Essay of the Day: Italian Operaismo and the Information Machine

‘machines don’t explain anything, you have to analyze the collective apparatuses of which the machines are just one component’

* Article: Italian Operaismo and the Information Machine. Matteo Pasquinelli.

From the abstract:

“The political economy of the information machine is discussed within the Marxisttradition of Italian operaismo by posing the hypothesis of an informational turn already at work in the age of the industrial revolution. The idea of valorizing information introduced by Alquati (1963) in a pioneering Marxist approach to cybernetics isused to examine the paradigms of mass intellectuality, immaterial labour and cognitive capitalism developed by Lazzarato, Marazzi, Negri, Vercellone and Virno since the 1990s. The concept of machinic by Deleuze and Guattari (1972, 1980) is then adopted to extend Marx’s analysis of the industrial machine to the algorithms of digital machines. If the industrial machine can be described as a bifurcation of thedomains of energy and information, this essay proposes to conceive the informationmachine itself as a further bifurcation between information and metadata. In conclusion, the hypothesis of the society of metadata is outlined as the current evolution of that society of control pictured by Deleuze (1990) in relation to the power embodiedin databases.

* Excerpt: Some Hypotheses on the Society of Metadata

In conclusion, as a set of provisional hypotheses within the risingsociety of ‘big data’, metadata are said to be used for: 1) measuringthe value of social relations; 2) improving the design of machines andmachinic intelligence; and 3) monitoring and forecasting massbehaviours.

1. Metadata as the measure of the value of social relations. The accu-mulation of information via the mediation of digital machines mirrorsand measures that production of those social relations which Marx himself considered the very nature of value (‘capital is not a thing, but asocial relation between persons which is mediated through things’; Marx,1867: 932). Digital technologies like social networks provide today apunctual cartography of these productive relations (see, for instance,how Facebook and Twitter turn collective communication into attentioneconomy). As much as thermo-machines have been used to measurevalue in terms of quantity of energy per time, info-machines appear tomeasure value in terms of number of links per node. This is evident, forexample, in the case of Google PageRank algorithm and in many rankingand rating techniques employed today (see Pasquinelli, 2009). The extrac-tion of metadata describes here a ?ow surplus value (Deleuze andGuattari, 1972: 233) or a sort of network surplus value.

2. Metadata as implementation of machinic intelligence. The extractionof metadata provides also precious information to optimize machinicintelligence at any level: from software programs to industrial manage-ment, from advertisement campaigns to logistics. In this sense the digitalsphere is still very similar to Alquati’s computer factory: the ?ows of information are used to improve its internal organization and to createmore e?cient algorithms. Also within the infrastructure of the internet,the ?ows of valorizing information are transformed into ?xed capital;that means that knowledge is transferred and incarnated into machinery.See once again Google’s PageRank algorithm and the way it has beenevolving according to data tra?c and the collective behaviours of theglobal audience. Metadata describe here a code surplus value (Deleuzeand Guattari, 1972: 233).

3. Metadata as new form of biopolitical control (dataveillance). Ratherthan pro?ling individual inclinations, metadata can be used for crowdcontrol and prediction of mass behaviours, as happens today with anygovernment tracking usage of social media, spin doctors mapping polit-ical elections, city councils measuring tra?c ?ows and companies follow-ing supply chains. Online real-time statistics of speci?c search keywordscan map the spread of diseases across a country as much as social unrest(see Google Flu and Google Trends services, for instance, and imaginethe same algorithms applied to political and social issues). If Deleuze(1990a) had already warned against the speci?c techniques of a society of control based on the power virtually embodied in the collective infor-mation of databases, today the new regime of dataveillance can bedescribed as a society of metadata, as it is no longer necessary to targetindividual behaviour but just collective trends (see the PRISM scandalin 2013).

An analysis of the new political dimensions of metadata or ‘big data’ isstill to come. In conclusion, the algorithms governing the new society of metadata have been properly illuminated thanks to one of operaismo’s most important intuitions: applying the theoretical and political point of view of valorizing information (that is living labour) rather than the perspective of a mere technological determinism. As Deleuze reminds us in the interview with Negri quoted at the beginning of this essay:‘machines don’t explain anything, you have to analyze the collective apparatuses of which the machines are just one component’.