“Informational capitalism”: miscellaneous notes

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Harry Halpin and Elijah Sparrow titled “The origins and future of informational capitalism,” which I found out about, ironically, via Facebook. I had a couple thoughts, which I’ll try to put together in an organized fashion below.

Halpin and Sparrow share concerns over the endpoint of what Marx calls the “real subsumption of labor”: the seemingly inevitable moment when we, the workers of the world, are all made redundant by technocapitalist machines capable of doing our work more efficiently than us, and for free. The two mock think pieces for asking questions like, “What will we do with our free time when machines make employment unnecessary?,” doubting the political viability of something like a minimum income to fill in for when we all lose our jobs to machines. This allegedly unviable solution is, of course, exactly the goal of the interesting but a bit passe movement of accelerationism: re-engage modernity and technology to steer it to utopian ends, while seizing power of political institutions to guarantee basic social reforms that cushion the fall for the formerly-working class.

Halpin and Sparrow’s concern, however, is that capital might not actually be able to achieve the dream of full automization, even if trends seem to point that way now. Because marginal returns of increasing machine-working start to drop off, especially compared to the then-lowering cost of human labor, capital’s march towards a labor force of pure machinery may be halted by pure economics. Presumably, at this point, it will be more profitable for the powers-that-be to adopt a certain compromise between the superior efficiency of robotics in some industries, while living labor is directed to cover the rest, at increasingly destitute levels of compensation. Perhaps, if the accelerationists have it right, this might be the precise moment needed to achieve the kind of social consciousness that finally makes political reforms like a universal basic income achievable. I think, also, that capital, as the economic system of “constant revolutionizing,” to quote the Communist Manifesto, would only be able to achieve such a compromise only temporarily; all of that surplus capital has to get re-invested somewhere.

Sparrow also keyed in on a question of labor and social networking that I’ve seen explored elsewhere, but I liked the terms he used to frame the question. He described the way users voluntarily contribute personal data to social networks like Facebook, and Facebook monetizing that aggregated data and selling it to advertisers or other corporations, as “Facebook selling you to you,” that “you are the product.” I’m reminded of the passage in The Coming Insurrection where The Invisible Committee attacks the injunction to “be you,” a specific person with specific and identifiable personality traits that link you to others in a way intelligible to power structures. For The Invisible Committee, power manages your otherwise unintelligible being by making it specific and grouped, or groupable — it has to know where to put you on the social map. For more overtly Marxist thinkers like Jodi Dean, there is an unmistakable link between the emergence of identity politics and the explicit commodification of the individual as a person with identifiable traits that emerges in the case of the monetized social networking website: Facebook is the apex of a phase of capitalism that derives profit from people’s ways of being, rather than a “job” that is separate from their “private” life.

Halpin, however, qualifies an implication of this criticism by professing his belief that advertising data possibly isn’t as profitable as people think, and that maybe advertisers have overestimated the value this data agglomeration can serve to them. Personally, between Adblock and Netflix, I rarely, if ever see advertisements anymore, and if I do, I automatically ignore them. It got me thinking, though, that the most effective ads, the ones put out by the really big companies, aren’t presented surrounding media anymore — like commercials that play in between songs on the radio — but are embedded in the media products themselves, with the appearance of brands peppered throughout most major movies and TV shows these days. I think this merger between cultural product and advertisement is an interesting and potentially significant one, and certainly is something that would stand to gain from knowledge about likely consumer bases. And the circle continues: not only do we voluntarily contribute advertising data in our free time, on Facebook, we do so by expressing our fondness for cultural items like movies that themselves contain more advertising data, by constructing an identity for ourselves that is already composed of the products that we’re helping (indirectly) to sell. A becoming-advertisement, if you will.

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