Slavoj Žižek, in a recent London Review of Books article, alleges that the capitalist mode of generating wealth has changed. Money can still be made through the production of material goods – but the big bucks are now being made by privatizing everyday life and leasing it back to consumers. So, for example,
“…Microsoft has imposed itself as an almost universal standard, practically monopolising the field [of computational technology], as one embodiment of what Marx called the ‘general intellect’, by which he meant collective knowledge in all its forms”
This example evinces what we can usefully think of as the capitalization in part of Wittgensteinian ‘forms of life’. A ‘form of life’ is a useful heuristic for capturing a community’s shared biological and cultural background, in terms of traditional and entrenched patterns of behaviour, in a single phrase. Žižek’s point is that these patterns of behaviour, which form the ‘general intellect’, are being exapted: parts are being adopted, built upon, and changed to create a new pattern of behaviour, which are then rented out or sold to consumers.
According to Žižek, this privitization of the general intellect is facilitated vis-à-vis a switchover in the mechanism of generating goods: from the 19th and early 20th century mode of predominantly industrial production of material goods, to now one centred on immaterial production. Immaterial production runs the professional gamut from computer programmers to palliative caregivers, and comes in two main flavours: production that creates (or cumulates, after a prolonged process) a kind of material good, like a computer program, a set of pictures, a book, etc.; or a kind of production that is exhausted in – that is, not separable from – the very act of production, such a play, a street performance, the administration of medical care, dispensing advice, etc.. This kind of immaterial production, Žižek states, is now ‘hegemonic’ – the driving means of wealth generation of our economy.
You might well question, ‘what exactly is being produced?’ Immaterial production clearly has something to do with our general way of going about and doing things – but what does it do? –improve our situation? –lead us toward some ideal state? Well, dispensing with any ideas of teleology (except the generation of wealth, of course) Žižek states: “The products of immaterial production aren’t objects but new social or interpersonal relations; immaterial production is bio-political, the production of social life”. In other words, what’s being produced are new ways of interacting with the world, and with one another.
So with this in mind, while Microsoft is certainly a fine example of the way in which a pattern of behaviour (our way of doing business, managing paper-work, writing, etc.) has been taken-over, and sold back to us – a more pertinent example today is Facebook. Facebook has taken over and now regulates a great deal of intersubjective communication. It has effectively co-opted MySpace and online Bulletin Boards (which in turn co-opted real-life equivalents) to create a new space where people interact and share and discuss. Facebook has essentially privatized a way of engaging with other people. Correlatively, it’s not surprising that, with such a large chunk of our ‘general intellect’ caught up in engaging with other people, that Facebook’s initial public offering is estimated between 80 and 120 billion dollars.
But wait, you might think, I’m not paying to use Facebook. And that’s true. But it doesn’t mean that Facebook isn’t renting out and capitalizing on the space it has opened up. It utilizes the vast amount of traffic on its site to generate advertising and interfacing revenue. What it’s renting out is space and attention – our space and attention. Facebook leases out our sustained and repeated absorption in its website. This is why the quote opening the BBC article linked to above is so appropriate: “If you’re not paying, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”
Facebook has turned our focus and attention – has turned us – into products.