October 09, 2010

Modelling Social Architecture, Network Topologies and The City

It is important, then, to disaggregate the social make-up of cities, so that we can begin to trace the positions of different groups within the emerging urban social architecture of cyberspace (see Castells 1996b: 371). Three broad groups, we would argue, are likely to emerge here. First, elite groups seem likely to be the ‘information users’ (Dordick et al. 1988) experiencing the full benefits of global, interactive telematics systems like the Internet. There is substantial evidence that a new ‘transnational corporate class’ is emerging which is the primary agent of operating the global economy, and which relies on intense mobility and access to interactive global computer networks on a continuous basis to ‘command space’ (Sklair 1991:62–71). Friedmann (1995) argues that the emergence of such groups in western cities needs to be seen as an integral element within a worldwide shift towards the emergence of global spaces of capital accumulation, dominated by transnational corporations (TNCs) and their associated social elites. This transnational elite group consists of

"those who are both doing the moving and the communicating and who are in some way in a position of control in relation to it…. These are the groups who are really, in a sense, in charge of time- space compression, who can effectively use it and turn it to their advantage." (Massey 1993:61)

In effect, computer networks allow such groups to extend their ‘personal extensability’ through electronic means, by being electronically present in other, distant places to undertake transactions, maintain social relations, extend their political power and access information (Adams 1995). Elite executives, to some extent, can now ‘live where they choose and still remain plugged into the economic mainstream’ (Leinberger 1994:51). Such elite, transnational groups seem likely to experience interactive, empowering models of electronic democracy, as the new class strives to be ‘internally egalitarian and communitarian, and externally effective in exercising political and economic power’ (Calabrese and Borchert 1996:250).

Second, there are the lower strata of less affluent and mobile wage earners, who seem more likely to be, as Dordick et al. (1988) put it, ‘the information used’—experiencing different technological topologies: hierarchical systems geared towards narrow, passive consumption. Access for these groups to anarchic, non-hierarchical and interactive networks such as the Internet is likely to be outweighed by the growth of consumption-driven, home telematics systems which embody ‘high degrees of hierarchical control’, interactivity largely limited to ‘press now to purchase’ buttons, and ‘high bandwidth downstream flows and low bandwidth upstream flows’ (Calabrese and Borchert 1996). This ‘consumer model’ of the ‘Information Superhighway’ will have only limited capability for interactivity supporting the development of horizontal discourses:

"wage earners, the precariously employed and the unemployed will interact infrequently on the horizontal dimension, except primarily in commercial modes which are institutionally and hierarchically structured, and controlled for commercial purposes such as games and shopping, and also do more routine forms of telework. The low spatial mobility of lower strata will be mirrored by low network mobility and limited perceived prospects for using the available network resources for creative expression or upward mobility, and by limited felt need for horizontal and upstream communication flows beyond those which are structured for commercial purposes or for the accessing of social services where they are available." (Calabrese and Borchert 1996:253)

The current frenzy of global alliances and mergers between TV, Internet, cable, telecoms, film, publishing, advertising and newspaper industries must be seen in this context, as sectors jostle to take commanding positions within a global set of information infrastructures, geared toward exploiting and commodifying the information, media and cultural industries, and offering homebased consumer services (Schiller 1996; Hamelink 1995). The commercialisation of the Internet, the development of electronic transaction and financial systems, and the emergence of commercial, off-the-shelf Internet packages geared to consumption, shopping and entertainment, are all part of its shift toward a ‘consumer’ model information highway driven by ‘pay-per’ electronic consumption (Baran 1996).

Finally, of course, in the ‘off-line’, marginalised spaces of cities there will be disadvantaged groups living in poverty and structural unemployment who seem likely to be excluded altogether from electronic networks. Here, poverty and unemployment mean that access to any electronic network at all, from the phone upwards, will be financially problematic. Infrastructure providers are unlikely to target new investment in such spaces. In the context where certain neighbourhoods in western cities have been shown to have only 30 per cent phone penetration (Graham and Marvin 1996) the inclusionary rhetoric of the ‘Information Superhighway’ seems somewhat hollow for the most disadvantaged areas of cities. In fact, ‘in the electronic ghettoes’, writes Nigel Thrift (1995:31) ‘the space of flows comes to a full stop. Time-space compression means time to spare and the space to go nowhere at all’.

In such spaces, efforts to get lower income groups on to the interactive and discourse-driven Internet will continually have to address difficult issues. At the very least there are likely to be competing priorities, costly training needs, crime problems, relatively low levels of English literacy, issues of technological intimidation, the rapid obsolescence of technologies and the high costs of continually upgrading software to meet the latest industry standards (Sparrow and Vedantham 1996). Moreover, the relevance of Internet access can often be questioned for those facing the most severe social crises. ‘Just giving someone time at a terminal with Internet capabilities—or, by extension, at a kiosk in a public place—will not benefit anyone who feels confronted with a seemingly insurmountable problem, or who has no idea where to begin’ (Rockoff 1996:59).

From : Loader, Brian D. (ed.). Cyberspace Divide: Equality, Agency and Policy in The Information Society. Routledge. (page : 63-66)

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