Production and Appropriation

Last Friday night, I was having dinner and seeing Pan’s Labyrinth with my attorney (she was drunk, of course, and amazed me yet again by somehow fitting a twelve-pack of St. Ides, an enormous Smith & Wesson 460 with the 8-inch barrel, and a two-pound venison tenderloin for snacking on into the hunting vest she wore beneath her DKNY wool coat), so the next installment of Cadet Mala Casey’s story will have to wait until this coming Friday.

Tonight, I went into the city for dinner (vegetarian on Curry Hill at Pongal, on Lexington between 27th and 28th: excellent, excellent Indian food but indifferent service) with some new acquaintances, some old friends, and my Master’s thesis advisor, and so had a stretch of useful focused reading time on the train. And it helped me put together some stuff about value and appropriation that I’ll likely talk about at CCCC.

First: in an article on social networking sites in BT Technology Journal, Judith Donath and danah boyd offer a brief discussion of the ways economic signaling theory can be used to analyze the way people display (wear? badge? perform? publicize?) their connections in social networks. While Donath’s and boyd’s discussion is largely confined to social networking sites like Orkut and Friendster, their conclusions are generalizable to our increasingly networked culture in general, and to blogs in particular: “The expenditure of energy to maintain a connection,” they argue, “is a signal of its importance and of the benefits it bestows” (Donath and boyd 81), or–in other words–a signal of its value. When I leave a comment on a post by Bradley, Jeff, or Joanna, I’m signaling its subjective value to me in ways that are socially reinforced, to varying degrees, by other commenters, while at the same time creating additional value for myself through the labor expended in creating my comment on the post. In much the same way, if Chris or Liz or Amanda leaves a comment here, they’re also producing additional value that can be appropriated by the broader community constituted by our various blogrolls, and the semi-invisible (to us, at least) community of lurkers. And as we know, the scholarly apparatus of citation is another form of value-signaling.

But the concerns emerge when we start to talk about the appropriation of value. We know that information is a non-rivalrous and non-scarce good, but with the intellectual DRM of plagiarism policies, we treat it as rivalrous and scarce. While plagiarism policies predate the information age, they’ve become inextricably embedded in its evolution. In Peers, Pirates, and Persuasion, John Logie (I’m a bit late, but thanks for suggesting it, Clancy!), approvingly deploys Andrew Ross’s 1990 description of “the ongoing attempt to rewrite property law in order to contain the effect of the new information technologies that… have transformed the way in which modern power is exercised and maintained” (Ross 10, qtd. in Logie 31) in order to help illustrate “the degree to which the state depends on the maintenance of stable property lines” (Logie 31). Logie offers a strong critique of the ways bureaucratic attempts to respond to the digital reproducibility of information have wholly failed to account for its not-rivalrous nature. At the same time, though, Logie points out that “U.S. courts have repeatedly rejected the notion that creators of intellectual property are entitled to any special consideration based on their investment of labor,” and cites Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s insistence in Feist v. Rural Telephone Service that “the public’s interest in access to information can trump the creator’s expectation for a return on effort expended” (55).

This is a clearly economic argument, and an apparent rejection of the labor theory of value. (I think. Other perspectives?) Do I agree with it? Well, it’s law, so it doesn’t really matter whether I agree or not–but it strikes me as interesting that the rationale inheres in an emphasis on the consumer rather than on the supplier of information; on the appropriation rather than on the production. Part of my project for this CCCC presentation, then, should be to come up with a basic and rudimentary rhetoric of the process of production, appropriation, distribution, and reproduction of value in writing. (Which might help me compose an answer to Jenn’s important question.)

Production and Appropriation

3 thoughts on “Production and Appropriation

  • February 22, 2007 at 10:20 pm

    Well then I look forward to hearing your answer in NYC:)

  • February 24, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    It’s true that it seems to be consumer-oriented, but there’s also a circulation, network logic there. I’m totally flying by the seat of my pants here, having not read as much alternative economic theory as you have, but I’m wondering if a social logic a la Latour would yield a different way of seeing it–and I’m wondering what a different way of seeing it would yield? That is, can information itself necessarily adhere to a labor theory of value if (as Lefevre argued years ago) invention is a social act, something that is something like a by-product of sociality? And if it can’t, what does that mean for arguments of value?

    Just thinking aloud with you…

  • February 26, 2007 at 9:57 pm

    You’re very likely right, Donna. I know Latour only by what the few comp bloggers talking about him have said, and it’s sounding more and more like I need to read his recent one on the social. And I’m being myopic in looking at a labor theory of value as the only possible alternative. Here’s a question: what I get from Benkler is an understanding the importance of motivation in transactions of value — and in fact, that’s part of my CCCC presentation; the evolution of motivation as spur to economic activity from Smith to Benkler, and its link to the question: why write? The odd recent listserv comment Collin refers to presumes one rationale. There are others. But do we need to talk about motivation to talk about value? Not necessarily — and I wonder if talking about motivation pushes me closer towards the commodifying impulse rather than helping me move away from it.

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