45 Revolutions Per Minute (media history on heavy rotation)

This text riffs on the theme of revolutions thereby referring less to the political act of one class wrestling power from another one but rather to cycical motions caused by the interplay of industrial, scientific, cultural and political motive forces. This approach challenges the prevailing viewpoint according to which class struggle has been replaced by media technologies as the subject of history in technologically advanced free-market democracies. Instead, it tries to develop a more complex understanding of the forces that shape history by working out the dialectical relationship between technological rationality as a means of power and domination and as a means of human emancipation at the same time.

As a guiding principle serves the expression that "the chicken comes always home to roost". Malcolm X used this phrase when the violence which the USA had unleashed on Vietnam came back to haunt it in the form of student unrest at home. The blindspots of a given society - such as racism, sexism, suppression of peoples or classes - will often come back to create problems for that society or even lead to its downfall, even if initially those things were not considered a major issue. For instance, the North American and French Revolutions were considered landmarks in humanities' progression towards liberty and freedom. However, the 'declaration of the rights of man' was not extended to womenOlympe de Gouges in 1791 wrote and published the "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen" which was modeled on the 1789 "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" by the National Assembly extending those rights to women, as well. and 12 of the signatories of the US Declaration of Independence were slave owners. The French Revolution brought victory for the bourgeoisie over the aristocracy, yet at the same time, as Georg Lukacs noted, 'the 'freedom' in whose name the bourgeoisie had joined battle with feudalism, was transformed into a new repressiveness'Lukács, György. 1971. History and class consciousness; studies in Marxist dialectics. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. p. 61. The bourgeois revolutions were supposed to usher in the 'kingdom of reason', yet those values of 'eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on Nature and the inalienable rights of man' were reserved for white property owners only, and the promised freedom of property turned out to be, for many who would soon see themselves dispossessed, 'a freedom from property,' explains Friedrich EngelsFriedrich Engels, 1978. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. In: The Marx-Engels Reader. Robert Tucker (ed.). New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, pp. 684 - 686. When, inspired by the Declaration of the Rights of Man, in 1791 a slave rebellion broke out in the French colony of Haiti, and succeeded in creating the first free post-colonial republic of citizens of African descent, the USA failed to support this fellow young republic. Subsequently Haitians emigrated to New Orleans and Lousiana, helped keeping alive West African cultural traditions locally, provided an example to African Americans of their independent, egalitarian spirit and contributed significantly to the development of jazz music, which, over time, would spread an anti-hegemonic and emancipatory musical message of global resonance.

Media Freedom

In France during the first phase of the 1789 revolution, '184 new journals had appeared in Paris and 34 in the provinces. [...] Almost every prominent revolutionary was involved in writing and publishing their own pamphlets or newspapers. Using hand-operated wooden presses, a single person could produce a daily paper with a print run of around 3000 copies,' writes Richard Barbrook, adding that, 'these one-man businesses could be very profitable even with a small circulation'Barbrook, Richard. 1995. Media freedom: the contradictions of communication in the age of modernity. London: Pluto Press. p. 14, quoting Bellenger et al 1969, 436. The freedom of the press in revolutionary France was dependent on the ownership of a printing press. It does not take too much of a leap of the imagination to compare those citizen journalists of the 1790s to the political blogger scene of present days. The bourgeois revolutions established a model of media freedom which was exported globally and, despite modifications, is still applied in liberal market societies today. In this model, media freedom is based on property ownership and both are intricately tied to representative democracy. While in principle everybody is free to run their own media, media conglomerates have come into existence, which bundle tremendous power in the hands of a few private owners. The voices of Mudoch, Berlusconi and their mouthpieces drown out the voices of billions of others. As the traditional media have become so dominated by private ownership interests, dissident opinion finds expression mainly in magazines of small print run and on the net.

The Industrial Revolution(s)

The first industrial revolution consisted of rapid changes in 'innovation, investment, output, trade and so forth' which all seemed to leap forward'Freeman, Christopher, and Luc Soete. 1997. The economics of industrial innovation. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. p. 35, quoting Supple 1961, p.35. from approximately 1780 onwards. It is justified to speak of a 'revolution', write Freeman and Soete, because it 'involved a very fundamental organisational change' which could not take place without 'political change and conflicts as well as cultural changes, such as the work discipline of factory hours and supervision'Ibid, p.35. After this first industrial revolution 'successive waves of industrial revolutions were based on the qualitative transformation of the economy by new technologies' and not just on quantitative growthIbid., p. 20, quoting Schumpeter. Those 'waves of successive revolutions'Schumpeter, Joseph Alois. 1939. Business cycles: a theoretical and statistical analysis of the capitalist process. New York: McGraw-Hill. are conceptualised by both Marxist and liberal economists as following a certain cyclical pattern. So called 'long-cycles' or 'long waves' are triggered by leading technologies which mark not just change within one industry but result in a new industrial-technological paradigm. So for instance, the 2nd 'long wave' or Kondratieff from 1840 to 1890 was based on steam and railways, but also needed the telegraph to enable the coordination of the expansion of the railway system and to feed stock markets which financed the railway expansion. The 3rd Kondratieff from 1890 to 1940s, while primarily based on electricity and steel, was also the age of the first wireless utopia, with new electrical technologies such as wireless telegraphy and, from the 1920s onwards, broadcast radioThe series of Kondratieff-cycles used here is based on Freeman and Soete, op.cit, Table 1.3, p.19; and currently, we are in the midst of a long-wave based on microelectronics and computer networks. While those 'long waves' based on new leading technologies initially help to sustain a long economic boom they will also inevitably lead to over-accumulation, a falling profit rate and ultimately a financial crisis. Understanding the cyclical nature of 'long waves' helps to conceptualise 'innovation' not as natural or spontaneous but as the emergence of paradigm changing technologies linked to the falling profit rate and the whole of the business cycle.

The Non-Neutrality of Technology

Karl Marx high-lighted the contradiction between capital and labour. In order for capital to accumulate, a surplus of capital must be made in relation to previous investment. This surplus is achieved by extracting extra-work from wage-workers. A part of the surplus produced by labour gets reinvested into machinery. As a result of this process 'the worker is brought face to face with the intellectual potentialities of the material process of production as the property of another and as a power which rules over him'. This 'process of industrialization, as it achieves more and more advanced levels of technological progress, coincides with a continual growth of the capitalist's authority'. Therefore, 'it is precisely capitalist 'despotism' which takes the form of technological rationality'. Yet in capitalism not only machines 'but also 'methods', organizational techniques, etc., [...] confront the workers as capital: as an extraneous 'rationality' observed Raniero Panzieri in a classical analysis of The Capitalist Use of MachineryRaniero Panzieri, 1961. The Capitalist Use of Machinery: Marx Versus the Objectivists', Quaderni Rossi Magazine, available online: http://www.geocities.com/cordobakaf/panzieri.html.

Technological Determinism

The surface appearance of things leads both critics and admirers of technical progress to fall for technological determinism, or, the 'billiard ball theory' for explaining social change. Technology and society are are understood as being separate from each other and new technology hits society like a billiard ball, sends it spinning off in a new direction through its 'impact'. Change is one-directional and its character entirely determined by the form of the technology. For instance, already in the early 19th century it was believed that 'improving communications means creating equality and democracy'Mattelart, Armand. 2003. The information society: an introduction. London: Sage. p. 31, quoting Chevalier 1837. This reminds of the prophets of the network society in the 1990s who claimed that the decentralised internet would automatically create a more decentralised, non-hierarchical society.

Commodity Fetishism

The non-neutrality of technology is not so easy to understand because the technology presents itself as an 'extraneous rationality', that is, in fetishised form. In commodity capitalism the product of labour appears in the form of things or commodities. As Karl Marx wrote: "A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the sensMarx Kapital I, Section 4. Commodity fetishism allows capitalism to mystify the social relationships it produces. It also explains why after a lengthy period of capitalist accumulation its combined product can appear as 'second nature'see Lukacs, op. cit.. We are surrounded by a life-world almost entirely 'produced' by capitalism one or the other way, so that we tend to naturalise social forms and hierarchies. This means that rather than understanding phenomena as historically specific we misinterpret them as 'natural' conditions of life. As long as commodity fetishism throws its veiling power around, the world appears to be ruled by things, the true social relationships can remain hidden and thereby continue unchallenged.

The Age of Electrification and Modern Media

At around 1890 the third long wave based on electricity and steel started to swell. With it, modern media emerged, at first undedected According to German media science scholars the word 'media' as we use it now was not known as a generic term in the 19th century. cf. Muenker & Roesler, ed., 2008. Was ist ein Medium. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.. Rather than understanding the emergence of new media as a natural progress of science and technology, or simply as great deeds of great men, it is suggested here to understand their creation embedded in the project of electrification. This involved the building of a new industrial system of gigantic dimensions, consisting of power stations and an electric grid covering cities and nations. To justify that expansion, a systematic search for applications of the new power source began. Innovations were made through systematic organisation of Research and Development (R&D). Highly motivated inventors with an entrepreneurial outlook such as Edison, Tesla and Marconi battled each other with trade marks and patents to assert themselves of the economic privileges of having been 'first'. This process would give birth to new industry leaders such as Marconin in Britain, GE in the USA and AEG in Germany who at one point almost formed a global monopoly together. The combined effect of the project of electrification also gave birth to organisational change by allowing the creation of modern buerocracy and facilitating great expansion of the size of corporations.

Wireless Utopia

The economic and technological race inspired a wireless utopia at the turn of the last century. The inventor Nicolas Tesla dreamed of wirelessly transmitting energy. In the popular imagination of the time, wireless communication technologies were seen as bringing along socialism and true democracy. Yet it was Marconi who created the first wireless business empire, because he developed wireless telegraphy according to the prevailing industrial logic, that is, not as a mass market consumer technology but as an industrial application to support global shipping lines and stock markets.
In the USA early radio technology was developed and experimented with by a large number of radio amateurs between around 1890 and 1920. Almost everywhere else in the world radio space was quickly controlled by the state and experimentation limited to a few official institutes. The garage spirit of US radio amateurs preceded the first wave of computer hackers and provided a model of innovation outside the market mechanism. WWI and the ascent of commercial radio in the 1920s put an end to that free-wheeling spirit.
The 1920s were the epoch that saw the rise of electrical consumer goods. Radio receivers reached American households in a wave together with the fridge and the washing machine. The same companies that made electrical consumer goods also ran radio stations. Radio became indispensible for what Raymond Williams calls 'mobile privatisation'Williams, Raymond. 1975. Television: technology and cultural form. New York: Schocken Books.. Increased mobility of working class people goes hand in hand with loss of community and cultural identity which the radio is partly able to restore, yet within the confines of the private living space.

The Avant-Gardes

The 19th century had been characterised by progressive technologies and a conservative culture. While the bourgeoisie explored the use of science and technology for business, it preferred historicism and classicism in art, design and architecture. The Futurist Manifesto of 1909 declared a radical break with that and praised 'all the roudy anti-art tendencies of the time': technology, speed, violence, the chaos of urban life and mass eventsHesse, Eva. 1991. Die Achse Avantgarde-Faschismus: Reflexionen über Filippo Tommaso Marinetti und Ezra Pound. Zürich: Die Arche. . The historic avant-gardes wanted to break down the barriers between art and life and, through the use of new technologies, create a new art which would result in a new society. While the historic avant-gardes were the first to understand the potential of new media technologies for art, their 'totalising' goals also made them susceptible to supporting totalitarian systems. Artist's desire to lead society in the way of an avant-garde infected them with 'total' visions where one decides for all what is the right thing to do. In revolutionary politics this was congruent with the Leninist doctrine of the avant-garde party. The structure of broadcast radio, where one speaker is heard by many, allowed dictators of the left and the right to overwhelm the masses with their charisma and unite them in the cult of the respective leader.

Participatory Media

As modern media joined the merry-go-round of fetishised commodities the dialectics of media came into play. The same technological dynamics which can increase the powers of a ruling class can also facilitate access to knowledge and self-emancipation. While artists feared that photography would spell the end of art, it enabled an ever greater number of people to see images of art works and pin them on their kitchen walls. Media technologies increased the power of corporate buerocracy yet allowed workers to educate themselves with cheap newspapers and print publications. While radio was used to command armies, it also created a market for non-elitist musical forms such as jazz and protest songs. A dynamic set in which pitted the increased democratisation of access to media against the powers and cultural doctrines of the economic elite.
In the late 1920s the leftwing playwright Bertolt Brecht demanded that every radio receiver should also be a transmitter. Radio should not isolate people but set them into relation to each other. Walter Benjamin developed what is arguably a media theory before the name as he investigated how new media change perceptions and thoughtBenjamin, Walter. 2008. The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Penguin great ideas. London: Penguin.. Benjamin also interrogated the relationship between media and their potential for the political instrumentalisation of the masses. He recognised that 'fascism amounted to an aestheticisation of political life' and noted how the big mass events were exploited for propaganda 'better through the lens and the possibilities of mechanised perception than live'. To counter those tendencies Benjamin recommended that The Author as Producer should intervene in the production process, in order to transform the apparatus in the manner of an engineer' Walter Benjamin, "The Author as Producer." In: Arato, Andrew, and Eike Gebhardt. 1982. The Essential Frankfurt school reader. New York: Continuum. The above passage paraphrases Cox & Krysa, eds., 2004, The Author as (digital) Producer, Preface. Rather than looking for self-expression authors should seek to change the productive system of art as a whole by introducing new ways that allow more people to express and thereby emancipate themselves. The following quote by Brecht points in a similar direction:

'It is not our job to renew the ideological Basis of the existing social order through innovations, but to make it give up its Basis through our innovations. [...] Through continuous, never ending proprosals how to better use the apparatuses in the interest of the general public we have to shake up the social Basis of those apparatuses, and to discredit their use in the interest of the few'.Brecht 1932, own translation. available online from:
Brecht's Radio theory

While the task of discrediting ' the media's 'use in the interest of the view' is still relevant, the notion that new technologies could be developed to 'shake up the base' of society is particularly interesting. Can technologies driven by the dreams, desires and rationally formulated goals of politicised artist-hacker communities not only disrupt business models of certain industries but undermine the relationship of the forces of production in a more profound way? Can they revolutionise the material base in order to unwind capitalism from within?

The Electronic Age

Increasing automatisation and the combined rule of Fordism-Keynesianism enabled a phase of prolonged high economic growth between the 1940s and 1970sHobsbawm, E. J., 1995. Age of extremes: the short twentieth century, 1914-1991. London: Abacus.. Henry Ford had not only pioneered a production methodology but also recognised that the people who built his cars were also the key customers for them, so that it was necessary to put enough money into their pockets and give them time to consume. The postwar consensus between money and capital demanded some moderation by both sides. Workers would get better conditions and pay, and in return would agree to ever more alienating production techniques in semi-automated factories. Financial speculation was put under control by a system of fixed exchange rates supervised by the 'Bretton Woods' institutions, the World Bank and IMF. For 25 years this system guaranteed stability and growth in the highly developed industrial societies.

Television became the emblematic medium of postwar consumer society. The main problem with television is not just that it somehow distorts the truth through 'manipulation', but that its internal structure of one transmitter and many receivers who cannot speak back mirrors the basic condition of societies split into consumers and producers, order givers and order takers. In The Society of the SpectacleDebord, Guy, and Ken Knabb. 2005. The society of the spectacle. London: Rebel Press. the working people are presented with their own powerlessness in the form of fetishised communications on the TV screen.

In the 1950s the introduction of the transistor made radio receivers portable. The new medium of pop music was reversing 'mobile privatisation' and came blaring out of car radios and, carried around on public pavements and parks, provided the soundtrack of the age of the automobile. Adorno and Horkheimer critizised sharply the way in which the Culture Industry transferred methods of production from Fordist factories into the cultural sphereAdorno, T. W., with Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002. While their powerful polemic resonates with the critique of the commodification of culture also in our age, it completely fails to acknowledge the emancipatory potential of so called 'mass media' that Benjamin had highlighted in the 1930s already. Unfortunately Adorno and Horkheimer's one-sided critique defined the way how 'good leftists' should interprete mass media culture. The medium of pop music could be not only those things that critical theory saw in them but also a way of transmitting new energies and formulating new identities by becoming the focus of fan creativity. The culture industry does not create new styles, it only exploits them. Since the 1950s, new subcultural styles were created by working class people in their free time: mods and rockers, teddy boys and girls, rude boys and soul girls shook the world with new attitudes that were hedonistic and rebellious at the same time.

The electronic age was given another twist by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding MediaMcLuhan, Marshall, 1964. Understanding media; the extensions of man. New York: McGraw-Hill.. According to McLuhan, shifts in the dominant form of the use of media ultimately caused shifts in the way people perceived and understood reality. After the visually oriented book culture of the 'Gutenberg Galaxy', electronic mass media would preference oral culture and tactility which would make societies more tribal and create a global village, McLuhan claimed. He also believed that mass media were 'prosthesis' of the central nervous system which, by becoming externalised, got exposed to powerful forces of manipulationIbid, p. 65. While providing an important stimulus for thinking about electronic media in new ways, McLuhan also went too far with technologic determinism. As the form of the technology determines the direction and character of change humans are denied the power to shape their own history. There is a negativity and totalitarianism in this viewpoint which is often overlooked. 'In experimental art,' McLuhan wrote, 'men are given the exact specifications of coming violence to their own from their own counter-irritants or technologies'Ibid, pp. 64-66.

Artists initially took to the new medium of television with a healthy spirit of destruction. Nam June Paik 'remixed' the television image by the use of a magnet, Guenter Uecker drove nails into TV sets and Wolf Vostell smashed and buried them in Central Park. After Sony introduced the first affordable portable video system, the Porta Pak in 1965, many artists began experimenting with it. A schism occured: those artists who fully embraced the emancipatory potential of the portable video camera started community media projects and ended up leaving the art system altogetherHalleck, DeeDee. 2002. Hand-held visions: the impossible possibilities of community media. New York: Fordham University Press.. Other artists who joined them in experimenting with video for a while during the 1960s later turned and sacrificed the socially transformative power of video activism for an art career.


While on the surface level of the screen things appeared relatively quiet in the mid 1960s in the highly developed industrial economies, the critique of the poverty of everyday life was already formulated underground by a post-Marxist unorthodox left. As George Katsiaficas shows, 'May 1968' was not just happening in Paris but was a powerful global movement of many movements which brought the The Imagination of the New LeftKatsiaficas, George, 1987. The Imagination of the New Left. A Global Analysis of 1968. Boston, Massachussetts, South End Press to the surface. Fed up with racism, sexism, militarism and consumer capitalism the revolutionary 'class-in-itself' of 1968 rejected the Leninist notion of the revolutionary avant-garde. Their idea of revolution was that power itself should be transformed into 'a decentralized and self-managed form'. The vibrancy of the 1968 movement also created a new model of media freedom: instead of consuming or fighting mass media, everybody should become the maker of their own media - producers of leaflets and posters, inventors of slogans and caricatures or radio makers. The participatory media model expressed itself in surrealist slogans such as 'Power to the Imagination' on the walls of Paris. While 1968 failed to seize political power it formulated the need for self-management and decentralisation in all areas, thereby giving a boost to new social movements which in the long term transformed dominant social attitudes towards issues such as race, gender or the environment.

Computerisation, Neo-liberalism and Postmodernism

The success of the catching-up economies Germany and Japan in producing cars and consumer goods, as well as overspending by the USA on the Vietnam war and Keynesian measures to stimulate the economy, created insurmountable tension and economic crisis at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970sBrenner, Robert. 2002. The boom and the bubble: the U.S. in the world economy. London: Verso.. The USA forced through the breaking up of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates and regulated financial markets. It is eerie to think through the connections between increasingly fluctuating exchange rates and the parallel gaining of prominence of postmodern semiotic theories about 'floating signifiers' and the importance of 'language games'Harvey, David. 1990. The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. figure 2.5. The next wave of science-related technological innovation started to reshape the technological base of society. The advancements in integrated circuits, micro-chips and telecommunication networks made it easier for corporations to outsource activities to low-wage countries, a process that had been pioneered by US high-tech companies in the 1960s. Multinationals benefitted not only from moving production abroad but could also use the threat to do so to reduce labour power in richer countries. The increased switch to information and communication technologies (ICT) coincided with deregulation of financial markets and the rise of neo-liberal ideology. It enabled automation or semi-automation of areas which previously had been exclusive domains of highly skilled white-collar work. Whole industries such as printing and newspaper publishing got reshaped, creating mass unemployment. The decline of trade union power coincided with conservative advocacy of a post-industrial society by authors such as Daniel BellBarbrook, Richard. 2007. Imaginary futures: from thinking machines to the global village. London: Pluto.. Increasingly media rather than class struggle were seen as the main agent of history. In fact, the predicted 'end of ideology' turned out to lead to a massive restoration of upper-class power, as analysed by David HarveyHarvey, David. 2005. A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press..

Street Technologies

As the conservative revolutions led by Thatcher and Reagan finished off the power of labour movements and the monetarist policies of Paul Volcker as chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank secured the 'victory' of neo-liberalism, the early 1980s began with a recession. Pressurised by increased competition and a falling profit rate, Japanese companies pioneered the integration of electronics and manufacturing, so called 'mechatronics'. Is it a mere coincidence that electronic dancefloor music was created in the centres of advanced manufacturing, by the Yellow Magic Orchestra in Tokyo, by Kraftwerk in Dusseldorf - centre of Japanese investment in Germany - and by the Detroit techno producers who fused Motown soul with Japanese-German machine music? The 'restructuring' of industries forced companies to throw out old plant and equipment. With each small wave of industrial innovation high-tech becomes low-tech or redundant tech and trickles down to the street. This facilitates a certain type of cyberpunk culture - not cyberpunk as the literary genre but as is summarised in the phrase 'the street finds its own use of things'. Increased spending on ICT drove down prices and made affordable home computers and audiovisual production equipment such as synthesizers, samplers, video cameras and editing suits. The 1980s saw the rise of broad and diverse counter-cultural media practices. Closely associated with new social movements, those creative undercurrents aimed at breaking the hegemony of mass media by using media machines themselves. While the Situationists had 'detourned' images, the street cultures of the 1980s practiced 'detournement technologique', the turning around of either cheap consumer-tech or redundant formerly high-tech into means of production for dissident youth cultures who were now occupying the ruins of industrial culture, literally and metaphorically.

Hacker culture

Within this scenario, early hacker groups such as the CCC in Germany or 2600 Magazine in new York, form a special case, because they, on one hand, feed off the innovations and infrastructures of the military-industrial complex and are, exactly because of that, aware of the dangers to society by ICT running out of control and being used for advancing the powers of elitist and secretive groups only. Hacking is a mixture of a disinterested pursuit of knowledge driven by curiosity, a competitive culture between mostly young males demonstrating their skills to each other. Yet at the same time it can be motivated by a strong sense of preservation of human freedom in a society increasingly ruled by information processing systems and electronic networks. The copyleft and anti-establishment subcultural media practices of the 1980s provided the base for the remix culture of the internet in the 1990s. While hardly noticed at the time outside specialist circles, one of the most important 'innovations' of the 1980s was the foundation of the Free Software movement by Richard Stallman and associates and the development of the Gnu General Public Licence, short GPL. The viral dynamics of the GPL, which gives the freedom to inspect, modify, use and redistribute software without charge, as long as the same conditions are passed on, opened the way for shaping technological change independently of the logic of industrial capitalism.

Neo-liberalism and the net

The decision of the Clinton administration to open up the internet coincided with an economic boom in the USA from 1993 onwards. Economic policies of the Clinton administration finished the turn to neo-liberalism that began in the 1970s and favoured financial markets so that a speculative bubble was allowed to grow. As the internet was opened up for public use, initially it was seen as a new continent in cyberspace, which defied the economic laws of gravity. Rightly or wrongly, the boom was conceived as a 'New Economy'.
In the 1990s, the net was also seen as an ideal medium for social movements attacking the hegemony of mass media and creating their own channels of global communication and organisation. It is no co-incidence that the action of the neo-liberal Mexican government to privatize collectively used land of indigenous people in Chiapas became the trigger for the first global 'net strike' in 1994-5, combining the electronic boycott of Mexican government servers with real world protests in front of many Mexican foreign embassies. Decentralized forms of organisation, social activism and hacking which were discussed under terms such as tactical media erupted onto the streets when a movement without leaders or visible forms of organisation blocked the City of London on June 18th 1999. Later in the same year the protest against the WTO in Seattle became the founding moment for the alternative news service Indymedia. Despite all that grassroots activism the 1990s saw the power of multinational corporations rise. As capitalism appeard to become 'weightless', the key characteristic of that period was the increased reliance on commodity fetishism and its extension to information and knowledge. While production jobs were shed, corporate administrations in global cities such as New York, London and Sao Paulo became ever leaner and meaner and focused increasingly on 'immaterial labour' such as R&D, marketing and branding. The 1990s have seen the triumph of globalised brands who focused on generating surplus value by investing ever more into their image while squeezing labour cost. This fuelled a demand in members of the 'creative class' to supply creative labour under conditions of increased flexibility. While this could be enjoyed by some elite artists and designers it was experienced as increased 'precarity' among most labourers, creative or not.

The New Wireless Revolutions

Just as the New Economy bubble burst a new wireless revolution started to take shape, more or less exactly 100 years after the first one. It appeared simultaneously in two shapes, as the Wifi revolution and the revolution of 3rd generation mobile telephony (3G). While often mentioned with the same draw of breath, those two revolutions engendered quite different social practices.

The development of WiFi was made possible after the deregulation of those parts of radio spectrum known as the industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) bands for unlicensed wireless data communication. This gave the impetus for engineers to create the protocols for wireless data transfer standards resulting first in 1997, and finally in 1999 into workable technologies which achieved data transport rates of 11Mbits/sec. Although the ideas governing the invention of the technology were commercial, computer network enthusiasts seized on the opportunity as soon as Wifi appeared on the market and found ways of bending that technology and applying it to community usage. By replacing the proprietary firmware of wireless routers and network cards with Linux based firmware, they were able to take a technology designed for small indoor networks and isolated hotspots and appropriate it for the creation of outdoor networks of considerable size and capacity. Wireless community networks have appeared in urban areas in London, NYC, Seattle, but also rural networks have been built in Catalunia, Indonesia and Nepal. Whether in cities or on the country-side, wireless community networks are built and maintained by network enthusiasts in the service of communities on a not-for-profit basis.

At about the same time when Wifi was first put on the market, national administrations decided to release spectrum for the next generation of mobile telephony by auctioning it to the highest bidder. In some countries such as Britain auctioning brought a handsome profit for government as companies engaged in a bidding race and drove up prices to astronomic sums. Once they had obtained the spectrum companies had to invest even more to install the necessary new infrastructure resulting in the rise of mobile phone masts on top of government buildings, hospitals and schools. The high cost of initial investment had to be passed on to users so that today mobile phone users pay a high price for voice and text communication, and even more if they are mobile broadband clients. It is safe to say that the way governments have chosen to deregulate mobile telephony has turned out to be a tax on communication. Moreover, a lot of those promised added value applications such as mobile television are unobtainable or prohibitively expensive. Mobile phone companies seem to be unable to realise the full range of benefits of the technologies which they deploy. The mobile telephony revolution has nevertheless been a success in terms of network user numbers and economic gain. Therefore the contrast between wireless community networks and 3G mobile telephony offers itself as a preferential site for the understanding of commodity fetishism in high-tech capitalism.

The contradiction between use value and exchange value which is at the heart of commodity fetishism is also an incitement to invest into the aesthetic semblance of use value as German scholar Wolfgang Fritz Haug called it in his prescient study in 1971 on Commodity AestheticsHaug, Wolfgang Fritz. 1986. Critique of commodity aesthetics: appearance, sexuality, and advertising in capitalist society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.. As Haug explains, the aesthetics of the commodity creates worlds of its own, spheres of aesthetic play whereby the pure aesthetic semblance has a tendency to detach itself from the object. Customers of mobile phone companies and users of social networks are lured to buy into those illusionary worlds which sell them back their own communications as commodities. Commodity aesthetics is based on a certain reciprocation between the aesthetic means to make the commodity appear 'attractive' to us and what we consider makes ourselves attractive to each other. The commodity looks at us 'with the eyes of a lover', it uses the same tricks that humans use to make themselves sexually attractive. This convinces customers that by buying the (mobile phone) fetish they will magically become more sexually attractive to others. Haug calls this, in relation to luxury goods, the shaping of sensuality and, when transcended into a regime, the technocracy of sensuality.

Based on that analysis I would call the mobile phone the technocracy of sociability. The mobile phone is a highly pregnant condensation of commodity fetishism in high-tech capitalism. As the sort of fairly latest development of high-tech capitalism it contains many many years of social development time, the living life of scientists, researchers, programmers, and the labour of those who produced the phones in outsorced factories, and last not least, it contains raw materials such as Coltan mined under inhuman conditions in civil war zones in the Congo. Yet what we see when we see the mobile phone is its promise of being connected and of being that person which the mobile phone industry projects on us through advertisement. Advertisement here takes on a form where it promises identities, it suggests role models into which we can fit like the ergonomic form of the mobile fits into our hands. In 3G ads, we find the image conscious woman who has a colour coordinated phone matching her lipstick, eye-make-up and jewellery; there is the unshaved mobile warrior, a young and confident entrepreneur who does not need to wear a suit and can rely on being 'always connected'. The commodity fetish mobile phone produces role models for the individualisation of their users. It promises to be someone by being connected, a someone who has friends, buddy lists, tastes (a good collection of your favourite MP3s on your phone), family (images of your beloved), contacts (a massive list of work related phone mumbers of people whom you never call but still keep). Digital image processing used in mobile phone ads underlines the connection between commodity aesthetics and fetishism. The potential spark of a quick flirt using SMS makes the new model shine more brightly, it starts to dance and sing. Commodity aesthetics makes things appear to become ever more human-like and people ever more helpless and dull.

The technocracy of sociability is also practiced by social media such as Facebook and MySpace. On one hand they seem to confer the ideal of participatory media usage. Now, finally, not only an avant-garde of media activists but millions of people engage in online communications, create their own web-homes, socialize and make friends. The system provides constant titillation to be social, to make friends, to play games, to pay attention. The bottom line is that while all the value is created by the interaction of the users only the hosts of the platforms benefit financially - according to recent valuations Facebook is worth a fantastic 6,5 billion US Dollars.

While in traditional commodity fetishism things hide the social relations which produced them, in the technocracy of sociability our basic human ability to be social is becoming reified. While users socialize in those networks, in the background of those platforms sophisticated social network analysis tools accumulate knowledge about users, mapping their behaviour and relationships and representing them in 'graphs'. The social capital of users is turned into fetishised knowledge - a merely speculative capital at first, which is turned real on through going to the stock market or selling the company to an industry major. Both social networks and mobile phones - whose interactions become increasingly close - pretend to be all about the individuality of their users, putting the I or the My or the You into the product names, when actually they are about accumulation of capital. The commodification of the internet as whole may have failed, expressed by the bursting of the new economy bubble in 2000. Yet now the walled gardens of social networks and proprietary phone networks turn participation into a spectacle. The perceived 'freedom' of users to communicate in a decentralised way becomes the basis of a new regime of accumulation which creates gigantic wealth and power. The buyer of a mobile phone or the user of a social network buys into a value system, a hierarchy of capitalist relationships which has replaced the centralised order of the television society on a higher level.

Wireless community networks and Free and Open Source Software do not appear on television or in advertisment. Networks operated by their users without financial gains are not commodities, they are use value, plain and simple: they exist outside the commodity fetish system. Interestingly however, as many people have become so used to the second nature of a fetishised thing-world, free networks and free software do not appear attractive to them. They prefer to buy into and live, in an illusion.

To be Continued.

Note: The content of this text was originally developed for a lecture under the title 45 RPM which was chosen to highlight the potential for resistance and renewal contained in the format of the vinyl single record. The lecture was held in Graz, Salzburg, Pisa, Belo Horizonte, Barcelona and Novi Sad between September 2007 and June 2008. This text version was finished on the island of Korcula, Croatia, August 2009. It is an updated and improved version of the text earlier published here of the same title: 45 RPM.


The Communicational Commodity

Armin Medosch wrote:

"In my humble opinion discourse on new media has suffered from too much 'idealism' in the broadest meaning, and also from too much preference on culture as a separate category to the detriment of study of the political economy of which those new media phenomena are a part."

I totally agree and for that reason I like this text a lot. Much of my own work has been devoted to similar attempts to place communications technologies within a broader political-economic narrative. Like Arnim I am an admirer of Raymond Williams' book on TV, subtitled "Technology as Social Form." I would only encourage people to go further in this direction, and to examine more deeply the place of communications in the relation between networked corporations and sovereign national power that characterizes the contemporary political economy.

Communications are just one piece of a much more interesting puzzle: nothing is ever simply an "expression" of some other, more fundamental determinant, but there are patterns of reciprocal self-reinforcement between very diverse sets of social processes, so that they temporarily combine into an order, a recognizable paradigm. The temporary order exists, and the delimitation of separate periods or phases is justified, because social functions have to be regular enough to become intuitive, to be predictable, to work for a majority of those involved. Of course periods can still be cut up in different ways, depending on the level of generality that you want to explore. Forty- to sixty-year Kondratieff cycles have been used a lot to "explain" the successive phases of industrial capitalism, but it only gets interesting when you include a broad mix of social, cultural, political and economic factors in the picture whose dynamics you are trying to analyze.

The real contradictions and stresses that will eventually cause the regular flow of a period to shift are multiple indeed, they cannot be analyzed from within a single field of inquiry. The idea of the German media-theorists, whereby specific media technologies become the "subjects of history," is bad Hegelianism and phony Marxism imho. It does not, to my knowledge, internalize such crucial aspects as the global division of labor, which has shaped the development of electronic media so deeply in the age of transnational outsourcing and financialization. But how different are the ecstatic theories of someone like Lev Manovich? To isolate communications technology from the society in which it takes form will never give much insight into the changing shape of society in the future.

So let's move to the issue that caused some debate on the iDC list: Fritz Haug's commodity aesthetic (Warenaesthetik). I find the application to Facebook, the iPhone etc quite convincing. There are now a lot of similarly aestheticized products that promise satisfying self-images and affective relations, as palliatives or ersatz consolations for for the angst and separation of hypermobility, the violence of social and even personal relations, the degradation of living environments etc. And for those who have been involved with any aspect of free software, there is something immediately convincing about the notion that Web 2.0 offers only the "aesthetic semblance" of use value, stripped of any familiarity with or any chance to participate in the productive relations that actually create those values. Yet it seems to me that Haug's description of commodity fetishism in a consumer society has to be updated for the prosumer society, where not only does the commodity look at you with the eyes of a lover, the better to loosen the money from your wallet, but at the same time, the image of self created by association with the commodity is understood and fantasized by the buyer as a way to augment the tradability of his or her own human capital, that is, one's own exchange value on the market (which is usually a speculative market, trading on appearances and potentials). Communicational commodities thus address themselves both to the consumer and to the (proto-)capitalist which neoliberal society has trained all of us to become. And I believe that this fundamental relation between individual desire and speculative production is also covered over by the reticulated "surface" of the communicational commodity.

Ultimately I wonder if the concept of use value can really catch all that is at stake - and all that is foreclosed - in the highly aestheticised experience of contemporary commodities. Remember that for Marx, use value was the dialectical other of monetary exchange value, within a strictly reductive nineteenth-century English worldview where Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are at one with Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Neither use value nor exchange value is conceivable outside their relation to each other. Together they compose a "form" of human life in society. What we need to ask is how the commodity, or indeed, aesthetic semblance, helps to create and maintain that basic form in each new phase of capitalism -- or how, every forty to sixty years, the commodity helps to create a new kind of world, a new system of regularities linking production, consumption and desire. It would be very interesting to hear more about Haug's ideas on how the commodity creates a world. And here arises another crucial question: Could a world be created out of pure use values, independently of any aesthetic semblance?

I tend to think it could not, which means I accord an important place to aesthetic semblance in the very constitution of human beings and their capacity to do things in the real world. The reason why is that we seem to need both a complete image of ourselves in the world (a Gestalt) and a set of mental procedures that increase our mastery over the world (analysis, calculation, modeling, etc.). Both the Gestalt image and the analytical capacities are forged in the mind, in the field of representation, which I think is essential and not to be just discounted as the utilitarians did. What this means is that "aesthetic semblance" is crucial to the creation and use of tools, to productivity itself, as Cornelius Castoriadis saw very clearly. To use a tool you must have a representation of it, but you must also have a representation of yourself in your relation to the tool and its potentials; and furthermore, you must be able to move through that complex system of representations according to a specific kind of desire, in a prefigurative process that is generally called imagination. This is why Castoriadis could speak of "the imaginary institution of society."

There is a fantastic passage going to the heart of all this in The Savage Mind, which I once quoted in another context:

“To understand a real thing in its totality we always tend to work from its parts. The resistance it offers us is overcome by dividing it,” writes the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. He compares this analytic process to the effect of artistic miniatures: “Reduction in scale reverses this situation. Being smaller, the object as a whole seems less formidable. More exactly, this quantitative transposition extends and diversifies our power over a homologue of the thing, and by means of it the latter can be grasped, assessed and apprehended at a glance. A child’s doll is no longer an enemy, a rival or even an interlocutor. In and through it a person is made into a subject.”

The whole question is what kind of subject a person is made into, and what kinds of subjects we make ourselves into, through the imaginary relations that we maintain with instruments and tools. In many different ways, communicational commodities help make us into the subjects of contemporary capitalism. What they are crucially hiding, in the carefully maintained closure of their aesthetic semblance, is the collective capacity to imagine worlds, and therefore to awaken desires for worlds different than this one. If control over this capacity this has become so important in the current phase of capitalism, it is because of the intense contestation of the order of production and consumption in the period of transition around 1968, when Marx started to be massively read in the West, not so much for his labor theory of value as for his theory of alienation.

For a relatively brief time (maybe a decade) the shape that society would take was at issue, the way it would continuously be in a substantial democracy. What was essential in order to put the capitalist system back together again in the wake of that period of chaos and contestation was to regain the monopoly over a very important collective capacity, that of imagining a different world. If the imagination was going to come to power, as the 68 slogan called for, it would then become a strategic function in society.

For the majority of people, the commodity was primarily useful in the earlier periods of the industrial revolution, it served basic needs of reproduction, of survival. It was theorized as a "util" (still a technical term in economics). Then it became primarily pleasurable in the age of welfare-state Fordism, which Fritz Haug's theory addresses. It was a seductive mirror, a bourgeois accoutrement for the masses, the salable part of an audiovisual "star system" which is still tremendously influential. Now the commodity must also be disalienating. It must be communicational, which means it must promise community. Its ideological function is to knit prosumers into the network of an increasingly precarious world that is ideally blind to all that threatens us. The form of the commodity today is shaped by this larger function.

I believe we are now getting near the end of the phase of capitalism that started in the late 70s and early 80s, with the de-industrialization of former core countries and the onset of financially led globalization. That system is beginning to fall apart, less because of a pure crisis of profitability (Marx's falling rate of profit) than because of ecological and political contradictions in the neoliberal order. Some new period will ultimately cohere and replace this failed paradigm. As intellectuals and artists, don't we need to theorize and to provoke the crisis of the communicational commodity - rather than trying to perfect it?

thanks for a great text, Brian

thanks for a great comment


thanks for this very insightful comment. It is very nice to feel understood by at least someone, and especially if this someone is capable of distilling thoughts into such a clear, condensed and yet inspirational form. Your comment, which is a valuable text of its own, together with your other posting above (periodization of cinema) and the 'project' of which 45RPM is just a beginning allow to see the shape of a possible research project which, as you say 'places communications technologies within a broader political-economic narrative'. This could really become a collaborative work which, based on a shared framework of periodisations and problems leads to people talckilng specific issues.

In order to advance this, also for my own understanding, I will try to work a bit on methodological issues as well in the near future. It is important to define what sort of 'materialism' it is we are talking about as postmodernists are only too eager to dismiss any form of materialism as 'old' thereby completely ignoring the dialectical aspect of it. The dialectic involved is also not simply a relationship between base and superstructure, which is something I am thinking about a lot. I tried to replace it with a more layered model - thus the title of this website - so that, rather than having categorically separated entities called 'base' and 'superstructure' there would be a much more finely layered transition from the physical layer to matters of the mind with different types of relationships, some maybe 'transversal', in between. However, I have not been able to develop this model to a satisfactorily and applicable stage.

At the same time it is perplexing to see that in so many writings about 'new' media the material base gets completely ignored. In this regard, for instance, I am interested in the myth of immateriality that developed around interactive digital art in the 1990s where the technology itself becomes completely mystified and the commodity aspect gets overlooked. In such a case teh crude simplification of a base-.superstructure argument can be quite efficient to show what a mystification the 'virtuality' of immaterial worlds is, or better was, as this argument has had its heyday in the mid 1990s. It is very important in this case to be historically specific and show path dependencies etc. With regard of immateriality I am also interested in the following problem: While on one hand by the early 1990s the information technology paradigm was quite well established in the real world, insofar as many production processes in traditional manufacturing areas had become computerised and the computer had become a standard tool in every office, I understand the notion of the 'information society' still as an ideological construct, a power fantasy of automation and control. Claims to the alleged new 'weightlessness' of the economy tied to the rise of the financial sector and ever more complex 'financial instruments' which only could be conceived of with complex mathematics and computers which led to the (almost) complete decoupling of finance from the 'real' economy have fallen on our heads with the current financial crisis. That's why I thought for a while that this crisis marked the end of the ideology of the information society. But that was maybe a bit too hopeful thinking. Anyway, I would be grateful for any reading recommendations in that area of the construction of 'immateriality' and the 'weightless economy' during the mid 1990s.

Coming to 'commodity aesthetics' and re-reading what I have written, I can see now that this needs some further work to become fully convincing for an anglo-phone audience. There exists an English version of Haug's Warenaesthetik (Haug, Wolfgang Fritz. 1986. Critique of commodity aesthetics: appearance, sexuality, and advertising in capitalist society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.) which would be helpful to have and there is a new chapter on 'commodity aesthetics in high-tech capitalism' in the German paperback which came out in 2008 which I have yet to read. I ignored it because it does not address the 'prosumer' issue as you point out. Just building on the 1970s version appeared to provide a clearer path. I hope to be able to write a specific piece on that subject in the not too far future, but not having my books around me at this very moment, this will have to wait a bit.

Finally, thanks for completing the Marx quote about the 'eyes of the lover' and lets continue with this emerging work on 'paradigms' and 'regimes' which will hopefully see some more people gravitating towards and contributing to it