Saskia Sassen

According to Sassen, “the juxtaposition between the condition of being a sited materiality and that of having global span captures the imbrication of the digital and the nondigital and illustrates the inadequacy of a purely technological reading of the technical properties of digitization that would lead us to posit the neutralization of the place-boundedness of that which is precisely makes possible the condition of being an entity with global span.”

When analyzing new media technologies we often encounter two main challenges:

  1. First, we often stick to a “purely technological reading of technical capabilities” (Sassen, 2004). Consequently, we neglect the “thick social environments within and through which these technologies operate.” Thompson relates this situation to the ‘priveleged’ position that semiotics usually lends to examining text, which explains how we must examine the structures through which text is created.
  2. Tendency to polarize the pre-digital from the digital age. According to Sassen, “these categorization filter out alternative conceptualizations, thereby precluding a more complex reading of the impact of digitization on material and place-bound conditions.”

Networks

According to Sassen, network power is not ‘inherently distributive.’ Consequently, we can’t assume it will be democratizing. The power dynamics that exist within the social structures and institutions that construct the technology are important, and example of this can be seen in the segmentation of the Internet between private and public access within the digital networks.

Sassen offers three properties of digital networks she refers to as ‘positively perceived’ characteristics:

  • Decentralized access
  • Simultaneity
  • Interconnectivity

On the topic of the Internet, Sassen recognizes the “embeddedness of electronic space…I have come to regard the internet as a space produced and marked through the software that shapes its use and the particular aspects of the hardware mobilized by the software.”

Although heavily critiquing the private access and control and development of software that runs the Internet she does see a positive potential namely through what can be accomplished through the public access portals “electronic space remains a crucial force for new forms of civic participation, especially in its public access portion…the internet has emerged as a powerful medium for nonelites to communicate, support each other’s struggles, and create the equivalent of insider groups on scales ranging from the local to the global.”

Context of Globalization

To justify the importance of examining the embeddedness of electronic space (i.e. Internet) Sassen places this space within “the context of globalization” wherein “these initiatives can go global and bypass national states and major economic actors, thereby opening a whole new terrain for initiatives of historically disadvantaged peoples and groups.”

Embeddedness

Features of embeddedness are as follows (according to Sassen):

  • Complex imbrications between the digital and material conditions (we could relate this to the discussion of materialization vs. dematerialization from Orgad, 2006): “Existing conceptions of the Internet and globalisation involve a set of significantly different and often competing agendas. On the one hand, there has been a celebration (especially in the mid 1990s) of the disappearance of life’s materiality “into the weightlessness of cyberspacetime” (Nguyen and Alexander, 1996: 102) and of the dematerialised character of the Internet and Computer Mediated Communications. On the other hand, there has been increasing recognition of the material realities within which the Internet and the communications it affords are embedded. As Saskia Sassen writes, the material exists even in the most dematerialised and digitised activities (2004: 299). Online spaces, products, services and interactions are fundamentally integrated into social everyday life, and thus must be understood within this context.”
  • Destabilizing of existing hierarchies of scale made possible by the new technologies: The idea of multi-scalar levels of activity disrupt the formal authority at the national level and thus as some scales decline. Other scales gain strategic importance.
  • It enables a new type of cross-border political activism, one centered in multiple localities yet intensely connected digitally and with simultaneous access worldwide. Because it is a global network, the actions do not have to be accomplished at a global scale.
  • Defines local as “a microenviroment with global spac insofar as it is deeply internetworked…a localized entity, but it is also part of global digital networks that give it immediate far-flung span”(2004: 301)
  • The mediating cultures between these technologies and their users: Cultures which inhabit the in-between space of the Internet and the user, here Sassen discusses how “various realms are marked by gendering, this embeddeness of cyberspace is also gendered.”