In the Xmas holiday season, a crucial opportunity for consumerism, digital corporations spent millions of dollars bombarding us with advertisements and promotional campaigns for new mobile devices.[i]
The growing dynamic of mobile internet, today accounting for 12% of all internet traffic,[ii] signals a new ecosystem where living bodies, machines, networks, code, data, territory and time interact. To name this environment we can use the term biohypermedia, an assemblage of bios/life and hypermedia, a non-linear medium of information like the web, where mobile connections are the bricks to build productive and social relations in the age of information.
Today large communities use devices like smartphones, tablets, e-readers and ultrabooks to navigate this new ecosystem. These devices are continually evolving new hybrids, and stimulating the creation of new peripherals with sensorial capabilities like new synapses, enabling us to widely interact with the other elements of this mobile environment.
How do productive and subjective power relations change in this new perspective? Are we witnessing another structural transformation of the network society described by Manuel Castells[iii] ?
Marketing and communication campaigns portray these devices as commodity fetishes, characterizing a new phase of capitalism often described as cognitive because based on knowledge. But the same thing was done with the automobile in the second part of the industrial era and then again with personal computers (PC). Finance, a sponsor obsessed with competition, drives this operation and, today, Apple has taken the place of General Motors and Exxon in the rankings of global capital. But for how long?
Already over the past ten years, mobile phones services have changed the speed at which innovation can spread throughout the world. Not even Steve Jobs, in his maniacal search for Pure Form to stimulate in his clients the feeling of belonging to an elite, could have envisaged his iPhone becoming a sophisticated and widespread key to the new ecosystem of biohypermedia.
The use of these devices, closer to the mobility of a car than the sedentary PC, imposes a new paradigm of applications. The hundreds of thousands of apps, available in just a few years, originate from the intersection of two factors:
- The desire and necessity to have simple, functional and fast devices able to do specific tasks on the go.
- The activities of an ever-larger community, forged in the free software environment and movement, that has the operative skills to develop apps for popular mobile platforms such as Iphone Operating System (IOS) or Google Android.
The phenomenon of apps was first instigated and institutionalized in the AppStore, a special application that is an enclosure where Apple authorizes third-party apps (or not) while, in the meantime, extracting rent from the labour of software developing communities.[iv] Apple likes to play on the ambiguity in a form of propaganda that exalts the “revolutionary” spirit of technological innovation – for example in their famous 1984 commercial to launch MacIntosh, inspired by the Orwell novel –as a way of consolidating their strictly neoliberal economic policy. Benefits for shareholders, managers and software architects, are coupled with rank exploitation of “low level” employees and subcontractors, like the young precarious workers who run Apple Stores and the semi-enslaved Chinese workers who frenetically build iPhones in the city-factories of Foxconn, the world's largest electronics contract manufacturer.
The first iPhone, in 2007, inaugurated the new phase of the cognitive era, just as the PC heralded the decline of the industrial phase. Five years later, Apple no longer has a monopoly: hundreds of millions of smartphones and tablets are sold every year and the total number of these active devices will be soon 2 billion. It took the PC thirty years to reach this level of diffusion.
Often these machines play opposite functions: as a tool to create new forms of horizontal communication and social interaction or as bait for a capillary exploitation. It may be helpful to trace where these contradictory roles intersect.
A political analysis of mobile devices
Where the automobile, too, is a tool for crossing territories, its use value is hardwired into the central functions of transport and travel. At the apex of the industrial era cars were so central to our lives that they became the subject of one of the most well-known novels of the times, On the Road: the infamous scroll of teletype paper Jack Kerouac wrote on transformed into a symbolic extension of the asphalt ribbon he drove on.[v]
The birth of the PC in the 1980s broke the mould of industrial innovation with its subsequent diffusion of these new flexible and affordable computers throughout what was to become our knowledge-based societies. Even though PCs were not networked in the beginning, a growing cognitive workers’ community developed common skills to appropriate this new power.
This movement bypassed traditional company channels, anticipating the contemporary Bring Your Own Device phenomenon (BYOD[vi]), when the first wave of ‘conceptual’ workers introduced PCs into the labour force. The PC became a liberating tool for social cooperation in the workplace of a booming third-sector.
None too pleased with the idea of creating self-managed spaces where the role of manager is fundamentally placed in doubt, the executive powers that be reluctantly adopted the PC, but tried to reestablish hierarchy and stronger job control through the introduction of client-server architectures[vii] and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP ) packages.[viii]
In the following phase, the spread of the first mobile devices – cellphones and laptops – provided an initial impulse for a blurring of life and work, imposing with mobile calls, emails or SMS a new type of real-time processing, regulating the rhythms of life, as had once been achieved in the Fordist factory assembly line.
In the new biohypermedia environment, the key change lies in the combination of miniaturizing and mobilizing these pieces of equipment, allowing them to always be within the body’s reach in any context. In an era dominated by emotions, the constant exchange of our senses with the network is central and these small and powerful machines have become a personal hub for remote actions. The mobile device and its increasing amount of peripheral sensors interact with sound, sight, touch and words, allowing geolocalization, long-distance control and exchange with communicating objects: they augment physical reality[ix] with every kind of information – commercial, cultural, ecological – and act more and more as biomedical sets for the control, correction and support of our vital biological functions. Not to mention the more anthropomorphic peripherals that will complement or replace screens.
The PC has a central function as the medium for linguistic and written processes - its typical uses often tied to the logical concatenation of thought and the priority management of sequences over time. But mobile devices concentrate complex perception of stimuli in terms of spatial organization and intervene in emotional responses. PC work in this way occupies our left hemisphere, while the continual interactions of a smartphone engage the right hemisphere.
In contemporary neoliberalism, these devices become an essential means of rent and profit, through a fine capture of what we generate by living with them and using them. At one and the same time technocracy and financial oligarchies find here an ideal medium to extend their influence and their control of individuals in space and time. This explains the fierce struggle going on among key market players, for example, in Facebook’s clamorously unsuccessful introduction into the stock exchange, due to doubts in its ability to profit from mobile social networks.
War over the immaterial
In the sphere of multinational ICT[x] Corporations a war is being waged over the design and deployment of immaterial enclosures; the dominant social networks or e-commerce applications are the classical examples of emotions, semantics, financial flows and big data capture. These enclosed cyberspaces are often governed by private secret algorithms like Google’s Page Rank, used to determine the importance of all the pages on the Web, or the High Frequency Trading systems, able to crash Wall Street in an hour.
At the same time their marketing divisions stimulate new behaviors to create a mood emotionally favourable for the penetration of new technological fetishes. Designers mould them into attractive and functional objects and technical teams build ever more sophisticated and powerful equipments and software platforms. They harness this power by peppering the devices with value-intercepting traps. Even though all this is based on freeware and open source, they trick us into believing that the iPhone 5, Windows 8 or Jellybean[xi] are miracles that descend from Mount Olympus and for which we should be grateful as to the gods.
These miracles, however, cost us dear and these gods no longer enjoy the same holy aura as before, probably due to the generalization of technological knowledge: almost everybody on earth has a cellphone and a growing part of world population, soon the majority, will know how to use a connected digital machine.
Thus, a chain reaction has been sparked: both the general intellect they share and the precarity in which the multitude of digital natives live, push them, and others, to release the power they have in their hands.
Unlike automobiles or, to a lesser degree, PCs, the use value of new mobile devices is no longer determined merely by the initial design but can be moulded by the final user. Once the internal barriers have been broken[xii], users can introduce value through custom settings, updates, multimedia creations, data enrichment, the download of music, games and applications which best reflect their talents, feelings, desires or overall lifestyle.
Even if the hardware remains the same, the device changes over time – its uses, capabilities and even its performances evolve well beyond its factory settings. A living cooperation throughout the networks continually improves our capacity to break the limits of the enclosure. In fact, these activities don’t happen in an exclusive human-machine relation but through common-based peer production, the social production of the common on networks that, contrary to Yochai Benkler’s hypothesis,[xiii] are not just lining up to endow capitalism with yet another socially acceptable era of exploitation. The innumerable websites, blogs and forums in every language globally blooming and growing are a workshop for worldwide exchange where the digital means are developed that could be used to withdraw workers both from precarity and from total submission to a life of labour.
With Apple leading the charge, the corporations attempt to limit the escape from their enclosures in order to better exploit both individual life and common-based peer production. In certain cases, obsessive capture is so blind that it gets to the point of launching a device designed to obstruct compatibility and openness without even introducing any important technological or functional innovation as a selling point. In the recent case of the iPhone 5[xiv], this blindness triggered a noisy flop, highlighted by an immediate drop in stocks. Microsoft is no less defensive of its monopoly: with Intel and other accomplices, they introduced a new firmware to boot Windows 8 PCs that, substituting the old BIOS,[xv] makes it impossible or very complicated to install Linux or other operating systems on new laptops.
However, large technology companies encounter new and unforeseen resistance in their systematic search for the planned obsolescence of their products[xvi] in order to boost consumerism. In one Parisian district, entire alleyways of Asian workshops that look like Blade Runner’s replicant city allow you to repair any device or prolong your iPhone’s life by changing the built-in batteries for just a few tens of Euros. A large market is emerging of devices reconfigured by a new generation of hackers. While social movements in Europe are collectively resisting useless and ecologically destructive infrastructure projects – like the Italian NOTAV movement against a high speed rail crossing the Alps, or the French one against the Notre-Dame-de-Landes new airport for Nantes – young jobless individuals make a virtue of necessity: their “secondhand smartphones” can be more flexible and efficient than the new, costly and controlled ones that are streaming out of Shenzhen factories.[xvii]
Even when capitalist control isn’t able to turn a direct profit from common production, it still tries to create new situations to capture it. Until recently, large companies’ employees were often supplied with a laptop and a mobile phone with a subscription. Despite hesitations related to “security” problems, today companies allow or even oblige people to use their own devices: BYOD is transformed into an imperative. This not only to apply a deep cost-cutting policy despite generous bonuses to managers, traders and shareholders – but, mainly, to exploit our productivity through machines that we have ourselves configured!
So, if you were one of those many who found the latest tablet, smartphone or hybrid touch device under the tree this year, be aware that you won’t be the only one pleased: under the regime of precarity, bring your own device if you want to survive.
[i] The advertising campaign for Windows 8 cost 1.8 billion dollars.
[iii] “A new society emerges when and if a structural transformation can be observed in the relationships of production, in the relationships of power, and in the interactions between individuals.” M. Castells, End of Millennium. The Information age: Economy, Society and Culture, vol. III, Malden (Mass.), Blackwell Publishers, 1998, p. 371.
[iv] Apple earns 30% on everything sold in the AppStore.
[vi] Bring your own device (BYOD) is a business policy whereby employees bring personally owned mobile devices to their place of work and use them to access privileged company resources such as email, file servers and databases as well as their personal applications and data. Wikipedia.
[vii] “The client/server model is a computing model that acts as a distributed application which partitions tasks or workloads between the providers of a resource or service, called servers, and service requesters, called clients.” Wikipedia. Dmitri Kleiner dedicates the first chapter, “Peer-to-Peer Communism vs. The Client-Server Capitalist State”, in The Telekommunist Manifesto to criticizing client-server architectures. Available online.
[viii] “Enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems integrate internal and external management information across an entire organization, embracing finance/accounting, manufacturing, sales and service, customer relationship management, etc. ERP systems automate this activity with an integrated software application. The purpose of ERP is to facilitate the flow of information between all business functions inside the boundaries of the organization and manage the connections to outside stakeholders.” Wikipedia.
[ix] Augmented reality (AR) is a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. Wikipedia.
[x] Information and Communications Technology
[xi] A recent version of Google Android.
[xii] “iOS jailbreaking is the process of removing the limitations imposed by Apple on devices running the iOS operating system through the use of software exploits – such devices include the iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, and second generation Apple TV. Jailbreaking allows iOS users to gain root access to the operating system, allowing them to download additional applications, extensions, and themes that are unavailable through the official Apple App Store.” Wikipedia.
[xiii] Yochai Benkler (born 1964) is an Israeli-American professor of Law and an author. Since 2007, he has been the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. He is also a faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Among his many works, see The Wealth of Networks (which examines the ways in which information technology permits extensive forms of collaboration that have potentially transformative consequences for economy and society) and the article "Coase's Penguin, or, Linux and the Nature of the Firm". Wikipedia.
[xiv] For example, the iPhone 5 changed, without evident technical reasons, the format of the SIM card (nano-SIM) so that it became incompatible with the SIMs of all other smartphones. If an iPhone is defective or is broken, the user cannot use the nano-SIM with another phone. The connector is incompatible with the standard used on all other devices – the microUSB – and even incompatible with previous generation iPhones and iPads. For more information, see this interview with the author.
[xv] “In IBM PC compatible computers, the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS), also known as the system BIOS or ROM BIOS is a de facto standard defining a firmware interface. The BIOS software is built into the PC, and is the first code run by a PC when powered on ('boot firmware'). When the PC starts up, the first job for the BIOS is the power-on self-test, which initializes and identifies system devices such as the CPU, RAM, video display card, keyboard and mouse, hard disk drive, optical disc drive and other hardware. The BIOS then locates boot loader software held on a peripheral device (designated as a 'boot device'), such as a hard disk or a CD/DVD, and loads and executes that software, giving it control of the PC.” Wikipedia.
[xvi] Apple, for example, designed an iPhone that cost up to 800€ with an integrated, non-changeable battery. Its lifespan is therefore limited in principle to that of the battery. Collective inventiveness has found solutions: low-cost kits to change the battery can be found on the internet.
[xvii] Shēnzhèn is a major city in the south of Southern China's Guangdong Province, situated immediately north of Hong Kong. The area became China's first—and one of the most successful—Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Its population has gone from around 20,000 to 13.5 million inhabitants over the last 30 years.