Technocapitalism

We could be well-advised to take note of this word.  We may be hearing a lot more of it …

Actually, in truth, we’ve already used it a few times before in this blog but perhaps now might be a good time to have a closer look at what it is and what it might mean?

Technocapitalism1

It’s always dodgy making claims like this but the term technocapitalism was probably effectively coined by Professor Luis Suarez-Villa in Technocapitalism: A Critical Perspective on Technological Innovation and Corporatism (2009) and developed further in Globalization and Technocapitalism: The Political Economy of Corporate Power and Technological Domination (2012).  [Yes, it may have been used before this, but it gets very hard to track these things down accurately.]

The essential principle of technocapitalism (taken largely from http://www.technocapitalism.com/) is that it’s “an evolution of market capitalism that is rooted in technological invention and innovation.  It can be considered an emerging era, now in its early stage, which is supported by such intangibles as creativity and new knowledge.”

If you want it in simple terms, we might say that, in a technocapitalist future, data will be more important than physical stuff and the whole thing will be driven by increasing automation, meaning people will be creative rather than (conventionally: physically) productive.

There are several key threads to technocapitalism (taking the positive view for now), including: ‘intangibles’, ‘creativity’, ‘new knowledge’, ‘new technologies’ and the ‘new economic activities’ or ‘opportunities’ resulting from all of these.  More precisely:

  • “Intangibles are at the core of technocapitalism.  Creativity and knowledge are to technocapitalism what tangible raw materials, factory labour and capital were to industrial capitalism.  During industrial capitalism, tangible resources acquired the greatest value, as factory production, repetitive labour and massive output ruled the day.  In the emerging technocapitalist era, however, those material resources are becoming secondary in importance.  Intangibles are therefore vital for technocapitalism.  Creativity and knowledge are the most valuable resources of this emerging new era.  They, for example, already account for as much as three-quarters of the value of most products and services in existence, and that proportion is bound to increase over time.  In contrast, the material resources that were most valuable for industrial capitalism are losing value relative to those intangibles in most every product or service.
  • “New economic activities are emerging that are representative of technocapitalism.  Biotechnology, nanotechnology, bioinformatics, software design, genomics, synthetic bioengineering, molecular computing and biorobotics, for example, are likely to be hallmarks of the twenty-first century, as electronics and aerospace were of the twentieth.  This new ecology of activities and sectors is more reliant on creativity and knowledge than any of the old industries of industrial capitalism.  The organizations that are typical of these new activities are research-intensive and highly dependent on new discoveries for their survival.  Continuous or systematized invention and innovation are very much a part of their reality, and are vital for survival.  Unlike the factories of industrial capitalism, where production was paramount and research was often a marginal endeavour, the organizations and firms typical of technocapitalism are, first and foremost, oriented toward research and discovery.”

However, in passing, it’s also noted that:

  • “The old industries typical of industrial capitalism are also feeling the impact of this emerging era.  The sort of continuous invention and innovation found in activities typical of technocapitalism are spreading to old sectors, such as automobile manufacturing, apparel and the mechanical industries.  Service activities, including some of the most mundane ones, are also being affected.  It seems that no economic sector or activity can be considered immune from the dynamics of the new order and its emphasis on novelty.”

Technocapitalism2

This focus on ‘creativity’, ‘intangibles’ and ‘knowledge’ implies a couple of things to begin with; strangely enough, neither of which is entirely new:

  1. In future, (intangible) ‘data’, and the ‘knowledge’ extracted from it, will be more valuable than (tangible) raw materials and the products they make.  Well, yes, we know this.  Up to a point.  Because the shift from an offline life to an online one is obvious; the ratio of software billionaires to hardware ones is increasing; ‘knowledge is power’, etc.  The first key question is whether there’s a limit to this progression?
  2. The employment landscape will change: as increasing automation takes over more and more of the mundane jobs, we’ll be freed up to be more creative and do (it’s presumed) more interesting things.  And, again, we know this.  Up to a point.  Because this is the pattern that we’ve seen before throughout various technological stages of our history.  Our key question, now, is whether this cyclic pattern can be maintained?

Because, almost immediately, Professor Suarez-Villa makes two key observations:

  • “A major question that remains to be answered is whether the new technologies symbolic of technocapitalism will be mostly controlled by oligopolistic corporations.  The pricing power of oligopolies may prevent those new technologies from having the impact on human wellbeing that they would otherwise have.  Oligopolies that take over the new sectors may also erect substantial barriers to entry that prevent new and highly innovative firms from developing.  Most new firms that are created may thus end up being taken over by powerful oligopolies in control of their sectors, thus stifling invention and innovation along with new enterprise creation.  At the same time, the pricing power that oligopolies typically command may place the new technologies out of the reach of many of the people that could benefit from them.
  • “To prevent this from happening, many of the new technologies symbolic of technocapitalism may need to be considered a public resource.  Specific laws may have to be created to prevent oligopolies from being formed, or from taking over the new sectors and technologies.  Such laws might also make it possible for small, innovative firms to be created, and to allow them to survive as independent enterprises.  A lack of oligopolistic pricing power may make the new technologies symbolic of technocapitalism more affordable, allowing them to reach the people who may benefit most from their introduction.”

And this is critical because, bluntly, whilst the first point is partially true, there’s very little chance of the second.  Although people get mentioned in the context of a ‘public resource’, there’s actually very little thought of people at all in any of this, except to briefly note that many may not benefit from any of it.  Other than that, the only real concern appears to be whether small business can survive with big business.  The capitalist blinkers are bolted on as firmly as they ever were.  There’s the same old assumption that enough healthy competition is good for everyone (or at least, most).  But let’s think about this …

There’s a certain arrogant ‘connection by necessity’ about the standard capitalist model, which is simply translated under technocapitalism.  Starting from the axiom that humans have to compete with each other (because there’s apparently no credible alternative social model), there has to be an objective (function) to measure success and failure.  This creates an order in terms of this function, with an elite at the top.  Moreover, this objective can’t be abstract (like amateur sport, for example) because then few would bother so it has to be of value in terms of the framework in which it sits.  Money satisfies both requirements admirably; so, as a result, the framework is driven by profit.  Things happen if someone makes money from it, but not otherwise.  This is already true and has been for hundreds of years.  For example, we can build anything we like (to provide entertainment, etc.) provided ordinary people can be persuaded to pay money back to the elite for whatever it is to make it worth their while.  At the same time, however, we don’t build or repair schools and hospitals as much as we should, for example, because no-one profits from it – the elite pay for their own.  [OK yes, there has to be a ‘show’ of providing public services – even within a capitalist system; otherwise, people would see through the whole thing much easier; but this never really manages to deal with the problems properly.  Look what gets cut first in a crisis.  Usually, it’s enough to be seen to be trying.]

Technocapitalism doesn’t extend conventional capitalism at all; it simply replaces the bricks with data, but leaves all the other assumptions intact.  Under technocapitalism, a few will still profit while the majority suffer.  It’s new ‘raw-material’, data, could be used for as a global force for good but it won’t be because it will sit within the same old framework.  We could be using data to give people better lives; instead, we’ll be using it to sell them more stuff to cycle the money back to the elite.  The principle will remain the same: things will happen if the elite can profit from it, but not otherwise.

In fact, the things that worry people the most (taken from a range of sources: http://www.bustle.com/articles/70778-what-do-americans-worry-about-the-most-gallup-poll-reveals-the-nations-top-concerns, https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/carmen-rios/seven-everyday-things-poor-people-worry-about-that-rich-people-never-do, http://www.inc.com/fiscal-times/10-surprising-reasons-why-the-wealthy-are-stressed-out.html, etc.) appear to be:

  • Economic survival (food, clothing, shelter, etc.)
  • Violence (wars, terrorism, etc.)
  • Environment (damage, overpopulation, etc.)
  • Security (safety, privacy, etc.)
  • Health (personal, etc.)

So, forget business, for a moment.  How does technocapitalism look from these perspectives?

To start with the economics, this is perhaps the area in which it’s the most obvious that nothing will change for the better.  Technocapitalism won’t help redistribute wealth because, although the commodity may change, the competitive framework remains intact.  The economy (and therefore society, because any form of capitalism makes these synonymous) will remain a squat triangle with the elite at the top and most at the wide bottom.  BUT, it could make things worse …

Aside from data being the new currency of technocapitalism, the other key driver is automation.  We’re not looking as far ahead as the singularity, here; just to a future in which increasing roles are undertaken by computers, robots and other machines.  Since the first industrial revolution, the assumed model has been that, as machinery takes over from humans, people are freed up to do more interesting things – which is nicely in line with the ‘creativity’ aspect of technocapitalism.  Eventually, these newer jobs also get automated, people find even more creative things to do and the cycle repeats for ever. …

Except it can’t.  Nothing repeats for ever and the end of this cycle is in plain view.  The AI/robot/automated future is one in which humans will be outperformed by machines at everything.  Not just the old jobs but the new jobs too – including the ‘creative’ ones.  (If you don’t think a computer can write decent poetry, then go and sit on the bench with those who are already there: who thought that computers couldn’t produce art, diagnose illnesses, design and repair themselves, play chess, etc.)  In a profit-driven framework, no employer is going to use an expensive human for anything when a machine can perform the same task, cheaper, faster, safer, more reliably and with fewer legalities.  The surplus majority can’t ALL be the new ‘innovators’ – the numbers don’t work!  Human unemployment will increase massively across the globe.  What then happens to these people isn’t a technological question; it’s a political, socio-economic one.  Let’s face it: if nothing changes, it doesn’t look good: the economic triangle gets wider at the bottom.  Where will that lead?

Then there’s war and terrorism; and these are probably logically inseparable if we adopt the ‘one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom-fighter’ axiom.  We seem to go through phases of increasing and reducing violence across the world so it’s hard to say if the increase we’re seeing at the moment is cyclic or longer-term.  However, there are some facts that can’t be denied: the new data age (including social media, for example) makes it easier than ever before to spread messages of hate; mass movements can be formed almost overnight (for good or bad – but who’s to say which is which?); the increase in cyber-terrorism appears to be adding to conventional terrorism instead of replacing it.  Also, it could be argued (although probably out of the scope of this piece) that much of the current ‘extremist’ unrest has more to do with economic circumstance rather than interpretation of scripture, for example – but that our global interconnectivity assists with this.  There’s no evidence of new technology doing much to address any of these areas but plenty of ways it could make it worse.

Environmental concerns also continue to grow.  The world is overpopulated and (in terms of the previous point, may be about become even more so).  We’re not keeping pace at all with our consumption of resources and, already, the damage we’ve done may be irreparable.  What might technocapitalism’s influence be here?

Well, it could help.  The combination of big data and the Internet of Things could lead to clever use of energy, greater cooperation between people, and the machines they use, and better ways of generating the energy in the first place.  But will it?

Once again, we have to look at the evidence we have, which is the current system; and that doesn’t make for good reading.  Remember the essence of capitalism is that things only happen for profit; and, sadly, no-one will profit from saving the planet.  Quite the reverse, in fact: environmental restrictions reduce profit and will be contested and avoided (by legal means and otherwise) wherever possible.  Does  technocapitalism’s commodity shift from tangibles to intangibles change that?  It’s hard to see how.

Security and privacy are another matter and we need to make an important distinction here before we go any further.  There are two types of very rich people: ‘celebrities’ and those not wanting celebrity.  The former thrive on exposure and often seem worse off than the rest of us when it comes to privacy – but that’s a choice.  The latter (the multinationals, arms-dealers, etc.) manage to stay effectively hidden if that’s what they want.  There’s no obvious reason why we should expect that to change in future but what about the rest of us?

Well, this is an area, which we’ve discussed beforemany times so we won’t repeat old material.  But, essentially, our data is very valuable.  Not just to us, but to others – in different ways.  What’s important to us, as private, has value to institutions as information with which to control or economically exploit us.  And, ultimately, that data itself could be sold on as the commodity; and not just to other institutions – to ordinary people too (‘Shazam for People‘).  To precis it all: some serious advice for the technocapitalist onslaught would be that, if you have skeletons in the cupboard, you might want to start getting them out now – voluntarily – because they won’t be in there for long!

Finally, the new data age really should help us live healthier and happier lives.  Will it?  Well, currently, a drug that will keep someone alive can be withheld if it ‘costs too much’, which essentially means the company that developed it won’t make a big enough profit if it costs less.  Will the data that might help us be treated any differently under technocapitalism?  Unlikely.  That data – ultimately – will be used to benefit business and corporations: we’ll only get to use it by buying it.  [Again, making allowance for the sleight-of-hand that is the public sector.]  And if, considering all of the previous points, the elite decide there are simply too many of us, well …

Putting all this together, it’s more than possible to conclude (although other political opinions are available, of course) that the human race will do well to even survive a decade or so of technocapitalism, let alone benefit from it!

We’re going to have to continue this: there’s a lot to discuss here.  But, let’s start by not swallowing the elite’s marketing bullshit, shall we?

About Vic Grout

Professor of Computing Futures at Wrexham Glyndwr University, Wales, UK. View all posts by Vic Grout

4 responses to “Technocapitalism

  • James Cross

    “To prevent this from happening, many of the new technologies symbolic of technocapitalism may need to be considered a public resource. Specific laws may have to be created to prevent oligopolies from being formed, or from taking over the new sectors and technologies…”

    Very much agree with this but I think like you I don’t see the path to accomplish this. Unfortunately our social, economic, and political institutions are still rooted on laws and frameworks from the 19th century and earlier. Often the people most adversely affected by these trends are exactly the ones who want to hold onto the old institutions. When these institutions fail they are more likely to want to regress and to vent their anger against ethnic groups and symbols of the problem without understanding of the problem or the will to make the changes to address it. And to say the least, the required change would be enormous, particularly in area of private property and the idea of work.

  • Abstract Data? | Turing's Radiator

    […] we’re entering a new era of ‘data-driven’ ‘technocapitalism’ and a technocapitalist future has two essential […]

  • Good Robot? Bad Robot? | Turing's Radiator

    […] severe and that many old jobs would be replaced by more interesting ones.  (The basic premise of technocapitalism.)  So, it was stupid to think that … even though he didn’t.  As for what he did say […]

  • Fake News Had to Happen; But Why? | Turing's Radiator

    […] it uses.)  The raw materials have changed over time from wood and stone, to metal and plastic, and now to data; but the principle remains the same.  It stays utterly stable – we just can’t agree on […]

So what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: