Monthly Archives: February 2010

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, etc. from Wealth of Networks

From Benkler, The Wealth of Networks, ch. 4:

Where extrinsic rewards dominate, this will increase the activity rewarded as usually predicted in economics. However, the effect on intrinsic motivation, at least sometimes, operates in the opposite direction. Where intrinsic motivation is an important factor because pricing and contracting are difficult to achieve, or because the payment that can be offered is relatively low, the aggregate effect may be negative. Persuading experienced employees to communicate their tacit knowledge to the teams they work
with is a good example of the type of behavior that is very hard to specify for efficient pricing, and therefore occurs more effectively through social motivations for teamwork than through payments. Negative effects of small payments on participation in work that was otherwise volunteer-based are an example of low payments recruiting relatively few people, but making others shift their efforts elsewhere and thereby reducing, rather than increasing, the total level of volunteering for the job.

Extrinsic motivations make intrinsic motivations seem inauthentic, inadequate. We suddenly feel stupid for doing something for free once we see that payment is possible. Also, paying a little exposes the bad faith of the volunteer contract. Paying a little implies that the social rewards heretofore being offered are worth even less — payment discredits them.

The larger issue here is that motivation is not something that emerges strictly from individuals, but is instead generated by context, by a system that makes it appear in different forms to individuals. Our impulses to act are shaped by the context in which they are expressed. Also we don’t prefer stasis and require pecuniary incentives to act. Rather we want to act, and we ask society to provide to us forms or fields or modes in which to do so. The key question is what shapes those forms — market capitalism demands a certain regime for social action, a certain set of congenial explanations. A postcapitalist society would need different explanations, a different set of ex post fact explanations for why people become motivated.

Are there only two forms of motivation: for money and for social recognition? Are they reducible to only the latter?

for any given culture, there will be some acts that a person would prefer to perform not for money, but for social standing, recognition, and probably, ultimately, instrumental value obtainable only if that person has performed the action through a social, rather than a market, transaction.

Another way of putting that: some desires are inherently social — we have to see ourselves as part of a group to conceive them and fulfill them. They don’t register to us as individuals, or when we are locked into thinking of ourselves as isolated. Markets tend to project identity as entirely individualized — we want things for ourselves only. But some of the things we want are to belong and to share. We want a group-based identity to complement the atomized identity.

According to Benkler, these are the conditions for peer production: (1) means of production not serving as capital. People own means of production not as an investment to capitalize by merely as part of everyday life. The personal computer fits here. (2) Information as the raw material of production processes must be freely accessible as part of a commons. The open internet currently fits here. (3) “Modular” production processes that require no coordination to yield useful results. Seems that the key here is redefining what a useful result or finished good is. Rather than something that can be marketed, it is something that can be “remixed” in a subsequent information-based production process. In other words, in the networked-information economy, all goods are intermediate and there are no finished goods to be fetishized/mystified as capitalist commodities.

The theft of friendship

More from chapter 2 of The Politics of Identity, by Stanely Aronowitz. The connection of what he is writing about to “identity politics” is a bit obscure, but it boils down to the question of whether the working class has sufficient subjectivity as a class to lead the revolution, or whether the revolution will occur regardless of class consciousness thanks to the inherent contradictions of accumulation — i.e. capital will run out of labor to exploit, or ways to squeeze labor with the machines that deprive them of the subjectivity necessary to complain about their fate. Capital “subsumes” labor and deprives it of a standpoint from which to critique its position, as capital determines labor conscoiusness as a natural fact, a reified, given thing. (This apparently is derived from Lukacs and History and Class Consciousness.

Identity politics, if I get what Aronowitz is saying, is a reflection of capital’s subsumption of labor and social institutions and so on. “Management is a technological expression of the logic of domination, a means of creating a closed universe such that contradictions, far from disappearing, take the form of the appearance of ‘social problems’ subject to manipulation by social policy…. Capital successfully transforms ‘alienation’ into a social neurosis that becomes the property of an individual who is now called ‘deviant’ from the social norm of integration and subordination.” In other words, alienation becomes a personal-identity problem, to be solved through psychological corrections and adjustments, not through collective action.

I was struck by this sentence: “Just as property is the theft of the labor of the immediate producer in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, so technology is the theft of the artisan’s craft in the transition from the formal to the real subsumption of labor under capital.” It seems as though this could be extended to cover a more recent transformation, a new dimension (enabled by networking technology) of the logic of capital: the subsumption of immaterial labor under capital, which plays out as the theft of friendship. Our social behavior is taken away from us, in the sense that it is turned to account by capital.


In The World of Goods Douglas and Isherwood develop the idea of “linkage” from international-trade economics in a consumption context. Rather than use a “quantity of goods” perspective to determine poverty, one must look instead at interconnectedness — can the consumer “operate a coherent information system by using marking services”? Or are the markers dictated to the consumer, with many markers out of their grasp?

How does online consumption affect this? Information goods become cheaper and easier to consume in some ways, but the information system becomes more incoherent as the flow of information exponentially expands. The paradox results of having more information than ever but less control over what it all signifies. The meanings of the markers become more subject to being determined by power differentials, as they don’t anchor themselves over any stretch of time. The flux of meaning leaves everyone having to make recourse to some credible external source of judgment to decide meaning in a given moment — class supplies the credibility in such cases?

Social networks obviously increase the volume of linkages, making social connections tangible and manipulatable to those who don’t necessary belong to the network. But this tangibility seems to degrade the quality of links, dilute them, overwhelm the channels that had been reliable in earlier social formations. Instead we lose trusted sources through greater interconnection, as we see those sources become co-opted and compromised or even impersonated at different moments online, as identities are hijacked for automated marking pitches or people self-promote to groups who would not have been exposed to that before.

Feeling tired, and not making much sense here perhaps. The key idea from Douglas and Isherwood is their contention that consumer motivation stems from wanting “to continue to choose rationally in an intelligible world,” that they want to “control an expanding information system.” Social networks, automated online recommendations, etc., offer an unfamiliar sort of control, perhaps, supplying reasonable options via filtering but depriving consumers from an overhead view of the system that is gratifying — instead we are lost in the code, in the morass of data, from which automated recommendations offer us a life line.

“Ethnography suggests that competition to acquire goods in the information class will generate high admission barriers and efficient techniques of exclusion…. COnsumers will tend to create exclusive inner circles controlling access to a certain kind of information.” Information, then, is not wanting to be free; online sociality will facilitate new ways to control the access. That is where moeny will be made, and will also simultaneously be the means to reproduce the class structure of capitalism in an information-network economy. These barriers that will me technologically mediated may be more painful when they are not dependent on money but are meted out in terms of online identity.

Domains of identity signaling

From “Where Consumers Diverge from Others: Identity Signaling and Product Domains” by Jonah Berger and Chip Heath, Journal of Consumer Research 34: 121-135.

Berger and Heath argue that (1) certain kinds of products are more useful for identity signaling for others and (2) we are not merely trying to signal our uniqueness through goods but also belonging to specific groups. Both of these things seem almost self-evident, but it’s good to have some empirical support. Yes, consumption is social communication. What is key is that signaling occurs on several levels simultaneously with any given good. Having an iPod signals belonging to a particular group, what’s on the iPod signals belonging to a more specific group, differentiating the owner from those other iPod people. The different levels allow for the coherence of certain behavior that can otherwise seem contradictory. The pursuit of conformity and individuality often occurs simultaneously, because we are placing ourselves in different groups at the same time, and those levels of identification are themselves hierarchical — some identities are more important to us than others, are more important socially than others, etc. What sort of music player you have is less important than what sort of music you play, even though the signals in the latter domain are harder to decode.

Although certain domains tend to be used in identity inference making, that does not mean that people cannot express identity in other domains. These identity signals are probably less likely to be picked up by the population at large, but they may be helpful in coordinating with other members of a highly sophisticated in-group. Buying a very high-end stove may not be a good way of signaling identity to most people because most people do not look to stoves for identity signals. But the high-end stove may be a good way to signal to interior designers or kitchenophiles. Even in functional domains, extremes — extreme knowledge, purchasing an extremely costly item, or attending to fine details — may be good signals because they separate sophisticates from the general population.

The less obvious the signal, the more refined the identity, and the higher that identity domain is in the hierarchy of signification.

What I want to see researched is whether the kinds of domains that can signal identity are growing thanks to the way the internet makes them more salient. Berger and Heath claim that the product choices that are typically used for identity signaling are “publicly visible and made from a large choice set and take time or effort to make.” They also argue that “afunctionality” is associated with identity signaling. Certain sorts of variety in goods, that is, are free to be assigned to identity-making — these must be consciously designed into products (make them vary by color, etc.) Web 2.0 services seemed designed to make more of product choices more visible and thus more identity-signaling. Social networks also help define the groups that we seek to belong to through consumer goods — the networks produce and disseminate meanings for goods that need not be engineered in advance but that add value to the products. Web 2.0 gives us a field to display our identity in and a compendium from which to learn possible meanings that can be displayed. I suspect these are becoming more and more refined all the time, so that everything has an identity component, and everything must be “shared” in order for the consumer to realize that identity value in a good.

At this point our identity itself becomes a highly wrought, labor-intensive product. It begins to play as a status good, helping others signal belonging and uniqueness through association with it, and so on. This is what Web 2.0 is ultimately all about — making everything part of the code of identity and reifying away the autonomy of any of our choices. Instead they all mean something that we may or may not intend, we may or may not want to have to worry about.

More on subsumption of identity labor

More from chapter two of Aronowitz’s The Politics of Identity:

Scientific knowledge, which is nothing other than the formalization and commodification of the transfer of artisan skill, appears to determine the process of production. Actually, Marx shows the relations of science to industry to be mutually determining. Large-scale production is the condition for the transformation of ‘invention (into) business.’ In turn, science and technology as forms of objectified labor now confront the living laborer as a form of capital’s compulsion that appears inexorable and even beneficial

There are many ideas packed into that. First, an exceedingly cynical view of technological change, namely that under capitalism, only technology that is profitable is pursued or even named “technological process” in the first place. Further, the aim of technology is not improvement of the species but improvement of capital’s leverage over labor. Because they are employed by capital, technologists are only ever looking for ways to basically deskill labor, take production out of their hands. Thus in some fields of industry, you can’t work for yourself; you can only work for corporations that give you access to the necessary means of production to produce at the necessary scale with the necessary degree of technical “advancement”. In short, capital serves the needs of capital, not people; it’s only natural that the R&D it funds would serve the same purposes.

The effect on researchers is that they conceive of the success of their efforts in strictly capitalist terms — if it sells, it is successful. This same attitude affects innovation in the arts as well, where the goal in creating new forms is not some abstract edification of humanity, but the objective, measurable increase in units sold. The bulk of creative energy is thus deployed into the sorts of innovations that suit that end — hence, the industrial design field’s prominence.

Calling all this technological “progress” as we habitually do has the effect of making what’s actually a capitalist strategy seem inevitable, a law of nature. Of course it is “progress” to intensify the division of labor. Of course the market should decide which innovations are viable. And since these things are beneficial, they are probably providential. All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

But one could argue that technology is now reversing the deskilling process with which Marx and Braverman associated it, at least in the sense of making the sort of work available to most of us feel meaningful rather than alienated and empty. That’s because it has developed to the point where it can make our identity work subsumable under capital, a fancy way of saying that we can “become ourselves” for pay rather than as a hobby. We can professionalize “being someone” — have a look at reality TV for the farthest reaches of this. Facebook though is the norm right now. We do our self-fashioning in a privately owned public forum, generating useful marketing data and furnishing marketable meanings for commodities of all sorts. If this form of labor (“immaterial labor,” in autonomist terminology) ever becomes remunerative, it would allow our labor to be of the most meaningful sort, ending the alienation that made what we do seem antagonistic to who we think we are (working in order to earn the time and money to pursue our selfhood and identity). Instead what we do will be synonymous with what we are (working is the way we develop identity).

Right now, the problem seems to be that technology is creating unemployment and the immaterial labor we perform is not compensated, the surplus it generates inadequately or privately appropriated.

Deskilling, identity labor, logic of capital

The following is inspired by Stanley Aronowitz’s essay on the logic of capital in The Politics of Identity. In the second section of the essay (chapter 2 in the book), he draws on Marx’s Resultate to explain transformations in the labor process as capitalism entrenches itself, and on Braverman (author of Labor and Monopoly Capital, essential reading on this subject), et al., to explain how capitalist management enacts the transformations on the factory floor.

The general trend is toward deskilling (via machines, technology, etc.) to make labor both more flexible (anyone can work anywhere) and a commodity, weakening labor’s bargaining power and permitting capital to extort more surplus value, which is no longer a matter of extending working hours but a matter of improving productivity (Marxian jargon for this is “relative surplus value”).

This is probably worth remembering in any conventional economic discussion of how boosting productivity is a good thing for the economy. It tends to increase growth (we get more output from less input) but it doesn’t mitigate inequalities in distribution of the output — it tends to leverage the inequities and increase the gap between classes by allowing capitalists to seize more surplus value from smaller pieces of capital. Increased productivity figures also indicate more labor is being squeezed from fewer workers as the “slack” is being wrung out of offices — i.e. workers who were not laid off are forced to make up for the work of those who were. Productivity gains would be nice if that freed us to do other things with our time, only society is set up to deny us that possibility, stigmatizing unemployment and refusing a social wage independent of work for capitalists. Through productivity adds to GDP, it makes workers more rather less insecure.

Productivity gains, if we accept the Marx/Braverman analysis, are closely allied to deskilling. As Aronwitz explains:

For Marx, the increasing scale of production made possible by machinery, and by capital’s intervention in the labor process by its devalorizing labor, becomes identical with the mode of production. The production of relative surplus value…is the sole purpose of production. The subsumption and subordination of science, technology, and human labor are merely facets of this compulsion toward extracting profits

Deskilling removes the limits on capital placed by traditional, artisanal modes of production, permitting a greater division of labor and a more rapid turnover of materials. This has broader ramifications that making work that much more meaningless to the Taylorized worker: “The new machines are forms of the social organization of labor introduced by management,” Aronowitz notes. The minute division of labor is institutionalized; workers begin to enter the world of production without prerequisite skills. It becomes understood that one gets a job and is taught to operate a machine (or nowadays a piece of software), which already contains the skills and technology (which now belongs safely to the capitalists who own the machines).

We often hear that education is the key to success in the labor markets. “Skill-biased technical change” is invoked to explain income inequality, an effort to persuade us that it is not merely a matter of the rich getting richer. (Economist David Card disputes the explanatory power of SBTC in this 2002 paper.) And much-remarked-upon charts like this one (via Calculated Risk) seem to prove the power of education.

Does this refute the idea that capitalism thrives by deskilling the labor force? Or does this merely show that education is an extremely valuable signaling device, useful to employers for sorting docile and tractable workers from those less inclined to follow rules and follow through on arbitrary projects. From that point of view, education is about credentialing as opposed to learning. In other words, the skills themselves may not explain the differences in our various fates in the labor market. Education matters insofar as it proves membership to an employable class, but the “skills” one acquires there rarely let people set up as capitalists themselves. The skills are typically not “human capital” in that regard — they do not allow us to confront capital on a level playing field. Instead the skills we acquire are more about teaching us the proper modes of submission to bosses and the virtues of “go along, get along.”

Web 2.0 as unpaid surplus-labor extraction

From Stanley Aronowitz’s The Politics of Identity:

Marx’s logic, that “the specific form in which unpaid surplus labor is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship between those who dominate and those who are in subjection” is cited in a multiplicity of forms to assert that domination “grows directly out of production itself and reacts upon it as a determining element in its turn.”… “It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the immediate producers — a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the nature and method of labor and consequently of its social productivity — which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden foundation of the entire social structure and therefore of the political form of the relations of sovereignty dependency, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state.”… The “direct relationship” between owners of the conditions of production and the producers can be periodized and the forms will vary, but the structure remains constant.

The quotes from Marx apparently come from Capital Vol. 3. I wondered how this applies to the growing predominance of free labor being extracted online through Web 2.0 applications. Is Web 2.0 then dictating who dominates and who is subjected? What is the nature of this relationship and how is it being ideologically obfuscated and to what end? What sort of state will emerge from this new relationship? Does this analysis predict a state that exists to defend net neutrality to the very end, or does it anticipate a state whose purpose is to prevent it and secure the interests of the corporations that control bandwidth and establish the terms of online behavior?