[iDC] Immaterial Labor and life beyond utility

davin heckman davinheckman at gmail.com
Fri Aug 17 15:23:28 UTC 2007

At the risk of sounding naive...

As I see it, the difference between "utility" and "subjective
experience" (or "the everyday" or "the singular" or whatever) is the
congitive frame in which the event is examined.

The goal of framing an event as "utility" is to provide some measure
of its worth.  The goal of framing an event as a "singular" experience
is to prove the immeasurability of its worth.  The proclamation of
subjectivity is an individual's way of asserting ownership over the
event.  "Utility" is the means by which ownership of an event is
categorized within a system.  In the capitalist system, capitalists
seek to assert ownership of that property.

The interesting thing is that people who accumulate capital along the
boundary of these two competing frames, seem to want to insist two
things at once.  The "singular" experience is real.  The right to own
the aspects of these experiences that we call "utility" is real, too.

This has the effect of outflanking the subjective experience and
surrounding it by utility.  To use a material example, Disneyland
operates this way.  Your experiences at Disneyland are your "own."
But Disney owns Disneyland itself.  The subjective experiences are
built upon the framework of utility at Disneyland.  And you pay for
the right to enter into this framework.  Subjectivity becomes, in this
context, a part of the system.

And, so, we ask:  "So what?"  The individual gets subjectivity.  By
day you work at Walmart, but at night you are a fairy princess...
It's better than just working at Walmart.  (And then someday the
collection agency kicks down your door and hauls off your belongings,
and now you work at Walmart under court order to pay your creditors.
Exiled from fairyland!).  Nevermind the billions of people who don't
even have this much.  Meanwhile, a few people in some far off place
gain significant material advantages that will provide real
opportunities for long life, physical and legal security.

I don't mean to appear to sound anti-capitalist when I say such
things.  One way to look at this problem is that 95% of people are
encouraged to ignore capitalism by the 5% who are slavishly obedient
to it.  This small 5% measures everything and slams it into the
category of "utility", and then insists to the other 95% that money
doesn't matter, that nobody's counting, that our lives are priceless.
(But they still send out monthly bills for some crazy reason).

The 95% would benefit greatly by understanding the value of their
work, by applying the same frame of "utility" to the world around
them.  (But, alas, teaching poor people to be better capitalists is,
to the 5%, just another word for communism).

I'm not saying we need to take back the wealth accumulated by MySpace
(It's not MySpace, afterall, it's theNewsCorporation'sSpace).  I'm
just saying that we should be more mindful of the wealth we create and
how we invest it.  Should we build "OurSpace" (and there are enough
examples of communities/movements in web 2.0 that try this)?  Should
we spend time planting tomatoes in a community garden?  In a consumer
economy, I know it's bad to talk about the virtues of "thrift"...  but
we need to reconceptualize this old-fashioned capitalist value in the
new economy.  How can we preserve our capital?  Pass it on to our
kids?  Give it to the needy?

If we truly want to assert the primacy of subjective experience, then
we should not be afraid of attempts to understand the various measures
that are applied when it is shoehorned into utility.  Of course the
things we do are useful.  They benefit us.  They benefit others.  They
can harm people, too.  Without a notion of human agency and its
ramifications, we cannot even begin to understand ideas like "freedom"
and "goodness" and all the other things that we are supposed to care
about.  As long as we ignore the ramifications of the "real" world, we
cannot even begin to have "real" experiences.  And though
"subjectivity" exists in our head, it is always applied in space and
time and communicated through material phenomena to others.

Utility or Subjectivity are not either/or propositions.   They can and
should be viewed side by side, building each other up, and expanding
the possibilities for moral action.


Davin Heckman

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