Wikileaks and the limits of protocol

I recently contributed a chapter to the book, Face the Future: Tools for the Modern Media Age. The Internet and Journalism Today. My chapter is called Wikileaks and the limits of protocol and can be downloaded from our research repository. Here’s the abstract.

In this chapter, I reflect on Wikileaks and its use of technology to achieve freedom in capitalist society. Wikileaks represents an avant-garde form of media (i.e. networked, cryptographic), with traditional democratic values: opposing power and seeking the truth. At times, http://wikileaks.org appears broken and half abandoned and at other times, it is clearly operating beyond the level of government efficiency and military intelligence. It has received both high acclaim and severe criticism from human rights organisations, the mainstream media and governments. It is a really existing threat to traditional forms of power and control yet, I suggest, it is fundamentally restrained by liberal ideology of freedom and democracy and the protocological limits of cybernetic capitalism.

Misunderstanding capitalism and OER

David Wiley has just posted about Openness, Socialism and Capitalism. Comments are turned off on his blog, so I thought I’d reply here.

David’s post makes a good point: tax payer’s money that funds research, teaching and learning, should correspond to the tax payer being one of the recipients of the outcomes of research, teaching and learning; in other words, Open Access and Open Educational Resources. He refers to this as BOGO (‘Buy One, Get One’). To most readers, I think this will appear to be common-sense.

The problem I have with David’s post is this common-sense view that ‘capitalism’ and ‘markets’ are synonymous and that if the ‘flaws’ in the market were fixed, capitalism would serve tax payers well. David makes a common error in confusing capitalism with commerce. Capitalism is a historically specific method of organising social relations among people while commerce, which sometimes takes place in markets, existed prior to the development of capitalism in the 16th century.  I found Ellen Meiksins Wood’s book on the Origins of Capitalism very useful in understanding this point. The Monthly Review published a relevant chapter from the book which is a quick read. My point here is that in simple commerce or trade in non-capitalist societies, you might have expected to get a fair return on your money, but under capitalism, you should always expect to receive something worth less than you paid for it. I paid £400 for a TV, but I know that the cost of producing and selling that TV did not cost £400. Profit is extracted at every step in the production and exchange process, making my TV cost more to me than the actual cost of that TV. Under capitalism, we accept this for the private sector, but I think that David’s point is that publicly funded goods and services, such as educational outputs should be treated differently. I agree that seems fair.

David writes about a ‘fundamental social contract that allows markets to function’, giving the example of buying a pizza. A discussion around this ‘social contract’ can tell us more about capitalism than simply referring to ‘markets’. The ‘social contract’ refers to our shared understanding of the role of private property in society and an acknowledgement of the laws in place which protect private property. When the enforcement of social order breaks down in society or when someone exists in absolute poverty, this ‘social contract’ is often ignored and we call it looting or theft. In short, the ‘social contract’, although not an explicit written contract at the time of transaction, is underwritten in law and enforced through the role of the police and to a lesser extent other social institutions, such as education. Mark Neocleous has written a nice book about this called The Fabrication of Social Order, where he discusses the historical role of the police in enforcing ‘order’ (the functioning of private property and waged labour) in capitalist society.

The main point where I think David is mistaken is the expectation that under capitalism, epitomised by the functioning of markets, tax payers should expect to receive goods and services equal to the amount that is paid in taxes: you pay for a pizza and you get the whole damn pizza; you pay for education and you get full access to education. This makes sense but in my view is a naive view of the functioning of capitalism.

One of the defining features of capitalism is the extraction of ‘surplus value‘ from the work or labour that we are forced to undertake. The basic idea is that I work 8hrs/day but the value of the output of that work is worth more to my employer than the wage I am paid for 8hrs work. This is the basis for exploitation in capitalist society, which most of us participate in. We’re all aware that capitalism relies heavily on technology to improve the creation of surplus value out of labour (Meiksins Wood writes about the word ‘improve’ – very interesting and relevant to this discussion). Marx wrote about the shift from the formal subordination of labour to capital (the creation of a labour market in early stage capitalism) to the real subordination of labour to capital: the discipline of technology on labour and the transformation of the role of labour in the production process, which in turn effects a chain of social relations throughout society, from worker to shareholder. The important point here is to recognise that capitalism is not isolated to private trade or the markets but impacts all aspects of a capitalist society. It is a social totality subservient to the production of value.

Marx referred to two forms of surplus value. Absolute surplus value is basically the value created by extending the working day or cutting rest time, forcing people to work harder and other methods of discipline such as increased supervision. A situation of high unemployment can also lead to the creation of absolute surplus value because people are forced to work for less as wages are squeezed and workers have less bargaining power. However, there are obvious limits to the production of absolute surplus value: e.g. there are only 24hrs in the day, people get sick and even die if you work them too hard, workers organise into unions and can resist downwards pressure on wages. Relative surplus value is basically value created through efficiencies and innovation. Rather than extend the working day, efficiencies are introduced into the production process which ensure that labour does more work in the same time. These efficiencies can come about through better organisation of the production process and innovation through the use of technology, for example.

Having a basic understanding of surplus value, essential to capitalist accumulation, we can now situate the role of the tax payer and public services, such as education, in the production of surplus value. Marx made the distinction between productive and unproductive labour. This is a fairly simple distinction with widespread implications: Labour employed to produce surplus value directly is productive (i.e. labour directly involved in the production of commodities). All other labour is unproductive. This includes most government employees, managers in both private and public sectors, people involved in sales, finance, etc. In this view, most of my work for a publicly funded university is considered unproductive. However, unproductive labour, although not a direct source of surplus value, is still exploited by being paid less than the value of their wage. As Fine and Saad-Filho write in their excellent introduction to Marx’s Capital,

From the point of view of capital, unproductive sectors, for example retailing or banking, capture part of the surplus value produced in the economy (and, therefore, obtain the wherewithal to pay wages, other expenses and their own profits) through transfers from the value-producing sectors, via the pricing mechanism.

Although unproductive in the sense that this work is not directly involved in the production of commodities, it is still essential work in the economic reproduction of capitalist society, e.g. educating and training workers, keeping us in relatively good health so we remain productive, loaning us money to buy a house (because we are property-less) and selling us essential and non-essential commodities.

So, in this view, the publicly-funded education sector captures part of the surplus value produced in the economy (i.e. through taxes), and uses this value to maintain institutions for research, teaching and learning. What is of interest to me (and probably David), is that since Marx’s time, the appearance (though not the fundamental attributes) of a ‘commodity‘ has changed and the term now encapsulated a much broader range of ‘things’ than it did 150 years ago. I’ll leave a decent discussion about what a commodity really is for another day, but I want to note that Marx began Capital with that discussion and it forms the basic reference for much of his work on value and labour. Research papers and books sold by commercial academic publishers are commodities and I have argued elsewhere that OERs are being treated as commodities that may or may not create value for universities. So far, I am not aware of the production of OERs (involving the application of technology to labour) actually creating surplus value for an institution (MIT appear to be breaking even with the help of philanthropic grants). When we refer to ‘sustainability’ or the ‘business case’ for OERs, I think we’re talking about the potential to create value.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that the production of OERs through institutional means seems to be very much in line with capitalist production elsewhere and I agree with David that what Martin calls ‘big OERs‘, are ‘completely compatible with capitalism’. However, I don’t agree that OERs, because they are open, are ‘completely compatible with capitalism’. I don’t think openness has anything to do with it. The institutional production of OER is compatible with capitalism because it is clearly being situated within the overall production of surplus value for the institution. When we talk about the sustainability of OERs or business cases for the production of OERs, we’re talking about how to measure the value of this endeavour and usually this is through attracting external grants and raising the profile of the institution in some way.

So, where I disagree with David is the ‘common-sense’ expectation that tax payers should expect an equal return on the taxes we pay. From the point of view of capital, those taxes are potential surplus value that has been captured and transferred away from the direct capital accumulation process (M-C-M’ : Money is invested to produce Commodities that are sold in order to create Money and so on). From the point of view of capital, taxes are captured surplus value that are reinvested into the perpetuation of capitalist society, into educating workers, keeping us healthy and so on. Once these basic responsibilities are performed through the welfare state, capital will inevitably seek a return on this surplus value captured in taxation and seek to encourage the production of more surplus value wherever possible. e.g. selling publicly funded research outputs.

So, if David and I think it’s unfair that we don’t get a fair return on our taxes, it is no surprise really. It’s just a continuation of the exploitation that most of us are forced into under capitalism, where private property and waged labour are the organising principles of subsistence. In my view, a fair return on our taxes (or BOGO, as David calls it) through openness doesn’t ‘fix a disfunction in the market'; it is completely incompatible with a society where there is an imperative (partly through competition in the markets) to accumulate capital undertaken through the exploitation of working people, be they academics, housewives, students or car mechanics.

Non-profit media and Life after capitalism: Two talks by American activist and social critic, Michael Albert, at University of Lincoln

Michael Albert is visiting the university later this month. Below are details of his class and public seminar. I’m looking forward to meeting him. I doubt he’ll remember the few months I spent volunteering as an editor of one of Z-Net’s web pages, back in 2000. I tried to impose standards-based XHTML onto their then, M$ FrontPage ‘driven’ website and lost the battle ;-)

Journalism Research Seminar Series, Lincoln School of Journalism

Basics of independent media organisation and production

Seminar room MC 0024, Ground floor MHAC-Building, Brayford Pool Campus, 4-6pm on 27 October, 2010

School of Social Sciences Seminar Series

PARECON – Life After Capitalism

Jackson Lecture Theatre, Ground floor, Main Building, Brayford Pool Campus, 7.30-9.30pm on 27 October, 2010 Talk is open to the public

For further info and speaking dates of Michael Albert in the UK see: http://www.ppsuk.org.uk/matour/

Michael Albert is a longtime political and media activist with a tremendous record. He has authored 15 books and published widely on topics such as radical politics, economics, social change, peace and media. Furthermore, he is known for developing participatory economics (PARECON), an alternative model to capitalism and socialism. He cofounded the Boston (USA) based book publisher South End Press and the independent media platform ZCommunications. Until today, South End Press and Z have published works from renowned authors including Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Amy Goodman, Dahr Jamail, Robert Fisk, Vandana Shiva, Edward S. Herman and Howard Zinn.

In his first talk, eminent US social critic Michael Albert will reflect on more than 30-years experience working in non-profit, alternative media organisations. The talk will focus on issues such as how to finance non-profit media in a capitalist/market system, how to develop online media and how to structure an organisation to be truly participatory and democratic. Albert will do examine ways of how to cope with economic and political challenges and how students and non-professionals can produce and distribute independent media. The talk will be followed by Q&As.

His second talk (followed by Q&As) will be particularly interesting for everyone seeking a more just and peaceful world. This is what you can expect:

PARECON – Life After Capitalism

Today’s capitalist system has brought with it war, economic crisis, ecological decay, massive wealth inequality, alienation, authoritarianism and social breakdown. Are these problems inevitable, or could they be overcome in a different system? And if so, how? These issues, perhaps for the first time in history, have become a matter of survival.

Michael Albert, co-author of ‘ParEcon: Life After Capitalism’, co-founder of ZCommunications and leading US social activist will present ‘Participatory Economics’, a Vision for a type of democratic economy based on equitable co-operation that is put forward as an alternative to capitalism and also to other 20th century systems that have gone under the label ‘socialism’. It includes new institutions that seek to foster self-management, equity, diversity and solidarity. Parecon is a direct and natural outgrowth of hundreds of years of struggle for economic justice as well as contemporary efforts with their accumulated wisdom and lessons.

Conjuring value out of OpenCourseWare

I came across a post by David Wiley the other day, concerning MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative and it got me thinking about MIT and OER in general…

I would like to suggest that OER can be viewed as another example of the mechanisation of human work, which seeks to exploit a greater amount of collective abstract labour-power while reducing the input and therefore reliance on any one individual’s concrete contribution of labour. It’s important to understand what is meant by abstract labour and how it relates to the creation of value, which we’ll see is at the core of MIT’s OCW plans for sustainability. Wendling provides a useful summary of how technology is employed to create value out of labour.

Any given commodity’s value can be seen either from the perspective of use or from the perspective of exchange: for enjoyment consumption or for productive consumption. Likewise, any given worker can be seen as capable of concrete labor or abstract labor-power. Labor is a qualitative relation, labor-power its quantitative counterpart. In capitalism, human labor becomes progressively interchangeable with mechanized forces, and it becomes increasingly conceptualized in these terms. Thus, labor is increasingly seen as mere labor-power, the units of force to which the motions of human work can be analytically reduced. In capitalism, machines have labor-power but do no labor in the sense of value-creating activity.1

The use of technology in attempts to expand labour’s value creating power is central to the history of capitalism. From capitalism’s agrarian origins in 16th century England, technology has been used to ‘improve’ the value of private property. In discussing value, we should be careful not to confuse it simply with material wealth, which is a form of value expressed by the quantity of products produced.

Marx explicitly distinguishes value from material wealth and relates these two distinct forms of wealth to the duality of labor in capitalism. Material wealth is measured by the quantity of products produced and is a function of a number of factors such as knowledge, social organization, and natural conditions, in addition to labor. Value is constituted by human labor-time expenditure alone, according to Marx, and is the dominant form of wealth in capitalism. Whereas material wealth, when it is the dominant form of wealth, is mediated by overt social relations, value is a self-mediating form of wealth.2

MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative provides a good example of how Open Education, currently dominated by the OER commodity form, is contributing to the predictable course of the capitalist expansion of value. Through the use of technology, MIT has expanded its presence in the educational market by attracting private philanthropic funds to create a competitive advantage, which has yet to be surpassed by any other single institution. In this case, technology has been used to create value out of the labour of MIT academics who produce lecture notes and lectures which are then captured and published on MIT’s corporate website. In this process, value has been created for MIT through the application of science and technology, which did not exist prior to the inception of OCW in 2001. The process has attracted $1,836000 of private philanthropic funding, donations and commercial referrals. In 2009, this was 51% of the operating costs of the OCW initiative, the other 49% being contributed by MIT.3

In terms of generating material wealth for MIT, it is pretty much breaking even by attracting funds from private donors, but the value that MIT is generating out of its fixed capital of technology and workers should be understood as distinct from its financial accounts. Through the production of OERs on such a massive scale, MIT has released into circulation a significant amount of capital which enhances the value of its ‘brand’ (later I refer to this as ‘persona’) as educator and innovator. Furthermore, through the small but measurable intensification of staff labour time by the OCW initiative, additional value has been exorted from MIT’s staff, who remain essential to the value creating process but increasingly insignificant as individual contributors. As a recent update from MIT on the OCW initiative shows,4 following this initial expansion of “the value of OCW and MIT’s leadership position in open education” and with the private philanthropic funding that has supported it due to run out, new streams of funding based on donations and technical innovation are being considered to “enhance the value of the materials we provide.” As the report acknowledges, innovation in this area of education has made the market for OER competitive and for MIT to retain its lion’s share of web traffic, it needs to refresh its offering on a regular basis and seek to expand its educational market footprint. Methods of achieving this that are being discussed are, naturally, technological: the use of social media, mobile platforms and a ‘click to enroll’ system of distance learning. Never mind that the OERs are Creative Commons licensed, ‘free’ and, notably, require attribution in order to re-use them, the production of this value creating intellectual property needs to be understood within the “perpetual labour process that we know better as communication.”5 Understood in this way, the commodification of MIT’s courses occurs long before the application of  a novel license and distribution via the Internet. OCW is simply “a stage in the metamorphosis of the labour process”.6.

MIT’s statement concerning the need to find new ways to create value out of their OCW initiative is a nice example of how value is temporally determined and quickly falls off as the production of OERs becomes generalised through the efforts of other universities. Postone describes this process succinctly:

In his discussion of the magnitude of value in terms of socially-necessary labor-time, Marx points to a peculiarity of value as a social form of wealth whose measure is temporal: increasing productivity increases the amount of use-values produced per unit time. But it results only in short term increases in the magnitude of value created per unit time. Once that productive increase becomes general, the magnitude of value falls to its base level. The result is a sort of treadmill dynamic. On the one hand, increased levels of productivity result in great increases in use-value production. Yet increased productivity does not result in long-term proportional increases in value, the social form of wealth in capitalism.7

Seen as part of MIT’s entire portfolio, the contribution of OCW follows a well defined path of capitalist expansion, value creation and destruction and also points to the potential crisis of OER as an institutional commodity form, being the dimunition of academic labour, which is capitalism’s primary source of value, and the declining value of the generalised OER commodity form, which can only be counteracted through constant technological innovation which requires the input of labour. As Wendling describes, this is part and parcel of capitalism, to which OER is not immune.

Scientific and technological advances reduce the necessary contribution of living labor to a vanishing point in the production of basic commodities. Thus, they limit the main source of the capitalist’s profit: the exploitation of the worker. This shapes the capitalist use of science and technology, which is a use that is politicized to accommodate this paradox. In this usage, the introduction of new machinery has two effects. First, the machine displaces some workers whose functions it supplants. Second, the machine heralds a step up in the exploitation of the remaining workers. The intensity and length of their working days are increased. In addition, as machinery is introduced, capital must both produce and sell on an increasingly massive scale. Losses from living labor are recompensed by the multiplication of the small quantities of remaining labor from which value can be extorted. In all of these ways, capitalism and technological advancement, far from going hand in hand, are actually inimical to one another, and drive the system into crisis. In this respect, a straightforward identification of constantly increasing technicization with capitalism misses the crucial dissonance between the two forces.8

The example of MIT given above is not intended to criticise any single member of the OCW team at MIT, who are no doubt working on the understanding that the initiative is a ‘public good’ – and in terms of creating social wealth, it is a public good. My suggestion here is to show how seemingly ‘good’ initiatives such as OCW, also compound the social relations of capitalism, based on the exploitation of labour and the reification of the commodity form.

Furthermore, being the largest single provider of ‘Open Education’, MIT’s example can be carried over into a discussion of the Open Education movement’s failure to provide an adequate critique of the institution as a form of company and regulator of wage-work.

As Neocleous has shown,9 in modern capitalism the objectification of the worker as the commodity of labour serves to transform the company into a personified subject, with greater rights under, and fewer responsibilities to, the law than people themselves. As the university increasingly adopts corporate forms, objectives and practices, so the role of the academic as abstract labour is to improve the persona of the university. Like many other US universities, MIT award tenure to academics who are “one of the very tiny handful of top investigators in your field, in the world” thus rewarding but also retaining through the incentive of tenure, staff who bring international prestige to MIT.10  Through an accumulation of “top investigators”, effort and attention is increasingly diverted from individual achievement and reputation to the achievements of the institution, measured by its overall reputation, which is rewarded by increased government funding, commercial partnerships and philanthropic donations. This, in turn, attracts a greater number of better staff and students, who join the university in order to enjoy the benefits of this reward. Yet once absorbed into the labour process, these individuals serve the social character of the institution, which is constantly being monitored and evaluated through a system of league tables.

“…the process of personification of capital that I have been describing is the flip side of a process in which human persons come to be treated as commodities – the worker, as human subject, sells labour as an object. As relations of production are reified so things are personified – human subjects become objects and objects become subjects – an irrational, “bewitched, distorted and upside-down world” in which “Monsieur le Capital” takes the form of a social character – a dramatis personae on the economic stage, no less.”11

To what extent the Open Education movement can counteract this personification of educational institutions and the subtle objectification of their staff and students, is still open to question, although the overwhelming trend so far is for OER to be seen as sustainable only to the extent that it can attract private and state funding, which, needless to say, serves the reputational character (a significant source of value, according to Neocleous) of the respective universities, as institutions for the ‘public good’. Yet, as Postone has argued, the creation of this temporally determined form of value is achieved through the domination of people by time, structuring our lives and mediating our social relations. The increased use of technology is, and always has been, capitalism’s principle technique of ‘improving’ the input ratio of labour-power measured abstractly by time, to the output of value, which is itself temporal and therefore in constant need of expansion. And so the imperative of conjuring value out of labour goes on…

  1. Amy Wendling (2009) Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation. p. 104 []
  2. Postone (2009), Rethinking Marx’s Critical Theory in History and Heteronomy: Critical Essays, The University of Tokyo Centre for Philosophy, p. 40 []
  3. See David Wiley’s blog post on MIT’s financial statement []
  4. OpenCourseWare: Working Through Financial Changes []
  5. Söderberg, Johan (2007) Hacking Capitalism. The Free and Open Source Software Movement, p. 72 []
  6. Soderberg, 2007, p. 71 []
  7. Postone, 2009, p. 40 []
  8. Wendling 2009, p.108 []
  9. Neocleous, Mark (2003) Staging Power: Marx, Hobbes and the Personification of Capital []
  10. Unraveling tenure at MIT []
  11. Neocleous, 2003, p. 159 []

Reading The Cybernetic Hypothesis

Tiqqun was a French journal that published two issues in 1999 and 2001.1 The authors wrote as an editorial collective of seven people in the first edition and went uncredited in the second edition. More recently, one member of the original collective, Fulvia Carnevale, has said that:

I would like to say that Tiqqun is not an author, first of all. Tiqqun was a space for experimentation. It was an attempt at bridging the gap between theory and a number of practices and certain ways of “being together”. It was something that existed for a certain time and that then stopped because the people working at it weren’t happy with the relation between theory and practice and that certain people had decided that Tiqqun 3 would be a movie.2

This space for experimentation amounted to to 450 pages over three years, producing several substantial texts such as Bloom Theory, Introduction to Civil War, and The Cybernetic Hypothesis.3

Published in Tiqqun 2, The Cybernetic Hypothesis is forty-three pages long (in the original journal) and divided into eleven sections. Each section begins with one or two quotes which are then critiqued in order to further our understanding of the hypothesis and develop the author’s response. The author(s) write in the first person singular. They quote from a range of sources but do not offer precise references.

What follows are my notes on the text. A much more extended version of my notes is available here. Neither of these are a review of the text, simply a summary of my reading of each section.

Section one provides historical references for the objectives of cybernetics and argues that as a political capitalist project it has supplanted liberalism as both a paradigm and technique of government that aims to dissolve human subjectivity into a rationalised and stable (i.e. inoffensive) totality through the automated capture of increasingly transparent flows of information and communication. The authors understand this subjugation of subjectivity as an offensive, anti-human act of war which must be counteracted.

Section two establishes cybernetics as the theoretical and technological outcome and continuation of a state of war, in which stability and control are its objectives. Developing with the emergence of post-war information and communication theory and corresponding innovation in computer software and hardware, intelligence is abstracted from the human population as generalised representations that are retained and communicated back to individuals in a commodified form. This feedback loop is understood as a ‘system’ and later as a naturalised ‘network’ which, drawing on the 19th century thermodynamic law of entropy, is at continual risk of degradation and must therefore be reinforced by the development of cybernetics itself.

Section three ends with a useful summary of its own:

The Internet simultaneously permits one to know consumer preferences and to condition them with advertising. On another level, all information regarding the behaviour of economic agents circulates in the form of headings managed by financial markets. Each actor in capitalist valorization is a real-time back-up of quasi-permanent feedback loops. On the real markets, as on the virtual markets, each transaction now gives rise to a circulation of information concerning the subjects and objects of the exchange that goes beyond simply fixing the price, which has become a secondary aspect. On the one hand, people have realized the importance of information as a factor in production distinct from labour and capital and playing a decisive role in “growth” in the form of knowledge, technical innovation, and distributed capacities. On the other, the sector specializing in the production of information has not ceased to increase in size. In light of its reciprocal reinforcement of these two tendencies, today’s capitalism should be called the information economy. Information has become wealth to be extracted and accumulated, transforming capitalism into a simple auxiliary of cybernetics. The relationship between capitalism and cybernetics has inverted over the course of the century: whereas after the 1929 crisis, PEOPLE built a system of information concerning economic activity in order to serve the needs of regulation – this was the objective of all planning – for the economy after the 1973 crisis, the social self-regulation process came to be based on the valorization of information.

Section four focuses on the role of information to both terrorise and control people. The sphere of circulation of commodities/information is increasingly seen as a source of profit and as this circulation accelerated with the development of mass transportation and communication, so the risk of disruption to the flow of commodities/information became more of a threat. In cybernetics, total transparency is seen as a means of control yet because the removal of risk is never absolutely possible, citizens are understood as both presenting a risk to the system and a means to regulate that risk through self-control. Control is therefore socialised and now defines the real-time information society. An awareness of risk brings with it an awareness of the vulnerability of a system that is dependent on an accelerated circulation/flow of information. Time/duration is a weakness and disruption to time is signalled as an opportunity to halt the flow and therefore the project of cybernetic capitalism.

Section five is a critique of socialism and the ecology movement proposing how these two movements have been subsumed by cybernetic capitalism. The popular forms of protest over the last 30 years have only strengthened the cybernetic objectives of social interdependence, transparency and management. This marked the second period of cybernetics which has sought to devolve the responsibility of regulation through surveillance through the affirmation of ‘citizenship’ and ‘democracy’.

Section six offers a critique of the Marxist response to cybernetic capitalism and finds it contaminated and complicit in its economism, humanism and totalising view of the world.

Section seven offers a brief critique of critical theory and finds it to be an ineffectual performance cloistered in the mythology of the Word and secretly fascinated by the cybernetic hypothesis. The section introduces insinuation as a mode of interference and tactic for overcoming the controlled circulation of communication. The author(s) indicate that the remaining sections of The Cybernetic Hypothesis are an attempt to undo the world that cybernetics constructs.

Section eight discusses panic, noise, invisibility and desire as categories of revolutionary force against the cybernetic framework. Panic is irrational behaviour that represents absolute risk to the system; noise is a distortion of behaviour in the system, neither desired behaviour nor the anticipated real behaviour. These invisible discrepancies are small variations (‘non-conforming acts’) that take place within the system and are amplified and intensified by desire. An individual acting alone has no influence, but their desire can produce an ecstatic politics which is made visible in a lifestyle which is, quite literally, attractive, with the potential to produce whole territories of revolt.

Section nine elaborates on invisibility as the preferred mode of diffuse guerilla action. A method of small selective strikes on the lines of communication followed by strategic withdrawal are preferred over large blows to institutions. Despite the distributed nature of the Internet, territorial interests have produced a conceivably vulnerable network reliant on a relatively small number of main trunks. Both individual spontaneity and the organisational abilities of institutions are valued but both should remain distant from cybernetic power and adopt a wandering course of unpredictability.

Section ten develops the author(s) tactics for countering cybernetic capitalism, through the application of slowness, disruptive rhythms, and the possibilities that arise from encounters with others. The cybernetic system is a politics of rhythm which thrives on speed for stability (as was discussed in section four) and a range of predictability. The guerilla strategy is therefore one of dissonant tempos, improvisation and ‘wobbly’ rhythmic action.

Section eleven is a final attempt to define the key categories of struggle against the domination of cybernetic capitalism. These can be summarily listed as slowness, invisibility, fog, haze, interference, encounters, zones of opacity, noise, panic, rhythm/reverberation/amplification/momentum and finally, autonomy. Combined, these constitute an offensive practice against the requirement and expectation of cybernetics for transparency/clarity, predictability, and speed in terms of the information communicated and regulation of its feedbacks. The author(s) do not reject the cybernetic system outright but rather see the possibility for autonomous zones of opacity from which the invisible revolt can reverberate outwards and lead to a collapse of the cybernetic hypothesis and the rise of communism.

Originally published in French in Tiqqun II (2001). http://www.archive.org/details/Tiqqun2 Translated into English 2010 http://cybernet.jottit.com/

  1. http://www.archive.org/details/Tiqqun1 ; http://www.archive.org/details/Tiqqun2 []
  2. See the interview with Agamben. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x929gp A video of the Q&A which followed his talk has since been removed but an English transcript of both the talk and Q&A can be found here: http://anarchistwithoutcontent.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/tiqqun-apocrypha-repost/ []
  3. Semiotext(e) (MIT Press) has recently published Introduction to Civil War and How is it to be done? in a single volume. A growing number of translations can be found on the web. The best source for these in English is: http://tiqqunista.jottit.com/ []

Revisiting ‘Thinking the unthinkable’

In October, I wrote a post which gave an overview of a (failed) bid to JISC.

“What will happen to the provision of a technology dependent education when energy consumption is restricted by recurring interruptions in supply and significant spikes in costs?” This project aims to address this question by re-framing ‘Sustainable ICT’ within the context of an imminent crisis in energy supply. As we increasingly turn to ICT to enhance, support and deliver education and research, the prospect of an energy crisis within the next ten years becomes crucially important to our sector, its partners and stakeholders. The project will use JISC’s Scenario Planning tools to address this crisis and examine the wider energy context, which fuels the UK’s industrialised and globalising model of Higher Education.

I have added the feedback I received as a postscript to the original post. Needless to say I was disappointed that it did not receive funding at that time, but very encouraged by the positive response I received from the evaluation panel.

Since submitting the bid, I have continued to pursue this area of research and wanted to reflect on the last four months of intensively reading around the subject of energy, climate change and, to a lesser extent, the resilience of HEIs. I have written about some of this in other posts, but think that a summary update would be useful for me to gather my thinking and perhaps be of interest to you, too. I should say upfront, that today, as I write, I’m not especially optimistic about the ability for the tertiary education sector to continue in its current form beyond the end of this decade (mainly due to increasing economic pressures) and hope that I offer enough reasons below to motivate other people to join Richard Hall and I, in pursuing this research further.

Peak Oil (or an oil ‘supply crunch’)

As I was writing the original research bid, The UK Energy Research Centre published their Global Oil Depletion Report, a massive survey of recent literature on the subject of Peak Oil. They concluded:

On the basis of current evidence we suggest that a peak of conventional oil production before 2030 appears likely and there is a significant risk of a peak before 2020.

As I’ve noted before, there is reason to suggest that oil production has already peaked, since supply has effectively plateaued  since 2005, despite the annual price of oil steadily increasing in the midst of significant price volatility.

Since the UKERC report, there have been other notable reports which forecast a peak in oil production by 2020. For example, yesterday the Peak Oil Task Force, a group of six UK companies, including Virgin, Scottish and Southern Energy and Stagecoach, published a report which warns of the “urgent, clear and present danger” of an ‘oil crunch’ by 2015:

The next five years will see us face another crunch – the oil crunch. This time, we do have the chance to prepare. The challenge is to use that time well. As we reach maximum oil extraction rates, the era of cheap oil is behind us. We must plan for a world in which oil prices are likely to be both higher and more volatile and where oil price shocks have the potential to destabilise economic, political and social activity. Virtually every sector of our economy is still dependent on oil.

This follows several other recent reports and warnings. For example, a Chatham House report forecasts a 2013 peak, the NGO, Global Witness, warns of an imminent supply crunch; Petrobras, Brazil’s oil company, a 2012 oil crunch; the CEO of Total SA, forecasts a peak by 2015Shell’s CEO likewise forecasts an end to easily accessible oil by 2015Chevron are vague on the date (2012?), but issued [PDF] a clear warning in 2005; the former VC of  Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest producer of oil, has said that oil production has peaked and is currently on a plateau. The International Energy Agency (IEA), representing OECD countries, has warned of an oil crunch from 2011, with production peaking by the end of the decade.

The conventional economic theory of demand destruction caused by the rising price of oil has had very little effect on the amount of oil consumed and conversely, price rises and therefore opportunity for investment over the long-term and incentives to produce more to sell in the short-term, have not resulted in a rise in oil production. Between 2002-5, “for every dollar increase in oil prices, three year cumulative global crude oil production increased at 167 mb per dollar.” However, between 2006-8… “for every dollar increase in oil prices, three year cumulative global crude oil production fell at 15 mb per dollar, again relative to the 2005 rate.”1 Similarly, the ex-VC of Saudi Aramco has said:

The evidence is that in spite of the increases – very large increases – in oil prices over the last four years, we haven’t been able to match that with increasing capacity. So, essentially, we are on a plateau.

Energy Security

In the original bid to JISC, I framed the problems of Peak Oil and Climate Change as potentially serious impacts on the operation of HEIs and therefore the provision of tertiary education in the UK. Energy security is a broad term that covers the supply and distribution of the different fuels that we need to fuel a growing economy. Global economic growth (GDP) is closely coupled to the global consumption of oil, and while there are indications that the demand for oil by OECD countries has started to decline, global demand is still expected to rise because of the demand by developing countries.

So we have a situation where the global demand for oil will outstrip the available supply of oil, therefore impacting on economic growth. On today’s Financial Times ‘Energy Source‘ blog, Geologist, Colin Campbell was quoted from 2006, saying:

I think we are facing an oil price shock, 100 or 200 dollars a barrel, an economic recession that cuts demand, and I will not be at all surprised if a fall in demand would make the price collapse again. So we might be back to 20 or 30 dollars a barrel next year perhaps. And so you have a price shock, a recession, a recovery, hits again the falling capacity limit, another price shock. And so I think that in the next few years, we have a sequence of vicious circles and gradually the reality of the situation will filtered through. We are on for a very volatile few years with enormous economic consequences.

The FT reporter thinks this view is “on the money” and I am inclined to agree, too.

Peak Oil is not the only energy security problem that we face over the next decade. The year 2016 is commonly given as the point where our national infrastructure, in it’s current form, can no longer supply the energy we demand.

Planned closures of ageing nuclear plant and the removal, by the end of 2015, of a significant amount of coal and oil-fired power stations under European environmental legislation is likely to lead to a large fall in the electricity capacity margin.2

Ofgem’s recent Project Discovery project produced four market scenarios for the UK’s energy future. Their worse case scenario, as I’ve touched on before, is a ‘dash for energy’ scenario3, where “the recession proves short-lived. Demand bounces back strongly and then increases over time, although investment levels take some time to become re-established following the hiatus caused by the credit crisis.” The costs of this to consumers would be a 60% increase in energy bills by 2020.4

However, in December, after consultations with energy companies and academics, the Chief Executive of Ofgem thought that this was “too optimistic”. Conversely, earlier this month, Ofgem issued a warning that bills could rise by 20% over the next decade, presumably because they do not now expect a ‘dash for energy’ scenario, but rather an economic outlook of slow growth.

Ofgem conclude that we have a narrow window until 2013 to implement policy to address supply security from 2016:

Although our scenarios do not indicate concerns over supply security until beyond the middle of the current decade, the timescales required to secure finance, mobilise supply chains and deliver the infrastructure needed suggests that the period around 2012 and 2013 could be important for investment decisions critical to future secure and sustainable energy supplies. Hence, there is a window of opportunity between now and then to implement any policy measures that may be necessary to make sure that investment takes place in a timely fashion.5

Whichever way I am able to understand it, the picture of energy security for the UK over the next decade looks uncertain and any response, costly. Dieter Helm, Prof. of Energy Policy at Oxford, thinks we’re in a mess and calls for “a more imaginative approach to infrastructure… The Victorians did it: the current generation needs to repeat it.”6

The rebound effect of (technological) efficiencies

One of the measures to improve the security of our energy supply is to improve our efficiency of energy use. This effectively allows us to do the same (or more), with less energy than before. The subject of energy efficiency is also closely related to our carbon reduction targets. The 2008 EU directive on Climate Change sees energy efficiencies as “one of the key ways in which CO2 emission savings can be realised.” (p. 8) The target is a reduction of 20% by 2020.

However, there is a problem when claiming absolute targets for energy efficiency, which has been studied by the UK Energy Research Centre in a 2007 review of over 500 studies in this area. The report is called, An Assessment of the evidence for economy-wide energy savings from improved energy efficiency, otherwise known as The Rebound Effect Report.

As the report notes, there have been claims in the past that technological efficiencies result in absolute and predictable decreases in energy use, just as there have been claims that such efficiencies result in more energy being used (in the latter case, this is referred to as ‘backfire’). The basic point is that while technological efficiencies in the use of energy are real, the overall result is that only part of the actual efficiency is realised in society. This is because while we save energy through efficiencies, we spend part of those savings on other activities that use up energy.

An example of a rebound effect would be the driver who replaces a car with a fuel-efficient model, only to take advantage of its cheaper running costs to drive further and more often. Or a family that insulates their loft and puts the money saved on their heating bill towards an overseas holiday.

This was first identified as the Jevons Paradox, which I have written about before. The usefulness of the UKERC report is that it demonstrates the complexity of the issue, but also that it usefully summarises the individual and social consequences of efficiencies. Efficiencies can be divided into those that have a direct rebound effect and those that have an indirect, or economy-wide, rebound effect.

An example of a direct rebound effect quoted above is where a family drive more because they’ve bought a more fuel efficient car. The report concludes that in particular circumstances up to 30% of the intended energy ‘saved’ through efficiency might be ‘spent’ in this way, particularly in areas such as transport and heating/cooling.

An example of an indirect rebound effect quoted above is where a family insulates their loft and then uses the savings in heating costs towards a holiday. The report is hesitant to draw conclusions in this area, but indicates that up to 50% (perhaps more) of the intended energy ‘saved’ in particular circumstances through efficiency might be ‘spent’ in this way. Some studies suggest much higher numbers which, they say, should be taken with caution.

The UKERC conclude that the alarming claims of ‘backfire’, where energy efficiency measures result in an overall increase in energy used, cannot be verified but should still be taken seriously. There is more evidence of this occurring when technologies are pervasive (i.e. the steam engine or electric motor).

The conclusions of the report are now of great interest to me and have confirmed the direction my research was beginning to go: that is, the relationship between energy and economic growth. I mentioned this in my original ‘Thinking the unthinkable’ post, in terms of how economic growth, the use of energy and the production of emissions are all coupled. The UKERC report puts it like this:

In developed countries, energy use as conventionally measured has grown more slowly than the economy as a whole. From this, it is generally concluded that technical change has improved the efficiency with which energy is used and thereby helped to ‘decouple’ energy consumption from economic growth. However once different energy sources are weighted by their relative ‘quality’ or economic productivity, the coupling between energy consumption and economic growth appears far stronger. Taken together, the evidence reviewed in this report suggests that: a) the scope for substituting other inputs for energy is relatively limited; b) much technical change has historically increased energy intensity; c) energy may play a more important role in economic growth than is conventionally assumed; and d) economy-wide rebound effects may be larger than is conventionally assumed.

Claims of a decoupling of energy consumption and emissions from economic growth virtually always refer to a relative decoupling, rather than an absolute decoupling.

It’s vital to distinguish between ‘relative’ and ‘absolute’ decoupling. Relative decoupling refers to a situation where resource impacts decline relative to the GDP. Impacts may still rise, but they do so more slowly than the GDP. The situation in which resource impacts decline in absolute terms is called ‘absolute decoupling’. Needless to say, this latter situation is essential if economic activity is to remain within ecological limits.

Evidence for declining resource intensities (relative decoupling) is relatively easy to identify. The energy required to produce a unit of economic output declined by a third in the last thirty years, for instance. Global carbon intensity fell from around one kilo per dollar of economic activity to just under 770 grams per dollar.

Evidence for overall reductions in resource throughput (absolute decoupling) is much harder to find. The improvements in energy (and carbon) intensity noted above were offset by increases in the scale of economic activity over the same period. Global carbon emissions from energy use have increased by 40% since only 1990 (the Kyoto base year).7

Despite efficiencies, energy use goes up

Despite efficiencies, energy use per capita goes up

Despite efficiencies, emissions go up

Meeting our carbon targets

While the ‘rebound effect’ may have some implications for our energy security in terms of how efficiency measures may or may not safeguard against a scenario of oil depletion and overall supply disruptions,  there are very clear implications for our carbon reduction targets. One of the issues, perhaps the biggest issue, is that of population increases, a subject that is often recognised in reports, but skirted over because of the seemingly hopeless task and political sensitivity of addressing it. Nevertheless, it needs to be recognised that population increases do contribute to overall energy use and emissions and need to be accounted for in calculations that inform Climate Change policy.

Richard Hall has recently begin to address this, referring to Ehrlich-Holdren’s sustainability equation

I = P.A.T

That is, the impact of human activities (I) is determined by the overall population (P), the level of affluence (A) and the level of technology (T). Quoting Tim Jackson, Richard writes:

However, a key problem is the dynamic of efficiency vs scale. Jackson notes (p. 3) that “Technology is an efficiency factor in the equation. Population and affluence are scaling factors. Even as the efficiency of technology improves, affluence and population scale up the impacts. And the overall result depends on improving technological efficiency fast enough to outrun the scale effects of affluence and population.” So these factors are not independent and “appear to be in a self-reinforcing positive feedback between affluence and technology, potentially – and I emphasise potentially – geared in the direction of rising impact”

A recent paper I have found helpful in terms of thinking about the UK’s Climate Change Act (2008) concludes that the Act is certain to fail, showing how the target of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 (and 34% by 2022) has no historical precedent. What I found useful, regardless of whether the targets are practicably achievable, are the author’s observations on population growth and economic growth (GDP).

In summary, Pielke shows that the UK’s population is predicted to grow by 0.7% per year to 2031, which would mean that the population will be around 67 million people. Extending this to 2050, we would have a population of about 82 million. He warns the reader that population growth forecasts are “notoriously uncertain, so caution should be used when using them, as actual future populations could be higher or lower.” (p. 2) He then considers economic activity and observes that the UK economy averaged 2.5% GDP growth (inflation adjusted) between 1990-2007. Combining the 0.7% population increase with a more modest 2% GDP growth rate, implies a per capita growth rate of 1.3% per year. Finally, Pielke factors in technological change and notes that according to the US Energy Information Agency, “from 2000 to 2006 UK energy efficiency increased by about 2% per year, while the carbon intensity of the energy supply was largely unchanged.” (p. 2)

Because the effects of technological change (including changes in the economy toward services and away from energy intensive industry) just about balanced the overall growth of the economy for the past decade, the UK has seen little growth in its overall carbon dioxide emissions (although the UK National Audit Office recently observed that the lack of growth in emissions is also due to accounting, as some economic activities, like air travel, are not included in official emissions numbers.

Following Dieter Helm, I’ve noted before that this method of accounting creates an illusion8 around our official emissions figures, transforming a reported 15% reduction into a 19% increase in emissions since 1990.

It seems to me that Pielke’s observations complement Tim Jackon’s reference to the I = P.A.T equation as well as the conclusions of the UKERC’s Rebound Effect report. That is, technological efficiency, although vitally important, does not, as we might expect, lead to an overall reduction in emissions or energy consumption. It merely helps balance the impacts of population growth and consumption led economic growth. Of course, if we also take into account our emissions and energy use that we outsource to industrialising countries such as China, the balance is lost in favour of rising energy use and emissions.

What is clear to me is that technology is being used as an excuse to avoid the greater issues of a broken and destructive (suicidal?) political economy and the consequences of an aspirational and growing population. Tim Jackson puts this nicely:

The IPAT equation appears to offer us broadly three ways of achieving overall reductions in energy demand (for example). One, reduce the population – not a popular choice. Two, reduce the level of affluence (again not high on political priorities – although an interesting avenue to explore at various levels as I shall suggest in a minute). And three, improve technology: specifically to increase the energy efficiency of income generation, to reduce the energy intensity of the economy.

Given the unpopularity and political intractability of routes one and two, it’s perhaps not surprising to find the mainstream response is to adopt route three as the preferred approach. Indeed an examination of the history of international policy from Brundtland onwards reveals quite clearly how route 3 allowed the world to steer an uneasy path between the demands of the North for population control in the South and the demands of the South for reduced affluence in the North. Option 3 emerges as an apparently politically neutral way through a tricky impasse.9

Our technological subservience to economic growth

Technology emerges as an apparently politically neutral way through a tricky impasse.

This single line encapsulates a great deal of what I have been trying to understand through writing these posts over the last few months and it links to a question Richard raises in his recent post:  Is this all subservient to a view of economic growth? The answer has to be yes. The production and consumption/use of technology is not politically neutral. As we have seen, all the time we pursue economic growth, technology serves the objectives of capitalism. This is evident in the long history of capitalism, just as it is evident in Higher Education today.

In short, society is faced with a profound dilemma. To resist growth is to risk economic and social collapse. To pursue it is to endanger the ecosystems on which we depend for long-term survival.

For the most part, this dilemma goes unrecognised in mainstream policy or in public debate. When reality begins to impinge on the collective consciousness, the best suggestion to hand is that we can somehow ‘decouple’ growth from its material impacts.

Never mind that decoupling isn’t happening. Never mind that no such economy has ever existed. Never mind that all our institutions and incentive structures continually point in the opposite direction. The dilemma, once recognised, looms so dangerously over our future that we are desperate to believe in miracles. Technology will save us.

Capitalism is good at technology. So let’s just keep the show on the road and hope for the best.10

Despite the genuine and overwhelming challenges of energy depletion and climate change, technological development as a means to solve these problems, is merely a sideshow. Technological innovation and the resulting improvements in energy efficiency and lower emissions are vital responses, but do little more than offset the exponential problems of an increasing population and economic growth. I am hesitant to call population growth a problem all the while the relatively few rich consumers produce the majority of emissions11. Economic growth and and our notion of what constitutes ‘progress’ seem to me, to warrant much of our attention when considering these issues.

I think that’s where I need to go next. Only by understanding our role within capitalism can we attempt to address the problems I’ve discussed. What better place to do this than a Higher Education institution, a place where the impacts of these issues are evident everywhere and answers to these problems can be collectively sought. I recently applied to the HEA for funding in an attempt to begin to put this into practice and will continue to think along these lines.

  1. Comment on Oil Drum []
  2. Project Discovery – Energy Market Scenarios, p.5 []
  3. Project Discovery – Energy Market Scenarios, p.16 []
  4. I’ve noted elsewhere that Ernst & Young have calculated a possible 400% increase in consumer energy bills by 2020. []
  5. Project Discovery – Options for delivering secure and sustainable energy supplies, p.5 []
  6. The Challenge of Infrastructure Investment in Britain, p.39 []
  7. Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy, p. 8 []
  8. UK’s official CO2 figures an illusion – study. Source: Too Good to be True? The UK’s Climate Change Record [PDF] []
  9. Rebound launch: keynote presentation []
  10. Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy, p. 102 []
  11. George Monbiot, The Population Myth []