The Limits of Utility

Theorizing 21c

The Limits of Utility

Capitalism as a system describes a series of relationships generating profits–surplus value–as its underlying goal. The particulars of what it produces do not matter so long as it generates profit. Through this construction human labor becomes both central to the entire system and externalized as an abstraction, a generalized ‘labor’ that is independent of any particular individual or group, thus allowing “labor cost” to be added up quantitatively over time. Machinery and automation provide a stable complementary to human labor’s variable costs, since once paid they become fixed (in being paid they do not need to be constantly paid again the way that human wages do). The relationship between the fixed costs of machinery, the variable costs of labor and the surplus value that emerges through commerce (exchange) is fundamental to the calculation of profit generated in capitalist economics. Businesses that do not generate sufficient surplus values go out of business. The “problem” of profit is simple: as costs imposed by wages increase over time, the rate at which profits accrue declines, revealing a steady decline in surplus value generation. These relationships between value and profit are well known in critiques of capitalist production: pursuit of surplus value is the force that drives capitalist expansions into all aspects of human life and society since the rate of profit described by the equation surplus/(constant capital + variable capital) is always diminishing.[1]

Automation, in supplanting human labor, appears to offer a solution to this declining rate of profit through a replacement of the variable costs of human labor with the fixed cost of machinery. By moving towards a complete elision of the variable costs (the wages paid to human labor) from this relationship, the decline can be delayed, inaugurating the cycle where human labor is steadily supplanted by autonomous production, enabling the emergence of digital capitalism. However, this shift is paradigmatic, it challenges the foundational assumptions of capitalism itself while the system undergoes a structural transformation, one as basic as the shift from highly skilled hand labor to steam power and deskilled labor that occurred during the nineteenth-century.

Within this system “value” appears an unquestionable, fundamental axiom of production and consumption–so basic to exchange and social relations that its underlying nature appears immutable:

Instead of simply representing the relations of commodities, it enters now, so to say, into relations with itself. It differentiates itself as original value from itself as surplus value; as the father differentiates himself qua the son, yet both are one and of one age: for only by the surplus value of $10 does the $100 originally advanced become capital.[2]

The invention of surplus value is simply a means to differentiate profit from the values used to produce it in a relationship where one value demonstrates and defines the next–at their foundation, both value and surplus value are a product of human labor being crystalized as a commodity. This relationship between value and human labor reveals a pair of coextensive assumptions: (1) that all production was an answer to some proximate, defined need or use, and (2) that labor costs constrained production in such a way that value necessarily implied use through the causa sui of production. Neither of these axioms are necessarily valid descriptions of autonomous digital production, a changed foundation that introduces a new type of value production: potential value that is independent of either human labor or need. Instead, it is a necessary result of the tendency towards logical completeness that characterizes digital systems generally–the tendency to produce all potentials, even those that lack use, in the semiotic reconfiguration of elements within the database. This range of possibilities justifies the database as well as the range through their potential value, should their utility become apparent. It is a contingent value that cannot be known or predicted that defines this variant, through its subservience to an imagined future application (utility) that production might have; it is futurity revealed through the unintelligent semiotic reconfigurations of machinery.

The problematics of value implicit in the productive shift from physical manufacture to the immaterial semiosis characteristic of digital production emerges from the historical expression of value as a storing of human labor in the tangible form of commodities. Any discussion of “profit” (surplus value) depends on this pair of integral concepts–labor and use–both of which rarely figure in discussions of digital technology and automation except in absentia: the immaterial production characteristic of High Frequency Trading software, digital automation linked to pervasive monitoring (characterizing the value of “social networks” generally). The general complex of relationships between production, facture, and labor in digital capitalism propose a production of values without the need for human involvement (either via labor or through use) as a ‘solution’ to the falling rate of profit; the trajectory of automation offers the reduction-elimination of the variable costs presented by wages. This elision of the human dimension (at the same time as it becomes the primary subject of pervasive monitoring) transforms the issue of use (utility) into a central unanswered question for these new immaterial and semiotic forms of production. This emergence of use is a return to the historical foundations of value: a social relationship dependent on the exchange of commodities that are the storing/preservation of (human) labor. When there is no longer a human component, this primal function–stored past labor[3]–reveals use (utility) as an emergent constraint on value generation, separate from concerns with labor (agency) and the material substance of the commodity (the object) itself. The role of the social in the realization of value demonstrates the centrality of human relationships centered on the use of commodities (not human labor or productive agency) to valorization. Utility becomes the limit/determinant of value for immaterial production (especially apparent in digital distribution, and immanent “on-demand” production using 3D printers), because of the need for exchange to mobilize value in capital. Without use, there is no exchange-value, and thus no surplus or profit: the consideration of surplus value necessarily devolves from utility.

Concerns with “return on investment” (ROI) that are common to immaterial (intellectual) production exacerbate these problematics by masquerading as a concern with use-value. ROI suggests a concern with translating utility (use-value) into profit from expenditure, however, this utility is superficial as ROI is immanent in nature, demanding an immediate application (the “return” or profit), thus maintaining the rate of profit through surplus value generation. Rather than demonstrating a concern with use, such a shift to immediacy instead masks its liquidation in favor of a continuous circulation of capital separate from its containment in/as commodities. The necessity of utility in this construction is merely a pretext for the extraction of profit; it has no significance otherwise. This elision of concerns about utility is common to historical conceptions of capitalism, since utility could not readily be separated from production as it necessarily met human needs. The costs of human labor integrated this constant, but the reduced costs of autonomous (semiotic) labor remove the limits imposed by human labor. Production-without-use is typical for autonomous production, most visible in the vast over-collection of data essential to the database generation of pervasive monitoring called “Big Data.” The translation of this dynamic into digital facture thus further necessitates the rupture with use-value implicit in capitalist productive processes. The configuration of ROI demonstrates in miniature the dynamics of utilization, the productive shift from physical manufacture to immaterial semiosis: a structural demand for minimal expenditures and maximal profit reflects the effacement of limits.

1.

The valorization of agency is the defining moment of capitalism, leading to its dominance as the central concern of value relations. Labor externalizing productive capacity as a commodity for exchange is fundamentally a transfer of agency as commodity. This construction of agency-into-value renders exchange-value equivalent to value in such a way that utility (use-value of the commodity) is both implicit in the formulation and invisible to its consideration; it is the mirror image of the illusory distinction of value and surplus value. With the shift from an economy primarily based in physical production to one based in immaterial production, the importance of agency as constitutive of value increases displacing concerns with utility. As digital technology eliminates the need for human oversight and intelligence, and ‘intelligent’ digital automation becomes able to perform complex tasks that formerly required human intellectual capacity, the elision of human concerns accelerates. It is accompanied by a denial of utility as constraint, in a demonstration of how the aura of the digital eliminates concerns with physicality (use is always a tangible, physical factor even with immaterial commodities).

The term “utilization” describes a parallel process to valorization; utility is not limited to the material designed-function of a commodity. It is multidimensional, acting to limit the semiotic generation of value through the re-introduction of social (human) concerns, via exchange-value, that are not subject to automation or semiotic production. Utilization denies the aura of the digital. Yet it remains a limit on value production: for value to be realized it must first have utility, apparent in the exchange process and identifiable through both the productive focus of pervasive monitoring (surveillance) and the manipulations of “public relations.” It has become the innate concern and immanent subject of pervasive monitoring, and can be readily manipulated through the modulation of digitally delivered stimuli. [4]

Social foundations determinate of both proximate demand and the potentials for exchange are essential to the existence of the commodity itself, as Karl Marx explains in his initial definition of commodity. However, his construction results in a logically consistent framework that systematically represses the social dimensions of value:

If then we leave out of consideration the use-value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labor. But even the product of labor itself has undergone a change in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use-value, we make abstraction at the same time from the material elements and shapes that make the product a use-value; we see in it no longer a table, a house, yarn, or any other useful thing. Its existence as a material thing is put out of sight. Neither can it any longer be regarded as the product of the labor of the joiner, the mason, the spinner, or of any other definite kind of productive labor. Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labor embodied in them, and the concrete forms of that labor; there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of labor, human labor in the abstract.

Let us now consider the residue of each of these products; it consists of the same unsubstantial reality in each, a mere congelation of homogeneous human labor, of labor-power expended without regard to the mode of its expenditure. All that these things now tell us is, that human labor-power has been expended in their production, that human labor is embodied in them. When looked at as crystals of this social substance, common to them all, they are — Values. [5]

This description of value depends on a complex network outside the parameters of automation, where commodities in both material (physical substance) and facture (labor) are realized in/as exchange-value. In Marx’s analysis, the disappearance of social function (use-value) is possible only because it is a redundant variable in his description of value formation. The common element that unifies his definition is human labor (it is assumed as a necessary foundation): human agency lies at the center of this construct. Digital automation and semiotic production elide this central component, introducing a fallacy into this logical reduction. His concept of “exchange-value”–an analytic term focused on the transfer of commodities–simplifies and then eliminates the social aspects of use-value. These “metaphysical” relationships are not subject to valorization and are elided because they cannot be assimilated to his conception of value, but are also redundant within his construct where use and commodity production coincide. There are no commodities-without-use made by human labor: the costs of production prohibit such waste.

Marx’s generalization of “human labor” into an abstract, uniform labor was appropriate in the nineteenth-century, as no labor that generated values existed independent of human agency. However, with semiotic and digital production this aspect of value generation is no longer a given. The dedifferentiation of labor (thus, definition of value) follows nineteenth-century assumptions about production: (1) that all labor requires human agency, (2) that there is a distinction between material and immaterial production, (3) that labor is only ever expended in the production of use-values.This final assumption enables the denial of “the useful qualities of the products themselves.” Semiotic production performed by automated systems generates values-without-use by meeting the structural demands for completeness typified by the database. There is no consideration of utility by the collect-and-save behavior common to pervasive monitoring; it is the indiscriminate character that defines this process, not a limited and focused collection. Value no longer has human labor as a foundational constant, making Marx’s simplification of equivalents and redundancies to arrive at “value” a revelation of their common base. Without a foundation in human labor as constraint on the generation of value this definition becomes problematic, and value seems to emerge without limitation (an affect of the aura of the digital removing physical constraints from consideration).

As demands for profit encounter the limits imposed by the scarcity of capital, digital production, especially the semiotic facture of immaterial commodities, demonstrates the problematic emergent in crises of valuation. The conflict between utility and the aura of the digital is always a demand for attention to physicality and particularity, marked by an increased valorization of the human agency that remains employed in productive capacities (the ‘innovation’ or ‘creative’ industries, as well as the emphasis on hierarchical administrative authority– the CEO–as dominant model for agency-based valuation), coupled with an utter devaluation of any human labor subservient to a dominant administrative authority. This heightened valorization of human agency is a perverse effect of the unintelligent nature of automated semiotic production: while these systems are capable of generating new values autonomously, as is the case with High Frequency Trading computers that employ digital algorithms to determine their “choices,” the construction of these systems still depends on highly specialized human expertise. Utility thus places a limit on value that is complementary to the scarcity of capital limiting immaterial production–even as the aura of the digital acts to negate this consciousness of physicality. Nevertheless, the effacement of human labor is the most obvious dimension in even these specialized types of labor. The limits imposed by utility do not negate the coercive dimensions of immaterial production and agnotology; they highlight them.

1.1

The dependence of commodities on their circulation is implicit in the historical analysis of value. These functions demonstrate the tripartite structure of utility: function (what Marx termed “use-value”), social use, and subjective use. Social relations (exchange-value) are simply an internalized determinant for value–those elements Marx calls “metaphysical” are dependent on use. His description of use-value separates it from the commodity as a reservoir of produced values (past labor)– revealing his assumption of an absolute distinction between immaterial and material production. His discussion of commodities and their relationship to labor makes these traditional understandings of the relationship of labor-commodity-value explicit:

We have seen that when commodities are exchanged, their exchange-value manifests itself as something totally independent of their use-value. But if we abstract from their use-value, there remains their value as defined above. Therefore, the common substance that manifests itself in the exchange-value of commodities, whenever they are exchanged, is their value.[6]

Marx’s definition of value enables the suppression of the social dimensions only so long as labor itself constrains the social, but when this human element is no longer a constant for labor, and production shifts from use-values to values-without-use, the social functions of exchange emerge through utility rather than value. Function (use-value) can be readily identified through demonstrable characteristics internal to the design and nature of the commodity (and is the most common understanding of utility in considerations of value), whereas social use and subjective use may not be directly observable in themselves. The traditional understanding of commodities as reification of productive action (labor) enables their conceptualization as value–revealed in exchange-value–as activity that is independent of use-value (utility). Potential utility has value in this conception to the degree of that potential; this assumption becomes instrumental with pervasive monitoring (“Big Data” and semiotic production generally) where more information is equivalent to greater potential value.

Entirely negated by Marx, the elision of utility comes to reflect the aura of the digital: use imposes constraints through the physical realm of human desire, and demands that production have application (utility). This limitation is of an entirely different order than those limits on semiotic production created by the scarcity of capital. Instead of limits emerging from the allocation of labor (the setting-in-motion of labor depends on there being surplus labor that is idle) use-value constrains exchange and the capacity to generate profit independently of production:

Use-values must therefore never be looked upon as the real aim of the capitalist; neither must the profit on any single transaction. The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at. This boundless greed after riches, this passionate chase after exchange-value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser. The never-ending augmentation of exchange-value, which the miser strives after, by seeking to save his money from circulation, is attained by the more acute capitalist, by constantly throwing it afresh into circulation.[7]

The conception of a “rational miser” reveals Marx’s logic: by eliding the usefulness of the commodity and the nature of the labor used to generate it, the abstract concept of value emerges, yet social connections remain implicit to exchange-value. The limits that Marx assumes–the needs for human labor–are minimized in digital facture. Physical production’s resource and human labor requirements were structural constraints which imposed demands for durability, and insured future profit on these standing reserves of past production that demonstrate the dependency of value on utility through their storage of past labor in/as existing commodities.

However, exchange-value contains an implicit assumption: that there is a ‘market’ for that product. No ‘market’ necessarily means no ability to access the value produced by labor, thus no profit. This formulation links the commodity to its utility (use-value) in an implicit, but direct way. It links the nature of the commodity as a reservoir of past labor to value, creating a direct progression: (human) labor creates the commodity, the commodity enables exchange, and exchange accesses the value reified as the commodity itself through the proportional, mutual transfer of different commodities. This abstraction of labor into value relies on exchange to realize those values: the use for a particular commodity (whether in the direct application–what it is for–or in the metaphysical sense of meeting the consumer’s psychological and emotional demands) is part of what supports a particular valuation of a commodity. These relations are implicit in the concept of exchange-value, even if they play no role in the abstracted description of the process, inherently bringing use into the consideration of value.

Shifting the critical engagement with value via the social constraints imposed by utility reveals these external, social factors as determinate of value through their constraints on use: the utility they describe limits the value possible for any commodity, quite apart from both the commodities’ existence as a product of physical materials and facture. These social dimensions of use (apart from agency) provide a means to consider value as subordinate to utility. The different price of a cotton shirt sold in a “Walmart store” versus the same shirt sold in a “boutique store” is not simply a matter of material relations or labor time–not described by use-value as such–the distinction between these prices is a reflection of social use. These different stores serve different social strata, with the princes charged for the same commodity being a function of this social positioning. It demonstrates a metaphysical value independent of the material/facture of the commodity in question. The metaphysical dimensions of exchange-value depend on the human-determined utility of the commodity, rendering value subordinate to these human concerns.

Differences in value for similar (or identical) production are apparently “irrational” only when the metaphysical components of the social relationships that create value are ignored or denied. Because value is a social relationship dependent on exchange, the relative social positions (hieratic) involved in this process define the terms under which exchange takes place. It is precisely the difficulty of accounting for the complex, dynamic hierarchy characteristic of any human society that renders this dimension of value problematic for analysis, as the positions are neither readily dualistic nor immutably fixed. This fluidity of arrangement necessitates the application and expansion of pervasive monitoring into all social relationships.

Subjective use complicates this social function still further by introducing contingent factors into the determination of value. It is precisely at the juncture where both social hierarchy and utility intersects with physical production (material/facture) that subjective use becomes determinant of individual economic decisions. The contingent nature of subjective use expands utility beyond the confines of designated function. Subjective use cannot be accounted for in the estimations of value a priori–yet it is not to be banished from consideration: the ambiguity introduced by subjectivity necessitates continuous revaluation, apparent in the always-expanding nature of pervasive monitoring, as much as in the contingent, nodal nature that defines the state of information. This complexity does not negate value, it demonstrates its (bounded) scope.

2.

The rise of semiotic production in digital capitalism has changed the nature of value and the organization of labor, with a concomitant effect on the currency: it is no longer a “saving” of past labor. The problematic aspect of this link becomes apparent in digital capitalism’s shift to a currency based in futurity–currency as a setting-in-motion of labor, rather than preserving of past labor. The antagonistic relationship between digital capitalism and the social is a result of separating value from the proximate concerns of social reproduction and the maintenance of living labor (the human population). It is a structural product of eliding both historical production and proximate social concerns except in an implicit, assumptive description of value.

This separation of value from labor enables the law of automation and the shift from human to automated systems. “At the same time, it also begins a trajectory towards currency as a setting-in-motion of labor: this debt-based currency is founded upon the abstracted agency it represents. The ascendency of agency–both in terms of property relations (i.e. ‘intellectual property’) and productive activity–is responsible for the fundamental crisis of value that accompanies the shift from currency-as-commodity to currency-as-futurity.

The shift to currency as a future value is a basic transformation reflecting underlying shifts in the nature of value production: the dominance of semiosis has produced a currency that does not preserve past labor (value). It is instead a lien against future production (a debt that acts to set labor in motion). The shift to debt-basis that defines currency is a logical extension of capitalism’s foundations in reified agency–the externalization of labor’s productive capacity that circulates as a commodity is a disembodiment of agency, its separation from the labor that embodies it. Futurity is the essential condition of this organization of value: it is not oriented towards established production, but instead focuses on the capacity to call into existence (futurity) that agency embodies; it is an economics of agency, not the preservation of labor in commodities. Shifting value from preservation of past labor to setting-in-motion of future labor means the current demands of human labor–the social requirements that human labor is able to purchase commodities (always already primarily connected with use–food, clothing, housing, health care, etc.–particular to the maintenance of the social) are eliminated from consideration precisely because they do not figure in the structural logic of digital capitalism.

Limits imposed by utility for the exchange of commodities reveals the nature of the setting-in-motion basis of currency in digital capitalism. The historical understanding of value identifies it with commodities that “save” labor already performed–labor that is preserved through the commodities thus generated, physical objects whose value is linked to the use-value that they have. This shift is a rupture with both classically conceived value and basic assumptions about the organization of labor in capitalist economies. The valorization of agency that lies at the heart of capitalist production places capitalism itself in question once autonomous automation (digital facture) attenuates the need for human involvement in production. It is a fundamental change that becomes apparent in a transformation of the relationship between currency, commodity, and past labor– a shift that brings the role of agency inherently into the construction of value, but as an implicit structural dimension, rather than an explicit element of the value generation process.

This transfer is a structural outcome of the initial shift to externalize workers’ agency (the transformation of their productive capacity into a commodity that can then be exchanged) initially in service to commands (the dictates of both industrial production’s deskilling of labor, and the simultaneous subordination of it to the mechanical needs of this production) that are independent of labor, but which act to reify the demands of the capitalist who controls the production itself (only the capitalist has agency in capitalism, all other forms of agency are subservient to this dominant control). The replacement of human labor in the generation of commodities via autonomous systems is not simply a change in production, it is also a fundamental shift in the nature of value. Starting with the regimented mechanical demands of nineteenth-century industrial production, and expanding with the assembly line’s fragmentation of processes that enabled automation, then accelerating in autonomous digital productive technologies, ‘agency’ operates as an externalized and independent force that, following the aura of the digital, appears to transcend its physical, human foundations. Shifts in the conceptualization of exchange follow these basic changes in/to production technologies.

2.1

In info-poor societies value was determined over time as wholly a function of utility–only those things with functional application were preserved by the archive. The preservation and accessing of information before digital technology strictly constrained the quantity of what could be preserved to that information that had a direct functional application–utility. The “logic of the archive” reveals this conversion of commodity form into utility (use-value) as a form of scarcity emerging within digital production. This construction brings human wants, needs, and desires into the framework of valorization both directly (through the functional role of the commodity) and indirectly (through the consumer’s desire for the commodity quite apart from its uses).

The digital archive’s automatic archiving of all information creates an info-rich society; this “unfinite” archive becomes apparent in the universal preservation of data created by pervasive monitoring. The directive to collect, collate, and contain has replaced the historical problems of preservation with new problems of sorting, organizing, and interpreting. This attempt to “save everything by default” reflects an aspiration to the state of information where all data is valuable. Connecting utility to both value and exchange is thus incompatible with immaterial production’s unintelligent mode of facture: apparent in how semiosis creates value-without-use.

However, this shift only serves to make the implicit limiting factor of utility more apparent: the need for human guidance in sorting, organizing, and interpreting these records. The potential values generated by autonomous processing devolve upon specific human demands and ultimately require human action to implement as value. The apparent concentration of agency is symptomatic of its negation by autonomous systems. The relationships between this past production and immanent use/demand required there be physical reserves of the already-produced; the dynamic of production versus demand informs the economic cycles of expansion and collapse as production exceeds demand and profit decreases. The capacity of labor to externalize its productive capacity when confronted by automated technology makes utility apparent: in the increased, general valorization of human agency as digital facture becomes dominant, only those laborers with the appropriate commodity-skills retain value. The shift from physical production to immaterial (and intellectual) production makes this constraint apparent as the number of highly trained, skilled labor in a ‘creative economy’ rapidly creates an imbalance between available human resources and the need for those resources by industry. The various attempts to remove this human action serve to concentrate the agency distributed within the network of digital systems into a decreased number of individuals (humans), implementing social hierarchy as technical apparatus–the demands for human agency throughout the system are radically reduced, while the role (and need for) intelligent labor remains constant.

2.2

This semiotic production of value proceeds without concern for its use: the “utility” of the database is dependent on the full set of information it contains, rather than as individual configurations rendered through singular semiotic arrangements. Unlike the info-poor society, whose information scarcity and limited access were productive of inherent constraints on utility, in an info-rich society the scarcity and difficulty of information access is replaced by an over-production and excess availability of information. The digital aspiration to rendering the state of information as instrumentality means the generation of such an info-rich society. Under these conditions of excess and over abundance, in place of the historical condition of utility-being-constrained (that there were uses that could be employed if there were greater information available–the ability to create utility becomes a constraint)there is more information available than there are uses to which it could be applied.

The resulting immaterially produced values exist without function–they are an immaterial standing reserve awaiting human demand which is always only partial. However, the immaterial surplus (unlike a physical standing reserve) does not consume resources in the same manner that physical production always does–thus the immaterial surplus (following the aspiration to the state of information) becomes immanent value-without-use. Its existence is a structural necessity demanded by the instrumentalist conception of digital technology.

The dehumanization of productive (creative, design, and fabrication) processes in the development of immaterial production is one where traditional problematics of human agency collapse into a new duality: the human (utility) and the semiotic (value). Unlike the historical subservience of labor’s agency to the directives of management, this new arrangement implies creation entirely without (human) agency: an autonomous production where the contingent desires of each singular demand gives particular shape to variable production, enabled by individualized facture. It is a development that has anticipatory echoes throughout digital capitalism. This type of contingent facture is an emergent use of the same semiotic production technologies–even when the production renders a physical, 3D object: it is a triumph of facture enabled by digital technology as the “print-out.” The trajectory of twentieth-century industrial capitalism from production based in long-term durability to the limited “product life” of consumer capitalism in the second half of the century, to immanently individual, fundamentally disposable production, mirrors the rise of digital capitalism.

This fundamental inversion of the historical relationship between use and potential transforms the role of utility and consequently, its links to value and agency. The semiotic protocols that characterize automated immaterial production–the systematic permutation of all potential relationships within a given set of terms–proceeds independently of human monitoring and oversight, severing its generative action from the directed concerns of specific application. All potentials are realized in an autonomous creation of logical completeness. It is not an issue of lacking agency required for creating value, but of applications.

Surveillance demonstrates this parasitic dependence on immaterial production of value-without-use by rendering its subjects for analysis. This relationship becomes apparent most clearly in the “memory” of social media: the ability to instantly recall past relationships into the present–as with Facebook re-presenting the past with their automated “On This Day” feature:

On This Day shows content from this date in the past. For example, you might see past status updates, photos, posts from friends and other things you’ve shared or been tagged in – from one year ago, two years ago, and so on. Only you will see this content unless you decide to share it with your friends.[8]

While this type of automated production is not new (it has been a consistent feature of “digital authorship”), it does illuminate the connections of automated production, the databased information characteristic of “Big Data” and the unintelligent nature of semiotic production: the questionable utility of such an automated recall is apparent in the provision that “only you will see this content unless you decide to share it with your friends.” It is immanent nostalgia–affect–constructed and autonomously delivered for singular (potential) consumption. While the digital system can provide immediate recall, it depends on human agency for its utility to become value; the particular use (its actual utility) is the value.

This distinction separates the concerns with utility that typify human agency from the ever expanding demands of pervasive monitoring and the state of information to record and save everything that can be recorded. The centralization of authority in the hierarchies of management within corporate structures develop this disembodied agency specifically as a requirement of the capitalist system itself, while the shift from a human-based hierarchy to one that is instrumental (the digital) ensures the maintenance of that order independent of human control. The elimination of use-value from the constraints on this productive system (semiotic, physical, autonomous) serves to elide the human element from consideration. The protocol of recombination and permutation in immaterial production (semiosis) is distinct from the meaning-construction of a human-oriented semiotic process. The resulting values are unintelligent: consequently, the state of information cannot accommodate utility except as an additional dimension among others. By aspiring to the state of information, the database places equal emphasis on all information, rendering potential and actual use equivalent for its purposes of collection. The semiotic production that this database enables is one where all hierarchies, all orders become equivalent datapoints–an effect of the state of information’s transformation of all existing distinction as mere data, those orders that distinguish and categorize simply becoming additional dimensions of recording. The database itself is useless, transforming all functions into data: data changes distinction into its opposite, allowing the continuous rearrangements of semiotic production to continue without constraint. This process is a reflection of the unintelligent nature of digital semiosis, manifest in the database’s elision of distinctions via becoming-data. Utility (use) thus emerges as a function not of semiotic procedures, but as the remainder that identifies (makes apparent) agency; without utility there is no value in/for agency. The potential values autonomously generated by semiotic production will never be realized without the intervention of utility to set in motion the exchange process.

3.

Commodity forms and their function as stored values represent a significant impediment to the circulation of capital: a standing reserve (such as when it is “in stock” at a store awaiting sale) means that the values rendered in the commodity form are potential, rather than realized. Thus this stock-on-hand poses a dilemma for Marx’s “clever miser”: it is a significant store of value, yet at the same time, this value remains unrealized without demand–i.e. until it finds application via utility that mobilizes this stored commodity into and through exchange. Prior to this activity, the “value”–and thus the capital it represents–is being “held.” The problem is simple: when not being exchanged via commerce, commodities are potential future sources of value that are awaiting a demand for their value. Only in exchange do these stored commodities realize the past labor value as profit for capitalists–thus their production and storage represent a financial risk. Globalized production and decentralized distribution, coupled with a digitally-integrated inventory tracking system, demonstrate an attempt to eliminate the ‘standing reserve’ of commodities that would historically be ‘on hand’ in the physical retail store. It is a fundamental irony of this development that the historical meaning of “store”–a place where commodities are held pending need–is no longer an accurate designation for these locations. The commodities that would have been “stored” in them are now held at other locations–most commonly at a regional level–and presented to potential customers on an “as-needed” basis. This process is the “on-demand” of immaterial distribution via the digital download, or the ‘just-in-time’ restocking of physical shelves characteristic of digital capitalism. The superficial appearance of an “end to scarcity” common to both digital distribution and an “just-in-time” distribution is the illusion that the digital poses a potential “end” to capitalism itself through its resolution of the problematics of limits versus demand. By always having everything apparently available on hand, digital technology encourages this illusion while masking the very real scarcity and precariousness that lies beneath “just-in-time” availability–shortages and failure of supply are always immanent, a fact implicit in the language of “just-in-time” itself. Commodity availability governed by these digital systems employs pervasive monitoring to determine the allocation of commodity-resources thus imposes the affect of non-scarcity at the local level.

Both the “on-demand” and “just-in-time” distribution models are an attempt to transform utility into a productive value via the mediation of digital technology (both as facture and as instrumentality/administration) in regimenting and orchestrating the availability and distribution of commodities. Inventory control and monitoring thus is designed to coincide with the same immediate availability of digital, immaterial products in physical terms. The contingent nature of shortages under such a regime–understood as temporary limitations on the productive capability and delivery–causes the supply and distribution of material commodities to disappear into the façade of immanent availability. The “just-in-time” distribution model for commodities, enabled by digital technology, requires a continuous tracking and monitoring of demand versus ‘standing reserves’ to create an illusion of constant, universal availability while at the same time having a small, limited actual standing reserve–the circulatory potentials of the values ‘contained’ by physical commodities are (ideally) maximized in the design of this process of distribution for immanent exchange. Without pervasive monitoring of both market and inventory deployed as predictive technology the “just-in-time” model becomes increasingly prone to the scarcity it masks.

The development of continuous monitoring of all commodities via technologies such as RIFD tags thus follows as a necessary and logically required support for this distribution. The progressive expansion of this type of monitoring technology into all physical commodities necessarily follows the same expansive logic as surveillance generally–tracking inventory is only half of the dataset. Predicting demand (in terms of necessity) requires a similarly detailed database of use.

The anticipatory dimension of “just-in-time” distribution finds corollary in the potential for the “Internet of Things” (IoT) to produce a complete cycle of monitoring: all commodities are identified individually and tracked throughout their functional lifespan at the end of which they return to being “raw material” for a new production–an ouroboros-like sequence of production-use-breakdown that renders value a reflection of indistinct, transient stages in an on-going cycle of autonomous generation for human-dependent use.

3.1

Automation reified in the digital inventory tracking system that governs shipments and distributions of commodities depends on low cost, rapid transportation as well as these algorithmic predictions of demand dependent on pervasive monitoring. It is a system where the ‘standing reserve’ represented by past labor production has been liquidated as an ‘unnecessary’ loss of value into the potentialities of futurity; it is a system that maximizes the profit on exchange, but creates a continuous precarity where any interruption of the system poses a rapidly increasing danger of shortages and scarcity.

Walmart is the best-known innovator in deploying these technologies of pervasive monitoring for the implementation of “just-in-time” inventory management. The explicit purpose of this technology has been to maximize the profit on this standing reserve by eliding as much of the physical stock-on-hand as possible, replacing it with an extensive, global supply and delivery system they call “logistics” in an acknowledgement of the role analysis plays in this distribution technology. As the Walmart website explains:

Ever wonder how the products you see on our shelves get there? It all comes down to logistics, and it’s how Walmart works. Every year, we move millions of products from manufacturers to Walmart distribution centers, and from distribution centers to the shelves in our stores.

Walmart’s 158 are hubs of activity for our business. Our distribution operation is one of the largest in the world. Walmart logistics has a fleet of 6,500 tractors, 55,000 trailers and more than 7,000 drivers.

[. . .]

Each distribution center is more than 1 million square feet in size, and uses more than 5 miles of conveyor belts to keep products moving to our stores 24 hours a day.

Every distribution center supports 90 to 100 stores in 200-mile radius.

[. . .]

Drivers follow the most efficient routes to their destinations, and work to minimize the number of “empty miles” they drive. This way, we use less fuel, we drive fewer miles and we maximize the merchandise we deliver while minimizing our environmental impact.[9]

The complexity of this distribution system requires digital technology to maintain its operation and the circulation of commodities between distribution center and market. One of its primary features, its purpose even, is to minimize the necessity for stocking shelves in the marketplace, thus reducing the need for a standing reserve. In place of this physical presence in the store commodities circulate within a network that models the flows of capital it enables. The circulation of commodities between locations employing pervasive monitoring to track the actual location versus the proximate demand ideally eliminates the functional role of the standing reserve in addressing human demand, but in the process transforms the resilience created by the standing reserve into a precarity where shortages and scarcity are always immanent. This emergent instability depends on the capacity of both digital monitoring and physical network of distribution and manufacturing globally to escape from the inherently emergent shortage.

The appearance of an elision of scarcity produced by this system is an illusion that disguises scarcity as the proximate delivery of commodities “just-in-time”–in advance of the inevitable shortage. In the process, the elimination of a standing reserve acts to mobilize the capital that would otherwise be contained in/by the commodities awaiting valorization. This process employs the aura of the digital via its apparent end to scarcity (“just-in-time” is an illusion of abundance), but unlike digital objects that are immaterial, this transfer acts within the realm of physical objects. However, the disappearance of the actual costs and resource demands by this “just-in-time” distribution vanish from consideration: the physical networks and energy consumption required to maintain it.

To the extent that the resource demands are considered, instead of being posed as external costs, separate from the “just-in-time” system, they are presented specifically as savings–the reduction of “the number of ’empty miles'” driven–rather than a consideration of whether this system means the total volume of miles driven has increased overall. The conception is only parsed in terms of waste (“empty miles”) not consumption of resources, thus allowing its rhetorical recuperation as a saving of resources and denial of expenditure.

3.2

The “sharing economy” acts to mobilize the “standing reserve” of past production in the same ways that “just-in-time” distribution liquidates those potential values held in reserve by current production. This particular “reserve” is particularly attractive to secondary valorization (valorization after its initial exchange) since these commodities have already demonstrated their utility via exchange: succeeding mobilizations of this value gradually reduces it as the commodity becomes worn and eventually breakdown in a final conversion from commodity to material-for-further-production. These reserved values become mobile through digitally enabled liquidation–via communications enabled by digital processing and networking–the “sharing economy” is concerned with the transformation of privately-held reserves into active forms of valorization.

The inherent imbalance in this “sharing economy” lies with the distinction between a partial or “part time” use of past production whose exchange value lies outside the commercial space of the store (such as a “spare room” or automobile privately purchased) and the continuous demand for value generation posed by capitalism itself that dominates the digital technology companies that make this mobilization possible. This mobilization gradually shifts, transforming a local, private “sharing” economy focused on under-utilized past production to an international “informal” economy outside legal restraints and ignoring both local and national regulation (such as taxation and wage laws).

This trajectory is apparent in companies such as Uber, that have shifted from being a part time mobilizer of under-utilized private vehicles to a company that supports the purchase of new vehicles specifically for use by its full time drivers: the shift is from a software that enables the use of existing property to one that requires entirely new production to support its value extraction. Once this transition happens, it is no longer “sharing”–private individuals engaged in extraction of potential value from the standing reserve of their property–but a digitally-enabled example of traditional labor. The transformation happens because there is only a limited amount of value held in reserve by the past production that is set in motion, forcing a shift to more traditional forms of facture and production subject to immanent automation; in Uber’s case, automation takes the form of automobiles–the transition to a self-driving taxi that replaces human labor, rendering the “sharing economy” represented by this model a farce: the human driver is ultimately placed in the same disposable position as the horse.

3.3

The development of 3D printing using digitally distributed files that are rendered into physical commodities suggests an emergent parallel shift in physical production comparable to what has already occurred with immaterial production. This technology presents the same potential for automation that other forms of 2D digital printing have already accomplished. A shift in manufacturing, from human-operated tools to autonomous tools, in which the role of human operation is increasingly minimized as the technologies develop. The capacity of “on-demand” production to engage all contingencies of individual desire and expectation invert the classical paradigm of industrial production (via assembly line). The archetypal dictates of the uniform Modernist assembly line where “you can have any color as long as you want black” becomes variable, able to match each demand posed–while at the same time mutandis mutandi, remaining a uniform example of industrial facture. The contingency that contradicts the assembly line of historical manufacture becomes a “natural” condition for digital facture. In this regard, the immaterial availability of electronic commodities and the distribution of physical commodities converges with the 3D printer: the production-distribution of commodities assumes at once a physical form contained by the immaterial capabilities of digital facture. The dependence of this digital facture on a materialist foundation–the resources transformed by the printing process–does not figure in the apparent unconstraint it poses for productive facture. The illusion of a direct connection between design–facture–availability causes the dependent aspects of this production to disappear into a contingency that seemingly has no relevance for the productive capacity, reflecting the aura of the digital’s stripping of exactly these constraints from consciousness.

Digital facture transforms the relationship between tool and operator, altering the necessity for (and nature of) human agency in production: it is no longer an issue of machine tools amplifying human action, but of autonomous tools supplanting the human entirely. The “skill” of production becomes a function of printer resolution and internal structure within the virtual files rendered as 3D physical objects, rather than the dexterity and human agency employed directly in manufacture. Coupled with an autonomous design process, the necessity for human agency in production thus comes into question even as it increases the adaptability of production to match individual human desires. This displacement of human agency necessarily shifts the foundation for value away from past labor to being contingent entirely upon social relationships–utility demonstrated via exchange-value. Utilization transforms immanent exchange, rendering potentials-for-value into the immanent value manifest through the exchange process.

3.4

The absolute limit on the automated generation of values in digital capitalism necessarily proceeds from utility. The determinant of ‘value’ within this changed network of production-distribution reveals ‘use’ as primary, rather than secondary to ‘commodity function’: it is a reflection of the fundamental shift that is most apparent in digital distribution. The movement towards a dematerialization of human labor into automation does not escape the limits of utility. Exchange-value fundamentally devolves into the particularities of use, rendering the productive dimensions of the facture process (physical/immaterial) increasingly irrelevant. The shift to automation renders human labor contingent, but does not impact utilization: the same human element inherent in utility as use is disconnected from the concerns of labor (agency), especially in its social and subjective dimensions. The immediate accessibility and immanent availability posed by the digital (in the form of the search function) renders the illusion of an end to the historical scarcity of commodity production. Where historically the accessibility and availability of past production was strictly limited by its physicality (i.e. its presence within the archive or as a standing reserve), the immaterial nature of digital objects renders them seemingly always (infinitely) available. However, the capacity to use these immaterial objects remains limited–the scarcity is not one of production but function. While the digital automation can generate commodity forms (and thus produces values) without concern for the meaning of that production–digital automation is unintelligent–whether that production has exchange-value depends on its finding a human-directed application: it depends on ‘use-value.’

The ascendency of utility as determinant of value is fundamentally a question of social organization. It is the enacting–utility–that transforms potential use into actual value, revealing the limiting function that utility has on pervasive monitoring. Thus agency depends on use for its own emergence, as there are many instances of use that render the question of agency moot. There is no agency to breathing ‘clean air,’ yet it is also unquestionably a particular use (consider the function of air filters, oxygen tanks, and so on, in the production of ‘clean air’) that does not typically depend on agency for its existence. The production of ‘clean air’ is the exception, rather than typical. The rendering of use (utility) and its potential application become distinct from each other through this process as the generation of potential uses via immaterial production is not productive of value, only the opportunity for value. They are intimately linked: as use reveals agency, it is agency that transforms potential use into particular use. However, to insist on use as an essential part of this dynamic forces a reconsideration of their relations. The disappearance of use as a concern in considerations of value has rendered its role in this dynamic invisible: to reclaim a central position for use necessarily entails a denigration of agency.

This separation suggests the possibility for a critical utility that is not materialist and which is not concerned with the production of value. Such a proposition is necessarily vague as its details can only emerge through application (use). Without these centers of attraction, what remains for analysis and concern is specifically the social–the ways that social and subjective uses both fall under and challenge the authority being reified and enacted through digital technology and production. The problem in an info-rich society is not access to or availability of information, but the ways that information becomes a use-value. Issues of ethics, not value production, become central to this analysis in an elision of agency from consideration. It is not a question of who has agency and who does not, but of utilization becoming the core determinant of value–a transition from an economics of externalized agency to one of functional application. It marks a return of human social constraints into a dynamic that denies their presence or significance. This denial, itself an exaggeration of the aura of the digital, demonstrates the central (but contingent) function of the social (utility) that produces in exchange the transformation of potential into actual value. Without this social function, value remains not merely potential, but unrealizable.

4.

With the emergence of potential value, the parasitic dependence of value on use becomes apparent. Without the social dimensions that reflect the organization and needs of human society, value is a meaningless abstraction that is unrealized and unrealizable. This reversion to the social is implicit in the organization of the vehicle(s) of exchange–currency–and its reification of social relations as a mechanism of differentiation, allocation and organization of resources, and control over populations and the systems of production. The link between production and value lies with the mediating role of use in orchestrating social demands, both in terms of material need and subjective functions: beyond the satisfaction of basic survival, the subjective uses dominate value directly through their expansion of value along divisive lines of social caste and class differentiation/organization.

While these subjective uses are immaterial in nature, they assume tangible material dimensions through their categorization of facture as demonstrative of a social order within society. This anthropological ordering of society reflects the social relationships that define both exchange and the emergence of value–the subjective, social utility of any particular commodity (material or immaterial).

The increasing need for agnotological processes and affective labor to maintain the equilibrium of digital capitalism (collapse is always immanent) provides a means to valorize these social distinctions identified by pervasive monitoring (and are the focus of collection within the database). It is through the continuous assertion of difference and maintenance of social distinctions which isolate individuals as unique markets that the digital author finds form, in the process transforming social relationships into immanent values through their potential organization within the database. This value is realized both as the prompt for human action (the “share” offered by On This Day) and the results of that prompt–whatever form they may take. The translation of autonomously generated potential value into realized value (itself begetting more potential value) proceeds through the recording of human response.

4.1

The shift from immaterial to material potential value is the immanent function of “on-demand” production: the creation of immediate, customizable and individually delivered facture renders the traditional standing reserve an historical phenomenon. This process of custom fabrication to meet singular orders dramatically emerged with book publishing at the end of the twentieth-century. The printing of individual books to meet the demand for a singular copy reveals the historical difference between mass production and custom production as it elides this distinction: it is possible to have a mass produced commodity available on an on-going but produced on an ad hoc basis. While this type of small-scale production has always been possible in principle, the costs of such singular production were high enough as to render it economically infeasible. Digital printing presses (2D printing) enable the production of singular copies of books, but remove the restrictions imposed historically–the preparation of presses, printing, binding–that would have made single copies too expensive to produce.[10] A similar process to that of 2D printing is emergent with 3D printing, as the production of tangible goods of increasingly complex nature appears first as an augmentation of traditional manufacturing, then as its replacement. The shift from a standing reserve of finished products to the need for a volume of raw material on hand is more than just a shifting of production sites–it is the transition to a society where material production demonstrates its contingent reliance on human demands, revealing the dominance of use over all forms of value.

The precarity of this emergence becomes apparent in the ways that “on-demand” production and “just-in-time” availability are incompatible: the logical demands of “just-in-time” require that production occur in advance of human demand–meeting the demand as it emerges.; “On-demand,” while seemingly immediate, is production that appears following human demand. The obvious ‘middle path’ where a limited amount of “on-demand” production is held in reserve–thus enabling the illusion of an end to scarcity through “just in time”–does not address the problem posed by potential value: that until there is a human demand for the commodity, it has no value, but consumes resources and (once produced) is a standing reserve that renders values immobile. The immanent precarity posed by potential value means that the maintenance of any standing reserves becomes increasingly impossible as the volume of potential values grows exponentially, but human demands remain connected to utility.

4.2

Potential value is an immanently managerial, even Pavlovian, mode of valorization that becomes apparent through the mismatch of “just-in-time” and “on-demand” production. The hazard posed by a standing reserve as an immobilization of capital creates a structural demand for the management and direction of human desires to insure demand for particular production. “On-demand” facture proceeds from idiosyncratic human demands, many of them a production of subjective uses. The mediating role of agnotology and surveillance in creating and directing this subjectivity thus confirms the precarity through the role of affective production in creating the social distinctions that isolate individuals as singular markets for production/surveillance.

This network is self-reinforcing; these are structural demands imposed by the need to maintain and accelerate the circulation of capital when confronted by an expanding range of semiotically-generated potential values that cannot be realized as value precisely because these potentials are useless. What this conflict reveals is a new paradox specific to digital capitalism. Unlike historical capitalism’s need for continually expanding, escalating value which is shared by digital capitalism, there is an additional paradox: the need to realize all potential values as value, that reflects the antipathy between digital capitalism and human society. The liquidation of all standing reserves and preserved value (past labor) by digital capitalism are not simply an attempt to resolve the declining rate of profit but result from systemic attempts to overcome the limits imposed by utility on value generation.

 

Notes
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[1] Deleuze, Giles and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 222-234.

[2] Marx, Karl. Capital: Volume 1 (London: Penguin Classics Reprint edition: 1990), 154.

[3] The term “past labor” is preferred over alternatives such as “dead labor” as these imply their inversion–“living labor”–that necessarily would exclude the autonomous and never-alive labor of the digital system. The term “past labor” does not have this implication, instead focusing attention on the anteriority of this production, rather than implying its source.

[4] Kramer, Adam D. I.; Jamie E. Guillory; Jeffrey T. Hancock. “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Issue 24, June 17, 2014, (111:8788–8790; first published June 2, 2014; 10.1073/pnas.1320040111) (http://www.pnas.org/content/111/24/8788.full.pdf accessed May 27, 2015).

[5] Marx, 8-9.

[6] Marx, 9.

[7] Marx, 92.

[8] Gheller, Jonathan. “Introducing On This Day: A New Way to Look Back at Photos and Memories on Facebook,” March 24, 2015, Facebook press release on website, http://newsroom.fb.com/news/2015/03/introducing-on-this-day-a-new-way-to-look-back-at-photos-and-memories-on-facebook/ (accessed May 27, 2015).

[9] Walmart website (http://www.walmart.com accessed May 27, 2015).

[10] The reduction of printing costs does not eliminate production costs, only their obstruction via the aura of the digital. For a discussion of these costs, see: Eileen A. Joy, “Let Us Now Stand Up For Bastards” in Chiasma, no. 2, 2015 (https://westernchiasma.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/2.pdf) and Johanna Drucker, “Pixel Dust: Illusions of Innovation in Scholarly Publishing,” in Los Angeles Review of Books, January 16, 2014 (http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/pixel-dust-illusions-innovation-scholarly-publishing) both retrieved August 3, 2015.

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Michael Betancourt is an artist, historian, theorist, and curator. He is the author of The ____________ Manifesto, and has exhibited internationally since 1993. His writing has been translated into Chinese, French, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Persian, Portuguese, and Spanish. His book, The Critique of Digital Capitalism, is forthcoming from Punctum Books. Visit his website for more information: michaelbetancourt.com.