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The Meaning of Information: Three Propositions on Informational Cultures Essay

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Updated: Sep 7th, 2021

Introduction

Is there an informational quality that defines twenty-first century culture – a quality that makes such culture unique, that gives it, so to speak, its most characteristic and peculiar trait? Such a question would appear to be based on two problematic assumptions: in the first place that there is something like a culture that defines a century; and, above all, that we do know what such informational quality is about – that is, that we do know the ‘meaning of information’.

If the notion of a culture raises important questions about the relationship between the heterogeneous and the homogeneous, the idea that we do not know what information is might appear as less of an issue. After all, information has become such a common word and is used so freely and with such ease that we should have no problem at all in defining it. We know at least two things about information: that it is the content of a communication act; and that there is something less than material about it – at least judging from the ease with which it goes from mouth to ear and ear to mouth.

This immateriality of information has been further amplified by technical developments that have made possible the instant transmittal and multiple distribution of any type of information at all (images, sound, music, words, software, statistics, projections, etc.). It is this ease of copying, it has been argued, that makes of information such a shifty and yet valuable commodity. We know that information can be sold and bought and that a good deal of the world economy is driven by an emphasis on the informational content of specific commodities and we are also aware that information itself can be valuable (when it is used for example to make a profit in the stock market).

We know that anybody is always potentially an information-source or even an information-storage device and that science suggests that information constitutes the very basis of our biological existence (in as much as, we are told, we contain information that can be decoded within our very cells). In all these cases, information emerges as a Content, as some kind of ‘thing’ or ‘object’ but one that possesses abnormal properties (ease of copying and propagation, intangibility, volatility, etc.) that contemporary technological developments have exacerbated and amplified.

.We are no longer mostly dealing with information that is transmitted from a source to a receiver, but increasingly also with informational dynamics – that is with the relation between noise and signal, including fluctuations and microvariations, entropic emergencies and negentropic emergences, positive feedback and chaotic processes. If there is an informational quality to contemporary culture, then it might be not so much because we exchange more information than before, or even because we buy, sell or copy informational commodities, but because cultural processes are taking on the attributes of information – they are increasingly grasped and conceived in terms of their informational dynamics.

Network Dynamics

Machines, the reality constructed by capitalism, are not phantasms of modernity after which life can run unscathed – they are, on the contrary, the concrete forms according to which reality organizes itself, and the material connections with ihich subjectivity is produced. Ordo et connexio rerum idem est ac ordo et connexio idearum.

Free Labour

The real not-capital is labour.

Working in the digital media industry was never as much fun as it was made out to be. Certainly, for the workers of the best known and most highly valued companies, work might have been a brief experience of something that did not feel like work at all. On the other hand, even during the dot-com boom the ‘netslaves’ of the homonymous webzine had always been vociferous about the shamelessly exploitative nature of the job, its punishing work rhythms and its ruthless casualization. They talked about ‘24/7 electronic sweatshops’, complained about the 90-hour week and ‘moronic management of new media companies’.

Antagonism in the new media industry also affected the legions of volunteers running well-known sites for the Internet giants. In early 1999, seven of the 15,000 ‘volunteers’ of America Online rocked the info-love boat by asking the Department of Labor to investigate whether AOL owed them back wages for the years of playing chat hosts for free. They used to work long hours and love it; but they also felt the pain of being burned by digital media.

The Digital Economy

The term ‘digital economy’ emerged in the late 1990s as a way to summarize some of the processes described above. As a term, it seems to describe a formation which intersects on the one hand with the postmodern cultural economy (the media, the university and the arts) and on the other hand with the information industry (the information and communication complex). Such an intersection of two different fields of production constitutes a challenge to a theoretical and practical engagement with the question of labour, a question which has become marginal for media studies as compared with questions of ownership (within political economy) and consumption (within cultural studies).

This early attempt to offer a polemical platform from which to think about the digital economy overemphasized the autonomy of the high-tech gift economy from capitalism. The processes of exchange which characterize the Internet are not simply the reemergence of communism within the cutting edge of the economy, a repressed other which resurfaces just at the moment when communism seems defeated. It is important to remember that the gift economy, as part of a larger informational economy, is itself an important force within the reproduction of the labour force in late capitalism as a whole.

The provision of ‘free labour’, as we shall see later, is a fundamental moment in the creation of value in the economy at large – beyond the digital economy of the Internet. As will be made clear, the conditions that make free labour an important element of the digital economy are based on a difficult, experimental compromise between the historically rooted cultural and affective desire for creative production (of the kind more commonly associated with Gilroy’s emphasis on ‘individual self-fashioning and communal liberation’) and the current capitalist emphasis on knowledge as the main source of added value.

Free labour is the moment where this knowledgeable consumption of culture is translated into excess productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited.

The digital economy magically resolves the contradictions of industrial societies, such as class struggle: where as in the industrial economy the ‘worker tried to achieve fulfillment through leisure [and] was alienated from the means of production which were owned and controlled by someone else’, in the digital economy the worker achieves fulfillment through work and finds her brain her own, unalienated means of production.

Such means of production need to be cultivated by encouraging the worker to participate in a culture of exchange, whose flows are mainly kept within the company but also need to involve an ‘outside’, a contact with the fast-moving world of knowledge in general. The convention, the exhibition and the conference – the traditional ways of supporting this general exchange – are supplemented by network technologies both inside and outside the company. Although the traffic of these flows of knowledge needs to be monitored (hence the corporate concerns about the use of intranets), the Internet effectively functions as a channel through which ‘human intelligence’ renews its capacity to produce.

Human intelligence, however, also poses a problem: it cannot be managed in quite the same way as more traditional types of labour. Knowledge workers need open organizational structures in order to produce, because the production of knowledge is rooted in collaboration; this is what Barbrook had defined as the ‘gift economy’.

Knowledge Class and Immaterial Labour

In spite of the numerous, more or less disingenuous endorsements of the democratic potential of the Internet, its links with capitalism have always been a bit too tight for comfort to concerned political minds. It has been very tempting to counteract the naive technological utopianism by pointing out how computer networks are the material and ideological heart of informated capital.

Immaterial labour, unlike the knowledge worker, is not completely confined to a specific class formation. Lazzarato insists that this form of the labour power is not limited to highly skilled workers, but is a form of activity of every productive subject within postindustrial societies. In the highly skilled worker, these capacities are already there. In the young worker, however, the ‘precarious worker’, and the unemployed youth, these capacities are ‘virtual’, that is they are there but are still undetermined. This means that immaterial labour is a virtuality (an undetermined capacity) which belongs to the postindustrial productive subjectivity as a whole.

For example, the obsessive emphasis on education of 1990s governments can be read as an attempt to stop this virtuality from disappearing or from being channelled into places which would not be as acceptable to the current power structures. In spite of all the contradictions of advanced capital and its relation to structural unemployment, postmodern governments do not like the completely unemployable.

The potentialities of work must be kept alive, the unemployed must undergo continuous training in order to be both monitored and kept alive as some kind of postindustrial reserve force. Nor can they be allowed to channel their energy into the experimental, nomadic, and antiproductive lifestyles which in Britain have been so savagely attacked by the Criminal Justice Act since the mid 1990s.

Ephemeral Commodities and Free Labour

There is a continuity, and a break, between older media and new media in terms of their relationship to cultural and affective labour. The continuity seems to lie in their common reliance on their public/users as productive subjects. The difference lies both in the mode of production and in the ways in which power / knowledge works in the two types. In spite of different national histories.

The television industry, for example, is relatively conservative: writers, producers, performers, managers, and technicians have definite roles within an industry still run by a few established players. The digital economy, then, challenged the postmodern assumption that labour disappears while the commodity takes on and dissolves all meaning. In particular, the Internet foregrounds the extraction of value out of continuous, updateable work and is extremely labourintensive.

Free labour, however, is not necessarily exploited labour. Within the early virtual communities, we are told, labour was really free: the labour of building a community was not compensated by great financial rewards writing an operating system is still more worthy of attention than just chatting for free for AOL. This in spite of the fact that in 1996, at the peak of the volunteer moment, over 30,000 ‘community leaders’ were helping AOL to generate at least $7 million a month.49 Still, the open-source movement has drawn much more positive attention than the more diffuse user-labour described above.

Shareware software is distributed freely, but incurs a ‘moral’ obligation for the user to forward a small sum to the producer in order to sustain the shareware movement as an alternative economic model to the copyrighted software of giants such as Microsoft. ‘Open source’ ‘refers to a model of software development in which the underlying code of a program – the source code a.k.a. the ‘crown jewels’ – is by definition made freely available to the general public for modification, alteration, and endless redistribution’. In 1998, when Netscape went open source and invited the computer tinkers and hobbyists to look at the code of its new browser fix the bugs, improve the package and

redistribute it, specialized mailing lists exchanged opinions about the implications. Was it to be read as being in the tradition of the Internet ‘gift economy’? Or was digital capital hijacking the open-source movement exactly against that tradition? Richard Barbrook saluted Netscape’s move as a sign of the power intrinsic in the architecture of the medium.

Rather than representing a moment of incorporation of a previously authentic moment, the open-source question demonstrates the over reliance of the digital economy as such on free labour, free both in the sense.

As we stated before, these processes are far from being confined to the most self-conscious labourers of the digital economy. They are part of a diffuse cultural economy which operates throughout the Internet and beyond. The passage from the pioneeristic days of Internet to its ‘venture’ and ‘recession’ days does not seem to have affected these mechanisms, only intensified them.

Biocapital Introduction

This thesis is concerned with tracking and theorizing the co-production of an emergent techno scientific regime — that of biotechnology in the context of drug development — with an emergent political economic regime that sees the increased prevalence of such research in corporate locales, with corporate agendas and practices. Hence biocapital, which asks questions of the implications for life sciences when performed in corporations, and for capitalism, when biotechnology becomes a key source of market value.

The methodology followed in this dissertation is multi-sited ethnography. I study a range of actors — including academic and industrial scientists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and policy makers — in two distinct national environments, the United States and India, as they shape and come to terms with these emergent technologies and emergent political economies.

Genomic Capital

In this part of the thesis, I talk about the cultural transformations — institutional and conceptual — that biocapitalism is creating in the materiality and exchangeability of what we call “life”. These transformations are created through shifting and variable use of market commoditization versus public commons or public goods formation, both of which are disciplined by the new forms of capitalist logic, conforming neither to those of industrial capitalism nor those of so-called postmodern information capitalism.

Hence the “biocapitalism”, which basically asks the question of how “life” to gets the redefined through the contradictory processes of commoditization, and thereby begs to be theorized not just in terms of the formation of subjectivity (though this is undeniably as essential component of theorization that needs to be undertaken, and that is the subject of Chapter 8), but also in terms of property regimes and relationships.

Specifically, I want to start making the argument for the enterprise of genomics as being a window on contemporary capitalism. It is a window that affords a particularly important view into the latter’s workings as the confluence today of the information and life sciences redefines not just biology but society and its perspectival vantage points writ large. Paul Rabinow coined the term biosociality to describe social relations organized and coordinated on the basis of shared biological identifications (Rabinow 1992).

If capitalism could be understood in the nineteenth century through an understanding of the industrial revolution, which itself was powered by the dynamics of circulation of money and commodities, then the twenty-first century could be said to be an era of biotechnical capitalism, in which the sciences of life construct and articulate new.

The “today” is important: there is a tendency to conflate genomics with its best known institutional manifestation, the Human Genome Project (HOP). The HGP, however, as I have already argued, is very much just a fragment, albeit a central one, of genomics today. Firstly, a primarily State sponsored venture, the HGP occupies a particular political space vis-a-vis genomics writ large, as an endeavour which has to used and continues to use public money to generate gene sequence information – and I will talk more about this particular political space later in the chapter.

Secondly, the sequencing of the human genome, a project that just a few years ago seemed so dauntingly far away (if not temporally, then at least in sheer volume of effort) as to be an end in itself, is today very much conceived of as just the end of the beginning, at a moment when a working draft sequence of the human genome is already complete. Genomics today therefore is largely what might have been called “post-genomics” even a year ago. And by “corporate” I refer not just to the enormous number of what are called genomics corporations that have sprung up in the last five years, but to the entire nature and agenda of genomics writ large.

Labor

I now move away from talking just about genomics, to talk about labor in drug discovery and development world’s writ large. It is, however, an analysis that is under girded to a significant extent by factors that, fundamentally make genomics possible: speed and information, as themselves made possible by automation and high-throughput ness. I would like to situate this, however, in the context of the labor practices necessary, both in genome worlds themselves and in other nodes in the life science / drug development enterprise.

I do this not by making any coherent argument for the structure of labor practices across different components of the drug discovery and development enterprise, but instead by putting forward a series of vignettes, about labor practices, and the importance of different forms of labor, in different institutional settings, both in the United States and in India. This is an acknowledgment, as much as anything else, of the fact that a complete picture of biocapitalist lifeworlds cannot even begin to be obtained simply from studying the more glamorous sites of production and decision making, which ultimately is what much of this dissertation does.

Analyses of the pharmaceutical industry, indeed, often fall prey to this blind spot, as supporters and critics alike tend to focus on research and development (R & D) on the one hand, and sales and marketing on the other.

The paucity of this set of foci, of course, is evident when one tries to study the Indian pharmaceutical industry, has only recently gotten into R & D in the first place, and, bar the odd exception, really is not into aggressive sales and marketing (the latter itself being an outcome of a certain sort of brand valuation that emerges most evidently from patented rather than generic drugs, and therefore not so central to the Indian pharmaceutical industry pre-WTO). What this misses, then, is manufacturing. There are four core manufacturing facilities, which mean that four batches of drugs can be manufactured at any given time. If the volume of manufacturing needs to be scaled up, therefore, more shifts will be run.

Each of the four parallel facilities is distinguished from the others in visibly marked ways, so that there is no chance of any crossover of laborers or products between the facilities. The color of the floor in each of the parallel facilities differs, as do the colors of the workers’ gowns. Also, the air pressure in the core facilities is highest, ensuring that there is no inflow of impure air from outside. Indeed, the structuring of the air ducts is one of the most crucial aspects in the maintenance of purity.

The most Tabor intensive part of the process is the last part, which is packaging. This is not automated, and a large number of the packagers are women. Most of the workers have passed tenth grade, after which they are sent to an industrial training institute. Their wages on an average are about 5000 rupees a month.

Consumptive Power

Paul Virilio (1977) in Speed and Politics talks about the consumption of security in contemporary, what he calls dromocratic, society (a society run by speed). He says: “We will see the creation of a common feeling of insecurity that will lead to a new kind of the consumption, the consumption of protection; this latter will progressively come to the fore and become the target of the whole merchandizing system”. High-throughput diagnostic capabilities, such as those provided by DNA chips, fit exactly into such a dromological regime. This is why personalized medicine, genomics and biocapital are all the about govern mentality in a Foucauldian. The consumption of diagnostic tests and drugs are a means of ensuring security.

The consumer of the diagnostic tests quite precisely fits the description of Virilio’s dromocratic consumer: “no longer the one who enriches the nation by consuming, but the one who invests first and foremost in security, manages his own protection as best as he can, and finally pays more to consume less”.

The key source of exploitation that Marx identifies in the capitalist system is its generation of surplus ‘value. In order to understand how surplus value leads to exploitation, one has to firstly understand that the fundamental economic contradiction that Marx is trying to resolve is the question of how it is that an exchange of equivalents can lead to a generation of surplus, and secondly to understand Marx’s concept of labor power.

That it is labor power rather than labor that the worker exchanges with the capitalist is crucial, because labor power, as creative potential, is not pre-determined value – it has potential for generating surplus ingrained within it. Therefore the apparent act of equivalent exchange – worker’s labor for capitalist’s wages – has hidden within it an element of non­equivalence, because wages are fixed remuneration, but the labor, which is actually labor power, is the potential for the creation of value that is over and above the money expended in wages.

Surplus value “in general, is value in excess of the equivalent” (Marx 1973 [1857], therefore, constitute for the capitalist productive consumption: “Living labor belongs just as much among capital’s conditions of existence as do raw material and instrument. Thus it reproduces itself doubly, in its own form, Rend in the worker’s consumption, but only to the extent that it reproduces him as living labor capacity.

This is how, therefore, the exchange of the equivalents leads to the creation of surplus, which is the fundamental mystery that Marx is seeking to unravel, and which is something that political economy has tended always to leave in the realm of mystery. “By virtue of having acquired labor capacity in exchange as an equivalent, capital has acquired labor time – to the extent that it exceeds the labor time contained in labor capacity – in exchange without equivalent; it has appropriated alien labor time without exchange by means of the form of exchange.

The use-value of the labor capacity, as value, is itself the value-creating force; the substance of value, and the value-increasing substance. In this exchange, then, the worker are receives the equivalent of the labor time objectified in him, and gives his value-creating, value-increasing living labor time”

If the first step in developing an understanding of “consumption” relevant to biocapitalism (and I purposely hold consumption, for the time being, in the quotes) is an understanding of surplus value from the productive process as being the node of exploitation of the worker, then the second step is to understand what is meant by subject, which, after all, does not at all necessarily mean worker.

It is this gap between political economic, mainly Marxian, analyses of labor and Foucauldian analyses of subjectivity (which is a word that I have used extensively in this chapter, and ought definitely to demand problematization by now; but which is also a word that has becomes integral to the lexicon of what have becomes disciplines such as cultural studies and medical anthropology, and therefore get bandied about in the unreflexive fashion

that any “canonical” term gets used, and consequently reified and abused), that needs to be bridged if one is to attempt, as I have been doing, a theorizing that is equally attentive to a Foucauldian politics of “life, labor and value” as it is a Marxian politics that emphasizes relations of production.

The Born-Again Ethic and the Sprit of Biocapitalism

Capitalism is not just a formation that is conditioned by religion, but is essentially a religious phenomenon. This is why I used Geertz on religion in my introduction to dissertation. But science too is a religious phenomenon, in terms of the belief structures within which it operates, and in terms of its structural mechanism. The question for biocapitalism is one of the mechanisms of articulation of the various religious manifestations of life sciences with capitalism.

In this part of the chapter, I wish to explore at greater length the theological and messianic embeddedness of biocapitalist discourse and practice. In order to do so, I must begin by indicating how the conception of drug development as a miraculous enterprise pervades its stories; and how stories of the miracles of pharmaceutical development constantly crop up at each “revolutionary” moment in the industry’s history.

These stories, as I suggested, are not abstract and disembodied structural figures, but have to do with real lives that new miracle cures (that of course, in the linear progressive historical renderings of science, are always subsequently deemed as having been always inadequate) have saved. Consider, then, the following three stories, the first two recounted by Barry Werth in The Billion Dollar Molecule, and third by Cynthia Robbins-Roth (2000) in From Alchemy to IPO.

Bibliography

Tiziana, Terranova. Network Culture. : Pluto Press, 2004.

Kaushik, Sunder Rajan. Biocapital. : Duke University Press, 2006.

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