• theleftberlin

Information and the World Economy

by Ralph Tebbutt

Picture: Knolskape. Source: Wikimedia Commons https://www.knolskape.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/KNOLSKAPE_GAFAM_blog_web_banner.png

Some few years ago I attended a lecture given by my Mathematics Institute. During the lecture the question of ‘Big Data’ came up. I was concerned about the extent that Big Data was affecting our lives. I was even more concerned because I was conscious of the fact that most people were unaware of the existence of such a phenomenon.

The situation is changing. A recent edition of the 'Left Book Club' was devoted to a detailed discussion of the four major tech companies, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Google. The book describes how these companies were formed, how they developed and the role they now play in society.

An important aspect of all of this is that of a network. In this world of information and connectivity it is important to create a network that links all those involved together. Once a network is established, others seek to join the network and a monopoly situation arises. To create a rival network means trying to prise people away from a network to which they already belong. Understandably they are reluctant to do this and so the established network becomes even stronger. The established organisations are able to absorb newer units which are offering new or improved applications. The role of the creator of systems or code or whatever is changed. They are no longer potential founders of a new structure but become servants of the existing structure.

Due to the Coronavirus, my Mathematics Institute has changed the way it operates. Instead of holding Conferences they have held a series of online zoom meetings covering some of the topics that would have been dealt with at the Conferences. This has meant that I have been able to join some of these lectures.

Two of the lectures have been relevant to the topic under discussion. The first dealt with quantum computing during which the architecture in dealing with Big Data, or information as it is now referred to, was explained. The information passes through a number of linked layers during which it is processed and transformed before finally been sent out to those who wish to receive the details of the analysis. The details of what happens to the information as it passes through the layers is only known to those who created the code. As far as anyone else is concerned they are simple black boxes.

The second of the lectures was concerned with more technical matters, described in mathematical terms as Graphs, Vectors and Tensors. A tensor is a three dimensional array as compared to a matrix which has two dimensions, with rows and columns of data, and a vector which has just one dimensions. Each row or column can have any number of data items. The lecturer explained how by converting the information in terms within the tensor, the information can be divided, rearranged and then combined in different ways. This allows the information to be analysed and structured to meet whatever is needed or required. It is clear from this brief description that even this is complicated, the mathematics involved is extremely complex.

Has capitalism changed into something qualitatively different?

McKenzie Wark, in her book 'Sensoria', approaches the subject from a different perspective. Her area of expertise is in media studies. In her book she brings together a wide range of differing views of modern day thinkers. The language used is different from what I am familiar with. In many ways post-modern - drawing on cultural theory and in parts using mathematical terminology, but as metaphor rather than in the mathematical sense.

She also draws attention to the layering approach with a different interpretation. She has the concepts of intermediaries and investors who link the creators with the audience. As I understand her terminology, the intermediaries are the hardware systems and the investors are suppliers of the software. It is here that she diverges from normal nomenclature because she sees the creators as something different from workers. Among the many other ideas that she floats is that the rise of the information industry has resulted in a change in the structure of society. It is no longer capitalism as we have known it but something different, a different form of capitalism or something entirely new.

To examine this proposition more deeply we have to go back to first principles. In the early days of capitalism things were much clearer, there were individuals who owned the means of production and hired workers to operate these means of production for a set wage. The class lines were clearly drawn. This structure became more diverse with the introduction of joint stock companies when ownership became a joint concern.

Over time the structure became even more diverse. Whilst at University and subsequently as a Directed Practical Trainee, I worked in the coal industry. My role was to understand the work that was being done, the attitudes and relationships between the various groups with whom I worked. I was being trained either to be a manager or a specialist engineer within the coal mining industry. I had decided to study mining engineering because of my interest in the history of coalminers, I had been strongly influenced by reading of their years of struggle.

As a trainee learning about mining practice I was being trained to serve the interests of the National Coal Board. Although this was a nationally owned company its method of operation was no different to a commercial company, in fact its basic structure was designed on the structure of a commercial company. The word ‘interest’ here is used in two different senses. As Sartre outlines in his work on dialectics, the interest which I took in the struggles of mineworkers - was entirely different to the interest I would eventually have to serve as a manager within the system. The role of managers falls in a nebulous area between that of the worker and that of the capitalist. Their job is to extract as much surplus value from the workers as possible whilst at the same time being vulnerable to being found dispensable to the owners of the enterprise.

A further diffusion of control within capitalism came with the wider financialisation of the structure of industry and commerce. Far greater stress seems to be paid to the various stock markets (which indicate the value that people are prepared to pay for shares in companies) than in the actual performance of the companies from a production point of view. But none of this diversification really alters the fundamental mechanism of a capitalist economy. It does not alter the fact that ultimately the creation of wealth depends upon the expenditure of labour power. It is in this context that we have to place the increased flow of information.

One of my favourite group of workers in history has always been the Luddites. They were not mindless groups of people going about breaking up things. They had an aim. They could see that the whole basis on which their lives and those of their families were built was about to be destroyed. They acted in order to defend that way of life.

Looking back it is easy to criticise them. Those who do, draw attention to the vast improvements that eventually flowed from the Industrial Revolution. However, at the time it was people like the framework knitters who saw their livelihoods disappear who suffered. They obtained none of the benefits that came from the factory system. The same is true of those who found themselves working in the factories. The benefits came much later to a later generation, but with other hardships against which they had to struggle.

It would be impossible to follow the Luddites in respect of the use of electronic equipment. In a very short time electronics have come to dominate all of our lives. Another book that I have been reading is entitle ‘Make Think Imagine’. In this the author extols the virtues and importance of engineering. Reviewing the whole history of engineering, including the past, present and future, he expounds the belief that the solution to all the world’s problems can be found in the application of engineering. He considers engineers to be of greater importance than scientists. He is fully aware of the fact that discoveries in science and engineering can have both positive and negative outcomes. One of the examples he gives is in comparing the negative aspect of nuclear weapons with the positive possibilities of nuclear power. I do not consider that this is a very good example, bearing in mind the problems of nuclear waste, but his comments on the positive and negative aspects of technology are valid.

A very simple example with regard to modern information technology can be seen when people demonstrate. With the use of a mobile phone is much easier to organise both before and during a demonstration. People can keep in touch, tactics can be changed quickly, the demonstration made more effective. However there is a down side. Modern facial recognition technology has now reached the stage that from a few characteristic features of a face, spotted on a camera as the demonstration passes it, the whole face can be reconstructed and the person identified. Thus there is a positive and a negative side of the technology.

The question remains, as it has throughout the era of capitalism, as to who owns and controls the means of production. The Information age is but an extension and further development within society. The basic structure remains one of capitalist domination. The aim must be not to smash the technology but to smash the whole structure of capitalism,