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What is wrong with attention economy ? A response to Michel Bauwens

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
23rd March 2012


A contribution from Jakob Rigi:

“Michel Bauwens published an article entitled “Will Capitalism Survive Value Abundance“. Critiquing Lands and Bohm, and echoing my argument in the article published also in this site, he states that users do not create exchange value in the way in which the wage labor does. But , then he claims that users create indirectly exchange value. How? They, he claims, they help facebook, to create pool of attention and sell it as a commodity to advisors.

Attention is a result of the activities of users such as seeing and hearing. So users are the one who produce the pool of attention. Now if the attention is a commodity, then facebook participants produce directly exchange value. And the whole of this value is expropriated by facebook.

Now, I think that the claim that Facebook is selling attention to advertisers is categorically mistaken. No. Facebook is letting pieces of virtual space to advertisers and receive rent for it. The law of rent is the same in virtual and physical spaces. The more attractive a space, for whatever reasons, is, the amount of rent is higher. Who does pay the rent? Advertisers. From where do the advertisers get the money that they pay as rent to fcaeebook? That money is part of the surplus value that they extract from wage labor which is exchanged with capital. Bauwens? and Beller?s mistake may stem from the fact that there is a direct relation between the number of clicks by users and the amount of rent that facebook extracts. This creates the ?optical? illusion that the users’ attention is the source of value. A 2 bed room apartment in a posh area of Manhattan can collect a rent of 6 000 USD or even more, per month but the same apartment in Queens could barely collect 1200 USD. The location makes the place more attractive but has nothing to do with the origin of rent. The same is true of attention in relation virtual spaces (whether Facebook or the screen of television, or cinema). The level of attention is an index of the level of their attractiveness of the space and hence determines the level of rent. However, attention does not produce a penny of exchange value. To use Hegelian-Marxian terminology, those who claim that attention is a commodity confuse the appearance with the essence, and hence, mystify the exploitation of labor by capital.

Of course attention is a major aspect of productive labor (labor exchanged with capital). Only in this capacity attention combined with other aspects of such labor can produce exchange value and surplus value.

Michael Goldhaber (2012, in a mailing to journal Oekonux.org), an economist of attention, agrees that Facebook is not selling attention. And suggests that Facebook currently earns its money through Stock Market, which is true. We can qualify his argument by adding that value of the shares of facebook in stock market are conditioned upon speculations on being rentable through advertisement.”

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One Response to “What is wrong with attention economy ? A response to Michel Bauwens”

  1. orsans Says:

    There is one problem in Jakob Rigi’s response. I think he is referring to the ‘add’ spaces on facebook that are sold to companies. I think what Michel and Lands and Bohm has been referring is the core logic of the Facebook’s business model, which is extracting, observing, recording, and classifying of users actions, shares, likes -the content of attention they pay/their choices, preferences etc.- as much as possible and sell this pool of info to interested companies. Example: names, IP addresses, tel no., email addresses etc. of the users who likes surfing. Quciksilver for instance would pay a fortune for such information for instance. Or sun ten lotion brands etc. Facebook sells this information as well as add spaces. Probably Zuckerberg has already discovered many other ways to make money out of all the information. Just think about the relationship between stock exchange speculations and rumor spreading; Facebook can be a deadly tool in this business.
    One the other hand, discussion on ‘value’ vs. ‘attention’ makes me think on what is common in both categories and between them and the category of labour. For the classical economists like Adam Smith and its radical critics like Marx, labour was the source of value. If ‘labour process’ creates a use ‘value’ at the end, then we call it productive labour. If not then it is mere attention paid/energy spent on leisure or resting, or other kind of ‘unproductive’ activities. Although some of these are activities about the reproduction of the ‘energy’ needed for generating productive labour.

    To me it seems like category of ‘energy’ intersect all of the other interlinked categories such as labour-attention-value-wealth-exhaustion. While what makes ‘value’ important is the assumption of the ‘scarcity’ in classical economists’ eyes. Yet, scarcity it self historically and politically created by the ruling classes. So if ‘scarcity’is artificially created why not we rethink the centrality of category of ‘value’? In my opinion independent from the end result, labour must be prior to ‘value’. May be saying ‘labour is the source of value’ is a way to try achieve this, but in ding so you accept the priority of value analytically. Politically, only labour bears the potential to overcome this forcefully created situation. ‘What’ is being produced so outcome of the labour preocess can also be prior to ‘value’ itself. What is the use ‘value’ of guns and bombs? If value creation is about focused [in terms of concentrated attention] / or automised [became habit/motoric] combination of mental and physical activity [labour], than it is about the energy at its roots. Energy and transition from one form of energy to other at both sides. Labourer and labour process are essentially energy transformation processes. Use value, is also about energy consumption, preservation, tranformation, transportation, in its core. Like from kinetic to thermo, potential, chemical, electric, electromagnetic, nuclear. From one place to other etc. All this natural processes, through ‘entogenesis’ are embedded in human biostructure [genes, nerves, mussels] and becomes something societal and historical in the passing millions of years. Once we recall that all concrete forms of matter is also a form of energy [vibrating mass E+mc2], its centrality becomes visible. Understood in relation to energy and transformation of energy primarily, labour can be thought as a historical commons essentially linked to other social and natural commons. And ‘value’ can be rethought as a capacity to influence on creation transformation and sharing of such energy so making impact/changing mass/material/body so also historical entities like Human, and the society.
    Coming back to Facebook, attention and value discussion; what Michel points out as far as I understand is while depending on both market’s forced scarcity, Facebook also depends on its distortion by p2p sharing on the net. However, as Facebook is operating on web 2.0, a terrain that has already captured by the capital in a way scarcities created, it can rather be though as ‘free market’ typology. As an ideal form, free market is a space where all the information is accessible by all the actors, while it is opposite in reality, all actors know about each other, while it is never true. In its ideal form, free market describes a p2p entity. Like the internet before it is captured by capital. In the captured unfree real market, what capital always had to do is while hiding itself, real information on itself, in terms of class, what ingredients they use, real costs, etc. try to appropriate [market intelligence]as much information as possible about the labour process, consumers, and competitors. In my opinion Facebook creates a mega market intelligence, while it appropriate enormous data about the ordinary consumer and other companies, this gives to it a strategic and systemic advantage to Zuckerberg against the old boys within global capitalist class, and against the working people first of all. Instead of threatening the conditions new knowledge enclosure launched with ACTA, PIPA, SOPA will increase its ‘value’ creation and realization circles in a capitalist sense. What Facebook really does in terms of labour commons [historical and conscious form of energy and energy transforming] is destroying it, by commodification of its ‘immaterial’ form as well. Facebook completes the dream of state and market forces while doing so. Therefore it has a good chance to survive in both repressive and liberal forms of global capitalism. It is also true that unwillingly [or may be willingly - similar to Google's movement.org protal that faciliates p2p grassroots activism] it provides a space for the movements and activists who are trying to recapture those terrains in which free culture can grow and spread.

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