In the ten days following the earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital, Americans used text messaging to donate over $30 million. Text messaging has been prominent in the news as of late. Candidate Obama shocked supporters by announcing his vice presidential pick using this new medium. In 2008, Nielson reported that the average teen sends a whopping 2,272 messages a month. A new term, “sexting,” entered popular usage following several high profile cases of teens being expelled or even charged with distribution of child pornography. The Pew Internet and American Life Center reported in 2009 that 15% of teens ages 12-17 received sexually explicit images of people they know. Texting has proven the most dangerous common distraction to drivers. The first images of the plane that crash-landed in the Hudson were uploaded to the Web from the cell phone of a passenger on a nearby boat. The incident was also Twittered by a survivor. Then, of course, there were the protests to the recent Iranian elections, which used personal mobile communication devices to subvert state-run media.
Each of these incidences share a common theme: traditional practices were supplanted in favor of a new set of behaviors associated with mobile communications. That’s the what, but as a social theorist, I suggest we also ought to consider the why. I think Zymgunt Bauman, a remarkably prolific octogenarian sociologist, has a lot to offer us here. Bauman famously speaks of “liquid modernity” where traditional social structures are melting away and fading ambiguously into one another. He argues that things which are liquid, flowing, and mobile tend to undo things which are rigid, solid, and stable.
Mobile communication networks increasingly provide concrete examples supporting Bauman’s theory and Haiti is only the latest instance. The cell phone has made transferring money more immediate, more flexible, and simpler than even the credit card. People need only reach into their pockets for a device which is already profoundly integrated into their lives and dial a few numbers. Within seconds, the transaction is complete and money has flowed from one node in the network to another. The power of such fluid networks is that, with minimal cost in time and money (most were $10 contributions) to individuals, enormous resources can be mobilized. The political implications of this new fluid and hyper-networked reality should not be lost on us.
“Mobile giving to help Haiti exceeds $30 million” by Suzanne Choney
“Teaching and Learning Guide for: Social Implications of Mobile Telephony: The Rise of Personal Communication Society” by Scott W. Campbell and Yong Jin Park
by nathan jurgenson
Google announced that its new operating system, Chrome OS, will be free of charge. Further, it is designed to operate in the “cloud,” meaning that most of its functionality will exist online, using internet applications like GMail and Google Documents instead of programs installed on a hard drive (as Windows does). The free cloud-based operating system is designed to run on smaller, lighter “netbooks” -a bright spot in the computer market in these tough economic times. I previously wrote about the transumer and virtual goods as evidence of Zygmunt Bauman’s liquidity thesis that exchange online is following a lighter and more fluid path. These developments further underscore the relevancy of Bauman’s thinking, and beg the question: is the digital economy approaching a sort of ‘weightless capitalism’?
Chris Anderson’s new book, Free, tackles just this sort of emergent business trend online. The marginal cost to produce digital items approaches zero because microprocessing, storage and bandwidth are increasingly cheaper. Another factor that applies to many Web 2.0 companies is that much of the content production is out-sourced to the consumers. That is, we are the prosumers of Facebook because we are simultaneously the producers and consumers of it. The result is that we do not have to directly pay to use Google’s services, or for things like Facebook, Flickr, Yelp and so on.
When products are free and labor is often done without pay, we have near-weightless capitalism.
by nathan jurgenson
During this “great recession” capitalism might become lighter and more liquid while older and more solidified traditions wash away in the flux of unstable markets (potentially an economic “reboot,” similar to Schumpeter’s notion of capitalism as “creative destruction”). Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquidity” thesis about our late-modern world becoming more fluid seems relevant in light of the “transumer” and “virtual commodities”, both having received recent attention.
The transumer (video) is, in part, one who encounters “stuff” temporarily as opposed to accumulating it permanently. Zipcar, Netflix and others mentioned articulate that for many, especially the young and/or wealthy, the physical amassing of “stuff” is unwanted and instead have begun to rent items people once accumulated. “Stuff”, for many, is decreasingly allowed to solidify on our shelves and in our attics, instead flowing in a more liquid and nimble sense through consumers’ lives.
Another article discusses the rise of “virtual goods” -digital commodities such as gifts on Facebook or weapons on World of Warcraft. Again, the trend is towards “lighter” exchange as opposed to the solid and heavier exchange of physical goods. Microsoft was Bauman’s example of “light capitalism”, producing light products such as software, which is, opposed to heavier items such as automobiles, more changeable and disposable. The proliferation of virtual goods also exemplifies this trend.
Going further, one might wonder if we are seeing a further lightening towards a “weightless capitalism”. Facebook is valued at $10billion because it merely created a template that is editable by its users. While not completely weightless (because Facebook still needs to maintain servers that host the site and the offices of its programmers), the site approaches a sort of weightless capitalism because it outsources the heavy labor to its users. The site is liquid in that it is not solid and fixed, but rather open to, indeed, dependent on, user input. Because consumers of Facebook (i.e., us) are also producing content and value for the site, we are “prosumers” (producers of that which we consume). Is it the case that “weightless capitalism” is “prosumer capitalism”, and Facebook the paradigmatic case? ~nathan
Virtual Goods May Be a Blip
The Intersecting Roles of Consumer and Producer: A Critical Perspective on Co-production, Co-creation and Prosumption