Use, Value and ROI
story © Michael Betancourt, August 20, 2015 all rights reserved.
The problematics of value implicit in the productive shift from physical manufacture to the immaterial semiosis characteristic of digital production emerges from the historical expression of value as a storing of human labor in the tangible form of commodities. Any discussion of “profit” (surplus value) depends on this pair of integral concepts—labor and use—both of which rarely figure in discussions of digital technology and automation except in absentia: the immaterial production characteristic of High Frequency Trading software, digital automation linked to pervasive monitoring (characterizing the value of “social networks” generally), and the general complex of relationships between production, facture and labor in digital capitalism propose a production of values without the need for human involvement (either via labor or through use) as a ‘solution’ to the falling rate of profit: the trajectory of automation offers the reduction-elimination of the variable costs presented by wages.
The elision of the human dimension (at the same time as it becomes the primary subject of pervasive monitoring) transforms the issue of use (utility) into a central, unanswered question for these new immaterial and semiotic forms of production. This emergence of use is a return to the historical foundations of value: a social relationship dependent on the exchange of commodities that are the storing/preservation of (human) labor. When there is no longer a human component, this primal function—stored past labor—reveals use (utility) as an emergent constraint on value generation separate from concerns with labor (agency) and the material substance of the commodity (the object) itself. The role of the social in the realization of value demonstrates the centrality of human relationships centered on the use of commodities (not human labor or productive agency) to valorization. Utility becomes the limit/determinant of value for immaterial production, (especially apparent in digital distribution, and immanent “on demand” production using 3D printers) because of the need for exchange to mobilize value in capital—without use, there is no exchange-value, thus no surplus or profit. The consideration of surplus value necessarily devolves from utility.
Concerns with “return on investment” (ROI) that are common to immaterial (intellectual) production exacerbate these problematics by masquerading as a concern with use-value. ROI suggests a concern with translating utility (use-value) into profit from expenditure; however, this utility is superficial, as ROI is immanent in nature, demanding an immediate application (the “return” or profit)—thus maintaining the rate of profit through surplus value generation. Such a shift to immediacy, rather than demonstrating a concern with use, instead masks its liquidation in favor of a continuous circulation of capital separate from its containment in/as commodities. The necessity of utility in this construction is merely a pretext for the extraction of profit; it has no significance otherwise. This elision of utility from concerns is common to historical conceptions of capitalism, since utility could not readily be separated from production as it necessarily met human needs. The costs of human labor integrated this constant, but the reduced costs of autonomous (semiotic) labor remove the limits imposed by human labor. Production-without-use is typical for autonomous production, most visible in the vast over-collection of data essential to the database generation of pervasive monitoring called “Big Data.” The translation of this dynamic into digital facture thus further necessitates the rupture with use-value implicit in capitalist productive processes. The configuration of ROI demonstrates, in miniature, the dynamics of utilization—the productive shift from physical manufacture to immaterial semiosis: a structural demand for minimal expenditures and maximal profit reflects the effacement of limits.
Copyright © Michael Betancourt August 20, 2015 all rights reserved.
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