Saturday, January 14, 2012

GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out)

How did Bill Gates become the richest man in America? His wealth has nothing to do with the production costs of what Microsoft is selling: i.e. it is not the result of his producing good software at lower prices than his competitors, or of ‘exploiting’ his workers more successfully (Microsoft pays its intellectual workers a relatively high salary). If that had been the case, Microsoft would have gone bankrupt long ago: people would have chosen free systems like Linux which are as good as or better than Microsoft products. Millions of people are still buying Microsoft software because Microsoft has imposed itself as an almost universal standard, practically monopolising the field, as one embodiment of what Marx called the ‘general intellect’, meaning collective knowledge in all its forms, from science to practical knowhow. Gates effectively privatised part of the general intellect and became rich by appropriating the rent that followed from that.
The possibility of the privatisation of the general intellect was something Marx never envisaged in his writings about capitalism (largely because he overlooked its social dimension). Yet this is at the core of today’s struggles over intellectual property: as the role of the general intellect – based on collective knowledge and social co-operation – has increased in post-industrial capitalism, so wealth accumulates out of all proportion to the labour expended in its production. The result is not, as Marx seems to have expected, the self-dissolution of capitalism, but the gradual transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of labour into rent appropriated through the privatisation of knowledge.
I have long suspected that Slavoj Žižek hadn't got the faintest idea what he was talking about. Up until now it has been an itch I couldn't scratch, but in the first two paragraphs (above) in this piece from the London Review of Books he is training the laser beam of his intelligence on a topic I've actually thought about quite a lot. I can't be bothered to go through the category errors that pile up once software is equated with a reified general intellect. The most telling thing however, is he throws us this bone as Microsoft's hegemony is on its last legs, even if his analysis was correct (which it isn't) it's out of date so its conclusions would have nothing to offer anyway.

Prodnose: Adrian Johnston's book Zizek's Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity argues against the position that Žižek's thought has no consistency or underlying project.
Myself: Really?
Prodnose: Beneath "what could be called 'the cultural studies Žižek'" is a singular "philosophical trajectory that runs like a continuous, bisecting diagonal line through the entire span of his writing (i.e. the retroactive Lacanian reconstruction of the chain Kant-Schelling-Hegel).
Myself: Ah
Prodnose: Žižek's work is better described as rigorous in the sense of systematic rather than as comprising a single, all-encompassing "system."
Myself: Garbage In, Garbage Out.
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