Landscapes of Global Capital
tv globe icon link to home Representing the internet era

To call our times an age of transition is to understate the obvious. Deindustrialization, outsourcing, downsizing, the development of semiconductor and networking technologies, and the rise of the Internet are all forces dramatically wrenching the labor force and the conditions of workplaces. New jobs replace old jobs at a more and more rapid pace. Given all of this, how do work relations get represented in a world of ads where work relations are rarely addressed directly?

A 1996 campaign by Digital Equipment (a computer maker) was particularly interesting insofar as it actually posed questions about what the future of the Internet will mean to us?

The Internet will be the biggest thing to hit business since the industrial revolution.
The Internet will be nothing more than a chat line for physicists and video-game addicts.
Someday your web address will be more important than your phone number.
One day on the Internet, a modern-day Attila the Hun will loot and pillage all in his path.
One day on the Internet the Colonel's secret formula will whiz past the secret formula for Pepsi.
There are many visions of what the Internet will become. The truth is no one really knows what is going to happen. But as the computer company with the most Internet experience we've learned to engineer systems that anticipate this vast uncertainty, so that you and your company can approach it as one huge opportunity.
Digital. Whatever it takes.

And what will be the role of labor in a world shaped by digital technologies? The ad poses questions, but claims to offer no answers, save that Digital will "engineer systems that anticipate this vast uncertainty," turning the Internet from a vast uncertain terrain into a field of great opportunity. Putting aside for a moment the rhetorical analysis of the text, one of the ad's primary visual metaphors offers an avenue of inquiry into the relationship between labor and technology. Metaphorically the advertiser has chosen to portray the landscape as a system of gears. Gears, the heart and soul of the industrial age, became an image favored by both supporters and critics of capitalist machine production.

The Digital Equipment ad opens with gears forming a vertical axis across the world of mechanical industry. The heroic worker in the age of industrial production supplies the muscle that moves the gears, and the gears define a mode of industrial production. Sculpted workers shown sweating, straining and laboring in this world appear sturdy, male and muscular, their representations reminiscent of the style of "socialist realism" with its larger than life laborers. This was "heavy" industry. However, do the images of gears turning, intermeshing, continue to make sense of the opportunities and the limits that we encounter as we enter a digital age? They do not, and that perhaps is the underlying meaning of this ad.

A visual metaphor for Post-fordism?
As the question is posed again, "What will the Internet be?" the landscape imagery changes. In the Digital Equipment commercial, the gears are still present, but this time they form the horizontal plane of the landscape. They now form a landscape of turning, intermeshing gears. This offers a symbolic glimpse of the new landscape of the corporation. This is a landscape of Post-Fordism as ideology and organizational structure. Like the inner gears of a fine watch, the precision movement suggests a fully rationalized organizational flow freed up from some of the bureaucratic constraints (blockages and bottlenecks) that characterized the previous era. Still, the constant calculus of movement and meshing can introduce risk into the movement of business pedestrians crossing the landscape -- the visual reference for "vast uncertainty" is the spiked heel of a woman's shoe striking the surface of one gear after lightly leaping across the danger zone of intermeshing gear teeth.

Digital is offering up here a considerable redefinition of work relations. The worker is no longer a cog in the machine, always in danger of being caught in the grinding steel grip of machines; rather, the workplace is now as seen as individuals who move with purpose and direction across this terrain formed by circulating gears. The interrelated cogs still present a metaphor for the logic of large-scale corporate bureaucracies, but minus the behemoth imagery of the white-collar era. Look again at the contrast between the gears as the vertical axis of the industrial era and the horizontal plane of the digital era. The latter appears free and open.

We also see that the social relations of production have changed in these representations. Noticeably, the male figure that predominated in the age of heroic work when muscle drove the gears has been supplanted by equally young, but female figures in tailored suits and high heels who seek, and manage, paths across the landscape of moving, turning gears.

These images may be read dialectically. Digital does invite viewers to recognize a moment of risk and uncertainty. The benefit of gears in the mechanical era turned into frustration and misdirection in the early digital era, placing limits on productivity. While such barriers may now have been transcended, even in this new era of "flattened" organizations, we may notice that in a world of spinning intermeshing paths, there are still perils of mis-timing, mis-steps and uncertain knowledge.

Consider how a track of fiber lines now appears, parallel to, but beneath the surface plane of gears. Notice, how this reference to semiconductors and digital networks resembles the euphemistic "information highway," straight and true. In this imagistic narrative offered by Digital Equipment the landscape of gears has turned from an obstacle to increasing efficiency to a means of opportunity. This is the continuous motion of a fully integrated capitalist production system that no longer relies on muscle power. Benign as its seems to be, could it also be partially obscuring (partially blocking?) access to the streamlined new landscape emerging from below?

In the one minute version of the ad there are also references to futuristic landscapes that evolve out of a digitalized world. One scene even places a transparent mask of flying binaries over other scenes to signify this digitalization. This leads to Digital's imaginative rendering of a virtual world in which the simulacrum structures perception, its background composed like a wallpaper design illustrating the mechanical reproduction of images/reality/consciousness. This is a landscape of reproductions. This is what has now become referred to as a virtual landscape, and it is offered as one possible landscape of the future. Of interest here is the fact that in the world of replicated copies, it is only woman and not man who appears on the landscape, perhaps an inadvertent sign that cloning technologies -- the biotechnological product of digitalization -- will make the male redundant?

New Economic Formations
Commodification
Social Relations of Production
Information Economy

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© Copyright 1998-2003
Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey