Last week, I experienced two separate moments of bitterness regarding our contemporary cultural geography. Depending on your levels of Benjaminian pomposity, you might even call them moments of mourning for what capitalism discards unthinkingly.
The first occurred on a train from Birmingham to London, a journey of a mere 70 minutes. I am not one of those enviable people who find it easy to lose themselves in books (that's why I became an academic: to turn reading into a professional obligation), but I find that a combination of a train journey and super-ego provides the perfect opportunity to read. Across the aisle from me, a man of my age was fidgetting with his iphone. In between scrolling, clicking and browsing, he was ringing people up, for no discernible reason. His lack of mental peace started to infect me, until I experienced a Basil Fawlty-esque urge to lean over and offer him my newspaper. His 70 minute journey was spent scratching a technologically induced itch.
Mobile telecom companies, as I've argued before, are so culturally pernicious because they are effectively flogging language itself. In an age when there is scarcely any limit to what can be mediated, and where or when it can be distributed, there is no relationship or artefact that isn't on sale at your nearest Vodafone stockist. Your granny, Coldplay, BBC, work, dating are all part of the package. It's everything.
As the scarcity of Everything gradually wanes, the companies are becoming bolder in their branding of the infinite. T-Mobile now has an advert asking 'What would you do with limitless texts?' with a photo of a happy punter saying things like 'I'd text everyone I know and put together the world's greatest super-group!' (sorry??). Infinite opportunity to say, share, broadcast everything all the time anywhere has to be sold as a positive achievement, with a tangible result. But the truth was sitting across the aisle from me on the 15.03 from Birmingham: a restless child, pawing at a toy which promised everything and delivered scarcely anything. I had the gift of forty pages of a book. He had the gift of an anytime unlimited nothing. This isn't progress.
The second was when I found myself near the Astoria. I say the Astoria, I mean the crane in this picture. I'd read about the Astoria being demolished and some of the protests being staged to defend it. But you don't experience the full sadness of 'all that is solid melting into air' until you witness this sort of vast, oppressive absence. Many others have written far more eloquently and knowledgeably about the creative destruction of the capitalist city than I can. What struck me, however, was - it being a venue, and a wonderful historic one at that - my overwhelming urge to start ranting, a la James Murphy, "But I was there! I was there at the Manic Street Preachers gig in December 1994! I was there in 1997 when etc etc!"
This is more than the impulsive reaction to seeing heritage destroyed. It's connected to my unfortunate co-passenger on the 15.03 from Birmingham. As James Murphy sees all too clearly, the age of the internet (and especially the mobile internet) has accelerated the development of William Mitchell's Economy of Presence, in which the most scarce form of communication (i.e. co-presence, such as gig) becomes the most valuable, and the most abundant (i.e. data sent over time and space, such as a text) drifts to worthlessness like spam.
In technological terms, the Economy of Presence looks something like the table on the left. The mobile phone company's task is to convince us that moving more of our lives into the column entitled 'Different place' is a form of liberation (the clue is in the word 'telecom'). This isn't to say that they wage war on face-to-face communication, only that they don't typically extract any surpluses from it either. As for the empty space above it, nobody has discovered many cultural forms that sit neatly in that box (one example I can think of is the BFI Mediatheque, which is limited by place presumably as part of a copyright deal on their archive).
And yet, the regrettable impact of all this digital mediation creates the forms of pathology in the box on the right. Consumers have developed their own unfortunate behaviour to sit in that troublesome empty box (Vodafone must be delighted!), namely the drifting out of conversations, and into text messaging and email. As far as the 'different place' column is concerned, my co-passenger on the 15.03 was certainly eating up his free minutes like a good boy, but I wonder if he was enriched by this experience in any way. I wonder if he felt liberated, or actually vaguely oppressed. As Zizek argues, contemporary capitalism replaces the moral imperative 'thou shalt' with a new permissive imperative 'thou may', which is no less burdensome. (Zizek also defined neo-liberalism as 'you can do whatever you like, as long as it involves shopping'. There is a variant of it which says 'you can do whatever you like, as long as it involves an iPhone').
Which brings us to the bottom right hand box. My nostalgia for the Astoria was partly nostalgia for an age in which cultural production was simpler, less ubiquitous and more value-able, just as people now treat vinyl records as sort of tombstones for their more cherished music. The 'But I was there!' plea is an attempt to cling to something that cannot be watered down and rendered worthless by over-production.
What is more appalling about the marketing strategies of contemporary telecom companies is that they see this, and then seek to control this form of presence too. O2 are currently leading the way, with their Priority tickets campaign, in which they grant their customers early access to tickets at their growing network of venues. As I discuss here, the contemporary marketer loathes the notion that cash alone might grant someone access to something as rare as a concert, so much so that they'd almost rather make it free and exclusive than priced and inclusive. Evidently aware that their customers increasingly cherish live music (in an age when other forms of music have been reduced to frigging ring-tones, I wonder who's responsible for that), they have staged a landgrab on the 'same place' column, offering proxi-communication as part of their telecommunication packages.
Having removed all constraints on the 'where' and the 'when, they discover to their horror that people actually liked many of those constraints, just as I liked being stuck on a train with my book for 70 minutes. Not tolerating this, they then move on the individual in a pincer movement, offering cultural immediacy as part of their sales pitch for cultural mediacy (thought: the words 'media' and 'mediocre' both stem from the same word, 'medium').
A few years back, I argued something along these lines in an article for Prospect, entitled Digital Exuberance [pdf here], in which I argued that we need an 'ethic of inconvenience'. This was partly inspired by the Marshal Berman-esque critique of capitalist urban churn, in which the past is constantly sacrificed for the future. One spin-off from the modernist critique of modernity is the Jane Jacobs defence of slowness and social complexity, which I think can contribute to a defence of co-presence, un-packaged by telecoms. I asked what might be the equivalent of a speed-hump for the digital age.
Now I'm wondering if the two forms of critique need to be fused in some way. With telecoms inter-woven with everyday social life, be it long distance or otherwise, all varieties of space are being marketed. We're cajoled to relinquish our enjoyment of just being there, and when we refuse, we're sold a new package which allows us to shout 'but I was there!' It's suffocating.