steve beard on 30 Sep 2000 03:55:05 -0000

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<nettime> Paul Virilio vs Seth Godin

Please find enclosed the text of an article that has just appeared in 
issue 18 of the UK "Critical/Information/Services" magazine Mute:

Dromographic Stress Disorder: How E-Commerce Makes Survivors of Us All

by Steve Beard20

Does Paul Virilio still have something to say about cyberspace now it 
has morphed from an electronic frontier into a 24/7 automated trading 
post? The wily French theorist has always been a bit of a doom-monger 
when it comes to new media but he has also been highly adept at making 
connections between the seductions of platform portability and the 
dangers of reflex cognitive-behavioural conditioning (have you checked 
your email/mobile/stock price yet? how long before you reply to an 
electronic message? the interval defines a breathing space). In fact his 
particular brand of apocalyptic Catholic moralising means he positively 
relishes the darkside of the virtual force.

Virilio is the electronic desert prophet constantly warning of the 
"generalised accident" which waits at the end of the technological 
curve. In the dark days of nuclear deterrence this used to be the threat 
of extermination posed by the atomic bomb. But in the new times of 
engineered virtual enlightenment it is the "information bomb" which 
apparently threatens to exterminate us in something like a global stock 
market annihilation. Virilio is the great annunciator of the 
technological endtime, but as demand-management economist Joseph Maynard 
Keynes remarked long ago in the long term we are all dead anyway (life 
is determined by human reproduction and not by technological evolution).

Virilio's new book The Information Bomb (Verso) is full of dire auguries 
and sees him beginning to clear new ground with distant early warnings 
about the dangers of genetic engineering. But it his pronouncements on 
the domain of e-commerce or what he calls the "global perception market" 
which are most interesting. Virilio's theoretical roots in Edmund 
Husserl and the French school of phenomenology means he is particularly 
well placed to understand that, as a post-nuclear medium of parallel 
processing and networked communication, the internet not only bypasses 
any root node of strategic command-and-control but also over-exposes the 
distributed perceptual cues of the survivors we have all become. In this 
scenario the spooky Echelon surveillance system is merely a 
retro-nuclear nostalgia cult while it is the live web-cams which dot the 
net which are actually doing the real business of turning us all into 
each other's keepers by heralding privileged "points of view" as future 
"points of sale" (get your JenniCam T-shirts here).

Virilio himself may be nostalgic for what he regards as the unmediated 
sustainability of an inhabitable ecological niche, but he also 
understands that the information landscape is delivered through the 
"instantaneous superimposition of actual and virtual images." In other 
words, he understands that the web is a pure advertising medium whose 
condition of entry is that objects should become commodity-signs in an 
ecstatic cult of self-reflexive mourning. "Actual" things doubled up as 
their own "virtual" effigies are like like second-hand items displayed 
in heat-sealed plastic bags: they recover a margin of untouchability 
whose fetishistic allure begins to incite the fashionable to play the 
familiar game of provoking death. From here on in it's all really just a 
matter of joining new media whores to old media punters through the data 
revenue stream generated by a transaction. What this means in banal 
terms is a movement towards the discipline of electronic customer 
relationship management and Virilio begins to hook up from the other 
side of his cautionary analysis (and probably much to his horror) with a 
gung-ho digital marketing guru like Seth Godin.

Godin is the Vice President of Direct Marketing at the American portal 
Yahoo! and the author of the cult manual Permission Marketing: Turning 
Strangers into Friends and Friends into Customers (Simon & Schuster). He 
has argued persuasively that older media like magazines, radio and 
television depended upon a model of "interruption marketing" in which 
advertising messages appeared in the intervals between the flow of 
content. The web however explodes the interval into a new spacetime of 
instantaneous ubiquity in which the important thing for traffic analysts 
is not to increase click-through rates but to "make each click worth 
more." The click defines a hyper attention deficit which is capable of 
being leveraged by a new science of cognitive-behavioural therapy into 
an engineered perception of brand value.

Godin acknowledges that the basis of permission marketing is "trust" and 
insists that "you can't market at people anymore: you have to market 
with them." What makes this functional are the new techniques of data 
collection and analysis which allow the sustainability of engineered 
perceptual cues to be measured over the "lifetime value of the average 
customer." Virilio takes a less sanguine view of this kind of tactical 
databody capture when he links it to the commercial applications of the 
human genome map as a form of "cybernetic eugenicism". But what is 
fascinating is how far ahead the American is of Virilio's own thinking. 
Godin insists that interruption marketing is not web-friendly because it 
depends upon the one-to-many massifications of "demographic reach" 
whereas the secret of permission marketing is the one-to-one 
personalisation afforded by "frequency" (As he says: "Ten TV ads cost 
ten times as much as one TV ad. That's why permission marketers tend to 
focus on reach not frequency. But on the net frequency is free. The 
people who subscribe to your newsletter get it from you every week and 
it costs you nothing to send it out. Digital media have zero marginal 
cost and infinite potential frequency"). It is here that Godin sketches 
out a science of "dromographics" which succeeds Virilio's own art of 

"Dromographics" might be considered the science of modelling relative 
analogue speed vectors within a digital spacetime whose absolute limit 
is defined by the speed of ones and zeros travelling along a fibre-optic 
cable. (Information now travels at the speed of light unlike the human 
capacity to process it.) In this sense Godin boundary-rides the flight 
of perceptions within Virilio's "light-time" of networked electronic 
commerce. Emergent platforms, file formats and protocols like WAP and 
MP3 in this scenario become technological vehicles which abstract the 
flux of disintermediated intersubjective communication in order to 
deliver new possibility spaces for arresting the structural play of 
value. This moment of totemic arrest can be identified as a "hit" or a 
"meme" or a "trend" and at the moment its sequencing still ghosts the 
older rites of negative taboo whose contours persist like core memory 
dumps in the information landscape (Virilio lists some of them as 
Heaven's Gate, Sensation!, Rape in the Highlands, the Museum of 
Eroticism and transgressive body art).

But it seems that more familiar rites of positive taboo like the gift 
are just as effective for supporting the extraction of surplus value. 
Godin suggests that the web user will be gratified to offer up 
information about themselves in return for something like a free sample, 
a big discount or even a commodity up for grabs within a specified 
interval like a download time or an hour of the day. This however is no 
cybernetic registration of a communist utopia (English cyber-cult 
scholar Richard Barbrook's late notion of "cyber-communism" as an 
"evolving synthesis of gift and commodity within the net" is naturally a 
transparent apology for the Blairite mixed economy). Instead it 
reinscribes the circuit of profitable exchange within a post-nuclear 
medium by liquidating its depreciating military-industrial stockpiles of 
sink capital and reserve labour and flipping them into a chaotic regime 
of digital recombination where capital becomes human and labour becomes 
symbolic. What Virilio seems reluctant to admit is that when the nuclear 
apocalypse failed to occur it precisely detonated the information bomb 
within whose global impact zone of mutually assured production we all 
now compete. All of which is perhaps only another way of saying that the 
sticky path through the jungle of e-commerce leads directly from the 
start-up dream of an Initial Public Offering into the Xanadu of an 
interactive fall-out shelter. It looks as if advancing a credible exit 
strategy really is the only way of receding the symptoms of dromographic 
stress disorder.

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