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Archive for 'Cognitive Capitalism'

Can we turn Netarchical Platforms into worker-owned businesses?

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Stacco Troncoso
18th October 2014


facebook
In answer to the question posed in the title, I don’t think we can do much to reclaim our rights as producers of content and use value in netarchical platforms. However, we can work to raise awareness on the subject and help the shift toward real P2P platforms. This is already happening right now, with Diaspora enjoying a revival in the wake of Ello’s failed promise to deliver a true alternative to Facebook. The following article was written by John Robb and originally published in Home Free America.


“We don’t get ownership because we don’t expect ownership… We’ve been conditioned to give away our work and our patronage for free while the schmucks on Wall Street walk away with buckets of money.”

Do you contribute to Facebook, Yelp, Reddit, or sites like that?

Most of us do contribute to some sites like this and our contributions, more or less depending on our contribution, are the reason these companies are valuable.

Our contributions are the reason people come to these sites day after day, so why don’t we get a bit of ownership for our contributions?

Lots of ownership goes to the employees.  But, nobody goes to these sites for the high quality software, elegant design, or robust hosting.  Further, all of the tech they are using is the result of innovation by other people.

Most of the ownership goes to the financing.  Yet, these sites don’t cost much to run.  A pittance actually.  The cloud makes them very cheap to operate.  In fact, the amount is so small, nearly all of the money needed to launch these sites could be raised by the customers using these sites.

We don’t get ownership because we don’t expect ownership.

We’ve been conditioned to give away our work and our patronage for free while the schmucks on Wall Street walk away with buckets of money.

There is a small glimmer of hope things might finally be changing (it’s something I tried to do back in 2010-12 and got my ass handed to me for trying to do it).

My hope is due to three things:

  1. Desire to do the right thing.  We don’t see enough of this in Silicon Valley anymore, despite the fact that all great innovations start with getting the “why” right.  Reddit’s CEO, Yishan Wong (formerly of Facebook) is doing the right thing.  He’s planning to make Reddit’s users into owners, depending on their contribution to the site.
  2. There’s a way to create a form of liquid ownership that doesn’t require Wall Street.  This new method is based on the bitcoin blockchain.  That technology makes it possible to issue ownership to contributors in a decentralized and trusted way.
  3. The combination of blockchain stock, Yishan’s example, and the experience of participants will set in motion a wave of change in Silicon Valley.  The message is:  if you want to build an online company, you better find a way to make your customers/contributors owners.

PS:  This is potentially a sea change in financing/ownership.  There’s much more to this.  Wall Street’s banksters should be worried.

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Posted in Anti-P2P, Cognitive Capitalism, Collective Intelligence, Copyright/IP, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Empire, Networks, Politics | No Comments »

Video of the Day: Bruce Sterling on Design Fiction

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Stacco Troncoso
12th October 2014


Bruce Sterling and his iBook

“[...This] is gonna kinda hurt: In the startup world, you work hard and you move fast in order to make other people rich.”

Don’t miss this outrageously inspiring video, where Bruce Sterling proceeds to break the hearts of a few thousands wannabe venture capital baiters at last year’s NEXT Berlin conference for “digital forethinkers and tech experts”.

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Posted in Anti-P2P, Cognitive Capitalism, Collective Intelligence, Copyright/IP, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Empire, Featured Content, Featured Video, Media, Politics, Technology, Videos | 2 Comments »

The emergence of dynamic ownership

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Michel Bauwens
9th October 2014


Reddit’s CEO, Yishan Wong (formerly of Facebook) is doing the right thing. He’s planning to make Reddit’s users into owners, depending on their contribution to the site. There’s a way to create a form of liquid ownership that doesn’t require Wall Street. This new method is based on the bitcoin blockchain. That technology makes it possible to issue ownership to contributors in a decentralized and trusted way. The combination of blockchain stock, Yishan’s example, and the experience of participants will set in motion a wave of change in Silicon Valley. The message is: if you want to build an online company, you better find a way to make your customers/contributors owners.*

Excerpted from John Robb:

“Yesterday I wrote about how Reddit’s CEO, Yishan Wong, is planning to issue ownership in Reddit to the users of its site.

It’s a bold move that has a level fairness and integrity we don’t expect from business leaders anymore.

It’s fair because these users are the same people that put the time and effort into making Reddit a great site to visit, and they’ve been doing it for years.

So, why is this going to change everything? It’s the start of something called dynamic ownership.

It’s going to end the free ride Internet companies have had for the last two decades. Companies that are exceedingly profitable because they don’t pay the people that do the work they make money selling.

Once people learn to expect ownership for the work they do online, few will spend time on sites that don’t award it.

Here’s an example.

Let’s say I start a challenger to Yelp. My goal is to build a site that has higher quality reviews, written by verified customers. It’s a win win.

Normally, Yelp would be hard to unseat. They have lots of existing content and people are used to using them. However, they don’t reward reviewers/users with ownership. I do.

So, I start by crowdfunding the venture.

How? I build a prototype site and demo it on Kickstarter (or some site like it).

I then offer the initial group two million shares at a dollar a share, using a loophole in the law that avoids triggering a public offering. Ownership is awarded to this group in the form of a corporate coin like bitcoin.

When I launch the site, reviewers and site users earn ownership (coin) as they contribute to the site drawing from a different pool of stock that uses the same loophole.

Soon, millions of reviews are up and the site is humming. Yelp’s traffic plummets as my revenue shoots to the moon (and given that the system is built in “the cloud” and the ads are run through third parties, the costs of the system are nearly zilch relative to revenue).

It’s not long before the people working on sites like this are able to earn a living from the money they earn this way.

When this happens, we’ll know that this new economy has found a way beyond the silly commercial malware and billionaires in hoodies it produces today.”

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Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Commons, P2P Company Watch, Peer Property | 1 Comment »

A potential landmark in netarchical profit sharing ?

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Michel Bauwens
1st October 2014


Back in the days, one of the proposed demands of the Free Culture Forum in Barcelona, was for proprietary platforms to re-invest 15% of profit back into the community of contributors, but without turning the contributions into commodities, to avoid a return to pure production for money.

Remarkably, the Reddit management is thinking in the same direction, though of course, it is very unlikely that there will be any co-governance:

Excerpt from Kim-Mai Cutler :

“this is a historic landmark of sorts:

“When Wong served as an early director at Facebook for five years, crypto-currencies were around, but they weren’t as widely accepted or understood as they are today. He and Y Combinator head Sam Altman, who just personally led a $50 million round in the company announced today, want to use them as a tool to distribute shares in the company back to the millions of Reddit users, or Redditors, that log in every day. They’ve set aside 10 percent of the round announced today for that purpose.

“Everybody who has ever run the company has always wanted to give some ownership back to the community somehow,” Wong said.

He went on, “We have a crazy plan and what we’re going to do is create a crypto-currency that is backed by those shares. Then we’re going to distribute the currency to the community through some reasonably fair way that reflects the contributions of community. That is one of the more complex subproblems we have to figure out.”

Distributing crypto-currency backed shares will not be solely tied to Reddit karma, or the reputation scoring system that measures how Redditors contribute back to the community.

“You can game ‘karma’ and we don’t actually want to create an incentive for that,” he said. “That’s why there’s no financial aspect tied to karma and that’s why it’s a crypto-currency kind of thing.”

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Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Commons, Ethical Economy, Sharing | No Comments »

Book of the Day: Digital Labour and Karl Marx

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hartsellml
28th September 2014


Book: Fuchs, Christian. 2014. Digital Labour and Karl Marx. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-71615-4.

URL = http://fuchs.uti.at/books/digital-labour-and-karl-marx/

 

Description

“How is labour changing in the age of computers, the Internet, and social media? such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, Weibo and Twitter? In Digital Labour and Karl Marx, Christian Fuchs attempts to answer that question, crafting a systematic critical theorisation of labour as performed in the capitalist ICT industry. The book Digital Labour and Karl Marx shows that labour, class and exploitation are not concepts of the past, but are at the heart of computing and the Internet in capitalist society. It argues that we therefore need an engagement with Karl Marx’s theory to understand digital and social media today.

The work argues that our use of digital media is grounded in old and new forms of exploited labour. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Weibo and other social media platforms are the largest advertising agencies in the world. They do not sell communication, but advertising space. And for doing so, they exploit users, who work without payment for social media companies and produce data that is used for targeting advertisements. The book presents case studies that show that user’s activities on corporate social media is just one form of digital labour. Their usage is enabled by the labour of slaves and other highly exploited workers extracting minerals in developing countries, hardware assemblers in China, California and other parts of the world who face extremely hard working conditions that remind us of the industrial labour that Karl Marx described in 19th century Britain, low paid software engineers and information service workers in developing countries who provide labour for transnational ICT companies in the West, highly paid and highly stressed software engineers at Google and other Western ICT companies, or e-waste workers who disassemble computers under toxic conditions.

The case studies in Fuchs’ book show that the profitability of ICT companies is built on the lives and deaths of a global class of exploited workers whose labour is anonymously connected an international division of digital labour. Christian Fuchs, Production and use of digital media are embedded into multiple forms of exploitation. The information society is first and foremost a capitalist class society. The only solution is that we become conscious as a new working class and find ways to overcome the realities of exploitation.

PART I Theoretical Foundations of Studying Digital Labour

  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. An Introduction to Karl Marx?s Theory
  • 3. Contemporary Cultural Studies and Karl Marx
  • 4. Dallas Smythe and Audience Labour Today
  • 5. Capitalism or Information Society?

PART II Analysing Digital Labour: Case Studies

  • 6. Digital Slavery: Slave Work in ICT-Related Mineral Extraction
  • 7. Exploitation at Foxconn: Primitive Accumulation and the Formal Subsumption of Labour
  • 8. The New Imperialism?s Division of Labour: Work in the Indian Software Industry
  • 9. The Silicon Valley of Dreams and Nightmares of Exploitation: The Google Labour Aristocracy and Its Context
  • 10. Tayloristic, Housewifized Service Labour: The Example of Call Centre Work
  • 11. Theorizing Digital Labour on Social Media

PART III Conclusion

  • 12. Digital Labour and Struggles for Digital Work:The Occupy Movement as a New Working-Class Movement? Social Media as Working-Class Social Media?
  • 13. Digital Labour Keywords

 

Review

Joss Winn:

” On the whole, I’m very impressed with it. It’s 400 pages, comprehensively structured with a glossary at the back, and so a very useful reference and teaching resource. It combines a good discussion of Marx’s critique of political economy with a literature review and several illustrative case studies.

Fuchs’ book opens with:

“How is labour changing in the age of computers, the Internet, and “social media” such as Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter? In Digital Labour and Karl Marx, Christian Fuchs attempts to answer that question, crafting a systematic critical theorisation of labour as performed in the capitalist ICT industry. Relying on a range of global case studies – from unpaid social media prosumers or Chinese hardware assemblers at Foxconn to miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo – Fuchs sheds light on the labour costs of digital media, examining the way ICT corporations exploit human labour and the impact of this exploitation on the lives, bodies, and minds of workers.”

From this we are made aware that this is not a book about ‘immaterial labour’ or ‘cognitive capitalism’, although it discusses these theories, but rather it is primarily a critique of the forms of labour that contribute to the production of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).

The book is divided into three main sections: Theory, case studies and conclusions.

The first section begins with an introduction to what ‘digital labour’ refers to and why it should be studied. Fuchs defines digital labour through reference to examples: mining for minerals used in mobile phones; Foxconn factory workers; Google software engineers; Amazon’s Mechanical Turk; Amazon’s warehouse workers; Work.Shop.Play, a website that rewards people for completing surveys for market research; and crowdsourcing the translation of Facebook’s website into other languages. From this, Fuchs defines ‘digital labour’ in the following way:

“These examples outline various forms of labour associated with the ICT industry. They differ in amount in regard to the levels of payment; health risks; physical, ideological and social violence; stress; free time; overtime; and the forms of coercion and control the workers are experiencing, but all have in common that human labour-power is exploited in a way that monetarily benefits ICT corporations and has negative impacts on the lives, bodies or minds of workers. The forms of labour described in this book are all types of digital labour because they are part of a collective work force that is required for the existence, usage and application of digital media. What defines them is not a common type of occupation, but rather the industry they contribute to and in which capital exploits them.” (p. 4)

In the book’s glossary (‘Digital Labour Keywords’), the entry for digital labour is:

“Digital labour Digital labour is alienated digital work: it is alienated from itself, from the instruments and objects of labour and from the products of labour. Alienation is alienation of the subject from itself (labour-power is put to use for and is controlled by capital), alienation from the object (the objects of labour and the instruments of labour) and the subject-object (the products of labour). Digital work and digital labour are broad categories that involve all activities in the production of digital media technologies and contents.

This means that in the capitalist media industry, different forms of alienation and exploitation can be encountered. Examples are slave workers in mineral extraction, Taylorist hardware assemblers, software engineers, professional online content creators (e.g. online journalists), call centre agents and social media prosumers. In digital labour that is performed on corporate social media, users are objectively alienated because (a) in relation to subjectivity, they are coerced by isolation and social disadvantage if they leave monopoly capital platforms (such as Facebook); (b) in relation to the objects of labour, their human experiences come under the control of capital; (c) in relation to the instruments of labour, the platforms are not owned by users but by private companies that also commodify user data; and (d) in relation to the product of labour, monetary profit is individually controlled by the platform’s owners. These four forms of alienation constitute together the exploitation of digital labour by capital. Alienation of digital labour concerns labour-power, the object and instruments of labour and the created products.” See also: digital work Digital work Digital work is a specific form of work that makes use of the body, mind or machines or a combination of all or some of these elements as an instrument of work in order to organize nature, resources extracted from nature, or culture and human experiences, in such a way that digital media are produced and used. The products of digital work are depending on the type of work: minerals, components, digital media tools or digitally mediated symbolic representations, social relations, artefacts, social systems and communities. Digital work includes all activities that create use-values that are objectified in digital media technologies, contents and products generated by applying digital media.

See also: digital labour” (p. 352)

I’ve quoted these in full because it’s important to know what we’re analysing and because I want to determine whether and how ‘academic labour’ differs from ‘digital labour’. After all, I am engaged in implementing a digital education strategy at my university, I have run a number of ICT related projects over the years and I think the label ‘digital scholar’ applies to academics like me. Am I a digital worker? Is my academic labour also digital labour?

From Fuchs’ definitions, we can say that digital labour is indeed a “broad category”. I think we can distil it as:

Alienated and exploited digital work which is defined by its association with the ICT industry; it creates value for that industry. It incorporates all physiological aspects of the human body, its relationship to nature and machines. It is objectified in digital goods as well as services that are reliant on digital goods.

Another way to define digital labour is to question what it is not. Can we think of a type of labouring activity that can not be included under this broad category? We have seen above that ‘digital work’ is not defined by its direct relationship to digital outputs. For example, in a month of work, the miner of minerals for a mobile phone may never encounter an ICT technology. They may live without access to electricity, walk to work, dig holes and that is the extent of their labouring routine. As Fuchs notes in the introduction to his case study on the slavery of mineral mining (what he calls ‘digital slavery’), “most of the slaves who extract these minerals have never owned a computer or laptop.” (p.155) So in thinking about non-digital labour, we need to think of a type of labouring activity where the ICT industry does not profit from it in any way and it does not produce ICT goods or any services that rely on ICT.

The first thing that comes to my mind is food production. Is this digital labour? The food commodity is not a digital object, yet according to Fuchs’ definition, I think large-scale, industrial food production and manufacturing (e.g. ‘e-agriculture‘) could count as digital labour. It is highly mechanised and relies on the global trade of food commodities. The ICT industry definitely benefits from the production processes of food, even apart from it keeping their workers alive.

What about nursing? The ICT industry definitely benefits from the medical and care professions. The act of care in a hospital or care home can be seen as contributing to the profits of the ICT industry. It may at first seem like a long stretch between patient care and the revenues of Dell, for example, but the labour of a nurse includes the use of ICT and management of that labour requires the use of ICT. Cisco, for example, thinks that ‘ICT [is] at the heart of NHS reform‘. [pdf] It is an “integral and underpinning part of NHS business”.

The issue that Fuchs’ definition of digital labour points to is that it could include most types of labour. Even slavery is referred to as ‘digital slavery’.” (http://josswinn.org/2014/03/digital-labour-academic-labour-and-karl-marx/)

 

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Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Featured Book | No Comments »

Interview: Andy Goldring on Time in Permaculture Economies

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Michel Bauwens
16th September 2014


Read the interview of Andy Goldring by Michelle Bastian here.

Michelle Bastian explains:

“One of the aims of the Sustaining Time project is to provide materials that can open up discussions around the relationship between time and attempts to move towards more sustainable economic models. As part of this interviews were conducted with a range of people involved in thinking economies differently, including Katherine Gibson (Community Economies Collective), Anna Coote (nef), Sam Alexander (Simplicity Institute) and more. These will be published as part of the Temporal Belongings Interview series which looks at the realtionship between time and community from a number of different angles.

In the first of the series, I talk with Andy Goldring, CEO of the Permaculture Association about the relationship between permaculture, economies and time. He makes the case for why permaculture practitioners should move towards becoming economists. He also gives a inspiring account of how to work for the long term, developing more poetic ways of living, valuing play and why we need to take back the calendar.”

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Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Culture & Ideas, P2P Epistemology, P2P Spirituality, P2P Subjectivity | No Comments »

From global value chains to modes of production

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Orsan Senalp
12th September 2014


In the recent article, Theorising and analysing digital labour: From global value chains to modes of production, Christian Fuchs provides an compelling critic and overview of what he calls ‘Informational and Transnational Capitalism’. Identfyiny the role of ICTs  in the re-design of the globa production and value networks, his argument helps us to see through which nodes industrial, knowledge,  digital and agrarian forms of labour are interconnected in an hierarchically designed networks of global capitalist valorization.

Abstract

This paper considers the following question—where do computers, laptops and mobile phones come from and who produced them? Specific cases of digital labour are examined—the extraction of minerals in African mines under slave-like conditions; ICT manufacturing and assemblage in China (Foxconn); software engineering in India; call centre service work; software engineering at Google within Silicon Valley; and the digital labour of internet prosumers/users. Empirical data and empirical studies concerning these cases are systematically analysed and theoretically interpreted. The theoretical interpretations are grounded in Marxist political economy. The term ‘global value chain’ is criticised in favour of a complex and multidimensional understanding of Marx’s ‘mode of production’ for the purposes of conceptualizing digital labour. This kind of labour is transnational and involves various modes of production, relations of production and organisational forms (in the context of the productive forces). There is a complex global division of digital labour that connects and articulates various forms of productive forces, exploitation, modes of production, and variations within the dominant capitalist mode of production.

Full Text via Theorising and analysing digital labour: From global value chains to modes of production | Fuchs | The Political Economy of Communication.

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Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, P2P Labor, Peer Production | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Metaprogramming and the Labour of Code

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Michel Bauwens
4th September 2014


* Article: Cultural Techniques of Cognitive Capitalism: Metaprogramming and the Labour of Code. Jussi Parikka. Cultural Studies Review, VOL 20, NO 1 (2014). (UTS ePress)

From the abstract:

“This article addresses cultural techniques of cognitive capitalism. The author argues that to understand the full implications of the notion of cognitive capitalism we need to address the media and cultural techniques which conditions its range and applications. The article offers an expanded understanding of the labour of code and programming through a case study of ‘metaprogramming’, a software related organisation practice that offered a way to think of software creativity and programming in organisations. The ideas from the 1970s that are discussed offer a different way to approach creativity and collaborative and post-Fordist capitalism. The author brings together different theoretical perspectives, including German media theory and Yann Moulier Boutang’s thesis about cognitive capitalism. The wider argument is that we should pay more attention to the media archaeological conditions of practices of labour and value appropriation of contemporary technological capitalism as well as the cultural techniques which include ‘ontological and aesthetic operations’ that produce cultural, material situations.”

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Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Featured Essay | No Comments »

Sut Jhally on The Factory in your Living Room!

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Michel Bauwens
2nd September 2014


The Factory in the Living Room from Sut Jhally on Vimeo.

Commentary below by David Week.

” In a traditional capitalist society, labour creates value, and capital captures that value: workers in a factory produce a car, and the surplus value of the car is captured by the factory owner. Unions (where they still exist) may help the workers get a share of some of that value.

But in a company like Google or FB, the value does not lie directly in the work being done by the workers (e.g. me). I’m not producing text which they can sell, as a newspaper might employ a journalist. Rather, the value to them comes from my very presence, and my attention on this page. This is what they sell to advertisers, like the ones in my peripheral vision, off to my right.

They operate not as traditional manufacturers, but in the mode of media companies, which is brilliantly dissected in this talk by Sut Jhally: The Factory in the Living Room.

There’s a wonderful reflexivity in watching that video on Vimeo, where you can see being played out exactly what describes, in the situation in which you find yourself.

Here’s an urban metaphor. There’s a public square in the town, in which occasionally people congregate to talk and to dance. I come along and I buy all the buildings around the square, so that though the square is open, I have captured the container. I then lease this out to restaurants and cafés, who make good money from the dancers and the talkers. The restaurants and cafés attract more dancers and talkers, and in fact the general “buzz” attracts people, who in turn by more food and coffee: the fortunes of my tenants increase, and I can continuously raise the rent.

Nor is it necessarily just chatter and dancing in the square. Some of those discussions lead to books and businesses. The musicians become popular and create albums. Whether socially or commercially, the people in the square are enriching themselves. But their very presence is the value which generates the income for the owner of the container.

This metaphor explains a few things about Facebook, for instance. The first is why it paid $16bn or so for WhatsApp. According to analysts, it was the rapid rise in WhatsApp’s popularity. The owner of the shops around square 1 is always aware that the crowd is fickle, and today’s Facebook Plaza may become tomorrow’s Piazza Myspace. The other is that the cafés and restaurants get their business by using touts and waiters to interrupt the users of the square, and if allowed to so too aggressively, they might actually drive them away. So this explains the extraordinary care with which ad placement is introduced in sites like FB.

So: not saying it’s not capitalism. But it does not follow the same model as manufacturing. The value captured is not the value being produced, but something else altogether.”

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Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Social Media, Videos | No Comments »

The sharing economy is a ploy for the commodification of everything

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Michel Bauwens
31st August 2014


Some technology critics, with their laments of cultural decline enabled by Twitter and e-books, are partly to blame. Instead of engaging with attention and distraction socio-economically — as was done with earlier media by Walter Benjamin and Sigfried Kracauer — we get Nicholas Carr, with his embrace of neuroscience, or Douglas Rushkoff, with his biophysiological critique of acceleration (8). Whatever the salience of such interventions, they end up decoupling the technological from the economic, so that we end up debating how the screens of our iPads condition the cognition of our brains — instead of debating how the information gathered by our iPhones conditions the austerity measures of our governments. To be critical of technology today should mean questioning how it and its boosters let the current system buy more time, and stave off an even more existential crisis.

Excerpted from Evgeny Morozov:

“Several recent books — Social Physics by Sandy Pentland, Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier (1) — endorse this agenda. They promise the seemingly impossible — economic security and a future of privacy. If data is treated as property, strong property rights and modern enforcement technologies should ensure that no third party gets a free ride. Thanks to the Internet of Things and the proliferation of smart devices, our every act can be observed, and monetised: there’s someone, somewhere, willing to pay for knowing what song we whistle in the shower. The only reason it hasn’t happened yet is because our shower doesn’t have sensors and isn’t connected to the net.

The battle lines are clear. If Google fills our houses with smart thermostats like Nest, then Google will monetise our shower whistling. Google integrates data from different streams — self-driving cars, smart glasses, email — and its helpfulness is a function of its ubiquity. To get the best from it, we should let Google’s services fill in all the vacant areas of our digitised everyday existence. The size of Google’s data reservoirs makes competition unrealistic, a point not lost on smaller companies. The other option is to follow the populist calls of Pentland and Lanier and thwart Google’s ambitions by insisting that data automatically belongs to the users, or demanding that they at least share in Google’s profits.

Both of these positions, for all their apparent differences, belong to one political programme, representing two intellectual traditions. As the British sociologist Will Davies shows in his new book, The Limits of Neoliberalism (2), the future offered to us by Lanier and Pentland fits into the German “ordoliberal” tradition, which sees the preservation of market competition as a moral project, and treats all monopolies as dangerous. The Google approach fits better with the American school of neoliberalism that developed at the University of Chicago. Its adherents are mostly focused on efficiency and consumer welfare, not morality; and monopolies are never assumed to be evil just because they are monopolies — some might be socially beneficial.

For all its claims to innovation and disruption, the contemporary technology debate neither innovates nor disrupts: in assuming that information is a commodity, it operates firmly within a sole neoliberal paradigm.

While an alternative view of information would require grounding it in the non-economic realm — around the idea of the common, beloved by radical democrats, or something else — we might ask why the commodity status of information is accepted so uncritically. The current moment provides the answer: technology today is a deus ex machina, which can create jobs, stimulate the economy, and make up for taxes lost to the offshoring schemes of wealthy elites and corporations. Not to treat information as a commodity would mean closing the only untainted avenue open to policymakers.

This deus ex machina aspect of modern technology is poorly understood, even by perceptive observers of the financial crisis. In his 2013 book Buying Time (3), the German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck argues that, from the early 1970s, when the first signs showed of the impending collapse of the welfare model secured by the post-war compromise, western governments used tricks to buy more time and avoid overdue structural transformations: rampant inflation, public debt and, eventually, tacit encouragement of the private sector to provide cheap debt to households. The austerity agenda that followed was a moralistic response that punished ordinary citizens for sins they hadn’t committed.

Streeck does not mention information technology but its time-buying function is obvious. It produces new, entrepreneurial jobs — once everyone learns how to code and build their own apps — and unlocks immense economic value. The British government grasped this early on, embarking on ambitious, if controversial, schemes to sell patient data to insurance companies (popular protest forced a backtrack) and student admissions data to mobile operators and energy drink companies. A recent report on personal data and the British economy, supported in part by Vodafone (4), holds that more than £16.5bn could be made if it were easier for consumers to manage — sell — their personal data. The government’s task is to ensure that new data management intermediaries can legally insert themselves between consumers and service providers.

These government-led efforts to buy time from above are supplemented by efforts — mostly by Silicon Valley start-ups — to buy time from below. The hope is that services like Uber (for cars) and Airbnb (for apartments) can turn analogue assets into profitable services, supplementing their owners’ income. As Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, puts it, “Now with record unemployment, massive income equality, we actually have this gold mine under our feet. It used to be [that] we lived in a world where people created their own content, but now we can now create our own jobs and maybe even our own industries” (5). Indeed.

Silicon Valley, always quick to capitalise on counterculture, appropriated the communal gift-oriented rhetoric of earlier efforts to transcend the neoliberal agenda, presenting start-ups like Uber and Airbnb as part of the “sharing economy” — the utopian future beloved by anarchists and libertarians, where individuals can deal with each other directly, bypassing large intermediaries. What we are witnessing, however, is the replacement of service intermediaries, like taxi companies, with information intermediaries like Uber — which is backed by those admirers of anarchy, Goldman Sachs.

Since established taxi and hotel industries are detested, the public debate has been framed as a brave innovator taking on sluggish, monopolistic incumbents. Such skewed presentation, while not inaccurate in all cases, glosses over the fact that the start-ups of the “sharing economy” operate on the pre-welfare model: social protections for workers are minimal, they have to take on risks previously assumed by their employers, and there are almost no possibilities for collective bargaining.

The proponents of the “sharing economy” justify such precariousness with rhetoric worthy of Friedrich Hayek: once we replace laws with feedback mechanisms — so the market attests to the quality of the driver or the host — we can dispense with pre-emptive regulation. As Fred Wilson, a prominent venture capitalist, put it recently, “when we reach a place where systems are truly self-governing and self-regulating, we will not need regulators” (6). Ubiquitous feedback loops — in reality, just quality signals provided by market participants — would get us there.

The digitisation of everyday life and the rapaciousness of financialisation risk turning everything — genome to bedroom — into a productive asset. As Esther Dyson, a board member of 23andme, the leader in personalised genomics, said the company is “like the ATM that gives you access to the wealth locked within your genes” (7). This is the future that Silicon Valley expects us to embrace: given enough sensors and net connections, our entire life becomes a giant ATM. Those refusing this would have only themselves to blame. Opting out from the “sharing economy” would come to be seen as economic sabotage and wasteful squandering of precious resources that could accelerate growth. Eventually, the refusal to “share” becomes tinged with as much guilt as the refusal to save or work or pay debts, with a veneer of morality covering up — once again — exploitation.

It’s only natural that the less fortunate, under the burden of austerity, are turning their kitchens into restaurants, their cars into taxis, and their personal data into financial assets. What else can they do? For Silicon Valley, this is a triumph of entrepreneurship — a spontaneous technological development, unrelated to the financial crisis. But it is only as entrepreneurial as those who are driven — by the need to pay rent — into prostitution or selling their body parts. Governments might resist this tide but they have budgets to balance: Uber and Airbnb will eventually be allowed to exploit this “gold mine” as they please, boosting tax revenues and helping citizens make ends meet.

The “sharing economy” won’t supplant the debt economy; they will coexist.”

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Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, P2P Technology, P2P Theory | 1 Comment »