The Digital Surplus and Its Enemies

by Rob Horning

18 February 2010

‘Automotan’ (partial) – artist unknown 

The Hive Mind

The Commute

“The Commute” (partial) by Calum found on The Center for LifeLong Learning and Design

The Hive Mind

The “hive mind”—the collective wellspring of knowledge that exceeds the limits of property—need not only yield mediocrity, as Lanier assumes. Instead, it has the potential to redraw the boundaries of market society, opening up new social spaces.

Marcuse argued that technological change was bringing the “flattening out of the antagonism between culture and social reality through the obliteration of the oppositional, alien, and transcendent elements in the higher culture.” This flattening is accomplished by using media technologies to stimulate new needs, the satisfaction of which keep us happily distracted. “The power over man which this society has acquired is daily absolved by its efficacy and productiveness.” The result is a generational cohort incapable of imagining alternatives. The administered society’s “supreme promise is an ever-more-comfortable life for an ever-growing number of people who, in a strict sense, cannot imagine a qualitatively different universe of discourse and action, for the capacity to contain and manipulate subversive imagination and effort is an integral part of the given society.”

Though Lanier’s critique shares some Marcusean assumptions about the flattening of cultural possibilities (“The deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by the illusion of bits,” he writes) he never goes as far as blaming the existing power structure. Far from attributing these ills to the imperatives of capitalism, he’s more inclined to blame individuals for failing to uphold a quasi-Randian resistance to sharing.

One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society

cover art

Herbert Marcuse

US: Oct 1991

In his critique, Lanier appears to be guided by a distrust of all collective enterprises online, which he argues, in high Cold War dudgeon, have become a form of “digital Maoism” that nullifies the individual spirit while endeavoring to turn all the idealistic dupes who participate in them into robot slaves to the evil, mediocre hive mind. That we might be capable of sustaining a series of group identifications while preserving and perhaps even enhancing a core self seems not to have been considered.

Instead, identity is zero sum—if we are participating in the “wisdom of crowds,” we are a nonperson who has outsourced our autonomy. If we adopt the objective tone of Wikipedia, we have surrendered our belief in the personal point of view, in our very right to have opinions of our own.

Though he presents himself as the last defender of human potential, Lanier regards artists as entrepreneurs first and foremost; those who are not motivated by profit he regards as dilettantes whose work is inherently bad. “We forget what a wonder, what a breath of fresh air it has been to have creative people make their way in the world of commerce,” he rhapsodizes, substituting market discipline and capitalism’s imperative creative destruction for plain old creativity.

He argues that artistic production for markets is more unconstrained than production for a patron, as if there were no constraints in having to appeal to the lowest common denominator and as if no one ever successfully created art as a sideline, without patrons at all,  in the manner, say, of insurance-company lawyer Wallace Stevens, or Anthony Trollope, who managed to grind out triple-decker novels for years while working full-time for the post office, not to mention folk artists like James Hampton. Such people, in Lanier’s eyes, pursue art as a “vanity career” since it is not the source of their livelihood.

We get a glimpse of what Lanier’s ideal arrangement would be when he champions closed models of product development. His examples include “The iPhone, the Pixar movies, and all the other beloved successes of digital culture that involve innovation in the result as opposed to the ideology of creation. In each case, these are personal expressions.True, they often involve large groups of collaborators, but there is always a central personal vision—a Will Wright, a Steve Jobs, or a Brad Bird conceiving the vision and directing a team of people earning salaries.” Creativity, then, and personal expression are best limited to those towering figures with the capital amassed to recruit an army of wage slaves to implement their vision. If you happen to be one of those soldiers, then you best figure out how to make some more money.

Money, it turns out, is the only measuring stick, overriding Lanier’s earlier paeans to the ineffability of the human experience. The implication of Lanier’s argument is that people are motivated to create only by rewards rather than by the pleasure of creation or participation itself, an assertion belied by Web 2.0 voluntarism. “In the open culture future, your creativity and expression would also be unpaid, since you would be a volunteer in the army of the long tail. That would leave nothing for you.”

Nothing, that is, except the pleasure that stems from creative work itself, the solidarity that derives from participation, the satisfaction of contributing useful social labor, and the expanded potential for recognition expressed in non-monetary terms.

Lanier attempts to steer around this conundrum by arguing that the online behavior is inauthentic creativity, with authenticity being validated by money. “I believe most people would embrace a social contract in which bits have value instead of being free,” he explains. “Everyone would have easy access to everyone else’s creative bits at reasonable prices—and everyone would get paid for their bits. The arrangement would celebrate personhood in full, because personal expression would be valued.” In this equation, personhood equals paid content; it can only be “valued” commercially.

Such an arrangement underlies his proposal for a content vault and a prohibition of the digital duplication of any piece of intellectual property. He imagines a world where music files are locked with digital keys he calls “songles”, which we might carry around stored on wireless necklaces. He imagines this will help foster new creativity, not merely because it would secure payment for artists, but because “Once a person buys a songle, she is motivated to join in promoting its music, because she now has a stake in it.” Listening for her own enjoyment apparently is not enough of a “stake”. No one gets paid for appreciating things, after all.

There’s good reason to be skeptical of Web 2.0 and a future that promises to be increasingly mediated and funneled through gadgetry (though Lanier’s strange, incongruous concluding section, in which he reports that octopuses are probably higher lifeforms than humans and celebrates morphing in virtual reality as a higher form of communication seems to cast doubt on his own doubts). There’s reason to expect these changes to further transform the production and distribution of goods, meaning that some measure of structural unemployment is probably inevitable.

However, a backward-looking effort to stifle the creation of a digital surplus, to institute artificial scarcities to put capital’s dead hand more tightly around our throats, doesn’t serve the cause of innovation or freedom. In that surplus, which doesn’t vanish simply because it is not commerce, is the chance for a new relation between production and labor, at the very least the opportunity to recast the terms of domination in such a way as to amelieorate or abrogate them grows.

The “hive mind”—the collective wellspring of knowledge that exceeds the limits of property—need not only yield mediocrity, as Lanier assumes. Instead, it has the potential to redraw the boundaries of market society, opening up new social spaces. The imperfect methods of production no longer organized by capital can be improved. The manifest reality of the social factory in the form of the internet has mobilized more creative energy than was ever before possible, ever if the creators can only benefit from it at the social rather than the individual level.

These levels can coexist, if the new modes of production can escape their commercial origins. Now that the link between creativity and capital has finally begun to be severed, let’s not reforge our own chains.


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