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. ((Amy Wendling (2009) Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation. p. 104))

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. ((Postone (2009), Rethinking Marx’s Critical Theory in History and Heteronomy: Critical Essays, The University of Tokyo Centre for Philosophy, p. 40))

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. ((See David Wiley’s blog post on MIT’s financial statement))

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, ((OpenCourseWare: Working Through Financial Changes)) 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.” ((Söderberg, Johan (2007) Hacking Capitalism. The Free and Open Source Software Movement, p. 72)) 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”. ((Soderberg, 2007, p. 71)).

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. ((Postone, 2009, p. 40))

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. ((Wendling 2009, p.108))

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, ((Neocleous, Mark (2003) Staging Power: Marx, Hobbes and the Personification of Capital)) 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. ((Unraveling tenure at MIT))  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.” ((Neocleous, 2003, p. 159))

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…

3 Replies to “Conjuring value out of OpenCourseWare”

  1. I’m not as politically minded as you Joss, but I’d push you on a couple of points here. The first, and most obvious is, so what is _your_ alternative? Either at a meta-political level (ie what system do you think would work better, given the number of experiments that have been tried with communism which _always_ end the same, bloody, way). But on a more pragmatic level, do you propose we turn our back on technology or openness because ultimately it is serving capitalism? Then what? I think it’s important (and very well written) to place this perspective, but I don’t get a sense of what you are suggesting instead. Just that it’s naughty capitalism at work.
    The second point is that this is a very marxist interpretation of technology. One could also view technology as a social good. Allowing people to communicate more effectively, eliminating disease, avoiding the Malthusian collapse, etc the end goal may be associated with capitalism but may also be driven by more altruistic desires – often it is just the drive to improve upon existing knowledge.
    And lastly, bad, or at least less than pure motives when aggregated may produce an overall good. For example people may be driven by ego but if this leads them to sharing or creating greater works of art then the base driver is almost irrelevant.

  2. Hi Martin. The question of asking what the alternative might be is important but is a different question to asking what is wrong with the current system. i.e. a lack of a clear alternative shouldn’t diminish the power or necessity of a critique. For Marx, ‘Communism’ referred to a negative critique, not a planned social system. He had very little to say in his mature work about what a post-capitalist society would look like other than it wouldn’t have the attributes of capitalist social relations, based on private property, the reification of the commodity form and the exploitation of labour (to put it simply). So, Marxist critical theory is, for me and many others, a method of looking at our lives in a negative way in order to better understand our place in the world. I don’t think of Marxism/Socialism/Communism as the basis for a post-capitalist world. I think of it as a critical tool (an ‘expedient means’) for understanding what is wrong or how things might be done better. As you say, the experiments done in the name of Communism have led to terrible atrocities and failures, although they were arguably little more than repressive state controlled forms of capitalism rather than the truely revolutionary social systems they claimed to be.

    So what would be my alternative? Well, it would be defined by a lot of negative assertions rather than positive assertions and would unfold with people’s understanding that capitalism is a historically specific way of organising people around work and private property and because of this, alternatives, both more repressive and more liberatory, are possible and for many people desirable. I’m not saying that every aspect of life in capitalism is bad, not at all. You and I probably enjoy our lives on one level much of the time, although I tend to enjoy the bits of my life where capitalism dominates less. But the relative comfort and happiness I enjoy doesn’t mean that capitalism isn’t worthy of critique and that critique has the potential to lead to real, lived alternatives that do not require the forms of government that we have nor the organising principle of private property and wage labour. In short, my alternative is “from each according to their ability to each according to their need.” We are very far from this ideal state of living right now, although I think this principle probably resonates with people interested in open education, sharing, the commons, etc.

    As you might know, my interest in politics has been largely revitalised over the last year as I’ve researched the issues of energy and climate change. For me, these two, quite fundamental problems necessitate that we radically examine the way our lives are organised around growth and consumption. In all honesty, I came to the point where I could see no better way of responding to these potential crises than first and foremost, criticising the social and economic system that drives growth and consumption. Many people have responded by a leap of faith in technology but so far, I’ve failed to be convinced because it doesn’t tackled the underlying problem of unsustainable growth in a finite world and the recurrent social and economic crisis (like we’re experiencing right now).

    Like you, I work in education, so naturally I’ve taken capitalism in the form of (open) education as my object of critique recently, not because I think it’s wholly bad, but because I think we’re unknowingly repeating the same mistakes we’ve been making for a long time and that the ‘digital revolution’ or the ‘revolution’ of open education, is being appropriated by an unsustainable system that is prone to crisis and the domination of people by work, money, property, time, etc.

    You ask about my views on technology. Actually, I’m not against technology (as in hardware/software/chairs/tables/bridges/medical apparatus, whatever); rather, I’m increasingly critical of the way that technology is being socially determined. Technology is also tied up with our notions of ‘progress’ and ‘improvement’, which we accept as unproblematic – natural even. Marx’s views on technology were very positive and in some ways in the developed West, they have been realised. That is, through the use of technology, people will be less subject to the the hardship of physical labour, that machines would give us more free time away from the dependence of wage labour and raise the general level of intellect among people to the point where we could critique capitalism and determine our own lives. So, I don’t think Marx (nor me), would argue that technology doesn’t have its benefits but it is not politically neutral, it is socially determined and it is systemically used to control us (see Beniger 1986 and Nobel 1984). I believe that we must struggle to resist this and this may, ironically, mean using technology to resist technological determinism.

    Finally, I think that the point you make about ego/reputation is a fair one but it is within the confines of a system that compels us to think in this way, promotes competition (i.e. a few winners and more losers) as a positive force and even literally kills people as they feel compelled to work for greater and greater recognition of their worth. It is endless and people do drop dead trying to do more and more because they feel and *are* compelled to. I see the issue of ego/reputation as closely tied to that of insecurity bourne out of a system that disciplines us by wage work. Yes, social wealth/useful/wonderful things are created out of this system that some of us enjoy, but that is not the principle driving motivation (which you suggest is ‘irrelevant’) that compells most of us to work. The rare example is that of Hacker culture, which at times does genuinely seem to subvert the normal labour process and turn it into play (read anything on the ‘Hacker ethic’ for the ideas behind this). This subversion has its limits but also shows potential. Of course, Hacker culture is built on a technology infrastructure that exploits natural resources and people in developing countries to produce hardware, and out of the Hacker’s play we now have data farms that use more energy than small countries, but, well, I’ve gone on long enough.

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