I spy some post-speculative melancholia:
Birmingham is offering to whisk you into a high-tech future known as 1997, when horizontal networks were going to take over stale old top-down organisations, the space of flows was going to make a mockery of traditional place-based communities, and 'London' was going to be re-defined as a network of business parks spread out along the M40.
Birmingham has wandered down this path using the sublime power of numbers. But what do these numbers mean? What would it mean for these particular numbers to be true? By my rough calculation, Birmingham is claiming to host nearly 700 annual conferences every day, which must surely be only a small proportion of the total number of conferences, seminars and trade fairs going on in the city. Is this a lot? It sounds a lot. Or maybe it isn't very much. Who knows?
Then there are the 400 million people that can be accessed via Birmingham's transport links. That's got to be a lot, surely - it's the same as the population of Europe, all accessible, from Birmingham! But then again, it's only quite a small proportion of the entire world. If one were to point out that this leaves nearly 6 billion people who can't be accessed via Birmingham, that suggests something's not quite working. Maybe they should have mentioned that Birmingham's telecom networks offer access to basically everyone in the world. Now that is a lot.
The advert appears to miss one important point about 'facetime', as it puts it: it's never unlimited. People have other obligations beyond networking: sleep, sex and death are the primary ones. Sure, they can just about sustain their bodies with puff-pastry-based canapes and chocolate-chip shortbread biscuits from conference break-out sessions. And there's no doubt bottled water and coffee galore. But, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, networking with 400 million people... well it would just take up too many evenings.
Where did they get these numbers from, and what the hell are they supposed to mean? Interestingly, elsewhere the 'actually existing' network society has rendered such numbers almost commonplace. Wikileaks has just released 250,000 confidential documents recorded from US diplomatic cables, which is comparable to the number of annual conferences hosted in Birmingham each year. Facebook has around 500 million users, which is only 25% more than the people you can travel to from Birmingham. Maybe Birmingham has read Jeff Jarvis's What Would Google Do? and decided to turn itself into a sort of puff-pastry-based networking platform. The next step would be to get rid of Birmingham City Council, all of its democratic and participatory structures, and hand over total control of the city to an asocial 20-something in a t-shirt.
The confusion lurking within this advert is partly due to a total failure to understand economies of presence, a failure that was not uncommon in the mid-1990s. The notion that knowing or meeting more and more people, of being more and more connected, was somehow advantageous has come to appear rather old fashioned. The founder of Ecademy, Thomas Power, used to say that his ambition was to know 100,000 people (or maybe I've missed a zero); he appears to be more than half way there. This is perfectly fine, but only in the same way that it's perfectly fine for batty old ladies to fill their entire houses with royal wedding memorabilia and Union Jacks. Each to their own and all that.
The prophets of the network society used to argue that the greatest losers in the dawning age would be the excluded - those without social capital, ICT access and mobility. The implication was that the greatest winners would be the most connected, the most mobile, living the most fluid lives. One thing that they missed was that network connections are not always symmetrical, as twitter has now helpfully made plain: I can 'know' (or 'follow') as many people as I like, but if they don't know me then my 'inclusion' in the great network does not equate to power. The fact that Birmingham is boasting about its access to 400 million people is tinged with a melancholia, offering state of the art transport networks for getting the hell out of Birmingham. It's like boasting about how many people one follows on twitter.
But more fundamentally, the concern for the 'disconnected' also entirely missed out much power can be attached to being disconnected. The prophets of networks thought that the greatest loser in the digital age would be the child without a modem. Instead, the greatest losers are those who are being forcibly plugged in, and losing authority and status as a result - state institutions, American embassies, old boy networks, publishers, families, political organisations, MPs and so on. It's not so much that these traditional forms of organisation are left behind by the rise of open access networks and fluid forms of association, it's that they are strategically undermined by them, sometimes to the point of unviability.
We were told that power would consist in having more and more connectivity (so the telecom industry hoped), making charisma and bandwidth the most important forms of productive capital. By this account, the city of Birmingham could have been a contender. Instead, power resides with Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange, individuals with few friends or capabilities, other than to break down whatever norms, rules and institutions used to enable society and communities to cohere (for better or worse).
So, yes, 'facetime' is indeed a valuable commodity. It is, no doubt, one reason to go to Birmingham, maybe even without the promise of a break-out session and a chocolate chip shortbread biscuit. One may even want to stay there, dwell there, build relationships there, without being lured into international travel and the space of flows. But all of these things are anathema to the logic of network maximisation. The only people who definitely gain from more and more connectivity are the sociopathic founders of the networks themselves. Everyone else is caught in various balances between knower and known, follower and followed, (ironic that Julian Assange is now desparately trying not to be followed, wherever he may be.)
Equally, 'Napsterising' institutions may be thrilling (who isn't enjoying the current diplomatic crisis just a tad?) or depressing (newspapers), or a matter of ambivalence between the two. Birmingham can turn itself into just another node in a network of sublime, exponentially increasing scale. Or else it could try to avoid this insidious mathematical logic in the first place.