The Global Information Economy
A new form of economic organisation began emerging in the last part of the twentieth century.
What role do information and communication play in the management of global capitalism?
What are the distinctive characteristics of information and communicative capitalism?
What is networked and flexible production?
In this chapter we:
- Examine the emergence of the global information economy over the past generation.
- Outline how the emergence of information communication technologies, end of the Cold War and emergence of America as the dominant superpower is the critical context for understanding meaning and power in today’s world.
- Introduce the ‘network’ as the key organisational form of the global information economy. The flexible and fragmented modes of production, culture and power enabled by networks and communication technologies have created a new geography of power.
- Identify some of the winners and losers from the emergence of the global information economy. We consider how power is made and maintained in networks.
Cases & Activities
The visions of global networkers
Figures like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg together with their teams of designers at Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook are examples of innovators who developed the infrastructure and ideas that underpin the networked information society. In their public appearances these Silicon Valley innovators explain and promote the iterative and experimental development of networked media technologies. Search online for their appearances at Silicon Valley events like Mark Zuckerberg’s appearances at Start Up School, or their product launches like Steve Jobs iPod and iPhone launches and Sergey Brin’s announcement of Google Glass at TED.
As much as these events are promotional exercises for their companies, they are also historically important accounts of the continuous development of information networks.
Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook
Speaking at Start Up School in 2013 Mark Zuckerberg explained to the audience of designers and developers how Facebook emerged from a range of open-ended experiments he undertook with software during his time as a student at Harvard.
He told them that at Harvard he learnt that his aim was to build software that is ‘more human’ and to build networks that ‘connect everybody’. Connecting everybody enabled ‘communities of people’ to ‘channel their energy’ and to ‘do great things’. Together with his team at Facebook he aimed to build the infrastructure for connecting people. Zuckerberg embodies the ideals and values of the networked society. The network elite don’t see themselves as trying to control populations ‘from above’, but rather as building infrastructure that harness and channel the productive participation of large networks of people.
He explained the first time he learnt this lesson was while he was a student at Harvard. He had an exam on art history but hadn’t attended classes or done the study. He realised he was ‘screwed’ so he went to the course website, downloaded the material and made a program that showed all the images of art work and let students contribute their notes. He sent the website ‘to the class and said, ‘hey guys, I built a study tool’ and within an hour the whole thing was populated with all the information that was needed to take the final’
The lesson he learnt was that you needed to design software that brought real people together in useful ways as part of their real life experiences, needs and interests. While search engines could find information on the web, there was not yet a platform that enabled people to perform their real relationships in a seamless and ongoing way. Facebook didn’t start out as a business or with a business model, it started as an effort to build a network that people would find useful in living their lives. From there, Zuckerberg imagined, that network could become a platform for all kinds of unexpected innovations and developments. Facebook’s primary initial task was to create dense connections between people. The more connected people were in the network, the more opportunities there would be to leverage those connections.
Facebook continues to employ many experts who work together in varied teams to ‘produce’ a more productive network. Those teams include data scientists, sociologists, psychologists, user experience designers and so on. Their job is to get connections and information flowing through Facebook’s network in more seamless ways to increase user engagement with the network. They collect and analyse all the data that our participation in the network generates. As Facebook collect enormous amounts of data they have had to develop new hardware and infrastructure to store and process it. These innovations have led to the development of more productive networks and cloud computing services in other parts of the technology sector. The networked economy is characterised by these open-ended processes of innovation.
Steve Jobs and Apple product launches
Steve Jobs was famous for his Apple product launches. He would gather together technology industry journalists and influencers for tightly scripted performances of new Apple technologies. The 2007 launch of the iPhone is an historically significant event. Search for Apple’s iPod (2001), iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010) product launches online.
Jobs began the launch by telling the audience that Apple had invented several revolutionary products: the personal computer in 1984 which changed everything, the iPod in 2001 which changed the music industry, and that in 2007 they would launch ‘three revolutionary products’ in ‘one device’. As he showed an image of the iPhone for the first time the industry audience broke into rapturous applause.
Over the course of an hour and a half Jobs ‘demonstrated’ the features of the iPhone and explained how it ‘revolutionised’ our day to day experience of mobile devices and information networks. The iPhone was a device upon which many apps could be developed. For instance, Apple could partner with networks like Google to provide services like email, search and maps. Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, joined Jobs on stage to explain that ‘internet architectures allow you now to take the enormous brain trust that is represented by the Apple development team and combine that with the open protocols and data services that companies like Google (offer)’. Working together these companies could bring a previously unimaginable range of services ‘together in one place’. This was possible because of the ‘cultures of innovation’ in companies like Apple and Google.
Figures like Zuckerberg, Jobs and Schmidt present themselves as solving problems in the creation, consumption and circulation of information. They aim to build platforms and devices that create, manage and leverage networks.
Who are today’s pioneering global networkers?
What is their vision for the future?
What are some of the forms of media they are developing, testing and experimenting with?
Mark Zuckerberg speaking to the Computer History Museum.
Mark Zuckerberg speaking at the Start Up School.
Chris Andersen writing in Wired on ‘The End of Theory’.
MIT Technology Review on Facebook’s data scientists.
Apple iPhone product launch.
Apple iPod product launch.
Take yourself as the beginning point and think of the different networks you ‘connect’ with on a day to day basis as you interact with the web, use mobile devices, consume media and popular culture.
Take an organisation (like Apple, Amazon, Sony or News Corporation) and conceptualise the network required to produce, distribute and consume their devices or products. Where are they designed, produced and consumed? How is each part of the network managed?
Take a device like a smart phone or tablet and examine the variety of networks required to produce and distribute it; and, the networks the device connects its users to.
There are a variety of forms of labour associated with the production, use and disposal of mobile devices.
On the Media and Society website you can find links to stories about e-waste, Foxconn factories in China, and Facebook’s content moderators.
Consider these forms of informal or below the line work in the information economy. Can you think of others?
Take a media technology or device that you use. Map out its entire life cycle. Who produces it?
Where is it produced?
How is it used?
What relationships does its use facilitate?
How is it disposed of?
What power relationships are implicated in making, using and disposing of these devices?
The Atlantic on how eBay provides information to Chinese manufacturers.
Gawker on Facebook moderators in developing countries.
Dateline on e-waste.
Greenpeace e-waste campaign.
Jack Qiu on Foxconn.
Harvey (1990) provides an authoritative account of the emergence of flexible accumulation as a political, economic, cultural and spatial phenomenon. He introduces key ideas like post-fordism, flexible accumulation, time-space compression and uneven geographical development. O’Connor and Xin (2006) provide an account of the emergence of the ‘creative industries’ as part of China being incorporated into the global information economy. They examine the ‘tensions’ this creates within China. Tremblay (2011) critically considers how government policies construct and use ‘evidence’ to promote the idea of ‘creative’ economies in order to position the UK in the global information economy. Hassan (2003) examines the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab as a key site for producing technologies and discourses that promote networked information technologies. Each of these readings critically examines an aspect of the development of creative industries and related government policies. Each addresses debates and tensions around the development of a flexible global cultural economy that relies on ‘creative’ and ‘communicative’ forms of labour.
Harvey, D. (1990). The Condition of Postmodernity. Blackwell: Oxford.
Hassan, R. (2003). ‘The MIT Media Lab: techno dream factory or alienation as a way of life?’, Media Culture Society, 25: 87-106.
O'Connor, J. and Xin, G. (2006). ‘A new modernity?: The arrival of 'creative industries' in China’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 9 (September): 271-283.
Tremblay, G. (2011). ‘Creative statistics to support creative economy politics’, Media Culture Society, 33: 289-298.