Felix Stalder on Mon, 21 Jan 2019 14:12:48 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Engagement, a new fictitious commodity

This is an excerpt of a longer talk I gave last week on why we
experience reality as disappearing and reappearing in such confusing
ways. I try to expand Polanyi's idea of fictitious commodity to social
mass media and, based on that analysis, think what a counter-movement
might focus on.

The full talk is here:


All the best. Felix


In the 1940s the economist and historian Karl Polanyi developed the idea
of a “fictitious commodity” and he went on to identify three of them:
labor, land, and money. A commodity, he argued, is something that has
been produced in order to be sold and bought in the market and its value
fluctuates with the market. If there is no market demand, the commodity
will cease to be produced. Now capitalism is very good at producing
commodities, but Polanyi maintained, not everything that is necessary
for the economy can be produced as a commodity. The economy is always
embedded in the larger social and natural environment and it draws on
resources produced outside of it. In other words, the economy cannot
produce its own pre-conditions.

Labor, a key component in any economic activity, he argued, is
inseparable from the fullness of human life, and this life is not
created for and by the market, but it is an offspring of the fullness of
human life itself. To treat human life solely as a commodity, to take
its price as labor as the only relevant dimension, is cut off human life
from all other dimensions – sociability and purpose, for example – and
subsume it fully under the dynamics of the market. With the ultimate
consequence that if there is no demand for labor, there should be no
human life. The market radicals of the 19th century had the expectation
that at some point, a grim Malthusian equilibrium would emerge. The same
with land. Land, when turned into property or extractive resources can
be sold and bought in the market, and as we know, prices can fluctuate
quite significantly. But land is nothing but the environment in which we
live and to which we are connected in ways so complex that we are only
slowly beginning to understand these connections more fully. When
turning nature into a commodity, all these myriad of connections and
relations are destroyed, and they become replaced by a single one, the
price that can be realized through market transactions. But real estate
cannot produce nature, even if a developer plants some trees in a
corporate plaza or golf course inside a gated community.

Land and labor are fictitious commodities because human life and natural
environment are not produced to be sold and bought in the market. They
require far more complex relations to be able to reproduce themselves.
Destroying all these relationships by insisting on the market
relationship as the only relevant one, is ultimately leading to the
destruction of both human life and the natural environment. Polanyi
called the market society – as envisioned by his compatriot Friedrich
von Hayek – a “stark utopia”, in the sense of a vision that cannot
exist. And seeking to realize this impossible dream, threatens to
annihilate the very complexity necessary for the existence of human life
and the natural environment.

Now, with social media, I would argue, contemporary capitalism has
produced a forth type of fictitious commodity: “engagement”. Engagement,
according to the first definition Google pointed me to, and I quote the
consultant with the best search engine optimization strategy, “simply
means getting your fans to do something in response to your post: Like,
Comment, Click to open picture, Click on Link, or Share. These are all
forms of engagement, and each time one of these things is done, Facebook
specifically measures it. Not only that, but it becomes more popular,
and on Facebook more people will see that post.” In other words,
engagement is any reaction in response to a stimulus. This reaction is
measured, and like all numbers, it needs to be optimized, in this case,
increased. And the purpose of social media companies, their entire
technological infrastructure, all their activities are geared toward
producing and selling engagement. Under the imperative of capitalism,
this means to continuously produce more of it. And they have gotten
really good at it. I’m sure, quite a few of us are producing it right now.

But like land and labor, engagement is just a small aspect of something
much larger: communication. Communication, like human life and the
natural environment, is a complex and shifting system. There are
infinite ways to say something and infinite ways to understand
something, and infinite ways to go back and forth trying to match what
has been said to what has been understood. The core of communication is
the establishment of meaning, which is always relational and unstable.
And communication as meaning, precisely because of its contextuality and
subjectivity, cannot be measured. It is not discreet. Communication, the
never-ending negotiation of meaning, both rational and affective, is a
fundamental element of social life, for establishing and adjusting a
sense of self and of other, with whom and with what one can be together
and what it means to be together. And engagement is only a by-product of
communication. Reacting to something is a means towards something else,
not an end in itself.

To turn social communication into the fictitious commodity of measurable
engagement means to disembed the acts of communication from the
complexity of the production of meaning and embed into to an environment
in which only this commodity aspects count. All the rest is discounted.
Communication is being reduced to the most behaviorist dimension, to a
pattern of stimulus and response. But this is even more radical than
B.F. Skinner would have thought of because it has been married to the
economic demands of producing more and more.

Thus, part of our disorientation, our driving down the stairs and into
the ditch, comes from communicating through systems that have been
created and are continuously optimized for, well, the commodity of
engagement. It’s not entirely impossible to create meaning, that is,
shared understanding, through the social mass media, it happens as a
by-product and is counteracted all the time by the platforms’ relentless
orientation to increase engagement irrespective of any meaning. This is
driving people crazy, a state of mind from which they protect themselves
with conspiracy theories.


So, where does it leave us? If we return again to Polanyi’s argument, it
would suggest that we need what he called a “protective movement” that
fights against this reduction of communication to engagement. Like the
labor movement has always fought against the reduction of human life to
labor, and the environmental movements have been fighting against the
reduction of nature to land. To fight against the reduction of
communication to engagement, could mean to force the large companies to
acknowledge that they need meaningful communication but cannot produce
it themselves. Hence, they need to support the complexity of
communication that lies outside of the market. We have a model for that,
it’s called public broadcast. While the established institutions of
public broadcasting have their own problems that they need to address
urgently, the basic principle, that the democratic society needs sources
of information that are independent of both the market and government,
could easily be applied to digital communication as well.

There is enough money around. The social media companies are
fantastically profitable and it’s time they contribute to the ecosystem
from which they extract their commodities. Rather than paying users
individually for their data – which is a nonsensical idea that makes the
problems worse – they would pay per user into a fund from which public
interest communication environments and productions are funded. In the
public interest act those who understand communication as social
meaning, created through useful controversies and collective
decision-making: this is after all that democracy is about: making
disagreement productive. It is definitely not about producing
meaningless engagement to be tallied up in the bottom line.


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