Immaterial Labor on Social Networks

story © Michael Betancourt, October 23, 2011 all rights reserved.


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 member’s 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 authorship—with implications for the idea of intellectual property as well.

By extending authorship to all those actions a person might take—reified as the act of liking, favoriting or putting something on a “wish list”—markets 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 valorization—the process of taking something that was not a commodity and changing it into one—it 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 members—for 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. Google’s 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 “branding”—most obviously visible in the “logo T” and other decorative apparel where the decoration is an insignia for a company/product—each 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 well—in 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 inaction—both 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 Amazon’s “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 manager—in effect to companies such as Facebook or Google—the 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 another’s 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 production—nothing is actually produced that could not exist otherwise—but 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 author’s 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

    Copyright © Michael Betancourt  October 23, 2011  all rights reserved.

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