De Groene Amsterdammer
volume 124, issue 32, 12 august 2000

The New Culture?
The New Economy!
Max Bruinsma
Chris Keulemans

Much to their own surprise, more and more artists, cultural critics, and their likes scrutinize the economy pages of their newspapers. Less than a decade ago, they would have admitted only to have stumbled across them at the dentist's waiting room table. This new interest of cultured folks for such base things as money has less to do with curiosity than with sheer necessity. Whoever wants to follow the development of new media and communications technologies - and no-one in the cultural field can afford to ignore it - has no choice: the real news on this subject is in the financial pages, not in the cultural sections.

Actually, it's quite odd that discussions about, for instance, the possible split-up of Microsoft aren't taking place in the cultural supplements as well. Isn't it is obvious that an application like Windows doesn't merely have an economical impact but a rather profound cultural one as well? The latter aspect is conspicuously absent from the discourse. It's all about stuff (broadband mobile telephones! Interactive TV! Online personal assistants!) and about what it's going to cost us. Much less attention is given to what we're going to do with all this gadgetry, and how this technology is going to influence our cultural interactions. Will this new technology truly emancipate the citizens of the global village, or will it relegate them more and more to being passive consumers under the flack of an explosively growing artillery of buying impulses? The interest invested in the economical aspects of technological change hugely outweighs the attention given to its cultural aspects.

Dutch State Secretary for Culture, Rick van der Ploeg, himself a seasoned economist, seemed to argue along similar lines when he stated recently that "technological matters are usually high-jacked by the technocrats of the economical department. But artists and creatives might as well be driving this field". He spoke at a congress in Amsterdam about the 'new economy', Tulipomania dotcom. Interestingly, this one was not organized by market analysts and representatives of start-ups and dotcoms, but by a group of cultural critics and media activists, loosely connected to Nettime, an internet forum that critically follows the social, cultural and political effects of new technology.

Was it a coincidence that this was the second congress within a month about aspects of the 'new economy' that brought together young cultural digerati from all over Europe and the United States? A month ago, they assembled in Berlin, at Monomedia. This conference, themed Value, was organized by Willem Velthoven, principal of webdesign consultancy Mediamatic in Amsterdam, and professor Multimedia at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin. "Maybe it's not an appealing perspective to live amongst websites," Velthoven said to an audience of web designers, media theoreticians and artists, "but this is where our society is going, and a lot of those present here share a responsibility for that. Each day, we change the world with our work. Whenever we design a website for the city we're living in, we redesign our community and our politics. Each e-commerce site is a redesign of trade. Each intranet we roll out is a redesign of labor".

With this, the fundamental questions for the cultural-political avant-garde are on the table. What Velthoven describes has profound cultural implications, but the discourse is conducted almost exclusively in terms of economy. Robin Hanson, an economist who radiated in Berlin as if he had just been infused with Helium, stated with ruthless glee that someone can only make a contribution to society unless they succeed in putting it on the market. And he added: money makes for honesty. People who have nothing at stake may say anything, but they truly speak their mind only when there's money to be gained - or lost. That is why Hanson proposed a new system; Futarchy, government by bets. People stake real money on tricky problems such as gun control or the intervention in Kossovo, and the market decides: the option that is most sensible for the market, wins. A rather bizarre aspect of this betting model from a democratic viewpoint is that the smaller the minority that is proved right by the market, the more it cashes in! Hanson was not distracted by such details; the success of his model in the new economy of venture capitalists and day traders, where investing in technological development indeed more and more resembles a day at the races, was enough for him.

In Amsterdam, at Tulipomania, Maastricht based economist Robin Cowan explained how the new economy works: "Knowledge is difficult to produce, but very easy to reproduce. When knowledge is turned into products, like in most software, competition becomes: getting there first. It’s not about making the best product anymore, it's about setting the standard. The new economy is a winner-takes-all economy, with very high-risk investments. Research and development becomes like a lottery. The first to come up with a marketable product has the jackpot." This is, of course, not completely true - see Netscape: the first, the best, the looser -, but what is true about it clearly has social and cultural consequences. The fact that the potential for fast and huge profits has been democratized greatly, and that the stock exchange has become accessible for all, does not mean that everybody profits. Meanwhile, this 'mainstreet capitalism' engenders an economization, and thereby a narrowing down, of the cultural and social debate. What values do we represent when all value has become measurable? Is the only answer to the question of how government will organize and distribute scarce ether 'real estate': $ 10 billion in the Netherlands? The obsession with the outrageous profits that can be made in the new economy clouds the view on what is of real value. Steve Cisler, writer and internet analyst from Silicon Valley, remarked in Amsterdam: "In the overstressed economy, where the flipside of high profits is high risk, only the highest revenue fields attract the investment. Areas like education, culture and care, which are less profitable, lag behind."

This becomes painfully clear when one compares investments made in technological infrastructure to those made in the cultural use and investigation of that infrastructure. Government and private funding of cultural endeavors in the field of new media do not even remotely match the high spirited intentions uttered by both government and corporate officials. In the Netherlands, in spite of lipservice to pleas from the cultural field for support, there is hardly any real effort made to compensate for the technological disadvantage in this area. The above mentioned State Secretary for Culture, Van der Ploeg, deliberates upon raising the cultural budget with around $ 15 million - a mere one point five per mil of what alone the auctioning of broadband mobile telephone frequencies in the Netherlands promised to bring in! The fact that these UMTS frequencies actually have been auctioned off for less than a third of this greedily anticipated amount confronts us with the raw facts: that the only thought that governs the sale of public space is money, and that the potential use of that same space is left to private enterprise, a realm that knows no motives outside economical ones. Thus culture has no choice, it seems, than to follow economics. Too bad if it can't keep up the pace.

But after all, artists are used to starvation. The romantic idea that artists find their greatest gratification in the mere fact that they make art, regardless of whether they can live off it, is not only ineradicable, it's gaining terrain. A downside of the fast wealth for a top layer in successful dotcoms is the deterioration of working conditions in production centers linked to the new technology. 85-hour workweeks without overtime pay for hourly rates which are well under the equivalent in old media industries characterize work in the 'webshops' and callcenters that facilitate the massive transfer of information and goods via the internet. New York University economist Andrew Ross investigated it and concluded: "It looks as if old 'sacrificial' traditions of labor, most familiar to artists, writers, teachers and scholars, are rapidly being moved from the margins of the productive economy – in Bohemia and the Ivory Tower – to core sectors of the information economy, where their artisanal or craft mentality is become industrialized." What he means is that the cultural model of the starving but fulfilled artist is now being employed to convince 'knowledge workers' that they are producers of culture for whom a high vocation and a free uninhibited life style should compensate for bad working conditions and underpayment.

Meanwhile, if the word culture is mentioned at all in the new economy, it mostly means something quite different from what especially Europeans who recall the time Ante Internet think it should mean. In the new economy 'culture' has become synonymous with brand identity. Each brand tries to convey its own discrete 'culture', knowing that brand loyalty leads to strong communities of dependable consumers. The jargon, which identity consultants use to strengthen the position of their clients, is often directly appropriated from ethnology and anthropology as is apparent from industry hotwords like 'corporate culture' and 'cultural engagement'. Corinna Snyder, herself blessed with a background in anthropology, and now manager at one of the fastest growing internet consultancies, Razorfish, was self-critical at Tulipomania in Amsterdam: "In calling the interaction with the Chase Manhattan Bank as figured through their website a “cultural engagement,” what do internet consultants mean? What is clear is that although they use the vocabulary of cultural analysis, they do not use it with the same critical sense. They don’t call it a cultural engagement so that they can start to investigate the rubrics of power and structures of meaning that inhere in a massive multinational financial institution – they call it a cultural engagement so that they can ascribe feeling to it – cultural here in fact means that we don’t have to look at power at all – culture becomes then the antidote to power – they call it cultural so that they can shape and craft it and make it themselves."

The economy is colonizing culture. Simple economical models are being laid over much more complex social and cultural processes. Jargon form cultural analysis is being high-jacked to endow unilateral market propositions with the cachet of intricate social and cultural interactions. Meanwhile, the economization of what used to be the 'public domain' seems inadvertible. The freely accessible space where partners in a common culture used to gather and both experience and make that culture - the agora - is becoming a marketplace. But culture is an interaction with rather more subtle and multilateral mechanics than those of the 'exchange' between producers and consumers. Participants in a culture cannot simply be equaled to buyers and sellers. Ultimately, the colonization of the cultural domain by commerce touches at the root of democracy. Just as the relationship between artists and audiences comprises more than a transaction, the relationship between citizens and their representatives differs fundamentally from that between consumers and producers. When democracy - this great expression of Western European culture - is being is organized according to economical models, the dynamics of checks and balances will change profoundly - Hanson's model of Government by Bets is a reductio ad absurdum proof of this. Several speakers in Berlin and Amsterdam took the new economic condition as more or less self-evident. But even self-proclaimed British cyber communist Richard Barbrook did not ask the million dollar question: will democracy survive its own economization?

More and more critical media thinkers do pose this and similar questions, at the colonization of 'their' domain, culture, by economical thinking. They read the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal to arm themselves against suits that won't be seen with a cultural publication even at the dentist's. This is an international network of image-savvy optimists in a constant state of skepticism, of people who are not intimidated by the global corporate society, and convinced of the opportunities open to the individual user of internet technology to work on new forms of community, both inside and outside the commercial world. They see how the responsibility of 'cultural agents' - about everybody working in on-line environments - is growing by the day. You hardly meet them in the paper world, and the gatherings they organize 'IRL' often resemble, as media activist organizer of the Tulipomania conference Geert Lovink put it, "views from inside the network." They disseminate their essays through websites and mailinglists and not via newspapers and magazines, because the language of the digital world still triggers aversion there. A few years ago, when the divide between users and non-users of the internet was deep, nobody really thought that was a problem. Now that virtually everybody is visiting the internet, this amounts to an awkward divergence of spirits. The questions posed at the conferences in Berlin and Amsterdam do not only regard the digerati. They touch at the heart of our culture.

© max bruinsma / chris keulemans