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Essay of the Day: The Recuperation of the Hacker Class by Capitalism

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Michel Bauwens
27th November 2015

* Essay: Repurposing the hacker. Three temporalities of recuperation. By Delfanti, Alessandro, and Söderberg, Johan.

This essay describes the recuperation of hackerdom by capitalist society in three different stages.

When on of the the authors, Johan, sent me the as yet unpublished draft for commentary, I wrote the following:

“Two suggestions, one, I think there is a parallel to be made with the ‘hackers’ of the 19th cy, i.e. the crafts workers; on the one hand, they started in most places the union organizing, become the leaders of the emerging labor movement; but on the other, another fraction became engineers, and thus had a crucial role in designing systems that disempowered workers in the industrial process; question: is something similar envisageable today ?

Second suggestion: hackers may be interpreted as liberal ideology, radical liberalism, this is an approach that focuses only on rights, achieved through hacks, legal and technical; but it never looks at how these rights can be effectively carried out in inclusionary ways; hence, it hacks tend in the favour the already powerfu, unless truly emancipatory forces push the envelope to the societal conditions in which hacker advances can effectively be taken up. This is basically the positioning of the P2P Foundation in this space.

So a potential critique of your article could be, it is content to make the diagnosis of recuperation, but lacks any emancipatory suggestions on how to go beyond this recuperation; reminds me of last years congress of Historical Materialism, inquiring not on how to move towards post-capitalism, but instead on why capitalism persists ; probably has to do with the social position of academics that they want to spend their research time proving why things don’t move forward, instead of looking at how things could move forward ?”


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Essay of the Day: The Algorithmic Accountability of Journalists

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Michel Bauwens
25th November 2015

* Paper: Algorithmic Accountability: Journalistic Investigation of Computational Power Structures. By Nicholas Diakopoulos. Digital Journalism, 2015

Excerpted from a discussion by Stefanie Knoll:

“How can the power of algorithms be understood and, when called for, controlled? We are only starting to understand how these strings of computer code are shaping our view of the world. As researchers point out, inherent biases in algorithms can lead to startling discriminatory possibilities, with important consequences.

Exposing the workings of algorithms to understand their deeper impact may yet become an important part of investigative journalism. In a 2015 paper published in Digital Journalism, “Algorithmic Accountability: Journalistic Investigation of Computational Power Structures,” Nicholas Diakopoulos of the University of Maryland examines journalistic strategies to gain insight about the inner workings of algorithms. While transparency of algorithms might be a first step to solve the problem, Diakopoulos is especially interested in a strategy called reverse engineering — “the process of extracting knowledge or design blueprints” by studying and then emulating the behavior of an algorithm.

The author discusses five case studies in which journalists used reverse engineering to examine algorithms, including a story in the Daily Beast, on the iPhone’s language-related algorithms; ProPublica on the 2012 U.S. election campaign and targeted email strategies; the Wall Street Journal on website pricing differentiation and on stock trading by executives; and one story by Diakopoulos himself. Based on these stories, Diakopoulos identifies the scenarios journalists typically encounter in their reporting on algorithms as well as the challenges emerging from these investigations in terms of human resources, legality and ethics.

The paper’s key points include:

* When using reverse engineering, journalists are interested in three aspects of an algorithm: the input, the output and the transformation from one to the other. There are often cases in which some elements in this relationship can or cannot be observed, and different strategies of reverse engineering may be necessary.

* When inputs are not available, “figuring out how to observe or simulate those inputs is a key part of a practical investigation…. Figuring out what the algorithm pays attention to as input becomes as intriguing a question as how the algorithm transforms input into output.”

* In this process, journalists need to keep in mind that external evidence of algorithms’ behavior might be disturbed by A/B testing — the practice of randomly assigning different treatments or content to various groups to optimize for the best response rate or return. The entities that use the algorithm are “already running experiments on their sites, and to a reverse engineer it might look like noise, or just confusing irregularities.”

Furthermore, algorithms “may be unstable and change over time, or have randomness built in to them, which makes understanding patterns in their input-output relationship much more challenging. Other tactics such as parallelization or analysis of temporal drift may be necessary in order to control for a highly dynamic algorithm.”

To successfully achieve algorithmic accountability reporting, media will have to “take dedicated efforts to teach the computational thinking, programming and technical skills needed to make sense of algorithmic decisions.” Given a legal framework that is growing more complex, “more work is also needed to explore the legal ramifications of algorithmic accountability through reverse engineering by journalists.”

New ethical questions may arise in the context of studying algorithms. The author suggests a focus on questions such as, “How might the investigation allow the algorithm to be manipulated or circumvented?” or “Who stands to benefit or suffer disadvantage from that manipulation?”

Diakopoulos underscores the computational skills needed for achieving algorithmic accountability. However, “reporting is still a key part of finding a story in a reverse-engineering analysis.” Even in an environment as technical as this, “knowing what makes something a story is perhaps less about a filter for statistical, social or legal deviance than it is about understanding the context of the phenomenon, including historical, cultural and social expectations related to the issue — all things with which traditional reporting and investigation can help.”

For more information, see the report

* Nicholas Diakopoulos. Algorithmic Accountability: On the Investigation of Black Boxes. Knight Foundation and the Tow Center on Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.


Posted in Featured Essay, Media, P2P Research | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: The Dictatorship of the Proletariat of Consumption

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Michel Bauwens
18th November 2015


From the abstract:

“We challenge the prevalent opinion that consumption does not seem to matter as much as production and defy the fetishism of industrial work. We explore the implications of the premise that under conditions of cognitive capitalism consumption dictates what production does, when and how. We explain that in a post-industrial global society and economy fashion, branding, instant gratification of desires, and ephemeral consumer tastes govern production and consumption. The London (commodity) riots of August 2011 send us a warning that consumption and cognitive capitalism are asphyxiating in the structures and norms of industrial capitalism that are still in place.”


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Essay of the Day: Digital Labor and the Anthropocene

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Michel Bauwens
16th November 2015

* Talk: Digital Labor and the Anthropocene. McKenzie Wark | Digital Labor and the Anthropocene. Ed. by Marvin Jordan.

The following is excerpted from a transcript is taken from a recent talk delivered at the Digital Labor conference presented by The New School.

By McKenzie Wark:

“Viewed from inside the bubble of New York, the paradox of digital labor these days is the way that tech enables the over-development of under-development. Technologies are shaped by the struggle over their form. It was not given from an essence that the digital would end up as control over labor rather than control by labor. But in the current stage of conflict and negotiation, the over-development of under-development seems to me to describe a tendency for labor.

In any case, labor isn’t the only class struggling in and against the digital. I still think there is a difference between being a worker and being a hacker. I think of hacker as a class category: there is a hacker class. Hackers are those whose efforts are commodifed in the form of intellectual property. What they make can be turned into copyrights, patents or trademarks.

The hacker class is distinguished by a few qualities. It usually means working with information, but not in a routine way. It is different from white-collar labor. It is about producing new arrangements of information rather than ‘filling in the forms’.”


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Essay of the Day: Do Artifacts Have Politics ?

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Michel Bauwens
30th October 2015

Still a very relevant classic article:

* Do Artifacts Have Politics? By Langdon Winner. Daedalus, Vol. 109, No. 1, Modern Technology: Problem or Opportunity? (Winter, 1980), pp. 121-136

From a discussion by Dan Lockton:

“Many academic fields touch on areas relevant to this subject, from architecture to computer science. Perhaps the closest single exposition of many of the pertinent concepts is Langdon Winner’s 1986 “Do artifacts* have politics?” in which he discusses the idea that:

“The machines, structures, and systems of modern material culture can be accurately judged not only for their contributions to efficiency and productivity and their positive and negative environmental side effects, but also for the ways in which they can embody specific forms of power and authority”.

Winner uses examples to show both intended strategic architectures of control, and technologies which have had an unintended political or social effect (but which are not architectures of control). The former category, relevant to this subject, includes Baron Haussmann’s ‘new’ Paris (q.v.) and much of Robert Moses’ urban planning in New York

City—most notably the low bridges on Long Island parkways to prevent buses (more likely to have poorer users) from travelling to areas such as Jones Beach, “Moses’ widely acclaimed public park”:

“Many of his monumental structures of concrete and steel embody a systematic social inequality, a way of engineering relationships among people that, after a time, became just another part of the landscape” .
Concluding by exhorting us to “achieve a clearer view” of the interactions between technology and society, and to consider and understand more fully the consequences of how “specific features in the design or arrangement of a device or system could provide a convenient means of establishing patterns of power and authority in a given setting,” Winner’s work was extremely prescient and the implications are even clearer today.”


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Essay of the Day: Oligarchies of the World Unite

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Michel Bauwens
23rd October 2015

* Essay: Oligarchies of the World Unite. By Kees van der Pijl.

From the Abstract:

“The argument of this paper is that after the crisis of 2008 which has turned into an enduring stagnation amidst proliferating violence, capitalist property relations are increasingly being upheld by authoritarian means. The mode of production and social organisation, including the supremacy of the West in international affairs, has lost its self-evidence in the face of a deepening crisis of the biosphere and the effective running aground of the accumulation process on a world scale. Under these circumstances processes of class formation on both sides of the historic divide between a liberal West and a series of contender states are converging along the lines of authoritarian, oligarchic capitalism.

The paper argues that corporate liberal capitalism based on class compromise in the 1980s was displaced by to neoliberalism, initially intended to restore systemic market discipline but increasingly degenerating into speculative, predatory forms undermining the forces of stability in the global political economy and fostering oligarchic enrichment. A contradiction is identified between global oligarchic convergence on the one hand and conflict at the level of political (governing and state) elites on the other, and which explains the current turbulence in the global political economy.”


Posted in Featured Essay, P2P Hierarchy Theory | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Private Property in Liberal Philosophy and its Catastrophic Impact on the Commons

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Michel Bauwens
19th October 2015

* Article: The Failed Metaphysics Behind Private Property: Sharing our Commonhood. By James Bernard Quilligan. Kosmos Journal, SPRING | SUMMER 2011

“This article focuses on the sacred cow of private property in liberal philosophy and politics and its catastrophic impact on the commons. Numerous liberal thinkers (mostly male) have attempted to base social systems, moral obligations and property rights in human nature using the laws of the natural universe. They share the blame for the devastation of the commons. No one has influenced the rules, institutions and concepts of modern individualism more than John Locke. It was Locke, the 17th century philosopher and political scientist, who formulated the central tenet of liberalism: that property should be organized through individual ownership by excluding others. Locke’s source code, both at the meta-level and physical level, is still driving our operating system. It repeats endlessly the ‘empirical’ story that nature intended the commons to be possessed through proprietary ownership. From the long view of social history and political philosophy, however, it’s Locke’s sacred cow of proprietary rights that has been devouring the commons, not Hardin’s hungry cattle or their poor herders.”


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Essay of the Day: Framework for Critically Analysing Digital Labour

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Michel Bauwens
17th October 2015

* Essay: Digital Workers of the World Unite! A Framework for Critically Theorising and Analysing Digital Labour. By Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval. Triple C, Vol 12, No 2 (2014)

From the Abstract:

“The overall task of this paper is to elaborate a typology of the forms of labour that are needed for the production, circulation, and use of digital media. First, we engage with the question what labour is, how it differs from work, which basic dimensions it has and how these dimensions can be used for defining digital labour. Second, we introduce the theoretical notion of the mode of production as analytical tool for conceptualizing digital labour. Modes of production are dialectical units of relations of production and productive forces. Relations of production are the basic social relations that shape the economy. Productive forces are a combination of labour power, objects and instruments of work in a work process, in which new products are created. Third, we have a deeper look at dimensions of the work process and the conditions under which it takes place. We present a typology that identifies dimensions of working conditions. It is a general typology that can be used for the analysis of any production process. Fourth, we apply the typology of working conditions to the realm of digital labour and identify different forms of digital labour and the basic conditions, under which they take place. Finally, we discuss political implications of our analysis and what can be done to overcome bad working conditions that digital workers are facing today.”

An excerpt from the conclusion:

“In this paper, we have introduced a cultural-materialist approach for theorising digital labour. Many approaches are idealist in that they define concepts such as digital labour, virtual work, online work, cyberwork, immaterial labour, knowledge labour, creative work, cultural labour, communicative labour, information(al) work, digital craft, service work, prosumption, consumption work, audience labour, playbour, etc., only as an externalisation of human ideas that are objectified in contents and thereby neglect that this labour is based on and only possible because there is a global division of labour, in which many different forms of labour are conducted under specific modes of production. We have used Raymond Williams’ framework of cultural materialism for arguing that we should overcome digital idealism and analyse digital labour based the framework of digital materialism.

We have introduced specific concepts for a digital materialist theory of digital labour: cultural work, physical cultural work, information work, modes of production, productive forces, relations of production, digital work, digital labour, physical digital work/labour (agricultural digital work/labour, industrial digital work/labour), informational digital work/labour. Furthermore we have suggested a digital labour analysis toolbox that distinguishes elements of digital labour processes and can be used as framework for the concrete empirical analysis of specific forms of digital work/labour. Conducting such analyses often faces the problem of what the elements of analysis are. We argue for avoiding particularistic analyses that focus only on single elements of single production processes and for conducting holistic analyses that focus on the totality of elements and networks that determine and shape digital labour. The toolkit allows analysing the totality of elements of elements of digital labour processes. Digital labour analysis should also look at how one specific form of digital labour that is analysed is connected to and articulated with other forms of digital labour that express certain organisational forms of the productive forces and the relations of production.
The world of digital media is shaped by a complex global articulation of various modes of production that together constitute the capitalist mode of creating and using digital media. The digital tools that we use for writing, reading, communicating, uploading, browsing, collaborating, chatting, befriending, or liking are embedded into a world of exploitation. Yet most of us cannot and do not want to imagine a world without digital media. So the alternative is not digital Luddism, but political praxis.

Digital labour analysis can only interpret the digital media world; the point is to change it. Change can only be good change if it is informed change. Critical theory can inform potential and actual struggles for a better world. Everyday working realities of different people and in different parts of the world look so heterogeneous, different and unconnected that it is often difficult to see what they have in common. Digital labour theory and digital labour analysis can help to identify and make visible the common and different experiences of suffering and enjoyment, pleasure and pain, security and insecurity, alienation and appropriation, exploitation and resistance, creativity and toil. It is in this respect a digital sociology of critique. But it is at the same time also a political philosophy, a critical digital sociology that helps identifying and clarifying foundations and germ forms of a better future and grounding judgements about what is good and bad in the context of digital media. Digital labour theory and analysis therefore takes on the role of a critical sociology of critique that is both at once a critical sociology and a sociology of critique (Boltanski and Honneth 2009). It analyses the reality of life under digital capitalism, contributes intellectually to questioning this mode of human existence in order to show that there is and to help realise life beyond capitalism.”


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Essay of the Day: the Concept of a Transnational Capitalist Class

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Michel Bauwens
15th October 2015


From the abstract:

“In the last 40 years, various authors have argued that a new transnational capitalist class (TCC) has emerged, which operates across the borders of national states. The approaches in question are debated widely in the social sciences, not only because of their theoretical assumptions and the empir- ical evidence provided, but also because international power relations are changing, not least in the context of the current crisis. The main claim of the authors in question appears to be validated by the advancing interna- tionalization of capital relations and by the internationalization of the state. It appears that these processes have gained traction with the neoliberal trans- formation of capitalism.

If this claim is true, it follows that there are far-reaching changes to state structures, the international state system, and the trajectory of social conflicts and struggles. Alterations in class relations are specifically important because they lead to new configurations of relations of forces1 and power apparatuses, and, in a second step, to new arrangements of domination and regulation.

The aim of this article is to review the approaches in question critically. We assume that existing theories of transnational class formation are charac- terized by significant weaknesses, both in terms of basic class and state theoretical assumptions and in terms of accounting for the role of state apparatuses in class formation…. “


Posted in Empire, Featured Essay, P2P Hierarchy Theory | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Peasant Sovereignty

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Michel Bauwens
13th October 2015

* Article: Peasant Sovereignty? by Evaggelos Vallianatos. Independent Science News, March 2015

Here’s the summary:

“Peasant and small-scale farming is increasingly being recognised as more productive, as more sustainable, and as democratically superior in comparison with most livelihoods and with most other forms of agriculture. This recognition is being enhanced by the concept of “food sovereignty” and its increasing discussion in academic circles. Nevertheless, despite constructive developments such as a draft “UN Declaration of the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas” there is still a long way to go before there is an appropriate understanding and accurate appreciation of the modern peasantry.”


Posted in Featured Essay, Food and Agriculture | No Comments »