Google and the Production of Curiosity

On Twitter, PJ Rey resurrected this August 2010 op-ed by William Gibson that has new currency given the hullaballoo about Google’s privacy-policy changes. Gibson argues that Google is an unanticipated form of artificial intelligence, “a sort of coral reef of human minds and their products.” But this description sounds less like artificial intelligence and more like Marx’s notion of the general intellect. Anticipating the intensification of technology, Marx claimed that machines would eventually subsume “the process of social life” and integrate it as a form of productivity.

The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.

This is pretty obscure even by Marx’s standards, but autonomist Marxists (Negri, Lazzaurato, Virno) have extrapolated from this a definition of general intellect that embraces, as Virno puts it, “formal and informal knowledge, imagination, ethical tendencies, mentalities and ‘language games’.” Because of the membranous nature of the general intellect, when harnessed and integrated with capital, it can recuperate all social behavior as “immaterial” production — enriching the valence of signs, producing affects, etc. — it means that “even the greater ‘power to enjoy’ is always on the verge of being turned into labouring task.” That is, our consumption, especially of information, is a mode of production. The general intellect is the sum of all that information circulation.

Google, then, is the reification of the general intellect. It manages to take human curiosity and turn it into capital.

The consequences of that are profound. Our curiosity is no longer a sign of our leisure; it’s an enormously important economic factor. To a degree this has always been true. Our willingness to pay attention to things is at the root of consumer demand. But it is now far more productive of informational goods in and of itself, thanks to ubiquitous online surveillance and data-storage capabilities. Much of the way we express our human curiosity can now be recorded and fed into algorithms and plotted on graphs of connections to generate more information, stimulate more curiosity, produce more demand. That’s why, as Gibson points out, Google’s Eric Schmidt claimed that people “want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.” Google doesn’t end lines of inquiry; it gives users momentum. The point of Google is to try to keep you Googling. Not only does that make their ad space more valuable, but it adds value to their search products; it thickens the membrane. As Gibson notes, “In Google, we are at once the surveilled and the individual retinal cells of the surveillant, however many millions of us, constantly if unconsciously participatory.”

What that means is that Google’s instantiation of the general intellect captures not merely human cooperation and collaboration, as the theorists tend to emphasize when discussing post-Fordist production and the productivity of interpersonal “virtuosity”. It also captures and perhaps even emphasizes the lateral surveillance aspect of sociality — each implementing control on everyone else, recording what they do and annotating it. Human curiosity is intensified and directed at one another. The general intellect becomes a giant spying machine. (Facebook is probably a more explicit example of that than Google, but Google seems more powerful as the received source of answers, the index of approved information.)

Gibson notes how Google makes personal identity a productive factor, a kind of capital it owns. This makes it something we are therefore stuck with. What we have done and would like to have forgotten is part of Google’s “fixed capital” that they are loath to relinquish, despite Schmidt’s suggestion that teens be issued fresh identities when they become adults. (Gibson ridicules “the prospect of millions of people living out their lives in individual witness protection programs.”) Instead we must adapt our understanding of who we are and what identity consists of. In The New Spirit of Capitalism, before launching into a discussion of the ideological usefulness of the term network, Boltanski and Chiapello discuss our demand for the intelligibility of shared social values.

Young cadres in particular feel a need clearly to identify the new forms of success and the new rules of the game in the economic world, in order to know how to conduct themselves and prepare their children. This demand for intelligibility exerts significant pressure for greater explanation and formalization of the rules of conduct, which will then guide action. In fact, the people tend to conform to these emergent new rules, if only because they confer meaning on what would otherwise merely seem like an arbitrary proliferation of ad hoc mechanisms and locally convenient improvisations.

I don’t know about that being a “fact,” but it seems plausible that social media have taught us all something about “locally convenient improvisations,” for good and ill. And the explosion of Facebook and Google into our lives has disrupted the old version of intelligibility — prompting new rules that are consistent with the new form of capitalism these media are driving.

So our common sense understanding of what it means to have a self is changing under this pressure. We no longer have the luxury of seeing ourselves as isolated individuals who make themselves as an expression of their iron internal will. Now we have our identities explicitly shaped (or maybe even dictated) by our contingent place in social networks and we can’t hide that fact from ourselves. We have to relieve the dissonance of our data trail by surrendering the prerogative of claiming to be self-created and learn to love the self the data tells us we are or should be at any particular moment. We let Google tell us what to do next.