Media and New Capitalism in the Digital Age: The Spirit of Networks

David Bade (University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 6 September 2011

503

Keywords

Citation

Bade, D. (2011), "Media and New Capitalism in the Digital Age: The Spirit of Networks", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 67 No. 5, pp. 878-892. https://doi.org/10.1108/00220411111164727

Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


In Media and New Capitalism in the Digital Age: The Spirit of Networks Eran Fisher attempts to analyze the ideology of the networked world as Weber did the origins of capitalism. The central argument of the book is that the discourse related to network technology, “the digital discourse”, is a legitimation discourse, “the ‘religion’ of an instrumental society” (p. 226). It is a largely successful demonstration that “the spirit of networks is not a critical discourse, but precisely the opposite: it is the discourse of the new capitalism par excellence” (p. 227).

The book is divided into three parts. In the first part the author articulates the theoretical and empirical foundations of his argument, as well as the sociological context. In the study of relations between technology and society he distinguishes three positions: technology shapes society (“the most prevalent approach”), society shapes technology (“critical approaches”) and the approach that informs his book: “technology as discourse – cultural, social, political, and ideological” (p. 17). In the strong version of the “technology as discourse” approach, “Technology discourse is ‘ideological’ to the extent that political issues are treated as technical ones” (p. 19). His focus is not on technology in general, but current popular discussions of the network – primarily articles published in Wired magazine, “an epitome of the digital discourse” – and how this particular form of technical realization is believed or assumed to establish new rules and a new rationality for “four key transformative sites” (p. 5): new markets, new forms of work, new modes of production, and new humans (and posthumans).

The second part deals with each of these four areas in turn. He discusses in detail Kevin Kelly's articles in Wired, especially “New rules for the new economy” (Kelly, 1997). In that article “dumb chips” in a network produce smartness and rationality. Fisher comments:

It is important to infer what Kelly is suggesting, especially as it pertains to the status of nodes vis‐à‐vis a technological network or that of individuals vis‐à‐vis markets and society. If consciousness (as well as smartness and rationality) is the result of the cooperation of dumb neurons (as well as dumb chips, nodes, or individuals), the corollary is that reflexivity (i.e. the ability to evaluate rationality, or the ability to apply rationality to asses rationality …) resides not in any single node but only in the network. None of these small nodes can comprehend the complexity of the network's rationality. Kelly... therefore redefines smartness as an inherently network quality (p. 50).

In Kelly's articles we find an early expression of an idea that many later authors would embrace as “the wisdom of crowds”, “swarm intelligence”, “spontaneous order” and other such oxymorons which “tie together the irrational (the fuzzy and undirected) with the rational (the instrumental, purposive, and focused” (p. 51). According to this view:

[…] superior rationality can solely be the product of networks. Intelligence and rationality are achieved not by improving on the performance of individual nodes but by connecting them to each other. Sophistication and progress is created by very limited, short‐sighted, and unreflexive agents (p. 51).

What are the implications of this for social and economic theory? Because the network is imagined as a biological development (“biology has taken root in technology” Fisher (p. 56) quotes Kelly as writing), the chief features of biological systems become the chief features of the network, economy and all of society: evolution, perpetual disruption, unpredictability, incalculability, turbulence, uncertainty, disorder, chaos:

The digital discourse does not simply describe the chaotic nature of the digital economy but also insists on the inevitability and benevolence of chaos. It suggests that since chaos is part and parcel of the network economy, it would be worthless and even dangerous to react to it defensively and try to counter this economic reality with a political and social action. In this context, Kelly invokes the anti‐Luddite maxim that perceives any opposition to technologically induced change as a reactionary and futile struggle waged by shortsighted people (p. 59).

And of course the shortsightedness of the Luddites would be the basis of intelligence if the Luddites were to connect to the network.

Fisher notes that Kelly contrasts the industrial economy with the network economy by describing both as natural objects, the character of both understood as independent of political and social action. He notes that the industrial economy as understood in the digital discourse of Wired magazine ignores “the fact that the stability and predictability of industrial economy was … precisely a product of the political and social barriers put forth by governments on markets” (p. 62), something which John Gray (1998) has argued at length from his very different perspective.

Responding to Kelly's remark “the prime goal of the new economy is to undo – company by company, industry by industry – the industrial economy” (quoted by Fisher on p. 62) Fisher remarks:

It is precisely the undoing of the political constraints put on markets and the layer of social arrangements that were constructed throughout the twentieth century in order to insulate individuals from an unforgiving, unpredictable, and irrational market (in the broader sense of substantive rationality) that the digital discourse is calling for and legitimates through a naturalization and technologization of flux and chaos. What the digital discourse constructs is a structure of the network market as a chaotic but self‐regulating mechanism, the operation of which is best achieved by leaving it to its own devices and in no way regulating it politically (pp. 62‐63).

Fisher follows this with a discussion of these issues in liberal and neoliberal theory, particularly in the work of Hayek. In contrast to both classical liberalism, in which “individual liberty in the marketplace is seen as a natural, unconditional right … a normative legitimation for the free market” (p. 66), and neoliberal theory, where individual liberty is seen “as a prerequisite for the successful operation of the market... a scientific legitimation for the free market” (p. 66), the digital discourse “transforms the argument for individual liberty into a technologistic legitimation” (p. 67):

To the extent that individuals are reconceived as nodes within a technological network, and to the extent that these nodes must be atomized, flexible, and adaptable to network fluctuations, individuals must be free in order for spontaneous order to occur. Hence, the argument for the liberty of individuals in the context of free markets is asserted thrice: first, on normative grounds, second, as a scientific discovery, and, finally, as a technological necessity (p. 67).

In this view of economy and society, “economic rationality is redefined as emanating solely from the operation of networks” (p. 75), and “political issues are treated as technical issues” (p. 77). The analysis here follows and updates that of Habermas from the late 1960s.

After the discussion of the nature of markets as described by advocates of the network economy, Fisher devotes a chapter to the nature of work as these same advocates understand it. He analyzes the “worker” as that character appears in Douglas Coupland's story “Microserfs” (Coupland, 1994), pointing out one of the more important issues that narrative touches upon but avoids reflecting upon: “the unproblematic blurring of the dichotomy between workers and employers” (p. 95). This blurring of the boundaries at Microsoft Corporation Fisher compares to slavery and serfdom – a comparison forced upon readers by the very title of Coupland's story – and “its blurring – indeed, annihilation – of the distinction between work and leisure, between private and public life” (p. 95). This is then contrasted with the self‐image of the members of the digerati and “technology as an axis of professional identity” (p. 97).

Chapter five discusses the forces of production as imagined by the digerati. In the network economy, the technologies used themselves provide “a more democratic, participatory, and inclusive mode of production … making it more human and engaging for individuals by welcoming and harnessing human facets” (p. 107). Network technologies offer “power to the people” and individual empowerment:

Thanks to the Web, creativity, enthusiasm, cooperation, and personal expression are reintroduced into the spheres of production and consumption from which they have been traditionally excluded and revitalie them (p. 110).

Consumers and audiences – passive categories – dissappear in the network mode of production, and in their places we find participation and collaboration. The result of that participation and collaboration “turns out to be superior to anything we have experienced in the past … a depository of knowledge, furnishing humans with a newfound and a quasi‐transcendental view of the world” (p. 111) which is, in Kelly's words, “spookily godlike” (p. 111).

There is a good discussion of crowd sourcing in this chapter, especially good because it focuses on issues that are never discussed in either the popular articles in praise of the practice, nor in the scientific literature that evaluates its potential. Stating the issue bluntly, Fisher writes:

The network is seen in the digital discourse as a new repository for cheap labor, a mechanism for extracting hitherto unexploited resources … [C]rowdsourcing is ultimately interpreted in the digital discourse as a new source of profitability. In that sense, crowdsourcing offers not a break but a continuation of the long history of capitalist exploitation, based on increasing levels of surplus value (rather than simply increased levels of productivity) … In the uncritical, even triumphant language of the digital discourse, this is not seen as exploitation at all because labor is done by “amateurs,” it is “latent,” and it is done outside of productive time (pp. 118‐119).

Fisher follows this observation by questioning the reference to the “latent” power of the crowd. If, as the network discourse claims, “only network technology is able to uncover and mobilize this talent and work power in to productive results … why is it latent, and why can it only be uncovered and mobilized with network technology?” (p. 119). Fisher develops the argument that because “workers are redefined as independent freelancers who are compensated solely for their successful accomplishment” all the costs of their labor are externalized by the companies who utilize them in crowdsourcing. Everyone – professional and amateur alike – becomes, in other words, a piece worker perpetually competing in a global market. Using examples from iStockPhoto and InnoCentive to Lego, he argues that “a networked mode of production such as InnoCentive is economically more rational only from the point of view of companies rather than the system, or society, as a whole” (p. 128).

In these first chapters on markets, labor and production, Fisher contrasts the humanist critique of industrialism with a social critique. The humanist critique is based on values linked with the arts – “authenticity, self‐expression, noninstrumentality, and critical distance from the prevailing social order, particularly from its most systemic structures; the market and the state” (p. 105) – leading to its “demand for a less alienating, more satisfying and creative work process” (p. 143). The social critique, on the other hand, is concerned with mitigating exploitation, “the need for social security, stability, and equality” (p. 217). This is an interesting and revealing mode of analysis, which becomes more and more pronounced as the book unfolds. The digital discourse and the networked world that it imagines and preaches is, according to Fisher, a continuation of “the traditional critique of capitalism” (p. 143) in its humanist forms. In that universe of discourse, “network production is constructed as a transcendence of the pitfalls of industrial and Fordist production” (p. 142), but that is not the end of the story:

The digital discourse offers at one and the same time an affirmation and inclusion of the humanist critique of capitalism into the spirit of contemporary techno‐capitalism, and a rejection and exclusion of its social critique. At the same time that the new spirit of networks promises more engaging roles for individuals in the process of production, it also accepts and naturalizes the individualization, atomization, and privatization of work life, and the liquidation … of protective structures and mechanisms. As it promises more flexibility and creativity, the spirit of neworks also accepts and legitimates greater precariousness, instability, and vulnerability (p. 142).

In chapters six (“Network human”) and seven (“Network cosmology and the exhaustion of critique”), Fisher discusses some of the further reaches of theory, speculation and religious nonsense that not only surrounds but informs much of the discussion of the network world. The anthropomorphization of computers and the simultaneous reduction of the human to information technology that one can find in Wired and related literature is a matter that I have long been familiar with, but some of the essays that Fisher discusses were so ludicrous that they shocked even me:

According to the digital discourse … human beings in the most technologically advanced regions of the world have been inextricably fused with network technology. Under these new circumstances, humans can no longer be thought of within the framework of humanism as distinct from technology but instead as network humans. Network humans are commensurable with network technology (pp. 173‐174).

This view of humans – Surprise, Surprise! – fits a post‐Fordist society's reproductive needs. “Humans are reconceptualized to fit their place in the new mode of production and a new society” (p. 174). Thus, “a network market, network work, and network production require the reconceptualization of humans as commensurable with network technology as informational, flexible, and distributed and as nodes in a techno‐human network” (p. 178). With the boundaries between human and information technology blurred or rejected, there is now the possibility “for a more meaningful, emancipatory, and natural interaction of humans with technology” (p. 175). Instead of “the disciplining of humans to industrialism” (p. 175) as Gramsci described things, the network human “can now be unleashed and flourish with network technology” (p. 180).

The cosmological speculations, which Fisher finds in Wired are truly remarkable as much for their grandeur as for their lack of sophistication. Technology gets theologized and religion becomes a mystical doctrine of … computation:

The notion of universal computing – this most basic rule of the universe, or the “operating system” of the cosmos – is, according to Kelly, what binds us all together. In the “mystical doctrine of universal computing … we are linked to one another, all beings alive and inert, because we share, … an immaterial source. This commonality, spoken of by mystics of many beliefs in different terms, also has a scientific name: computation (Fisher, quoting Kelly (2002), p. 200).

The upshot of making a religion of computation, is that the entire world is explained in terms of a particular technique. Fisher notes that this cosmological view makes “technology the axis of social explanation” and rests on three assumptions: the neutrality, inevitability and benevolence of technology. With biology, society and the universe assimilated to information technology, Kelly and others construct “a framework where the political dimensions of social structures... are uprooted altogether and excluded and where the social is reduced to the technological”, pp. 190‐191). The circularity of reasoning in the arguments and positions discussed by Fisher is obvious, and the complete disolution of any meaningful categories follows; there is no longer any distinction between technology and biology, technology and anthropology, technology and religion, technology and society. In the discourse of the digerati, everything has the same explanation and it is not god but it just as well may be. To explain everything by one term is to explain nothing, least of all that term:

It is obvious that the use of the language of nature and biology to explain technology and society is not simply metaphorical but points to a conflation of these worlds in reality. In this case, the social (economy) and the technological (which underlies the networking of the economy) are understood to be overtaken by nature. The crux of this depoliticizing narrative comes from anchoring of the social in the technological, which in turn is anchored in the natural (p. 191).

I liked this book a lot and was particularly interested in the author's analysis of how the network ideology addresses the humanist critique of industrialism and capitalism. It is this power of critique, Fisher argues, that has led to its wide influence. As one example he notes that the anti‐globalization movement is founded on this critique:

It entails the decentralized assemblages of disparate groups, which convene ad hoc around a specific political project. The movement is also dehierarchized: there is no over determination for any essentialist political analysis, project or identity … It is worth noting that to a large extent the target of this movement has been post‐Fordist capitalism itself, and perhaps for that reason the spirit of networks is commonly assumed to harbor a critical potential (p. 225).

In this book Fisher wants to point out the insufficiencies of limiting our critique to the humanist critique (as he has described it), arguing that we must base our critique on a social critique (again, as he has described it). My only substantive complaint with the book is that Fisher appears to argue that one must found a political culture on one or the other critique. That, it seems to me, to be unnecessary, as both can – and should – inform political culture. The distinction that he has made between the two forms of critique can indeed be distinguished in analysis as he has done, and can be justified by historical references to various past criticues. But at bottom, this is an analytical distinction that need not lead to statements such as “A political culture founded on the social critique is inherently more political” (p. 223). What of a culture founded on both and then some? Perhaps I have misunderstood his intention here, as he does in fact insist that we must incorporate in our critique what we can learn from the network discourse as critique.

In spite of that reservation, I agree with his analysis as with the conclusions mentioned in my opening paragraph:

The spirit of networks, with its explicit critique of the pitfalls of Fordism, legitimates the shift to post‐Fordism first and foremost by depicting this shift as progress. Since the contemporary post‐Fordist condition is intertwined with network technology … the social formations that stem from it are also conceptualized as being of a higher stage, a social development. The shift to post‐Fordism, in other words, is understood as technologically induced and, therefore, as apolitical, asocial, and inherently progressive (p. 224).

In opposition to the views of the editors and contributors of Wired, Fisher insists that political and social questions have not and will not disappear with network technology. His book is also an important reminder that the relationship of information science to the economy, society and politics is not an extramural and peripheral issue for information science, but constitutive of the discipline itself. And his book is well worth reading not just by information scientists, but by anyone who works for a living as well as many of those who wish they could.

References

Coupland, D. (1994), “Microserfs”, Wired, January.

Gray, J. (1998), False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, New Press, New York, NY.

Kelly, K. (1997), “New rules for the new economy”, Wired, September.

Kelly, K. (2002), “God is the machine”, Wired, December.

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