Friday, May 18, 2012

Facebook and the theory of surplus value

On the occasion of Facebook's IPO, today, May 18, 2012, I want to share something I came across just last night, from an excellent article on the legacy of Karl Marx. ("Marx at 193," John Lanchester, London Review of Books, April 5, 2012). I particularly like statement this because (1) it's a great, teachable illustration of Marx's theory of surplus value and (2) it uses the theory to expose how labor is "hidden" in and by Facebook.

This idea of labour being hidden in things, and the value of things arising from the labour congealed inside them, is an unexpectedly powerful explanatory tool in the digital world. Take Facebook. Part of its success comes from the fact that people feel that they and their children are safe spending time there, that it is a place you go to interact with other people but is not fundamentally risky or sleazy in the way new technologies are often perceived to be – that VHS, for instance, was when it was launched on the market. But the perception that Facebook is, maybe the best word would be ‘hygienic’, is sustained by tens of thousands of hours of badly paid labour on the part of the people in the developing world who work for companies hired to scan for offensive images and who are, according to the one Moroccan man who went on the record to complain about it, paid a dollar an hour for doing so. That’s a perfect example of surplus value: huge amounts of poorly paid menial work creating the hygienic image of a company which, when it launches on the stock market later this year, hopes to be worth $100 billion.

Be sure to read the entire article.

As for the poorly paid Moroccans working for FB, it appears that The Gawker blew the whistle. And The Daily Telegraph did some reporting on this in March.

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