Posts Tagged ‘ Karl Marx ’

Panel Discussion: Is Facebook Use a Form of Labor?

The Organizations, Occupations, and Work blog (associated with the American Sociological Association) organized an interesting panel discussion between Chris Prener, Christopher Land, Steffen Böehm and myself. I’ll summarize/critique the positions here and provide links for further reading.

Chris Prener initiated the conversation by asking “Is Facebook “Using” Its Members?” Prener claims that, though the company gives users “access to networks of friends and other individuals as well as social organizations and associations,” Facebook—with it’s advertising revenue “somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.2 billion”—” benefits far more in this somewhat symbiotic relationship.” He concludes that Facebook, and social media more broadly, represent “a [new] space where even unpaid, voluntary leisure activities can be exploited for the commercial gain of the entities within which those activities occur.” Continue reading

Facebook is Not a Factory (But Still Exploits its Users)

This piece is posted in cooperation with the Organization, Occupations, and Work Blog.

Facebook’s IPO announcement has stirred much debate over the question of whether Facebook is exploiting/using/taking advantage of its users. The main problem with the recent discussion of this subject is that no one really seems to have taken the time to actually define what exploitation is. Let me start by reviewing this concept before proceeding to examine its relevance to Facebook.

Defining exploitation. The concept of exploitation came to prominence about a century and a half ago through the writings of Karl Marx, and he gave it a specific, objectively calculable definition—though, I’ll spare you the mathematical expressions. Marx starts from the assumption that value is created though labor (most people today acknowledge that value is contingent on other factors as well, but we need merely to accept that labor is one source of value for Marx’s argument to work). According to Marx, humans have an important natural relationship to the fruits of our labor, and our work is a definitive part of who we are. Modern capitalist society is unique from other periods in history because workers sell their labor time in exchange for wages (as opposed to, say, creating objects and bartering them for other objects). Capitalists accumulate money by skimming off some of the value created by worker’s labor and, so that the wages a worker receives is only a fraction of the total value he or she has created. The portion of the value created by a worker that is not returned back to that worker (after operating costs are covered) is called the rate of exploitation. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Critical Theory: Useful Distinction or Unconscious Smugness?

On September 18th, 2011, Barry Wellman, the early and rather prescient scholar of the Internet, posed a somewhat tongue-in-cheek question to the Communication and Information Technology Section of the American Sociology Association (CITASA): “‘Critical’ – aren’t we all?” This post was precipitated by a call for papers for special issue of tripleC entitled Marx is Back: The Importance of Marxist Theory and Research for Critical Communication Studies Today (no affiliation with the author). Specifically, the call invited papers that address (my emphasis):

what it means to ask Marx’s questions in 21st century informational capitalism, how Marxian theory can be used for critically analyzing and transforming media and communication today, and what the implications of the revival of the interest in Marx are for the field of Media and Communication Studies.

Shortly after it was sent, Wellman responded to the call, saying:

Not meant personally, but the use of the word “critical” by a subset of scholars always bothers me as leading to unconscious smugness? If I’m “critical”, your lot isn’t? Who, except flacks and twerps, isn’t critical? Can we criticize the criticalists?

This sparked a debate over the utility and appropriateness of the phrase “critical theory.” Critics of the phrase raise the following objections: Continue reading

Cyborg Systems: Sociology’s Proper Unit of Analysis

(Reposted from Sociology Lens)

The increasing centrality of the Internet in our daily lives has precipitated a spate of theorizing about how we – as humans and as a society – are changing (or not) due to the constant technological mediation of our most basic interactions and activities. Let’s face it: This sort of theorizing is populated mostly by men of considerable privilege (with some very notable exceptions). A cynic might hold that the problems concerning human techno-social interactions are relatively insignificant compared to more pressing issues of race, class, gender, age, etc. One cannot but be sympathetic to such charges.

However, I would posit that a complicated set of processes are at work in causing many to view theory surrounding the Internet and its ever-expanding litany of technical terms (e.g., Web 2.0, prosumption, produsage, playbor, or sousveillance) as largely irrelevant to the salient social issues of our day: 1.) The theorists of the Web, tending to work from a position of privilege, perhaps, simply lack awareness of feminist and other situated discourses, thus failing to acknowledge their relevance. 2.) Privilege may also account for a willingness to be satisfied by grand theoretical projects that produce political objectives couched in inaccessible language, too impractical to be actionable, altogether irrelevant, or simply nonexistent. 3.) Disciplinary specialization is such that the theorists from Marxian, post-structuralist, and/or science and technology studies traditions who are studying similar phenomena may not be in dialogue with one another. Continue reading

Out of Print: Prosumption and the Triumph of New Media

(Reposted for Sociology Lens)

President Obama recently gave a eulogy for the legendary news anchor, Walter Cronkite, on which occasion, he delivered the nation this message:

We know that this is a difficult time for journalism. Even as appetites for news and information grow, newsrooms are closing. Despite the big stories of our era, serious journalists find themselves all too often without a beat. Just as the news cycle has shrunk, so has the bottom line. [...] Naturally, we find ourselves wondering how he would have covered the monumental stories of our time. In an era where the news that city hall is on fire can sweep around the world at the speed of the Internet, would he still have called to double-check? Would he have been able to cut through the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites to shine the bright light on substance? Would he still offer the perspective that we value? Would he have been able to remain a singular figure in an age of dwindling attention spans and omnipresent media?

The president waxed romantically about the old media and spoke with the sort fondness that one expects at the funeral of an old friend (or cherished institution). He was hopeful about the future of conventional media. But, eulogies are a post-mortum affair. And, for all the president’s accolades, “the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites” appear to have won the day.

In fact, these days, one can hardly avoid stories about the death of print media. Last December, the Chicago Tribune filed for bankruptcy. Shortly thereafter, Michael Hirschorn warned that “End Times” might be drawing near for the America’s paper of record. A recent article reports that the crisis is spreading to other forms of conventional reporting such as photojournalism. Michael Bowden has even gone so far as to announce that we have entered a “post-journalistic age.”

Two explanations for the crisis in the conventional media have been circulated by none other than the the conventional media itself. Both share the same theme: blame the consumer!

The first explanation posits that Americans these days are just plain dopes. This argument has a venerable history among media critics and has been a central theme in such diverse works as Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, and Andrew Keen’s recent The Cult of the Amateur. In its modern incarnation, the assumption is that a less intelligent society naturally consumes less quality reporting, thus diminishing support for the industry.

The second explanation holds that people have been seduced by the allure of free content on the web and now expect all information to be free. These latter critics believe that a generation is emerging who have seldom, if ever, paid for content and simply lack the basis from which to judge the quality of various information venues. Wired magazine editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, discusses the technological innovations which influence changing attitudes toward content in a new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, though he is not so pessimistic about the implications of “free” for the quality of content.

Regardless of their truth or falsity, such theories totally miss the overwhelming structural forces at play in the crisis of conventional media. The real threat to these institutions has little to do with taste or educational development. Rather, it is, largely, economic. The concept of “prosumption” has already been addressed several times on this blog, but as a refresher: prosumption refers human activity that combines aspects of both consumption and production. And, it is prosumption that most threatens the business model of the conventional media. Why? Because prosumption best serves the principles of capitalism in which the various form of media compete.

The increasing presence of prosumptive activities in our daily lives (most notably as a result of the important role that the Internet now in the lives of most people) has meant that people are busy doing free labor on a scale unimaginable to previous generations. Put simply, prosumption is more efficient. By efficiency, I do not mean that more quality/quantity of unique content is produce with less labor. On the contrary, prosumption is less productive. Bloggers, Twitters, and other online posters produce extraordinary amounts of (often redundant) content, but the end result is that more work produces less information of value to society. The blogosphere may require a thousands times the labor and laborers it takes for one newspaper to break the same number of stories. But how, then, is the blogosphere more efficient?

The answer lies in the Marxian concept of exploitation. For Marx, exploitation had a very specific meaning: the amount of value that the capitalist extracts from a laborer’s activity. If we accept Marx’s definition then we might say: exploitation is more efficient when the capitalist is able to capitalize on a greater proportion of the laborer’s labor and returns less to the laborer in the form of wages. Thus, the most efficient mode of organization would be one where the capitalist capitalizes on the laborer’s labor and returns nothing in the form of wages. This maximized state of efficiency describes what we find occurring on the Internet today. It is more efficient to not pay a hundred people to do a job than to pay one person to do that job. It is with this most basic logic of capitalism that the private conventional media must compete. So far, they are losing.

If the public wants to retain the quality of these traditional venues, I suggest we rapidly examine alternative funding models such as NPR’s or the BBC’s, which continue to remain successful, in part, because they simply remain outside the logic of capitalism. Without quick action, I fear many of these conventional media institutions will be dismantled beyond repair.

Square-eye Obama on a “Difficult Time for Journalism”

Square-eye“Exploitation,” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, Andrew Kliman, ed. George Ritzer

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