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<nettime> Public Cyberspaces - An E-Interview with Sas Sassen
Geert Lovink on Fri, 25 Sep 1998 13:38:36 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> Public Cyberspaces - An E-Interview with Sas Sassen


Public Cyberspaces
E-Interview with Saskia Sassen
By Geert Lovink

[this is part 2, an electronic follow-up of the interview at Documenta
X/Hybrid Workspace, which dealt with bandwidth policies, see:
http://www.factory.org/nettime/archive/0877.html ]

Geert: What's the difference between the computer networks, used in the
financial world and the 'public' Internet? Is it justified to make this
distinction between this closed world of the banks, and the so-called open
networks which are also more and more closing down (see intranets)?

Saskia: They are two separate worlds. It's not that the digital networks
of finance are secrete. They are private, so they become inaccessible. But
we have considerable information on volumes and types of financial capital
that are moving around the world. We know that the overall volume of the
global capital market is estimated at $ 75 trillion. all of which at one
point or another goes through digital networks. But we know these figures
from the non-digital institutional spaces within which finance is also
embedded. (That is one of the points of my 'Global City' analysis).

Financial markets --Frankfurt's Deutsche Boerse, New York's Stock
Exchange, the Paris Bourse, are "owned" and managed by firms --in
Frankkfurt, the owner of the stock market is Deutsche Boerse, in Paris the
Paris Bourse., etc. These "firms" need to report their activities, they
are accountable. So we can get a lot of information on the transactions
that take place in the private digital networks of finance through these
firms that own the markets. So there is a vast digital work where we
cannot enter, we cannot look into. But we can see, at least partly, what
goes in and out. There are also "secret" flows of finance, networks such
as the blacknets. The blacknets for laundering money and making illegal
transfers is indeed "secret," but I would say that that is so because it
is criminal and hence has to go underground. The key point about the
private financial markets is that they are private and hence inaccessible
and hence radically different from the Internet.

A second interesting difference, theoretically, is that the same
properties which we see in the Internet --connectivity, simultaneity-- lead
to very different outcomes: in the Internet, access and the enhancement of
"democracy" if you will. In the financial networks they contribute to
massive increases in volume and concentration at the top --hierarchy rather
than openness and concentration of power rather than distributed power as
in the Internet. For instance, notwithstanding a massive increase in the
volume of financial flows, concentration is enormous.London, Frankfurt and
New York account for an enormous world share in the export of financial
services. London, New York and Tokyo account for over one third of global
institutional equity holdings, this as of the end of 1997 after a 32%
decline in Tokyo's value over 1996. London, New York and Tokyo account for
58% of the foreign exchange market, one of the few truly global markets;
together with Singapore, Hong Kong, Zurich, Geneva, Frankfurt and Paris,
they account for 85%. London is now the leading center for institutional
equity management in the world, with over US$ 1.8 trillion in assets as of
the end of 1997.

Geert: Do these financial computernetworks also need more bandwidth? In
what way is our campaign 'We Want Bandwidth', directly or indirectly,
unintentionally perhaps, working on behalf of their interests?

Saskia: Yes, but unlike you and me who may have to fight for it, they just
buy it. Today most big infrastructure projects --laying fiber optic cable
across the bottom of the oceans-- are carried out by three major
engineering companies who do it on "spec"-- that is not because they were
contracted to do so by a government or a company, but on their own
because they know that there is a market of actors with very deep pockets,
such as the multinationals and the financial services firms and the
financial markets, which will buy the bandwidth. We fight for the right of
access to using bandwidth because we are fighting around issues concerning
the Internet--public space, a public good. It is like poor workers
demanding public transportation to get them to their jobs.

Internet activists and experts don't usually recognize or often have
not thought about the world of private digital space because they really
are two separate worlds. To me, someone who focuses also on finance, it is
always astounding to hear generalizations made about the features of
digital networks in general, when what they are talking about is the
features of the net. I think this shows us once again that technology is,
ultimately, embedded. There is no neutral technology. The structures of
power also shape some of the decisive features of the digital networks as I
compared earlier for the Internet and the private networks of finance.
(There is of course today also a growing level of activity by individuals
especially using the Internet for financial transactions, but that is
retail finance.)

Geert: With the rise of e-commerce and the enterance of the big media
firms in cyberspace, we are widnessing a closing of the networks which
used to open and freely accessible. Cyber activists and artists are
pointing at a shift of the struggle from 'public access' and 'bandwidth'
to 'public content'. Do you think that this new 'public space' is indeed
in danger?

Saskia: This is a very important issue. I am convinced that we need to
fight for free and public content. But bandwidth is the infrastructure
which is intimately linked to the formation and multiplication of public
activity on the Internet. Public space and free content have always
required access to specific conditions, even if elementary. What looms
ahead is a sharpening division between a slow moving space for those who
lack the resources and a fast moving space (quick connections, enromous
bandwidth) for those who can pay for it. Although it is really very
different, for illustration we could say that this is a new version of an
old syndrome: the public busses in poor neighborhoods are often of poorer
quality than those for rich neighborhoods. It seemed, once, like these
forms of inequality could not be enacted in the internet. Today it would
seem that they are. That is why I argue that we need to advance our
theorization about the Internet and recognize that it has gone through
several phases and is today in a third phase.

Geert: Despite all cybermalls, gated virtual communities, password sites,
credit card content, webvertisement etc., is the Internet (still) an
interesting place for struggle and inspiration for you?

Saskia: Yes sure, there are many great things happening on the Internet,
though they are increasingly swamped by the proliferation of pure junk,
and increasingly commercialization. A recent forum organized by Jordan
Crandall, "Blast" turned out to be one of the liveliest and multifaceted,
argumentative, free for all kind of experience of the public bringing
together people from across the world. This is of course ultimately just
one subculture, but that is fine, as long as there are many others. I
participate in a series of activists networks that deal with the response
of workers to the current crisis--for instance support and information to
the South Korean trade unionists who are putting their lives on the line
in very violent engagements, or the worldwide organizing against the new
Multilateral Agreement on Investment which is being negotiated at the OECD
in Paris, or the rebellion in Chiapas.

There is a whole new, European level network of municipal activity--a sort
of local politics that becomes part of a European network of local
politics. This kind of organization has an enormous future and could prove
to make a lot of difference if local progressive actors combine their
efforts and insights, etc. I see a future politics which is this
multiplication of intensely local engagements but with a strong connection
to other such local engagements, in the community next door, the town
across the river, or the town across the world. I do agree with what you
once said that we need to defend the right of people to have access to the
technology itself, rather than just inviting participation in established
fora. That is what this network of municipal websites does. This is not
about intellectuals but about people engaged in ordinary and not so
ordinary activities. And yes, we need much more of this, all around the
world. This is the great potential of the Internet for politics, a new
kind of global politics embedded in a multiplication of a new kind of
local --one that allows for transnational recognition, work,
collaboration.

Geert: We are in the middle of a global financial and economic crisis now.
It is effecting the lives and jobs of tens of millions of people. Would
you say that, as an effect, the ideology of neo-liberalism ('globalism')
is a crisis? Protective measurements (like in Malaysia and Hong Kong)  
might point into such a direction. Are you in favour of these policies at
the level of the nation state?

Saskia: Ohhhh, that is a big question and one that would take me hours to
answer. Let me just give you a few points. By now we have enough evidence
that we can say that free capital flows across borders in the last decade
or so have not brought overwhelmingly positive impacts to most countries.
Today the IMF is under attack and there is great interest in Malaysia's
effort with controls. But I do not think that a return to the
protectionism of the post WWII decades is possible, because the dominant
techno-economic systems are de-facto global. This condition limits the
shape of future developments. I must also say, that I do not think that
the period of protectionism was so desirable--there were a significant
share of people who benefitted, no doubt, but there was also enormous
inequality and many were excluded from the generalized propsperituy. In
Western Europe this era worked better than in most other regions of the
world. still, it was better than what we have today. I think we need to
find new administrative and political forms to redirect the whole notion
of what is desirable economic growth--sustainable environmentally
speaking, equitable even if it fails to be egalitarian, with access by
all, including the poor and powerless, to political processes-- a new
normativity. I discuss some of this in my book 'Losing Control?' There is
so much more to say here. My basic reading about what is happening to the
state, is that we are seeing an incipient process of de-nationalization of
national states, national sovereignty, national economies. This means
partly that certain parts of national governments are becoming the sites
for agendas that do not have to do with "national growth," "national
strength," We can say this about ministries of finance and central banks
and their increasingly dominant role in most national governments. I like
to think that this also offers us a possibility of a de-nationalized
politics. linking people across the globe who share agendas --for the
environment, for human rights, for equitable economic growth.

--------

Saskia Sassen is now at the University of Chicago, after 15 years at
Columbia University. Her latest book is Globalization and Its Discontents
(1998) New York: New Press.


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