Eleni Ikoniadou

In the nineteen sixties, Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan challenged the general assumptions about communication technologies, with his accurate predictions about the impact of the electric light enabling the immediate processing of information. McLuhan's assertion was that electric speed would eventually "compress" our globe to the size of "a village [and] bring all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion."[1] Accelerated rhythms of technological development have triggered the digitalization of the media that has affected the way we live at every level. However, digitalization is never merely a technological process, but a social and cultural one as well, which can potentially affect and even alter our perception of knowledge, power relations, the nature of labour and even our own bodies.

The Internet, arguably the most influential digital medium, has sparked an explosion of debate throughout recent years, regarding its economic, political and social status; a space where its structure is constantly criticized and its potential nurtures new and contradicting ideas. British scholar Richard Barbrook (University of Westminster) is the instigator of one of such ideas, which finds its groundwork on Marxist critical analysis of capital. According to Barbrook, the new economy of the Internet era is called "the digital economy"; its workers are "the digital artisans," and their "tools" the new technologies, that is, computer networks. [2] Barbrook believes that this is a mixed economy that fosters a successful symbiosis of the public, the market and what he calls the "gift-economy," which he understands as a representation of anarcho-communism in cyberspace.

This article is concerned with looking at the gift economy as internal part of the late capitalist economy, rather than as a single, ideological space of resistance, demonstrating how current forms of cultural labour constitute capital's main source of profit in contemporary digital economy, and move away from the Marxist model of production. This model has been sufficient to explain the production processes during the industrial era, but appears inadequate to analyze capitalist societies in the information age.

> The representational model of the gift economy

The roots of anarcho-communism on the Internet, according to Barbrook, lie in the Situationists' belief that neither the market nor the State are necessary elements for a harmonious life between individuals in society. This is based on a model set by tribes in Polynesia, who organized themselves around the potlatch: the circulation of gifts. The potlatch encouraged cooperation and proved that people could coexist successfully, without relying on the State or the market. Based on this community model, Barbrook proposes that free exchange of information on the Net represents a form of the already existing anarcho-communism in cyberspace, and proclaims that it will eventually result to the decomposition of capital from within.

Richard Barbrook's theory aspires to the belief that there is a reality outside capitalism, which can be found in cyberspace, and his desire for a return to authentic life is manifested through his notion of the gift economy. That is, a situation enabled by the new technologies in which users' relations are not mediated through money but formed through the mutual obligations created by gifts of time and ideas. The users of "the gift sites" refuse to pay for copyrighted material, and prefer to exchange it among them for free in an online attempt to sabotage the state and reject their subordinated existence. This notion corresponds to the understanding of the nature of power by Marx, who has tended to take the view that power is concentrated in the state, and that the aim of any revolutionary strategy is the capture of power. Only after the capture of power by the working class can the construction of socialism begin.

> A different type of labour

A large part of the Internet's function is based on the contribution of its users to create and update web sites, post and download files from them, participate in debates and offer comments and personal information about themselves. On the whole, the concept of feedback and interactivity is continuously building the Web, simply because it is an enormous task to be assigned to a few individuals. This process takes place within the current economy of late capitalist societies and is indispensable to the production of capital. The users of free file-exchange sites help keep it alive through their labour, the cumulative hours of accessing the site (thus generating advertising), writing messages, participating in conversations, downloading MP3 files and so on. This form of labour is different from hitherto capital organizations of the structure of production, and marks a change from the meaning of labour as simply employment to labour as a cultural and social process.

Social, collective labour is interconnected with communication systems, information and affective networks and breathes life into the culture of the gift economy not from outside the capitalist system, as suggested by Barbrook, but as a part of the larger new economy, an economy that shifts emphasis to the creation of value and capital "out of knowledge/culture/affect,"[3] in the passage of society from knowledge to information and from the materiality of labour to its fundamental immateriality.

The development of the new technologies in a close collaboration with humans has appointed capital with new ways of extracting value that is social, cultural as well as economic and is far from declaring the end of production. Rather, it demonstrates the shift of production and the different ways through which profit is now realized.

The passage from production as material to production as information, data storage, performativity and efficiency does not constitute an absolute break from the industrial society, but seems more appropriately explained as the evolution of capitalism and new technologies, instead of the 'dawn' of a totally new social era. However, it is of great importance to include the part that the workers' demands and desires played in the inevitable crisis of the Fordist era.

After decades of internal factory discipline and extraction of the surplus value from the labour of workers in automated and dull jobs, industrial capitalism was abandoned from being the principal production force and the only way of life. The rejection of the Fordist system occurred -partially[4]- because the workers were considerably frustrated with the rigidity, repetitiveness and restrictive movement of mechanical jobs. The intense involvement of people in the cultural and creative industries nowadays provides solid proof of the labourer's desire for productivity and flexibility. What is more, the de-structuring of labour in late capitalist societies, demonstrates the worker's need to interact with the new technologies and engage in symbolic manipulation. It is almost a craving to abolish the standardization of automated jobs and invest in creative and more physically and emotionally fulfilling tasks. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the function of the Internet.

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, emphasize in Empire that in the postmodern age, labour has a social aspect. They suggest, like Terranova, that it is immaterial, since it moves beyond Marx's notion of the accumulation of wealth and property, to the accumulation of information and the simultaneous production and reproduction of all aspects of social life. Accordingly, the relationship of the users and suppliers of information to their production, their labour, has ultimately changed and now assumes that consumption is not dependent on surplus value and is no longer "small with respect to the commodities [the workers] produce."[5] This explains the value of the gift economy in contemporary society: the workers of the information highway are not restricted to consume less than the total value they produce, since consumption on the Internet defies the conventional relationship it once had with production, and its dependence on the latter. The gift economy demonstrates the collaboration between users, the social interaction and cooperation needed for immaterial labour to produce. As a result of the "informatization" of our societies, users of free file-sharing communities rely on each other to exchange files sample, transform and consume them, irrespective of their income. They need to collaborate with each other through communication networks in order to produce value, but they do not necessarily need capital to orchestrate production. This aspect of the new economy is not a desire of its participants "to live in each other's memories,"[6] but a different type of labour. It is immaterial labour, a part of a larger "informationalised" economy and, in the words of Terranova better understood as "free labour." Free labour is the translation of knowledgeable cultural consumption into productive activities, it animates the Internet throughout and it is a "mutation, intensification … of a widespread cultural and economic logic."[7]

In this context, it is a collective activity of cybercultural thought and practice; the result of an abundant cultural and technical production; "the tendency to contribute to the ongoing constitution of a non-unified collective intelligence." The blurring of the processes of consumption and production in the digital age is the outcome of a combination of labour offered voluntary by the digital workers, and at the same time exploited fully and consistently by capital.

> Machinic Labour [8]

The synthesis of humans and machines involves the idea that the human subject is not a closed system of energy, like Freud thought, [9] but a system constituted by flows of information. In that sense the human body is not distinguished from any other system of information, such as animals or machines, and is not superior to them.

The assertion that there is a strong affinity between the human body and technology seems the most appropriate one with which to unfold the cultural and economic conditions in late capitalism. It is sufficient because it illustrates the difference in the process of generating surplus value and therefore the changes in the realization process of capital today. In his landmark about the analysis of capitalist production processes the Grundrisse, Marx affirms that "capital forces the workers beyond necessary labour to surplus value. Only in this way does it realise itself, and create surplus value."[10] In other words, according to Marx, excess human labour is the main source of profit for the capitalist system, where workers are forced to produce more than their wages allow them to consume. However, due to the significant changes that animate the production processes, the status of labour, as well as the processes of consumption, the organisation for the extraction of value nowadays is momentarily different from the previous one.

The interaction and collaboration between technological systems and humans has now become the main source of value-added. "The tool (of labour) is embodied not only in the brain but also in all the organs of sensation…that animate the life of a person. Labour is thus constructed with tools that have been embodied. […]. A single life becomes productive … only to the extent that it communicates with other bodies and other embodied tools."[11] For Negri, the cooperation between technologies and people is fundamental for the production of ideas and necessary to explain the stage of production today.

In trying to explain the status of production today, the extraction of surplus value in contemporary societies, does not require the separation of work and free time, or the enforcement of the worker beyond necessary labour, like Marx has argued. As we have explored, the labourers of the digital economy offer their labour any hour of the day from home or elsewhere, voluntarily, and although undoubtedly exploited by capital it does not necessarily depend on it. In other words, "the critical factor for success in business (today) is shifting from capital to talent."[12]

It is evident then that the operations of late capitalist economy are far too complex to be interpreted through the ideology of cyber-communism, or the liberalism of technological determinism. Rather, it needs to be understood through the tendency to digitally recombine the stockpiles of sink capital and reserve labour, working on the already existing conditions of a wider cultural and social context. In that sense, the electronic highway will always be crisscrossed by the creation and the "potlatching" of ideas between its travellers. Nonetheless, this immaterial labour is not produced by the desire for liberation, but by the combinatory potentials of machinic assemblages, at the heart of information culture.


[1] Marshall McLuhan, 'Introduction' in Understanding Media-The Extensions of Man (1994), p. 5.
[2] Richard Barbrook, The Digital Economy, posted to nettime.org on 17-06-1997.
[3] Tiziana Terranova, 'Free Labor: Producing culture for the digital economy,' Social Text, Spring 2000 (btinternet.com/~t.terranova).
[4] This statement of course, does not mean to underestimate the fact that capital itself was no longer served by the Fordist model, because manual labor demanded more workers-and thus more wages- and technological advancement meant faster and more accurate production in terms of consumer demands.
[5] Empire, 'The Limits of Imperialism,' p. 223.
[6] Jacques Attali, author of Noise, concluded his speech at the ICA with this quote (April 11, 2001, 'Interactive Music as Prophecy of the Future', Cybersalon, chaired by Richard Barbrook and Steve Goodman).
[7] Terranova, ibid.
[8] "Machinic heterogenesis" is a term used by Gilles Deleuze in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, to "describe the way that the machines (all networked systems, such as humans; machines; animals) which populate the universe connect with each other, mutually affect each other, exchange segments and then bifurcate into the machines. Collective existential mutation." In other words, the assemblage of humans and machines (Belinda Barnet, 'Machinic Heterogenesis and Evolution: SONIFORM,' nettime-1@Desk.nl, 29/06/1999)
[9] Freud had argued that "biology is destiny" to explain human behavior in terms of sexual identity, as part of his famous work on the subconscious and its relation to sex and gender.
[10] Marx, Grundrisse (1973), p. 421, also quoted in Hardt and Negri's "The Limits of Imperialism,' ibid., p. 222.
[11] Negri, 'Back to the Future: A Portable Document,' Readme! filtered by Nettime (1999), p. 182.
[12] Pinchot, 'the Gift Economy,' 29/06/2000, PinchotG-gifteconomy.htm

Originally appeared in the Greek publication