New Criticals

Killing Time, Pt. [5] - The Information Economy


Information is the detachment of a resource from capital already detached from land. It is the double of a double. Just as the development of land as productive resource creates the historical.  

- McKenzie Wark

To pass from the 18th century and into the 21st, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri theorized the passage out of imperialism and colonialism (as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the United States as the dominant global military and economic superpower) into a new form of global sovereignty that they call Empire.

Hardt and Negri define an economic paradigm by which sector of the economy is most dominant. Since the Middle Ages, they identify three: a first in which “agriculture and the extraction of raw materials, a second in which industry and the manufacture of durable goods occupied the privileged position, and a third and current paradigm in which providing services and manipulating information are at the heart of economic production.” [1]

This dominant position of information in our current paradigm has arrived through “a process of economic postmodernization, or better, informatization.” [2] This process has been one of migration from industry to service, with jobs that are “characterized in general by the central role played by knowledge, information, affect and communication” and emphasize geographical mobility and flexible skills. [3]But how do we first understand information, especially as the heart and soul of this third phase of capitalism?

Information is essential to our discussion of shifting definitions of labor, new forms of production and manufacture, modes of digitization, and computer-machines. The earliest intersection of information and technology is in the field of cybernetics, computation and mathematics, which influenced certain developments of the first computers and, later on, the early internet. Let’s briefly unpack the term to better understand it, looking for a deeper and more rich understanding of a term that, due to its superabundance in contemporary discourse, is very nearly an empty signifier, susceptible to ideological cooptation by the ever-shifting needs of capitalism.

Information has two basic, yet intriguing characteristics. It is, at least partly “less-than-material,” and its content is involved with a communication or communicative act, in the sense that information arises during some (now multivariate and heavily mediated) process that tends to move from one place/person/thing to another. [4] In that way, information is both an object that is measurable and quantifiable, yet constantly threatening to or succeeding in escaping boundaries – its intangibility, ease of reproducibility and volatility are central to its essence. Information can have a material quality, but materiality is non-essential to information. More "primitive" forms of information (for example, biological information) possess a material character, but it is un-readable in any conventional way; blood contains information in the form of DNA, but how do we read it? The fundamental precariousness of information is revealed by a cursory glance into informational dynamics and two aspects of information: the signal and the noise.

The signal is always identified in relation to what threatens to corrupt and distort it. - Tiziana Terranova

Three definitions emerge during Terranova’s early exploration into informational dynamics – “information is defined by the relation of signal to noise; information is a statistical measure of the uncertainty or entropy of a system; [and] information implies a nonlinear and nondeterministic relationship between the microscopic and the macroscopic levels of a physical system.” [5] These three definitions share a striking quality: the notion of uncertainty realized by and within information. This would stand in opposition to the more commonplace conception of information as always substantial and revealing; the more of it is had, the more is known. However, informational dynamics show that information itself has the potential to be both meaningful and empty. As a message travels through a particular channel, noise is produced as an after-effect and background distortion in conjunction with the signal. Information is always threatened by itself, from itself, with itself.

Information is infected by non-meaning, though not necessarily symptomatic. Information will not clue in what it cannot tell you, nor will it simply identify itself as without meaning. The dialectic of information thus posits two messages as one, inside and outside of one another, one “heavily loaded with meaning and the other [with] pure nonsense.” [6] These two messages, like two sides of a single sheet of paper, are essentially equivalent, or rather, virtually equivalent; they can be. Embedded within information is an unavoidable structural lack, a chasm of non-meaning actively constituting its absolute antithesis. With the signal and noise present in information, the privileged center of information at the center of the operation of late capitalism presents dangerous blind spot. It should come as no surprise, then, that obsessively, anxiously, stockpiling information, whether it is put to use or not, has become standard operating procedure of the state (to say nothing of the information capitalists – they’ve known this for some time). Snapchat arises as that which (can possibly) disappear, their half-hearted conceit of manufactured preciousness.

What might this mean for our personal information? Biological? Biographical? That is, of course, our current frontier and the object of most (actual and potential) value. The tech industry is still in the process of discovering what is valuable about certain kinds of information. [7] Does “the more information [mean] the less meaning?” [8] The conclusion Terranova reaches on information, signal/noise, and non-information (materiality) is that the potentiality to become informated [9] colors the “minute and apparently inconsequently decisions” of everyday life and behavior, online and off, with real economic and political stakes. [10] Entropy is a measure of a lack of knowledge in a system – a measure of uncertainty, of unknowability – and when information is the raw material, the means of production and the commodity, then all available resources will be mobilized and put to work to mine, make, and process more. There is urgency:

  “The cultural politics of information does not address so much the threat of ‘disembodiment’, or the disappearance of the body, but its micro-dissection and modulation, as it is split and decomposed into segments of variable and adjustable sizes (race, gender, sexual preferences; but also income, demographics, cultural preferences and interests).” [11]

Let us consider Terranova’s “cultural politics of information” as a direct address in response to a “new” class of capitalists – what McKenzie Wark has called the vectorialists. [12] Situated historically after the pastoralist class, who toiled for then subsequently deposed the feudalists through the invocation of private property, and the capitalist class, who sought work away from the land in cities and factories, as the increasingly productive agricultural industry of the pastoralists ran off excess farmers, the vectoralist class monopolizes information, “like land or capital, [as] a form of property.” [13]

Capitalism will not only need all available information to function, but will need to invent new ways to monitor, categorize, collect, and valorize that excess of information. [14] 20 years ago, perhaps, a simple phone number would suffice for a corporation's marketing department. Today, that need has been fragmented and intensified to the degree that it is necessary, for example, not just to predict when an individual consumer will likely become pregnant but, by discovering and possessing both the necessary information and the means to process it, determine how to know if a consumer is already pregnant. [15] Ads can then be more effectively suited to certain hyper-specific [16] needs, and the method of obtaining and analyzing that data, much like Google’s search algorithms, is proprietary. [17]

Hardt and Negri position the United States (and its history) as representative of late capitalism for a variety of reasons. Ignited by the end of and subsequent fallout from the Vietnam War, late capitalism was faced with a crisis. [18] The ability to control the social, economic and geographical movement of the working class was faltering. The war in Vietnam, one of many revolutionary struggles of the post-war decades [19] marked “a real turning point in the history of contemporary capitalism.” [20] The peasantry’s successful resistance of the United States and its accompanying “international disciplinary order” was the result of a war that was inspired by a crisis in the “international system of capitalist production.” [21] The war did not end how it was designed to end, and capitalism faced its first significant defeat on a global scale at the hands of a small, comparatively “impoverished,” un-industrialized, communist country. This loss of control, however slight, required a response.

As a result, the United States established and led a new global hegemony founded upon “a series of governmental and regulatory organizations, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and ultimately the U.S. Federal Reserve.” [22] Capital wielded “the repressive use of technology, including the automation and computerization of production” as a weapon to reverse “the social process, [separate and disaggregate] the labor market, and [reestablish] control over the entire cycle of production” on a global scale. [23] This was one prong of a two pronged approach, the other involving “a technological transformation aimed no longer at repression by rather at changing the very composition of the proletariat, and thus integrating, dominating, and profiting from its new practices and forms.” [24] To change the proletariat, one must change the very essence of labor. The first and most vital response came in the form of monetary regulation through the creation of international agencies that explicitly dealt with currency in both its material and abstract characters.

The passage into Empire is composed of many tributaries and micro-passages: the decline of the nation-state and sovereignty, the rise of globalization and international organizations, the passage out of colonialism and even post-colonialism, the transformation of the world market, the dramatic shifts in the locality of production, the rise of entirely new modes of production, and the confusion and disruption of the already problematic (ideological and spatial) three World division. It also corresponds to some larger, more general trends of deterritorialization and decentralization.

This is our brief history until now. The emergence of a new way of thinking about and producing in the world also emphasizes connectivity, much like the industrial factory, to maximize productivity. To know more is to be better, so that an excess of information and knowledge is a precondition for a vibrant, flourishing system of capitalism as it grows into its post-industrial, post-Fordist forms. Technology and (the regulation of) money are the two most important (potential) weapons in arsenal of contemporary global capitalism, employed to perpetually re-establish and maintain its tight, hegemonic control of now digital finance and the working class. The use of money, and its real and symbolic position as a universal yet fractured language, not only structures and influences the world market but also accomplishes the vital ideological work (along with principles inherent in digitization and the internet) of enforcing the decidedly utopian notion of an international community. National currencies are appropriately different enough but always translatable.


[1] Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. 280.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Service industry jobs that “cover a wide range of activities form health care, education, and finance to transportation, entertainment, and advertising.” Ibid., 285.
[4] Terranova, Tiziana. Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age. 6.
[5] Ibid., 9.
[6] Ibid., 13.
[7] Analytics and data processing have been around since the earliest forms of writing; financial accounts and record-keeping were literally among the first things ever written down. A trace of intersection of information and economics is also a history of the (Western) world.
[8] Ibid., 14.
[9] i.e. The transformation of a physical or material thing from non-information to information. The Google Books project is a good example, as would be any digitization project, and the on-going project to map the human genome.
[10] Ibid., 19.
[11] Ibid., 34.
[12] “So named because they control the vectors along which information is abstracted, just as capitalists control the material means with which goods are produced, and pastoralists the land with which food is produced. This information, once the collective property of the productive classes – the working and farming classes considered together – becomes the property of yet another appropriating class.” Wark, McKenzie. A Hacker Manifesto. 29.
[13] Ibid.
[14] “Nothing protects the vectoralist business from its competitors other than its capacity to qualitatively transform the information it possesses and extract new value from it.” Ibid., 34.
[16] A trend already observed in the production of a Post-Fordist economy, where the economics shifted from leaning toward the supply side (stockpiling) to emphasizing a super-demand side – totally customizable products unmade until specifically ordered by individual consumers. Amazon appears to be challenging that customization by returning to, albeit with perfection, a more demand-based model. The important distinction is that the demand is individually based – it’s what you specifically need. And Amazon will have it, cheaper. They have fucking everything.
[17] It is in this way that information itself can become broken down and abstracted from itself, “in the form of intellectual property.” Wark, Hacker Manifesto., 18.
[18] A “capitalist crisis, as Marx tells us, is a situation that requires capital to undergo a general devaluation and a profound rearrangement of the relations of production as a result of the downward pressure that the proletariat puts on the rate of profit.” Hardt and Negri, Empire., 261.
[19] Including violent conflicts in Cuba, China, and Latin America.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid., 265.
[23] Ibid., 267.
[24] Ibid., 268