I’m posting to get some feedback on my initial thoughts in preparation for my chapter in a forthcoming gamification reader. I’d appreciated your thoughts and comments here or @pjrey.

My former prof Patricia Hill Collins taught me to begin inquiry into any new phenomenon with a simple question: Who benefits? And this, I am suggesting, is the approach we must take to the Silicon Valley buzzword du jure: “gamification.” Why does this idea now command so much attention that we feel compelled to write a book on it? Does a typical person really find aspects of his or her life becoming more gamelike? And, who is promoting all this talk of gamification, anyway?

It’s telling that conferences like “For the Win: Serious Gamification” or “The Gamification of Everything – convergence conversation” are taking place in business (and not, say, sociology) departments or being run by CEOs and investment consultants. The Gamification Summit invites attendees to “tap into the latest and hottest business trend.” Searching Forbes turns up far more articles (156) discussing gamification than the New York Times (34) or even Wired (45). All this makes TIME contributor Gary Belsky seems a bit behind the time when he predicts “gamification with soon rule the business world.” In short, gamification is promoted and championed—not by game designers, those interested in game studies, sociologists of labor/play, or even computer-human interaction researchers—but by business folks. And, given that the market for videogames is already worth greater than $25 billion, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that business folk are looking for new growth areas in gaming.

Thus, Ian Bogost appears to be on the mark when he declares that gamification is nothing more than “marketing bullshit,” suggesting “‘exploitationware’ as a more accurate name for gamification’s true purpose.” (Bogost has a way with words that eludes the Marxist thinkers that generally tackle the concept of exploitation.) In one piece, he argues (interestingly, his audience is a business crowd) that gamification is about replacing real incentives for customer loyalty with “counterfeit incentives that neither provide value nor require investment.” That is to say, “points” or whatever other incentive consumers can earn in the game are not translatable into real world benefits. He concludes that this amounts to a sham, because consumers are being offered something that is really nothing.

I generally agree with Bogost’s argument here, but I think his is only a partial critique. Bogost focuses exclusively on how gamification relates to consumption, but I believe gamification has more to do with production. More to the point, I want to argue that gamification is primarily about companies duping people into doing free labor. Before I proceed with contextualizing and supporting this claim, I want to acknowledge upfront that gamification is a means not and ends. As danah boyd (in recent Pew report) observed, gamification is

a modern-day form of manipulation. And like all cognitive manipulation, it can help people and it can hurt people. And we will see both.

In fact, there have been many attempts to put gamification to use in the pursuit of goals other than profit (see, for example, Foldit and Leafsnap). Molleindustria (which achieved recent fame for it’s Phone Story game) has, arguably, gamified politics in a radically subversive way. However, gamification’s supposed profit potential is the overwhelming reason for its hype.

Phone Story


Gamification and the Production of Playbor

Gamification, broadly defined, is the introduction of play elements into other kinds of activity. However, this definitions gets muddied pretty quickly once we acknowledge that there is no consensus as to how we should define play. Rather than getting bogged down in a debate about the nature of play, I will simply borrow from Johan Huizinga‘s Homo Ludens (1938), which is the most widely-cited work on the concept of play, and perhaps, the first to offer a precise, if rather complex, definition of play. For our purposes, the most import aspect of Huizinga’s definition is that it is separate from material gain or profit—in short, (capitalist) production. (I do not claim that this is the “correct” definition of play (perhaps play is a concept that resist definition), just that it is useful in making my argument about gamification.)

I have previously argued that play and labor were, traditionally, defined in a way that makes them mutually exclusive. Marx (focusing here on Capital and not the earlier manuscripts) defined labor as value-producing activity and articulated an equivalence between the two in his labor theory of value, saying “the measure of the expenditure of labour power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour.” Opinions and interpretations of Marx aside, the notion of labor as being value-producing activity is firmly embedded in Western intellectual landscape.

Between Marx and Huizinga, our Modernist heritage is an understanding that labor is activity that creates value and play is activity that never creates value—and never the two shall meet. Of course, there is no reason to uncritically accept this quasi-binary.

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(to watch Julian Kücklich discuss “playbour,” start at 1:03:41)

Critical inquiry into the (illusory) boundary between labor and play leads us directly into the realm of playbor—one of the most significant and yet woefully under-theorized concepts put forth in the past decade. Julian Kücklich was the first academic to publish an article using the term and is certainly among the most cited commentator on the topic of playbor. Kücklich presents videogame “modding” as the paradigmatic example of how play and labor are imploded in a way that generally rewarding to capitalists, who retain property right to all modifications that users make to games and thus the exclusive right to profit off of them (of course, modders accumulate a certain amount of cultural capital in the process).

I find this example of modding relatively unsatisfying because, in this case, it doesn’t seem that we’re using the concept of playbor to talk about anything new. I suppose, modding is playbor in the sense that someone must set up a hoop and inflate a ball before a basketball game can commence. Sure, in this case, play presupposes a certain degree of work, and it is not insignificant that the players also do some of the work necessary to make play happen. But, in these examples, play and labor remain relatively distinct activities that happen to have a degree of mutually dependency. Mutually dependency, however, is a far cry from the indistinguishability that playbor seems to imply. Marx himself recognized that work and play were mutually dependent. Work provides the basic economics resources necessary for play, while play restores that productive energies that are sapped each day in the workplace. If playbor is nothing more than mutual dependency, then it is a deep-rooted and long-recognized part facet of capitalist production. However, I don’t think we’re attracted to the concept of playbor through observations of mutual dependency between work and play. Instead, I want to argue that playbor, in its ideal-typical form, would implode work and play into the very same act.

This brings us back, full circle, to gamification. If gamification is about inserting elements of games or play into other processes, then it would seem that gamification is a process of producing playbor; it is about converting ordinary work into playbor. Of course, gamification cannot be reduced to the production of playbor because it can be applied to processes other than labor—most notably, social interaction. Many institutions, for example, use “icebreakers” to organize and direct socializing by transforming it into a game. Foursquare might be the quintessential example of gamification, because it simultaneously makes both social and interaction and the work of recording data about one’s own movements into a game. Nevertheless, I do not think it unreasonable to say that our infatuation with gamification stems, primarily, from its capacity to produce playbor. Thus, the initial question I posed about who benefits is equally a question about who benefits from playbor.

It is clear that the business “gurus” who are driving the discourse on gamification, are primarily concerned with gamification as a mechanism for the production of new forms of value. At best, social interaction is a secondary concern that matters only insofar as it too facilitates further value creation. As we all well know, the ultimate goal of capitalism and the purpose of any mechanism it employs is the accumulation of wealth. Gamification cannot be understood apart from the mode of capitalist production and all the power relations and inequalities that implies. Like tools, tactics/techniques are never neutral. Thus, we must define gamification here in terms of its de facto function of producing (surplus) value and not just through its formal characteristic of introducing play into other activities. That is to say, we must consider not only what gamification does, but how and why it does.

Turning to these latter questions now, I want to suggest that gamification is effective because it is a mechanism for de-coupling alienation from capitalist production. This is, actually, a rather extraordinary feat. Marx and generations of his intellectual successors viewed the factory as the archetype of capitalist production and, as such, have assumed that people only do such work because their economic conditions make it necessary for survival. It is nearly impossible to imagine a factory that is not alienating (at least, prior to robotics). Marx observed of the factory: “Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague.” Importantly, workers’ have always reacted more strongly capitalism’s alienating character than to its exploitative character—no surprise, considering that the latter is often so well-concealed.

Yet, the contemporary realities of capitalism have shattered the assumption alienation is a necessary accompaniment to capitalist production, and nowhere is this more evident than in playbor. Playbor makes productive activity an end in-itself (namely, fun). Far from being shunned, playbor is sought out and done voluntarily. The object of production is no longer to create value; instead, value becomes a mere byproduct of play. Because playborers are not motivated by the value creation, they are apt to simply ignore it, leaving the capitalist to swoop in and take possession of as much of this surplus value as possible.

How is this bad? Playborer are having fun, so what’s the problem? Here, I must invoke Marx’s observation that “surplus value … for the capitalist, has all the charms of a creation out of nothing.” For the capitalist, the productive aspects of play are just latent value waiting to be “leveraged.” But this leveraging of surplus value is the precise moment that exploitation occurs.


The term “exploitation” is generally employed very loosely. In common parlance, “exploitation” means simply to use or to take advantage of someone. In (post-)Marxian labor analysis, however, exploitation has very specific meaning. Before we dive, momentarily, into the swamp of Marxian technical language, it’s important to make to aspects of exploitation clear upfront: 1.) In a Marxian context, exploitation meant only to describe relationship of exchange, and 2.) exploitation is a structurally necessary part of capitalism; it is the mechanism by which the capitalist comes to accumulate a disproportionately large share of the wealth.

Marx observes that a typical worker’s wages is equivalent to only a fraction of the total value of what the worker produces. As such, only a fraction of the worker’s day is spent producing value for himself or herself. The rest of the day is spent producing “surplus” value that goes directly into the capitalist’s pocket. Exploitation is a ratio between how much of his or her own work returned in the form of wages and how much is kept as “surplus” by the capitalist. This is how we should interpret Marx when he concludes: “The rate of surplus value is… an exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power by capital, or of the labourer by the capitalist.” Thus, as compensation approaches nothing, the rate of exploitation would seem to approach infinity; however such claims are probably a bit hyperbolic.

It’s too simple to say that playborers are uncompensated. The experience of play, of course, has intrinsic value. Moreover, playborers often accumulate some sort of symbolic capital. Pew researchers recently noted that these “rewards” can take a variety of forms, including “virtual… points, payments, badges, discounts, and “free” gifts; and status indicators such as friend counts, retweets, leader boards, achievement data, progress bars, and the ability to ‘level up.’” Symbolic capital accumulated through playbor may translate into monetary or cultural capital. In fact, this has always been true of play. For example, having a “grandmaster” chess ranking (which is calculated using a sophisticated point system) almost guarantees a player a certain degree of fame and material comfort. However, none of this negates the fact that playbor is exploitative. Like the paradigmatic factory workers, playborers only come to possess a small fraction of the value they create. Often, playborers obtain none of the monetary value they have created. And, of course, this is exactly how the playbor’s capitalist promoters want it.

Perhaps an even more insidious aspect of gamification is that it has the potential to expand capitalist production into new contexts. By masking work as play, capitalist production moves exploitation out of the work places and infiltrates our leisure time. Play loses its innocence. It is no longer an escape from the system, it is just another branch of it—a thing to be administered and controlled like everything else. Herbert Marcuse predicted and warned against this appropriation of play a half-century ago. Like Huizinga, Marcuse viewed play as a space apart from our workaday reality, and it that way, it had a certain liberatory—even revolutionary—potential. Marcuse explained “the play impulse does not aim at playing ‘with’ something; rather it is the play of life itself, beyond want and external compulsion—the manifestation of an existence without fear and anxiety, and thus the manifestation of freedom itself.” However, this is precisely because Marcuse subscribed to the Modernist assumption that work and play are distinction by their very nature.

For Marcuse, play is freedom because the system of capitalist production simply writes it off as useless—as something that cannot be put in use toward the ends of profit-making. He explains, “play is unproductive and useless because it cancels the repressive and exploitive traits of labor and [administered] leisure; it “just plays” with reality.” Thus, Marcuse, see capitalism as antagonistic to play. (Many businesses support this assumption by labeling as “time theft” any sort of play on the job.) In order to increase productivity, capitalists will attempt to eliminate play and divert that time and energy elsewhere.

Contrary to Marcuse’s assertions, playbor demonstrates that capitalism is capable of having a more sophisticated approach to play than simply re-directing it (or subjecting it to what Freudian thinkers might call “forced sublimation”). Playbor (and the process of gamification that produce it) demonstrate that capitalism can appropriate play into the process of production.

As I mentioned above, one reason that thinkers from Marx to Macuse argued that play persisted in capitalist economies is because it refreshed workers and restored their capacity to work effectively. In this sense, play was tolerated as necessary waste—time that was necessarily non-productive. The seduction of playbor is that it promises to make use of this necessary waste. It recycles that waste back into the structures of capitalist production. Waste is no longer wasted. Playbor is part of capitalism’s effort to colonize ever last moment in the waking day. (Perhaps, one day, we’ll figure out how to make sleep productive as well… dare I say it… sleepbor[TM]).

The introduction of play into labor only really gets at one aspect of playbor. Gamification still implies a certain sort of displacement: non-productive play activities are to be supplanted by productive play activities. But, there is an alternative means of creating playbor: We can find ways to make traditional, non-productive play activities productive. In contrast to gamification, we might use the term “workification” to describe this introduction of work elements (chiefly, productivity) into play (or other activities). So for example, Words with Friends and the official Scrabble app have turned a traditional game into a new way of collecting valuable data about people. Facebook has workified social interaction in the same way.

Caveats, Equivocations, etc.

Gamification is just another installment in a long history of ideological constructs put forth by capitalists to advance their agenda of further wealth accumulation. The discourse around gamification has overwhelming positive and almost universally uncritical. A few positive achievements (e.g., when Foldit players helped deduce the structure of the an enzyme used by the AIDS virus to reproduce) brought about through gamification have been used to mask the nefarious intent of those who promote gamification most vehemently: namely, to dupe us all into making even more money for them. This piece aims at producing what Judith Butler called “theoretical hyperboles… meant to advance a strategically aggressive counter-reading.” My hope is to change the conversation so that it is no longer acceptable for tech and business commentators to uncritically sing the praises of gamification.

Even for those who promote gamification for purposes other than self-enrichment, it is still important to adopt a critical perspective that looks for exploitation in all exchange relationships. The popularity of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk in recruiting “volunteers” for university research is a perfect example of how exploitation thrives when fields lack critical inquiry.

Finally, the focus of this piece has been on how play is being made productive. Implicit in this essay is the notion that the gamification (and playbor) are phenomena that have gained increased salience because of the Web. While I believe that gamification is one of many important trends that have emerged in light of the Web (else I wouldn’t be writing about it), I think that, thus far, it has received attention that is disproportionate to its significance. Far more important, is the trend of making social interaction productive (call it “weisure” or whatever you like). Productive social interaction is the bread and butter of every social networking site and, I think, is primary mechanism through which the Web is transformed into an engine of exploitation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question lately. I even wrote an essay awhile back for The New Inquiry. But, honestly, none of the answers I come up seem complete. I’m posting this as a means of seeking help developing an explanation and to see if anyone knows of people who are taking on this question.

I think question is important because it relates to our “digital dualist” tendency to view the Web as separate from “real life.”

So far, I see three, potentially compatible, explanations:

1. Capitalism’s infinite need for expansion. Couching digital information in a language of space and territory, makes it easily integrated into the existing systems of property ownership and commodification. Digital information is equated to something we already know how to buy and sell: land. It provides a new target for imperialistic ambitions.

2. Simplification, comprehensibility, and individualism. Our current moment in history is defined by the overwhelming need to define oneself as a unique individual and thus free from social or other constraints that would undermine claims of distinctiveness. Nathan Jurgenson recently labeled this “The Urban Outfitters Contradiction: be unique just like everybody else!”’ In such a world, we tend to over-simplify the environment around us in order to exaggerate our own claims agency.  Spatial metaphors make the Web seem like something we can (and are even destined to) master. The World Wide Web became the new Wild Wild West—the new home for rugged individualism (in the form of hackers and cyberpunks) and a new site of manifest destiny. This is reflected in early cyber-Utopian rhetoric which was all about self-empowerment.

3. Vestigial ideologies. The collective imagination was decades ahead of the empirical reality of the Web. The vocabulary we use—“cyberspace,” “virtual reality,” and “hackers” who get “sucked-in” to the computer—originated in our fantasies of what the Web might one day look like rather than as analytical terms oriented toward actually describing the world we live in. Increasingly, that reality diverges from the fantasies and ideologies that spawned this vocabulary, and we have been slow to adapt and evolve.


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Hipsters have been much discussed on the Cyborgology blog (see: here, here, here, and here). Cyborgology authors have also talked about the fetishization of low-tech/analog media and devices (see: here and here). As David Paul Strohecker pointed out, these two issue interrelated: “hipsters are at the forefront of movements of nostalgic revivalism.” I want to pick up these threads and add a small observation.

Nathan Jurgenson and I were discussing why low-tech devices have a seductive quality. Consider the popularity of, for example, fixed-gear bicycles or vintage cameras (such as the Kodak Brownie or the Polaroid PX-70 [correction: SX-70]). Though I think this phenomenon is probably overdetermined (in the Freudian sense of having multiple sufficient causes), I came up with a theory that seems worth further consideration: namely, that hipsters’ obsession with antique devices reflects a desire to escape the complex and highly-interdependent socio-technical systems that characterize contemporary society and return to time in which technology appeared to be something that humans could master and, thus, use to affirm their individual agency. In short, the fetishization of low-tech is about the illusion of agency; it provides affirmation for the hipster whose identity is defined by the post-Modern imperative to be an individual, to be unique.

Žižek is often cited as the philosopher of the hipster or the hipster philosopher, but, here, I argue that Simmel and Deleuze were the true Oracles of Hipsterdom. Simmel observed that the individual was a Modern phenomenon–that the desire to “be different” is historically contingent. Delueze identified this desire to be unique as something rather insidious, when he described that the mechanisms of social control are being decentralized away from institutions such as prisons, schools, and hospitals and are now situated within the mass population itself. We, each and all of us, are now the primary mechanisms of social control. We are built to desire what society needs from us and to demand the same from others. Delueze observes with transparent contempt that “young people strangely boast of being ‘motivated;'” they require no institutional coercion.

This shift in the nature of social control is of monumental importance (as Virno, Negri, and others have described) because top-down institutions promote conformity and homogeneity (at least, within various social classes), which is appropriate for assembly line workers or retail clerks; however, in a new economic paradigm defined by the activity of software engineers, graphic designers, and the like, conformity is anathema to the goal of mass innovation. That is to say, institutional control is counter-productive to a (post-Fordist) economy of ideas and innovation and, thus, must be replaced with a new system of self-regulation reinforced by mass surveillance. As institutions weaken, individuality and uniqueness are no longer stifled but, instead, are promoted as the chief values of hipster culture. Innovation is the result of constant surveillance of and comparison to other individuals.

So, hipsters are the product of a moment in history where the socio-economic system benefits from and has discovered effective methods to enforce the moral imperative to “be unique.” The hipster aesthetic reflects an ideology of hyper-individualism, though this individualism is itself paradoxical because it is socially mandated.

How does this relate to technology then? As, I have argued in the past, citing Anthony Giddens’ “bargain of modernity,” the complexity of modern technology and the expert system required to produce and operate it threaten our sense of individual agency by continually reinforcing our dependency on others (this experience of being just another component of a technologic system and not the master of a tool or device is similarly captured in Jacques Ellul’s notion on”technological autonomy” and actor-network theory as derived from Bruno Latour). The structural reality of Modernity’s complex socio-technicals systems is at odds with the individualistic ideology uniqueness.

Thus, nostalgia for the low-tech/lo-fi/analog is really nostalgia for a time when technology could be mastered–a time when you could fix your own car or bike, a time when you pop open the back of a camera and intuitively understand how it works, a time when you knew where your food came from and how it was prepared, a time when the circuits in electronic were large enough to be visible and an average person could figure out how to repair, replace, hack, and even build them, a time when a device was yours to open and when warranties end-user agreement didn’t micro-manage how used your own property. In short, the appeal of low-tech is it affirms our sense of independence and individuality.

Low-tech is also about a form of authenticity. As technology has grown more complex, manufacturers have tended to mask it with layers of design. William Gibson noted in “The Gernsback Continuum,” that

The Thirties had seen the first generation of American industrial designers; until the Thirties, all pencil sharpeners had looked like pencil sharpeners your basic Victorian mechanism, perhaps with a curlicue of decorative trim. After the advent of the designers, some pencil sharpeners looked as though they’d been put together in wind tunnels. For the most part, the change was only skin-deep; under the streamlined chrome shell, you’d find the same Victorian mechanism.

Perhaps the quintessential example is the marketing of the iPod/iPhone/iPad which asks you to forget altogether the technical specifications of the product and instead immerse yourself fully in the magic of the design. As Nathan noted in our conversation, this is analogous to Marx’s concept of fetishization, where the set of human and technological relations required to produce a thing are concealed and the thing becomes defined only by its superficial characteristics. The hipster low-tech movement seeks to dispel this illusion, by returning to things that can be easily understood and laid bare.

The hipster low-tech fantasy–“the dream of the 1890s“–is one of escape from the complex socio-technical systems that we are highly dependent on but have little control over. It is a fantasy of achieving the most radical expression of individual agency: the opt-out.

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Clarification: I don’t think we are driven, directly, by a desire to master technology so much as the desire to individuate and to be unique. We desire technological simplicity, whether real or illusory (as in the case of Apple), because we feel like we have greater control and agency with respect to simple technology than we do with respect to complex, highly-interdependent technical systems, so that simple technologies better serve this kind of identity work.

Just as I arrived in Pittsburgh this morning, the city was virtually shut down by a hostage crisis. A man claiming to have a gun and explosives entered a law office with weapons and held a lawyer hostage for several hours. Eventually, the hostage-taker (named Klein Michael Thaxton) surrendered and no one was physically harmed.

This sort of story might not have been of much interest (beyond serving as a local news spectacle) except for one small detail: The perpetrator was using Facebook to provide live updates about the situation.

At first the police allowed this continue hoping to gain valuable information about the nature of the situation, but, eventually, they leaned on Facebook to have his account blocked. These decisions about how to handle the perpetrator’s online communications became as important as any decisions about how the police should act offline (e.g., should they raid the building or send in a negotiator?) because the police knew instinctively what social media researcher so often have to argue: Our online interactions have real, and often direct, offline consequences.

While it is interesting that the hostage-taker was acting as his own journalist, documenting the event for the world, media analyses have glossed over a more important issue: The fact that this communication was two-way. This event is one of the first instances where a hostage-taker’s lines of communication to the outside world weren’t exclusively channeled through the police. Traditional negotiations have relied, in part, on the fact that the perpetor is dependent on police to be in touch with the outside world. This gives police leverage in the form of something to offer/deny the perpetor. Mobile access to social media short circuits this relationship, leaving the police with far less control over the situation. Following the standard logic of traditional bureaucratic organization, the police shutoff communication and re-instituted a definitive hierarchical order, noting it is positve “that people are concerned about his well-being [but that] it is a distraction for negotiating.”

Was this really a smart move? The question strikes at the heart ofa major debate surrounding social media: whether social media is a legitimate and effective source of social support. Most social science research from the last decade (Sherry Turkle notwithstanding) argues that it does, and that this social support tends to flow back and forth between online and offline interactions. This case seems to provide even further evidence.

What’s fascinating is that the perpetrator’s friends immediately rushed to his Facebook page, urging him to cooperate with police and offering support. It is quite plausible that such messages factored into his decision to surrender and made the situation feel less hopeless.

Of course, we can’t yet know for sure what he was thinking. More details will surely emerge. But regardless of how social media actually influenced this particular situation, the tradeoff between diminished control and increased social support will likely be important for how police and governments think about social media in the future.

I’ve recently been auditing a course with Jason Farman on “Space, Place, and Identity in the Digital Age” and he assigned a piece that was so profoundly relevant to this blog that I had to post about it immediately.

Lev Manovich’s 2006 article “The poetics of augmented space” published in Visual Communication (which he had apparently been working on since 2002 [edit: the article was actually first published in 2002]) is the earliest that I am aware of anyone using the term “augmented reality” in the broader sociological context of social interaction that flows between digital and physical (as opposed to the more limited computer science definition that describes it as merely the overlaying of digital information on the physical environment).

Manovich used the concept in much the same way we have developed it here on the blog. Arguably, augmented reality has been the defining topic of conversation. Here are a few sample posts:

The Hole in Our Thinking about Augmented Reality” by Whitney Erin Boesel (this has the best summary of the discussion)

Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality” by Nathan Jurgenson (this is the most cited and most important because it coined “digital dualism” as the opposite of augmented reality)

Virtual, Mediated, and Augmented Reality” by PJ Rey

Breaking Bread, Breaking Digital Dualism” by Zeynep Tufekci (on her own blog)

Towards theorizing an augmented reality” by Nathan Jugenson (written prior to the start of Cyborgology)

Defending and Clarifying the Term Augmented Reality” by Nathan Jugenson

Cyborgs and the Augmented Reality they Inhabit” by PJ Rey

Augmented Reality: Cyborgology” by Bruce Sterling (for Wired)

Facebook – Homepage for a Cyborg Planet” by Nathan Jurgenson & PJ Rey (the Cyborgology Blog’s kickoff post)

As far as I can tell, none of us were aware of Manovich’s article. So, I’ll summarize his main theoretical points. He’s engaging in a phenomenology of augmented reality and, thus, exploring how we experience it.  Seeing the implosion of physical and digital, Manovich asks:

do we end up with a new experience in which the spatial and information layers are equally important? In this case, do these layers add up to a single phenomenological gestalt or are they processed as separate layers?

Basically, do we experience the social world as singular or as a duality? Manovich makes an important observation–one that we may have been too quick to gloss over in our previous work: Augmentation always occurs in space, and space isn’t uniform. We experience augmentation differently under different circumstances: “we may add new information to our experience – or we may add an altogether different experience.” (I think he is missing something here, but more on that later).

For this reason, Manovich focuses less on “augmented reality” and more on “augmented space,” which he describes as

overlaying the physical space with the dynamic data. I will use the term ‘augmented space’ to refer to this new kind of physical space. As I have already mentioned, this overlaying is often made possible by the tracking and monitoring of users. In other words, the delivery of information to users in space and the extraction of information about those users are closely connected. Thus, augmented space is also monitored space.

Like Foucault, Manovich sees space as inseparable from power, thus he sees augmentation as inseparable from power. Going on and off of the “grid” of augmented space means moving in and out of zones of surveillance and control.

This is where I find Manovich’s framework to be flawed: Manovich sees augmented reality as something external to us–as something we just sort of stumble into. For Manovich, the subject is prior to augmented reality. In Haraway’s language, Manovich sees us as goddesses, not cyborgs. We are not of augmented reality, it is just a space we enter. This is all wrong. My Facebook profile doesn’t disappear when I go off the grid. It waits patiently for my return. The way I conceive of and interact with the world is shaped by the existence of Facebook and the entire environment of digital documentation and digitally-mediated communication, regardless of whether I am on the grid at a given moment. As Pierre Bordieu might say, I have developed a pattern of habits, behaviors, and beliefs (a habitus) that are appropriate to augmented reality. Whether or not my environment is inconsistent, my cyborg subjectivity stays intact throughout.

Manovich is too wedded Foucault, who saw disciplinary power confined to institutions–to the “carceral archipelago” and it’s “theaters of punishment.” Yet, we know that even when we leave school, work, or prison, these institutions leave an indelible mark upon us (why else would we need re-integration programs for prisoners?). We internalize these institutions–the contours of their spaces–and carry them with us. As Nathan Jurgenson put it, we come to view the world through “the Facebook eye.”

Moreover, the Panopticon is no longer the proper metaphor for surveillance. One does not simply escape augmented reality by going off the grid, because everyone else we meet will still be carrying the Facebook eye with them. Our interactions will always be viewed as potential future posts for Facebook no matter the space. Being out of cell range does not make us forget social media exists nor does it make us forget our previous interactions with it. Surveillance is not top-down; it is between the many. Even when we are outside the space that an institution occupies, we are still surrounded by the subjects it creates.

As I have said previously, “you can log off but you can’t opt out.”

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The New York Times recently published a piece titled “At Times, Obama and His Cyberself Differ on Tactics” that opens with the passage:

For a moment on Friday, the cyber-Barack Obama was perfectly at odds with the flesh-and-blood version… Speaking to 1,400 supporters at a high school… President Obama voiced his familiar lament that “there is so much negativity and so much cynicism” in politics that he could understand if voters tuned out the election. Minutes earlier on Twitter, he had written, “Why Mitt Romney’s end date at his buyout firm matters,” linking to a blog post about the tempest over his Republican challenger’s departure from Bain Capital.

The article doesn’t really offer any deeper analysis of the topic raised in its headline, but the notion of this sort of technologically-mediated, or even, post-human, presidency is so provocative that it’s worth additional reflection. I can’t begin such a reflection, however, without first critiquing some of the vocabulary used in the article. The article contrasts “cyber-Barack Obama” (or Barack Obama’s “cyberself”) with “the flesh-and-blood version.” This problematically implies that there are two Barack Obamas: the real Obama and the Obama out there in cyberspace (cue creepy space music). Of course, once we even state such a claim, it becomes immediately apparent that it has zero face validity. Arguing that the Barack Obama who signs the messages he personally posts to Twitter with the initials “bo” is different than the Barack Obama out there giving the speeches makes about as much sense as arguing that when I call my mom on telephone, I’m talking to a different person than when I drive over for a visit.

In fact, this whole digital dualist discussion of cyber-Obama actually obscures the much bigger distinction that this example highlights: Obama the person versus Obama the brand. Contrary to what this article suggests, the distinction between the person of the president and the presidential brand is not a novelty of the Internet (though it may be manifesting in new ways). Since our nation’s founding, the presidency has embodied more than just the convictions and creative capacities of a single individual. Surely, even Washington endorsed words and images that were not wholly of his design. Certainly by the time Washington made his 1796 farewell address (in which he famously warned against the negative influence of political parties on democracy), the prospect of a party-administered campaign was already on the horizon. The contemporary party apparatus has grown so enormous that it is impossible for a candidate to even meet all his/her surrogates (e.g., all the staffers and interns who customize region mailings, the phone bank operators, the door-to-door solicitors, etc.)

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Political parties are significant in that they extend and amplify the message of the candidate. In the case of a presidential system (where individual persons are on the ballot, and not the parties themselves [as with parliamentary systems]), the president is supposed to represent, and even embody, the goals and aspirations of the party. In this way, collective interests are manifest in an individual. However, the merging of the collective and the individual is not unidirectional. The goals of the party are not merely manifest in the president, but the president also cedes a degree of autonomy, allowing the party to speak on his (or, hopefully, one day soon, her) behalf. In short, the image of the president is mediated through the party apparatus.

Mediation—through the party, which acts both as organizational technology and medium of communication—transforms the president from an individual office-seeker into a brand. The purpose of branding is to turn the president’s performance of self into something that can be mass-marketed. But, as the layers of mediation increase, the individual official is subsumed into the brand. That is to say that the president cedes control over his individual identity to the collective.

The presidential brand is an example of what Guy Debord called “spectacle,” where what “was once directly lived has moved into a representation.” Representations of the president are far easier to circulate as a sort of cultural commodity than the president’s own personal performances of self. In order to “sell” the president, a campaign (and its supporters) must first create images of him that are highly fluid—even viral (consider the circulation of Shepard Fairy’s iconic “hope” imagery, which was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery).

Obama’s mediation through these new technologies does not somehow create a cyber-Obama distinct from the “real” Obama. There is only one Obama—one mediated by a whole host of technologies. Again, the existence of this sort of mediated presidency is not new. Before Obama was born, Roosevelt was defined through the performance of his fireside chats on radio, while televised debates made Kennedy. Both were carefully scripted representations.

This anecdote about the @BarackObama Twitter account (“run by #Obama2012 campaign staff… Tweets from the president signed -bo”) saying things that seem to contrast what Obama is saying simultaneously in his speeches is interesting, not because it demonstrates the existence of a virtual president, but because it highlights just how heavily-mediated our image of the president is. It makes us aware that the president we know is more a brand than a person. Moreover, the jarring aspect of the anecdote is not that it calls into question whether the Obama who communicates with using the Internet is less real than the Obama who uses analog communication (e.g., pamphlets, print ads, phone messages, etc.) but that it challenges the authenticity of the Obama brand, which appears contrived when inconsistencies emerge—precisely why “flip-flopper” has become the most powerful invective in contemporary politics.

I’m always on the lookout for work that might be useful in a sociology of technology course. I was re-reading Nick Dyer-Witheford’s (1999) Cyber-Marx and realized that the ‘Marxisms” chapter [.pdf] provides a pretty useful outline of Marxian interpretations of technology that could provide that backbone for a pretty good lesson plan.

Dyer-Witheford (p. 38) opens with the acknowledgement that:

Marx was, like all of us, a multiple. He wrote variously about technology, making statements that cannot all be reconciled one with another—or, at least, that can be reconciled in very different, sometimes radically opposed, ways.

Marx’s varied positions on technology are revealed in some oft-cited passages (skip these if you have limited reading time):

The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist. – Marx, Poverty of Philosophy

The machine, which is the starting-point of the industrial revolution, supersedes the workman, who handles a single tool, by a mechanism operating with a number of similar tools, and set in motion by a single motive power, whatever the form of that power may be. – Marx, Capital, vol.1

The implements of labour, in the form of machinery, necessitate the substitution of natural forces for human force, and the conscious application of science, instead of rule of thumb. In Manufacture, the organisation of the social labour-process is purely subjective; it is a combination of detail labourers; in its machinery system, modern industry has a productive organism that is purely objective, in which the labourer becomes a mere appendage to an already existing material condition of production. – Marx, Capital, vol.1

The technical basis of that industry is therefore revolutionary… By means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods, [modern industry] is continually causing changes not only in the technical basis of production, but also in the functions of the labourer, and in the social combinations of the labour-process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionises the division of labour within the society, and incessantly launches masses of capital and of workpeople from one branch of production to another… dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer… it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from [the worker’s] hands his means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous… this antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital… This is the negative side… modern industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes… Modern industry, indeed, compels society… to replace the detail-worker of to-day, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers. – Marx, Capital, vol.1

In no way does the machine appear as the individual worker’s means of labour. Its distinguishing characteristic is not in the least, as with the means of labour, to transmit the worker’s activity to the object; this activity, rather, is posited in such a way that it merely transmits the machine’s work, the machine’s action, on to the raw material — supervises it and guards against interruptions. Not as with the instrument, which the worker animates and makes into his organ with his skill and strength, and whose handling therefore depends on his virtuosity. Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it… The worker’s activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite. The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not exist in the worker’s consciousness, but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power, as the power of the machine itself… Labour appears… merely as a conscious organ, scattered among the individual living workers at numerous points of the mechanical system; subsumed under the total process of the machinery itself, as itself only a link of the system, whose unity exists not in the living workers, but rather in the living (active) machinery, which confronts his individual, insignificant doings as a mighty organism. – Marx, Grundrisse

Dyer-Witheford (p. 38) divides Marxian interpretations of technology into three camps:

scientific socialism, which sees techno-science as a central agent in a dialectical drama culminating in the inevitable defeat of capital; neo-Luddism, which focuses on technology as instrument of capitalist domination; and post-Fordist perspectives, which often look to the possibility of a technologically mediated reconciliation between labor and capital.

I’ll briefly summarize these three categories and try to connect them to pop culture examples that might make these ideas more tangible for students.

Scientific Socialism—Scientific socialism is exemplified in Ernest Mandel’s work which argued that socialism is the inevitable outcome of mechanization and automation. He starts with Marx’s premises central premise that only labor creates value and that capitalist’s profit comes from the “surplus value” (i.e., the non-renumerated portion) of their workers’ labor. The implicit assumption here is that “constant capital” (i.e., machines) cannot create value; rather, they are, themselves, just objectified labor. The argument is that, because “variable capital” (i.e., workers) are the only source of surplus value, as they are eliminated due to automation, industries will lose their source of profit and their capitalist organization will, necessarily, collapse.

Of course, other articulations of scientific socialism are possibly, but any theory of this type is, by definition, teleological and rather deterministic—two qualities which find diminishing acceptance in intellectual circles these days.

In many ways, Star Trek’s vision of a future society free of materialism our even money exemplifies this vision of scientific rationality putting capitalism to rest. Inhabitants of this world can simply “replicate” whatever they need whenever they need it. Technology has made the material world almost as fluid and copy-able as information.

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A lot has changed in the past 300 year. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy… Material needs no longer exist… The challenge… is to improve yourself, enrich yourself… – Captain Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation s. 1, e. 27, “The Neutral Zone.”

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The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.- Captain Picard, Star Trek: First Contact

Neo-Luddism—Dyer-Witheford primarily associates neo-Luddism with the Frankfurt school and their successors. Importantly, these commentators make a significant turn away from the priority given to material production in conventional Marxism and focus increasingly on the production and consumption of culture. Theodor Adorno (1966/1990), who is generally acknowledged to be the chief intellectual figure in this movement, presented scientific rationality is an unavoidable historical force to which there is little opportunity for resistance (save, perhaps, in the “natural beauty” invoked by only the most exceptional works of art—and even this effect was fleeting).

Later figures like Dallas Smythe, did much to reinstate the agent and elaborate on new possibilities for resistance, but, ultimately, one is left to infer from the neo-Luddite position that society would probably have been better off if Modernity had never come to fruition. If there is hope, it is now through further technological “progress” but through dismantling the techno-scientific mechanism of domination.

Like scientific socialism, neo-Luddism is characterized by technological determinism and an  overriding teleology.

Domination occurs in the production and the consumption of both material commodities and less tangible cultural products.

Fritz Lang 1927 classic Metropolis portrays the miserable repetitiveness of the factory workers’ tasks. Frustration with the capitalist system in which the only choice is between toil and starvation manifests a hatred for means of production themselves. Workers feel like they are slave to the machine which are hazardous and often destroys workers’ bodies over time.

In the clip, a machine overheats killing many workers. The protagonist witnesses the event an hallucinates that the machine is a monstrous figure. This vision alludes to Moloch, an ancient God whose worship require child sacrifice. We can interpret this scene as illustrating the idea that workers are fed body and soul to the machinery of capitalism.

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Metropolis is actually more optimistic than the works cited above in that the workers eventually undertake a successful rebellion.

More recently, Office Space (1999) tackles the mundane oppression that characterizes the office environment. In the movie’s most famous scene, the worker’s frustration is projected into some sort of fax machine that they steal in order to have the pleasure of destroying.

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Finally, American Beauty (also released in 1999) featured that iconic image of the protaganist (a white collar worker at an advertising agency) imprisoned by his computer screen.

Post-Fordism—Post-Fordism views capitalism as a nimble entity that continually reinvents itself to overcome the internal contradictions that develop within it. In recent history, the labor-intensive production techniques of the Fordist assembly line are being replaced with automation guided by complex information systems. Human labor is less and less directed at material objects and is, instead, directed toward the computerized systems that interface with material objects. With repetitive tasks handled by machines, the need for alienated labor disappears. In this paradigm, creativity and individuation are encouraged and beneficial to the capitalist goal of maximum wealth accumulation.

Dyer-Witheford wrote Cyber-Marx in 1999 (the year before Hardt and Negri’s post-Fordist classic Empire was published). In many ways, he anticipates the explosion of writing in this genre that would take place in the coming decade. In fact, he devotes an entire chapter to the Italian Autonomist movement—a reaction to post-Fordism that has now become the most prominent and most active insurgence of anti-capitalist discourse in the West.

The Truman Show is a good example of how to start thinking about post-Fordism. Though Truman is employed, it’s the banal aspects of his life that have come to prove most productive. In fact, the entirety of his life has been turned into a “spectacle” (i.e., a commodified performance [according to Paulo Virno’s definition]). In many ways, all of our lives have become like Truman’s, though there is no escape hatch and we can see the cameras.

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Labor and non-labor develop an identical form of productivity, based on the exercise of generic human faculties: language, memory, sociability, ethical and aesthetic inclinations, the capacity for abstraction and learning. From the point of view of “what” is done and “how” it is done, there is no substantial difference between employment and unemployment. It could be said that: unemployment is non-remunerated labor and labor, in turn, is remunerated unemployment. -Virno (Grammar of the Multitude, p. 103)

I’m deep into my second comprehensive exam, so I’m going to self-servingly post some notes on various things I’m reading. (Feedback is most welcome.) Though Paulo Virno only mentions the Web once in In Grammar of the Multitude (p. 43), the four lectures that comprise the book are of deep relevance to the political economy of social media, particularly in situating them in the broader historical trend toward post-Fordist production.

Let’s start by unpacking that phrase “post-Fordism.” Fordism refers to Henry Ford’s innovations in assembly line production in his automotive plants. The assembly line had profound social consequences in that it made the tasks of each worker so repetitive and simplified that anyone could do them. That is to say, the assembly line created a de-skilled workforce. Fordism is also generally linked to Taylorism, which refers to Fredrick Taylor’s attempts to introduce scientific rationality in the workplace through time-and-motion studies and pay-for-performance.

In the most basic sense, we can talk about post-Fordism as the de-rationalization of production. Mechanization and automation (we should also add in outsourcing) reduce the need for workers to play a direct role in material production. Instead, the workforce (of the developed world) is increasingly engaged in designing, operating, and maintaining the machines (or other humans) that produce material commodities. In the paradigm of mass automation, productivity is dependent not on maximizing labor time and improving its efficiency but on freeing individuals to contribute to what Marx (1857-61/1939-41) once called “the general intellect” (i.e., the common stock of communicative and intellectual resources that can be used to serve further innovation). That is to say, the general intellect is the means of production of the means of production (Virno, p. 61).

The transition away from physical labor also involves an expansion of productivity beyond the rationalized confines of the workplace. Virno argues that while production was once exclusively the domain of labor (as Marx described), the mere fact of our existence now involves participation in the social mechanisms of productions. That is to say, with our every actions, we now are constantly creating value for capitalist enterprises (even if we are completely unaware of it). Virno concludes (p. 103) that it no longer even makes sense to talk about labor time and non-labor time:

The old distinction between “labor” and “non-labor” ends up in the distinction between remunerated life and non-remunerated life.

Here’s where Virno becomes useful in analyzing social media.  When Virno is talking about the entirety of our lives being made productive, he focuses on our contributions to language and our existence as vectors of communication. Acknowledging that most people lack the expertise to directly contribute to the kinds of scientific knowledge that improves automated production, Virno focuses on the bare fact of speech—the capacity for language ( “parole” in French)—noting that, at minimum, language makes us each channels of communication. In contemporary Web parlance, we might say that each individual is hub for the transmission and proliferation of memes (many of which, of course, may have little bearing on the material production that preoccupies most of those coming out of the Marxian tradition, like Virno).

Clearly, those seeking to exploit the Web are intensely focused on this idea of turning individuals (“nodes” if your so inclined) in vast communication networks. Viral marketing epitomizes this cynical reduction of humans mere vectors of communication—all the better if the person remains unaware that they are serving this function: less resistance. For example, several years ago Ray-Ban produced a bunch of  amateur-looking YouTube videos of people doing tricks with Ray-Ban sunglasses. The branding in the videos was subtle and it was not obvious that they were intended to be a commercial. The videos were widely shared, each racking up around 5 million views. In this case, Ray-Ban was clearly using individuals to spread a message (i.e., Ray-Bans are cool. Buy them.), but many of these individuals were probably completely unaware of the message they were spreading or the value they were producing for the Ray-Ban brand.

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Most information exchanged on social media, however, isn’t as cynical or centrally-planned. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. allow us to act as producers, consumers, and conduits all simultaneously. Sometimes observations or ideas from unlikely sources go viral because they have a certain utility or resonance in the current historical moment. The constellation of open-source, open-government, open-publishing, etc. movements are all based on a generalized faith in the capacity of communication’s ability to improve efficiency, accountability, quality, etc. The fundamental premise of these movements, and of post-Fordism, more broadly, is that when circuits are open important ideas/observations rise to the top (and, thus, sometimes improve productivity).

Breaking with Marx’s teleological and deterministic worldview, Virno argues that the post-Fordist moment is characterized by ambivalence, meaning that, while the communicative and intellectual capacities of the masses (i.e., the so-called “multitude”) are currently subject widespread exploitation by capitalist enterprise, it is legitimate to entertain other ways in which these capacities might be directed.

Virno seeks a foundation for an alternative to post-Fordist capitalism, but this is complicated by the fact that the old foundations for resistance to capitalism have eroded. The de-individuation (i.e., all worker were equally de-skilled and non-specialized) that formed the heart of Fordist labor organization also provided the fundamental basis of working-class solidarity. Post-Fordism, on the other hand, emphasizes individual creativity and uniqueness, so that production no longer offers the same universality of experience. Given this loss of solidarity, society is becoming increasingly classless (though no less unequal). Yet, Virno argues that the situation is not hopeless because there is a new sort of post-Modern solidarity to be found in the universality of our socialization—a universal socialization that, ironically, celebrates difference and individuation.

I think Virno (and his supporters) are right to situate the Web in the broader context of post-Fordism; however, I have three related critiques of Virno’s analysis: 1.) Virno retains what Ritzer and others have called “a productivist bias.” There is very little to discussion of how consumption factors into post-Fordism and whatever indirect references exist are to the Frankfurt School, which (as Virno rightly notes) does not seem to capture or anticipate our present reality. In any case, Virno (p. 59) is ultimately using the theories of Frankfurt School to analyze various modes of cultural production and not consumption. What Virno misses is that, in the current paradigm, consumption has been reintegrated into production. Treating the two separately no longer makes sense (and, perhaps, never did). This is made clear when examining social media. It is very difficult to delineate where production ends and consumption begins. Both are really part of the same (prosumption) process. 2.) The priority given to economic relations in Marx’s dialectical materialism still seems to persist in Virno’s ostensibly post-Marxian framework. In fact, Virno defines contemporary social life almost exclusively in economic terms. And while he does argue that economics and politics implode in the post-Fordist era, his concept of politics is more philosophical than sociological. He is concerned with the abstract form of politics (as imagined by the Ancient Greeks) and not so much with culturally and historically specific struggles (save for his one pet case, Italy’s failed revolution of 1977). This critique should not be overstated. Virno certainly has made the Gramscian turn in some ways. He argues that the multitude take a variety of (better or worse) configurations under the same economic conditions, but his high level of abstraction in examining economic relations tends to give the impression that post-Fordism will unfold uniformly across national and demographic boundaries. However, these boundaries remain very real and different groups and state apparatuses will react to post-Fordism differently. 3.) Virno’s tendency to focus on abstract categories—overlooking national and cultural divisions—leads to what is, perhaps, an overly optimistic view of the multitude. Particularly, his claim that there is solidarity in the uniform socialization experienced by the multitude seems to utterly ignore persisting divisions on the basis of gender, race, age, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, etc. Virno wants the basis for universal epistemology, but it seems to me that only a white male philosopher could be in such a position of privilege to imagine socialization being all that uniform across these categories. In the day-to-day lives of individuals, economic relations just do not have the salience Virno affords them.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project released a survey collecting expert opinions on one a hot new(-ish) concept amongst the Silicon Valley digerati: gamification. The survey offers some interesting insights and features commentary from folks like danah boyd, Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, and Amber Case; it also cites me a bit talking playbor (play + labor) and weisure (work + leisure).

The survey shows that tech commentators are split on whether gamification is destined to become an ubiquitous feature of the Web (53% agree, 42% disagree). The subtext of these sorts of conversations—given that tech commentators overwhelmingly have backgrounds in business—is: How can we use gamification to make a killing. We shouldn’t be to suprised about all the excitement from those invested in the tech industry. After all, gamification is all about getting people to view labor (i.e., the production if value) as play. And, if workers don’t view work as work, they may just do it for free.

One notable shortcoming in the Pew report is that it doesn’t ever make mention of exploitation. It has section on “manipulation” that cites, for example, danah boyd saying that gamification is

a modern-day form of manipulation. And like all cognitive manipulation, it can help people and it can hurt people. And we will see both.

Boyd’s ambivalence about manipulation is pretty interesting, since manipulation seems to be such an affront to our democratic values; but, then, if MySpace taught us anything, it’s that we don’t always know what’s best for us (and other people) when it comes to creating stuff and interacting on the Web.

Exploitation, however, cannot be reduced to manipulation. Sure, companies have a long history of manipulating us through advertising into buying things we don’t need through—and “advertgaming” (or whatever we might call games built to push products [e.g., the recent Perfect Strangers flash game phenomenon]) certainly takes manipulation of consumers to new levels—but exploitation is about more than manipulation. In fact, exploitation doesn’t even require manipulation. Marx saw it as a product of raw economic coercion: Work for unfair wages or starve!

Exploitation is about people creating values through their activity and someone else coming along and seizing that value without offering fair compensation. Exploitation is a form of theft. This theft is legal and justified by the logic of capitalism when one person or group own the means of production that others are using. So, a gamified platform like, say, Foursquare, exploits it’s users because it cashes in on the value of the data created using the app without returning that value to the users who produced that data. This process doesn’t require any manipulation or trickery, it’s just an accepted practice in capitalist societies.

By making work fun, companies may be tricking users, though users may also be fully aware of the companies’ motives: Knowing that Foursquare sells my data doesn’t necessarily make it less fun. The deeper critique is exploitation. I guess I’m not surprised that Pew—or, more precisely, the experts it polled—ignored this critique. A critique of the exploitation that gamification facilitates also implies a critique of capitalism itself. And, as we have seen with Chris Anderson’s unwillingness to release (read: censorship of) venture capitalist Nick Hanauer’s TED Talk on income inequality, Silicon Valley’s tech gurus are too busy cashing in on technology to be critical of it.

Tomorrow’s initial public offering of Facebook stock has both business and tech commentators chattering away (though, in most mainstream publications, there isn’t meaningful distinction between the two). Technology coverage is too often reduced to the business of technology. Consider the top four tech headlines on the New York Times site today: “Long Odds on a Big Facebook Payday,” “Ahead of Facebook I.P.O., a Skeptical Madison Ave.,” “Spotify Deal Would Value Company at $4 Billion, “Pinterest Raises $100 Million.”

Buried in the all the personal investing advice, some interesting quesitons are being raised. For example: How can a company with few employees and so little material infrastructure generate so much value? What is it that Facebook actually produces? Is an economy based in immaterial products and services sustainable (especially given that it’s profitability is largely dependent on it’s ability to drive additional consumption in other sectors through advertising)?

But there are also a lot of questions that aren’t being asked—the kinds of culturally significant questions that business folks and economists aren’t (though perhaps should be) interested in. Here, I want ask one such question: Will Facebook’s transition to a public corporation change the way users perceive their participation on the site? While I can only speculate about how this institutional change will effect users, I want offer a few reasons I think Facebook’s IPO may cause users to see themselves in more of an explicit work-like relationship with Facebook (based on rationalistic principles of minimizing cost and maximizing gain) and less a part of some sort of non-rationalized gift economy (based on principles of sharing and reciprocity). I should be clear, here, that I am talking about users’ relationship to the platform, not their relationships with each other. Users are, of course, primarily motivated to use the platform because of their relationships with other users; however, as recent privacy debates have illustrated, a user’s perceptions of Facebook are important in determining how users use the platform and whether they use it at all.

As Facebook evolves into a public corporation, the role users play in producing value may become more apparent and more controversial for several reasons:

Facebook’s mystique of benevolence will be harder to maintain – Facebook has actively resisted  the perception that it is just another company out to make a buck. In a letter included in Facebook’s IPO registration statement, Mark Zuckerberg said:

I started off by writing the first version of Facebook myself because it was something I wanted to exist… Simply put: we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.

And we think this is a good way to build something. These days I think more and more people want to use services from companies that believe in something beyond simply maximizing profits.

What Zuckerberg doesn’t say here is that Facebook is just any old company. It has a unique relationship with the users who entrust the Facebook to manage enormous amounts of personal data, knowing that mistakes can have profound social consequences. That unique relationship puts Facebook under more scrutiny by it’s users than, say, a company like Walmart receives from its customers. So, threats to it’s mystique of being something more than just-another-company are particularly problematic. As a public entity, Facebook with be subject to pressure by shareholders to make changes for the sake of producing revenue that are contrary to the interests of users.

The financial curtain will be rolled back – As a publicly-traded company, Facebook will be required to make extensive public reports on the state of its finances that have, in the past, remained internal to the company. This will, no doubt, lead to an intensification of media coverage on how Facebook is deriving value from its users.

The need to justify market valuation – While Facebook’s stock price, like all stock prices, is largely speculative, Zuckerberg and other executives will be under constant pressure to produce new revenue streams (e.g., charging users to ensure that their posts are highly visible). We all better get used to hearing daily updates on fluctuations in Facebook’s stock price. This will have the effect of priming us to think about the financial aspects of our Facebook usage.

So, what are the consequences if users start to view themselves as doing work for Facebook?

Pretty quickly, users should realize that they are being exploited (see: here and here)—i.e., they are creating lots money for Facebook, but that they aren’t seeing a cent of it. Of course, users do get lots of social value from Facebook, but greater attention to the economic dimension highlights Facebook’s dependency on users (let me be esoteric for a second and say this is the same sort of relationship Hegel was talking about in his master-slave dialectic). In a sense, by subjecting its finances to the disclosure regulations and revenue expectations of Wall Street, Facebook may be empowering users to leverage this relationship of dependency in debates over privacy policy and platform features.

PJ Rey (@pjrey) is a sociologist at the University of Maryland working to describe how social media and other technology reflect and change our culture and the economy.