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Immaterial Labor on Social Networks

story © Michael Betancourt | published October 23, 2011 | permalink | TwitThis Digg Facebook StumbleUpon  |  


The creation of social networks challenges traditional conceptions of intellectual property and this change makes clear how the rights assigned to the ownership of information come into question with the development of digital technology. That social networks violate privacy and survive through using their members information to sell ads is nothing new; the creation of free services enabling anyone with access to them to become an author signals a move away from the productive action of humans and towards the automated surveillance of data collection, collation and retrieval, and this transformation reflects a fundamental shift in our conception of both identity and authorshipwith implications for the idea of intellectual property as well.

By extending authorship to all those actions a person might takereified as the act of liking, favoriting or putting something on a wish listmarkets discover an expanded (immaterial) arena for the extraction of wealth, but not one accompanied by an increased production of capital or shift in the production-consumption dynamic. With the emergence of the global information networks, and their close connection to marketing, all those decisions that might previously be considered instances of human agency (the act of shopping for example, or reading a newspaper) become instead forms of authorship and digital technology transforms this author into a commodity. The concept of privacy is utterly foreign to this transformative valorizationthe process of taking something that was not a commodity and changing it into oneit is the violation of privacy which is essential for the transformation of activity into commodity: this is the reason that social networks will and must violate the privacy of their membersfor companies such as Facebook or Google to function, they need to collect as much information about their users as possible in order to better tailor sales pitches to the individual interests and tastes of their audience. Googles initial demand that the users of Google+ use their actual names, rather than be anonymous, is a reflection of this desire to more directly and closely associate specific individuals with the database of information collected about them.

The connection of this construction to the concept of identity in a consumer culture is not accidental or coincidental; when personal identity becomes a reflection of consumption choices (which brands bought, what products used) as it has with the dominance of brandingmost obviously visible in the logo T and other decorative apparel where the decoration is an insignia for a company/producteach consumer is the author of themselves through the products they choose, becoming a walking advertisement for those products: they are the valorized. The extension of this concept to all other actions is a logical, even inevitable, development.

Within a database culture all forms of authorship are potentially valuable, and all information necessarily requires an ontological link to a specific source (what we call the author). This then demands the valorization process just as it is the underlying mechanism for the extension and maintenance of authorship. It is a parody of what has traditionally been called intellectual property since the property produced is non-productive: it "creates" wealth from the immaterial labor of the valorized whose monitored actions are not compensated, even though their performance is the source of value in the database. Where in the past the audience watched TV, with the marketers forced to study the impact of their ads second-hand, with the development of social networks, not only will the audience willingly give away their private most personal information, their computers will watch their choices as wellin effect, the TV watches the audience: in this new conception of authorship the author lacks agency precisely because there is no longer any distinction between action and inactionboth are equally valuable. The valorization makes each choice significant and therefore valuable: all decisions produce authorship and so have an equal commodity status.

This situation raises the question: If the act of liking or favoriting is valuable to these companies and to their advertising customers, whose intellectual property is being sold? The valorization of authorship reiterates the fundamental conflict of DRM (digital rights management): the ownership and possession of digital works (such as the digital author). Even as database culture transforms all actions (performances) into varieties of authorship, (such as Amazons the page I made that tracked and revealed shopping as authorship), the valorization process implicit in this transformation equally raises the question of ownership: the author who acts and so creates the work, or the database manager? Without the actions (labor) of the surveilled, there would be no database. When the ownership is assigned to the database managerin effect to companies such as Facebook or Googlethe traditional definition of intellectual property is inverted in this scenario. The immaterial production of a commodity based on automated surveillance is not a productive action, the database resulting from this procedure is a digital recording of a performance done by using a computer: these extensions of authorship transform all activity into capital-producing labor (without compensation).

[The resolution arrived at for this transformative use of anothers existing, recorded labor has already appeared: the battle between musicians and radio over the use of recorded music (records) on air. With musical performances, the performers are theoretically compensated through various licensing procedures, thus avoiding the unpaid valorization of their labor by radio broadcasters. The resolution to the problems posed by digital technologies is still forthcoming.]

The underlying dynamic of the valorization process apparent in this authorship phenomenon is not productionnothing is actually produced that could not exist otherwisebut neither is it a form of consumption. The valorization is semiotic: it proceeds from a shift in meaning, a transferal, accompanied by a process that resembles a form of automated surveillance. It is a form of opportunistic exploitation. In effect the link between the digital aura and capitalist expansion of both markets and commodities inevitably appears as the valorization and extension of authorship along with the simultaneous elision of the ownership role traditionally assigned to that authorship.

In returning from the imaginary domain of the digital to the physical domain, the valorization of authorship reveals itself as not as authorship, but as enslavement. The digital authors status-as-commodity is a closing-off of potential production for the digital author, where instead of agency, this author is a token of exchange in a semiotic system of reassembly, surveillance, and constraint. The valorizations performed by the translation of surveillance into commodity only appears to produce new sources of capital, labor and wealth. Instead, they are simply a recirculation of existing values: this extension of authorship is therefore a symptom-effect of the fantasy of production-without-consumption that defines the digital.

If you are looking for more on agnotology, digital capitalism or automated/immaterial labor, look at The Digital which presents my inks to my most recent published articles and other research on the political economy of digital capitalism:

  • The Aura of the Digital [.pdf]

  • The Valorization of the Author [.pdf]

  • Immaterial Value and Scarcity in Digital Capitalism [.pdf]

  • Automated Labor: The New Aesthetic and Immaterial Physicality [.pdf]

  • Bitcoin [.pdf]

  • The Demands of Agnotology::Surveillance [.pdf]

  • More articles and translations into Spanish, Portuguese and Greek are posted on


  • The Digital
  • The Aura of the Digital
  • The Valorization of the Author
  • Immaterial Value and Scarcity in Digital Capita...
  • Automated Labor: The New Aesthetic and Immateri...
  • Bitcoin
  • The Demands of Agnotology::Surveillance
  • more from theory: DIGITAL CAPITALISM

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