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This book is a timely set of dialogues on a series of key coordinates to navigate the political economy of Big Data Capitalism. Chandler and Fuchs have successfully composed a well-rounded volume addressing a wide range of urgent themes that include digital governance, posthuman knowledge, digital affective labor and its gendered dimensions, new (and old) forms of slavery and their respective technologies, emerging forms of political organization, and the appropriation of fixed capital by workers – among others. The volume comprises an introduction and eighteen pieces organized into three sections, corresponding to Digital Capitalism / Big Data Capitalism (Section I), Digital Labor (Section II) and Digital Politics (Section III). These texts are arranged pairwise, with nine chapters followed by their matching responses. This organization lends the book a dialogic quality that allows the reader to navigate through connected ideas and debates by weaving through points and counterpoints, arguments and critiques, in a way that creates layers of depth and meaning to the exploration of an unfolding, complex and multidimensional phenomenon, such as is the ‘Age of Big Data’ signaled by the volume’s title.
The motivating question at the heart of this collective endeavor is to ask “what are the key implications of the digital for subjects, objects, and society?” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 2). As mentioned earlier, the formal organization of the book provides a hint to the structure of its responses to this very question, with three main sections organized around Digital Capitalism / Big Data Capitalism, Digital Labor and Digital Politics. However, throughout the book, a parallel design runs through the chapters and responses, which is the dual examination of digital subjects and digital objects in light of the current techno-economic paradigm and its constituent elements. As such, the book’s contributors deal —to varying degrees— with the epistemological, ontological, and ethical implications of the digital turn in an attempt to address a theoretical gap in the vast literature dealing with Big Data and digital technologies. The editors have correctly identified this gap as the lack of sustained attention to the broader and deeper impacts of Big Data as a new form of technology/knowledge/capital. The rest of this review essay is organized through an account of the key arguments contained in the book’s individual contributions and their responses, followed by a global assessment of this volume as a whole.
Section I: Digital Capitalism and Big Data Capitalism
In Chapter 2, titled “Digital Governance in the Anthropocene: The Rise of the Correlational Machine,” David Chandler argues that digital governance advances a fundamental epistemic shift by privileging the sensing and management of effects over structures of causation. This change is paradoxically enabled by the enormous deluge of data and digital instruments which simultaneously allow for sensing of numerous patterns, but do not necessarily facilitate a focus on understanding causation. According to Chandler, this is a significant break from modernist understandings, which assumed a “hierarchy of centralized reporting and adaptation, [whereas] digital governance has a much flatter ontology of self-generated responses, whether at the level of society, community, or the quantified self” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 37). Ultimately, this shift leads, in the author’s eyes, to a more fundamental and problematic development, which is the depoliticization of governance, where its constituent tasks become “derived ‘empirically’ from the world, rather than from human actors as subjects” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 38).
In the response to this article, Christian Fuchs provides a critique of the general approach underlying Chandler’s arguments about the ‘rise of the correlational machine’. Specifically, Fuchs similarly identifies transcending dualism and linear causality as a challenge to overcome, but disagrees with the onto-epistemology of correlation discussed by Chandler. Instead, he proposes that rather than the ‘post-modernity’ embodied by co-relational approaches, a more productive way forward is an “alternative, dialectical (digital) modernity”, such as Hegelian and humanist Marxism, which in his view is better able to realize the liberatory potential contained within the very same “internally antagonistic” technologies that also advance “solutionism and domination”. (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 49)
Fuchs develops a foundation for this alternative modernity in Chapter 4, where he expands on the importance of “Karl Marx in the Age of Big Data Capitalism”. His argument is built on fourteen reasons that endow Marxian thought with relevance and usefulness for the analysis of new forms of capitalism in their multiple dimensions. Some of these reasons are directly related to Marx’s analysis of capitalism and its constituent parts, such as: the commodity form and capital, the antagonism between productive forces, the exploitation of labor, the globalization of capitalism, and its tendency towards crisis. Other reasons have to do with the capacity of a Marxian framework to inform more recent historical developments, such as the rise of digital capitalism, through a dialectic of technology. Finally, another set of reasons has to do with the intellectual potential of Marx’s contribution, which according to the author can enhance the understanding of the issues such as the general intellect, base and superstructure, ideology and fetishism, and provide grounding for a critical theory of communication and language. Similarly, these intellectual contributions can be leveraged towards praxis, by serving as a model for critical journalism, practical humanism, and social activism.
In a series of reflections about this chapter, David Chandler argues that, while Marxist humanism is a valuable perspective, its relevance and applicability for Big Data Capitalism are overstated. The core of Chandler’s critique is premised on what he considers to be an epistemological incompatibility between the Marxist humanism (a modernist project) proposed by Fuchs and the datafied (co-)relationality embodied by Big Data capitalism (a postmodern development). Thus, for Chandler, it is imperative to understand that a ‘left’ critique of Big Data does not imply seeing this development as intensifying modern forms of governance and vertical ‘command-and-control’. Rather, “it is possible to take a different approach, one that engages critically with discourses of Big Data, not because these discourses represent a ‘peak’ modernist abstraction, but rather on the grounds of an epistemological rejection of modernist claims of causal processes and the potential for the direction and control of human knowledge” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 77).
The last chapter of this volume’s first section is “Seeing Like a Cyborg? The Innocence of Posthuman Knowledge.” In this piece, Paul Rekret advances a critical analysis of posthuman theories, which “look primarily to contemporary technological developments as the basis for articulations of a fundamental transformation of existential experience” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 83). In the author’s view, these theories —premised on ‘ontologies of hybridity’ such as embodied by the figure of the cyborg— suffer from a foundational problem, which is that of ‘epistemic innocence’. In particular Rekret refers to the fact that hybridity with technology is often portrayed as containing emancipatory potential but, in his eyes, this perspective presents a vexing problem because technology itself is a product of capitalism, something that the author considers is scarcely examined in these theories. Thus, he argues that “posthumanism disavows the anxiety that our concepts themselves might also be inseparable from processes associated with contemporary capitalism”(Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 90). As such, the risk of these perspectives is that they “reproduce the withdrawal from, or delegation of, critical thought that is a characteristic of a world increasingly governed by processes of automation and algorithmic organization”(Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 91).
In his response to Rekret’s critique, Robert Cowley points out that posthumanism should be construed as a “spectrum, [rather] than a discrete mode of thinking” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 96). To further this argument Cowley then explores the reasons behind the appeal of posthumanism, as well as its critiques. He points out that Rekret’s particular challenge to posthumanist theories is overly broad because it unfairly considers the former as a monolith. Instead, Cowley emphasizes that not all those who can plausibly share a post-humanist ontology necessarily embrace its ‘ethico-political project’. This leads the author to conclude that it is this very diversity contained within posthumanism that opens up the possibility to address Rekret’s main line of critique —namely, that “more satisfactorily reflexive forms of ‘hybrid thinking’ might be developed in the future” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 100).
Section II: Digital Labor
Chapter 8 is titled “Through the Reproductive Lens: Labor and Struggle at the Intersection of Culture and Economy”. In this piece Kylie Jarrett demonstrates how highlighting reproductive work can help us understand contemporary capitalism and its sites of struggle, focusing on three key areas: history, value, and subjects. By showing how subaltern populations (such as women and people of color) have never experienced private spheres fully outside the influence of capital (an example being the Magdalene Laundries in early 20th C. Ireland), Jarrett convincingly argues that we need to rescue their labor histories in order to understand the blurring between work and leisure that thrives under Big Data Capitalism. The author then emphasizes the relevance of the ‘reproductive turn’ in digital labor studies, which examines not only “processes of commodification but also how value, or things that are of value to capitalism, are generated through uncommodified dimensions of capitalist exchange” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 107). This includes food, healthcare, gifts, affective labor, and other necessities consumed by the paid worker, all of which can be transposed, adapted, and extended in the digital realm. and complemented by digital technologies. Applying the reproductive lens to labor studies, Jarrett argues, contributes to identifying potentially alternative modes of being, thinking and doing, which can help forge a counter-hegemonic project. Furthermore, this lens can transform our very conception of the subject, and thus our modes of politics. These realizations in turn “refuse the easy reproduction of class and identity status about and are, in part, about building ‘new subjectivities’ in a context where, while “Big Data capitalism may be new, capitalism and inequality are not (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, pp. 112–113).
Joanna Boehnert engages with the arguments in Jarrett’s chapter through an analysis of the production of value by Twitter users. Boehnert examines this process through the Marxist autonomist concept of the social factory, and shows that “[j]ust as unpaid domestic work has enabled the reproduction of capitalist relations from the start of capitalism, so unpaid digital work enables digital capitalism” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 121). From this, she concludes that Twitter and other platform-based services are characterized by a fundamental tension and the inequalities that arise from it: that, while it is users who make the platform valuable, they do not own it. Hence, she proposes that “[a] platform that is collectively owned by the users would be a genuine emancipatory technology”, but also that “[a] more immediate goal is to keep Jack Dorsey [Twitter’s CEO] from destroying Twitter” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 122).
Phoebe V. Moore provides in chapter 8 another incisive perspective on the digitized workplace, and the power asymmetries that characterize it, along with possibilities for change. In “E(a)ffective Precarity, Control and Resistance in the Digitalised Workplace” the author argues that new forms of quantification to track emotions constitute “capital’s latest methods of capturing surplus value in unstable conditions of agility.” However, by the same token, her study documents how “examples of workers’ resistance in the empirical findings […] reveal weaknesses in these methods”(Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 126). Elisabetta Brighi responds to this chapter by stressing that the affective dimension is key both for capitalist capture of value, but also for building class consciousness. This is for two interrelated reasons: first, affect has become “the real currency of neoliberal capitalism” and, second, “capital seems to have completely captured the emotional, psychological and personal sphere, the sphere of affect” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 146). It is precisely through the capture of affect that capital furthers the atomization of society by perfecting the process of alienation. However, on the other hand, reclaiming the affective dimension can lead to the creation of class consciousness. This can grow from individual consciousness, which is affective in nature and can develop from the “emancipatory and self-sabotaging affects mobilized in the neoliberal workplace” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 149).
Chapter 12, written by Jack Linchuan Qiu is a provocative examination at the connections between historical forms of slavery, such as the transatlantic slave trade, and new forms germane to the digital economy. In “Goodbye iSlave: Making Alternative Subjects Through Digital Objects”, Qiu advances a framework to define slavery in the context of digital capitalism. This is made up of the ‘manufacturing iSlave’, or production-mode iSlavery, such as that carried out in Foxconn’s iPhone-manufacturing sweatshops, which the author compares to the trans-Atlantic triangular trade. The second mode is ‘manufactured’ or “consumption-mode iSlavery, such as Facebook free labor and people who are addicted to digital gadgets” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 152). Qiu then builds on this model to explore antislavery struggles and openings for digital abolition. From this examination, the author concludes that “digital media remain in the shadow of slavery, now cast from China to Congo to the New World of Appcon [Apple + Foxconn] and Big Data Algorithms”(Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 162). It is this realization that motivates the author’s call to look at antislavery movements throughout history for successful strategies in order to draw inspiration for alternative, post-capitalist worlds.
In the response to this chapter, Peter Goodwin argues that, while Qiu’s arguments are powerful, they deserve to be questioned on analytical grounds. Specifically he pushes back on the conflation of slavery and wage labor, two forms that, though they may sometimes take place in similar working conditions, nevertheless emerge from different economic and political dynamics. Secondly, Goodwin criticizes the ‘consumption-mode iSlave’ as implausible, positing that “the term ‘addiction’ is a helpful characterization of the general use of social media or of digital devices” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 167), instead of framing it as a form of slavery.
Section III: Digital Politics
Chapter 14 opens the section on Digital Politics. This text by Jodi Dean is titled “Critique or Collectivity? Communicative Capitalism and the Subject of Politics.” In it, the author sketches out “a theory of the political subject (anchored in Lacan), that brings together the Slovenian view of subject as gap in the structure [as exemplified in the works of Žižek and Dolar] with early Badiou’s (2009) emphasis on subjectivation and the subjective process as responses to the intervention of the subject” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 172). She illustrates this theory with an examination of crowds, which she considers “not the political subject, but their ‘egalitarian discharge’, which can exert effects that are retroactively attributed to the divided people […] as their subject” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 172). Since to the author crowds do not have politics, but rather present the opportunity for a politics, the central challenge in communicative capitalism is “to make effective the power of the many”, in other words, to enable crowds to “produce effects that can be attributed to the divided people as their subject” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 179). The response to this article is written by Paulina Tambakaki, who sympathizes with Dean’s assumptions, but questions her arguments. While Tambakaki agrees with the challenges set forth by communicative capitalism, she is skeptical that crowds, and the critiques they develop, might actually have the capacity to rupture the political establishment and bring about significant, or durable, political transformation (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 185).
Paolo Gerbaudo writes chapter 16, “The Platform Party: The Transformation of Political Organization in the Era of Big Data.” In this piece, Gerbaudo argues that each political economic system has given to a particular type of party: from the mass party in the industrial society to the television party in the post-industrial society and, now, the platform party as a product of the digital society. The key characteristic of the platform party is the ability to integrate its operations through online platforms and develop from there ‘participatory platforms’. This uses the same logic of digital companies that rely on “data mining, aggregation and analysis adapting it for the purpose of creating consensus and political mobilization” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 193). However, while these parties thrive on the promise of direct democracy, they are characterized by a contradiction where the promise of collective decision-making emerges from a structure of centralized leadership, where a ‘hyperleader’ commands a ‘superbase’ from above (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 198).
In the response to this chapter, Anastasia Kavada questions why political parties would necessarily derive their organizational logic from their contemporary modes of production. She thus advocates for a more detailed analysis of the specific conditions that have shaped the emergence of different types of political parties. In her examination she then redefines Gerbaudo’s ‘platform parties’ as ‘movement parties’, which emerge from social movements that “revolve a conflict that challenges the limits of the political system in which they arise (Melucci 1996)” (Chandler & Fuchs, 2019, p. 202). This leads her to conclude that it is too early to identify an entirely new type of party. Instead, she suggests moving forward with the complementary tools of political analysis, envisioning, and experimentation to articulate the shape of the political system that may emerge out of the present turmoil.
The last chapter and its response deal with the issue of how the minds and bodies of workers may appropriate digital machines. Antonio Negri explores this argument in “The Appropriation of Fixed Capital: A Metaphor?”. He concludes that this re-appropriation of fixed capital by the workers takes places collectively and leads to the creation of ‘machinic subjectivities’ and cooperative networks, which in turn constitute sites of resistance. Noting that this is a process that inevitably leads to conflict, Negri summarizes it in the following dialogue: “’Exploit your self’, says capital to productive subjectivities. And they reply ‘We wish to valorize ourselves, to govern the commons that we produce.’” The response to this chapter by Christian Fuchs contextualizes the sources of inspiration of Negri’s arguments (concretely Marx’s arguments in Grundrisse, rather than Capital). Stressing that technology’s character is shaped by the process and outcomes of societal struggles, Fuchs then outlines two practical strategies to appropriate digital capital: through capital taxation of technology companies, on the one hand, and platform co-ops and peer-to-peer production, on the other. Thus, for him the meaning and implications of the appropriation of fixed capital entails the search for alternatives to digital capitalism and the de-commodification of its constituent parts.
The variety of perspectives and range of arguments presented in this volume make it a rich, provocative, and useful contribution to the study of the political economy of Digital / Big Data capitalism. While some of the pieces contain arguments that are developed in greater detail and clarity than others, they all present productive points of departure and sites of discussion for scholars aiming to gain a deeper understanding of how the digital is transforming objects, objects, the relations between them, and the systems in which they take place. The dialogic structure of the book presents yet another advantage that allows the reader to adopt multiple perspectives and systematically interrogate each argument presented. At a structural level, if there is anything that is missing in this volume, it is a conclusion that can frame the wide variety of ideas it contains and provide an evaluation of their collective significance. Beyond its formal structure, the book could have also been enriched by greater engagement with how the digital intersects with racial capitalism and with developments beyond the Anglo-European world —both conversations that would have benefitted from more pieces by scholars of color and Global South-based contributors, to name a few. Yet, these gaps notwithstanding, the present volume is a valuable addition that informs the understanding of our digital age, and should help further new scholarship along these lines.