From edition

Review: Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything.

Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams.

New York: Penguin, 2007.

The Amazon Mechanical Turk is an online platform on which employers can post ‘Human Intelligence Tasks’ (HITs) that are searched by prosumers looking for paid employment who select and perform these knowledge tasks with the help of their computers, submit the results, and then get paid. ‘Developers use the Amazon Mechanical Turk web service to submit tasks to the Amazon Mechanical Turk website, approve completed tasks, and incorporate the answers into their software applications. To the application, the transaction looks very much like any remote procedure call: the application sends the request, and the service returns the results. Behind the scenes, a network of humans fuels this artificial intelligence by coming to the web site, searching for and completing tasks, and receiving payment for their work’ (mturk.com FAQs, accessed on November 23, 2007). The reward per task ranges between zero, a few cents (in most cases), and some dollars. One example of an HIT assignment is to determine the presence of opinion in a text article and submit the result, e.g., ‘Your task is to read the news article or blog post below and determine whether it is editorial in nature or is an expression of opinion, and whether it is positive, negative, or neutral’ (mturk.com, accessed on November 23, 2007). Multiple users will input their results which will be used by the task assigner who aggregates and sells the results as a commodity. The example is characteristic for what Tapscott and Williams celebrate as Wikinomics – an online economy based on networking, peering, and collaboration.

Sounds like a good way for earning some money? The shadow side in which Tapscott and Williams are not interested, is that the remuneration is poor. In the example just cited, the reward is four cents for an estimated task time of 10 minutes, which results in a total hourly compensation of 24 cents if you repeatedly carry out similar tasks. Hence, this ‘new’ economy of mass collaboration seems to support and advance an extremely flexible regime of accumulation that brings about precarious labor.

Tapscott and Williams claim that the emergence of Social Software (the ‘new web,’ as they call it) has brought about a potential for an economy that is based on mass collaboration, which they term ‘Wikinomics.’ The task of the book is to show why and how mass collaboration does not reduce, but rather enhances profitability. The Wikinomics model is based on the four principles of openness (of standards and external involvement), peer production, sharing, and acting globally (20-30)[1].

Tapscott and Williams introduce seven Wikinomics business models: peer pioneers (chapter 3), ideagoras (chapter 4), prosumers (chapter 5), new Alexandrians (chapter 6), platforms for participation (chapter 7), global plant floor (chapter 8), and wiki workplace (chapter 9). These models of competition all have one thing in common: ‘These new forms . . . enable firms to harvest external knowledge, resources, and scale that were all previously impossible. Whether your business is closer to Boeing or P&G, or more like YouTube or Flickr, there are vast pools of external talent that you can tap with the right approach. Companies that adopt these models can drive important changes in their industries and rewrite the rules of competition’ (269sq)[1]. Per Tapscott and Williams, these models are not so different from prior ones. As this quotation shows, in the end, it really is still all about profit-making and achieving overall capitalist economic goals. The difference is that Wikinomics strategies are more subtle. They colonize spare time and transform free time into labor time, in which surplus value is created and appropriated by capital. However, the prosumers do not realize that they are being exploited because exploitation now seems fun to them; it is entertaining, and takes place during their spare time.

Wikinomics, hence, is not only a subtle form of exploitation of unpaid labor, but also an ideology. The main idea is to outsource labor to globally distributed customers and collaborators that act as prosumers so that labor and other costs are reduced. Marx showed that if variable capital costs (labor costs) decrease, the rate of exploitation (the relation of surplus value to variable capital s/v) increases. With the rise of Wikinomics, exploitation expands to the realm of spare time, economic colonization and instrumental reason become universal, and the rate of exploitation increases because prosumers, as a tendency, deliver unpaid surplus value. Tapscott and Williams do not call this process exploitation, but they implicitly admit that it is all about the extraction of surplus value from consumers: ‘Companies can design and assemble products with their customers, and in some cases customers can do the majority of the value creation’ (289sq). This is not a novel form of management and organization because it has in common with Taylorism the overall goal of increasing competitive advantage and the reduction of humans to economic reason in the last instance (cf. Fuchs, Blachfellner & Bichler, 2007).

Most of the authors’ Web 2.0 accumulation strategies are based on the notion of the cost-cutting effects of the global outsourcing of labor, supported by the internet. In reality, this strategy takes the form of new self-employment, which already in the past produced precarious forms of flexibility with more risks, less social security, and less secure employment. The most probable result of an economy based on Wikinomics will be an increase in precarious and unpaid labor that benefits certain companies that exploit unpaid labor. Such a situation remunerates more people for only a strictly limited time for specific tasks. The result will be more precarious jobs and living conditions, with an increased income gap between corporate workers on top, and then flex-workers, temporary workers, and the unemployed at the bottom.

Tapscott and Williams have an idealistic and unrealistic view of capitalism. They argue that in the end, all actors involved in Wikinomics will benefit. For example, they say that the new business models would ‘drive new innovation, create jobs and wealth, and add tremendous value for customers’ (234). If there is one general principle of capitalism, it is that capitalism is a system that never benefits all, but only some at the expense of others, and some more than others so that relative or absolute inequality is generated. In capitalism, economic freedom stands in antagonism with social equity. Capitalism is, overall, always a non-co-operative (i.e., competitive) system because it is particularistic: Capital is accumulated by someone or a group at the expense of others who are being exploited or excluded. There is a dialectic of ownership and non-ownership, accumulation and dispossession of money capital. Tapscott and Williams create the impression that all will benefit from Wikinomics, but they do not see that those who gain competitive advantages will do so at the expense of other economic actors and that those prosumers who work for free in the Wikinomy are exploited by capital.

Capitalism is a competitive society in the sense that it benefits certain groups at the expense of others. I have argued in another place, based on the principle of Essence taken from dialectical philosophy, that co-operation, understood as human collaboration that brings advantages to all, is the Essence of society because a fully competitive society is self-destructive, whereas a fully cooperative society is possible, which makes co-operation a more grounding phenomenon of society than competition. If Truth is seen as the correspondence of Essence and Existence, then capitalism is a false society, and only a fully co-operative society is a true state of human existence. One important quality of capitalism that has been grasped by Marx is that capitalism, in advancing productivity by technological and organizational progress, at the same time deepens exploitation and alienation and produces potentials for a fully co-operative society (Fuchs, 2008). In this context, Marx has spoken of the antagonism between the productive forces and the relations of production. One novel quality of transnational informational capitalism is that co-operative potentials are no longer predominantly advanced in forms that feel alienating and uncontrollable for the masses. Instead, information, ‘immaterial’ labor, media, and technology advance the overall competitive and instrumental character of society by integrating the subjectivity of human actors so that the impression is created that their work and lives are fun, participatory, rewarded, acknowledged, etc. Yet in reality, those actors become ever more subsumed under the control of capital to a greater extent and in ever more spheres of human existence. In an economy based on Wikinomics principles, spare time, as a tendency, becomes labor time in which surplus value is produced.

Wikinomics shows how mass collaboration and digital gifts can be subsumed under a capitalist logic. The difference between my own approach and the authors’ is that the latter welcome this development, whereas I consider it from a neo-Marxist perspective as the extension and intensification of alienation and exploitation (Fuchs, 2008), yet I recognize that, at the same time, it bears certain potentials for alternative developments. Transnational informational capitalism is characterized by a paradox situation that was foreseen 30 years ago by Herbert Marcuse, in which subjective unfreedom is accompanied by the highest objective potentials for emancipation that have thus far existed in human history (Fuchs, 2008).

I have characterized this paradox economy as the gift commodity internet economy (Fuchs, 2008). Commercial Web 2.0 applications are typically of no charge for users; they generate profit by gathering as many users as possible by offering free services and selling advertisement space to third parties and additional services to users. The more users, the more profit, that is, the more services are offered for free, the more profit can be generated. Although the principle of the gift points towards a post-capitalist society, gifts are today subsumed under capitalism and used for generating profit in the internet economy. The internet gift economy has a double character; it supports and at the same time undermines informational capitalism.

The gift commodity internet economy can be read as a specific form of what Dallas Smythe (1981; 2006) has termed the audience commodity. He suggests that in the case of media advertisement models, the audience is sold as a commodity. ‘Because audience power is produced, sold, purchased and consumed, it commands a price and is a commodity. . . . You audience members contribute your unpaid work time and in exchange you receive the program material and the explicit advertisements’ (Smythe, 1981/2006: 233 & 238). Audiences constitute unpaid labor; the consumption of the mass media is work because it results in a commodity, which is to say it produces that commodity. In this model, the audience’s work would also include ‘learning to buy goods and to spend their income accordingly,’ the demand for the consumption of goods, and the reproduction of their own labor power (Smythe, 1981/2006: 243sq).

With the rise of user-generated content and free access social networking platforms and other free access platforms that yield profit by online advertisement, the web seems to come close to the accumulation strategies employed by capital on traditional mass media like TV or radio. The users who Google data, upload or watch videos on YouTube, upload or browse personal images on Flickr, or accumulate friends with whom they exchange content or communicate online via social networking platforms like MySpace or Facebook, constitute an audience commodity that is sold to advertisers. The difference between the audience commodity on traditional mass media and on the internet is that in the latter the users are also content producers: There is user-generated content, the users engage in permanent creative activity, communication, community-building, and content-production. That the users are more active on the internet than in the reception of TV or radio content is due to the decentralized structure of the internet which allows many-to-many communication. Due to the permanent activity of the recipients and their status as prosumers, I would, in the case of the internet, argue that the audience commodity is a prosumer commodity. The category of the prosumer commodity does not signify a democratization of the media towards participatory systems, but the total commodification of human creativity. Much of the time spent online produces profit for large corporations like Google, News Corp. (which owns MySpace), or Yahoo! (which owns Flickr). Advertisements on the internet are frequently personalized; this is made possible by surveilling, storing, and assessing user activities with the help of computers and databases. This is another difference from TV and radio, which, due to their centralized structure, provide less individualized content and advertisements. But one can also observe a certain shift in the area of traditional mass media, as in the cases of pay per view, tele-votes, talkshows, and call-in TV and radio shows. In the case of the internet, the commodification of audience participation is easier to achieve than with other mass media. The rise of the internet prosumer commodity also shows that the visions of critical theorists like Benjamin, Brecht, and Enzensberger of an emancipatory media structure have today been subsumed under capital.

Capital is accumulated by collaboration, the provision of free access, peering, sharing, networking, communicating, and opening resources. Consumers become producers of surplus value: ‘In each instance the traditionally passive buyers of editorial and advertising take active, participatory roles in value creation’ (Tapscott and Williams, 2007: 14). There are ‘models where masses of consumers, employees, suppliers, business partners, and even competitors co-create value in the absence of direct managerial control’ (55). The result is not the emergence of ‘a new economic democracy . . . in which we all have a lead role’ (15), as Tapscott and Williams claim, but a subtly operating, coercive, and highly exploitative capitalist economy that tries to reduce labor and other investment costs by the global dynamic of labor outsourcing to prosumers, competitors, and subcontractors with the help of web 2.0.

Wikinomics is worthwhile reading for readers who want to observe how affirmative thinking and bourgeois ideology operate within the discourse on web 2.0.

Note

[1] References to the reviewed book contain only the page number(s).

References

Fuchs, C. (2008) Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age. New York: Routledge.

Fuchs, C., Blachfellner, S., Bichler, R. (2007) ‘The Urgent Need for Change: Rethinking Knowledge and Management’, in Christian Stary, Franz Barachini and Suliman Hawamdeh (Eds.) Knowledge Management: Innovation, Technology and Cultures. Proceedings of the 2007 International Conference on Knowledge Management. New Jersey: World Scientific, pp. 293-307.

Smythe, D. W. (1981/2006) ‘On the Audience Commodity and its Work’, in: Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner (Eds.) Media and Cultural Studies KeyWorks. Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 230-256.

Bio

Christian Fuchs is Associate Professor at the University of Salzburg (Austria). He studied Computer Science from 1994-2000 at the Vienna University of Technology. He specialized in sociology of technology, wrote a diploma thesis on ‘The Self-Organization of the Information Society’ (Selbstorganisation in der Informationsgesellschaft) and received a diploma in Computer Science in 2000 (Dipl.-Ing.). He wrote a dissertation thesis on ‘Aspects of Evolutionary Systems Theory in Economical Crisis Theories with a Special Sociological Consideration of Technological Factors’ (Aspekte der evolutionären Systemtheorie in ökonomischen Krisentheorien unter besonderer Berücksichtigung techniksoziologischer Bezüge) and was awarded a doctoral degree in technical sciences (Dr.techn.) in 2002. Christian Fuchs has completed his habilitation at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in February 2008 with a work on ‘internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Society'(Routledge 2008; http://fuchs.icts.sbg.ac.at/i&s.html), by which he gained the academic title of Privatdozent (associate professor). Homepage: http://fuchs.icts.sbg.ac.at

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