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||| a drifters guide to physical and virtual urban space [part 3] |||
Graeme Murrell

the digital mainstream: drifting through the virtual shopping mall
||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] ||| [part 3] 1 . 2 ||| [part 4] |||
I think a lot of what the original Net god-utopians were thinking is that there was going to be this sort of huge anarchist, utopian, bliss medium, where there are no rules and everything is just sort of open. That's a great thought, but its not going to work. And when the Time Warners get on the Net in a hard fashion it's going to be the people who first create the commerce and the environment, like Wired, that will be the market leaders.
Andrew Leonard (1996), 'Hot-Wired', in Arthur Kroker & Michael A. Weinstein (1996) 'Global Algorithm 1.4: The Theory of the Virtual Class'

All by itself AOL Time Warner, which has over 23 million subscribers, is responsible for almost a third of the time American citizens are spending online.
Mark Ward (2001), 'Big Four Dominate Web'
As evidenced by Jupiter Media Metrix research 1, the World Wide Web has developed to the point where a handful of multinational corporations dominate its space. Taking into account its history, this should not really surprise. Birthed by the American military hegemony in case of nuclear attack, and seconded to corporately funded research scientists, its genesis invoked the language of control. It is a product of 'nomadic military strategy' 2, a hydra able to instantly reroute to other heads without losing command control of the network. Its necessarily decentralised structure should not be mistaken for anti-authoritarian intent. However, the widening of the Net to academics, and later the general public, injected disorder. Akin to the discovery of society in the late 19th Century described by Foucault 3, the Net discovered virtual society, and it could no longer be tightly policed. The 'original Net god-utopians' invoked by Andrew Leonard, writing in 1996, jumped on board at this point. Ignorant or dismissive of the Net's corporate-military upbringing, they entered the fray with wide-eyed enthusiasm for the new medium rewritten as digital Wild West frontier. Tending towards prophetic proclamations rooted in the belief that visionary science fiction had arrived for the general good, the diverse seers of online space such as Timothy Leary and Nicholas Negroponte, did indeed see utopian potential online. The promise of techno-utopia drew together disparate elements such as anarchists excited by its non-hierarchical structure and New Age thinkers envisaging a paradigm shift in human consciousness. Online space became a metaphor for liberation and there was a period of largely unfettered exploration delineated by increased communication and free access to information. The roots of free access had been planted early in the shift from the military to academia. Source code remained open to freely play and experiment with, the results often being distributed as public domain programs known as shareware. The spatial metaphor of digital common land 4 can be applied to the Internet during this period, which was also characterised by commercial diffidence, viewed as a passing fad like C.B. radio.

By the mid-1990's, mainstream televisual media in the U.S. had lost over ten percent of its market to the still-rising popularity of this fad 5. Realising a threat, media conglomerates sought to rein in both its technology and content. The free traffic of publicly generated media that had led to the metaphor of information superhighway would be parked up in the new virtual reality of the digital marketplace. The effects would necessarily be global, reflecting the global reach of spectacle by the late 20th Century. Pancapitalism, the global multinational successor to the U.S. military-industrial complex would rewrite nomadic military strategy as nomadic media strategy to reassert control over online space and fold it neatly back into spectacular society. Guy Debord prefigured the process, suggesting that, 'The spectacle constantly rediscovers its own assumptions more concretely' 6. As the spectacle imagines the physical urban centre to be primarily a facilitator of commerce, so it redefined virtual space in its image. Users became consumers, product replaced content, bytes became indicative of unit sales. Mainstream digital space, defined by a narrow band of corporate, commercial sites visited by most surfers, has become just another facet of the spectacle. Greg Van Alstyne's connection of spectacle and cyberspace 7 has become a much more intricately woven reality.
By far the most significant use of the electronic apparatus is to keep order, to replicate dominant pancapitalist ideology, and to develop new markets.
Critical Art Ensemble (1998), 'Utopian Promises - Net Realities', in Flesh Machine, Autonomedia
The spectacular nature of the digital marketplace replicates the same commodity fetishism as its physical counterpart. It replicates the same culture of desire and is characterised by the same tools of advertising and commodification of leisure. Its most notable difference is the extent of its homogenisation. Collectively, the mainstream sites visited by the majority of surfers 8 offer very little in the way of difference. If this is the online shopping centre, its storefronts present a very uniform space and its decentralised network of streets appears very orderly. Its uniformity is the extreme spectacular image to which corporate theme pubs and chainstores aspire. It is intended to be devoid of culture that cannot be sold or social interaction that does not facilitate sales. The bland sameness of its interfaces, navigation options, products and leisure opportunities appeals to familiarity. Pancapitalist intentionality to commodify is hidden behind a friendly, recognisable and easily accessible fašade. In place of the arbitrarily linked spaces of the urban centre, with its thrift stores and curiosity shops hunched up to corporate megastores, it offers the predefined and tightly policed environment of the shopping mall. Corporate interests have benefited from the lack of historical and architectural baggage attached to their digital real estate. They are always presented with a green field site and have thus been able to constantly reinvent the virtual mall according to current business needs. The resultant carefully controlled environment describes the body of its visitors by data rather than by social interaction. Visits to the mall can be tracked by keystroke, behavioural trajectories extrapolated and new marketing opportunities presented as future choices for the returning visitor. The digital shopping centre goes much further than replicating consumptive ideology. It represents the apotheosis of targeted marketing techniques packaged as extended freedom of choice.

||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] ||| [part 3] 1 . 2 ||| [part 4] |||

1. Mark Ward (2001), 'Big Four Dominate Web'

2. Critical Art Ensemble (1998), 'Utopian Promises - Net Realities', in Flesh Machine, Autonomedia

3. Michel Foucault, 'Space, Knowledge & Power', in Paul Rabinow, ed, (1984), 'The Foucault Reader', Penguin, p. 242

4. Lawrence Lessig (2001), 'The Internet Under Siege', (29/11/2001)

5. Douglas Rushkoff (1999), 'Coercion', Little Brown, p. 260

6. Guy Debord (1967), 'Society of the Spectacle', Black & Red, paragraph 28

7. Greg Van Alstyne (1994), 'Cyberspace and the Lonely Crowd'

8. Mark Ward (2001), 'Big Four Dominate Web'
Middlesbrough Institue of Modern Art

Middlesbrough Institue of Modern Art
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