Archive for July, 2012

The President as a Brand

The New York Times recently published a piece titled “At Times, Obama and His Cyberself Differ on Tactics” that opens with the passage:

For a moment on Friday, the cyber-Barack Obama was perfectly at odds with the flesh-and-blood version… Speaking to 1,400 supporters at a high school… President Obama voiced his familiar lament that “there is so much negativity and so much cynicism” in politics that he could understand if voters tuned out the election. Minutes earlier on Twitter, he had written, “Why Mitt Romney’s end date at his buyout firm matters,” linking to a blog post about the tempest over his Republican challenger’s departure from Bain Capital.

The article doesn’t really offer any deeper analysis of the topic raised in its headline, but the notion of this sort of technologically-mediated, or even, post-human, presidency is so provocative that it’s worth additional reflection. I can’t begin such a reflection, however, without first critiquing some of the vocabulary used in the article. The article contrasts “cyber-Barack Obama” (or Barack Obama’s “cyberself”) with “the flesh-and-blood version.” This problematically implies that there are two Barack Obamas: the real Obama and the Obama out there in cyberspace (cue creepy space music). Of course, once we even state such a claim, it becomes immediately apparent that it has zero face validity. Arguing that the Barack Obama who signs the messages he personally posts to Twitter with the initials “bo” is different than the Barack Obama out there giving the speeches makes about as much sense as arguing that when I call my mom on telephone, I’m talking to a different person than when I drive over for a visit. Continue reading

Teaching Marx and Technology

I’m always on the lookout for work that might be useful in a sociology of technology course. I was re-reading Nick Dyer-Witheford’s (1999) Cyber-Marx and realized that the ‘Marxisms” chapter [.pdf] provides a pretty useful outline of Marxian interpretations of technology that could provide that backbone for a pretty good lesson plan.

Dyer-Witheford (p. 38) opens with the acknowledgement that:

Marx was, like all of us, a multiple. He wrote variously about technology, making statements that cannot all be reconciled one with another—or, at least, that can be reconciled in very different, sometimes radically opposed, ways.

Marx’s varied positions on technology are revealed in some oft-cited passages Continue reading

Notes on Virno, the Multitude, and the Web

Labor and non-labor develop an identical form of productivity, based on the exercise of generic human faculties: language, memory, sociability, ethical and aesthetic inclinations, the capacity for abstraction and learning. From the point of view of “what” is done and “how” it is done, there is no substantial difference between employment and unemployment. It could be said that: unemployment is non-remunerated labor and labor, in turn, is remunerated unemployment. -Virno (Grammar of the Multitude, p. 103)

I’m deep into my second comprehensive exam, so I’m going to self-servingly post some notes on various things I’m reading. (Feedback is most welcome.) Though Paulo Virno only mentions the Web once in In Grammar of the Multitude (p. 43), the four lectures that comprise the book are of deep relevance to the political economy of social media, particularly in situating them in the broader historical trend toward post-Fordist production.

Let’s start by unpacking that phrase “post-Fordism.” Fordism refers to Henry Ford’s innovations in assembly line production in his automotive plants. The assembly line had profound social consequences in that it made the tasks of each worker so repetitive and simplified that anyone could do them. That is to say, the assembly line created a de-skilled workforce. Fordism is also generally linked to Taylorism, which refers to Fredrick Taylor’s attempts to introduce scientific rationality in the workplace through time-and-motion studies and pay-for-performance. Continue reading

Question for PEW: Does Gamification Encourage Exploitation?

The Pew Internet and American Life Project released a survey collecting expert opinions on one a hot new(-ish) concept amongst the Silicon Valley digerati: gamification. The survey offers some interesting insights and features commentary from folks like danah boyd, Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, and Amber Case; it also cites me a bit talking playbor (play + labor) and weisure (work + leisure).

The survey shows that tech commentators are split on whether gamification is destined to become an ubiquitous feature of the Web (53% agree, 42% disagree). The subtext of these sorts of conversations—given that tech commentators overwhelmingly have backgrounds in business—is: How can we use gamification to make a killing. We shouldn’t be to suprised about all the excitement from those invested in the tech industry. After all, gamification is all about getting people to view labor (i.e., the production if value) as play. And, if workers don’t view work as work, they may just do it for free.

Continue reading