Nineteenth-Century Cognitive Capitalism?

Some of my research lately has been focusing on 19th-century technologies and economies and their relationship to the 19th-century birth of composition studies. I’m particularly interested in the ways that the economic transformations of the Industrial Revolution and American slavery intersected with composition pedagogies and the progression and development of higher education. I’ve also been teaching about the history of the digital and its relation to labor, and participating in a reading group working our way through Marx’s Capital volumes 2 and 3, and so there are a number of ideas coming together for me right now. I’ll share more on the topic of the economics of slavery later as I read further in that domain, but tonight I’m thinking about Marx’s concept of the “general intellect” from the Grundrisse and what 19th-century cognitive capitalism might have looked like, depended upon, and made possible. Already, of course, I’m anticipating the objection that I’m dehistoricizing and decontextualizing a 21st-century concept and thereby making a foolish category error. Well, fair enough. I’ll at least think through that category error. The first objection might be that there wasn’t enough of a “general intellect” (though Marx was imagining it) for there to be a cognitive capitalism in the days when capitalism itself was still young. (I date capitalism’s broad emergence and supercession of mercantilism from 1776, the year Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published.) The idea of cognitive capitalism and a general intellect rely both upon a widespread system (network?) of capital and a widespread system of educating a workforce or populace (the two are necessarily distinct in the 19th century).

So we have this intersection I’m imagining coming into being that for me comes out of the passage from Marx’s 1858 “Fragment on Machines” in the Grundrisse where he writes,

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it; to what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.

Machines are “the power of knowledge, objectified.” Elsewhere I’ve talked about imagining the classical economic factors of production—land, labor, and capital—transformed under cognitive capitalism (or, I think more precisely, under our present system of intellectual and affective economic activity) into material-technological capital (computers and algorithms and networks replacing land as the new sites of production), intellectual and affective labor (the work humans perform at those sites), and intellectual and affective capital (the relations and building blocks and books and documents and programs that humans work with and on at those sites). So Marx’s “Fragment” is where I imagine those transformations emerging from.

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Zeugma Departs

Zeugma the cat went to her rest yesterday. She was born May 1, 2003, and I adopted her on July 9 of that year. Zeugma’s companionship helped me through the difficult times in my life, and helped me through the good times as well: I’ve been looking at photos of her through the years sitting in the plastic box of hanging file folders that held my dissertation, grooming her sister Tink, watching birds in the snow and sun, exploring the cabin in West Virginia, riding with me across the US in the cab of the moving truck, being Malcolm’s first friend, waiting for me to finish an article. She always tried to be bolder than she was, always responded happily to affection, and always showed curiosity and patience. The doc diagnosed her with cancer and gave her six months, and for two years beyond that she shared her life with us. Part of me still looks for her by the front door or on the wing chair or sleeping beside my pillow where she spent her last days. Goodbye, sweet friend, dear companion: be at peace and ease. I carry you in my heart, and see you in the world around me.

a two-month-old kitten looks up a young cat beside a birdfeeder a cat and an infant share a lap a cat beside a computer

From My Cold, Dead Hands

When I teach first-year writing, I sometimes use the story of Charlton Heston’s post-Columbine NRA speech in Denver as an example of rhetorical kairos, keyed to its time and place. (What actually happened, as always, is more complex than the story.) The lesson I try to teach: whatever one’s views on guns after Columbine, the time and place of that speech affected or reinforced them. There is such a thing, I suggest, as a rhetorical moment.

Recently, we were in another such moment in the furor over iPhone encryption. John Oliver did a good 18-minute job  of explaining some of the particulars, and it’s worth your time if you haven’t seen it. The furor over encryption, in a US context, was a fight about the intersection of information and technology and politics, and that intersection is one I’ve lately had increasingly strong thoughts about.

I was dismayed to see James Comey, the Director of the FBI who selected the fight with Apple over encryption, taking what became the government’s public stand. Tim Weiner’s excellent 2012 history of the FBI, Enemies, notes (lest we forget) that Comey is the former Acting United States Attorney General who was in the intensive care hospital room on March 10 2004 when John Ashcroft refused the request brought by Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales from President George W. Bush to reauthorize the Stellar Wind government eavesdropping program. Ashcroft said at the time that it didn’t matter, “‘[b]ecause I’m not the attorney general. There is the attorney general.’ And then he pointed at Comey” (Weiner 434). Comey refused as well. Later, in an admirable 2005 address to the NSA, Comey would describe what then-director of the FBI Robert Mueller “had heard [two days later] from Bush and Cheney at the White House”:

“If we don’t do this, people will die.” You can all supply your own this: “If we don’t collect this type of information,” or “If we don’t use this technique,” or “If we don’t extend this authority.” (Weiner 436)

Eleven years later, Comey supplied his own this.

Comey and the FBI were wrong to demand decryption. Code is speech. Forcing someone to speak is a violation of the First Amendment. Osip Mandelstam was commanded to write a poem in praise of Stalin, refused, and died in a cold prison camp near Vladivostok after smuggling out a letter to his wife asking for warm clothes. Apple’s 3/15 response to the FBI rightly invoked the specter of compelled speech when it pointed out that “the state could force an artist to paint a poster, a singer to perform a song, or an author to write a book, so long as its purpose was to achieve some permissible end, whether increasing military enrollment or promoting public health.” So-called “back doors” that would allow a government of eavesdropping and informants like that of Stalin’s regime endanger us all. And the FBI’s expressed position is hostile to liberty and anti-Constitutional.

Consider the similarly Stalinist inverse of compelled speech: Read more

Metadata and the Research Project

In a widely reported quotation, former director of the NSA and CIA General Michael Hayden said in May 2014 that “We kill people based on metadata.” Metadata is increasingly valuable today: it would also seem that it carries not one but multiple forms of value, some of those forms payable in blood.

Information Scientist Jeffrey Pomerantz, in his book Metadata (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015), argues that until recently, the term “metadata” has typically been used to refer to “[d]ata that was created deliberately; data exhaust, on the contrary, is produced incidentally as a result of doing other things” (126, emphasis mine). That’s an interesting term, “data exhaust,” as perhaps an analogue to the pollution associated with the economic production and consumption of the industrial age. And of course corporations and governments are finding new things to do with this so-called data exhaust (like kill people, for example, or just to chart the social networks of potential insurgents like Paul Revere, as Kieran Healy charmingly demonstrates, or even to advertise Target products to covertly pregnant teenagers until their parents find out, as the anecdote popular a while back noted). It’s got cash value, click-through value, and my Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) students last semester put together some really terrific projects examining the use of cookies and Web advertising and geolocation for ubiquitous monitoring and monetizing.

But that idea of useful information as by-product keeps coming back to me: I wonder if someone has ever tried to copyright the spreading informational ripples they leave in their wakes as they travel through their digital lives, since those ripples would seem to be information in fixed form (they’re recorded and tracked, certainly) created by individual human activity, if not intention. There’s a whole apparatus there that we interact with: as Pomerantz notes, “[i]n the modern era of ubiquitous computing, metadata has become infrastructural, like the electrical grid or the highway system. These pieces of modern infrastructure are indispensible but are also only the tip of the iceberg: when you flick on a lightswitch, for example, you are the end user of a large set of technologies and policies. Individually, these technologies and policies may be minor, and may seem trivial. . . but in the aggregate, they have far-reaching cultural and economic implications. And it’s the same with metadata” (3). So the research paper has as its infrastructure things like the credit hour and plagiarism policies and the Library of Congress Classification system, which composition instructors certainly address as at once central to the research project and also incidental, because the thing many of us want to focus is the agent and the intentional action; the student and the research. Read more

The Syllabus as Ossuary

The common and ongoing complaint is that first-year composition (FYC) is a repository of dead forms. In composition’s associated disciplines in English studies, critical examinations of writing and reading technologies ossify into periodized media studies, and in first-year composition, radical experimentations in how college students continue to learn to write well become the formeldahyde frog in the wax-backed metal tray from Biology 101, its belly razored open and skin peeled back so that students might safely identify the intestines, kidneys, heart, and probe around inside, perhaps a little grossed-out by the process, but able to name its components and mark them on a final quiz.

The formeldahyde frog masquerades as object of inquiry, even inasmuch as everyone knows that the annual and ongoing mass death of millions of appropriately-sized frogs serves only the purposes of a school exercise that will be swiftly forgotten. The research essay in its current commonly accepted form is the frog with its belly-flaps pinned back, poked around upon in JSTOR and ProQuest and the Library of Congress subject and keyword headings like well-preserved amphibious digestive and evacuative systems investigated by the earnest and industrious student, indicating little more to that student than this is where food goes in and this is where poop comes out.

To shift metaphors: the research essay assignment is pedagogy as archaeology. In the information age, I am largely in agreement with the common and ongoing complaint about first-year composition pedagogy and dead forms, especially as that complaint indicts the research essay. As much as anyone else, I am guilty of teaching the dead form, the corpse of the beloved, knowing all too familiarly the workings of the forms of library research I insist to myself that students must know. Even if I frame the research assignment as “inquiry” or “documented argument,” even if I congratulate myself on helping students to see that writing research means something beyond the assemblage of regurgitated stale quotations about innovative environmental applications for hemp and cannabis ash or the burial habits of ancient Egyptians, I am still simply trying to animate a cadaver or vivify a golem, making the body of my own knowledge do what I want, and inflicting that upon the students in my class.

Yes, but: Doesn’t it operate as an introductory form? Doesn’t it do work that helps prepare students for other more sophisticated tasks? Doesn’t it help alert students to modes beyond Google of navigating our rapidly-expanding tombs of information?

It could. I wrote about this challenge — about the essay as database, the database as essay — in 2007, but I’ve been thinking it about it since 1998, when I was working on a Microsoft Access database during my day job and taking an evening research methods seminar with another young graduate student named Becca, who had a complex journalistic research project she was undertaking and was looking for a way to manage it as part of her class project, and I suggested building a database. I don’t know if she took my suggestion, but that woman was Rebecca Skloot, whose research project became The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Part of what’s so impressive to me about Rebecca’s book is that it attends deeply to research as an evolving process: she talks very carefully about how she’s doing it. I’d like to see more of what Becca does in the first-year composition research project assignment.

My FYC students begin their annotated bibliography essay tomorrow, their second essay assignment, as a lead-in to their third, which is ostensibly the research paper assignment. I love the perspective I heard from a colleague yesterday, who posed the annotated bibliography as edited collection, complete with introduction and conclusion: yes, I said, that’s it. That’s the production of new knowledge, focused enough to be interesting, acknowledging its antecedents, edgy enough to push the boundaries. I’ve been reading a lot about information these past few years, and the idea I keep returning to is that information is the work and process of building itself, and as the asset itself that gets exchanged, aggregated, built upon. Information, and the work of research, is labor become capital.

Rationale for a Graduate Seminar in Digital Technology and Culture

Proposed syllabi for graduate seminars are due Monday, and while I’ve got the documents themselves together, I also want to be able to better articulate the exigency for this particular seminar I’ve proposed a syllabus for. There’s no guarantee my proposal will fit the Department’s needs better than any other proposals, of course, so this is partly an exercise in hopeful thinking, but it’s also helping me to figure out why I’m interested in investigating certain topics. The course, “Studies in Technology and Culture” (DTC 561 / ENGL 561), examines “key concepts, tools, and possibilities afforded by engaging with technology through a critical cultural lens,” and is one of the two required courses for the interdisciplinary WSU graduate certificate in Digital Humanities and Culture, a certificate designed to “enhance already existing graduate programs in the humanities and the social sciences, . . . [offering] graduate-level coursework in critical methods, textual analysis, composing practices, and hands-on production for engaging with humanistic studies in, as well as about, digital environments.” I see a couple important points there:

  • first, the certificate’s “critical cultural lens” indicates a reflexive and dialectical (practice- and theory-based) analysis of cultural phenomena as in process and under construction by human and nonhuman agents, and toward the notion of culture as a “noun of process” (from the etymological tracing of Raymond Williams, who points out that the original verb form of “culture” was transitive) representing complex multiple self-developing practices relating to symbolic action; and
  • second, the certificate’s interdisciplinary aspects contribute in rich ways to its digital focus, given its required electives that examine how (AMST 522) the economics of access in the digital divide reinforce inequalities, how (DTC 477) the commodification of information and digital tools can contribute to the stratification of their use, how (DTC 478) interface designs can sometimes reinforce stratification and inequality, how (HIST 527) public history projects incorporating digital technologies can attempt to resist the dominant appropriation or suppression of the heritage of subjugated cultures through practices of responsible representation, and how (HIST 529) ethical digital curation and archiving practices can serve equitable and inclusive ends.

One possible intersection of both points might be understood as the intersection of process and information, which is how I would theme the seminar. Such a theme would represent the familiar cultural studies topoi of race, sexuality, class, gender, ethnicity, age, religion, ability, and others as points of contestation over information. The processes via which information is produced, distributed, owned, used, and re-produced shape and are shaped by those topoi and their intersections with digital technologies. Furthermore, I see tendencies in our emerging studies of digital technology and culture that replicate past trajectories whereby early adopters of technologies (often members of privileged cultural groups) tend to centralize, monopolize, and territorialize research domains—fields that shape processes related to the development of information—especially in an academic context shaped by the eagerness of funding agents to throw money at technology. Given such eagerness, the certificate’s welcome emphasis on “hands-on production” might offer an opportunity to counter that territorializing impulse.

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Doing Digital Research, Being Digitally Researched

I’m teaching a course this semester that I’ve taught a few times before at WSU but never felt like I really had a solid grasp on what it was supposed to do, until now. The course is Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) 356, “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” From what I understand, it began as a course co-taught by folks from the rhetoric faculty and folks from the library, with an emphasis on how to navigate the library’s electronic databases and resources and the increasing interlinking of rhetoric and information technologies in the relatively early days of the World Wide Web. Circumstances have changes substantially since then, both in terms of how undergraduates learn to navigate the digital resources of library databases and the Web and in terms of how the course gets taught and what its emphases are. In the WSU course catalog, its description is as follows:

Social and cultural role of information; research with electronic sources; production, validation, storage, retrieval, evaluation, use, impact of electronic information.

Following some of the guidance and excellent examples of my DTC faculty colleagues (here’s a version from Kristin Arola), I first taught it as something like a contemporary topics and concepts course in WSU’s Digital Technology and Culture major with a focus on the availability and findability of digital information, including units on intellectual property and the politics of search. My adapted course description was as follows:

This class explores the cultural, legal, economic, political, and social roles of information. We will pay particular attention to the ways in which the self and society shape and are shaped by our changing information networks, and we will look at the structures of those networks. We will examine such topics as social and collaborative networking, information retrieval and management, the function of creativity within an information economy, and copyright law. Throughout the course, students will be encouraged to understand the function and limits of rhetoric in an age of information.

While that worked well enough at first, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, and Read more

Security Dreams

I probably shouldn’t do class-related readings on the NSA and information security right before going to bed. The past two nights have been a combination of first-week anxieties and stuff related to Bruce Schneier’s Data and Goliath and Frank Pasquale’s The Black Box Society, the latter of which is one of the books I assigned for Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) 356, Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information, plus some weird house- and family-related stuff.

In Monday night’s dream, I’m wandering in an abandoned, crumbling neighborhood in late afternoon, the facades of houses caved in, burned and abandoned cars lining the streets, a smoky haze in the sky like what’s been visiting Pullman, dimming the sun. I go into one of the houses and it’s filled with irregular but oddly assembled debris: Read more

A Clarification on Camelot

There are good productions of the musical, and the best ones know that the musical is a tragedy, despite the fact that all its best songwriting is comedic, in the first half. If you watch it or listen to it, note: the first two songs (“I Wonder What The King Is Doing Tonight” and “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”) mock the self-involved self-indulgence of their royal principals. That self-indulgence becomes the war-torn destruction of a culture. So yeah, I reject the critical dismissal of the musical as little other than a Kennedy-era bon-bon. “Fie On Goodness” in 1960 was an acknowledgement of the human element of war crimes, fifteen years after the Nuremberg trials.