The Digital Surplus and Its Enemies

by Rob Horning

18 Feb 2010

‘Automotan’ (partial) – artist unknown 

With the advent of Web 2.0, the Internet has begun to take on the characteristics of what the Italian autonomists like Paolo Virno called the social factory. The idea is that since many of us no longer have all that much to offer society, in terms of operating machinery or that sort of thing, the new way of extracting surplus value from our “labor” is to turn our social lives into a kind of covert work that we complete throughout the day, but in forms that can be co-opted by capitalist firms.

Work processes, as Virno explains in A Grammar of the Multitude [Semiotext(e); 2004], become diverse, but social life begins to homogenize itself in the sense that our identity becomes something we all must prove in the public sphere—we all become concerned with the self as brand. This results in the “valorization”—Marxist jargon for value enhancement—“of all that which renders the life of an individual unique”—which is to say our concern for our uniqueness, our identity in social contexts, becomes a kind of value-generating capital, or rather a circulating commodity.

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A Grammar of the Multitude

Paolo Virno

US: Jan 2004

This plays out in seemingly innocuous ways. It can be a matter of hyping a product free of charge but using it or talking about it. Or it can be a matter of going to parties with co-workers, learning to get along better and therefore increasing the efficiency of processes on the job. Or it is a matter of behaving politely among strangers, extending a system of politeness and trust that can be harvested economically as a reduction in transaction costs. To put it in sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, our habitus—our manifest and class-bound way of being in the social world—has been transformed into an explicit productive force without our conscious consent by the way various social media have infiltrated everyday life.

The most obvious place in which this now occurs is online, as Tiziana Terranova details in Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy (Social Text - 63, Volume 18, Number 2, Summer 2000, pp. 33-58): “The Internet is about the extraction of value out of continuous, updateable work, and it is extremely labor intensive.” In a separate passage, she notes that “the productive capacities of immaterial labor on the Internet encompass the work of writing/reading/managing and participating in mailing lists/Web sites/chatlines.”

Where Terranova writes of mailing lists and chatlines, we can substitute in their heir, social networks. Our efforts in friending one another online and creating a social map whose byways can later be retraced by marketing concerns is perhaps the chief form of free labor today, for which we are not compensated with wages but with a stronger, though highly particularized, sense of self, measurable in hard, quantifiable terms.

This identity seems much more fragile and vulnerable than previous conceptions of the self, contingent as it is on associations and meanings that are always rapidly shifting. For while we are building identity in social networks, our online behavior generates a plenitude of information, meanings and content that constitutes a “cognitive surplus” generated by the “hive mind”, to use terms from technopunditry, or is a concrete manifestation of the “general intellect”, to stick to Marxist jargon. The surfeit of suddenly accessible information threatens to overwhelm us, with the flood destroying what value there might be in any single piece of data. As the flood rushes past it sweeps away what we thought we knew about what the stuff and relationships in our lives meant and what we thought we knew about ourselves.

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You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto

Jaron Lanier

US: Jan 2010

How worried should we be about this? Jaron Lanier seems to believe the fate of our species is at stake. He opens You Are Not a Gadget, about the vicissitudes of information technology, with a bracing description of how the book itself will be disseminated and processed and hence “mostly will be read by nonpersons”. It’s intended as a veiled challenge: Are you still a person? Would you even know? Are you reading, or are you just processing for the benefit of the “lords of the cloud” as he calls them, the ultimate beneficiaries of all the immaterial labor we conduct online.

The gambit suggests that Lanier, a dreadlocked computer scientist credited with helping pioneer virtual reality technology, is prepared to launch into a book-length Marcusean critique of one-dimensionality, in which apparent freedoms of expression online have turned into the cloaked chains of servitude. But don’t be fooled by the fact that “manifesto” appears in the subtitle. Lanier may look as if he’s come from the digital fringe with a visionary message about the future of our networked age, but there is nothing particularly progressive about his ideas. He frequently comes across as a cranky reactionary, putting remix culture on a continuum with truly outlandish utopian ideas about posthumanity:

Humans are free. We can commit suicide for the benefit of a Singularity. We can engineer our genes to better support an imaginary hive mind. We can make culture and journalism into second-rate activities and spend centuries remixing the detritus of the 1960s and other eras from before individual creativity went out of fashion.

Creativity, however, has never been more in fashion than it is today; the development of Web 2.0 is nothing but an endless exhortation for everyone to “share” their creativity online in various harvestable forms. What Lanier is talking about when he mentions “individual creativity” is intellectual property, which has indeed gone “out of fashion” with a substantive proportion of Internet users who exploit the medium to trade digitized culture-industry product.

Lanier purports to be concerned with humanity, but his true concern is property. Despite its old-school humanist trappings, You Are Not a Gadget is a pro-business book; its core idea is a full-throated defense of intellectual property against any notion of digital abundance, and its rhetoric is fueled by a conservative longing for culture made and administered by an elite rather than by what he sees as a fulminating rabble of plebeian amateurs. Though it may seem to unlock human potential, technology actually poses a threat to capital that must be snuffed. He proudly sees himself as a crusader for “bringing expression back under the tent of capitalism” and is prepared to support elaborate ruses to institute “artificial scarcities” to accomplish it.

Appropriately enough, considering its ideological slant, You Are Not a Gadget is written in the casual, subliterary style that editors have deemed suitable for businesspeople—in short chapters with sidebars, occasional bullet-pointed lists, and lots of subheadings to steer the easily distracted. The for-dummies format stands in defiance to one of Lanier’s main arguments, that the digitization of society encourages fragmented, dumbed-down thought and should be resisted.

The tension between form and content—with Lanier’s metaphysical speculations about the ineffable spirit of humankind poured into a template designed to facilitate the quick, instrumentalist extraction of information—undermines the critique, generating an undertow amid the condemnations of digital freeloaders and amateur content producers and naïve techno-utopians. Underlying that critique is an assumption that becomes more and more uncomfortable the further one reads into You Are Not a Gadget: that the integrity of the human spirit is somehow bound up with the integrity of intellectual property, and that any impulse to remove the profit motive from socially necessary labor is a perverse aberration, an assault on the very concept of personhood.

Compared with where he ends up, Lanier sounds downright dialectical in the book’s first section, where he asserts that technology produces us as much as we produce it. “People degrade themselves to make machines seem smart all the time,” he claims, arguing that we lower our standards not only in order to accept good-enough technology, but to also blind ourselves to how tech developments are hemming us in. He cites a “lock-in effect” by which technological approximations of reality subsequently begin to determine that reality—the limitations of MIDI yield a music that ignores what MIDI can’t capture, the shortcomings of UNIX hamper the real-time effectiveness of the devices reliant on its legacy code, the social tools of Facebook come to constitute the boundaries of friendship, and so on.

In each case, technology offers a convenience or expediency that seems liberating at first, affording new possibilities, only to later reveal itself as a constraint as these possibilities become real and obscure others undreamed of. “These designs came together very recently,” he warns, “and there’s a haphazard, accidental quality to them. Resist the easy grooves they guide you into. If you love a medium made of software, there’s a danger that you will become entrapped in someone else’s recent careless thoughts.”

Marcuse, of course, saw nothing accidental in the easy grooves set out for us. In One-Dimensional Man (Beacon Press, 1964) he attributes the creation of such ruts, often comforting in and of themselves, to a “total administration” culture that deliberately works to eliminate the very possibility of conceiving resistance to the established order.

The elements of autonomy, discovery, demonstration, and critique recede before designation, assertion, and imitation. Magical, authoritarian and ritual elements permeate speech and language. Discourse is deprived of the mediations which are the stages of the process of cognition and cognitive evaluation. The concepts which comprehend the facts and thereby transcend the facts are losing their authentic linguistic representation.

What Lanier sees in technology, Marcuse sees in language and positivist scientific methods as a whole.

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