[iDC] Marx, "Reproduction, " Play, the Steam Mill, and the Internet

Mark Andrejevic markbandrejevic at gmail.com
Fri Oct 16 05:47:15 UTC 2009

How dominant is capitalism? In the wake of the recent scare over the
collapse of the international finance system because of the speculative
practices of a few giant bankers, It's a provocative question, and in the
interest of analytic clarity we might want to consider what we mean by
capitalism (and "dominant"). On its face, it seems possible to argue that
capitalism is more deeply entrenched in global terms than ever before,
though I'd certainly be interested in seeing an empirical case made that at
the moment of its triumph it disappears.

It's not clear to me in what way the notion of an attention economy moves us
beyond the horizon of capitalism: is it enough to identify new class
positions? These would have to be related, as I understand it, to a
mechanism for extracting value from the differential positions -- a
mechanism presumably independent of regimes of private ownership and control
over productive resources. Could we point at such a mechanism in
operation? The business models of the hegemons of the digital (attention?)
economy like Google and Facebook rely heavily on claims to private ownership
and control over their informational and infrastructural resources
(from algorithms to data farms). Some kind of working definition of what
constitutes capitalism as an economic system would help determine
whether apprent shifts reproduce such a system or transform it. I don't
think it's enough to say that the products have different characteristics or
that the labor looks different (as for repetitive mindless labor, plenty of
people working online are doing  it in the form of often outsourced forms of
data entry).

Michael's skepticism (based on personal experience!) about inflated claims
for the profitability of data-mining and target marketing applications are
well put, but it's probably worth pointing out that the business world might
not be as skeptical as he is: witness Microsoft's investment in Facebook
that valued the company at something like $15 billion before it had turned a

Whether or not the monitoring-based target marketing system of advertising
is the model of the future, large chunks of the information/media sector are
working towards it and investing in it (they're not just paying attention,
they're paying cash). Facebook first turned a profit something like two
months ago...which doesn't stop it from being treated (rightly or wrongly)
as the emerging digital hegemon, the upstart threat to Google, etc.

The "free" availability of information or services online does
not necessarily challenge capitalist relations of production and capitalist
modes of valorization (I wouldn't argue that free-to-air commercial TV, for
example, is post-capitalist -- though there have been some interesting
contortions resulting from the attempt to theorize the value contributed by
viewers). All of which is not to diminish the contradictions that I think
Michael rightly identifies at the core of capitalist social relations.
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