The Economics of Infrastructure

Where are the most well-developed ICT infrastructures located? What does this have to do with the development and maintenance of high-tech capital? Saskia Sassen helps us understand capital fixity and hypermobility.

The increasing participation of elites in the global “space of flows” might seem to indicate that locality matters little in a world where ICT infrastructures permit mobility of people and capital. However, this is not fully the case. Significantly, most of the economic relationships underlying infrastructure placement point to the continued, if altered, importance of local places, especially cities. Sassen points out that despite the networked distribution of ICTs, global financial centres are even more consolidated today than they have been in the past. She writes, “while the new telecommunications technologies do indeed facilitate geographic dispersal of economic activities without losing system integration, they have also had the effect of strengthening the importance of central coordination and control functions for firms and, even, markets” (Sassen, 2000 p.308). Sassen calls this consolidation of capital in central areas “capital fixity’ and places it in contrast with the “hypermobility’ of these firms’ products. The products of global industry are increasingly constructed and assembled in a variety of separate global locations, making them “hypermobile.” Furthermore, information has increasingly become the product produced by many global firms, creating even more hypermobility. According to Sassen, though, there is a major disconnect between the hypermobility of the products of digital capitalism, and the location of most of the world’s capital has not fundamentally shifted despite the worldwide availability of ICT networks.

One would imagine that these networks, which theoretically provide information to any location equipped with an internet connection, would facilitate the distribution of capital and power. In fact, certain factors keep capital fixed in global centres such as New York, London, and Tokyo. One of them is access to human capital: global cities require the right mix of infrastructure and information. This information is not the data that is available anywhere through technical networks, but the sensitive interpretations provided by a deep understanding of and connection to social networks. In other words, it is not enough merely to retrieve data; it is also important to be able to interpret it well. Connection to relevant infrastructure networks is valuable, but not as valuable as a connection to social networks that contextualize and interpret the data distributed through technical networks. lnterpreting such information well requires human as well as economic capital, and it is often financially beneficial for large firms to centralize important divisions, such as risk management. Despite the hypermobility of products facilitated by ICT infrastructure and networks, capital is still firmly fixed in locations of power and influence where there are often also high levels of ICT infrastructure development. However, elite corporations and their high-level employees are also becoming increasingly untethered from nations – suggesting that processes of splintering that move individuals from the space of places to the space of flows also operate at the global and organization level as well as at the individual level. The high-level “knowledge workers” who are educated, economically elite and therefore mobile, represent human capital that can be integrated into the space of flows. At the same time, though, the service workers and less well-educated employees who support global companies (and who are often female) are tethered to the space of places. Therefore, on a global level, the key combination of the information infrastructure, financial and human capital in specific “global cities’ make visible the continuing importance of place: only certain local places can afford to consolidate the necessary infrastructure and human capital (both of knowledge and service workers) required for continued dominance.