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Unearned Income From the Content Serfs

Arianna Huffington as Parasite

by CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM

It is axiomatic in the United States today that just about any cultural trend which is widely popularized and acclaimed is going to be either contemptible or irrelevant or both – the contemptibleness and irrelevance rising in proportion to the number of people talking about the item in question, especially when they’re talking in the unreality of the Web.   Thus for many years now I have ignored the Huffington Post.

Then, last September, I broke down, and as a favor to my friends in the Vermont secessionist movement, wrote a piece at HuffPo about the secessionist’s (badly losing) candidate for governor, whose main platform was the destruction of the American empire.   Due to the many eyes flitting about on HuffPo, the piece – for which I was not paid, as is the case for the vast majority of the “bloggers” at the website – was widely read and re-posted and Dugg and whatever, and brought some needed attention to the sales pitch of the crazy Vermonters.   

By my own logic, obviously, the more people blathering on digitally about a Vermont secession would render the subject contemptible and irrelevant.   And so it came to pass: The article disappeared after a few days; produced no new converts to the secesh movement that I know of; garnered no campaign contributions for their gubernatorial candidate; and, in effect, made the whole movement look like a hiccup in the digistream.  It may be that the movement is a hiccup, in Vermont itself as in electronic reality, or perhaps my writing wasn’t convincing over the long haul.  

For a brief moment, however, the article was good advertising.   And also a further building block, however small, in the edifice of the HuffPo brand, which, as readers know, recently fetched $315 million in a sale to AOL. 

Jaron Lanier, the reformed computer geek and neo-Luddite author of You Are Not A Gadget, offers a devastating analysis of the “free” information aggregators, such as HuffPo, that masquerade as pioneers of a new dispensation.    His argument is that the dominant trend toward “free” culture is an economic disaster for creators – because, though it is free for those consuming it, it is not at all free for those producing the “free” music, the “free” writing, the “free” art, and the “free” journalism.   Somehow these producerists, when not engaged in the glories of the new freedom, have to suffer the indignity of maintaining a roof, a family, filling all stomachs, keeping the lights on and the rooms heated.   The “new social contract” on the Web, writes Lanier, is that the “hive mind” – the anonymous digital mob of eyes and ears – will make it all work out in the end.   The contract, tacit and unspoken, stipulates that “authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind.  Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion” – meaning prostration before the buzzing hive.   “Culture,” concludes Lanier, “is to become precisely nothing but advertising.”  

Indeed, the HuffPo answer to the starving producerist is that he is compensated merely by affiliation with the HuffPo brand, that he is being advertised on HuffPo to its 26 million creatures in the hive – this is the “labor” provided by the website.    An offhand analogy is to the feudal lord and his mass of affiliated serfs, but the analogy fails: the lord at least provided something of substance in the here and now (safety, housing, a meager share in the crop).  The digital content-serf must satisfy with dreams to come.  Somewhere the promise down the line, when the mob on the Web turns to hail the labor of the content-serf, is that he will be made a rich man – or, hell, that he’ll just be able to keep the lights on.  The notion is messianic, and requires foolish believers.  If it has happened, I haven’t heard about it, nor has Lanier.      

The real issue is who controls the technology, the digital interface, by which the content-serf can advertise himself to the hive.  In controlling the interface is the opportunity for wealth that economists would call unearned income; it is earned only in the sense that the tick earns the blood it fattens on.   For HuffPo doesn’t produce anything in itself; it is at best a tollbooth, where the cost of entry is free labor.   I am reminded of a friend in the acting business who is required to employ all sorts of hangers-on who provide “access” to this or that angle in Hollywood.  There is the primary phalanx of lawyers and agents and managers, along with a secondary layer of same, along with the assistants to the lawyers and agents and managers, plus the tertiary assistants who assist the assistants to assist the money out of the pocket of my friend.   None of these people would be involved in productive employment if it weren’t for the host party who goes out and hits the streets and produces the content and gets the wages from which the middlemen take their cut. 

It should not go unnoticed that the financier, the investment banker, the hedge fund guru, the futures wizard, the commodities and the currency speculator, the derivatives trader are also, at bottom, parasitic middlemen, who insert themselves into the real economy – too often getting in the way and obstructing the real economy – while producing almost nothing tangible, nothing of social value.   In this light, when the superbly useless people in lower Manhattan are making off with hundreds of billions of dollars in unearned income, the sell-out of the Huffington Post for a trifling $315 million shows that little Arianna has much to learn.

CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM, a freelance writer who splits his time between Brooklyn, NY and Moab, Utah, is writing a book about secession movements. Contact him at cketcham99@mindspring.com