New Criticals

Killing Time, Pt. [10] - Bird Free


For there is no doubt that machinery has greatly increased the number of distinguished idlers.                                       – Karl Marx

The Industrial Revolution emancipated the means of production from the fetters of human labor and optimized work through the proliferation and employment of machines and technology, making human labor both paradoxically both less and more valuable. The factory brought workers together first with each other, then with machines, under one roof to foster a connective, communicative, industrial proto-network that accelerated capital accumulation. The industrial worker was mechanized and the entire population (men women and children) became workable during a day that became effectively longer and more intense.

The late 20th century saw the rise of the computer and the centrality of information to post-industrial production. The creation of international governmental and non regulator organizations reestablished control over new global economic functions as capitalism drove out industry from the so-called First World and into poorer, industrializing areas of the globe, creating new (geographical and corporeal) spheres of production worldwide. In post-industrial countries capitalism changed the composition of the proletariat and of labor, dematerializing production and labor as machines (though contained in, produced, and operated by bodies) operated in increasingly immaterial ways (on or inside a computer, for example). Late capitalism’s informational production occurs ever more in the ethereal realm of the digital.

Production becomes informational in character. As Marx said: “invention becomes a business.” What is more inventive than a tech start-up? Or a hacker gone corporate? Or, dare we say, the figure of the hacker itself? Informational accumulation is the name of the game, working for free a part of the rules. The new factory has been constructed and it is right in your living room, sitting in your backpack, resting in your pocket.

Bitcoin, the alternative, digital, cryptographically protected peer-to-peer currency, was designed against third-party monetary institutions like banks and governmental treasuries. It rejects the global hegemony established by capitalism via international (governmental or otherwise) regulatory agencies that were established in attempt to exert control over the increasingly connected world market. Bitcoins are only achievable in our contemporary digital world, attainable only after certain benchmarks of computing power and sophistication are reached, and spread out their operational work-load to a network of free participants. To use Bitcoins is to work for Bitcoins.

And they work by employing in an apparently tenable contradiction philosophies of anonymity and transparency in order to create a balanced system that affords certain freedoms disavowed by contemporary banking.

In the same breath, though, the user must enter into a system governed by laws just as strict as the one they exited, whether we speak of the cryptographic and peer-to-peer principles, the technological requirements, or the requisite and inherent labor that maintains the system at the mere participation of a user. They are also volatile and unpredictable – one day they could be worth a fortune, the next pennies – and as such are discursively imagined as dangerous.

As we attempted to show, however, their instability is not so much an inherent property of Bitcoin but a reflection of the erratic, hyper-connected, and hypersensitive digitized world financial market re-constituted daily by speculation and bulk micro-trading. Only when viewed through the lenses of capitalism’s sanctioned and symbolic national currencies – in which the system cannot afford any distrust nor allow any clue to a true economic picture of an unstable market, instead maintaining at all costs the illusion of a steadfast and vibrant currency that is a picture of economic vitality – does Bitcoin’s price index behave capriciously. Appearance is everything.

The puzzle was how to make money off of simple activity on the Internet. How to valorize the inane? How to profit off a banal image? How to make something with the excess time (gifted by capitalism) of the excess population? There are more people than jobs. The details are still being worked out and fine-tuned. Von Ahn and reCAPTCHA provide one small but enlightening solution. Though the case is specific, the precedent is not. ReCAPTCHA puts the excess to task in service of capitalism. It might be ironic that the only thing we do not mind recycling is our own free time for a good cause.

Much is made of the so-called "Sharing Economy," but keep in mind that what is made is constructed by those with dogs in the fight. We do not want to - God forbid - devalue these more straightforward forms of social and affective production. But the conditions are much more dire. There are lives at stake as privacy and security erode. Our demand for consumer electronics has repositioned the vibrant hellscape of the modern factory, just far enough out of view for the myth of its demise to fester.

Yet even as we fixate on the perpetual NSA spying revelations and the deranged machinations of the stock market and the battle over Net Neutrality, information threatens to become a diluter. Noise, filled with nothingness, is never on the side of the productive, but an excess of information has the potential to function as the most dangerous perfection (and its total opposite) of operational noise: that which obscures and has meaning.

We live in an impossibly realized and fully embedded system of capitalism with it's indeterminate future in full control of its wealthy and powerful actors. Its destiny is incomprehensible, and the term itself may not even be an appropriate descriptor for its current form.

The underlying point of this exploration was to provide some theoretical tools for considering the ethos of mundane distractions and outrage. There is a growing fear, paralyzing indeed, that the most pessimistic insights of Adorno are far truer than we ever wanted to believe, and like capitalism, the culture industry evolved and shed it's skin for another more mystical shell. McKenzie Wark speaks of the vulture industry, that in which cultural production is dictated by the technology sector for production by its subjects. But it can go a step further. Look towards the real vulture industry, this organized cannibalism of the bloated pop culture market. Laughing to keep from dying.

Just as the financial industry recruits the brightest minds from our best institutions, many are called to this growing area of writing work on the internet. It seems nothing more than a brain drain. We analyze film and television, cautiously weigh in on the controversial news of the day, wander through the desert in search of the angle no one else has claimed. I have always believed popular culture and art to be a valid site of struggle and resistance. The terror is that neither is valid any longer.

Perhaps we arrive at the real point of killing time - simplicity. Just how effortless our effort is, how insatiable our appetites, how atomic our consumption has become, so unrecognizable that the term itself feels incomplete. Is it consumption if we never stop consuming? Or is it merely surviving? It is with full awareness that I make these claims despite this very series possibly having little to differentiate itself from the deluge. If doing the same thing expecting different outcomes is crazy, we are undoubtedly a product of the times.

The global hive-mind – you are nothing more, mind you, than a part of the whole – is at the fingertips of the 21st century capitalist, one click away from more work. Your idle moments were yours, but they were too many. Traditional labor dissolves. We are now likely even alienated from what was once our own alienation. On the internet, where time and space are recalculated, immense value lies dormant at every turn. It will not be unattended to for long.