The Daydreams of iPod Capitalism

Rob Wilkie

The representation of the economic processes of "globalization" as the peaceful integrating of international markets into a singular "Mall of the World" has reached a dead-end. In the wake of the (re)emergence of the brutal realities of Imperialism in the popular consciousness of the West and the growing skepticism of the supposed "benign" interests of transnational corporations and global institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, it has become necessary for the intellectual representatives of the ruling class to find new ideas which can effectively blur the contradictions of class society. "Globalization", in other words, requires a "new make" that can adapt the capitalist working day to heightening intra-imperialist rivalries between Europe, the United States and Asia while ensuring that the conditions of economic exploitation of the world's working class continues and capital can flow freely across international markets. It is in this context that the concept of the "Internet"—as a cultural logic which presupposes that the sole purpose of technological advances are to create the conditions for more flexible society which can quickly adapt to changing conditions without disruptions to the accumulation of profit—has become the predominant sign of the "new" culture of globalization and the code word for the idea that we live in "New Times" (Hall).

Specifically, contemporary readings of global culture have become almost obsessed with the idea that the introduction of a broad range of communications and network technologies such as email, blogs, chat-rooms, MUDs, MOOs, virtual reality, video games, and the World Wide Web call into question the boundaries of the past and instead reflect a more fluid and flexible space beyond the structures of determination such as class, race, sexuality, gender and (dis)ability by introducing a fluid network of identity without determinacy. For example, in outlining the social changes of the Internet age Timothy Druckery writes, "Perception, memory, history, politics, identity, and experience are now mediated through technology in ways that outdistance simple economic or historic analysis" (3). The premise of the idea of the Internet as "beyond" any "simple" history and economics which might connect expanding economic inequality to a system based in private ownership of the means of production is that the development of broad technological advances in communication represents not only a change in the ways in which culture is produced and consumed, but a more profound transformation of virtually every aspect of social life. As David Trend argues, "Hard-edged certainties of industrialization, Enlightenment empiricism, and modernity have given way to more malleable concepts of postindustrialism, technoscience, and postmodernity" (2). The Internet, in other words, is taken to be the idealized expression of a utopian moment in capitalist history when the economic conflicts between capital and labor will be replaced with what Bill Gates coined as "friction-free" capitalism (online); a time when capital will be able to extract tremendous profits almost instantaneously from virtually every aspect of daily life with no resistance from a "meddlesome" working class. According to the predominant accounts, the emergence of new avenues of exchange—whether they are the commercial flows of finance capital from North to South or the interpersonal exchanges of information through email and blogs—disrupt such "crude" divisions. Capitalism, in short, ceases to be a battleground between capital and labor and, instead, becomes a cooperative space that turns workers and owners into equal participants in the growth of the Internet economic community. 

Mark Poster's What's the Matter with the Internet? is a quintessential example of this logic, in which the social contradictions of globalization are re-defined through the rhetoric of technology to better address the needs of Big Business. As a popularization of cyber-theory, Poster's book makes explicit the common reading of technology today, in which the discussion of the impact of technology on daily life is isolated from any examination of the reality of the inability of capitalism, regardless of technological growth, to solve even the most basic problems the majority of people are facing. While this "technological blindness" has become the predominant framework of much of contemporary cultural theory, the popular interest in Poster's book is a reflection of the way in which it blends the more celebratory rhetoric of the past claims of the ability of technological development to supersede the economic conflict between capital and labor—found, for instance, in the work of Alvin Toffler (The Third Wave) and Daniel Bell (The Coming of Post-Industrial Society)—with the more tempered theorizations of technology (Robins et. al, Times of the Technoculture) which have emerged following the crash of the "" bubble in the United States into a more subtle "third-way" approach that is neither too celebratory nor too critical.

For example, beginning from the assumption that as a result of recent technological advances we are entering an entirely new moment beyond the social divisions and inequalities of the past, Poster writes: "To approach the cultural question of the Internet is no easy task. It so fundamentally shifts the registers of human experience as we have known them in modern society and even as they have been known through the ages. Time and space, body and mind, subject and object, human and machine are drastically transformed by practices carried out on networked computers" (5). However, he is also just as quick to mark that "Cyberspace is surely no total departure from all previous history" (27) and that "perhaps" (emphasis mine) the Internet is less "universal" and less available than the print culture it is replacing (127). That is to say, what has made Poster's "luke-warm" readings of technology so popular is that unlike other cyber-theorists who retreat almost entirely into a discourse of virtuality, his concern about growing social inequalities marks him as an "ethical"—and thus, within mainstream discourses, "trustworthy"—reporter on the cultural changes people are facing. At the same time, his reading of the Internet as a manifestation of a new economic logic beyond the conflicts of capital and labor—what Poster calls the Internet's "magic" function (184)—continues to maintain the dominant cultural reading of capitalism today, in which corporate ideologues promote technological progress as the solution to the social, political, cultural and economic crises of capitalism.

It is this reading of Internet capitalism beyond the boundaries of the past that has made his "mild" criticisms of the inequalities of contemporary life such an appealing defense of corporate interests. While remaining "concerned" about social inequalities, what, according to Poster, is "significantly" different about contemporary culture is that as a result of the increasing mediation and flexibility of cyber-technologies, which specifically have opened new possibilities of textual manipulation, "signs are constructed in a new way, one that eludes the logic of a discourse that depends upon originals that it can simply reproduce" (24). In other words, culture has become more "flexible" and can accept a wider array of "difference" within the existing. This is key for Poster because, echoing Baudrillard's theory of the contemporary as a culture of simulation (Simulacra and Simulation) as well as the corporate interest in "market diversity", it is on the basis of the disconnection which emerges in the potentially endless copying of digital culture between the original and the copy, the subject and the object, that Poster argues culture has become "a problem" because it has "lost its boundary" (2) and "fits badly" (11) with previous modes of understanding the economy. Traditional analyses of capitalism, he suggests, assumed as a starting point a clear and definable relation between those who produced culture and those who consumed it. In contrast, Poster writes, "cyberspace means producing culture as you consume it" (48).

In other words, following in the footsteps of cultural critics such as Marshall McLuhan (The Medium is the Massage) and Manuel Castells (The Internet Galaxy), Poster declares the emergence of a global network of production and communication to be symbolic of a more decisive transformation which shakes the primary economic foundations of capitalist society, shifting it from a system based upon production and exploitation to consumption and what he ultimately calls "an economy of sharing" (58). He writes that in the Internet age "[n]othing stands outside of the cultivatable, and so culture itself must be regarded as constructed rather than as given, historically contingent rather than timeless and certain" (2) and, as such, "[t]he Magic of the Internet is that it is a technology that puts cultural acts, symbolizations in all forms, in the hands of all participants" (184). Poster thus articulates the possibilities of the Internet as the end of the divisions of the past because of the ways in which it enables anyone to participate in the shaping of the world around them by giving them access to the tools of representation that were previously available only to a select few.

It becomes clear that in the reduction of the question of freedom to the manipulation of signs within the global marketplace, Poster's claim of a "new" moment in human history represents not a break from the existing but merely its extension. At the core of his argument is the assumption that with the introduction of the Internet, and more specifically the global networks of production and exchange which eliminate restrictions on the flows of capital, finance and labor, the primary focus of capitalism in the West has become the production of knowledge commodities. With the introduction of the Internet, this now painfully familiar argument goes, capitalism has undergone a fundamental transformation from an industrial economy of mass production and class inequalities to cyber-economy of signs and the pluralizing of differences beyond class. As a consequence of this shift, we are told, the boundaries between owners and workers, producers and consumers, and economics and culture have all broken down because of the ways in which culture itself has been incorporated into the production process. Of course, the widening gap between rich and poor worldwide never troubles this narrative, as the main topic of interest for much of cyber-theory is commenting on how radically the cultural climate of technology has been changed.  Thus, Poster draws his readers' attention to what he suggests is most significant about capitalism in the age of the Internet: unlike the "traditional" structures of capitalism in which a few own the means of production that the majority labors on, in the Internet age as long as one has a brain one has "free" access to the means of production. That is to say, capitalism, Poster writes, "is taking a linguistic turn" (40), in which:

it is not only the production process that is becoming digitalized and the organization that is becoming knowledge-based, but the products themselves, both those used in production and those purchased by consumers are becoming digital. And digital commodities, though they will never replace material commodities, have a logic that confounds the principles of capitalism at a very basic level (43).

What is central to this argument is the theory that the importance of knowledge in the economic formation of contemporary capitalism will ultimately mean the end of social inequalities precisely because of the inability of capital to control the production of "ideas". Poster speculates, with the Internet economy, "It may be that the economic principles of scarcity, marginal utility, supply and demand, and production for a market are all in question in the realm of digital objects" (43). The supposed shift to knowledge commodities is thus understood as disrupting the class divisions between owner and worker because of the way in which it takes the control over the means of production out of the hands of the owners and places it under the control of all workers. He writes, "In industrial technology, reproduction of commodities was the exclusive privilege and capability of the producer. Producer and consumer stood apart and were differentiated precisely by this distinction […] But now all of this has changed. Information technologies place into the hands of the consumer the capacity to become a producer of cultural objects. The line dividing the two functions increasingly is blurred" (47).

Even if we begin with a cursory examination of the economic history of capitalism, however, we find that contrary to Poster's declaration of the expansive power of the consumer over the producer, the "producer" and "consumer" have never "stood apart" because of the power of the "producer" (the worker), and, as such, they cannot now "stand together" because of the growing power of the "consumer". Poster's analysis completely erases the relations of all wage labor, in which it is not the "producer" (the worker) who controls production, but the owner of the means of production, the capitalist. This is because capitalism is premised upon the separation of the worker from the means of production, so that the worker must sell her labor power to the capitalist. Capitalism, as Marx effectively explains, is based upon a division of labor in which some own and control the means of production and others own nothing but their labor-power. At the core of capitalism, in other words, is a fundamental and unequal relation to property. Marx writes, "Property [is] the right, on the part of the capitalist, to appropriate the unpaid labor of others or its product, and to the impossibility, on the part of the labourer, of appropriating his own product" (Capital I 583). The "freedom" of the worker to sell her labor-power on the market for a wage—the very "freedom" Poster represents as "new"—is thus based upon a precondition that she has no other means by which to meet her needs. What is the basis of "freedom" for the worker is, in other words, that they have no other commodity to sell except their labor power, and it is through the sale of labor-power for a wage that the capitalist comes to own the only commodity (labor-power) which is capable of producing surplus value. That is to say, despite the claims that we have, in the Internet age, entered a new mode of accumulation in which knowledge is the primary commodity, it remains the case that the majority of people continue to be "free" precisely in the sense that Marx describes. For the majority of people in the world, the ability to survive depends entirely on whether or not they can sell their labor power on the market for a wage that will cover their basic needs. In fact, in discussions of the Internet, the idea that workers are "free" from such concerns depends almost entirely upon the erasure of the fact that rather than lessening, the monopolization of the productive resources of society has dramatically increased. That is to say, in the Internet age we are witness to what is perhaps the most dramatic concentration of productive forces in the hands of a few since the era of the robber barons. The rhetoric of the "freedoms" available to workers in the Internet economy is little more than a cruel joke when compared with the actual realities which workers must face today—from declining wages to the privatization of social services—which have placed increasing numbers of working families in fear of destitution (Uchitelle A1; Armour, 1B).

Poster's "blurry" cultural vision of boundless consumption—which is, in fact, the social view of the global capitalist for whom the whole world is available for purchase—is an attempt to mediate the increasingly heightened contradictions between owners and workers. It is on these terms that he oscillates between a "celebratory" reading of the Internet, in which he argues that the "new" capitalism rests on the dematerializing the means of production, allowing "every receiver of a message to [also] produce a message, every individual to disseminate messages to a mass" (126), and a "critical" position which acknowledges that technological developments thus far tend to "favor the wealthy and the educated everywhere" (49). Having denied, however, that a class analysis of the Internet holds any explanatory value for a society based upon the "magic" of consumption, Poster advances an analysis in which society is instead defined by the relationship of the "info-rich" and the "info-poor". He writes, "one must recognize that the Internet creates new invisibilities, filters out those who are not wired to its machinic tentacles, disempowers those who cannot afford the startup fees, those who belong to communities that reject modernizing technologies or are too poor to distribute them" (127). Yet, insofar as all own the means of production in the new economy, even this division is presumed to be short lived as it follows from this argument that such a division over access to information exists only until the full implementation of the cyber-society finally occurs. Poster explains while "capitalism enters the domain of the net […] with a vengeance" (45), it is ultimately the Internet which swallows capitalism. He writes, "digital technology renders the reproduction of information easy and cheap. So the logic of the internet is the more the better, and more is no more costly than less, a logic that flies in the face of traditional free enterprise economics" (46) and ultimately "calls capitalism into question in the domain of cultural objects" (54).

But it is precisely this obsessed reading of technology as the eliminator of class conflict and the creator of ethical communities of cultural sharing that has made the Internet the "new" concept of global capitalism and so useful to the interests of Big Business. While we are witness to dramatic advances in the technologies of health, communication, transportation and commodity production—developments which could be used to raise the living standards of all—capitalism twists the potential of scientific and technological progress away from the meeting everyone's needs and towards the accumulation of vast fortunes for the owners. As one recent study found, rather than ameliorating class divisions, the "tech" years have seen the gap between the rich and the poor double in the United States (Browning C2) and such divisions literally determine who lives and who dies. For example, while nightly news shows act as virtual mouthpieces for the pharmaceutical companies, touting the latest lifestyle drugs and "extreme" plastic surgery techniques, capitalism reduces basic healthcare technologies such as dentistry and annual checkups to the privilege of a few (Park C05). Technology, in other words, cannot solve the problem of class inequality but only heightens the conflict between capital and labor because under the capitalist system technological developments are used solely for the production of private wealth for the few who own and control them.

It is the protection of this relationship of private ownership that is at the core of the predominant accounts of the Internet age. The power of the owners to command the labor-power of workers stands behind the presupposition that the only future is a capitalist future, and is why the commonsense is limited to a discussion of re-organizing consumption around the "ethical" practices such as "open-source" software communities without any space to talk about the growing contradictions between owners and workers, a contradiction which structurally prevents the majority of the world's population from benefiting from these advances. In other words, while proclaiming to be a "new" way of looking at the world in addressing social inequalities, most discussions of the Internet bracket off the actual conditions of deepening economic inequality which shape the global world. Though Internet theory claims to be a theory of networks and connections, it is actually founded upon a primary disconnection which it works to obscure—the disconnection under capitalism between those who own the means of production and those whose only commodity is their labor.

In the daydreams of cyber-theory, as in the fantasies of stakeholder capitalism theory, workers and owners somehow "share" the profits of exploited labor, despite the fact that they stand diametrically opposed in the division of labor.  Whereas in theories of stakeholder capitalism, by owning stocks in their company, workers are assumed to have the same stake in expanding profits as capitalists do, in cyber-theories such as Poster's, by owning personal technologies, such as an iPod, workers are assumed to become owners of the means of production. In both cases, "ownership" is reduced to "things" one can "purchase" rather than a social relationship. Thus, the fact that now "everyone" can own stocks or computers—regardless of the fact that some make their purchases by the exploitation of others' labor while the majority make their purchases by having their labor exploited—is interpreted as a new phase of capitalism. Similarly, "freedom" is reduced to the freedom to be able to culturally represent one's self through technology—despite the fact that transnational corporations control the production of technology, its distribution and now, increasingly, the content of one's "expression." 

Such theories presuppose that the new economy of "sharing" is able to resolve social divisions or, in other words, that the future of capitalist employment is post-class cyber-cooperatives joining owner and worker. Such cooperatives do not, of course, result in the transformation of society by eradicating the causes of exploitation, but by the unregulated private reproduction of meaning which will, according to this logic, radically undermine the monopolization of meaning by global corporations. In other words, Poster's text turns practices of circulating consumption (which are still the practices of the privileged in contemporary capitalism) into the exemplary manifestations of "unity", "solidarity", and "community" at a time of heightened social contradictions: we are all consumers now. But far from "undermining" the principles of capital, he not only erases the exploitative basis on which the technology used in cyber-culture is produced; he also turns capital's need to realize surplus value by ensuring its commodities are purchased into an expression of individual freedom/creativity (even a form of "co-ownership" of the means of production). This, at a time when the Internet is being aggressively privatized and subject to state control and monitoring and when people have never had less control over their everyday lives due to the deepening of exploitation. 

In the more "critical" cyber-culture studies, of course, the Internet is no longer seen simply as a utopic space beyond class, but as a space through which to subvert hegemonic corporate practices, through pragmatic reorganization (Lovink, Dark Fibre) and "hacktivism" ( But my point is that what unites both the more overtly consumerist and the more activist approaches is that the determining zone of social activity is the culture of technology.  Social relations are to be "healed" or "subverted" in the space of culture, isolated from the relations of private property.

However, as Marx argues in Wage Labour and Capital, "although the pleasures of the labourer have increased" historically and thus commodities that were once the privilege of the rich, such as the computer systems which are the basis of the Internet, are now "affordable" to the working class, "the social gratification which they afford [the worker] has fallen in comparison with the increased pleasures of the capitalist, which are inaccessible to the worker, in comparison with the stage of development of society in general" (33). That is, even as formerly prohibitive "tech" commodities such as computers and DVD players become more affordable to working people, they are only a small reflection of the commodities available to the owners of their labor power. (One need only watch one of the many "lifestyle" reality shows—from The Simple Life to The Newlyweds to Cribs to It's good to be…—to see the wide gap between the commodities available to the rich and the poor: from "frivolous" commodities such as MP3 players and modified cars, to vital social services such as healthcare and education). In other words, on the terms in which cyber-culture has been constructed by Poster and others, the rhetoric of the Internet as economic "free-play" is yet another means of turning class into an empty cultural signifier of commodity ownership and use. But what this rhetorical deconstruction of class actually means is not more freedom for the working class which uses this technology, but their deepening unfreedom worldwide. Cyber-culture—which is premised on the use of technology to increase the surplus value produced in the working day by driving down the costs of labor and increasing the productivity of the worker—makes them willing, tech-savvy accomplices in their own appendage to the machine. The idea, in other words, that in cyber-space class can be erased through a play of identity thus obscures that class is an objective relation. What Poster's analysis ultimately hides is the fact that how class is mediated through culture—that is the ways in which it is represented on television or in chat-rooms and blogs—cannot change why it exists. Class division is an effect of the unequal division of property between those who own the means of production and those who own nothing but their labor power. Class, in short, is an objective relation determined independently of how one thinks. Owning an iPod (or a computer, or a blog, or a …), it needs to be said, does not constitute owning the means of production. To own an iPod is to own a commodity, something from which capital has never excluded workers.  What capital has always excluded workers from is the collective ownership of the means of production so that they are free from exploitation—an exclusion even the most "sharing" of capitalists violently maintain today.

It is in this context that "open-source" software, "peer-to-peer" file sharing, "modding", and other similar practices which Poster describes as "terms designating postcapitalist principles of the mystery of commodities" (50) and form the basis of his theory of Internet capitalism as an "economy of sharing", do not represent an alternative to the capitalist mode of production, despite the dominant claims that they open the space for the emergence of spontaneous, de-regulated, and post-capitalist "cyber-communities" to emerge. On the contrary, if we follow Marx's analysis of capital, it becomes clear that they are the latest means of extending the market-share of the technology industry in a moment of economic crisis. In other words, the promotion of various software applications as the manifestations of an alternative lifestyle becomes the means of smuggling in, in the name of "freedom", the private ownership of the means of production as the natural and inevitable way to organize society.

To take only one example, "file-sharing" programs such as Kazaa or BitTorrent, regardless of the concerns of the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), actually reflect the interests of transnational capital in developing a global system of "production on demand" which intensifies the exploitation of labor while expanding the monopoly control of capitalists over all sites of production. While the public debate over file-sharing has focused on whether or not it is "stealing", this debate has for the most part displaced the fact that at its core it is a mode of managing labor, of introducing new modes of private accumulation while representing such modes of accumulation as "democratic". By promoting consumption as a mode of "resistance", and by creating "demand" for new commodities, file-sharing and open source programs are part of the extension of need that capitalism engenders and, thus, the expansion of the control of capitalism over the daily lives of workers. While file-sharing programs might provide "free" music, access to this music requires that one have a computer, an MP3 player, a cd-burner, an internet connection, a sufficient hard-drive… That is to say, while it might eliminate the need to purchase one commodity (i.e. music), it greatly expands the need for many other commodities and thus extends the reach of the capitalist market regardless of any "anti-corporate" intentions of participants.

While the most common accounts of the Internet promise the world to people, what these fairytales of an online world without conflict erase are the "other" realities that capitalist globalization also brings: world-wide poverty, hunger, illness, and ecological destruction. It is in this context, I believe, that we need to question the idea that the Internet represents a radical break from the past because the complexity of interactions which shape and transmit digital culture has fundamentally reversed the relationship between the world and ideas, such that ideas no longer are shaped by labor but rather that labor is now shaped entirely by ideas. Rather than representing a "new" theory for "new" times, Internet theorists such as Poster are instead keeping up with the new technological developments through which capital increases exploitation. In other words, they are taking what is really a very one-sided view of technological change—which does provide the benefits of increased cultural "freedom" for those who already have achieved economic freedom as a result of their class position—and presenting it as if it were a universal condition, available to all.

It is this one-sided approach that leads Poster, on the one hand, to openly embrace Big Business as the driving force of the new Internet culture—representing, for example, a taco made by Kraft in Minnesota as the epitome of global cultural exchange (103) and challenging critiques of privatization by re-narrating the creation of broadband as the sole result of the "resources" of private enterprise (19)—while, on the other, warning about the dangers of a growing population of "invisible" consumers not plugged into the Internet economy. Such seeming contradictions are not, in the end, contradictions or accidents, but the effect of the ultimately cynical and opportunistic logic of cyber-theory. What Poster ultimately presents to readers is a more "savvy" variation on the declaration found in the writings of mainstream corporate pundits such as Thomas L. Friedman that global capital in the Internet age is somehow radically different from its nationalist forebearer. He writes, the "Internet enables the exchange of images, sounds, and text across national borders, as if those borders did not exist as political units […] It forges links between individuals and groups of different, even antagonistic, nationalities" (126). In this climate, Poster concludes, "Ethnocentrism becomes ethnoexcentrism […] instead of localism oriented to an original, pure ethnicity, globalism impels us to conceive a new localism profoundly affected by the grace of the other" (149). In other words, capitalism somehow escapes its own contradictions merely through expansion, creating a world without conflict in which all can enjoy the benefits of ownership. But this vision of capitalism is a dream, and the world united under the dollar is only the theoretical expression of the economic interests of U.S. imperialism. With the expansion of capitalism, so grows the fundamental conflict between owners and workers that is increasingly visible everywhere. Abroad, the imperialistic maneuvers of U.S. capital in Afghanistan and Iraq are only the first stage of a renewed intra-imperialist rivalry between the worlds' major economic powers that, as a commentator in the transnational business journal Foreign Affairs accurately describes, "are rarely peaceful" (Hoge). While at "home" in the imperialist centers, the simultaneous crises of healthcare, debt, employment and environmental destruction which working people are facing are threatening to break the realities of class struggle through the surface of capitalism's ideology of equality before the market.

The problem, to be clear, is not a moral one. What we are witnessing is not a problem of technology, but the private ownership of technology. While the technological advances which are concentrated into the concept of the Internet could be used first and foremost to eliminate hunger, poverty, illiteracy, disease and to reorganize production to ensure the protection of the environment, their monopolization in the hands of private industry means that they are used only to increase the private assets of the owners regardless of the costs. The question of the future of society is one that must be confronted. However, to approach it as Poster does, from within the ideology of capitalism, condemns the working class to the continuation of its exploitation at the hand of capital. What is necessary, I argue, is an approach to the future which breaks with the logic of capital and ushers in a truly radical transformation of society, from one of private ownership and private profits to one based upon the meeting of the needs of all.

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THE RED CRITIQUE 10 (Winter/Spring 2005)