The new mantra is `Information is power'. But who is being empowered by the dotcom revolution? The consumers who are rushing for their daily online fix? The thirsty villagers who have access to neither technology nor plastic money? Or the merchants and brokers of information, money and images?
There's tonnes of information floating around the information highways these days. And there are hoards of Internet junkies swimming around in dotcom waters. But what does this information do for the hungry child or the thirsty village? How much of this information can fill an empty stomach? My concern is not about the validity of information, but that this contagious information fever is eclipsing reality. All of a sudden all of Mumbai was filled with dotcom hoardings promising instant information nirvana for any problem under the sky: from dating to dancing, from soyabeans to salvation, from cars to cricket, and from houses to headaches. The message was that you would not be able to survive without a dotcom connection for your daily fix of information. This was the direct outcome of the climbing sensex and the boom in the infotech sector. The important thing to consider here is not the newfound enthusiasm for information.
The important thing is that there's a process at work here in which information, image and money become more vital than the ideas, reality or resources they are supposed to represent. There is a connection between the predominance of finance capital or the money market, the high-pitched information market and the emerging politics of images. The connecting link is that all these three new protagonists of the market are not real but something that represents the real. In other words money, information and image are signifiers of something else.
Money in itself is useless unless it represents other resources. Money cannot fill the stomach or quench thirst unless someone is ready to exchange the real resources (ie food, drink, clothing, commodities etc) for money. Money is not wealth. It is something which signifies wealth, consisting of material things and services necessary for the survival and improvement of living conditions. It is the same with information. Information becomes important because it tells us about something else that exists in reality: about things, processes, situations, people, contexts etc. An image is some visual or perception that represents something else: a person, a situation, an idea etc. They are all in a sense mediums of exchange. In any society, social, political and economic exchanges and negotiations happen through these signifiers that serve as the medium of exchange. The story of each civilization is also the story of different kinds of mediations that serve social, political and economic functions in a given society at a particular time. From ancient rock paintings and pictograms, indigenous modes of social exchange and barter systems of exchange, socio-cultural history evolved to innovate mediums and modes of exchange. The barter system gave way to metallic forms of representation like coins and later paper money, and then plastic money, which is giving way to the concept of info-money.
One can trace a parallel socio-historical process that has helped to collate information from local specificity and utilities to a broader arena of dissemination. This happened in the case of images as well, starting with images of the divine, going on to those of the king, and later becoming a broader socio-cultural phenomenon.
So what is so peculiar about the present predominance of the three key signifiers --- information, money and images -- in our lives? It has, after all, been a fairly long historical process. The key difference is that earlier there was a very strong and balanced link between the signifier and the signified; between paper money and the resources it signified; between information and the reality the information sought to convey; between the image and the situation or the person behind the image. With the dotcom revolution, the free-floating money market and image merchandising, this vital link has been considerably strained. In the process money has taken precedence over resources, information has taken precedence over real life, and image has taken precedence over reality. When the medium itself becomes the message, those who control the `mediation' become powerful. That is why Rupert Murdoch becomes more powerful than citizens or even political rulers. Because it is not the what and why of information that matters, it is the how of information delivery that defines the information itself. When the means itself becomes an end, the end becomes redundant. Why has the sensex all of a sudden turned so sexy? Because the sensex operates on money, information and images.
If there is a comparative advantage of market information and corporate image, the money market is influenced. In the early-'90s, there was a lot of money market euphoria over the image boost of the `tiger' economies. The image of skyscrapers, hi-tech flyovers and swanky cars in Bangkok and Jakarta propelled the money market to new heights. But the hi-tech image of Bangkok concealed the ugly face of poverty-stricken villages in northern Thailand. Information about macro-economic growth in terms of GDP and GNP said little about the increasing vulnerability of the rural masses.
Image, information and the money market reinforced each other. The high sensex ratings did not have a strong connection with real productivity, natural resources and the distribution of services. For instance, during the financial boom in Thailand, agricultural production actually declined and the manufacturing sector was more or less stagnant. The magic sensex euphoria had more to do with the pattern of spending money in the consumer market than the pattern of productivity that creates real material wealth. Eventually, the `tiger' turned out to be so much market bubblegum.
In India recently the sensex rating of infotech companies rose to magical heights, creating a whole string of dotcom dreams. The dominant images of infotech companies and the favourable information flow helped increase the vigour of the money market. Here the problem is that finance capital gets value addition without a corresponding increase in real assets or productivity. The ever-growing finance capital market is increasingly becoming a global casino driven by information and images. Speculative strategies and money laundering are akin to gambling. When the link between money/currency and the productive assets/resources it seeks to represent is broken, the economic foundations of a society become precarious. With the mind-boggling growth of a pure money market, the very future of the so-called global economy is on shifting sands.
The so-called movement of international capital is more a movement of magic numbers in the computer system and on the information highways than a real movement of commodities, services and goods. In a traditional economic setting, the creation of money is intrinsically linked to the creation of real wealth or productive assets. Money is created in balanced proportion to allow for the effective exchange of goods and services. Under finance capitalism, driven by a sort of monetarism, this vital link between money and real material resources is broken. As a result, one can create financial assets through market gambling, without making any real contribution to the creation of wealth. In this process those who have a comparative advantage over information and image can manipulate money market, with more claims to wealth but without actually creating any wealth.
Such a delusion of wealth in fact further marginalises the bargaining power of the real wage-earners, labourers and entrepreneurs who are involved in the creation of real wealth. In the stock market, the money that is invested to buy a new issue of a company is what is used for productive assets. Other stock transactions are not always linked to the creation of productive resources. One study on US corporations shows that in terms of the money that corporations use to support the expansion of their production, only 4 per cent comes from the share market; most of the money comes from the retained earnings and the lion's share of the rest comes from borrowings. In a sense the ongoing dotcom euphoria is a corollary to finance-driven sensex capitalism.
In a speculative market, one expects high returns. It has been reported that in recent years, the highest investment returns in the US were in the finance sector. Similarly, the high-pitched images of dotcom money-making kids propelled a gold rush to the information highways. As the dominant image of quick returns is in favour of the finance and information sectors, a large number of highly qualified and high-calibre people jumped from the real process of asset creation to that of a much quicker process of making money in the finance and information sector. Hence, the visible boom in the finance and information sector may also undermine the real validity of actual resources. As a result, those who control the mediation of finance and information become much more powerful than the real producers of material and social resources.
This will create development delusions based on the well-being and welfare of a section of visible people, wonder stories and magic entrepreneurs. We may be thrilled about the fact that anything can be ordered through the Internet, provided you have access to plastic money through credit cards. But we may also conveniently forget that the dotcom revolution will bring food, water and sex to only a privileged few who have access to technology and plastic money. The dotcom revolution will not bring food to a hungry child or water to a thirsty village. Because they neither have access to the technology nor to plastic money, though they contribute more than the info-entrepreneurs to the real production of real material and social resources.
That is how the signifiers actually swallow the signified. That is how the mediators of information, money and images become more powerful than the creators and producers of real material or social assets. These days the frequently quoted one-line rationale for the marketing of information is that `Information is Power'. So get dotcommed and get empowered. It's as simple as that! In that case, all that we need to empower the people of the world is to ensure that like water, electricity and telephone connections, everyone will have dotcom connections as well. But alas our problems are more complex. They will not be wished away with online mantras. If information is indeed power, why has the ongoing information revolution not brought about a socio-political revolution? Why is it that wider information dissemination manages to inform but fails to empower ? Why is the right to information failing to check corruption in governance?
The questions we need to ask are: In whose hands does information become powerful? Who controls, disseminates and mediates information? What is the difference between data, information and knowledge? Who controls the production and dissemination of knowledge? Such questions will ensure that we are not carried away by the dotcom syndrome. Such questions are age-old questions that arose at every historical juncture and political transition. What we need to realise is that information in itself may not have intrinsic value. Information derives importance because of the fact that it helps us understand something else in a given context. It is the `mediation' process of information that makes information powerful. Hence, it is not necessarily the consumers of information who get empowered, it is the merchants, traders and brokers of information who get empowered. By controlling information they can control the market as well as power politics. When an election survey is commissioned by a major newspaper or a popular newsmagazine, it is not the readers of these magazines who become powerful, but the editors and owners of the newsmagazines.
This comparative advantage of `mediating' and `brokering' information is what makes them the power-brokers who bargain their way to ministerial chairs and the backdoor of parliament. One of the biggest information banks is controlled by the financial banks which control plastic money--Citibank, Standard Chartered, American Express etc. They know who buys what, when, where and how. By interpreting their data the bank can also know why a particular group of people buys a particular product. Yes, in the hands of media empires, software companies, market enterprises and political power-brokers, information becomes powerful; because they are in the business of mediating and controlling information. Meanwhile, the consumers of information have only the illusion of empowerment.
We have to make a distinction between data, information and knowledge. Data byitself does not necessarily convey much. For instance, if one has the data on primary school enrollment, one does not necessarily get a picture of primary education in the country. When one contextualises the data in a particular situation, the data becomes information. If one contextualises the data of primary school enrollment in a particular district or state in the overall context of literacy levels, social development etc, that data makes sense. When you interpret the data with a particular political, ideological or analytical framework, information is transformed into modules of knowledge. Hence the interpretation of information on primary school enrollment may be different for people with differing ideological or analytical perspectives. Knowledge is often value-loaded. That is why the leftists, rightists and liberals interpret historical information in entirely different ways. That is why fanatical Hindutva elements were worried about the `knowledge' propounded by an Amartya Sen, Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra or Irfan Habib. The actual powerplay is not in the information market but in the production and dissemination of knowledge. In a way, Ignatius Loyola is one of the most powerful visionaries in history; precisely because he identified the power of disseminating knowledge through the institutionalisation and control of education.
In fact, colonisation was not merely about the extraction of goods and resources, it was about the production and creation of a market for the knowledge system that ensured hegemony through creating consent. All of history is recorded and interpreted in order to sustain political power. The dotcom revolution is going to lead to even more information anarchy.
The global information order will thrive on the confusion propelled by that anarchy. Information anarchy and information order are in fact two sides of the same coin. At the receiving end there will be so much information output that one will find it difficult to know what is useful and what is junk. One will have no time to interpret such information and transform it into a strong knowledge base. On the contrary, the information explosion via your dotcom receiver can create a sort of information-immunity wherein the information will fail to affect your feeling, thinking and action.
Now there is so much information about corruption, people are no longer shocked by any scams; they have got used to it. It is not because of lack of information that Dalits are still burnt alive in India, but because information about atrocities and arson no longer shocks you; you have got used to it. The emerging information order, finance market capitalism and image-driven politics will in the
long run create more social and political insecurity in real life. Because the delusions of development,wealth and participation they create will not effectively change the ground realities of inequality, mistrust, social paranoia and moral degeneration. When a signifier eclipses the signified and the link between them is broken, it will create a crisis in the very process of socio-political and economic exchange. In the new age, it is the comparative advantage of technology and time that determines the `mediation' process of money, information and images. However, the overemphasis of such technology-driven mediation can in effect adversely affect the real creative and productive potential of human beings. Such a scenario calls for an urgent rethink on the present information euphoria.
Orginally published in the Human Scape Magazine in June 2000.