Edge: Technology, Information Capitalism and Social Revolution
(page 1 of 3)
By Jim Davis, Tom Hirschl & Michael Stack
is the introduction to Cutting Edge: Technology, Information Capitalism
and Social Revolution, edited by Jim Davis, Thomas Hirschl and
Michael Stack, due from Verso this summer.
How is one
to make sense of the world today? Contemporary political and economic
events as well as recent technological developments defy conventional
analysis. The general breakdown of the post-World War II social
order is well underway, visibly evident in the dramatic dissolution
of the Eastern European and Soviet socialist economies. The dramatic
polarization of wealth and poverty -- not just between the technologized
and under-technologized nations, or north and south, but also
within the technologized center -- exposes the "capitalism
has won" and "history is over" pronouncements as
rather premature. The socioeconomic polarization matures as the
powers of science and technology leap ahead at breakneck speed.
traditional Left has lost much of its appeal, and the world's
labor unions are on the defensive, new forces have stepped onto
the world stage. Scenes from this drama are as diverse as the
Los Angeles rebellion in 1992, the Chiapas uprising beginning
in 1994, the regular eruptions in the industrial heart of the
U.S., the tent cities and marches of the welfare recipients and
the homeless in Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, Oakland and other
U.S. cities, the labor strikes in France, Korea, Canada, Germany,
Russia, and the new student movement emerging in the U.S. and
elsewhere. The world has entered a period of upheaval.
of essays attempts to make sense of trends and developments as
the 20th century draws to a close. From the outset, we should
note that the authors in this collection do not all share the
same assumptions, nor do they come to the same conclusions. Rather,
they are part of an important struggle to understand the processes
at work in order to reach a clearer and deeper understanding.
The pieces share an attempt to confront the contradictions of
society today, and put them on a firm material footing. Despite
the many gloomy signals as this is written, they betray a spirit
of optimism about the future.
point for this collection is the observation that we are in the
midst of a profound technology revolution. For lack of a better
phrase, we call this the "electronics revolution." Although
that phrase would seem to exclude important new developments in
bio-engineering and materials science, those new developments
themselves would not have been possible without breakthroughs
in electronics, especially in the field of microprocessors. Even
though we are about 50 years into this technology revolution (the
term cybernetics first appeared in 1947, shortly after the first
computers), it is becoming clear that we are still only at the
beginning of the process. Research into organic-based processes,
for instance, may render "electronics" a temporary way
station on the way to agriculture of a profoundly new type where
the properties of protein molecules and the self-replicating powers
of life are exploited in radical new ways. As the explosion of
new developments continue, the phrase "electronics revolution"
may come to sound ridiculously limited, but it serves our purpose
electronics revolution is still in its infancy, there are definite
indications that it follows the model of historical materialism.
Marx and Engels asserted that technological developments (e.g.,
the steam engine) allowed new boundaries and new parameters for
society. Unforeseen technological innovations would establish
the conditions for the final destruction of capitalism. In general
terms, "...at a certain stage of development, the material
productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing
relations of production..." Each chapter in this volume assesses,
in some way, the dialectic between technological development and
capitalist relations of production.
essays and articles have been written about recent changes in
the means of production. Those writings that have addressed the
social implications of the new technologies fall into distinct
approaches examine implications of technology for the organization
of the workplace. These implications concern workers fortunate
enough to have a place in the new economic order, and managers
navigating the technological vortex.
writings that are critical of capitalism, one body treats the
new technologies as simply more of the same: "information
capitalism" (to use Tessa Morris-Suzuki's phrase) is the
same old capitalism with the same old exploitation. Other critiques
are concerned with the class-partisan qualities of technology.
For example, authors may examine how and why certain technologies
develop, or consider how new forms of social control are made
possible by technological development and deployment. Still another
genre debunks the "emperor's new clothes" attitude of
the apologists, pointing out the shortcomings of the technologies
and their negative social consequences. Still another genre has
seen the end of class struggle in the post-Fordist "information
society", and retreats into personal politics and endless
fragmentation of social struggles.
with respect to technology are different. We enthusiastically
welcome the promise of technology for ending material scarcity
and for creating a foundation for higher forms of human fulfillment.
Yet we suspect that the application of electronic technology within
the framework of capitalism will not only fail to accomplish these
ends, but exacerbate the misery and poverty under which most of
the world already lives.
is divided into two parts. Part I looks at theoretical considerations.
Part II of the book looks at the social implications of the technology
revolution around the world, and some of the responses to it.
Because several essays draw extensively on concepts from Marxist
political economy, a brief review of some of the major concepts
may be in order.
the central role of commodities in capitalism, Marx began his
masterwork Capital with an examination of the commodity. A commodity
is something produced by humans for exchange. It has two aspects
to it: 1) a use value, that is, the quality of the thing that
satisfies a need or a want; 2) and an exchange value, a quantity
of human effort, or labor, which is the basis for exchanging commodities
of different use values. Marx qualified exchange value as the
socially necessary labor to make commodities, that is, taking
into account the average skills, technology and intensity of work.
For Marx, exchange value, or more generally value, roughly is
human labor -- the activity of transforming the world from "things"
into useful things, that is, things that satisfy someone's wants.
It is on the basis of this common denominator -- as expressions
of human effort irrespective of the specific work being done --
that products, or commodities, of different uses can be exchanged.
In the process
of making things that satisfy wants (production), portions of
technology, raw materials, buildings, etc. are used up. The value
that this used up portion represents temporarily disappears, and
reappears in the finished product. This process of destruction
and creation is the heart of the production. Since the value of
the used up portions is in a sense just transferred to the finished
product, it is described as constant capital-- its magnitude has
not changed during the process. Human labor, though has the peculiar
ability create more value than is used up during production. Because
human labor "grows" value during production, Marx described
the capital advanced to purchase a worker's ability to work (i.e.,
wages) as variable capital. Marx argued that human labor is the
sole source of value, and value -- human effort -- is the underpinning
of the entire economy. Capitalists accumulate wealth by expropriating
surplus value (the difference between the value of the worker's
labor power, paid out as wages, and the value created by the worker
in the course of production). Profit is one form of surplus value,
and the drive for maximum profits is the overriding goal of the
capitalist. Capitalism puts a premium on technological innovation
as a competitive strategy for survival in the marketplace. More