Crowdsourcing for Capitalism

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


June 3, 2012

Crowdsourcing for Capitalism

This blog post begins as a review of Daren Brabham’s The Myth of Amateur Crowds, a journal article on crowdsourcing. My interest in the topic is the ideological function of discourses that celebrate the ways that technology is supposedly liberating us. In this case, the association of crowdsourcing as a democratizing force is used to mask the weakening of economic security of the middle class. Then I turn to the complicity of a certain style of deconstructive cultural criticism, and its ideological function in legitimizing capitalism.

The myth that Brabham refers to in the title is the idea that the crowds in crowdsourcing projects are made up of amateurs, a misconception that originated with Jeff Howe who coined the term “crowdsourcing” in a 2006 Wired Magazine article. In the opening chapter of his book promoting the idea entitled The Rise of the Amateur, Howe writes:

There is a shadow labor force in America. These people toil away cheerfully at tasks ranging from raising heirloom vegetables to making after-market “mods” for their cars to translating obscure nineteenth-century French novels into English. These are the amateurs–the hobbyists and enthusiasts long judged to possess more passion than talent. That is no longer a fair or even accurate appraisal. Increasingly skilled and capable of organized, sophisticated collaboration, amateurs are competing successfully with professionals in fields ranging from computer programming to journalism to the sciences. The energy and devotion of the amateur comprises the fuel for the crowdsourcing engine.

Anyone who has read about crowdsourcing has probably encountered something similar, but Brabham cites research showing that this characterization is inaccurate.

Brabham also quotes from several media sources that take a quite negative view of crowdsourcing, sometimes seeming to border on vituperation. These articles often assume that the crowds really are made up of amateurs and claim that they’re doing inferior work while undermining the livelihoods of professionals.

It’s easy to criticize this as elitist – professionals belittling amateurs to protect their turf – but of course this would be to buy into the myth of amateur crowds. Crowdsourcing ideology promotes and profits from this very tension, between the expert with credentials, social status and connections, and the Average Joe or Jane who makes up for their deficits in these areas with energy and passion. Or as Brabham puts it: “With the status of professional, individuals can exert their prestige and authority on all matters relating to their area of professional expertise, which includes setting boundaries to keep amateurs out of the profession.”

This framing opens the way for the claims that crowdsourcing is breaking down barriers, empowering those without access to symbolic capital and making the world a more meritocratic place. “Equality” and “democracy” function here as master-signifiers: concepts that are elevated to unquestionable ideals, but lack any precise meaning. Silicon Valley ideologists can then eliminate minimal protections from economic exploitation that professional status provides in the name of empowering ordinary people. And the activity of crowdsourced labor allows individuals to perform a pseudo-radical identity that compensates for precarious and exploitative work conditions.

Brabham draws on several academic sources to support his argument, one of which is Thomas Strychacz’s Modernism, Mass Culture, and Professionalism, who describes the economic motivations of professionalism:

Among the many consequences of a culture of professionalism is the creation of “market shelters” to protect the specific economic interests of professionals. De facto monopolies on the exercise of certain forms of speech, and expert techniques, justified by accreditation and the existence of professional associations, give professionals the opportunity to practise without having to compete in the mass market (as, say, a maker of breakfast cereal must). Professionals may perform their tasks without capital and without producing a readily definable commodity. In this sense, professionalization holds out the opportunity of practising outside the exigency of market forces. Professional authority is created by possessing, in Larson’s evocative phrase, “symbolic capital” (1984, 61) which allows its possessors to float their expert insight, information, and special languages as pseudocommodities, and which derives value from the prestige investing the specialized and esoteric knowledge that experts possess rather than from market operations.

Blue collar workers also create “market shelters” to protect their economic interests – we call them unions. The critique of symbolic capital is therefore extremely ambiguous, since it effects a kind of white collar union-busting in the name of equality. This example demonstrates the danger that social critics court when they look at social power only through the lens of culture. They attempt to deconstruct the amateur-professional binary and expose it as a myth, but this is ineffective because they fail to see how social dominance is an inevitable side effect of capitalist economic dynamics. To avoid falling to the bottom of a brutal economic ladder, individuals will join together based on shared characteristics – race, religion, profession – to protect their economic interest at the expense of other less powerful groups.

Deconstructive cultural criticism is an especially useful tool in the capitalist arsenal because contemporary neoliberalism wants to represent itself as post-ideological. The vulgar Marxist form of ideological critique is the well-known base-superstructure model, where some cultural phenomenon – for example, art – is supposedly shown as a means for the bourgeoisie to legitimize themselves as the dominant class. (Non-Marxist forms of this critique take this as an inspiration, but with whites, men, heterosexuals, in the place of the bourgeoisie.) So we’re told that the traditional hierarchy of value between good and bad art is essentially arbitrary, and the bourgeoisie justify their position when society buys into their cultural distinctions and social ideals.

This kind of critique no longer functions today. Neoliberalism is post-ideological, which means that it does not rely on an external, socially-constructed set of values to justify itself. It was once possible to expose the true, economic reasons for government policy – for example, politicians calling for war to protect our American way of life while secretly doing it for the purposes of economic expansion. In this situation, exposing the falseness of the culturally constructed us-versus-them binary is supposed to bring to light the true, shameful rationale. But today, politicians more frequently gain power by showing how they are merely acting pragmatically, and their opponents are acting as agents of a grand ideology predicated on false oppositions. Post-ideology means that today, power is consolidated precisely in the deconstructive gesture of cultural criticism.

In the case of crowdsourcing rhetoric, the “ideology” of professionalism is deconstructed and shown to be an arbitrary means for reinforcing privilege. The problem with this critique – assuming for the moment that it is sincere, and not just Silicon Valley opportunism – is that it fails to take into account the way that the fiction of the professional really did create, at least for the middle class, a modicum of economic security, even decommodifying their labor. This critique risks complicity in the proletarianization of the middle class.

According to Strychacz, professionals derive their value from the prestige of their knowledge rather than market operations. But capitalism no longer justifies itself by claiming a connection to the grand symbols and dignified institutions of our society. Instead, it mocks those ideas and openly asserts the primacy of profit in all areas of life. I am tempted to claim that this is an indication that the mutually supportive relationship of capitalism and the old bourgeois “Western civilization,” such as it was, is ending. We can see this trend in the gradual conversion of universities from institutions of higher learning to state-subsidized vocational training for employers.

While playing an ideological role, these institutions also had a progressive dimension. In much the same way that social democratic policies were a compromise in response to the communist threat and then discarded as soon as it had passed, it is possible that both the traditional university and the professions are no longer needed. Through the false populist rhetoric, education and labor are more fully commodified.

Some years ago, Andrew Keen made some related observations in a column titled Web 2.0 Is Reminiscent Of Marx, where he describes a Silicon Valley entrepreneur of his acquaintance who “sounds more like a cultural Marxist – a disciple of Gramsci or Herbert Marcuse – than a capitalist with an MBA from Stanford.” He goes on to paraphrase the Web 2.0 movement in Marxist terms:

The promised land was user-generated online content. In Marxist terms, the traditional media had become the exploitative “bourgeoisie,” and citizen media, those heroic bloggers and podcasters, were the “proletariat.”

These points were likely made in the spirit of provocation, but I find myself mostly in agreement. The only minor point of disagreement is that Stanford MBAs may sound like Marxists, but they certainly still are capitalists. In his book, Keen writes about the dangers of Web 2.0 for our cultural institutions. If he wishes to save them, he may soon find that becoming a Marxist is the only option.