Landscapes of Global Capital
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TV imagery of technotopia privileges technology over the capital that guides and motivates it. It assumes that new technical innovations (the synergistic relationship between technology and technique) will result in social formations that are more humanistic. Commercials that embrace the teleology of technotopia prefer to blend images of computer graphics with paleosymbolic scenes of deeply human experiences: love, suffering, play, transcendence. Ideologically, these ads suggest that technological innovation enhances positive human experiences, empowering people to act in more human ways with one another. This approach taps deep human feelings of care and concern and allows us to act on those feelings by presenting narratives of empowerment. This vision distances Technotopia from a cold rational world in which human action is regulated by a plan, and situates it instead in a warm caring world where individuals are enabled to act on feeling and emotion.

For example, a 1999 ad campaign for SAP featuring their Mysap.com product, constructs a 30-second virtual city, which they call "the city of e." SAP03-99This eCommerce Eden appears at first as a hologram -- floating translucent skyscrapers with a digital grid superimposed over them. Within this hologram are rotating, layered multimedia screens lettered with the words speed, high tech, internet, information. These are the vectors of the present day technotopia. One commercial features a first-world father entering the city of e to buy soccer uniforms for his daughter's team that he coaches. Another commercial shows successful businessmen entering the city in order to streamline deals. In a third commercial a female doctor in a third world setting draws on it to buy medicines.

SAP03-99 SAP03-99

The last of these commercials about ministering to Africa's poor mixes technology and humanitarianism. Kate is a doctor in a jungle. She sits at a computer in a warehouse filled with patients. She is caucasian; her patients are black. A woman in a dark turban fans the young child seated on her lap. Perhaps the child is feverish. The doctor enters MySAP.com's virtual city and points to the screen. The holographic city appears; the doctor is superimposed behind it, creating the illusion that she is in it.

The whispered voice of a male narrator lends these images a storyline. The imagery illustrates the narrative.

Kate works in the city of e
The first virtual place on the internet
Built by "mySAP."
Used by ten thousand companies and millions of people
When she needs medical supplies her choices are endless
The world is her market
And by saving hours of time and thousands of dollars
She helps saves something more important than both
Mysap.com
Welcome to the city of e

By "sav[ing] something more important than both" time and money, Kate is enabled to give a child a spoonful of medicine. The child makes a face as she takes the medicine, prompting the doctor and parent to laugh, signifying relief from anxiety and worry.

Access to the virtual market made possible by Internet technology results in timely distribution of much-needed medicines to the third world peoples. The human moment is reinforced by the parent's laugh at the child wincing from the bad-tasting medicine. In this vision of technotopia, a technologically enhanced world elevates the human experience.

SAP03-99
The new technology and its claim: a holographic, hyperrationalized global marketplace saves time and money and eliminates suffering.

Technotopian space is made possible by virtue of constructing a new, and revolutionary, virtual world. This world of transcendent science is also a mythological world. SAP's futuristic technology functions as a second-order signifier of the operation of well-managed corporations like SAP. Technotopia stands for the integrative power of Capital, but it does so by allowing the political-economic power of capital to become invisible while bestowing on its absent presence a new symbolic standing.

For the purpose of this ad, SAP is a technology company rather than a capitalist firm. This may sound strange, but let's ask again, where is Capital in this story? Answer: it has become so generalized, so universal, that it disappears behind the cyberstyled veil of the hologram. The doctor saves time and money, but how is this operation financed in the first place? How does SAP benefit from the MySAP product? What is its cut? Ore as they say these days, what's the revenue model?

Though the ad's message is that the virtual city of e creates a new and more efficient linkage between core and periphery, the commercial leaves intact the moral economy of colonial relations. The doctor is empowered to act upon the powerless, and does so for their own good. Not only does she have medical expertise but also market expertise. They depend upon her for it, and are grateful for her practice. The virtual city is still the colonial city in which the developed world acts upon the underdeveloped world -- in this case bringing health care to the dark continent.

We can read this ad as saying that the unprecedented potential for market efficiency created by Mysap.com (the virtual city) allows the market to be used to serve humanitarian purposes. But this happens, not because the company foreswears its market interests in favor of human interests, but because SAP claims that its advanced B2B intranet for organizing competitive markets. This then is a very different story than that about the most famous do-gooder of them all -- Dr. Schweitzer -- whose charitable works lay 'outside' the apparatus of the market. In this account, Mysap.com allows the good doctor to use technology to exploit markets, rather than allowing markets to exploit people.

How accurate is SAP's portrayal? While we suspect that this ad was not intended as a story about HIV, how can we ignore the disastrous inability to get the appropriate pharmaceuticals to a continent of people who are dying in pandemic numbers? To date, the corporate pharmaceutical companies who own the intellectual property rights and the patents to the protease inhibitors have not been willing to provide the ingredients for the anti-HIV cocktails to the impoverished victims of AIDS in Africa except at market rates. And no market mechanism that we know of, including rationalized B2B virtual marketplaces, has made much of a dent in the problem.


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Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey