Distraction Free Reading

Political Economy and the Internet of Things

According to Cisco, the number of things – smart phones, cars, delivery vehicles, smoke detectors, outflow sensors, electricity meters – connected to the internet surpassed the number of people connected to the internet in 2008. Projections for the coming decade vary, but corporate researchers at firms like Cisco, Intel, IBM and Siemens are betting big on the exponential growth of networked sensors and microcomputing devices. These companies are working in loose concert to shepherd this emergent swarm of networked things into a truly infrastructural data-collecting system. They see in the so-called “Internet of Things” the consummation of promise held forth to the corporate world by big data analytics; comprehensive, actionable, real-time data about production and consumption, allowing for ever more agile and sophisticated extraction of value from human activity.

Jeremy Rifkin’s latest piece of pop political economy, however, argues that far from the next big source of revenue for the digital infrastructure sector, the Internet of Things (IoT) may well spell the end of capitalism as we know it. The argument runs like this: around the turn of the century, developments in communicative infrastructure for the first time began to enable the reproduction and dissemination of digital products at low to zero cost. With the rise of file-sharing, large-scale corporate media producers have found themselves cut out of the loop, as it becomes trivial for both artists and consumers themselves to produce new copies of their digital goods and share them among each other at little to no cost (hence the rather dire straits in which many traditional media corporations have found themselves).

On his reading, however, the tendency towards zero marginal cost is not limited to only the production of intellectual goods. Rather, it is the result of a fundamental contradiction in market-based capitalism: as manufacturers and distributors of goods are always aiming to reduce their expenses and increase their productivity, they asymptotically approach a world of zero marginal cost. That approach, however, no longer need be only asymptotic; Rifkin sees the Internet of Things as promising a fundamental restructuring of the production of tangible things along the zero marginal cost production model he sees as underlying the current market for intellectual goods:

The Internet of Things will connect every thing with everyone in an integrated global network. People, machines, natural resources, production lines, logistics networks, consumption habits, recycling flows, and virtually every other aspect of economic and social life will be linked via sensors and software to the IoT platform, continually feeding Big Data to every node — businesses, homes, vehicles — moment to moment, in real time. Big Data, in turn, will be processed with advanced analytics, transformed into predictive algorithms, and programmed into automated systems to improve thermodynamic efficiencies, dramatically increase productivity, and reduce the marginal cost of producing and delivering a full range of goods and services to near zero across the entire economy. (Rifkin 2014: 11)

His conclusions here are not only prognostic but diagnostic: so-called “prosumers” are already sharing “not only knowledge, news and entertainment, but also renewable energy, 3D printed products and online college courses at near-zero marginal cost …. They are even sharing cars, homes, clothes and tools, entirely bypassing the conventional capitalist market.” As these techniques and technologies continue to develop and take on an economy-wide scale with the coming into being of a truly global IoT, the forms of production that they are engendering will become dominant. Market capitalism will survive, according to Rifkin, but as an essentially ancillary function within a new global productive sphere that he terms the “Global Collaborative Commons.” In this cyberutopic commons, knowledge, products, and energy will flow without friction between people and across the globe, enabled by algorithmically-achieved synoptic knowledge of a world rendered nearly-completely informatized by the ubiquity of networked sensors.

On the one hand, Rifkin’s manifesto holds a certain charm. Filled with paramarxist enthusiasm for hunting in the morning and criticizing after dinner in a sort of post-scarcity robo-communism, it represents one of the only recent optimistic, technology-positive narratives about the future of the global economy that doesn’t immediately reveal itself as underwritten by naïve silicon-valley libertarianism. There is a genuine enthusiasm for the possibilities of creative being-together here that I don’t want to downplay. On the other hand, I think that there is also plenty to be cautious about here, particularly given the current popularity of his thought (and not just among the hoi polloi).

Curiously absent from both Rifkin’s book and the commentary surrounding it have been questions of power. This is surprising to me, as an anthropologist, but also as someone who reads the news. It seems hard to imagine asking questions about the changing nature of work and production without also asking cui bono?, especially when the driving forces behind those changes are huge multinational corporations. Having glossed over many traditional social scientific questions about the distribution of power, institutional structures of domination, and the reproduction of inequality, Rifkin’s utopian view of the future organization of production seems remarkably naïve-Marxist. The idea seems to be that because we’re all involved in this great big project of working on and in an ecologically sustainable mode of societal (re)production, our labor couldn’t possibly be alienated. Without a profit motive, the story goes, how could our labor be anything other than an authentic expression of our own creativity? While there is a certain logical consistency to his arguments, here, they do not seem to take into account the ability of entrenched elites to maintain their essentially exploitative and extractive relationship to the mass of labor throughout all sorts of radical societal and economic upheaval.

While I am, admittedly, quite interested in debates about the future of our productive regimes, I don’t want to fall into the trap of playing the utopia-dystopia game. I’m much more concerned about what this vision of “collaboration” as work says about more contemporary concerns. As Rifkin says, we already have something like a collaborative commons; artists, musicians, writers, but also engineers, computer scientists, and even would-be financial professionals are increasingly being asked to “share” their labor in return for the intangible rewards of experience, publicity, and networking. With all of the recent attention paid by the left to the plight of the so-called “voluntariat,” I find the uncritical endorsement of a form of production that, while potentially liberatory if fully operative, is demonstrably exploitative in the here-and-now rather problematic.

In the end, I think that both Rifkin and I would agree, albeit for different reasons, that we need to come back to a discussion of the actual technology that he is discussing here. Rifkin argues that the emergence of the IoT qua general technological platform for production is enough to undermine the existing modes of production. However, I want to suggest that there is no such thing as a “general technological platform.” Things like the internet, and like the IoT, operate on the basis of laboriously constructed, contingent, social arrangements. This should be no huge surprise to the readers of this blog; as the work of Chris Kelty and others has shown, the work of building the technological “standards” underlying networked systems is complicated, and is not only a technical problem. These standards, even for something as seemingly “technical” as internet protocols, involve a whole host of fiercely-contested propositions about the way that the social does and should work. When we move from a narrowly technical domain into a robustly, complexly social problem like the non-hierarchically ordered distribution of food and land, it seems remarkable to assume that the “network” itself can miraculate a solution. If there is to be a post-capitalist commons based upon the IoT and zero marginal cost production, the standards that ensure its proper functioning cannot be just technological. They need to be comprehensive and social in order to mitigate the abilities of entrenched elites to continue an essentially extractive, rather than collaborative, relationship – and that isn’t just a problem for the future, but touches directly on forms of labor exploitation emerging in the here-and-now.

1 Comment

  • Jennifer Cool says:

    This insightful and beautifully written critique underscores the dire need for grounded anthropological study of techno-utopian discourse. I’m curious about the idea that the “voluntariat” work “without a profit motive.” While this labor may be done without immediate tit-for-tat expectation of pay, in my experience, it is usually done with some expectation of pay-off, whether that be reputation (“ego-boo”) or being “discovered”. I’m tempted to conjecture that these expectations aspire to the scale-free character of networks themselves, where one puts in countless hours without pay in hopes of being catapulted from nothing to notoriety by the power law dynamics of contemporary economy and society.

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