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Re: <nettime> The $100bn Facebook question: Will capitalism survive 'val
Prem Chandavarkar on Mon, 5 Mar 2012 04:57:33 +0100 (CET)


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Re: <nettime> The $100bn Facebook question: Will capitalism survive 'value abundance'?


Are we getting into the right issues here?  The debate seems to have moved
to the ethics of sites like Facebook and whether they are exploitative,
whereas this thread started with the question of whether capitalism will
survive a world of "value abundance".  To begin with this, my sense is that
it will.  See Kevin Kelly's essay "Better Than Free" at
http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/01/better_than_fre.php
While I do not agree with all that Kelly says, I concur with the thrust of
the argument which is that in a world of value abundance a different set of
activities will get monetized.  So it is not likely that scarcity will
disappear, it is just a question of what are the new activities that will
be scarce.

Moving on to the issue of where the thread has moved: I am not sure whether
it is productive to see the problem in terms of labor.  Lets imagine a
couple of pre-internet physical-world instances to explore this further:

INSTANCE 1:  A well-known anthropologist, tenured at a famous university,
publishes a study on the cultural life of a tribe on a little-known island
in the Pacific Ocean.  The study becomes widely known both in academic and
general circles.  The anthropologist earns substantial royalties from the
book rights.  The resultant fame creates highly paid opportunities on the
lecture circuit, and also increases the wages that the anthropologist could
demand at any reputed university.  So you can clearly say that the
anthropologist has profited very well out of this activity.  Where does the
life and labor of the Pacific island tribe fit into this?  Have they been
exploited?

INSTANCE 2: There is a well-known coffee house in a large metropolitan
city.  A company realizing that many people frequent this place decides
there is value in putting up a billboard advertising their wares on one of
the walls of the coffee house, and offers the owner of the coffee house a
substantive sum of money to do so.  The advertisement is so successful that
the advertiser offers the coffee house owner even more money for the right
to place the billboard.  Eventually the coffee house owner senses that
advertising gains him more money, and begins to offer the coffee and other
menu items for free so that more people will visit the place, and he can
earn more from the advertisements.  The basic activity in the room remains
the same: people still enjoy the coffee and conversation here, which is why
they visit; except now they no longer have to pay for the coffee.  However
the business model of the coffee house owner has completely changed.  Now
imagine this going one step further.  The advertiser realizes that if he
has more information about the kind of people who frequent the coffee
house, then he can produce better advertisements and earn a greater profit.
 So he offers the coffee house owner some more money in order to construct
and rent a high platform within the coffee house.  He posts one of his
employees to sit on this platform to watch the behavior of all the patrons
of the coffee house, and draw patterns of information from his
observations, which can be utilized to design better advertisements.  How
do the patrons of the coffee shop react when they see this man on the
platform observing them?

Each of these instances highlights some problematic issues.  The instance
of the anthropologist raises the question of opportunity symmetry.  In any
intersection of people within a space, do all the players involved operate
with the same set of possibilities being offered to them?  In this case the
answer is no - and I would cite here Edward Said's argument of Orientalism
where modernist scholars began to devote a fair level of attention to the
Orient, and this might be seen as an ethical impulse to recognize the
Orient.  However this attention is found to be based on the portrayal of
the Oriental as an exotic other who does not have a voice and therefore
requires the Occidental scholar to speak on their behalf.  The scholar
enjoys all the freedom, mobility and possibilities that modernity offers.
 These benefits can be preserved only if the Oriental is retained as an
exotic other, for the scholar's intellectual production depends on this.
 For this two operations are necessary.  Firstly, the discourse is
constructed in terms that only permit intellectual rationality, and any
other mode of thought is dismissed as myth or folklore and therefore not
worthy of entering the discourse; so an Oriental presence in the discourse
requires another voice to speak on the Oriental's behalf.  And secondly,
the exoticism of the Orient is romanticized and portrayed as desirable, and
therefore the Oriental should seek to preserve and remain within that
world, and should not desire the options available to the modern Occidental
scholar.  The point of whether the Oriental finds his/her cultural world
desirable is not the key point - what matters is whether he/she is given
the option of remaining within this world or choosing other worlds.  This
asymmetry is to be found in virtual spaces like Facebook.  The Facebooker's
opportunities of friendship and networking are romanticized and constructed
as desirable - and they may indeed find this desirable.  But if one says
that Facebook is actually a space, there are other people present in that
space: the owners of the space and the advertisers in it.  These people
have a set of economic opportunities that are not available to the average
Facebooker.  In fact the world of Facebook is based on maintaining this
divide: a small set of people who have tremendous economic opportunity, and
a large set of people who have no economic opportunity, but their cultural
opportunities are romanticized to the point where it is perceived that this
is all they should desire, and the question of their desire for economic
opportunity within this space does not enter the horizon of perceptions.
 Now it may be argued that everyone is making their choice, and is getting
something from that choice.  The problem is that in an unregulated space
power gravitates to those with the greatest economic opportunity.
 Asymmetries of opportunity create asymmetries of power.  And in this
asymmetry of power, the notion of human engagement (friendship) is shifted
from its central position of being one of the building blocks of culture
towards the margin where it is just a zone for economic appropriation.

Let us move on to examining the second instance of the coffee house.  Here
the problem is one of authentication of presence - a problem that is
central to virtual worlds.  Take the example of a shop selling pornography.
 In the physical world, if an eight-year-old girl walks into the
pornography shop, the sheer physicality of her being authenticates her
presence there, and the inappropriateness of her presence is immediately
apparent to all.  But when she visits the same store in its online version,
her presence has a level of invisibility to it, and assessing
inappropriateness becomes problematic.  So returning to the coffee house
example: if the patrons of the coffee shop see a man on a platform
observing them they are likely to find that uncomfortable.  The allure of
the coffee shop may be its anonymity; you go there to find relief from the
other spaces where you spend most of your time: the spaces of home and work
where you are always under the judgmental or expectant gaze of parent,
spouse or boss.  You find the coffee house is a space where you are freed
from any gaze, and therefore you can engage with your fellow beings with a
level of freedom that you cannot find elsewhere.  And this freedom allows
you to construct your sense of self to a level of potential that you would
not achieve if you were denied this anonymity.  But if you suddenly find
that in the coffee house there is a man on a platform watching you, your
opinion of the coffee house would most likely change, and you will start
seeking this anonymity and freedom elsewhere.  If the man who watches you
has no choice but to sit on a platform in the same space, his presence is
unavoidably authenticated.  You can then take his presence into account in
making your choices.  But if he moves behind a one-way mirror where you
cannot see him, then is this now an ethical situation?  You go to the
coffee house for a certain purpose, but this purpose is being denied to you
without your knowing it.  And in the virtual world the one-way mirror is
the rule rather than the exception, which is why people like Lawrence
Lessig have argued that cyberspace needs its own specific laws.

So the problem really revolves around opportunity symmetries and the
authentication of presence - and this problem comes into sharper focus when
we realize that cyberspace is in some ways similar to physical space.  It
devolves into hierarchies of space, with one major component of this
hierarchy being a split into a private realm and a  public realm.  The
expectations imposed on the behavior of yourself and others change
drastically depending on where in this hierarchy you find yourself.  If you
are in your own private space, you have a freedom of behavior that you
would not claim elsewhere, but when someone else enters your private realm
it is expected that they will adjust their behavior to the codes and
expectations of the owner of this realm.  And you would accept a similar
limitation on yourself, when you step into a private realm that belongs to
someone else.  So within the private realm the host and the guest are not
subjected to the same expectations, and this asymmetry of expectations is
considered acceptable and normal.  But when you step into the public realm
you are less willing to tolerate asymmetries of expectation.  You believe
everyone should have the same rights and opportunities in the public realm.
 And this is possible only when everyone's presence is adequately
authenticated.

Similarly, on the internet it is accepted that in privately owned spaces
such as a personal or corporate webpage the owner of the space and the
visitor to the space are not subjected to the same expectations and have
different levels of opportunity offered to them.  So this brings us to the
question: what is the public realm on the internet?  In the physical city
the answer is visible and apparent: the public realm consists of the
streets, plazas, parks and other spaces that belong to that abstract
institutional entity called the government, and the government is supposed
to belong to everybody ("of the people, by the people, and for the
people"), so therefore the public realm belongs to everybody.  Therefore it
is expected that equality and symmetry of opportunity ensues to all in the
public realm.  Given that most websites are privately owned, the equivalent
notion of public space is not so visible in cyberspace.

To resolve this we need to extend the analogy of physical space, and
realize that public space does not just mean the absence of private
ownership.  The public realm of the city or village forms the connective
tissue that brings the multiple private realms to cohere into some notion
of culture and society.  Public space also performs a civic role: it
connects people, brings them to engage with each other, and this connective
engagement is the building block of culture, society and economy.  So if
you wish to construct an inclusive society, you need to ensure through the
rule of law that any space that forms a part of this connective
infrastructure must offer equality of opportunity.  Once you assign central
importance to connective infrastructure, the dividing line between public
ownership and private ownership of space becomes blurred.  A space could be
privately owned, but if the owner decides to make this space usable as a
part of the connective infrastructure, it is expected that the equality of
opportunity available in publicly owned space will also become available
here.  For example, a person may operate a restaurant in a privately owned
space, but it is considered reasonable that the law stipulates that
allowing or denying admission cannot be done on the basis of racial origin.
 It has also been widely argued that the 2008 financial debacle was a
regulatory failure, and banks form part of the connective infrastructure,
so should be subjective to regulatory controls that other corporates may
not be subjected to.

Websites such as Facebook or Google clearly project themselves as forming
the connective infrastructure of cyberspace.  So it should follow that they
should be subjected to regulatory control that may be different from the
controls that other cyberspaces are subject to.  And these controls should
demand certain thresholds on equality of opportunity and authentication of
presence.

All this implies that spaces that form connective infrastructure should be
subjected to the demands of human rights.  This spatialization of rights is
a terrain that has not been adequately explored.  We tend to treat the idea
of human rights as axiomatic, but often forget that its history is very
recent.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights happened only in 1948,
and in historical terms sixty four years is an extremely short duration for
the development of a political ideal.  The notion of human rights existed
much earlier, but before 1948 was typically construed as selective and not
universal.  So you would have countries with established doctrines of human
rights, that at the same time indulged in colonization or failed to
implement laws that controlled widely institutionalized racism.  The
compulsion to perceive human rights as universal is a process that began
only in 1948.  And the development and ratification of the subsequent
covenants on civil, political, economic, social and political rights took
another 28 years achieving completion only in 1976.

Human rights remain an abstract ideal, and are concretized in daily life
only once there is a spatial entity that enforces them, and one's location
within that spatial entity is formally recognized by others.  This brings
us to the question of what level in the spatial hierarchy should rights be
recognized.  So far, they have been recognized only at one level: the
nation state.  To achieve this recognition the nation state has to choose
to imagine itself as an inclusive, non-hierarchical, secular and ethical
community.  This is a deliberate choice that must be made, and as is
apparent not every nation has opted for this choice.  But those nations
that have made this choice seek to construct themselves on the foundations
of democracy, constitutional protection of rights, rule of law and an
institutionalized system of checks and balances (legislature, executive,
judiciary and free press).

The problem is that the nation state is typically a complex, geographically
dispersed and highly heterogenous territory.  This makes it difficult to
evolve any doctrine of rights that is integrated with daily routine.  At
the level of the nation state, one can only devolve mechanisms for
redressing the violation of rights (and this redressal could take place at
many levels).  But if we seek to prevent the violation of rights we have to
bring this notion of rights to the spaces of daily life: the spaces that
form the connective infrastructure of our cities, villages, and (in recent
years) the internet.  These spaces have to also make the choice of
imagining themselves as inclusive, non-hierarchical, secular and ethical
communities.  And if they are to connect with a doctrine of rights at the
level of the nation state, it will be necessary to force this imagining
through the rule of law.  And if this is the way we will have to imagine
ourselves, we must devote our attention to the spatial, political and legal
theory that derives from this.


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