« broadway market: who's at fault? | Main | reason to obey the law #231 »

January 25, 2006



I like this a lot (although I almost certainly won't be reading it in /Prospect/). It reminds me of an odd shift in the work of Guy Debord (my intellectual hero), who moved over time from wanting to destroy every public building which couldn't be collectively transformed (the dead hand of the past, etc) to seeing (some) old buildings as relics of freer and more authentic times, and hence potential cultural resources for radical change. (He'd aged thirty years in the mean time, which may have had something to do with it.)

On a less grandiose level, I think what you're describing is a curiously *un*sophisticated game of bait-and-switch:

"You want change? Well, you want things to get better, so you must want things to *change*. Great - we want things to change too! Welcome aboard!"

Followed in due course by:

"What, you don't like what we're doing? I thought you wanted things to change?"

I blame the end of the Cold War - I'm sure the dynamic of capitalist innovation has been more frantic ever since then.


OK, I've read it & still like it, but I've got one criticism. When you write, in the context of digital broadcasting & the end of spectrum scarcity, about the need to

"help people navigate an otherwise giddying degree of choice"

I think that key word 'choice' needs to be unpacked. The main dynamic isn't a proliferation of a thousand different niche broadcasters - I remember Andrew Neil, of all people, seriously predicting this - but a race to the bottom. (I like Stephen Fry's image of asking for a teaspoon and being given a 'choice' of a hundred plastic stirrers.) Even the BBC is only a partial exception to the rule: where we used to have one all-purpose news/entertainment/kids' channel and one highbrow, we've now got one all-purpose channel, two entertainment channels, two for kids, one for news... and one highbrow. And this relates back to your earlier reference to Reich on capitalism and irrational desires: if they're going to make money, the 'choices' we're given all need to be fairly undemanding. Another film? *More* Big Brother? Oh, go on then.

Will Davies

Glad you liked the piece Phil. On your point about choice, the piece is certainly not siding with those who believe expanding consumer choice represents anything like an expansion in political/democratic choice. The quote you highlight was not questioning whether or not choice in this context is 'real'; but a choice between 100 channels of crap is still, on a certain level, a choice.

On Debord, I didn't know that. I had Adorno in the back of my mind, with some (half-remembered quote) about "real progress would be when we were tired of progress"...



I think you've managed to articulate the role of technology and choice very well. There seems to be a clamour to embrace new new things as seen by people spreading memes via blogs and the like without actually adding anything to the debate or thinking about it. I'm thinking of the boing boing and slashdot slaves particularly.

It's interesting to see how people are employing strategies for dealing with being contactable by mobile phone [as it's matured as an social 'artefact'], of the belated realisation that the phone is both an extension of your Labour and a constant negotiation of privacy. Dual sims, 2-3 mobiles, turning the phone off during certain hours etc. Now we see parallels with social software and people linking out of linked-in and friendster... of thinking beyond the software to the 'effects' which are often just not that great.

the promise of technology is very seductive. but in many ways it's made us more risk averse and compliant rather than radical, despite the most radical gestures often being made by those hackers and web-services developers making the digital world around us.


On Debord, have a look at this:
"The Hacienda must be destroyed; or, Why was Debord afraid of ruins?"

Given at the Hacienda (the one in Manchester, named after the proto-situationist line "The Hacienda must be built")... which has since been pulled down and replaced by a block of flats. Oops.

Will Davies

The Guardian's recent Google article explores something similar:

"It [Google] knows what it is doing technologically; socially, though, it can't possibly know, and I don't think anyone else can either. The best historical analogy for where Google is today probably comes from the time when the railroads were being built. Everyone knew that trains and railways would change the world, but no one predicted the invention of suburbs."


I liked your article. It's interesting that the spatial aspects of the Internet are so underplayed. A lot of the thinking and research seems to be coming from the technologists (e.g. the mobile phone companies, the human-computer interaction people) and some artists (locative media people), but very little from the people who regard the spatial as their domain-- the architects and urban planners.
Perhaps the introduction of mobile phones to the Tube will underline to people how usage of mobile phones in a space changes the nature of that space, and the new attributes of the space. Might provoke some debate on the pros and cons of allowing unfettered access to all spaces. In any case, a before and after study would be a very interesting piece of research!

Will Davies

Agreed, Lean, although the obvious person to mention with regard to the spatial aspects of communication technology would be William Mitchell, who has been writing on little else for over a decade. But he is so relentlessly upbeat, that you stop trusting him.

The other person would be someone like Stephen Graham, who has explored things such as the 'software-sorted society'... but that is thinking specifically about power relations and economy, rather than micro-politics of etiquette and informal contact.

The comments to this entry are closed.