Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

OWS & Social Media: Tech and Economic Systems

So far Occupy Wall Street has critiqued current political and economic systems–wall street, the fed, the distribution of wealth, etc. Yet the question hangs in the air, thick as tear gas–what is your vision of a better system? How do we right this catalog of wrongs? I am not suggesting we jump to answer. In fact, I’m with my friend at Vacuous Savor, who argues that OWS’ refusal to provide a clear list of demands packs more political punch than quick answers ever could.

Why raise the question then? Because it gives context to a query I’ve had for some time: to what extent does technology belong only to the economic system that created it? Basically, I want to know what we can take with us. If this ship is sinking, what can we use to construct our lifeboat? Allow me to tip my entire hand: I want to know to what extent social media is a capitalist instrument. What role, if any, can it play in a brighter, better future?

Few would dispute that capitalism uses social media to produce value. But are Facebook and Twitter always and forever instruments of alienation and exploitation? Rob Horning, over at The New Inquiry (a fantastic blog, btw), seems to think so. Here’s a snippet of his Marxian critique: “Our Facebook updates don’t allow us to express ourselves so much as allow consumerism to express itself through us while we provide the labor that sustains it as a communication system.” Point taken–and there’s a lot more to his argument by the way–but what about the role that social media has played in providing first-hand news during the Arab Spring? What about the way that Twitter told the story of OWS movements around the U.S., before mainstream news sources jumped on the bandwagon? This too belongs to consumerism, as a news source, but doesn’t it also have emancipatory dimensions?

We could at least invoke Michel de Certeau and say that while corporations may have strategic control over social media platforms, consumers have tactical control.  Those who use Twitter and Facebook can use social media in surprising and even emancipatory ways. Yet the deeper question remains–is there something inherently capitalist about social media (other than the fact that it emerged in a capitalist society)?

In Capital, when Marx critiques the machinery of large-scale industry he contends that large-scale industry converts “the worker into a living appendage of the machine” (614). [OMG you guys, are those human bodies feeding the illusion of the matrix!?] In Marx’s day the human-appendage phenomenon would have been easier to see. The machines belonged to the industrial revolution. They were visibly made for a specific mode of production, a specific division of labor. Can you imagine using the power loom in a system devoid of an antagonism between capital and labor?

But we can’t think social media in the same way we think a power loom. Horning doesn’t. To get at the “work” done in social media, he marshals Maurizio Lazzarato’s concept of immaterial labor, which “seeks to involve the worker’s personality and subjectivity within the production of value.” By his lights, capital dictates and exploits our virtual ego-maintenance. [And I thought my pictures of macchiatos and updates about my son made the world a better place!] Again, while I do see social media working this way, I don’t think this represents the entire story. Social media poses a challenge to both capitalism and communism because it functions neither as private property nor as a true commons. Twitter owns the site, but who owns a private tweet? Many people can see my Facebook page, but only I can change it. Is it public space?

I suspicion then that social media belongs to a class of technology which has outpaced current economic forms and ideologies. In a letter to Buckminster Fuller, McLuhan writes, “If one says that any new technology creates a new environment, that is better than saying the medium is the message. The content of the new environment is always the old one. The content is greatly transformed by the new technology.” Doesn’t social media function thus? Social media has created a new environment.  What is the content of social media? To a large extent, it is the “private” lives of individuals, the humdrum rhythm of the personal, displayed in streams flowing down screens. My life is now, at least partly, enveloped by the environment of social media. The question then becomes, how has this changed the way that I live? How has it changed the way you live?

I don’t want to jump to an answer here. Why raise the question? Because it can give context to my initial queries about OWS. Perhaps we should not ask Occupy Wall Street to create an alternative system solely from the wreckage of the old. Perhaps we should view its first task  as catching up with where we already are. How do we build a system that makes sense of our current realities? In any case, I still don’t think this begins with a list of demands. What say you?

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