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Bell’s Narrative of Political Economy: More Human than Consuming

After reading Bell’s “Storing cyberspace 1: material and symbolic stories” and watching the three segments of the Bendito Machine series, I am beginning to see dystopian worldviews shrouded in the language of political and economic communities. Bell quotes Dodge and Kitchin (2001), when he defines the political economic position of cyberspace as “the relationship between technology and society is bound up with capitalist modes of production and the associated political, economic and social relations which underlie capitalism- a particular way of, then of talking about what it is” (Bell, 16). The Bendito Machine episodes certainly seem to ascribe to this view of cyberspace (technology in general) as one of political economy, where consumption and control of resources and programming equate to political authority.

However, I am most intrigued with Bell’s assertion that this discussion “grinds the hype about cyberspace in facts and figures: (16). He goes on to mention the running figures and statistics that are obsolete the minute they appear; the legions of users who need to be updated daily or weekly (how quaint a thought!) to keep track of the growth of cyberspace. It this narrative of political economy, I think, that has proven most explanatory to many people. Statistics don’t lie, except when they do. However, I liken the statistical information used in explaining the growth of cyberspace to news that a baby was born at such and such a weight, or that the world’s tallest building now has X number of stories. It is conceptual, yes, but it is merely descriptive. The narrative of statistics is linked to the narrative of consumption and this is used often to conceptually explain the growth of cyberspace, as pure market forces enacting their pushes and pulls.

This strikes me as incomplete (nor would Bell espouse using this as one’s sole explanatory criterion); it negates the humanity (post or otherwise) of the interactions in digital culture. As much economic theory does, being disciplinary, it sees human interactions as merely market forces enacting on society. This seems to be insufficient an explanation for the growth of cyberspace and its digital culture. Are our motivations merely extensions of capitalist consumption? Are these information transactions driven by need and want at the expense of giving? Are digital economies of information exchanges devoid of the digital facet of community?

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85GwHtzgE48[/youtube]

The video above visualizes data as form, breathes meaning into statistics. However, it is a narrative of consumption to some degree. However, the flow of information maps perfectly to the flow of human enterprise, restless motion, scurrying, reorganzing, but always in flux.

I suspect not, nor is Bell making this case. As with much of dystopian work on cyberspace, it is the economic elements that rise to the top as it represents a familiar narrative, one with a readily established real-world precedent. Yet, I suspect, the classification we use to describe information online is askew; we liken it to a luxury product or a holiday in the tropics: nice but superfluous. Perhaps we would be better served by balancing the symbolic cyberpunk narratives of post-modernist digital culture with viewing information as basic necessity, a lower rung on Maslow’s hierarchy. Information is water, food, shelter, necessary to the existence of humanity. Information, and the digital culture in which it is encapsulated in, is decidedly human.

Bell, D (2001) Storying cyberspace 1: material and symbolic stories, chapter 2 of An introduction to cybercultures. Abingdon: Routledge. pp6-29.

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About Author

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

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