Christian Fuchs: Raymond Williams, Herbert Marcuse, and Dallas Smythe in the Age of Social Media

From Theories of Technology and the Production of Value from Everyday Life

In this talk, Christian Fuchs details the work of Raymond Williams, Herbert Marcuse, and Dallas Smythe as it relates to his research on digital labor, the value-production of social media, and the impact of all this on the relationship between technological communication and anticapitalist revolution. The talk covers some of the theoretical underpinnings of his last two books, Digital Labor and Karl Marx and Culture and Economy in the Age of Social Media, and attempts to craft a critical understanding of the deep impact that the internet has had on the structure of capitalism, both at the level of political economy and ideology. Like Stiegler, Fuchs refuses to see communication and its technological means as somehow separate. And like Harvey, Fuchs thinks that critique cannot simply separate out one element of the societal process as the determinant or most important causal factor. To that end, Fuchs explores Williams’s idea that culture is both of and not of the economy (identical and non-identical). Fuchs’s discussion of software engineering as media work is one aspect of his more general argument against simplistic interpretations of Marx’s concepts of base and superstructure that posit a deterministic relationship between the former and the latter. Wherever there is culture there must be cultural labor, Fuchs says, and to forget this it to reify both culture and cultural production. According to Fuchs, cultural products require physical workers who make cultural technology (or as Stiegler would put it, the means of human enhancement) and “information workers” who use this cultural technology to produce information that makes up cultural products. This is essentially an argument for including a whole chain of workers in the cultural production process (particularly the digital cultural production process), from tantalum miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Foxconn workers in Shenzhen, to software engineers in Cupertino.

In line with the general theme of this Classroom, Fuchs’s discussion of Dallas Smythe’s concept of the “audience commodity” expands this chain to parts of our everyday digitally mediated lives that are not generally considered sites of labor. In a nod to the Italian Autonomists, Fuchs invokes a “social worker” who goes online and creates value by generating data that is then sold to advertisers. This sale is what justifies the user’s status as a worker; it is the sale of a kind of attention power. As Fuchs says, this involves a “liquefaction of boundaries” between work time and non-work time, an expansion of absolute surplus value. The increase of relative surplus value must be accomplished through the multiplication and intensification of possible “discretions,” of possible rich data objects. The “cultural technology” here is of utmost importance because it is what makes the user’s informational and biological activity readable to capital (think of the Fitbit). Regarding the audience commodity as a sort of final stage in both commodity and ideological production, Fuchs calls for a renewed left that integrates struggles for an environmental, social, and communications commons in order to end capitalism.

Dr. Christian Fuchs is a  professor at the University of Westminster and the Director of the Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI).

October 12, 2015


Curated by

Andrew McKinney