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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] |||
Infinitely the same within an infinity of enclosures; infinitely connected yet infinitely alone. Immeasurable identity of desire, immeasurable distance of realization.
Hakim Bey (1996), 'Millennium', Autonomedia & Garden Of Delight, p. 31
Replacement of the social body with the data body has been fundamental to the buyout of online space by corporate media interests. The visitor is recast as client, asserting a hierarchy of interaction. Digital common land is enclosed by virtual shopfronts that inscribe territorial rights. Corporate advertising sells the concept of virtual corporate space with endlessly positive messages about personal freedoms allied to the always popular image of the labour saving device. The freedoms offered are essentially variations on a central theme of freedom to consume. The methodology is that of making this freedom enjoyable. Spectacular society has successfully redefined shopping as a leisure activity. Now you can enjoy it in the comfort of your own home. Mail order and targeted mail sales opened up this personal territory, later occupied by home shopping television and the unwanted attentions of telemarketers 9. The digital spectacle accelerates the process and uses the banner of interactivity to suggest willing consumer collusion. Devoid of the social interaction implicit in making purchases in the physical environment, the online economy intensifies the loneliness of desire. The consumer navigates similar spaces to view similar products, differentiated only by cleverness of description or useless gadget appeal 10. Every purchase, or potential interest, is recorded and added to the data body ensuring that future visits offer more of the same. Choice is narrowed to within predefined limits and interactivity is reduced to responses to commercial offers. Online shopping culture realises the spectacular aim of occupying our attention with its agenda, and does so largely by ensuring that no other agenda is presented. To oppose the corporate face of online culture is perceived as Luddite posturing, allied to the extremist technophobia of the Unabomber Manifesto 11 or worthy of ridicule. The debate is written as being about technology, rather than the utility of technology. Mainstream discourse, spread and manipulated by the very media conglomerates that have privatised virtual space, chooses not to question that the terms of interaction and play should be determined by organisations whose only intention is to inscribe the data body with more information relating to sales potential.
The web is not really a leisure environment. It is more for getting things done. If you want to sit and enjoy yourself, watch television or read a book.
Jakob Nielsen, interviewed by Victor Keegan (2001), The Guardian, 16/08/01
Jakob Nielsen is a leading authority on accessibility issues online. Whilst his work on accessibility receives just acclaim, he typifies the strictly functional businesslike approach taken by many towards the web. However, in stressing functionality he fails to address the way in which 'getting things done' has itself been packaged as leisure activity. Whilst championing website accessibility and interface simplification 12, Nielsen never questions the pancapitalist business ethic that pervades mainstream online service delivery. His criticism is aimed at what he perceives to be frivolous play within a serious business environment. Online spectacle has allied itself closely to Nielsen's 'getting things done' reductionism, as it allows its singular intent to sell to be cast as that which should be done. The formal relationship between provider and consumer is reinforced by this ethic, with the consumer as largely passive partner. The role of commentators like Nielsen is that of consumer champion. Having enclosed the virtual commons of the mid-1990's, the digital marketplace offers the consumer advocates from within whose demands support the predominant spectacular narrative.
The one world cannot package pleasure itself but only its image.
Hakim Bey (1996), 'Millennium', Autonomedia & Garden Of Delight, p. 31
It is taken for granted by those within the corporate sales narrative that the internet is a sales space. Its development to date is presented as teleological, virtual parallel to spectacular globalisation and evidence for the victory of capitalism after the fall of most communist regimes at the beginning of the 1990's. Virtual free market economics are an affirmation of spectacular ideology. Corporate interaction with online space is business as usual. The distaste for frivolous play pervades corporate culture for it cannot be packaged. Despite being seen to champion online freedom, corporate players create 'sticky' websites, self-servicing search facilities that prioritise their own sites, and advertising banners whose intention is to redirect within the corporate network. The intention is to enclose virtual space and keep the customer base inside. Where facilities like online games or chat boards are provided, they are strictly monitored and heavily populated by advertising 13. These facilities are similar to entertainment or leisure venues in the physical environment, in that they allow play within prescribed limits. The boundaries are described by commercial rather than social constraints, most blatantly where demonstration versions of marketed games are offered 14, and therefore free play is mediated by spectacular narrative. The spectacle attempts authoritarian control, but like an adult imposing rules on children at play can only imagine what fun there is to be had.

The analogy is apt, as many of those seeking to play in unstructured ways are teenagers seeking peer acclaim as code crackers or phone phreakers, telecommunications hackers. These, and other activities that antagonise the new digital establishment, are virtual parallels to skateboarding or graffiti tagging. However, they face much more stringent opposition and the sentences for such behaviour are harsh. The playful environment of code sharing that led to innovations such as email and the World Wide Web is increasingly being viewed with suspicion 15. Enclosure by proprietary code, bolstered by increased copyright protection, outlaws much of the activity that enabled the current online environment. Public space that encouraged free discourse and innovative play is being replaced by authoritarian architecture that emphasises surveillance and protective policing. Where once hackers were eulogised as essential innovators, notably appearing on the cover of issue two of Wired magazine in 1993 16, now they are given the prefix 'malicious' and discussed alongside virus writers and child pornographers 17. The virtual malls of cyberspace borrow from their physical counterparts the same comfortable guarantees of safe shopping and leisure environments, ease of access and discouragement of anti-social behaviour. As privately owned malls impose their own definition of the latter, so the spectacle benefits from enclosing virtual public space and defines acceptable behaviour. The complexity of free flow of information that characteristic much play in the digital commons is replaced by memetic hand-outs that emphasise the hierarchy of sellers to consumers. The spectacle 'reduces all true complexity to sameness and separation' 18. Light relief can be gained from listening to music fragments on Amazon, reading the odd scathing book review or indulging in a structured game, but visits to mainstream online space are generally bland, boring and functional. Jakob Nielsen's businesslike reductionism, so suited to spectacular intent, appears to have won the day. The temporary, nomadic relationship to the physical town centre is virtually reproduced, but devoid of the divergences from spectacular narrative that so enliven it.

The final instalment of The Drifters Guide follows: Using the interface to enhance everyday life: Internet urbanism, digital commons, smart spaces.

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

9. Douglas Rushkoff (1999), 'Coercion', Little Brown, pps. 271-278

10. Critical Art Ensemble, 1996, 'The Technology of Uselessness', in 'Electronic Civil Disobedience and other Unpopular Ideas', 1996

11. Theodore Kaczynski (1995), 'Industrial Society And Its Future', (1/11/2001)

12. Jakob Nielsen, 'Usable Information Technology' website, (4/11/01)

13. website, (14/11/2001)

14. AOL Anywhere Games website, (29/11/2001)

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

16. Steven Levy (1993), 'Crypto Rebels', (accessed 16/12/2001)

17. Mark Ward (2001), 'Treaty 'could stifle online privacy', (16/12/2001)

18. Hakim Bey (1996), 'Millennium', Autonomedia & Garden Of Delight, p. 31
Middlesbrough Institue of Modern Art

Middlesbrough Institue of Modern Art
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