Jodi Dean, Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, HWS 2018-01-15
Communicative Capitalism: Share the Knowledge

Just as industrial capitalism relied on the exploitation of labour, so does communicative capitalism rely on the exploitation of communication. Communicative capitalism is that economic-ideological form wherein reflexivity captures creativity and resistance. The media practices enable us to express ourselves and connect with others.

In the nineties, the internet, HTML, and the World Wide Web were celebrated.  “Information wants to be free!” They were going to usher in a brand new democracy. New digital communities were predicted. The rhetorical promise was that more communication would produce more democracy.  Everyone would be able to express their opinion. Democratic ideals of discussion, participation, and interaction would be realized via digital media. People would be free to deliberate on whatever whenever for as long as they wanted.

Nowadays few people associate the internet, social media, or networked communication with democracy. It’s believed that digital media is for capitalism, not democracy is now a common sense. Everyone recognizes that capitalism is communicative. How is capitalism digging its own grave and giving rise to something else, something collectivist or even communist?

Another way to put the question: if the central contribution of Marx’s analysis of capitalism was his emphasis on class struggle, on the contradictions within capitalism that motivated and amplified the division between oppressor and oppressed, can the concept of communicative capitalism perform similar work?

Contemporary capitalism is unimaginable without global telecommunications networks. It is dependent on means of communication as means of production, circulation, consumption, and reproduction. The depth and breadth of capitalism’s merger with communications are based on the complex logistics that support a trade system built on the concentration of industrial production in special economic zones. The automation and informatization of productive processes standardize and accelerate production while decreasing the need for human labour-power. The high speed networks enable algorithmic trading, hedging, and arbitrage in financial markets to have more profit.

The attachment of media to individuals enables new and intensive modes of surveillance. It drives an intensification of demands on workers. And it is an instrument for capital’s elimination of worker and workplace protections. It opens new possibilities for collectivity, over and against the hyper-individualism of late modernity. Communicative capitalism directs us to the force of the many, the power of the crowds.

Communication is the infrastructure of capitalism. It is the means by which capitalism has been able to extend into and subsume every aspect of life, intensify competition, and amplify inequality.

The intensification of competition is a feature of networked media’s 24/7 personal connections. In the name of speed and flexibility, capitalist firms have dismantled the results of 19th and 20th century working class struggles. Workers are increasingly “free agents,” that is contingent and on-call, the labour market equivalent of just-in-time production. The apps and platforms of the “sharing” or “gig economy” have led to a collapse in wages in every sector in which they have been introduced. The livelihoods of those working in a sector become more uncertain while the owners of the platform get rich. Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Deliveroo, Task Rabbit and other apps that coordinate rides, rentals, deliveries, and odd jobs introduce or intensify competition.

As Fred Turner writes, “they’ve marketized ever smaller segments of time and transformed formerly private resources into potential sources of profit.” The flexibility that the technology promises means lower wages and longer hours for workers. People produce information, services, relations, and networks. They make more and get less, intensifying inequality with every communicative contribution and its trace.

Developments in technology enable their jobs to be simplified, codified, and replaced. The development of voice recognition capacities has enabled call centres to replace people with algorithms. Hotels are replacing human concierges with robots. Massive amounts of data enable the automation of an array of decision-making tasks: medical diagnoses and treatment, fraud detection, legal services, ad design, purchase, and placement, stock-trading.

 Networked communication entrenches hierarchy as it uses our own choices against us.

The demand for information has also changed dramatically. Lots of novels are written. Few are published. Fewer are sold. A very few become best sellers. Twitter is another example. It has over a billion registered users. Pop singer Katy Perry has over 94 million followers. Think of a competition for the best museum design or best city tourism app. The contest generates a common field that will produce a winner. Just think of what people are doing to have more followers. Inappropriate content is generated to engage more users and increase the number of followers. This is just one of many other examples of when technologies are making harm to communication.

However, technologies can also shift communication process to a new level and alleviate miscommunication. Neural networks allow monitor communication environment and prevent abuses and offences to happen.

HSE students Maksim Artemyev, Denis Tarasov, Nikita Orlov and Daniil Gavrilov from SPBU developed a neural network for recognition of insults in messages and comments. The network was trained on a sample of real texts, and a security system for warning and blocking aggressive users. The network indicates the percentage of toxicity, in other words, inappropriate words and vocabulary.  This algorithm might be implemented in social networks so that all abuses will be blocked.

HSE students developed a network for insults recognition

Tech theorist Jaron Lanier notes, “We’ve decided not to pay most people for performing the new roles that are valuable in relation to the latest technologies. Ordinary people ‘share,’ while elite network presences generate unprecedented fortunes.”

The use value of a message has been displaced by the exchange or circulation value of the contribution. In the times when information has already become an asset, we are expected to follow new ideas. We shouldn’t forget, that the communication is still under our control though. Especially if one knows a computer language to help humans communicate and capitalize the knowledge.