I recently read a great little essay by Tiziana Terranova, an Autonomist Marxist activist from Italy, titled “Red Stack Attack! Algorithms, Capital, and the Automation of the Common”. She ponders on the ways that anti-capitalists can appropriate technology in this new age of digital capitalism, global communications networks, and social media. Her note on Marx’s theorization of the capitalist development of machinery and their post-capitalist potential stood out:
From the point of view of capital, then, algorithms are just fixed capital, means of production finalized to achieve an economic return. But that does not mean that, like all technologies and techniques, that is all that they are. Marx explicitly states that even as capital appropriates technology as the most effective form of the subsumption of labor, that does not mean that this is all that can be said about it. Its existence as machinery, he insists, is not ‘identical with its existence as capital… and therefore it does not follow that subsumption under the social relation of capital is the most appropriate and ultimate social relation of production for the application of machinery’. It is then essential to remember that the instrumental value that algorithms have for capital does not exhaust the ‘value’ of technology in general and algorithms in particular—that is, their capacity to express not just ‘use value’ as Marx put it, but also aesthetic, existential, social, and ethical values.
She then focuses her musings on three areas of cyberspace: virtual money, social networks, and bio-hypermedia (the last one being an odd mouthful of a term that refers to apps and their trend toward blurring our psychological distinctions between physical space and cyber-space). Her optimistic outlook on appropriating these technologies seem to rely mostly on how militants can create their own, autonomous technologies, rather than seizing control of existing tech (thus, contrasting with the classical/orthodox Marxist theory). This is particularly clear in her comment on social media technologies:
When sending and receiving a message, we can say that algorithms operate outside the social relation as such, in the space of the transmission and distribution of messages; but social network software places intervenes directly on the social relationship. Indeed, digital technologies and social network sites ‘cut into’ the social relation as such—that is, they turn it into a discrete object and introduce a new supplementary relation.
This echoes a point made in a recent essay in The New Inquiry on the relationship between the construction of information overload and the positive impacts on capital accumulation on social media networks:
Platforms like to promulgate the idea that users are not inclined to decide for themselves what they want, and that they are instead eager to be persuaded and served things they haven’t chosen, like ads. Not only can’t we curate our information feeds, but we can’t curate our personal desires, so we welcome ads and algorithms to solve the overwhelming problem for us.
This all raises an interesting point: when it comes to social media technologies, at what point does the imperative to increase capital accumulation (via the production of addiction and the spread of advertisements) begin to undermine “aesthetic, existential, social, and ethical values” to the point where entire digital spaces (i.e. Facebook) become impossible to seize in any practical manner?