Landscapes of Global Capital
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Even in ads promoting firms with a stake in the future of a cybersociety based on a cybereconomy, there remains an effort to periodically return to "grounding'" images -- particularly to maps of land, or traditional landscapes and vistas. In the following sequence of images drawn from an MCI Worldcom ad, notice the imagery of land and maps.

The MCI Worldcom ad takes us on a narrative trajectory from the transcontinental railroad as a world-historic event to the fiber-optic networks of data, voice and television transmission. The emerging historical reality does indeed have a material referent that lies behind it -- the materiality of fiber-optic networks of broadband capacity as a means of data-transmission is rapidly unfolding as the core of the new capitalism. In a self-congratulatory way, the MCI Worldcom ad heralds the transition from one stage of capitalism to another. It is the transition to fast Internet, where internet refers to a vast channel of commerce and entertainment and education available through faster chips, speedier modems and broadband capacity.

First, let's watch this MCI WorldCom commercial. We have also selected scenes from the ad to talk about landscape narratives. In the top row we've pulled out three images used to convey a sense of the transition from a preindustrial and agrarian society to a full market economy. Each scene has taken pains to frame the historical epoch as grounded in the land. In the first scene, the vast landscape of the American West lies before the railroad train. In the second scene we see the preindustrial labor that accomplished the task of muscling railroad track across the US; they are shot from the ground up. Then there is this superimposition of a map of the states spanned by the route of the railroad over a scene of men and horses building the railroad. If we consider each scene as a signifier of the building of the modern, industrial era, how then do we make sense of the following scenes taken as signifiers?

MCI07-98 MCI07-98 MCI07-98
MCI07-98 MCI07-98 MCI07-98
It was the merger of the largest railroads in America.
and it touched everyone.
For when the last spike was driven into the last tie,
America was officially open for business.
'East and west have come together' intones a background voice.

And now, it's happening again
A new and critical link has been formed.
Two of the largest networks on earth have just become one,
with capacity so vast it can carry all the data traffic of all the other carriers combined.
To more places around the world than any other network.
Introducing MCI Worldcom
Now the world, is officially open for business.

The golden beam of energy released by that last symbolic spike carries us directly into representations of the information age. Though the transition is abrupt, the meaning is easy -- the laborer's sledgehammer driving the famous "golden" spike that united East and West by railroad line also inaugurates the new era of global, as opposed to national, integration.

The information age has replaced the steel and iron based industrial age. All of the signifiers in the bottom row are marked by a diagonal beam -- the channel of information and entertainment and business. The ad moves here from the completely abstract, ultramodern rendering of the information infrastructure - a space inhabited by no people to a surreal scene of a young girl posed as if on a rock lipping a grand canyon. This plays out as a postmodern landscape, a now surreal landscape of nature redrawn to suggest a heavenly flow of information through it. Nature has been stylized, the meaning of rivers giving way to technologized flows. The sketch of the information age and the role of MCI Worldcom as telecommunications visionaries, culminates with a peculiarly postmodern rendition of the city of the future -- where a stream of information that was just the river beam turns into the audiovisual metaphor of the information superhighway, a slogan introduced in 1992 by Al Gore. The highspeed beams of light are accompanied by the aural signifiers of speed -- like the whooshing sounds of jet engines, when applied to information this signifies the rapid movement of data. Here then is your picture of a liberated new society built over the relics of our past, but transcending now outmoded and clumsy production practices. The fiberoptic network (the light beam) supplied by MCI Worldcom forms the axis of a future city (society) blended from signifiers of the stately modern era (the rotunda) and the Greco-Roman ruins (parthenon-like) of the classic era. The energy beam cuts a path through this landscape, concentrating the vitality and hope of the human spirit which has been building to a crescendo in the music and the singing voices on the background sound track. It is our future, in contrast to the decaying MATERIAL landscapes of prior political states. The contrast is dramatic.

This last image suggests a concentrated symbolic effort on the part of the advertiser. How shall we interpret this scene in the MCI Worldcom? Does this scene reiterate their historical vision of technological evolution - are these the stages of western history -- from Greco-Roman to the European nation-state to the transnational blur of information streams? Why does the light beam flow through the relics and the ruins of past nation states? Has the material landscape become relatively immaterial to our possibilities of future well-being, all concentrated in that beam of energy "with capacity so vast it can carry all the data traffic of all the other carriers combined. To more places around the world than any other network"?

Still if we consider the same scene from the perspective Manuel Castells' (1996) argument about the Digital Information Age we might see an attempt to capture the idea that

"society, now aided by the necessary digital technology, is rapidly reorganizing itself around networks, a kind of infinitely adaptable organism that has no center - unlike traditional governments - and no geographic boundaries. Networks are not a new invention. But thanks to light-speed technology, such as the Internet, networks have multiplied and strengthened, eclipsing the importance of traditional institutions, such as governments, single corporate entities, and geographically-defined communities."
Networks, Castells says, are now the preeminent means by which society is organized. The consequences are profound. Networks, he says, will shatter the relevance of being in a particular locality.
"Communities of interest are formed through these electronic networks with remarkable speed and ease. The round-the-clock flow of capital, in and out of world financial markets almost instantaneously, is one example. The Internet is another, enabling individuals to pursue interests among the like-minded, with decreasing participation in the institutions that make up the community in which they live."

MCI WorldCom's landscape imagery at the end is an attempt to capture these kinds of relations -- round the clock flows of capital and information that make the nation-state an anachronism. While this may be the outcome of great historical accomplishments in the Worldcom narrative, the imagery itself seems beyond history -- on the one hand, the product of photographic artifice; on the other hand, agency in the form of human beings also disappears.

Representing capital
Constructing the new global landscape
  • Scapes of globalization
Grand narratives and global representation
Narratives & representation revisited
The grand narrative of sign value

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