Thursday, August 11, 2011

Immaterial Labor and Cognitive Surplus (2 June 2010)

Wired has a dialogue between Clay Shirky and Daniel Pink, both of whom are promoting their new books that apparently promise to recycle leftist ideas about the "post-Fordist" economy. Shirky recognizes that people are doing stuff online instead of watching TV, and these liberated hours of self-directed labor constitute what he calls the cognitive surplus. In leftist theory, the same phenomenon is sometimes called immaterial labor, a term that stresses the work side rather than the capital side of the equation. The work/leisure divide was the product of the "Fordist" relations of production -- factory-style labor in which the meaning of work was rendered irrelevant to the worker marking time who just wanted a paycheck. Management tried to remove intelligence and decision-making from labor processes so to own those processes and control them, and to make workers interchangeable spare parts. But to get workers to go along with that soul-crushing arrangement, their life outside of work had to be enriched, with education and culture-industry entertainment products (e.g., the TV consumption Shirky marvels about). Eventually, educated and culturally aware workers were tapped into the "general intellect" regarding the contemporary moment and the zeitgeist, and were becoming innovative outside of work in the "social factory." That is, they were producing value outside of the "subsumption" by capital. What is happening with Web 2.0 initiatives and the networked economy and so on is capital's struggle to figure out how to seize that value without preventing the workers from doing the volunteer production or hampering their access to the commons, the shared goods used in their innovations.

Anyway, that's what I got from this 2007 article (pdf) by Carlo Vercellone, which examines the cognitive surplus as a form of cognitive capitalism. The upshot is that immaterial labor is basically a new kind of division of labor and new blurring of the work-leisure divide -- all in response to the "crisis" in production that comes from workers looking for more meaningful investment in their work beyond the paycheck. Which is apparently what Daniel Pink's book, Drive is about.

Perhaps because I have a taste for turgid Marxist jargon, I didn't find Shirky and Pink's more accessible account of these ideas especially illuminating. They acknowledge research into motivational crowding out and choice architecture and make familiar points about the wealth of networks, but they skirt around the real conflicts that have broken out across the economy, manifesting mainly as persistent unemployment, as structural shifts have started to take place. What will happen to our livelihoods if the wage relation is slowly being phased out more or less by technological developments? Just because humans like to create things to fulfill our species being doesn't mean we don't need to eat. And if we can't effectively market our share of the cognitive surplus, what then?

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