The Limits of Communication

The Limits of Communication

Los límites de la comunicación

Jodi Dean

Networked information technologies have been the means through which people have been subjected to the competitive intensity of neoliberal capitalism. Enthusiastically participating in personal and social media—I have broadband at home! My new tablet lets me work anywhere! With my smartphone, I always know what’s going on!—we build the trap that captures us, a trap that extends beyond global use of mobile phones and participation in social networks to encompass the production of these phones and the hardware necessary to run these networks.

Investment in information technologies drove the nineties dot-com bubble, feeding New Economy hype, generating excess capacity, and leading to no discernible increase in productivity apart from that in the high-tech industry. Even after the bubble burst, New Economy rhetoric continued to extol digitalization for enabling capitalism to overcome its contradictions.

Doug Henwood indicts this discourse for appealing to utopian impulses in anti-utopian times: “Find capitalism too controlling? No, it’s spontaneous! Too inegalitarian and exploitative? No, it overturns hierarchies! Vulgar, brutal, de-skilling, and mercenary? Au contraire, it’s creative and fun! Unstable? Nah, that’s just its miraculous dynamism at work!”

Widely celebrated for making work fun, inspiring creativity, and opening up entrepreneurial opportunities, networked information and communication technology contributed to the production of new knowledge-based enterprises. Its more pronounced legacy, however, has been widespread de-skilling, surveillance, and the acceleration and intensification of work and culture: the freedom of “telecommuting” quickly morphed into the tether of 24/7 availability, permanent work. Describing a key contradiction of communicative capitalism, Franco Berardi writes, “If you want to survive you have to be competitive and if you want to be competitive you must be connected, receive and process continuously an immense and growing mass of data,” and hence under constant soul-destroying pressure to keep up, stay alert, and remain motivated. Communication technologies made capitalism acceptable, exciting, and cool, immunizing it from critique by rendering critics into outmoded technophobes. At the same time, these technologies provided the basic components necessary for neoliberalism’s acceleration of capitalism, not to mention a bunch of super-fun diversions enabling people to feel radical and connected while playing on their laptops.

Communication technologies contribute to the displacement and dispersion of critical energy such that even as inequality has intensified, forming and organizing a coherent opposition has remained a persistent problem—and this in a setting lauded for the way it provides everyday people with new capacities for involvement. Participatory media is personalizing media, not only in the sense of surveillance and tracking but also in the sense of the injunction to find out for oneself and share one’s opinion. Ubiquitous personal communications media turn our activity into passivity, capturing it and putting it into the service of capitalism. Angry, engaged, desperate to do something, we look for evidence, ask questions, and make demands. Yet the information we need to act seems perpetually out of reach; there is always something we misunderstand or do not know.

The myriad entertainments and diversions available online, or as apps for smartphones, are not free. We don’t usually pay money directly to Gmail, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. These don’t cost money. They cost time. It takes time to post and write and time to read and respond. We pay with attention and the cost is focus.

Our attention isn’t boundless. Our time is finite—even as we try to extract value out of every second (we don’t have time to waste). We cannot respond to every utterance, click on every link, read every post. We have to choose even as the possibility of something else, something wonderful, lures us to search and linger. Demands on our attention, injunctions for us to communicate, participate, share—ever shriller and more intense—are like so many speed-ups on the production line, attempts to extract from us whatever bit of mindshare is left.

Berardi theorizes these speed-ups as a supersaturation of attention: “The acceleration produced by network technologies and the condition of precariousness and dependence of cognitive labor, forced as it is to be subject to the pace of the productive network, has produced a saturation of human attention which has reached pathological levels.” He connects increases in depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and the use of psycho-pharmaceuticals to this acceleration, as human psyches and brains come up against their limits and oscillate between the hyper-excitation of mobilized nervous energy and withdrawal and disinvestment. Recent research in neuroscience confirms that the incessant injunctions to find out, know, choose, and decide are overloading and exhausting our basic cognitive-emotional capacities. As a summary of this research explained: “No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue—you’re not consciously aware of being tired—but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice.”

The communicative circuits of contemporary capitalism are loops of drive, impelling us forward and backward through excitation and exhaustion. The more contributions we make, the more we expand the field in which others have to decide: respond or ignore? Either way a choice has to be made and the more choices one is compelled to make, the more exhausted one becomes.

When we respond to the invitations and incitements in our media feeds, whether as part of our work, our play, our activism, or our consumer practice, our contribution is an addition to an already infinite communicative field, a little demand on someone else’s attention, a little incitement of an affective response, a digital trace that can be stored—and on and on and on.

The cost of the exponentially expanding circuit of information and communication is particularly high for progressive and left political movements. Competition for attention—how do we get our message across?—in a rich, tumultuous media environment too often and easily means adapting to this environment and making its dynamic our own, which can result in a shift in focus from doing to appearing, that is to say, a shift toward thinking in terms of getting attention in the 24/7 media cycle and away from larger questions of building a political apparatus with duration. Infinite demands on our attention—demands we make on each other and which communicative capitalism captures and amplifies—expropriate political energies of focus, organization, duration, and will vital to communism as a movement and a struggle. It’s no wonder that communicative capitalism is participationist: the more participation in networked media environments, the more traces to hoard and energies to capture or divert.

The limits of attention are not only the limits of individuals (and so can be resolved by distributing labor and crowdsourcing). They are the limits that make communication as such possible, as in, for example, distinctions between signal and noise as well as those characteristics of our habits, environments, and processes that direct our attention and thereby produce the circumstances of communication. The limits of attention are common. The common actualized in contemporary communication networks functions itself as a means of expropriation. Overproduction and overaccumulation of the common, then, are problems unique to communicative capitalism. As Christian Marazzi powerfully demonstrates, “the disproportion between the supply of information and the demand for attention is a capitalistic contradiction, an internal contradiction of the value form.”

The fact of attention’s limits points to the division inseparable from communication: ideas and affects are not infinitely transferable, accessible, communicable. Michael Hardt misses this when he argues that sharing ideas increases rather than decreases their “utility.” He argues that “in order to realize their maximum productivity, ideas, images, and affects must be common and shared. When they are privatized their productivity reduces dramatically.” If productivity means “capacity to circulate” or “transmissibility into a variety of sectors,” then increases in productivity (circulation) entail declines in specificity, accuracy, meaning, and registration. Present in ever wider and more differentiated settings, to ever more varied audiences, ideas change. This is part of the pleasure in mashing together video and audio clips—sounds and images take on new meanings, and become something different from what they were before. Brands, logos, images, and identities lose their unique signifying capacity when they extend too broadly, to too many different items with too many different valences—which is exactly why corporations fight to keep them private. If everything is Nike, then Nike doesn’t mean anything. To be clear: I’m not defending property rights in ideas and images. Rather, I am pointing out that it is not their privatization that fetters capitalist production but the opposite, namely, their proliferation into a massive, circulating flow of increasingly valueless contributions insofar as each can command less and less attention. The contradiction is particular to communicative capitalism in that communication cannot be exponentially expanded as a form of capitalist production. It comes up against limits inherent to communication as such.

Cesare Casarino argues that potentiality is common. While potentiality is fully embedded within capitalism, it does not belong to capitalism. It doesn’t belong to anybody. But Casarino moves too quickly to link potentiality to a common that exceeds capitalism’s grasp. Communicative capitalism seizes excess, surplus, and abundance. Its drive impels us toward extra and more, new opportunities, unforeseen pleasures, chances, and risks that if we don’t take someone else will, the very chances and risks that derivatives commodify and on which high finance speculates. Contemporary capitalism securitizes, monetizes, and privatives potential. It does so through the excessive generation of debt (whether of individuals, households, or states); through the amplified role of speculative finance in generating corporate profit; through the premeditation of events such that massive amounts of energy and attention are focused on what could or might happen; and through the incitement of creative work toward producing the one. Potential is the gap in the actual, the difference worth exploiting and betting on, as illustrated by the arbitrage and high-speed trades on which so many hedge funds rely.

Just as industrial labor expropriated craft skill, breaking it into its smallest components and distributing these components via mechanization and assembly lines, so does communicative capitalism participate in the dispossession of our previously common knowledge and capacities. Computer chips and processors, mobile phones and MP3 players, are primary components of the expansion and acceleration of disposability. Computers are antiquated in under three years; mobile phones become old-fashioned (if not obsolete) in about eighteen months. We don’t learn how to fix them, forgetting that this is something we once might have known. Capacities to repair items of daily use have also diminished. The supposition is that we can just buy a new one. Of course, this was already the case with the rapid expansion of domestic goods after WWII. Middle class households in the U.S. and UK became less likely to make the things they needed—clothes, furniture—and bought them instead. Pressures on households to earn income, even while raising kids and participating in the care of others, has meant increased reliance on take away, fast, and frozen food, with a corresponding decrease in capacities to prepare and cook fresh food. Contemporary popular culture highlights the expropriation of capacities that many in the middle and former middle class currently experience. Television experts provide guidance in household organization, basic cooking skills, and how to get along with others.

Neoliberal trends in higher education extend these dynamics to the university: in a society without skills, who needs a degree? Capitalism no longer requires a skilled, educated middle class, so mass university education is no longer necessary. It doesn’t take as many people as we have to service the top 1 percent, so most of us are not needed any more (except as the field out of which the one can emerge). In a setting that reduces education to knowledge, knowledge to information, and information to data, we are told that we can find out anything we want to know by googling it.

In a nutshell: things do it for us so that we don’t have to. We don’t need professors to tell us, or at least not very many—a couple of great universities can probably supply all the lawyers, scientists, bankers, and novelists a country needs (and if not, well, there is a global elite from which to draw). We’ve outsourced basic skills—or, they’ve been expropriated from us.

Copyright © 2012 by Jodi Dean.

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