New Environment--Old Story

[Note: this is a talk I gave at the Local Knowledge / Global Wisdom Conference |||| Return to my Homepage

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I would like to address briefly the question "what is new and what is old?" admits an "information revolution" and a fury of globalization and then probe into some effects of this combination of new and old on everyday, physical life. I will take most of my examples from financial markets simply because they are the most radical and at the same time the dominant segment of the global economy. I will develop my ideas along three themes:

- Connection
- Translation, and
- Disconnection

_Connection_ leads us to the new part of the story, namely, the information networks that underpin the globalization of the economy. Those information networks provide the environment for the economy which is increasingly dependent on and shaped by massive, real-time flows of information on a global scale. Accelerated and expanded through the rise of computer networks such flows have developed distinct properties which influence the character of this new environment and the economies (and culture) embedded therein.

One of the principal properties of the information environment is _Interdependency_: this means simply that nothing can stand for itself, all elements--the information itself as well as the institutions built for managing and directing the flows of information--are connected to each other and their meaning or actual value depends on what they are connected to. A typical example is the rise of the stock price of a small company when its bought by a large one, as Microsoft does it all the time. While the company itself doesnžt change, being connected to the industry leader boost its value and can rearrange a whole market segment in a very short time. Marshall McLuhan--to bring this back home to Toronto--expressed that quite some time ago when he said: "The 'meaning of meaning' is relationship." These relationships are built through the flows of information themselves--Microsoft channeling some money into the pockets of shareholders of the company it wants to buy. The direction of these flows determines how the different elements in the environment are connected, whether they have a close and strong relationship or whether their connection is difficult to see or only remote. However, the direction of the flow is highly fluid and can change quickly.

This leads to the second property of the environment besides interdependency: _Change_. The flows of information do not simply connect two sides; by connecting they change both of them. A bridge, for example, does not simply couple two independent villages across a river but it creates a new city or a new war.

The flows of information are infinitely malleable. It is their intrinsic property to change their direction and quality instantaneously, a characteristic made very explicit by electronic media. Out of such changes new relationships are created that bring supposedly independent elements into a sudden interdependency. Out of such changing connections new meaning arises that potentially redirects the flows of information: in short the information environment is in constant change because that change feeds upon itself. This change, however, is neither additive nor subtractive in an integrated environment. It is, to use a somewhat fashionable expression, ecological. This does not mean that it is good or harmonious, it simply stresses the fact that even small changes can trigger massive chains of adaptive reactions: unlike a machine that simply breaks down and stops functioning if something out of the order happens, flows of information can rearrange themselves according to new conditions.

The networks in which these properties--interdependency and adaptive change--arise have become so complex and the behaviour they produce so difficult to predict that it becomes increasingly fashionable to describe them in biological terms and attribute them a certain life-like autonomy: complex networks are presented as "hyperorganisms", "out of control." Hyper in this context means simply that it is an entity that his composed of smaller entities that are highly connected. Organism means here little more than that the entity is self-steering without a dominant planning center.

And indeed applying such an view to financial networks--the most global and complex networks currently running--can be financially very profitable. A small number of companies is trying to decipher these markets in the same way that meteorologist try to predict the weather, another highly complex system without a central controlling agency. To understand the market behaviour they are feeding massive amounts of information into computer models that extrapolate, based on past experience, the future development purely based on the internal network logic: these models exploit the autonomy that the complex networks has gained from any individual action and that they develop „individualū characteristics.

Such complex, highly interdependent systems that connect actors around the globe instantaneously and integrate them into an entity that acts coordinated but without a central control is certainly something rather new and directly related to the expansion of information technology.

However, this is only half of the story, it is the view from the inside of the networks. When we look from the outside what those networks, especially the financial markets, do we come to the second, to the old part of story. While connection described the character of the new environment, _translation_, my second theme, describes what this environment does.

Around the financial markets there is a huge industry that produces information and analyzes it. Reuters, for example, produces roughly ten times more information for the financial markets than for political or economic sections of other media. This vast amount of information is analyzed and brought into a form so that allows it to act in the financial markets where one can do only two things: buy and sell, which means to move information either in one direction or the other.

In effect, this means that the incredible diversity of decisions and motivations, political as well as economical, regional as well as national, is translated and channeled to answer one questions: does this hurt or help a certain financial product. However, it is important to make it clear that this is a process of translation and not just of transmission: the difference being that the of news and other information have only an indirect influence on what is happening inside the markets because they are filtered through a very specific set of assumptions that allow to bridge the gap from a factual statement such as a new government has been elected in a country, to the qualitative one that it is be good for the economy: letžs buy some shares!

These assumption--constantly adapted and homogenized in the feedback loop of the closed system of the markets--form the dominant logic of the global economy, which is-- and there are at the core of the old story--the radicalized neo-liberal world view reduced to one variable: corporate profit.

In that dominant logic--a world view reduced to the measurement of real or expected corporate profit--is the new and the old combined which leads to the last theme that I would like to mention: _disconnection_ as the effect of that logic in everyday life.

It might seem somewhat paradoxical that a technological environment that is so deeply characterized by connection results in disconnection. However, it is not. The connections take place primarily on an extremely abstract and centralized level such as in financial markets or in corporate headquarters. That abstraction allows to control and connect places and events that have, from the point of view of physical everyday life, no immediately visible relationship. This has two immediate (side-)effects: first, it allows to pursue the dominant logic with increased ruthlessness because the effects of that pursuit are being felt somewhere else. They are totally separated from the lifes of those who make the decisions, who guard themselves with all kinds of means against possible physical encounter with negative effects of the logic they serve.

The second disconnecting effect is that everyday life, where experience is gathered, is increasingly influenced by decisions that were made on such an abstract level that they can hardly be connected with the direct, physical consequences. As a result society and its political, social and democratic institutions are understood as being subjected to forces that are beyond social reason and adaptation to uncontrolled virtually natural, global forces seems the only strategy possible what ever its costs may be.

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