On the question of the general intellect, there is little dispute that some high-growth industrial sectors are increasingly dependent on ideas and creative talent, and that capital has had to grant some concessions in order to guarantee a supply of cognitive skills. As long as their control over intellectual property is assured, capital owners have been willing to cede some ground over labor discipline; the creative work landscape now hosts multiple forms of autonomy and self-organization, at a far remove from the Taylorist rules of standardization and deskilling. Yet the copy-fight over intellectual property is a fraught terrain, featuring running skirmishes with the commons-loving hacker fractions of the cognitive class over the policing of digital rights management. So, too, the exposure of capital to open knowledge networks for sources of profit carries its own risks; investments in technically specific business models can go south rapidly when access to the same knowledge is widely available at no cost. In the case of free inputs, the hand that gives is also the hand that takes.
It would be naive, however, to conclude, as some advocates of immaterial labor do, that capital has been weakened or outsmarted by the need to forage far and wide, and on especially uncertain and hostile terrain, for cognitive inputs and surpluses. The evidence from the current rent-extraction boom is that profits from new markets are far from soft, whether for jumbo monopolists like Google and Facebook or rapidly expanding content farms like Demand Media and Associated Content or for the army of smaller content aggregators. Moreover, their business models are highly quantitative and are very precisely tied to the measurable value of inputs from users or contributors. In this regard, it is by no means clear that the increasingly sophisticated Internet metrics industry represents a significant departure from the gainful calculus of the labor theory of value. Far from transforming the conventions of worker productivity and rewards beyond recognition, the digital labor system, as Chris Lehman suggests, has “merely sent the rewards further down the fee stream to unscrupulous collectors.”
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