activists, loosely connected to
Nettime, an internet forum that critically follows the social, cultural
and political effects of new technology. 

Was it a coincidence that this was the second congress within a month
about aspects of the 'new economy' that brought together young cultural
digerati from all over Europe and the United States? A month ago, they
assembled in Berlin, at Monomedia. This conference, themed Value, was
organized by Willem Velthoven, principal of webdesign consultancy
Mediamatic in Amsterdam, and professor Multimedia at the Hochschule der
Künste in Berlin. "Maybe it's not an appealing perspective to live amongst
websites," Velthoven said to an audience of web designers, media
theoreticians and artists, "but this is where our society is going, and a
lot of those present here share a responsibility for that. Each day, we
change the world with our work.  Whenever we design a website for the city
we're living in, we redesign our community and our politics. Each
e-commerce site is a redesign of trade.  Each intranet we roll out is a
redesign of labor". 

With this, the fundamental questions for the cultural-political
avant-garde are on the table. What Velthoven describes has profound
cultural implications, but the discourse is conducted almost exclusively
in terms of economy. Robin Hanson, an economist who radiated in Berlin as
if he had just been infused with Helium, stated with ruthless glee that
someone can only make a contribution to society unless they succeed in
putting it on the market. And he added: money makes for honesty. People
who have nothing at stake may say anything, but they truly speak their
mind only when there's money to be gained - or lost. That is why Hanson
proposed a new system;  Futarchy, government by bets. People stake real
money on tricky problems such as gun control or the intervention in
Kossovo, and the market decides:  the option that is most sensible for the
market, wins. A rather bizarre aspect of this betting model from a
democratic viewpoint is that the smaller the minority that is proved right
by the market, the more it cashes in!  Hanson was not distracted by such
details; the success of his model in the new economy of venture
capitalists and day traders, where investing in technological development
indeed more and more resembles a day at the races, was enough for him. 

In Amsterdam, at Tulipomania, Maastricht based economist Robin Cowan
explained how the new economy works: "Knowledge is difficult to produce,
but very easy to reproduce. When knowledge is turned into products, like
in most software, competition becomes: getting there first. It's not about
making the best product anymore, it's about setting the standard. The new
economy is a winner-takes-all economy, with very high-risk investments.
Research and development becomes like a lottery. The first to come up with
a marketable product has the jackpot." This is, of course, not completely
true - see Netscape: the first, the best, the looser -, but what is true
about it clearly has social and cultural consequences. The fact that the
potential for fast and huge profits has been democratized greatly, and
that the stock exchange has become accessible for all, does not mean that
everybody profits. Meanwhile, this 'mainstreet capitalism' engenders an
economization, and thereby a narrowing down, of the cultural and social
debate. What values do we represent when all value has become measurable?
Is the only answer to the question of how government will organize and
distribute scarce ether 'real estate': $ 11 billion in the Netherlands?
The obsession with the outrageous profits that can be made in the new
economy clouds the view on what is of real value. Steve Cisler, writer and
internet analyst from Silicon Valley, remarked in Amsterdam: "In the
overstressed economy, where the flipside of high profits is high risk,
only the highest revenue fields attract the investment. Areas like
education, culture and care, which are less profitable, lag behind." 

This becomes painfully clear when one compares investments made in
technological infrastructure to those made in the cultural use and
investigation of that infrastructure. Government and private funding of
cultural endeavors in the field of new media do not even remotely match
the high spirited intentions uttered by both government and corporate
officials.  In the Netherlands, in spite of lipservice to pleas from the
cultural field for support, there is hardly any real effort made to
compensate for the technological disadvantage in this area. The above
mentioned State Secretary for Culture, Van der Ploeg, deliberates upon
raising the cultural budget with around $ 15 million - less than one point
five per mil of what alone the auctioning of broadband mobile telephone
frequencies in the Netherlands will bring in! 

But after all, artists are used to starvation. The romantic idea that
artists find their greatest gratification in the mere fact that they make
art, regardless of whether they can live off it, is not only ineradicable,
it's gaining terrain. A downside of the fast wealth for a top layer in
successful dotcoms is the deterioration of working conditions in
production centers linked to the new technology. 85-hour workweeks without
overtime pay for hourly rates which are well under the equivalent in old
media industries characterize work in the 'webshops' and callcenters that
facilitate the massive transfer of information and goods via the internet.
New York University economist Andrew Ross investigated it and concluded:
"It looks as if old 'sacrificial' traditions of labor, most familiar to
artists, writers, teachers and scholars, are rapidly being moved from the
margins of the productive economy - in Bohemia and the Ivory Tower - to
core sectors of the information economy, where their artisanal or craft
mentality is become industrialized." What he means is that the cultural
model of the starving but fulfilled artist is now being employed to
convince 'knowledge workers' that they are producers of culture for whom a
high vocation and a free uninhibited life style should compensate for bad
working conditions and underpayment. 

Meanwhile, if the word culture is mentioned at all in the new economy, it
mostly means something quite different from what especially Europeans who
recall the time Ante Internet think it should mean. In the new economy
'culture' has become synonymous with brand identity. Each brand tries to
convey its own discrete 'culture', knowing that brand loyalty leads to
strong communities of dependable consumers. The jargon, which identity
consultants use to strengthen the position of their clients, is often
directly appropriated from ethnology and anthropology as is apparent from
industry hotwords like 'corporate culture' and 'cultural engagement'. 
Corinna Snyder, herself blessed with a background in anthropology, and now
manager at one of the fastest growing internet consultancies, Razorfish,
was self-critical at Tulipomania in Amsterdam: "In calling the interaction
with the Chase Manhattan Bank as figured through their website a "cultural
engagement," what do internet consultants mean? What is clear is that
although they use the vocabulary of cultural analysis, they do not use it
with the same critical sense. They don't call it a cultural engagement so
that they can start to investigate the rubrics of power and structures of
meaning that inhere in a massive multinational financial institution -
they call it a cultural engagement so that they can ascribe feeling to it
- cultural here in fact means that we don't have to look at power at all -
culture becomes then the antidote to power - they call it cultural so that
they can shape and craft it and make it themselves." 

The economy is colonizing culture. Simple economical models are being laid
over much more complex social and cultural processes. Jargon form cultural
analysis is being high-jacked to endow unilateral market propositions with
the cachet of intricate social and cultural interactions. Meanwhile, the
economization of what used to be the 'public domain' seems inadvertible.
The freely accessible space where partners in a common culture used to
gather and both experience and make that culture - the agora - is becoming
a marketplace. But culture is an interaction with rather more subtle and
multilateral mechanics than those of the 'exchange' between producers and
consumers. Participants in a culture cannot simply be equaled to buyers
and sellers. Ultimately, the colonization of the cultural domain by
commerce touches at the root of democracy. Just as the relationship
between artists and audiences comprises more than a transaction, the
relationship between citizens and their representatives differs
fundamentally from that between consumers and producers. When democracy -
this great expression of Western European culture - is being is organized
according to economical models, the dynamics of checks and balances will
change profoundly - Hanson's model of Government by Bets is a reductio ad
absurdum proof of this. Several speakers in Berlin and Amsterdam took the
new economic condition as more or less self-evident. But even
self-proclaimed British cyber communist Richard Barbrook did not ask the
million dollar question: will democracy survive its own economization? 

More and more critical media thinkers do pose this and similar questions,
at the colonization of 'their' domain, culture, by economical thinking.
They read the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal to arm
themselves against suits that won't be seen with a cultural publication
even at the dentist's. This is an international network of image-savvy
optimists in a constant state of skepticism, of people who are not
intimidated by the global corporate society, and convinced of the
opportunities open to the individual user of internet technology to work
on new forms of community, both inside and outside the commercial world.
They see how the responsibility of 'cultural agents' - about everybody
working in on-line environments - is growing by the day. You hardly meet
them in the paper world, and the gatherings they organize 'IRL' often
resemble, as media activist organizer of the Tulipomania conference Geert
Lovink put it, "views from inside the network." They disseminate their
essays through websites and mailinglists and not via newspapers and
magazines, because the language of the digital world still triggers
aversion there. A few years ago, when the divide between users and
non-users of the internet was deep, nobody really thought that was a
problem. Now that virtually everybody is visiting the internet, this
amounts to an awkward divergence of spirits. The questions posed at the
conferences in Berlin and Amsterdam do not only regard the digerati. They
touch at the heart of our culture. 

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