On the principle
that limbering up is as important for mental exercises as for
physical ones, and before we settle in for an extended, deeply
pragmatic discussion about the emerging markets of the Internet,
I want to begin by alluding briefly to the idea of markets,
to the marketplace in history, imagination and metaphor. For
all of human history, markets have been central spaces for transactions
and encounters beyond commerce. For the ancient Greeks, the
agora or marketplace was a civic and political space containing
the very soul of the city. The great French historian Fernand
Braudel understood markets to be the essential ground, the necessary
precondition, for the growth of towns and cities.
teeming markets of the early modern period were spaces of cultural
interaction and moral and aesthetic discovery, is the argument
of many writers and painters and historians.
In an early
chapter of Don Quixote, for example, Cervantes recounts
his fortuitous recovery and rescue of some "old notebooks
and documents" written in Arabic that turn out to be the
rest of his great novel. The place for this monumental (fictional)
discovery: the Alcaná (marketplace) in Toledo -- Spain,
not Ohio, American readers -- a bazaar of such cultural diversity
and plenitude that the author has no difficulty finding a translator
who accepts payment of fifty pounds of raisins and three bushels
of wheat "to translate carefully and well, using no more
words than absolutely necessary" (Burton Raffel translation,
scenes of barter and market-life in the woodcuts and paintings
reproduced in the first volume of Braudel's The Structures of
Everyday Life, even some centered on a single commodity -- for
instance: "Butchers' stalls in Holland" -- often register
something of the diversity of Cervantes' marketplace, showing
us men, women and children, fashionably-dressed town wealth,
burger and peasant all interacting at market. In some of these
scenes the market degrades to a space of addiction or drunkenness,
suggesting chaos and the ugly extremes of appetite.
and festivals in Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and the early modern
carnivals, described by Natalie Davis and other recent historians,
are even more evocative: trading space metamorphosing into something
wider and richer -- an environs of mixing and danger, of vulgar
display and greed and appetite and, of course, works of art.
markets of cyberspace achieve such "thickness," such
diversity and cultural centrality? Michael Dertouzos thinks
this is inevitable:
flashed before me -- the Athens flea market. I knew it well.
As a boy I had spent nearly every Sunday in its bustling narrow
streets packed with people selling, buying, and trading every
conceivable good. I was looking for electronics, especially
illegal crystals with which you could build your own small
radio station. Almost all of the people were friendly and
talkative, tackling every conceivable topic between deals.
They formed a community that stretched beyond its commercial
underpinnings. There was no central authority anywhere; all
the participants controlled their own pursuits. It seemed
natural and inevitable to me that the future world of computers
and networks would be just like the Athens flea market --
only instead of physical goods, the commodities would be information
goods. (What Will Be, 1997)
optimistic? Probably so. Yet considering how the computer itself
and then the Internet in their short short lives have colonized
our time and attention, considering the demonstrable complexity
and chaotic variety already planted in cyberspace, we have reason
for plausible hope.
But, of course, markets may narrow and trivialize life as well
as enable and enlarge it. The advertisements are already overgoing
the margins of Internet discourse, oozing into the center of
the screen like horror-film algae. And our travels through cyberspace
even today, in the early dawn of computing, exact a sacrifice
of privacy whose consequences are not yet known.
admonition against hypocrite scribes who love "salutations
in the market-places" assumes that markets are corrupt
and teach deceit (Mark 12:38). He is not alone in these
In an old
Persian tale we encounter our very destiny in the marketplace:
long ago, in the great city of Ispahan a rich merchant sent
his servant to the market on an important errand. But the servant
returned too soon and, breathless, begged his master to lend
him a horse so he could flee immediately to the distant city
trouble?" asked the merchant.
master, as I entered the market square I spied the figure of
Death, who made a threatening gesture toward me."
The merchant instantly dispatched his servant to the stables
for the fastest mount, and after learning of his safe departure,
proceeded to the market on the errand his servant had begun.
Entering the square, he saw the figure of Death. "Why did
you threaten my servant this morning?" the merchant demanded.
"Ah, sir," replied Death with a grave smile. "I
did not threaten. My gesture was one of surprise. I was surprised
to find your servant here in Ispahan this morning, when later
this evening we have an appointment in Samarra."
mordant fable reminds us, we need to keep aware of how markets,
for good and for ill, prove out the law of unintended consequences.
all the admonitions, including those of Marx and the New Deal
Democrats, abundance and diversity are a key to our Idea of
markets. In many songs, stories and pictures we find life's
energy in the marketplace, a crossing of classes, a poetry of
plenitude and choice.
mythic and also historical space is invoked with memorable force
in the grand final sentence of E. L. Doctorow's 1989 novel,
. . . and what I think of now is how we used to like to go
back to the East Bronx and walk . . . on a sunny day along
Bathgate Avenue, with all the peddlers calling out their prices
and the stalls stacked with pyramids of oranges and grapes
and peaches and melons, and the fresh bread in the windows
of the bakeries with the electric fans in their transoms sending
hot bread smells into the air, and the dairy with its tubs
of butter and wood packs of farmer's cheese, and the butcher
wearing his thick sweater under his apron, walking out of
his ice room with a stack of chops on oiled paper, and the
florist on the corner wetting down the vases of clustered
cut flowers, and the children running past, and the gabbling
old women carrying their shopping bags of greens and chickens,
and the teenage girls holding white dresses on hangers to
their shoulders, and the truckmen in their undershirts unloading
their produce, and the horns honking and all the life of the
city turning out to greet us just as in the old days of our
happiness, before my father fled, when the family used to
go walking in this market, this bazaar of life, Bathgate,
in the age of Dutch Schultz.
-- E.L.Doctorow, Billy Bathgate (1989).
at least from the perspective of the cyber market, a salient feature
of this remarkable praise-song is that it invokes a space so palpably
physical, even olfactory: an entangled sentient actuality not
to be replicated on any screen.
But maybe to be conjured there, respected and re-imagined there,
as Doctorow's great sentence conjures Bathgate Avenue in the
ancient and now eternal medium of print.