Incidental Productivity: Value and Social Media

For nearly two centuries, the term “production” has conjured an image of a worker physically laboring in the factory. Arguably, this image has been supplanted, in recent decades, by office worker typing away on a keyboard; however, both images share certain commonalities. Office work and factory work are both conspicuous—i.e., the worker sees what she is making, be it a physical object or a document. Office work and factory work are also active—i.e., they require the workers’ energy and attention and come at the expense of other possible activities.

The nature of production has undergone a radical change in a ballooning sector of the economy. The paradigmatic images of active workers producing conspicuous objects in the factory and the office have been replaced by the image of Facebook users, leisurely interacting with one another. But before we delve into this new form of productivity we must take a moment to define production itself.

Following Marx, we can say that any activity that results in the creation of value is production of one sort or another. Labor is a form of production specific to humans because human are capable of imagination and intentionality. He explains in the Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts of 1844 that

Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity. It is just because of this that he is a species-being. Or it is only because he is a species-being that he is a conscious being, i.e., that his own life is an object for him. Only because of that is his activity free activity.

Labor is production that is imagination-driven. However, production need not be intentional. Marx acknowledges this fact in Capital saying:

We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be.

Now, we are in a position to observe that production in the factory and in office are united by a third characteristic: value is produced via labor (specifically, alienated labor).

What is most remarkable about the much of the value produced on social media is that it comes from activities that can hardly be described as labor. The best example is, probably, the self-improving Google algorithm, which tracks individual usage patterns then aggregates the data to make itself more intelligent. Each individual is user is merely a passive consumer seeks a specific pieces of information; however, they also, simultaneously, generate valuable information for Google. The users are not active in the process. They do not imagine the end product in their minds before creating as Marx described. In fact, this product is completely invisible to them, buried deep in the infrastructure of the site. Similarly, Facebook silently derives value from the mundane interaction of its users.

We might compare this process to a waterwheel. The following is the one-sentence definition of a water wheel from Wikipedia:

A water wheel is a machine for converting the energy of free-flowing or falling water into useful forms of power, the development of hydropower.

Value is produced from everyday activities much like a waterwheel harnesses the power of flowing water. This fact has profound implications, potentially requiring us to rethink traditional critiques of capitalism. However, before diving into these implications it would be useful to develop a vocabulary describe these new conditions in which production can occur without active laboring.

We might start by considering some previous attempts to discuss immaterial production. In a presentation at the VII Annual Social Theory Forum on Critical Social Theory, Nathan Jurgenson and I used the term “ambient production” to describe an environment in which production simply occurs as result of one’s mere presence. We discussed how various modes/mechanisms of production on the Web might be placed on a visibility-invisibility continuum. However, this notion is complicated by the fact that as certain things are concealed (e.g., Facebook’s use of person data in targeted marketing) other things are more likely to be revealed (e.g., Facebook’s users are likely to share more data when they are not focused on how that data might be used to manipulated them).

More recently, we described the social media as populated with “digital paparazzi” (i.e., invisible data collection mechanisms that track and surveil users). However, we also demonstrated that there is a tendency for users to be made aware of the ubiquitous documentation in their environment and to alter their behaviors accordingly. Jurgenson labels as “documentary vision” this tendency to view one’s actions in the present through the lens of the future documents they will produce. Though the mechanisms themselves are concealed, one might aptly argue that Facebook users are reacting to this environment of omnipresent documentation with the expectation that they are always being recorded. As such, users begin posing all the time and actively use these mechanisms to produce (or “prosume”) their own identities. Certainly, this kind of identity work is an active labor for many users and has visible consequences.

There are, clearly, coextensive modes of production operating on social-networking sites such as Facebook: On the one hand, individuals conspicuously labor to shape their identities. On the other hand, their presence on the platform allows for the ambient production of valuable data that company can sale to marketers. In fact, these two modes of production are intertwined. Active identity work creates data for targeted market, while marketing provides new consumer objects through which identity is expressed. This environment, where social activity becomes productive activity is not dissimilar to what Mario Tronti (1966) and Antonio Negri (1989) respectively described as a “factory without walls” or a “social factory.”

Does ambient production qualify as labor?

The conspicuousness of the thing being produced becomes extremely important. If we are able to see what we are producing (as with self-presentation via Facebook’s new “frictionless sharing” application), then we will likely attempt to shape the end product by actively managing our own behavior (which amounts to labor). However, if the thing we are producing is concealed from us (as with our contributions to the Google algorithm), then we are largely denied any agency with respect to the final product. Yet, unlike alienated factory workers, our attention is not occupied by this production. In fact, this sort of of inconspicuous creation of value is largely incidental to the task that is really occupying our attention (e.g., using Google to locate a particular piece of information). Our relationship to such invisible objects is necessarily passive. As such, it does not meet Marx’s (and, likely, most other) criteria for labor. I will define this passive and inconspicuous creation of value as “incidental productivity.” Users engaged in incidental productivity don’t know or don’t care about about the valuable data they are creating; it is simply byproduct of other activity.

Why does “incidental productivity” matter?

For many commentators, our rights over the data that we create is an extension of an abstract notion that these data are fruits of our labor. The economic conditions of social media users have been described as “precarious labor” or, even, “over-exploitation.” Both allude to one of Marx’s major critiques of capitalism: that laborers are exploited (i.e., their wages to not amount the full value of their work because some of that value is skimmed off by the employer). Much of the identity work done on social media is active and intentional labor. And, this labor is often exploited (I discuss this in depth in an article titled “Alienation, Exploitation & Social Media” soon to be published in the American Behavioral Scientist). However, much of the value created on the Web does not even result from labor; it is incidental value. This leaves us with the question: If a productive activity is not labor, can it be exploited? This question requires considerably more examination as it was not a phenomenon observed by Marx himself. However, Marx is not certainly not irrelevant. A quintessentially Marxian question remains: Who should control the means of incidental production? Just as Marx concluded that the means of production do not work in the best interest of worker when controlled by a separate ownership class, we have reason to be skeptical that the means for harnessing incidental productivity will work in the best interest of users who exercise little control over them. Revelations, such as Apple’s clandestine use of the iPhone to collect data about changes in users’ geographic location or Yahoo! and Blackberry’s cooperation with the intelligence agencies of various authoritarian regimes, demonstrate the the interests of users and owners are often out-of-sync.

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