DIY Manufacturing, the DRM Future, the iPad

Chris Anderson’s Wired article about changes in the manufacturing sector is as breathless and hype-ridden as one would expect (“Step inside and the office reveals itself as a mind-blowing example of the power of micro-factories”; “A garage renaissance is spilling over into such phenomena as the booming Maker Faires and local “hackerspaces.” Peer production, open source, crowdsourcing, user-generated content — all these digital trends have begun to play out in the world of atoms, too. The Web was just the proof of concept. Now the revolution hits the real world.”) It’s full of anecdotes about crowdsourced design and 3-D print shops and the world of liberated freelancers and the like. At Gizmodo, Joel Johnson provides a useful corrective: “We used to call ‘micro-factories’ ‘small businesses,’ but that was before we knew they were a revolution.”

What Anderson seems to miss in all his glee is the erosion of labor’s bargaining power. Since we’ll all be small-scale manufacturers, he seems to assume, there will be no laborers, per se. Or they will all be in China, at any rate, and who cares about them? The reality of crowdsourcing is that it is a good way to find someone to do any given piece of work the cheapest. And there are always people out there who underestimate the value of their abilities.

The future may be a time when we can’t sell our labor power alone; we’ll all need to be small-time entrepreneurs, hawking some small-time idea or contribution to a project, just to hustle up a living. In other words, in the future we will all basically be living off the books, and if you’ve read Sudhir Venkatesh’s book of the same name, you know that’s not such a good thing. Another book that is probably relevant to this is The Jobless Future by Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio, which I’ve not yet read.

Still, the question of whether the disintermediation facilitated by the internet is causing a revolution in the means of production — what they are, who has access to them, how they are related to capital, and so on — is well worth considering. Michel Bauwens, whose P2P Foundation site is a fount of links and essays about whether the internet can be the basis for a whole new mode of social organization, posted this summary of his ideas about what he calls (unfortunately) “netarchical capitalism” — an economic system in which the most important means of production is the information infrastructure that allows for participatory networks to form and free labor to be performed and what Paulo Virno (following Marx) calls the general intellect to operate. The general intellect is basically Marxist jargon for decentralized collaboration and cooperation, the generalized sharing of useful information about how to make things or consume things. As Virno defines it, it is “inseparable from the interaction of a plurality of living subjects. The ‘general intellect’ includes formal and informal knowledge, imagination, ethical tendencies, mentalities and ‘language games’. Thoughts and discourses function in themselves as productive ‘machines’ in contemporary labor.” In other words, the most valuable thing in the early days of the Industrial Age were machines and factories — you needed them to compete. Now, those are arguably less important than knowledge, how to operate machines and disseminate their products. And thanks to the internet, that knowledge is starting to belong to all of us.

Virno is glossing the “Fragment on Machines” from the Grundrisse, in which Marx suggests that technology will make human labor time less central to production, even though it remains the critical component in creating surplus value through exchange. Virno: “The main lacerating contradiction outlined here is that between productive processes that now directly and exclusively rely on science and a unit of measure of wealth that still coincides with the quantity of labor embodied in the product. According to Marx, the development of this contradiction leads to the ‘breakdown of production based on exchange value’ and therefore to communism.” Optimists believe we are seeing that play out now in the development of “the networked information economy” to use economist Yochai Benkler’s term (though Benkler does not seem to think these changes threaten the foundations of capitalism).

But that won’t happen without a fight. Bauwens recognizes that the information infrastructure will remain in the control of capitalists and could close off the liberating potential of new technology. “A new capitalist class is emerging,” he writes, “the forces which both ‘enable’ and exploit the participatory networks arising in the peer to peer era.” He adds, “Although the large netarchical corporations do enable participatory networks, their for-profit nature makes them dangerous trustees of commons-favorable protocols.” He lists some examples of netarchical capitalists, but no better example exists than Apple, whose new tablet device is clearly an attempt to toll the flow of information and reinstate the prerogatives of private intellectual property in the face of an emerging commons.

As Tom Formeski explains:

By building a proprietary, closed platform, with its own hardware and software, Apple is able to capture a larger part of the value stream from selling media….

Apple is making a bold bid to tie up a dominant share of the future media e-commerce market — the sale of digital books, movies, newspapers, etc. Its proprietary hardware and software strengthen its DRM; media creators want strong DRM, which will attract them to Apple. And it’s iTunes store distributes the media for them and collects payment.

If Apple’s device is successful, Nicolas Carr writes, “we’ll all be using iPads to play iTunes, read iBooks, watch iShows, and engage in iChats. It will be an iWorld.”

That’s also the conclusion reached by Tim Lee (via Matt Yglesias): “Apple seems determined to replicate the 20th century business model of paying for copies of content in an age where those copies have a marginal cost of zero.”

Apple is canny in leveraging the zeal its early adopters have for its designs into a wide-held belief in its products’ inevitable superiority. Writes Lee, “In the short term, Apple’s technological and industrial design prowess can help to prop up dying business models.” The press goes along with this now, hyping Apple PR as important news. Apple clearly intends to use its perceived advantage in design to dictate the terms of media consumption, and the company’s slavish fans appear to be willing servants eager to carry out the dismembering of the general intellect. But is Lee right that this strategy is doomed to long-term failure, that people will tire of being in walled gardens? I really don’t know. Are Kindles popular?