We turn now from contextual summaries of broad topics to more specific analyses of focused problems. The case in point this week is the curious interplay of market and economic themes in discourses and studies of the internet. There are several fascinating phenomena associated with the rise of the internet as a platform for trade as well as communication and computation. These, however, have roots that run deeper than their own emergence, in the economic and historical conditions that undergird the internet’s development. As trade and commerce proliferate online, they mimic (at least at first) the structure and behavior of their non-internet predecessors, which themselves must shift or extend their positions to accomodate this competition. As internet markets continue to grow and find their own forms, their effects on their non-internetted counterparts deepens. And as financial instruments and economic models become more closely attuned to internet machinations, it becomes easier – from a cultural or social standpoint – to overlook the most obvious historical and global correlations to this situation.
Among the many phenomena that mark the internet’s relationship to economics and markets, three in particular stand out. Dependence on algorthmic trading — the use of predictive and analytical formulae to determine the best course of individual action and decision-making — extends far beyond internet use. Its prominence in stock, bond, futures, and other markets leads to ever-increasing complexity, as any given actor ought to account for the algorithmic behavior of any other, algorithmically. A related boom has taken place in artificial collective intelligence and machine learning, where behaviors and choices made by individual actors can be aggregated and analyzed. This teaches the very platforms on which internet markets are built how to respond, suggest, and lead to individual behaviors in the future. Finally, industrial-scale production of industrial-scale technologies — computers and programs beyond the commodity hardware available to mass-market consumers — becomes the backbone of internet economies. Yet such production takes place often at distant removes from the industries that depend on its consumption.
This distance finds reflection in the rampant, often speculative investments in and on technology holdings. Bubbles arise where financial products rely on technological sophistication beyond human control. Yet the fact that investors require advanced computation to make decisions draws further investment into the sector as a whole. Seen in this light, when asset companies — those startups whose main value comes from their human capital rather than their products or services — proliferate, disproportionally to traditionally modeled businesses, their over-valuations seem less rash. Still, our ability to accurately assess and analyze the value of high-tech labor falls continually into question on this basis. And labor takes a huge variety of often-obscured forms in this realm. Its common misrepresentation as uncomplicated socialization or communication is one reason that the FCC and FTC cannot agree on whose jurisdiction the internet falls under.
One of the most common euphemisms for the internet’s transformation of labor, e-commerce, carries a vast range of implications. The list includes Whatever-as-a-Service (Xaas), social gaming, and online retail, and offline sales of technology products that quickly grow obsolete. Pornography deserves its own post in this series, both for its economic and political scopes, and for its troubled yet entrenched cultural status. Digital currency (eg bitcoin) markets are slowly recovering from their unstable entry into the global financial mainstream. The unctuous domain name registration and trade have new fecundity on IPv6, now that non-Latin names are for sale. Management consultancy also finds opportunity online, especially through SEO and social media marketing. And, in appropriately hushed tones, vast economies of waste grow alongside these other industries. The removal and recycling of high-tech hardware complements the swift obsolescence and deprecation of software. When computing’s detritus ships to Ghana from the U.S., for example, it can be melted down in acrid, smoking heaps, salvageable metal hiding in its ashes for those brave enough to find it.
The most obvious names (to some circles) engendered by such an image are the least obvious to others: postcoloniality, globalization, neoliberalism, post-Fordism, or late capital. All these describe the general economic conditions under which markets emerge and operate. They also name the political, social, and historical conditions under which the internet itself developed — indeed, under which it was possible for such a thing to occur at all. Whatever its name, this formation structures how we think through, and study, the internet. In particular, drives me to investigate labor, in the strong sense, of what work goes into value on (or in or for or of or or or…) the internet. Concomitant with that impulse, however, comes the recognition that just as contemporary global conditions of capital structure the internet’s existence and manifest connections between disparate actors around the world in its development, the same conditions obscure those connections by emphasizing superficial commercial discourses.
So this series confronts a material contradiction that escapes these categories of technical and economic thought. Something political, cultural, social — borderline spiritual — also factors into common senses of the internet as a marketplace. To manage this, we must continually attend to the communicative, mediating aspects of the internet. We must remember the questions of identity, anonymity, and pseudonymity that persist in the midst of and behind monetary relationships. At its base, the internet cannot reduce into a public sphere, because capital and technology both complicate who can speak beyond those questions of publicity and publication. Further, the presence of an internet, or of access or connection to it, does not equate to agency. The next post will address these issues, in a first attempt to synthesize this writing so far, after which we will press on into yet more uneven terrain.