Keeping the Lights On
by Michael Malloy
“Sayin’: Ain’t I pretty, and ain’t I cute, and look at my skin,
Look at my skin shine, look at my skin glow
Look at my skin laugh, look at my skin cry,
When you can’t even sense if they got any insides”
I’m getting tired of using the word “technology” in this series. It feels so vaguely retrospective, like I’m referring to some historical phenomenon, and not, for instance, the laptop I’m writing on right now, or the headphones I have on, or the automated HVAC system controlling the temperature of the library where I’m writing from, or the control systems at the power plant keeping my phone from dying before I catch the bus home. The extent to which digital controls have been attached to every conceivable system cannot be understated—the rare holdovers are typically systems too critical to tamper with. This isn’t a problem, however. Though examples like Stuxnet, a bit of American cyber-terrorism that disrupted the Iranian nuclear program, demonstrate the degree to which interference with digital systems can result in immediate real-world consequences, the reality is that for the majority of these systems—at least the ones we encounter in the day-to-day—are in a constant state of iterative change, updated and maintained remotely.
We need to characterize what that change looks like. I’m going to make the broad categorical decision to talk about two kinds of change. Maintenance, or the kinds of changes needed to maintain the structures we use, is one kind. Maintenance is repairs, it is replacement parts—whatever it is, it happens to the thing we are using. The other, which perhaps illuminates the issues of neoliberal capitalism, does not have a name; it is a new creature. It is the change to these systems in ways that replace one system with an new one. This change is not necessarily needed, or concerns the condition of the system itself, or its compatibility, only that the change is necessary.
Let’s start with maintenance: the runt brother of progress. For the most part, we never consider the hidden machinations that sustain the more simple technologies which our world depends on. Say, in your kitchen, you’ve flipped the wall switch to turn on the lights—and nothing happens. What’s your immediate next move? You do it again. Why should such things ever stop working—how can they? These systems are the immutable substrate of modernity; their omnipresence has become an accepted baseline, even as it is increasingly under threat of breakdown. We electrified the country so long ago that, when brownouts and blackouts occur (I’m writing this from the Central Valley of California, where Enron’s name is still cursed), they’re particularly jarring, suddenly underscoring the fragility of these networks. Seawater will lap at the doors of power plants along the coasts in my lifetime, but when the big blackout comes, I’ll stand for a while mutely flipping that switch, hoping that things will snap back to normal. This fragility registers as even more unsettling when we think about the extent to which our day-to-day life is invested, consensually or otherwise, into informational systems. We have so little real control over our data that being reminded of such can be destabilizing, frightening, even. At the heart of this fear is our not-unwarranted sense that we become every day more reliant upon, more intertwined with these extraordinarily useful and convenient networks, every day binding us a little tighter to structures that, unless infrastructural decay and climate change are addressed, are not long for this world.
We act as a maintenance crew for a large portion of this network; for instance, social media would be utterly functionless and impotent without our perpetual input. However, broader trends of technological development have boxed out certain kinds of maintenance that should be able to expect from our possessions. Rather than experiencing the burdens and benefits of personal ownership, we have an enormously asymmetric relationship with manufacturers. Mere possession of a device no longer entitles us to any special relationship to it. We sink lower than consumers.
Citizenship is the means by which liberal democracy confers rights upon individuals and embeds them in a legal structure. One of the peculiar developments of neoliberalism has been the creation of new ways to introduce restrictions upon citizens through softer, more nebulously defined lines adumbrating the societal role and function of the modern customer. “Voting with your wallet,” while literally true for oligarchs, becomes the limp and ineffectual political mobilization most preferred by the neoliberal state. The mechanism of ‘dissent’ plays out entirely within the framework of consumer culture, it can mimics rebellion, serving as a release of pressure at certain socioeconomic choke points. Let’s look no further than South Bend’s friendly Mayor Pete, whose technocratic reforms and sub-geriatric age have made him a poster child for the dweebs reassured by neoliberalism’s treadmill of progress—something new is always happening! Reform, forever! Moving money around to ensure we can create new consumers of new products! Pete claims that the progress of South Bend should be measured by the breadth of its market—certainly not by the depth of the poverty experienced by its immiserated black population. This is the consumer world as it was. But this too is dissolving.
Exit maintenance; enter: the future.
What comes after the consumer? We tumble downward as capitalist democracy responds to surges of reaction by accustoming itself to a newly lowered baseline. From citizens to consumers to something lower than a consumer: a renter. Streaming services, subscriptions, software licensing—all bend towards the selfsame goal. A consequence of this is that our personal tastes, built as they are out of a patchwork of subscription services, are rented to us as well.
In this erosive process, we are sapped of agency over our possessions in ways that, in past eras of domestic manufacturing, would have been considered not merely bad for business, but a deep violation of consumer trust. A fascinating case study of this breakdown in our relationships with our devices was published in the New York Times last year: an obituary for an iPad as it slid slowly into manufactured obsolescence. Whereas in the old thinking, it was quality and longevity that keeps people coming back, capitalism has latched onto the practice of swindling customers into buying more by offering an inferior product. But therein lies the warped logic at the heart of the profit incentive: it isn’t utility or social value or craft and trust that rise to the surface, but merely that which most effectively generates revenue, which, as it turns out, is coercive deceit. A solidly engineered product might make customers want to come back, but a product that fails on schedule forces them to. A bizarre experience, watching as technology decays for no reason, built not to last, engineered specifically to be irreparable. Marx, writing in 1844, chides us that neither “moth nor rust will corrupt your capital,” but recently, our possessions have proven to decay insufficiently quickly for the speed of the modern market.
The doomed plight of the Nebraska farmers is indicative of this: they did not view the abusive relationship between John Deere and themselves as a feature of neoliberal capitalism, but as a ‘step too far’ in an otherwise healthy system.
We have entered into a period of consumer goods defined by deeply unsatisfactory relationships with our technology as a result of capital’s focus on cycling us from device to device. We have enough time to develop a dependence on one iteration of the product, but not enough time to become comfortable with it—not before it’s rendered obsolete and near-useless. Some attempt to mitigate this through a deliberate and cultivated ‘minimalism,’ but such practices are similarly unsatisfactory for different reasons. In practice, minimalists often seek to purchase not necessarily fewer things, but rather more compact and austere sets of durable, high-value goods. It is essentially for rich people who can decide to own less. Poverty charges interest, as they say: the cost of entry into this lifestyle is high enough to exclude those who cannot afford to replace their broken-down, infuriating technology.
Minimalism, as well as the cyclical relationships engineered into our devices, encourages the disposal of the old, the broken, and the unwanted to cultivate a life that has reached the actual endpoint of consumption, a life that is immutable, disconnected from these cycles of attachment and suffering. Escaping the need to continue purchasing, building an aestheticized expression of what the consumer truly desires. But there is no perfectly aesthetic life, and the minimalist is condemned to constantly dispose of the old and buy new goods, just like the rest of us must. For generations of the newly rich, to whom consumption is still a burden to be avoided (those truly deranged by wealth will, as ever, eat off their gold plates unselfconsciously), the promise of “escaping” consumer capitalism through conscientious, enlightened decisions is attractive. But the market has decided for them that they are simply a new section of the market. Money can’t buy them everything.
These cycles of acquisition and disposal are natural to all goods. Nothing lasts forever. But their rate is governed not by real material breakdowns, but by intentional designs that mandate this cycle’s inescapability. Right to repair is a fledgling movement. The fight with John Deere in Nebraska by farmers fed up with the ludicrous restrictions placed on them by the corporation came and went. This was a landmark issue, in no small part because it was one of the few times there was a serious legal challenge to the asymmetry of the tech market. Is there a way out? Challenging the structures of neoliberal capitalism that scaffold our relations to our technology is a tall, tall order, and while there are avenues of resistance, they tend to diagnose symptoms of this disease and not its root cause. The doomed plight of the Nebraska farmers is indicative of this: they did not view the abusive relationship between John Deere and themselves as a feature of neoliberal capitalism, but as a ‘step too far’ in an otherwise healthy system.
But we cannot simply reverse the processes of capitalism by wishing or by asking nicely. Now that it is technologically feasible to extract information and capital while exerting control over consumers, it is impossible to roll these corporate practices back.
What alternative is left to them? The establishment of a parallel market? They’re farmers, not industrial manufacturers. Their tractors come to them only through the specialized skills of a group of laborers with whom they have no contact, their relationship mediated by the pricing and control of John Deere. Dissatisfaction with a consumer experience is not a basis for proletarian solidarity—it’s a product unique to the particular market in which they live. Would mass unionization, the interconnection of the interests of these labor pools (the fact that most farmers are brutal employers of some of the most exploited workers in America notwithstanding) help the situation? The extent of that negotiation would begin and end with restoring a status quo, with no underlying solution to the problem.
Food production is obviously a more pressing concern than feeling grumpy about a busted iPad, but the mechanisms by which control is exerted over consumers are similar. The solution, it will surprise few readers of this magazine to learn, lies in the establishment of a more democratic form of production, giving way to a more democratic form of consumption and maintenance. However, this would shatter the structure that John Deere leverages to rake in cash from farmers, who in turn rake in cash from the pennies-on-the-dollar labor of their farmworkers. But we cannot simply reverse the processes of capitalism by wishing or by asking nicely. Now that it is technologically feasible to extract information and capital while exerting control over consumers, it is impossible to roll these corporate practices back. Would Google or Facebook function at a basal level without the ability to control this information? Would Apple function without a degree of planned obsolescence in its products? Would smart devices like Amazon’s Alexa be a financially solvent product without also serving as data-collecting tools?
Where the original wave that introduced computers into the home took stock of the landscape of household and professional labor and tried to find a way to duplicate these functions, smart devices have inverted this relationship. They have carved out a role for themselves that excuses or distracts from the baggage they bring. Embedding such new forms of data collection that they may tailor their operation more and more closely to what is imagined to be our “personal” taste. The “Internet of Things,” which introduces utterly unnecessary connections between our many mundane devices, folding them into the networks of information which intersect endlessly with daily life. This is the personal, as imagined by the producers of these technologies: quantifying and mapping onto increasingly complex webs our every choice and decision. Our taste in fashion, music, etc., all are tooled upon. This particular conception of personal life could not be possible, however, without the specific forms of commerce that allow and encourage it. We are lower than consumers—we are unconsciously laboring to maintain these networks, paying for the privilege with daily sacrifices of our sense of self.
Michael Malloy is a student teacher, ecological researcher, and socialist from California’s Central Valley. He is pathologically unable to log off.