Video School

Tiziana Terranova: Capture All Work

In this talk given at Transmediale 2015 in Berlin, Tiziana Terranova discusses her concept of “free labor” more than a decade after she first theorized the production of value from digitally enabled activity (much of which was previously not understood as labor) in the early ’00s. Terranova argues that the discourse around early “web 2.0” was always about a promise of growth in the user base that would bring future returns. She specifically sites Yochai Benkler’s work on “social production” and his book The Wealth of Networks, and describes it as an attempt to translate the new phenomenon of “voluntary coordination” that exists outside of capitalism but still somehow produces value into the language of neoclassical economics, arguing that this translation (amongst other work of the early ’00s) prepared the ground for the absorption of the social cooperation of the beginnings of web 2.0 into capitalism. She also points to the importance of the scale of the participation in internet-enabled practices as capital needs both a concentration in major platforms but also the long tail of infinite variation where new innovations arise that can be made valuable. The “social machinery” of the internet, or “the social network dispositif,” abstracts the social activity of networks in order to valorize them, creating a social individual who is just a rich data object. Returning to the terms of neoclassical economics, Terranova points out that the marginal cost of information is close to zero, while at the same time the cost of labor in social networks is also near zero. Value in this situation comes from what she calls a “computational surplus of code: social analytics as technique for the translation of social values into market values.”

However, following from Marx, reducing the cost of labor—that which is the source of surplus value—creates a crisis in the rate of profit. Terranova raises the extremely important point that social network platforms can only function by the grace of the capitalization coming in from venture capital. Profit must be delayed, sometimes permanently, while the critical mass of users can be reached and technology can be developed that valorizes the critical mass of users in a fashion that can be recognized by financial capital, by shareholders both actual and potential. The scale this requires is achieved both by an increase in individuals (nodes in the network) but also through the proliferation of categories of discreet activity, “discretions,” as Stiegler might say. Terranova begins partly to argue, following her collaborator and colleague Luciana Parisi, that this financialization and algorithmic production means the end of the relevance of the labor theory of value. Value, she argues, can no longer be measured in working time. Terranova argues for an “intensification” that cannot be equated with the “hour” of work. Of course, this “intensification” is for Marx the other side of the surplus-value-producing coin, the part that is tied most intricately to technology and machines. To argue that value can be produced from machines alone is not possible. However, from within this break from the labor theory of value, Terranova sees the possibility of an economy not based on waged work, pointing to work by Carlo Vercellone and Andrea Fumagalli on “common fare.” She wants to understand how to mobilize the liquidity made possible by financialization to nurture instead of exploit the social processes that feed the financial capital born of the social web. Value produced would not be surplus but social.

Tiziana Terranova teaches media and cultural studies at the University of East London.

Andrew McKinney‘s Video School explores the relationship between technology, human labor, and everyday life in late capitalism.