The New Alienation of Digital Capitalism

story © Michael Betancourt, August 19, 2016 all rights reserved.


Historically, alienation has been understood as a disassociation of an individual from their agency. It is a well-theorized result of industrial production and the assembly-line in particular, but is common to historical capitalism generally. In digital capitalism, a new type of alienation has arisen not based in disassociations of agency. This contemporary alienation originated with an apparent surplussage of agency created by digital systems. The new alienation resides not in a loss of agency, but in the insignificance of that agency. The aura of the digital’s separation of action from result reveals a this alienation in the paradoxical dispersal of efficacy and immediacy of control. Introducing a seemingly unbounded “agency,” it creates an alienation utterly distinct from that of historical capitalism. This changed alienation masquerades as fantasies of empowerment and autonomy associated with digital technologies.

​Rationalization, the conversion and abstraction of human labor and physical processes into a series of discrete stages and actions for production, is central to auotomation generally and its dominance as the autonomous facture of digital capitalism is responsible for the changes in alienation form. Repeated, singular tasks that do not require high skill or significant understanding of their individual significance required labor to surrender agency to the capitalist who then assigns a menial action that indivdiually is incapable of producing a finished commodity, yet when arranged in sequence and acting in concert are significantly cheaper and more efficient than the direct singular production of one commodity by one laborer. Digital production replaces this fragmentation of human labor with highly responseive and autonomous, algorythmically managed systems creating the illusion that no labor has occurred. This shift from homocentric labor to automonous facture enables the illusion of value creation without the need for agency, labor, or resource consumption. The underlying demand in capitalism for a continuously increasing rate of profit makes the shift to digital facture and the embrace of this fantasy inevitable, and the paradox of agency creates the new alienation based in an excessive and simultaneously insignificant agency contained in advance of any decision by the rationalized digital systems’ “options” and “choices” on offer.

​Earlier ideologies of emancipation are the foundations of the paradox of agency that creates a changed alienation; to understand this transformation requires a consideration of the links between social conceptions of Modernist futurity exemplified by the historical avant-garde and industrial protocols that subtly informs the development of the digital. The linkage of social, aesthetic and political engagements as parallel activities enables the recognition of futurity as a continuation of the nineteenth century impacts of disruptive technologies on established arts by new technologies such as photography, audio recording and motion pictures, transforming then-contempoary social relations to more closely resemble the demands of industrialization reified dramatically via the avant-garde as a reductive approach rejecting social and cultural institutions and traditions that mirrored their liquidation by capitalist expansion. Digital capitalism’s denials of futurity (the “futurist” impulse) enabled it to disassociate human agency from its historical significance, evading the alienation of earlier materialist capitalism based in rationalization that separated labor from its agency, but creating the foundations for the new alienation in the integration of this rationalization into the digital, autonomous systems managing access to on-demand/just-in-time production and social services. Italian art historian Renato Poggioli explained the avant-garde’s “futurism” (futurity) through the convergence of historical political and aesthetic developments as a process of change and improvement over time, with the “advancement” of society, not its maintenance or equilibrium:

So evident and natural a political parallel [to the aestheic avant-garde] could not escapt Leon Trotsky, who in his book of literary theory and criticis, defined the historical mission of Russian futurism as follows: “Futurism was the pre-vision of all that (the imminent social and ploitical crises, the explosions and catastrophes of histor to come) within the sphere of art.” We can then su up the tendency in question by saying that the initiators and followers of an avant-garde movement were conscious of being the precursors of an art of the future.

[Poggioli, Renato. The Theory of the Avant-garde, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968) p. 69.]

Poggioli’s theorization, while specifically addressing avant-garde art, describes how the avant-garde’s internalization of industrial/tehcnical developments was an orientation towards both a negation of the past (nihilism) and a concern with calling into existence a new, different social/aesthetic order (futurity). This matrix of change, reorganization and implicit interiorization of capitalist effects characterizes twentieth century Modernism as it develops into digital capitalism. The contemporary rejection of futurity illuminates social and political issues distinct from art that illuminate digital capitalism’s transformation of alienation—revealed by the paradox of agency—alienated agency in digital capitalism derives from an evacuation of meaning and importance for human agency, rather than its surrender. Digital capitalism has enabled a panopy of potential choices and decisions all requiring agency, yet this range and quantity of opportunites to exercise individual agency are all contained in advance, rendering any choices moot: when there can be no change or challenge, agency becomes insignificant, generating an alienation akin to “learned helplessness,” distinct from that of historical industrial production and capitalism where workers must externalize their agency and surrender it for a wage.

The fantasy that the digital opens onto a magical realm without need for concern over the production and consumption—the aura of the digital—is fundamentally disenfranchising since it removes the consideration of cost in time, materials, energy that would otherwise guide and constrain human actions. In placing humanity at the center of this automated universe organized through the fragmentation protocols of Taylorist automation and algorithmic analysis/decision making—the process of changing human actions (agency) into a database—allows human agency is free to engage in demiurgic fantasies that mask the underlying powerlessness produced by these autonomous systems. Digital systems render all actions equivalent, creating the contemporary alienation not from a lost capacity to decide as was the case with historical capitalism, but from the insignificance of any decision made within a rationlaized system where all agency is controlled and anticipated in advance and denied by the aura of the digital, creating the illusion that futurity is an irrelevant, historical concept.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  August 19, 2016  all rights reserved.

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