Dromographic Stress Disorder (How E-Commerce Makes Survivors of Us All)

Steve Beard on the uppers and the downers of electronic marketing and philosophy with a little help from Seth Godin and Paul Virilio


Does Paul Virilio still have something to say about cyberspace now it has morphed from an electronic frontier into a 24/7 automated trading post? The wily French theorist has always been a bit of a doom-monger when it comes to new media but he has also been highly adept at making connections between the seductions of platform portability and the dangers of reflex cognitive-behavioural conditioning (have you checked your email/mobile/stock price yet? how long before you reply to an electronic message? the interval defines a breathing space). In fact his particular brand of apocalyptic Catholic moralising means he positively relishes the darkside of the virtual force.

Virilio is the electronic desert prophet constantly warning of the ‘generalised accident’ which waits at the end of the technological curve. In the dark days of nuclear deterrence this used to be the threat of extermination posed by the atomic bomb. But in the new times of engineered virtual enlightenment it is the ‘information bomb’ which apparently threatens to exterminate us in something like a global stock market annihilation. Virilio is the great annunciator of the technological endtime, but as demand-management economist Joseph Maynard Keynes remarked long ago, in the long term we are all dead anyway (life is determined by human reproduction and not by technological evolution).

Virilio’s new book The Information Bomb is full of dire auguries and sees him beginning to clear new ground with distant early warnings about the dangers of genetic engineering. But it is his pronouncements on the domain of e-commerce or what he calls the ‘global perception market’ which are most interesting. Virilio’s theoretical roots in Edmund Husserl and the French school of phenomenology mean he is particularly well placed to understand that, as a post-nuclear medium of parallel processing and networked communication, the Internet not only bypasses any root node of strategic command-and-control but also over-exposes the distributed perceptual cues of the survivors we have all become. In this scenario, the spooky Echelon surveillance system is merely a retro-nuclear nostalgia cult while it is the live web-cams which dot the Net which are actually doing the real business of turning us all into each other’s keepers by heralding privileged ‘points of view’ as future ‘points of sale’ (get your JenniCam T-shirts here).

Virilio himself may be nostalgic for what he regards as the unmediated sustainability of an inhabitable ecological niche, but he also understands that the information landscape is delivered through the “instantaneous superimposition of actual and virtual images”. In other words, he understands that the Web is a pure advertising medium whose condition of entry is that objects should become commodity-signs in an ecstatic cult of self-reflexive mourning. ‘Actual’ things doubled up as their own ‘virtual’ effigies are like second-hand items displayed in heat-sealed plastic bags: they recover a margin of untouchability whose fetishistic allure begins to incite the fashionable to play the familiar game of provoking death. From here on in it’s all really just a matter of joining new media whores to old media punters through the data revenue stream generated by a transaction. What this means in banal terms is a movement towards the discipline of electronic customer relationship management and Virilio begins to hook up from the other side of his cautionary analysis (and probably much to his horror) with a gung-ho digital marketing guru like Seth Godin.

Godin is the Vice President of Direct Marketing at the American portal Yahoo! and the author of the cult manual Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends and Friends into Customers. He has argued persuasively that older media like magazines, radio and television depended upon a model of ‘interruption marketing’ in which advertising messages appeared in the intervals between the flow of content. The Web, however, explodes the interval into a new spacetime of instantaneous ubiquity in which the important thing for traffic analysts is not to increase click-through rates, but rather to “make each click worth more”. The click defines a hyper attention deficit which is capable of being leveraged by a new science of cognitive-behavioural therapy into an engineered perception of brand value.

Godin acknowledges that the basis of permission marketing is ‘trust’ and insists that “you can’t market at people anymore: you have to market with them.” What makes this functional are the new techniques of data collection and analysis which allow the sustainability of engineered perceptual cues to be measured over the “lifetime value of the average customer”. Virilio takes a less sanguine view of this kind of tactical databody capture when he links it to the commercial applications of the human genome map as a form of ‘cybernetic eugenicism’. But what is fascinating is how far ahead the American is of Virilio’s own thinking. Godin insists that interruption marketing is not web-friendly because it depends upon the one-to-many massifications of ‘demographic reach’, whereas the secret of permission marketing is the one-to-one personalisation afforded by ‘frequency’ (as he says: “Ten TV ads cost ten times as much as one TV ad. That’s why interruption marketers tend to focus on reach not frequency. But on the Net frequency is free. The people who subscribe to your newsletter get it from you every week and it costs you nothing to send it out. Digital media have zero marginal cost and infinite potential frequency.”) It is here that Godin sketches out a science of ‘dromographics’ which succeeds Virilio’s own art of ‘dromology’.

‘Dromographics’ might be considered the science of modelling relative analogue speed vectors within a digital spacetime whose absolute limit is defined by the speed of ones and zeros travelling along a fibre-optic cable. (Information now travels at the speed of light, unlike the human capacity to process it.) In this sense Godin boundary-rides the flight of perceptions within Virilio’s ‘light-time’ of networked electronic commerce. Emergent platforms, file formats and protocols like WAP and MP3 in this scenario become technological vehicles which deliver temporary disintermediated possibility spaces for arresting the structural play of value. Such moments of totemic arrest can be identified as ‘hits’ or ‘memes’ or ‘trends’ and their occurrence still ghosts the older rites of negative taboo whose contours persist like core memory dumps in the information landscape (Virilio lists some of them as Heaven’s Gate, Sensation!, Rape in the Highlands, the Museum of Eroticism and transgressive body art).

But it seems that more familiar rites of positive taboo like the gift are just as effective for supporting the extraction of surplus value. Godin suggests that the web user will be gratified to offer up information about themselves in return for something like a free sample, a big discount or even a commodity up for grabs within a specified interval like a download time or an hour of the day. This however is no cybernetic registration of a communist utopia (English cyber-cult scholar Richard Barbrook’s late notion of ‘cyber-communism’ as an “evolving synthesis of gift and commodity within the Net” is naturally a transparent apology for the Blairite mixed economy). Instead it reinscribes the circuit of profitable exchange within a post-nuclear medium by liquidating its depreciating military-industrial stockpiles of sink capital and reserve labour and flipping them into a chaotic regime of digital recombination where capital becomes human and labour becomes symbolic. What Virilio seems reluctant to admit is that when the nuclear apocalypse failed to occur it precisely detonated the information bomb within whose global impact zone of mutually assured production we all now compete. All of which is perhaps only another way of saying that the sticky path through the jungle of e-commerce leads directly from the start-up dream of an Initial Public Offering into the Xanadu of an interactive fall-out shelter. It looks as if advancing a credible exit strategy really is the only way of receding the symptoms of dromographic stress disorder.

Steve Beard <beardATeasynet.co.uk>

>> Photo by Laetitia Negre

The Information Bomb // Paul Virilio // Verso // £16 // 145 pages // ISBN 1 85984 745 5Permission Marketing // Seth Godin // Simon & Schuster // $24 // 255 pages // ISBN 0684856360