Transparency and Development: Ethical Consumption

Full title: Transparency and Development:Ethical Consumption and Economic Development through Web 2.0 and the Internet of

Contemporary capitalism conceals the histories and geographies of most commodities from consumers.
Consumers are usually only able to see commodities in the here and now of time and space, and rarely
have any opportunities to gaze backwards through the chains of production in order to gain knowledge
about the sites of production, transformation and distribution. Over the past decades, the production of
commodities has been globalized at a staggering pace, and yet our knowledge about the production of
those same commodities has shrunk. This state of affairs has allowed Transnational Corporations to pay
subsistence wages at many sites of production in the Global South for products that they sell in the Global
North. However, a variety of infomediaries (such as the Fairtrade Foundation and Rainforest Alliance
certification organizations) have demonstrated that it is possible to engage in a different kind of
globalization: using transparency to encourage economic development in sites around the world.

This paper discusses the potentials for Web 2.0 technologies and the emergent Internet of Things to
transcend barriers of time and space in order to facilitate flows of information about the chains of
commodities. Many commentators argue that by increasing transparency in commodity chains,
communication technologies are encouraging consumers to make informed economic decisions and be
more aware of their economic, social, political and environmental impacts. Therefore, by globalizing
knowledge, Web 2.0 projects such as Wikipedia and Wikichains offer a potential to fundamentally alter
the ethics and practices of consumption and production.

Three models of information transfer are critically evaluated. First, a pre-media model in which the
strength of information flow from any node on a commodity chain to a consumer exists in an inverse
relationship with distance. Second, the infomediary model in which infomediaries (consumer
organizations, newspapers, television, etc.) provide a spotlight effect on specific nodes in commodity
chains; thus circumventing geographic frictions. The bulk of the paper is concerned with the third and
final model: the Internet of Things model. A variety of commentators have argued that a combination of
the Internet of Things (the networking of objects and commodities with RFID tags and IP addresses) and
Web 2.0 frameworks (the pooling of a global networked labor force) will allow a ubiquitous layer of
information about most objects to be easily accessed through any networked electronic device. The
implications for economic development are significant, as the Internet of Things offers the potential to
greatly increase the transparency of most commodity chains, and thereby alter the ways that commodities
are both consumed and produced. Finally, the paper concludes by bringing together literatures on
cyberspace, positionalities and consumption in order to critically evaluate whether the development
potentials of Web 2.0 projects and the Internet of things can realistically be fulfilled.

Author: Mark Graham

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