Connectivity as poverty

Image of moleskin notebook
Image credit: Mike Rohde’s “SXSWi 2009: Sketchnotes: Connectivity = Poverty”

I have to say that it’s a crime that the audio of Bruce Sterling’s rant at this year’s SXSW Interactive hasn’t been posted online yet. it was one of the few highlights to an otherwise lackluster conference. SXSW was one of the most anti-intellectual conferences I have ever been to—any mentions of theory, or big scary words like “postmodernism,” were immediately scorned upon or shot down. Heather Gold’s moderation of the “Everything I Needed to Know about the Web I Learned from Feminism” was an excellent example of pitching to the least common denominator while shamelessly promoting herself. God forbid she let danah boyd say a big word!

And I have to say it was absurd how everyone and their mother was fawning over Twitter as if it came out yesterday (it’s almost three years old and preparing to join the Google family already, people). Seemed to me like people were walking around mindlessly celebrating a rather uninspired landscape of technology and thought at the conference more generally (and the EDUPUNK panel I was part of must certainly be included in this characterization of uninspired). I’d heard a lot of good things about this conference, but I guess I missed the boat on this one cause this year’s event was more of the same bullshit online branding and marketing speak–just a bit more impressively masked as either mindless tech market Utopianism or self-help 2.0.

Yet, to be fair it wasn’t all bad, there was at least one highlight for me. Bruce Sterling’s rant was right on. I was hoping to listen to it again before I talked about it in more detail. In fact, I’ll have to do that cause I can only recall bits and pieces, but there was a point in his stream of thought that really impressed me (well, besides his discussion of the future of publishing as epitomized by survivalist bookstores like Brave New Books—which I loved). He went off about how much we had miscalculated the digital divide theories of the 90s that were to define the digital world of haves and have-nots by whether they were or weren’t connected. It seemed logical to assume that the impoverished would not be connected, whereas the rich would be decadently consuming all the bandwidth.

Well, as he pointed out, it didn’t quite work out that way, connectivity became cheap with cellphones, and he comically noted that “poor folk love their cellphones!” What’s happening is that this increased dependence upon connectivity, rather than being some kind of indicator of privilege, is actually a sign of our increased impoverishment. The fact is that the wealthy are those who can afford not to be connected, not to be pimping their “online brand” so shamelessly, not twittering their asses off at all hours of the day for a quick networking fix. The impoverishment of networks through connectivity!—it was such a radical re-thinking of this idea of connectivity as the new “social capital” (when did Pierre Bourdieu enter the Web 2.0 vocabulary?–do these dickheads know a ‘postmodern’ social theorist infused that term with its contemporary meaning?). Connectivity as poverty, trippy, that might throw a wrench into the Connectivism theory though 🙂 It kinda makes sense to my poor ass cause that’s how I’m living—and this is all just a cheap thrill to avoid thinking about the inevitable.

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22 Responses to Connectivity as poverty

  1. Andy Best says:

    That last paragraph just blew my mind.

  2. Cole says:

    Interesting … I would have liked to have been there to hear it. The thing about conferences (for me anyway) is that it has so much to do with not only the content, but the company. It doesn’t have to be a big group (like ELI), it just has to be the right kind of people — reflective, critical, and engaged. It sounds like you didn’t have enough of the right kind of people around you … at the end of the day listening to someone talk about building their online personal brand is great fuel for an engaged and smart counter group to wrestle the conversation away. I’m looking forward to getting to hang out and do that again with you soon!

  3. Brad says:

    Man, tell us how you really feel.

    This post is encouragingly human, I applaud it. Well-voiced!

    • Reverend says:

      @Andy,

      Are you all right? 🙂

      @Cole,

      I have to be honest, my company was quite good, I spent the time with Tom Woodward and Pumpkiny, as well as some other good folks. I just think the tenor of the conference—which I must say I was expecting a lot from—was far less stellar than so many had suggested. Though, I too am looking forward to hanging with you, because ELI was a blast for just that reason.

      @Brad,

      I learn from the best.

  4. Is this it?

    http://odeo.com/episodes/24353935-http-audio-sxsw-com-2009-podcasts-D2-SXSW_PODCASTS-031409_AM1_Lv4_RM18_TipsForMakingIdeasHappen-mp3

    I love the idea of having the _luxury_ to be disconnected. Especially when tied to your last post about the iron muzzle. *shudder* is the internet connection a yoke for social control?

    ps. it took 72 seconds for the first content to display so I could even see the form to post this comment…

  5. Reverend says:

    @D’Arcy,

    No, that’s not Sterling, I saw that audio file too, but it’s another session about “making ideas happen.”

    72 seconds, huh? I don’t know what’s up, I just deactivated all my plugins, let me know if it’s faster. I’ll be doing a trial and error of stuff. It seems faster for me, but I have gears working as well.

  6. I’d have to say Sterling misses the bullseye on this one. In fact, he has it backwards.

    The real issue isn’t connectivity, but control of access and interruption.

    Everyone is being connected, even the poor, by cell phones, as t he become cheap commodities; but the rich were the first to adopt them in the 80s and early 90s when there were expensive. They will not give them up or ever be unconnected.

    However. the difference is who can control being unconnected as they choose to. This is not new — those is power have always known the importance of the power to control access to themselves. The more power one has, the powerful one’s gatekeepers must be. My boss can interrupt me at any time, but I cannot interrupt my boss. M boss goes on vacation, and the only one who can reach them is their boss. But they can reach us anytime. Etc.

    Digital is no different.

    So Sterling has it right, but backwards: connectivity is not any indicator of poverty, rather impoverishment means a lack of power, which means being at the beck and call of the powerful – and the powerful want their servants to be always connected to serve them.

  7. Leslie M-B says:

    If you deactivate all your plugins, how will we know when some of us womenfolk crack the Bava top 10 commenters? 🙂

  8. Reverend says:

    @Randy (I replied here and there and everywhere 😉 )

    Awesome stuff here, and to be fair to Sterling, I took his ideas and ran with them, he may have been thinking very much along the same lines as you here. That is kinda why I was hoping I could find the audio. That said, the whole idea of thinking about connectivity as a kind of disempowerment was remarkable to me at the time I heard it in the session. You re-frame it beautifully here, but for me at SXSW it was kind of cathartic. It was a moment wherein the idea of being connected through all these forms and tools was not some kind of utopian hippie vision of the new open web of knowledge and free love, it was a bunch of gerbils on a wheel spinning endlessly til we are devoured or die. The idea of connectivity in regards to the ideas of the 90s and the digital divide seemed so fascinatingly wrong in retrospect when Sterling was discussing it.

    One thing that is interesting to me is how connectivity differs from access. Connectivity is the act of being connected within a network, but the fact that we are connected does not necessarily mean that we have access to the resources within a network. For example, we can be connected to a video on the web, but we can’t necessarily access it in the sense of being able to download it, re-mix, etc. Access is limited by ideas of law, power, and ownership. In fact, we are in many ways hyper-connected, but have very few rights and ownership over the resources we connect with in an online ecosystem. This may be changing, but the very idea of connectivity as poverty may just as well be understood in terms of a larger cultural poverty given our inability to truly access the resources around us—even though we can watch them or hear them. I’m thinking here about our inability to share or re-contextualize the majority of things online without fear of repercussions.

    The same could be said for people as well, you can connect to people via twitter, even celebrities like Obama, Steve Buscemi and the like, but do you have access to them? I mean the idea of access online is an interesting one, and I think the very idea of connectivity is assuming a lot, I’m not sure we even have that, and the power structure has changed a bit because the veneer of being connected and somehow in charge of one’s online network is ever more championed. Yet, but what if the means of taking hold of our identities through connectivity online were exactly the opposite? What if we were losing them? I don’t know, I like your explanation better, but I’m currently lost online, and circular comments help to keep me in that suspended state 🙂

  9. Reverend says:

    Leslie M-B,

    It is purely a temporary lull until D’Arcy and Scott get off my back at how slow the bava has been. And I have to admit, it has always been a dog, but it has been a major dog these days. The commenting plugins is one of the one;s that has been slowing it own, so I have to optimize it before it goes back up, but believe you me it will! 🙂

  10. Gardner says:

    For what it’s worth, I think Randy’s got it right. The issue is indeed access, not connectivity. I also want to say that to-Twitter-or-not-to-Twitter isn’t a very fruitful question for me. No communications channel is immune to abuse. Twitter works for me in terms of network, information, ambient awareness, presence stream, etc. When our panel refused to use it for the backchannel, the impression we gave was not one of purity or ideological action. It was one of snobbery. I agree that SXSW was hyperbranded and anti-intellectual in many respects, but I don’t think the answer is to build our own Internet and para-communication channels. (I don’t think that’s what you’re suggesting, either.) Lots of blogging out there that’s just about hot buttons du jour and quick networking fixes, but that’s no reason not to sing the blogosphere electric.

  11. Reverend says:

    Gardner,

    I agree with you agreeing with Randy, and I think the relationship between connectivity and access is a murky one, and the tension between the two may be a generative space to think through some of these questions of empowerment, “liberation,” and control online. It’s cool because the whole idea of connectivity as poverty, or access as power was for me a revelatory moment at SXSW, and it actually put many of these questions in some kind of momentary focus.

    As for Twitter, I don’t necessarily have an issue with it, I just have an issue with the way people (particularly at SXSW this year) were so reverent of the whole space and idea. It was kind of scary to think that what the technology enable (and it enables a lot) is immediately reduced to how it can be monetized and used for “personal marketing,” online branding and the lie. I just think it sucks so much of the power an life out of these tools. Not to mention the fact that there is a real element of data sharecropping going on as D’Arcy notes about Twitter ans o many of these sources. And I am not trying to be a TEOTWAWKI freak by any means, but I think a lack of any critical examination of these relationships is frightening. We are handing over all sorts of power in the form of access, rights, and ownership to mega corporations, and they may not necessarily be “evil”—but the idea of access and connectivity are the crux of this relationship we have willing jumped into.

    As for using Stephen’s homegrown system as opposed to Twitter at the EDUPUNK panel, I agree, that was a mistake—but I also think the audience back channel gripes were a larger incarnation of the vision of entrepreneur as savior and technologist as visionary. It’s a problematic idea, and I don’t think that there was much in the way of real thought about the implications of using the master’s tools. That said, the problem of building your own is just as fraught with issues, and it puts us in a very particular moment. One of the promises of Web 2.0 in my mind was the multiplicity of possibilities, and the idea that while nothing was ever certain, the idea of consolidation and centralization of all this data was not of issue—however, that has increasingly become the case as a couple of companies own basically all the tools I use online. That is of concern to me, and it seems like to embrace SPLJ, you have to let go of that. But are we really still in a moment of SPLJ? I’m not sure, cause while we still have the loose, the pieces ain’t that small anymore, they are part of a larger engine of online corproate consolidation. WordPress is one of the few apps that I use that I still feel like I have some control over, and that is one of almost 10–not a good ratio.

  12. Steven Egan says:

    The following was written before reading even half the comments to prevent me loosing the ideas in it. Simply put, there are different kind of connections. Access could be compared to what I’ve referred to as active connections.

    Connectivity can lead to the empowerment needed to improve ones connections and become unconnected to the normal people. That’s what I get out of this. The massive number of active connections is a reaction to the individual’s need (poverty). Those who are blessed and use their connections well (along with a bunch of other things, can become empowered (rich). Once empowered they refine (limit) their connections, because doing and connecting both take time and effort. When doing becomes more valued than connecting, doing takes up more time. Some however get to the point where their reputation gets them in like time and dedication do for most.

    So, the power of the person could be compared to potential connections, the power of their network, while the need/poverty of a person can be compared to the abundance of active connections.

    This is a good comparison to learning. When learning you make connections to empower yourself. Teachers, faculty, communities and more are all added to your active connections, because you have needs that drive you to make connections. After learning, you don’t need the massive number of connections to be active, just potential. So, you look into refining your active connections to just those that don’t waste your time and are the most beneficial. You cut yourself off from the distractions. You do. Then, your reputation increases your potential connections, if things went well.

  13. bbq says:

    A side note: has anyone found the audio/video of Bruce’s talk yet? There was definitely at least one person in the audience recording video.

  14. Great post, Jim!

    I hesitate to say much, now, without having access to Chairman Bruce’s text. As one should expect from provocative talks, I have lots of pushback in mind. How would Sterling see Grameen Bank projects, which increasingly depend on mobile phones for infrastructure – impoverishment, or the opposite? Why does he conflate all kinds of connectivity, when the gap between highspeed and lowspeed is so large and determining? Steven Egan hits this.

    And, of course, much to agree with. As D’Arcy puts it, wealth won for itself the privilege of being disconnected (which means hiring people to be connected for you) (and helps explain my hotel internet law). Randy names it rightly as a question of power.

    I have yet to make it to a SXSW, but what I’ve heard of this year’s somewhat cools my ardor to do so next year.

    • Reverend says:

      Bryan,

      I, like you, wanted to hear the audio again before I posted about this, but impatience got the better of me. I may be re-framing his ideas, and I freely admit that. Although, I did like the way a very simple thought brought so many of my own assumptions about connectivity, power, uneven development, and the poverty of networks into yet another light. I don’t think he meant “connectivity” in the broad sense I am using it here, he even noted that his twitter audience was a far better audience than the one at SXSW. However, within that thread there was also some deep misgivings about the whole idea of audience now, which is yet another interesting frame here.

      But to your points, the Grameen Bank would be a perfect example of how that impoverishment of connectivity is not unilateral, which can be applied to OERs for “developing nations.” Connectivity is in many ways not the issue, the digital divide along the lines of bandwidth does exist, or imagining of it didn’t account for the mobile revolution (one which you have been talking about brilliantly for years, and that the US is a poor frame for). In other words, it makes total sense the Grameen Bank would be depending on a Mobile Infrastructure, and that suggests the fact that connectivity is available in these alternate (or possible dominant) forms and for us to think (us here refers to the US p.o.v.) about access to networks as a figure of cable model privilege may be all wrong. Rather it’s increasingly a necessity for the impoverished, and along those lines frames a whole different understanding of the connotations of being connected—-is it a luxury?—or is it in many ways a necessity for re-imagining infrastructure. And if some who depends upon it? Does this make any sense?

      And the question of power relations is definitely at the heart of this question, and I think in many ways the pervasive ideology of the individual has obscured many of the ways we think through this idea of power. So often we understand our idea of networks as a singular point emanating many connections, we’re the hub of our own idea of network. But I wonder if this very idea is dangerous in that it assumes those power relations as a kind of will to engage or be present. There’s a kind of mythos emerging online with all this individual branding and micro global brands that seems very much in line with the unique figure in history, which ignores the social and power relations that makes this possible. And there are nodes of pwoer in these networks that often try to elide that very reality. And none of this is aided by the fact that so many of our tools are sharecropped by large, mega online corporations.

      The individual as a figure of power in this space almost often precludes the possibility of some kind of collective action—but that is over statement. I just think that the figure of the network as it has been theorized has some real questions that arise around many of those issues of power and how it can be “leveraged” 😉

  15. Chris L says:

    I like Bruce Sterling. A lot. But like most of us he can miss the boat in spectacular fashion. The characterization I’m hearing makes it sound like he has done so– or he’s given in to the popular keynote tactic of contrarianism and/or inversion of metaphor to get attention.

    Randy and Gardner have it right. And there are a few more levels beside connectivity and access (you point to one of them, which you call access but I think is something different).

    Connectivity as impoverishment has a nice, counter-cybercultural sound but I don’t see a lot of “there” there beyond the standard call to consciousness and paying attention.

  16. heather gold says:

    Thanks for your feedback. I’m always open to learning. I’m also looking forward to listening to Bruce Sterling’s talk online as I was unable to make it at the conference.

  17. jalexanderny says:

    Reminded me of this watch for those who had the luxury of not needing to know the time:

    http://blogs.wsj.com/wealth/2008/04/25/the-300000-watch-that-doesnt-tell-time/

    • Reverend says:

      @jalexanderny

      That’s brilliant, I got to get me one of those, and only $300,000? I guess Thorstein Veblen’s whole idea of conspicuous consumption has never been more relevant, and the idea of capitalism premised on some kind of enlightened/rational thought can’t account for how truly irrational people can be when it comes to refining distinctions.

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