All That is Solid Melts into Diesel-Smog

by Lizzie O’Shea

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If an example is needed as to why we can no longer leave the future of information technology in the control of capitalists, in the interests of our own survival, consider Volkswagen. The car manufacturers recently admitted to systematically using software to evade regulation. Their cars performed better on the road but the emissions from its diesel cars were well above legal limits. In the parlance of the tragedy of the commons, it is as though they designed a super-breed of cow that produced better milk, while surreptitiously destroying the pasture.

This went undetected because, as with most machinery that runs on software, there is no way to read the code of that software. It is protected by copyright and there is no requirement that companies reveal it.

It is palpably ironic that the Environmental Protection Agency had actually resisted moves to make such software exempt from copyright protections and therefore available for scrutiny. The EPA had argued that making the code available meant that consumers could potentially tinker with it to get around environmental regulation and improve the car’s performance. But as usual, it turns out that it is not the everyday hacker whom we should fear; it’s the business that benefits from secrecy.

The experts and the media have been quick to dismiss the company and its conduct as ‘scandalous,’ ‘unusual’ with ‘a degree of complacency and pomposity,’ an ‘accident waiting to happen.’ Nazi-founded, we are reminded. But Volkswagen was simply exploiting a comparative advantage, externalising a negative, projecting an artificial price indicator. Economists will not use the proper language for such behaviour, which is a form of mundane deception that is the logical outcome of market economics. Indeed, it is now undeniably apt, given that at least four more car companies have probably done the same thing.

So what comes next, on this rickety rollercoaster of predatory capitalism? Expensive medical equipment that falsely reports good results? Or aeroplanes that have bugs in their navigational software that no one noticed, until, say, one goes missing? It’s not just about using software to cheat, which is built into the design of capitalism. Rather, like a quick paint job before an auction, the cloak of secrecy around software codes conceals the cracks in the foundations. It becomes a dangerous building material.

The problem is that information technology has become structured in a way that is fundamentally undemocratic. The foundation upon which our whole relationship with personal technology is built is copyright law. That is to say, the law of commodification. This has been the driving force behind the growth of software companies like Apple and Microsoft: it locks users into a technological relationship that serves the interests of profit-maximisation, and structures productive capabilities to protect this state of affairs. For example, there is no way for an average consumer to know what their computer, and most of the software on it, is doing. And even if the consumer spots a hazard or a short-cut, there is no opportunity to convey this. We are on a one-way superhighway, from producer to consumer, with no opportunity to reverse the direction of communication.

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For the most part, the leftist critique of this emerging system has focused on the opportunities this software and hardware, affords others to spy on us. The modish enemy in all of this is the threat of our personal data being hoovered up and collated by information technology firms to be sold off and picked through by government spooks and corporate analysts. However, this battle is not just about political control – though it is, of course, partially about that. It is also about placing a millstone around the neck of human potential in order to sustain the subjection of technology to the commodity form.

For too long, with some notable and dedicated exceptions, the left has, in dereliction of its duty, tended to dismiss such techno-geekery as mostly pertaining to a world beyond its understanding. The left has a pretty good grasp on the basic mechanics of spying, and there is political importance to this work. But, like it or not, this critique doesn’t resonate for a lot of people. For many, it seems a touch absurd to think that the state could really care about whether you are having an affair, or watch porn. The tech-billionaires of our age, like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, seem like clever folk and their products are pretty and generally work okay. It is not just the dangerous and catastrophic power of state and capital that we need to highlight, therefore, but also the immense squandering of potential that takes place thanks to the subordination of software development to shareholder value.

Just as information technology has given us the capacity to cheat and destroy, it has also given us the capacity to create and overcome. When Gary Kasparov lost his game of chess with Deep Blue, he was remarkably sanguine about how this came about: ‘More quantity makes better quality.’ In other words, the vast computational skills of Deep Blue overcame the qualitative advantages Kasparov may have gained through his experience, creativity and instinct. The same goes for open source design. The more people you have looking at a line of code – just like editing a document an online encyclopaedia wherein a relatively anarchic structure without capitalist forms of incentive creates its own form of efficiency – the more likely you are to discover problems and find solutions.

Climate change comes to mind. There are those who think that capitalism’s propensity to drive forward technical innovations will lead to the market converging on a solution to the catastrophic destruction of the commons. The Volkswagen example indicates the exact opposite. The building of a sustainable world necessitates starting with different materials. Liberated from the constraints of private ownership, information technology offers us considerable opportunities. Imagine if people anywhere could tinker with software to improve the efficiency of transport systems, or design and test fake meat production, or had the means to hone their skills writing code for 3D printers. With four billion minds trying to solve the myriad problems, big and small, that collectively we call climate change, we could turbo-charge a solution.

In Marxist terms, productive relations are acting as an impediment to the development of the productive forces. Information technology gives us the chance to accelerate thinking, learning and problem solving. But at the moment, the vast majority of human potential is stuck in the slow lane, wedged in a Trabi. The propertied class is powering ahead in a hotted-up Volkswagen.

This problem, and the critique, is not new. But the situation is one of unprecedented opportunity for Marxists, if they are able to think ahead. Marx wrote, apropos the collectivising processes of production in the industrial era: ‘Not only have we here an increase in the productive power of the individual, by means of co-operation, but the creation of a new power, namely, the collective power of masses.’ The infotech revolution is, over time, creating a new army of makers. As the capitalist economy becomes ever more focused on information and advanced technology, and as old industrial sectors become increasingly automated, the strategic leverage of the growing numbers of people needed to make software will expand. The emergent capacity of those using and working within a system of software to improve it is potentially greater than that of any inspired genius or corporation with a fleet of technicians.

‘Digital democracy’ is a slogan often wielded by upstart capitalists, those for whom copyright and other monopolistic practices are an obstacle to their own successful admission to the capitalist class. For Marxists, digital democracy is about enfranchising an untapped productive potential. Far from zero-growth utopias, we anticipate great leaps forward. To return to the vernacular of the commons: we need to socialise the cows.

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The author would like to acknowledge the contributions to her thinking made by Jacob Varghese and Prof Eben Moglen in writing this article.

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