Landscapes of Global Capital
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SPEED. ACCELERATION. GROWTH. These are the watch words of a jacked-up market as the mode of production shifts rapidly to electronic digitalization. Digitalization is most frequently associated with speedier transmission of data and information. Indeed, this is very often the justification for new computer technologies which are seen as boosting productivity by eliminating inefficiencies and by reducing cycle time in the wider circulation process. By harnessing more and more complex database systems, firms have found ways to offset shrinking profit margins by conducting markets more quickly. Companies that achieve the most rapid growth possible also figure to justify the most expanded price-to-earnings ratios and the highest multiples in the stock market. During the late 1990s, the mantra was repeated over and over - Faster is Better. This is reflected in the advertising pitches employed by many corporate firms.

Ads for Smith-Barney Investments (1998) whisked viewers around the planet in search of new investing opportunities. Beginning with questions about the technologies of the future - "Is an arthritis cure around the corner? Will Danang be the next Silicon Valley? Who will get a patent tomorrow?" The narrator then declares that "one thing is for sure, opportunities abound, and everyday we go after them in highspeed pursuit. Got your seatbelt on? Let's get to work."

Or Southern Company takes a similar fast-paced excursion around the continents in their ad, projecting a future that will move even faster -- "They [the children of today] will do business at a pace we can't conceive of. Where in the world will they get the energy they need?" The ad goes on to explain how the Southern Company is revolutionizing methodologies for trading gas and electricity, "so when they [your children] travel through life at the speed of light we'll be waiting for them."

The twentieth century witnessed an ever accelerating speed in both the capital accumulation process and the cultural circulation process necessary to keeping a system of commodities continuously moving along, fiscal quarter after fiscal quarter. And not just moving along, but growing at a rate that attracts investors who seek high multiples of price/earnings ratios.

In this kind of world we see advertising as promoting a "cultural economy of signs." The cultural economy has certain similarities with the conventional economy. Advertisers seek to invest goods and services with iconic status to make them stand out. The more vigorously they compete at this, the greater their risk of oversaturating image markets. In this competitive image environment, companies resort to more and more rapid image turnover. In the frenetic race of advertising imagery to differentiate the value of one commodity over another, there is the risk of devolving into a stew of meaninglessness.

For most of the twentieth century, critical social theorists worried about the consequences of organizing cultural spheres of meaning around the operating logic of the commodity form. After nearly a century of treating culture as a range of commodities, we now confront additional layers of historical self-contradictions that have taken shape around the practices of commodity culture. Treating culture as a system of commodities seems to have followed a similar path of contradictions to those Karl Marx outlined in the 1857 Grundrisse when speaking about a capitalist economy of industrial production. In the Grundrisse Marx (1983) demonstrated from one angle after another how the structures of capitalist markets prompt social contradictions which left untended might negate those commodity relations.

During the 20th century, commodity culture has come to dominate, first in the US, then in Europe and now globally. In discussions of globalization, the term "Americanization of culture" generally refers to this commodity culture, which grew up first in the US mass media. In our view, this hallmark of the transition to late capitalism shows how the sphere of symbolic interaction has of necessity become increasingly central to the mode of production. This means that the production of Meaning through languages, whether spoken, or written, or pictorial has become a central part of the process of generating and reproducing value in the global capitalist system.

We have written extensively about these processes in Sign Wars (1996) and Nike Culture (1998). In those books, we argued that the systematic redirection of symbolic meaning toward the service of building exchange value lends itself to the dispersion and fragmentation of Meaning. This is because processes of cultural commodification feed an accelerating circulation of meaning in the sphere of culture.

The technology of digital reproduction has transformed industry after industry, and it now drives markets -- especially stock markets which we view as public and intersubjectively negotiated social spaces. This same digital revolution has also transformed the tools for producing and displaying electronic culture.

Hence in order to make our case, we must examine the intensifying digitalization of cultural space both as a material force in the expansion of global capitalism and simultaneously as a representational force.

So advertising culture is not only accelerating, it also seeks to represent economic speed as our already-emergent future. In the commercials mentioned above, speed has become synonymous with Progress. Such advertising casts the future in terms of the benefits to be enjoyed by harnessing technologies of speed. Ultimately for the consumer, this is the speed of delivery -- of pizza, prescription drugs, information, movies. And particularly around the emergent Internet, it is the speed at which data moves. Qwest ads from 1999-2000 are a case in point: "Moving at the speed of light."

Speed: conquering time & space

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