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Human Capital in the Digital City: A Few Questions about Class and Netroots


In my post last week, I talked about how, beginning in the mid-1970s, capitalism and technology, working for each other, produced a new regime that quietly dissolved the old pact between capital and labor. From then on, this new regime of capital started laying the foundation for the time of the Internet that was to emerge about two decades later in the mid-1990s. It helps to state the obvious here once again: Capitalism and technology produced the Internet, again working for each other as always, and also as always, both more or less contributing equally to the enterprise. The Internet in turn quite rapidly began to facilitate the free circulation of humans, products, and information. People whose profession involves producing, analyzing, and circulating money, words, codes, data, audio, video, and images (the so-called crowd); editors; writers; movie producers; media content-providers; designers; investment bankers; currency traders; and even salespeople (thanks to e-commerce, e-Bay, and others–and let’s not forget that sales used to depend on so-called "face-time") can live and work anywhere in the world as long as they’re wired, for institutions and entities not necessarily located where they live and work.

In order to render this post’s discursive narrative coherent and as understandable as possible, let’s distill here one sentence from my last post: Capitalism and technology together produced a teletopia where the duration of time and the extension of space have been erased. Now comes the alarming part: In the new full-blown regime of the Internet, time and space have long been superseded by the absolute speed of the time of capital: the speed of what Paul Virilio in "The Overexposed City" has called time-light: that is, the time it takes to transmit data–the speed of light. And now in the first decade of the Third Millennium, the condominium of capitalism-technology–that high-tech Janus–has liberated human life completely from the boundaries of space and even abolished all together the need for travel as we know it. From this point on, the task of capital is to ensure the optimal mobilization of information and, from sunrise to sunset and also overnight, to work against the viscosity of a complex social body that might obstruct this mobilization: as examples: civil-rights movements; radical intellectuals; community activists; and, in this age of the blogosphere, progressive netroots (there’s an irony in this latter that I will disclose later. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves).

In a seminal essay published in 1987 in the first issue of Zone, just about one decade before the Internet became widely available to consumers, Eric Alliez and Michel Feher, "The Luster of Capital," the authors seemed to have anticipated the human life online that the Internet would produce when they contrasted the brick-and-mortar world of the old system with the new one:

Before this new system of capital emerged, the traditional laborer moved everyday from the "space" of home to that of work, and vice-versa. These days home and work are fused in a fluid time-space. We’re all enslaved completely by time and capital, free to invest in ourselves, with various machines at our disposal, to produce valued time. We’ve all become new "human capitals," now producing valued time in order to consume time valued…Capital has provided the Time used to produce and save Time, the saved Time subject to the law of commodities. One is rich because one has saved time (that is, money), and one poor because one has less saved time (again, less money). The poor or the homeless, the unemployed or the unskilled have no valued or stored time, but only "naked, real, or actual" time that no employer wants to buy, not even at a discount. (The unemployed and unskilled have their own naked time(s) to waste. ) However, both employer and employee are also enslaved by the Time of Capital, since both are incorporated into the machine of global capital: The former simply has more money at his/her disposal to buy more machines to enable her/him to buy more machines to enable him/her to produce and to save more time in order to enjoy (to consume) more time, and so on and so on.

We get the picture. This human capital engages in the optimal maximization of time and is highly skilled at so-called multitasking. This human capital, jetting around the globe to network, is equipped with: laptop with wireless card or chip (this to tap into numerous "hot-spots" in cafes in world cities); cellphone with SIM cards (or a Blackberry) for voice connections across the globe; and various other gadgets too numerous to adumbrate here. Sometimes you see her/him in cafes working on his/her laptop while also talking on the cellphone and also drinking latte. In all of these "spaces," s/he works in an environment that has no relationship to real time as such. In other words, there is a distinction between "present time" (the time present to the viewer on the laptop monitor), and the "real time" most of us live in, in our brick-and-mortar, block-buildings, mostly visceral everyday life.,

This human capital lives in a "digital city," which is a contemporary world city (as examples: New York, Los Angeles, London, Berlin, Hong Kong, and so on) that has become a fluid terrain of multiple lines of flight, as well as a shifting zone of intensities and forces. This cosmopolis is "overexposed" in the sense that Paul Virilio talked about in "The Overexposed City." At this point, the city no longer occupies a piece of space– nor is it even a geographical position. For some time now, these world cities have existed in electronic topologies: They are not determined by the spatial grid of streets and avenues but by electronic freeway systems where humans and machines interface. Before the emergence of digital cities, traditional cities had circadian alternations of night and day. In digital cities, however, with the glow of televisions and computer monitors, daylight itself has changed, replaced by an artificial electronic day whose calendar is based on the telecommuting of information that has no relation to real time as such.

This human capital is obviously a corporate exec who probably owns a private Lear jet, a huge yacht, a McMansion, and so on. But this human capital could also be…er, a member of progressive netroots working for social justice for the poor, fighting poverty, and in general advocating for the have-nots of all stripes. How could this be so, you might ask yourself. Who appointed this human capital as a "change agent" (to use the common parlance of the day) of the poor, who are often mistakenly and sometimes arrogantly believed to be inarticulate, therefore needing representation, as it were. Who gave this person the cultural authority to do all these things?

(Consider the following supreme irony: according to the paradigm of Time and value and storage spelled out above, in which Time (as prison) is the only factor in the production and consumption of Time, the leftist progressive blogger has to buy some time out on furlough [as it were] with some time that s/he has saved in order to think a post, type, cut and paste, rewrite, edit, and tweak it again and again with the prodding of a [blog)] editor, before s/he finally clicks Saved…although some lucky bloggers get paid and make a living from blogging…)

In a (to my eyes) brilliant article in 2006, Pachacutec argued that in this first decade of the 21st century, the US is operating defacto with a three-party system instead of the two we’ve been deadened with for most of the history of the country, and he identified these three parties as (1) DC/K Elites; (2) Grassroots Theocrats; and (3) Grassroots Progressives. I find what he said about the latter, which is none other than our own progressive netroots, quite interesting and fascinating:

Grassroots Progressives: This new, emerging power center in American politics is making its bid for ascendancy as an alternative to the ruling coalition of the previously described two parties. It seeks to forge an alliance of secularists, pro-pluralist religionists, information elites on the Internet, working people and anyone not among the super-rich (including poor and middle class urbanites, suburbanites and small farmers). It also seeks to include privacy advocates and members of the creative class, including creators of music, software and films. It has created its own media arm on the Internet, of which this blog is a part, and it also gets its message out virally through independent films like Iraq for Sale. It supports the traditional, pro-pluralist understanding of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and therefore supports things like civil rights and due process. Members of this emerging coalition believe government should be a servant of the needs of innovative businesses and common people neglected or largely disenfranchised by the DC/K Street Elitists and the Theocrats.

(My bold except for the name of the party)

MSM pundits and talk-show hosts like to disparage netroots, especially progressive netroots, as rife with pampered, rich, trust-fund brats who can afford to work in their pajamas. This exhausted topos has been repeated ad nauseam, so much so that it is now part of quotidian MSM argot, that I will not even bother to link it. But then again we’re obliged to ask: Are they right? Do they have a point? Can many progressive netroots members come from the middle- and upper-middle class and still have legitimate "rights"–so to speak–to advocate for the poor and fight for social justice on behalf of the underprivileged? This phenomenon sort of skews the conventional discourse on class in the US, doesn’t it? Maybe the issue of class is no longer the simple polarity between rich and poor that dear old Marx formulated; maybe the issue is considerably more complicated in this first decade of the 21st century, when Internet access is available to the poor in public libraries, albeit for a limited amount of time per day (two hours in Minneapolis, where I have my own brick-and-mortar existence). Maybe. So many maybes…

And please by all means, let the debate(s) begin.

(Biodun Iginla)

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Biodun Iginla

Biodun Iginla

Biodun Iginla has published nine novels, including LOVE IN THIS TIME OF SILICON, A CYBER ROMANCE I-V, a series of five novels, THE SEX DIARY OF A PROFESSOR, and one nonfiction book, THE REGIMES OF CAPITAL AND TECHNOLOGY, and is also an online full-time senior news analyst for BBC out of London, UK, and a freelance writer, editor, and political blogger who divides his time between Minneapolis, London, and Paris. He writes mostly about (international) politics, capitalism, globalization, technology, and culture--and can be reached at He also freelances full-time for BBC News World Servce. Please visit his political blog at to see his cross-posts on the BBC News website: He is currently working on another novel, RAMBLINGS OF SOMEONE AT THE EDGE.