Michael Goldhaber on Wed, 3 Dec 1997 14:25:23 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Class in the Cyberspace Era

"The political economy of the Net, still 'under construction', is both a
critical and a speculative undertaking, without much solid ground." --Geert
Lovink in Bulldozer, as posted on Nettime

Class in the Cyberspace Era
by Michael H. Goldhaber

Lovink's remarks prompt me to offer Nettimers a version of my own approach
to these issues, which I refer to as the attention economy. In part this
has been put forward in a variety of places, (see below). A book on the
subject is in progress. Rather than go over ground already covered in the
available sources, what I would like to emphasize here are what I see as
the relationship of my work to Marx's theory and current avatars of it.

Since Marx, political economy has only taken note of two possible broad
futures (aside, perhaps, from barbarism): capitalism or socialism. Today,
everyone, left and right ,generally agrees that we are not at this point
moving closer to socialism. The universal conclusion seems to be the near
inevitablitliy of continuing capitalism, as the only real alternative, even
if it is now termed post-Fordist, late capitalism, flexible capitalism or
something of the sort. I take issue with this conclusion.

As is well known, Marx's argument involved  three basic components:
1. "All history is the history of class struggle"
2. The last stage of class society is capitalism.
3. Capitalism carries the seeds of its own destruction within it (as argued
in great detail in "Kapital")

Marx's conclusion is of course that the capitalist underclass-the working
class or proletariat-will smash what remains of class society and create

But suppose we accept only points 1. and 3. While the arguments for either
of them are not absolutely water tight, there is a good bit of support for
each. Point 2. on the other hand remains, as far as I can see, pure wishful
thinking. If previous class societies have been overthrown by newer class
societies, then what is the reason to believe that the process will come to
an end with capitalism? What would prevent, new previously unimagined kinds
of class antagonism from emerging? Indeed since, according to Marx, class
divisions are the main dynamic force in history, how could any new mode of
production come into being without a further development of classes?

Marx eluded this question by arguing that somehow the post-capitalist world
of socialism was to come abouut through a fight between capitalist and
working class, to be won by the latter. This is quite different from the
passage, say, between feudalism and capitalism, where lords and serfs gave
way to capitalists and workers, that is two new classes emerged to replace
the two old classses. Despite obvious antagonism between lords and serfs,
it was only the arrival of the new class system that finally outmoded the

Disappointing as it may seem, the conclusion is that what we can continue
to expect is not more capitalism, but not the end of class society either;
instead, new class systems will continue to emerge, and the tension between
the classes they each contain will continue to drive history. Socialism is
not the end of history, then,  but neither is capitalism.

Lyotard and friends tell us we must give up on grand narratives, but that
only refers to positing a unilinear progress. More reasonably, we must
understand that a new class system replacing capitalism will offer
different challenges from capitalism,  for instance different inequalities.

So what are the new classes and what is the basis of the relation between
them? Before explaining this, I want to say why it seems worthwhile to
stick to the simple two-class paradigm Marx postulated without explanation
in "The Communist Manifesto." The main reason is the obvious one:
simplicity. I mean this not only in terms of ease of explanation; rather,
because the dynamics of a two class system is most simple, it leads to the
most evident growth in new directions, transforming the nature of social
life most strikingly. There may be additional classes around, but most
probably they play only minor or intermediate roles. (Likewise, in any
society there may be divisions in addition to class, such as gender that
also drive history but in different (though ultimately linked) spheres.)
The basic relation between the two predominant classes is what moves each
new "mode of production" forward.

The two new classes can now be revealed. To be crude, one may refer to them
as *stars* and *fans.* Why these two? Because capitalism reaches its limits
by more or less eliminating the need for both capitalists and workers;
through increasingly automated production, material goods are spewed forth
in growing amounts to the point where their scarcity is no longer the
central issue. [See Livingston, cited below ] The new predominant scarcity
is now the scarcity of attention, which must come from other people and is
both necessary and desirable. Stars get lots of attention; fans pay it.
(Think of these categories in the broadest possible way.)

The internet of cyberspace, to put it simply, is a new technological system
that serves the purposes of attention-gathering, or at least promises to.
Anyone can set up a web page, and attempt to become a star, succeeding if
enough people pay attention to the web page. Despite the possibility, only
a few can succeed at this; with billions of web pages, already, most are
doomed to receive little or no attention.

While we are already fairly far along in the transformation to the new
system, we are just at the begining of the  full development of cyberspace.
It will both spread to more and more people, and more and more easily
encompass tools such as video, multiple dimensions, etc. Increasingly then,
cyberspace will be the space of normal experience, and the material world
will be a mere appendix to it.

Some of the many questions that might arise at this point I have already
answered in some of my other writings. Let me address the issue of
classlessness or equality. It is the ultimate scarcity of attention as well
as its desirability which creates the basic attention inequality between
stars and fans. Stars do provide fans with what I call illusory attention.
This is the sort of attention, that, for example, an author appears to give
to a reader. A relatively few stars - whether a thousand or a million is
hard to say- obtain a huge percentage of total world attention, and that
obviously leaves less for everyone else.

We can imagine attention equality, a situation in which everyone is
afforded more or less equal attention. You can see why it is very hard to
maintain. Even if everything else is made equal, some people are still
going to be substantially better and more motivated than others in
corralling attention for themselves, creating an initial inequality that
can then burgeon. (For why it is likely to burgeon, see the first Monday
pieces.) Insisting on maintaining attention equality requires a willingness
to accept being bored, or else an incredible openness to others, some of
whom will not necessarily reward one's attentiveness with real attention of
their own. Thus true attention equality, though obviously desirable in some
abstract sense of justice, is not one that very many of us would readily be
willing to sacrifice for. And of course, even among the fine Nettimers,
there may be some, (I obviously don't exclude myself) who are eager to have
considerably more attention than their "fair share."

A revolt against attention inequality would be a movement with no visible
leaders or heroes, for the obvious reason that a leader or hero (consider
Gandhi, Marx, Che, Martin King, or Gramsci or anyone else you can name )
would be a star, not a true equal.

However, difficult as it is to reach, one may still put forward the notion
of attention equality as a goal to move towards, realizing that those who
get no or too little attention are likely to suffer significantly as a
consequence. With the material world increasingly secondary and dependent
on the distribution of attention, this suffering may well take on material
dimensions in addition to what might be called spiritual ones.

Finally let me note that in the current transitional period, there are four
major operative (overlapping) classes: capitalists and workers and stars
and fans, and that at any given moment any three of these can be allied
against the fourth, and allniaces and antagonisms shift rapidly. For
the most part, one can perhaps expect the shift to remain non-violent, but
it will pose all sorts of severe strains as the new values come to dominate
over the old. I don't think there are any simple answers to the quesiton of
which side to be on in this struggle.
(c)1997 Michael H. Goldhaber

Where to look for more by me on this: First Monday
http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue2_4/goldhaber/index.html , and also
http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue2_7/goldhaber/index.html ) where more
references can be found;

Also (slightly different from FirstMonday version) forthcoming in Telepolis
for those who prefer German.

More briefly in Dec.'97 Wired p 182-190 and still more briefly in The CPSR
[Computer Professionals for Social Responsiblity ] Newsletter, Fall 1997,
pp 16 and 17.(soon to be on Web at http://www.CPSR.org )

Apologies to those who question the ideologies of some of these journals. I
live and work in Oakland and  Berkeley, California, so perhaps what I have
to say can be known as the East Bay ideology, to distinguish it from Kevin
Kelly's West Bay, i.e. San Francisco ideology]

Also see http://www.well.com/user/mgoldh/ my web site

For an extremely interesting account of the development of US capital in
the period of "disaccumulation" see James Livingston "Pragmatism and the
Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940" Univ. of North
Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1994


Michael H. Goldhaber
Ph/FAX 510 -482-9855

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