[iDC] Critique (?) of "immaterial labour"

John Hopkins jhopkins at neoscenes.net
Fri Aug 3 23:49:27 UTC 2007

>What can I (or we) learn from this post? The blogger suggests that my
>argument reduces everything that happens on social networking sites to
>immaterial labor. That`s not correct.

I do concur in fact with the idea that the 'language' of Marxism -- 
dancing around the term 'labor' is a bit problematic.  I find it as 
un-applicable as Newtonian calculus is on Einsteinian relativity.  It 
applies, but does not accurately circumscribe the situation.

Instead of 'labor', I prefer to use the interchangeable terms 
'life-time' and 'life-energy' -- (briefly defined) where the 
individual has an absolutely limited total amount of each of these -- 
as limited by actual lifetime and available real energy sources 
(i.e., food).  Life-time is convertible to life-energy and 
vice-versa.  We do use some of our limited life-time on different 
action sets each day.  Where we spend that life-time very much sets a 
relationship of power up between the individual and the social 

(see some recent ad hoc comments about ubicomp on my blog 

When life-time is spent, it is not recoverable.  When it is finished, 
it is gone.  The time is not an esoteric or immaterial factor -- it 
is very real.  It is an interchangeable measure for life-energy -- 
which is the real spending of bodily energy over time to maintain 
systems.  It is this very real expenditure of energy that all social 
systems are built upon.  Without the expenditure of life-time and 
life-energy, no social system of any scale from one human to 6 
billion-plus will come to be or subsequently survive.  The scale of a 
social system can be quantified by the amount of life-times that are 
used in its maintenance.  This is something like the term man-hours, 
but has to be understood that it is a primary measure of value and 
real energy.

Highly organized social systems rely on vast quantities of life-time 
to maintain their order.  Everytime we spend time on these systems, 
we make them stronger, that energy is a very real and elemental 
contribution to a larger social system.

Every time we participate in any form of social interaction, we are 
spending life time (how many minutes did I spend writing this 
email?).  When we spend that life-time, the energy goes into the 
social system -- a little bit into wearing out the keys on my 
computer (which will need replacing); who's going to pay the electric 
bill? (I am leeching someone else's life-time expenditure for that); 
I'll need another cookie or two to eat whilst I'm musing here, just 
to maintain the body-system; when I use a complex multi-dimensionally 
dependent socially-constructed tool to communicate with the Other as 
I am doing here, little bits of my energy are tapped off into that 
large social infrastructure to maintain and feed it.  Versus when I 
am using a lesser-mediated form of communication, like speaking f2f 
with the neighbor over the back fence.  The expenditure of life-time 
with f2f is generally the way to keep the social energy drain to a 
minimum.  It 'costs' practically nothing socially to talk to the 
human who is physically closest to you...  Compared to maintaining 
large numbers of distantly remote relationships (jet fuel, telecom, 
computing, dsl, postage, etc).

I did a simple calculation on my own system -- to have a laptop to 
work with, I have had to spend, on average, USD 90/month for the last 
15 years.  Just for the tool, not to maintain the telecom & electric 
grid access to use the Internet or have any other peripheral devices. 
To maintain that cash flow, as one cost among the other regular 
things like eating, housing, clothing, etc, I need to give a certain 
amount of my life-time to the social system.  If I don't, I will not 
be able to maintain that participatory possibility.  Also a price to 
pay in this participation is the relative stability of life required 
by the social system -- try getting electric or dsl service without 
an address; an address without paying rent; a rental without serious 
cash in the bank; a bank account without an ID and an address; an ID 
without an address and PAPERS --  to secure and maintain these 
requirements all require substantial expenditures of 
life-time/life-energy into the social system.

I see these huge collective infrastructures on a sliding scale, and 
as scales ramp up to global with millions and billions of people 
involved, there are huge concentrations of 
wealth/life-time/power/energy.  The larger the social system, the 
more energy is required to maintain it, the greater the need for 
individual life-times to be contributed.  This is why the global 
capitalist system is desperate for your attention, desperate for you 
to spend some of your life-time on it...

This is why participation in the local is a powerful dis-empowerment 
of the larger social system that the local is embedded in.  Why 
speaking to the next human being is a powerful political statement. 
This is how repressive regimes work -- to suppress direct connection 
between people and to re-route all human life-time expenditures 
through the system, and not let any slip by un-mediated.

While I haven't the time here to discuss this in detail, unlike some 
Others on this list who give HUGE chunks of life-time into this 
social sub-system, here are a few calories of my energy input into 
this system, after a couple months of unstable life and limited 
network connections.


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