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Jean Baudrillard’s posthumous Agony of Power begins with a discussion of the ongoing transition from “domination” to “hegemony.” Domination had featured masters and slaves battling over control and liberation, and as that battle ended hegemony appeared, with the emancipated slaves now internalizing their masters’ thought. While one can see this shift in the Protestant Reformation, which inculcated believers so devoted they no longer needed to be monitored by the priesthood, Baudrillard was discussing the present, and his description of modern slaves cum “hostages” is particularly applicable to our relationship to the internet.
This is not to condemn the internet per se, just to point out that technologies are developed by and put to use within specific political-economic contexts. The military developed the internet, and once on its feet the “information superhighway” was given over to the market, a process resembling the evolution of capitalism itself. And, rather than being “neutral,” internet use for most people occurs at work, while looking for work, or while unwinding from work. Moreover, much of non-work related internet use is actually work insofar as it generates wealth for others.
Thanks in part to users’ data input and unpaid social production in general, online dating sites have recently become more profitable than porn sites. While leading to some priggish celebrations, this hardly suggests anything positive, least that alienation or objectification of women is being overcome. Thanks to sites like OkCupid, (mostly) men increasingly find it more effective to get off by looking at attractive pictures of “real” women, whose availability and plausible accessibility facilitate the fantasy. “Wanna fuck now?” This effectively means that people who post pictures on dating sites, or engage in amateur porn, are “giving it away for free.” More accurately, given their extraction of profit through user input and advertisements, as well as the fees that many sites charge, online dating sites establish a relationship of reverse prostitution. Notwithstanding their offer of “efficiency” (which makes their promise of “romance” oxymoronic) and exhibitionism, the material basis of the relationship is that you pay to work for them.
Another hugely popular and profitable website that runs on unpaid social production is the consumer-based review site Yelp. Readers’ posts on Yelp have measurable effects on businesses, yet it is significant that this form of putative “digital democracy” benefits people as “consumers.” Discussing food, service, and décor, Yelp reviewers usually praise their subjects, but when they complain it tends to be about what is apparent rather than what is actual. It is far easier to blame a server for a long wait for your meal than it is to learn that the owner reduced the afternoon staff. It is similarly easier to notice that the server has “a bad attitude” than to think about the rent that necessitates that the server smile at you in the first place. Everyone a critic, Yelp provides owners with an anonymous and ubiquitous tool with which to discipline labor. A bad review on Yelp, and more importantly the very fear of a bad review, increases workers’ vulnerability, making them work harder while intensifying competition and reducing wages for everyone. Notably, Yelp affects small businesses more than large ones, and in general its impact is greatest on the weak; owners are harder to see and thus review, and even if they were seen they could not be fired. They merely go out of business, but they, as opposed to workers, do not face starvation while investing in new enterprises. Yelp encourages us to opportunistically, and often self-righteously (“It’s her job”), attack other workers. In so doing we are not only exposing our dastardliness but also our stupidity. We’re all secret shoppers now, and we’re doing it for free.
If our becoming consumer snitches reflects our collective “Stockholm Syndrome,” it is through email, as well as networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, that we are held hostage. We perform untold hours of shadow work reading and writing work-related emails and managing our “networks” while lamenting all the time we waste keeping up appearances on Facebook. Yet, most people cannot permanently quit these sites, let alone the internet as a whole, as doing so would introduce huge practical burdens – as well as social alienation; better virtual company than none at all. That quitting the internet today is a practical impossibility demonstrates that it uses us.
The internet’s reliance on unpaid productivity combined with the ‘each is an entrepreneur’ ethos found on sites like LinkedIn, Craigslist, and Facebook suggest an apparent contradiction. Yet these seemingly conflicting online roles show that we have all become, at least in our heads, capitalists. While we “give away” our labor through online social production this is not done, we think, as workers but as consumers and dilettantes. Posting sexy pictures, complaints about weak cups of coffee, or videos of talking dogs might make money for advertisers and site owners, but it is just a fun “activity” for most of us. At the same time, we attempt to make money marketing ourselves online not merely as laborers but as aspiring capitalists, trying to extract surplus value from any conceivable trade, skill, or gimmick. Selling one’s personality, purpose, and essence, the division of labor has been seemingly resolved online: we own the (would be) means of production, which actually means that we have become utterly commodified. But because capitalism is based on competition, the more people there are who try to make it only ensures that relatively fewer will, with ever declining profitability. Selling out has never been cheaper, as, outside of lottery odds, you can’t make it and you can’t join them. To be sure, this isn’t mere failure. The internet’s exponential acceleration of capitalist penetration means that we’re all hostages now.
Joshua Sperber lives in Brooklyn and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org