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Informal Political Knowledge and its Enablements: The role of the new technologies

Saskia Sassen looks at new technologies in financial markets and political activism and how the multiplication effects of digital information can be used for democratization or a concentration of power.

The rapid proliferation of global computer-based networks and the growing digitization of knowledge unsettle the standard meanings of knowledge. This in turn weakens the effectiveness of conventional framings for understanding what we mean by knowledge. It makes legible the particularity of the supposedly "natural” or "scientific” categories through which formal institutions organize "their” knowledge.
Network technologies have the potential to open up both the established categories of formalized knowledge and of the associated knowledge practices. Thereby the actual bodies of knowledge can then more easily exit or go beyond hierarchical institutionalized controls. One indication of this possibility is that global civil society organizations, including those who are poor and weak, can access some of the same advanced data sets that were once the preserve of professional knowledge elites. These bodies of knowledge can get disassembled according to the criteria or needs of a far broader range of users. And key bits of that knowledge can then navigate through a range of digital networks, which in turn are strengthened by this process.

But how are technologies with enormous distributive potential actually being used, sometimes with different aims in mind? They can be used to democratize but also to concentrate power. High finance makes use of the distributive potential of these technologies, but so do civil society organizations which realize the implications of democracy and participation. The specifics of each case allow us to identify particular patterns. What they have in common is that the logics of the users actually shape the technical outcome in diverse ways and to variable extents. In this variability, the logics of users contribute to constitute what is knowledge, for whom it is useful, and who has access to it.


Unitary bodies of knowledge that were once ensconced in specific categories, often housed in closed institutions, can now get redeployed in bits and pieces across diverse institutional orders. What differentiates the digital redeployment of knowledge from more traditional non-digital ones, are the scope, speed, and the resulting multiplier effects of that redeployment, whether it is a closed or an open network.

As a consequence, at least some features of that knowledge are informalized through their disassembling and reassembling into novel mixes. Moreover, these new bodies of knowledge can feed into both novel and existing conditions –including political, economic, technical, cultural, and subjective conditions, which can be strengthened or weakened, democratized or not. Opening up established categories and informalizing particular components of formal knowledge can be seen as positive - for example, it can help democratize spheres once subject to hierarchical controls. Or it can be seen as negative - for example, the redeployment of particular financial regulations that has led to the so-called shadow banking system, which is, strictly speaking, legal but which no regulator can control given the speed of transactions and interconnected markets.

These critical dimensions offer variable articulations for analysis: how can technologies with enormous distributive potential be used to democratize or to concentrate power? A basic proposition is the importance of capturing the diversity and specificity of "socio-digital formations", and hence the possibility of whole new types of articulation between politics and knowledge. In principle, the range of empirical cases we could use to examine some of these issues is vast. Different kinds of socio-digital formations make legible different ways in which this articulation between informalized knowledge and political enablements can be constituted.

The two cases used to develop the argument empirically are electronic financial networks and electronic activist networks. Both cases are part of global dynamics and both have been significantly shaped by the three properties of digital networks -decentralized access/distributed outcomes, simultaneity, and interconnectivity, but with strikingly different outcomes in each case. In one case, these properties contribute to distributive outcomes: greater participation of local organizations in global networks. Thereby they help constitute transboundary public spheres or forms of globality centered in multiple localized types of struggles and agency. In the second case, these same properties have led to higher levels of control and concentration in the global capital market even though the power of these financial electronic networks rests on a kind of distributed power, i.e. millions of investors distributed around the world and their millions of individual decisions.

In spite of their enormous differences, both are interactive domains. For analytical purposes I distinguish the technical capacities of digital networks from the more complex socio-digital formations that such interactive domains help constitute. Intervening mechanisms that may have little to do with the technology per se can reshape network outcomes, as, I will show, is one of the sharp differences between the use that high-finance and civil society make of the distributive potential of these technologies The fact of this re-shaping by the social logics of users and digitized actors carries implications for political practices, including governance and democratic participation.

Financial networks and civil society networks also illuminate an emergent problematic about the extent to which the combination of decentralized access and multiple choices will tend to produce power law distributions regardless of the social logics guiding users. Thus civil society organizations may well produce outcomes similar to finance in that a limited number of organizations concentrate a disproportionate share of influence, visibility, and resources. Civil society organizations have been subjected to constraints that force them into a format that keeps them from using the new technologies in more radical ways . Thus finance succeeds in escaping conventional formats when two or more financial exchanges merge and thereby constitute a networked platform, allowing them to maximize the utilities of network technologies.

In this sense, finance has been far ahead of civil society in the use of networked technologies as it has invented new formats to accommodate its use: multi-sited networked platforms, where each financial centre is a node in the network. Civil society organizations have had many obstacles put in their way towards these types of networked arrangements and have been forced to take the form of incorporated firms rather than networked platforms. There is a political issue here that is yet another variable that contributes to produce diverse socio-digital formations even when based on similar network technologies.

The condition of the Internet, including social networking, as a decentralized network of networks has fed strong notions about its built-in autonomy from state power and its capacity to enhance democracy from the bottom up via a strengthening of both market dynamics and access by civil society. In a context of multiple partial and specific changes linked to globalization, digitization has contributed to the ascendance and greater weight of subnational scales, such as the global city, and supranational scales, such as global markets, where previously the national scale was dominant. These rescalings do not always parallel existing formalizations of state authority. At its most general these developments raise questions about the regulatory capacities of states, and about their potential for undermining state authority as it has come to be constituted over the last century.


The technical properties of electronic interactive domains deliver their utilities through complex ecologies that include non-technological variables, such as the social and the subjective, as well as the particular cultures of use of different actors. One synthetic image we can use is that these ecologies are partly shaped by the particular social logics embedded in diverse domains. When we look at electronic interactive domains as ecologies, rather than as a purely technical condition, we make conceptual and empirical room for informal knowledge and knowledge practices.

Electronic interactive domains are inherently distributive given their technical properties. But it is not necessarily the case that these electronic networks push towards democratizing outcomes or that these will be present every time. Again, this is partly an empirical question –it depends on what social logics (i.e. political project) is driving the network. I have found that the higher the speed and the interconnectedness of the network in global finance, the greater the importance of informal systems of trust and of cultures of technical interpretation.

Thus while digitization of instruments and markets was critical to the sharp growth in the value and power of the global capital market, this outcome was shaped by interests and logics that typically had little to do with digitization per se. This brings to the fore the extent to which digitized markets are embedded in complex institutional settings, cultural frames and even intersubjective dynamics. And while the raw power achieved by the capital markets through digitization also facilitated the institutionalizing of finance-dominated economic criteria in national policy, digitization per se could not have achieved this policy outcome - it took actual national institutional settings and actors.

In short, the supranational electronic market which partly operates outside any government’s exclusive jurisdiction, is only one of the spaces of global finance. The other type of space is one marked by the thick environments of actual financial centres, places where national laws continue to be operative, albeit often profoundly altered laws. These multiple territorial insertions of private economic electronic space entail a complex interaction with national law and state authority. The notion of "global cities" captures this particular embeddedness of various forms of global hypermobile capital in a network of well over forty financial centres across the world. For instance, the growth of electronic network alliances among financial exchanges located in different cities makes legible that electronic markets are partly embedded in the concentrations of material resources and human talents of financial centres, because part of the purpose is to capture the specific advantages of each of the financial centres. Thus, such alliances are not about transcending the exchanges involved or merging everything into one exchange. This embeddedness carries significant implications for theory and politics, specifically for the conditions through which governments and citizens can act on this new electronic world.

Producing capital mobility takes capital fixity: state-of-the-art environments, well-housed talent, and conventional infrastructure. which are all partly place-bound conditions.. But digitization also brings with it an amplification of capacities that enable the liquefying of what is not liquid, thereby producing or raising the mobility of what we have customarily thought of as not mobile, or barely so. At its most extreme, this liquefying digitizes its object. Yet the hypermobility gained by an object through digitization is but one moment of a more complex condition.

The real estate industry illustrates some of these issues. Financial firms have invented instruments that liquefy real estate, thereby facilitating investment in real estate and its "circulation" in global markets. Even though the physical remains part of what constitutes real estate, it has been transformed by the fact that it is represented by highly liquid instruments that can circulate in global markets. It may look the same, it may involve the same bricks and mortarbut it is a transformed entity.

Perhaps the opposite kind of articulation of law and territory from that of global finance is evident in a domain that has been equally transformed by digitization, but under radically different conditions. The key digital medium is the public access Internet, and the key actors are largely resource-poor organizations and individuals. This produces a specific kind of activism centred on multiple localities yet connected digitally at scales larger than the local. As even small, resource-poor organizations and individuals can become participants in electronic networks, it signals the possibility of a sharp growth in cross-border politics by actors other than states.

These types of global politics run through the specificities of localized concerns and struggles, yet can be seen as expanding democratic participation beyond state boundaries. The questions they raise about the relation of law to place are the opposite of those raised by global finance.


Electronic financial markets are an interesting case because they are perhaps the most extreme example of how the digital might reveal itself to be indeed free of any spatial and territorial conditionalities. The mix of speed, interconnectivity, and enhanced leverage evinced by electronic markets produces an image of global finance as hypermobile and placeless. Indeed, it is not easy to demonstrate that these markets are embedded in anything social, let alone concrete, as in cement.

But these technical capabilities, along with the growing complexity of instruments, actually generate a need for cultures of interpretation in the operation of these markets, cultures best produced and enacted in financial centres - that is, very territorial, complex, and thick environments. Thus, and perhaps ironically, as the technical and academic features of derivatives instruments and markets become stronger, these cultures become more significant in an interesting trade-off between technical capacities and cultural capacities. We can then use the need for these cultures of interpretation as an indicator of the limits of the academic embeddedness of derivatives and therewith recover the social architecture of derivatives trading markets. More specifically, it brings us back to the importance of financial centres - as distinct from financial "markets" - as key, nested communities enabling the construction and functioning of such cultures of interpretation. The need for financial centres also, then, explains why the financial system needs a network of such centres. This need, in turn, carries implications for territorially bounded authority, and signals the formation of a specific type of territoriality, one marked by electronic networks and territorial insertions. Global cities are a more general instance of this same dynamic, including sectors other than finance. And beyond these types of formations there are other types of multi-sited global geographies - such as those binding Silicon Valley to Bangalore and kindred spaces.

Yet alongside these territorial insertions that give national states some traction in regulating even the most global of financial markets, the massive increases in values traded has given finance a good measure of power over national governments. This increase is probably one of the most significant outcomes of digitization in finance, with three of its capacities particularly critical. One is the digitizing of financial instruments. Much of the complexity can be contained in the software, enabling users who might not fully grasp either the financial mathematics nor the software algorithms involved. Further, when softwaring facilitates proprietary rights it also makes innovations more viable. Through innovations finance has raised the level of liquidity in the global capital market and increased the possibilities for liquefying forms of wealth hitherto considered non-liquid. The overall result has been a massive increase in the securitizing of previously untradeable assets, including various kinds of debt, and hence a massive increase in the overall volumes of global finance. Mediated through the specifics of contemporary finance and financial markets, digitization can then be seen as having contributed to a vast increase in the range of transactions.

Second, the distinctive features of digital networks can maximize the advantages of global market integration: simultaneous interconnected flows and decentralized access for investors and for exchanges in a growing number of countries. The key background factor here is that since the late 1980s countries have de- and re-regulated their economies to ensure cross-border convergence and the global integration of their financial centres. This non-digital condition amplified the new capabilities introduced by the digitization of markets and instruments.

Third, because finance is particularly about transactions rather than simply flows of money, the technical properties of digital networks assume added meaning. Interconnectivity, simultaneity, decentralized access, and software instruments, all contribute to multiply the number of transactions, the length of transaction chains (that is, the distance between instrument and underlying assets), and thereby the number of participants. The overall outcome is a complex architecture of transactions that promote exponential growth in transactions and value. Finance today is increasingly transaction-intensive which raises the importance of financial centres: they contain the capabilities for managing this transactivity precisely at a time when the latter assumes whole new features given digitization.

These three features of today´s global market for capital are inextricably related to the new technologies. The difference they have made can be seen in two consequences. One is the multiplication of specialized global financial markets. It is not only a question of global markets for equities, bonds, futures, currencies, but also of the proliferation of enormously specialized global sub-markets for each of these. This proliferation is a function of increased complexity in the instruments, in turn made possible by digitization of both markets and instruments.

The second consequence is that the combination of these conditions has contributed to the distinctive position of the global capital market in relation to several other components of economic globalization. We can specify two major traits; one concerns orders of magnitude and the second the spatial organization of finance. In terms of the first, indicators are the actual monetary values involved and, though more difficult to measure, the growing weight of financial criteria in economic transactions, sometimes referred to as the financializing of the economy. Since 1980, the total stock of financial assets has increased three times faster than the aggregate gross domestic product (GDP) of the 23 highly developed countries that formed the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for much of this period; and the volume of trading in currencies, bonds, and equities has increased about five times faster and now surpasses it by far. This aggregate GDP stood at about US$30 trillion in 2000 and US$36 trillion in 2004, while the worldwide value of internationally traded derivatives had reached over US$65 trillion in the late 1990s, a figure that rose to US$168 trillion in 2001, US$262 trillion in 2004, and US$640 trillion right before the financial crisis broke in September 2008. In contrast, the value of cross-border trade was US$15 trillion in 2007 and that of global foreign direct investment (FDI) stock, US$11 trillion in 2007 (IMF 2008; BIS 2004). Foreign exchange transactions were ten times as large as world trade in 1983, but (according to the triannual survey of the BIS) 70 times larger in both 1999 and 2003, and even higher in 2007, even though world trade also grew sharply over this period.

A second major set of issues about the transformative capacities of digitization has to do with the limits of technologically driven change, or, in other words, with the point at which this global electronic market for capital runs into the walls of its embeddedness in non-digital conditions. There are two distinct aspects here. One is the extent to which the global market for capital even though global and digital is actually embedded in multiple environments, some indeed global in scale, but others subnational, that is, the actual financial centres within which the exchanges are located. A second issue is the extent to which it remains concentrated in a limited number of the most powerful financial centres notwithstanding its character as a global electronic market and the growing number of "national" financial centres that constitute it. The deregulation of finance could conceivably have led to wide geographic dispersal of this most electronic and global of markets.

The sharp concentration in leading financial markets can be illustrated with a few facts.1 London, New York, Tokyo, Paris, Frankfurt, and a few other cities regularly appear at the top and represent a large share of global transactions. London, Tokyo, New York, Paris (now consolidated with Amsterdam and Brussels as EuroNext), Hong Kong, and Frankfurt account for a major share of worldwide stock market capitalization. London, Frankfurt, and New York account for an enormous world share in the export of financial services. London, New York, and Tokyo account for 58 per cent of the foreign exchange market, one of the few truly global markets; together with Singapore, Hong Kong, Zurich, Geneva, Frankfurt, and Paris, they account for 85 per cent in this most global of markets. These high levels of concentration do not preclude considerable activity in a large number of other markets, even though the latter may account for a small global share. The level of damage done in the 9/11 attacks in New York that destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged over 50 surrounding buildings, home to much financial activity, was seen by many as a wake-up call to the vulnerabilities of sharp spatial centralization in a limited number of sites.

In brief, the private digital space of global finance intersects in at least two specific and often contradictory ways with the world of state authority and law. One is through the incorporation into national state policy of types of norms that reflect the operational logic of the global capital market rather than the national interest. The second is through the partial embeddedness of even the most digitized financial markets in actual financial centres, which partly returns global finance to the world of national governments although it does so under the umbrella of denationalized (that is, global-oriented) components of the state regulatory apparatus. Global digitized finance makes legible some of the complex and novel imbrications between law and territory, notably that there is not simply an overriding of national state authority even in the case of this most powerful of global actors.2 There is, rather, both the use of national authority for the implementation of regulations and laws that respond to the interests of global finance (with associated denationalizing of the pertinent state capacities involved), and the renewed weight of that authority through the ongoing need of the global financial system for financial centres.

These conditions raise a number of questions about the impact of this concentration of capital in global markets which allow for accelerated circulation in and out of countries. The global capital market now has the power to transform the functioning of democratic governments by "disciplining” them, that is to say, to subject to financial criteria various monetary and fiscal policies that previously may have been subject to broader economic or social criteria.


Digital media are critical for place-centred activists focused on local issues that connect with other such groups around the world. This is cross-border political work centred on the fact that specific types of local issues recur in localities across the world. These are politics which, unlike hacktivism and cyberwar, are partly embedded in non-digital environments that shape, give meaning to, and to some extent constitute the event. These forms of activism contribute to an incipient unbundling of the exclusive authority, including symbolic authority, over territory and people we have long associated with the national state. This unbundling may well happen even when those involved are not necessarily problematizing the question of nationality or national identity; it can be a de facto unbundling of formal authority, one not predicated on a knowing rejection of the national.

Computer-centred interactive technologies facilitate multiscalar transactions and simultaneous interconnectivity among those largely confined to a locality. They can be used to further develop old strategies and to develop new ways of organizing, notably electronic activism. Internet media are the main type of ICT used, especially email, for organizations in the global south confined by little bandwidth and slow connections. It is important that there be a recognition of these technical constraints among major transnational organizations dealing with the global south: for instance, making text-only databases, with no visuals or HTML, no spreadsheets, and none of the other facilities that demand considerable bandwidth and fast connections).

As has been widely recognized, new ICTs do not simply replace existing media techniques; however, two patterns emerge: One is of no genuine need for these particular technologies given the nature of the organizing, or, at best, underutilization. Another is creative utilisation of the new ICTs along with older media to address the needs of particular communities, such as using the Internet to send audio files to be broadcast over loudspeakers to groups with no Internet connectivity, or that lack literacy. The Village Knowledge Centres in southern India, for example, cater to populations that even when illiterate, know exactly what types of information they need or want. "

Use of these technologies has also contributed to forming new types of organizations and activism. Perhaps the most widely known case of how the Internet made a strategic difference, the Zapatista movement, became two organizational efforts; one a local rebellion in the mountains of Chiapas in Mexico, the other a transnational electronic civil society movement joined by multiple NGOs concerned with peace, trade, human rights, and other social justice struggles. The movement functioned through both the Internet and conventional media, putting pressure on the Mexican government. It shaped a new concept for civil organizing: multiple rhizomatically connected autonomous groups

Far less known is that the local Zapatistas lacked an email infrastructure let alone collaborative workspaces on the Web. Messages had to be hand-carried, crossing military lines to bring them to others for uploading to the Internet; further, the solidarity networks themselves did not all have email, and sympathetic local communities often had problems with access. Yet Internet-based media did contribute enormously, in good part because of preexisting social networks, a fact that is important in social movements initiatives and in other contexts, including business.

All of this facilitates a new type of cross-border politics, deeply local yet intensely connected digitally. Activists can develop networks for circulating place-based information that can become part of their political work, and they can strategize around global conditions - the environment, growing poverty and unemployment worldwide, lack of accountability among multinationals, and so forth. While such political practices have long existed with other media and with other velocities, the new ICTs change the orders of magnitude, scope, and simultaneity of these efforts. This inscribes local political practice with new meanings and new potentialities. These dynamics are also at work in the constituting of global public spheres that may have little to do with specific political projects, though they do not always work along desired lines.

The types of political practice discussed here are not the cosmopolitan route to the global. They are global through the knowing multiplication of local practices. These are types of sociability and struggle deeply embedded in people's actions and activities. They also involve institution-building work with global scope that can come from localities and networks of localities with limited resources, and from informal social actors. Actors "confined" by domestic roles can become actors in global networks without having to leave their work and roles in home communities. From being experienced as purely domestic and local, these "domestic" settings become microenvironments on global circuits. They need not become cosmopolitan in this process; they may well remain domestic and particularistic in their orientation and continue to be engaged with their households, and local community struggles, and yet they are participating in emergent global politics. A community of practice can emerge that creates multiple lateral, horizontal communications, collaborations, solidarities, and supports.


1 Among the main sources of data for the figures cited in this section are the International Bank for Settlements (Basle); International Monetary Fund (IMF) national accounts data;
specialized trade publications such as Wall Street Journal's WorldScope, Morgan Stanley Capital International; The Banker; data listings in the Financial Times and in The
; and, especially for a focus on cities, the data produced by Technimetrics, Inc. (now part of Thomsons Financial, 1999).

2 I use the term  imbrication to capture this simultaneous interdependence and specificity of each the digital and the nondigital. They work on each other, but they do not produce hybridity in this process. Each maintains its distinct irreducible character (Sassen 2006: ch. 7).

Content type
Projects Nach dem Ende der Politik
World-Information Institute
Date 2011
Location Vienna


digital networks finance markets money economics global economy global information landscapes banks investments activism democracy power collaberation cross-border politics cyberwar hacktivism digitization Network technologies interactive technologies HTML Hong Kong New York Zurich Paris Geneva Amsterdam Brussels Mexico OECD FDI Zapatista movement
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