Sunday, April 28, 2013

Unaccounted for

'Hypercapitalism is emancipating itself from its Western heritage and its so-called "values", but this unveils a terrible sight: without the heritage of Humanism and the Enlightenment, capitalism is a regime of pure, endless and inhuman violence'. Franco 'Bifo' Berardi's aphorism in The Soul at Work is not just about the attacks on the humanities, arts and culture in Europe and North America. It is about the automation of the trade in symbols, from finance capital's algorithmic trading to the obsessive self-documenting in social media that Jodi Dean calls 'compulsory communication'.

If, as Bifo contends, contemporary capitalism is semiocapitalism, and production means the production of symbols, those who cannot or do not engage in that trade are superfluous to requirements. Only economic values are valued; no other values count. But since so much symbolic production is unpaid (including this blog), that too approaches zero value. Its value lies in abstracting from it the behaviour of those who read it, or at least visit, leaving traces of their activity that can be monetised by tracking.

What is left out of account, out of accountancy and out of the accounts we gve each other of our story? Those excluded by geography, biography or disability from the generation of economic value. The attack on education, and the narrowing of school curricula, is about reducing and narrowing the pool of people needed to work in the semiotic factories. Current policy initiatives in the UK, across Europe, and increasingly elsewhere share a common disdain for whoever does not join in the pursuit of semiotic profit, including those who will no longer be able to get into higher education, or stay in long enough for the higher qualifications demanded by advancing neo-liberal semiocapitalism. This is Bifo's inhuman violence. At its extreme, it involves abandoning whole populations to war. In a gentler mode, it means gradually cutting off health, housing, the remnants of the social wage. We can concentrate too much on policies designed to send even more wealth to the wealthy. The radical impoverishment of the poor increases at even greater speed.

We cannot call this genocide. We are not allowed to call what Israel does in Palestine genocide, or even ethnic cleansing, and this is a slower exorcism of the economically inefficient, though in its way just as brutal. Like 'refugee', the word 'genocide' lies under embargo. There are those who do not like the word 'genocide' applied to the assault on African Americans by drugs and incarceration. We may need a new word for the slow strangulation of the people, the phased eradication of the unaccountable.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Debt Sublime: preliminary thesis on the mode of destruction

Incomprehensible, awesome, overwhelming, beyond meaning, erupting into history from elsewhere, that overthrows subjectivity. The un-discussable debt is the great anaesthetic.

Théorie Communiste is wrong to argue that the working class is no longer working and therefore has no purpose (or identity): it is required to destroy the overproduction in pursuit of growth that otherwise generates crisis. As a bonus, crisis can be shared socially by distributing debt (future growth that will no longer occur) to the precariat. Final function: free labour of creativity, as a process of environmentalisation that also externalises. Thus placing creativity as an externality which historically precedes (eg in the environmentalisation of 'nature' as externality) over-exploitation and destruction. The theory of finite social creativity suggests that the final task of the working class in the new mode of destruction is to annihilate itself.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Publishing Futures 2: the future library

Another post for the Goldsmiths Future of Publishing event.

The greatest achievement of the Victorian era (apart from cinematography and the A-frame bicycle) was the public library. Machine-readable catalogues were the precursor to the Web, which still has some of the utopian orientation of the library voiced in Antonio Panizzi's evidence to the Select Committee on the British Museum in 1836: "I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, of fathoming the most intricate inquiry as the richest man in the kingdom, as far as books go, and I contend that the Government is bound to give him the most liberal and unlimited assistance in this respect". Digital libraries don't share Panizzi's dream, which they could fulfill so easily.

We don't own ebooks. Physical books, once purchased, are ours to do with as we like, but we can't sell, lend or give away an epub because we pay a rental license on them: they belong to a corporation. By the same token, there's no public lending right. Paradoxically, physical books are freer than digital.

Corporations want payment per reader. It's not surprising then that communities of readers ignore the loss of a customary right and set up their own digital public libraries. This was exactly how the municipal libraries arose. But it is an unsustainable practice if there is no way to pay for fact-checking, copy-editing and functional design, let alone the quality assurance that scholarly presses provide.

The commodification of books in the C19th came with a kind of democratisation, along with a risk of losing 'quality' with the rise of the penny dreadful. Digital publishing de-democratises by isolating books from one another. A library isn't about individual books but about the community of books speaking to and about each other.

Public lending right (and photocopying) provide for a small return for each use, not a punitive full-cost for every reader. What we need is a global copyright library, on the model of Panizzi's British Library: one that receives a copy of every work published. As the International Federation of Library Associations argues, it's crucial that the cost should not come from library budgets. A small cost per use could easily be applied, for example by a fractional sales tax on storage. Corporations, operating under the protection of bloated copyright laws, will want to syphon the cream from this for their most lucrative authors. What we need is a system that passes revenues not to shareholders or even authors but to maintaining the open library, and covering the publishing costs of works – many of them academic, but also translations and specialist titles – that cannot support themselves in the marketplace.

There's no shortage – yet! – of authors: there is a shortage of publishers, distributors and most of all of an open, common library, the basis on which all future writing builds.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Publishing Futures 1: reasons for going open access

I've been asked to blog for the upcoming Forget the book: Writing in the Age of Digital Publishing event at Goldsmiths on the 25th of May. This one may not make the cut . . .

Improving the flows of the information and knowledge that researchers produce will promote
* enhanced transparency, openness and accountability, and public engagement with research;
* closer linkages between research and innovation, with benefits for public policy and services, and for economic growth;
* improved efficiency in the research process itself, through increases in the amount of information that is readily accessible, reductions in the time spent in finding it, and greater use of the latest tools and services to organise, manipulate and analyse it; and
* increased returns on the investments made in research, especially the investments from public funds. These are the motivations behind the growth of the world-wide open access movement.

These are the terms of the 2012 Finch report, by the UK government advisory Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings.

I much doubt that the four themes listed are those which motivate the open-access movement, depending on just how (Stallman or Raymond) you define openness.

There are two controversies lurking behind the first bullet. One is the right of the public to decide on the value of research. The other concerns the transparency of data demanded ad absurdum by climate change opponents in the dubious case of the UEA email leak. The former begs the question of who exactly is, or speaks for, the public; the latter asks both whether peer-review by experts of expert analysis needs to be supplemented (or supplanted) by a jury of interested parties (interested in the Kantian sense).

The second and fourth concern the link between funded research and economic benefit. Stiegler is not alone among philosophers in noting that innovation describes a process of minor adaptations to an existing paradigm. Invention is a radical breakthrough. It is hard not to hear the fury of corporations – whose R and D departments failed to invent the world wide web – that the web, a product of publicly funded research, was not delivered to them for commercialisation. Tim Berners-Lee's decision to give away the source code was, in that perspective, irresponsible. This example alone should persuade us that the Finch report is not describing the open access movement as a whole.

The third point, about organising and analysing research results, has the most attraction. It is not only that articles held on commercial databases like Elsevier are restricted to subscribers; it is also that search engines and more sophisticated spiders and bots cannot mine them. But even here the cult of efficiency has a faint tang of corporate culture.

Actually what motivates open access campaigns are
* the belief that ideas are improved by speed and breadth of circulation, and that the greed-driven oxymoron 'intellectual property' slows down of the system
* the idea that ideas are valuable, if they are valuable at all, because they help feed, clothe, educate, shelter, bring justice, peace and beauty, and because they make it possible for us all to debate which of these values is best and how to balance out their claims: not because they can be converted into cash
* an absolute commitment to making research available to those who are its sources, too often its victims, and in any case who will be its ultimate beneficiaries, especially those who cannot afford to get at it under current conditions
* a generalised feeling of good-will and generosity in the interests of creating a decent world, especially for the global poor. Many people in open-access worlds believe that the current economic system has failed monumentally, and that open, cashless economies of peer-to-peer exchange is an increasingly viable alternative.

So let's just get that one straight.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Vanishing Networks

From a talk I'll be giving in Cambridge (UK) later this month. Oddly enough I will be giving another talk in Cambridge at the Anglia Ruskin Fast/Slow event this week

Equally critical to visual culture is the invisibility of network architectures. Already in 1993, the year the Mosaic browser launched the Web as mass medium, Critical Art Ensemble were warning that corporations had adopted rhizomatic (and nomadic) constitutions. Heterotopia is the geography of Google and Nike. Precarious post-Fordist labour is only one of the prices we pay for this. The struggle for new network architectures is part of the sad story of standardisation which has become increasingly entrenched in the digital media. The panoply of engineering, governance and standards bodies engaged in electronic and telecommunications industries is a strange tangle, but it is both the oldest and arguably the only functioning model we have of global governance. Under their sway, the majority of machines can talk to other machines, at speeds that baffle human comprehension – we have only to think of the role of automated trading in the 2007/8 crash. We have moved from vanishing points to vanishing instants, and from there to vanishing networks, each of which falls under an increasingly ubiquitous and increasingly stable family of standards organised around the classic modernist figure of the grid. It seems rash to argue that we are 'post' anything.

more Revolution Earth

The publishing world is changing. Traditional publishers of fiction and academic titles know this too well: and the opportunities for open access and independent publishing are baffling. One of the top blogs for writers, C.S.Lakin, has just featured our responses to her question 'what are the top 5 things you've learned in the last year' as indie publishers.

More on this discussion on 25th May when I'm in conversation with Doug Sery of MIT Press on the future of the book at Goldsmiths