Culturally speaking, mobile phone companies look set to be the oil companies of the twenty-first century: vast, arrogant, lumbering businesses, that make money without even trying, and colonise virgin territories without much permission. Long before the Jont Orange horrors, there was the sickening O2 Wireless Festival (featuring a VIP platform, open only to O2 customers) and the invented Vodafone Live Music Awards, whose main award appears to be 'Best Live Return', thereby offering centre stage to some Richard Ashcroft tribute act known as The Verve.
Whether the consuming public shares my distate for this is open to question of course. But I suspect that there might be a structural economic reason why mobile phone companies are quite so uniquely awful in their encroachment upon our cultural lives.*
Communication is of course the oxygen of the networked digital age [O2 execs nod sagely...]. In the analogue age, different technologies supported different genres of communication. Television was for broadcasts, telephones were for speaking, walkmen were for music, and so on. Today, there is simply data floating around between various devices, each of whose function is becoming increasingly ambivalent. Endless different genres of communication are possible, each morphing into others. Music, text, speech, broadcasts, event invites, adverts, pictures and so on are being distributed according to all sorts of different social and economic models.
One consequence of this is the growth in very niche models of distribution and organisation. We can now, as Shirky, says, organise without organisations. Being 'grass roots', 'original' and 'authentic' does not require nearly so much effort or entrepreneurial drive, and is of course the basis for a whole new way of making money. This, I suspect, partly accounts for the rise of a paradoxical mass counter-culturalism, orthodox heterodoxy, uniform multiformity, most apparent in hipsterism. Peter Saville used to say that his aspiration for Joy Division/New Order sleeves was a 'mass-produced secret' - something which fans could recognise immediately, but others couldn't. But this paradoxical aspiration is becoming the norm in the age of professional viral marketing. If Hipsterism isn't the dead-end of Western culture, then this perfect synthesis of Boris Johnson and The Prodigy most definitely is.
The blurring of professional and amateur identities brings culture and economy into a more intimate relationship. Make of this what you will: Schumpeterian exuberance at the entrepreneurial opportunities, or Adornian despair at the final dissolution of the boundary between capital and art.
But think where it leaves the telecom companies. Someone has to provide the network within which all this micro-entrepreneurial, micro-commodification takes place, and the network is neither small nor cheap. It is not built by amateurs or even by entrepreneurs, it involves no accoustic guitars; it is an old-style industrial venture with huge sunk costs. To be commercially viable, such a network must have millions of users, each of whom prefers to identify as an increasingly narrow cultural segment. Our cultural-economic drift towards the niche, the hip and the grass roots is dependent on infrastructure that is definitively none of those things.
Pity the bind that Orange et al find themselves in. They are providing the technology through which people are morphing from audience into participants; but they can only facilitate this mutation by adhering to mass market, industrial responsibilities. Their response is the clumsiest, ugliest attempt to insert their vast, over-inflated brands into the most treasured corners of our lives. "If it weren't for us, you wouldn't be able to phone your grandmother, organise a small gig, share a joke! We are truly the essence of your social and cultural life" they tell us. To which our response (mine at any rate) is "so what? Now fuck off and leave me alone!" Maybe I need to develop more sympathy.
* Carling lager is the exception that proves the rule, being responsible for the crimes against culture of hosting publicly advertised gigs at the 'Islington Carling Academy' in which tickets are only available to Carling customers, and forcing London Underground buskers to stand on horrid little branded 'stages', under the auspices that 'Carling sponsors live music'. From now on, if any music lovers ever participate in a marketing focus group, can you please please please not tell them that you enjoy live music; lie and tell them that nothing beats Clapham All Bar One or Tory Party Conference for that authentic urban feel.