The World Computer

Jonathan Beller's new book, The World Computer, is on the intimate relation between information and power. Characterized by the author as “political in intention, speculative in execution, and concrete in its engagement” (70), the book touches on computers, photography, film, and finance, all the while attending to the specific details of racialization and proletarianization. Beller's book is part of a growing wave of new titles devoted to politics and technology, from Katherine McKittrick's new book Dear Science, to McKenzie Wark's Capital is Dead, to Jason Smith's Smart Machines and Service Work, along with many others.

Beller approaches the question of information and power by triangulating three areas, racialization, computation, and capitalism. His mission is to show that these three areas are inextricably linked, and that racialization is the ultimate logic that fuels both computation and capitalism. I applaud Beller for his willingness to expand the historical frame, not just to the post-1945 period, or even the 20th C as a whole, but back some "seven centuries ago" (17) to the development of modern capitalism through what Marx called primitive accumulation. Indeed one might follow this path even further, given that quantification is a problem in metaphysics more generally, not just in capitalism.

Beller's book thus follows in the footsteps of Cedric Robinson's influential Black Marxism, which argued, among other things, that an elementary logic of colonial exclusion predated and prefigured the emergence of capitalism. (This seems to be incontrovertible, and in fact Marx himself discussed cultural and ethnic otherness by way of the Highland Clearances, not unlike Robinson's example of English colonization in Ireland.) At the same time this book participates in an interesting tradition of scholarship--evident in work from Jodi Dean or Nick Dyer-Whitford--which claims that the digital is already intimately intertwined with the history of capitalism, or, as Beller puts it, that “capitalism was a digital computer from the get-go” (64). In essence, Beller wants to subordinate capitalism to both racialization and computation. It's not that capitalism created the conditions for racial difference or quantified calculation. For Beller the reverse is true. The development of capital is simultaneously and necessarily the elaboration of the capacities of quantification and social differentiation.

My interest was particularly piqued by Chapters 2 and 3. Here Beller aims to migrate Marx's general formula for capital (M-C-M') into the information age by inserting information, images, and code into the equation. Chapter 2, which focuses on social media and selfie culture, argues that capitalist quantification happens explicitly through images, not simply through commodities. Beller means this literally: digital images are numerical, and thus are sustained and presented via calculation. Beller makes a good case for how the object was merely “a moment in the historical development of the commodity-form” (112). This strikes me as important, given how frequently Marxist critique focuses on objects (viz. critique of commodities as objects).

Recall how Marx's middle term (C for commodity) was, as it were, purely qualitative. It mattered for Marx that a quantitative term (M for money) had to detour into the qualitative (commodities including labor-power) in order to reemerge again as pure quantity. In making Marx's equation more relevant for the information age, Beller inserts computation into the center of the circuit, sometimes using the general label of "information" (I), sometimes more specifically as "image" (I) and "code" (C). (Compare this to the dynamic of Code-Commodity-Code that McKenzie Wark has proposed in A Hacker Manifesto.) And these images and codes, all this informatic material, are already a labor site within Beller's analysis, meaning they are vulnerable to extraction and exploitation. “To look is to labor,” Beller argued several years ago in his book The Cinematic Mode of Production (2).

“Cinema and its succeeding (if still simultaneous), formations, particularly television, video, computers, and the internet, are deterritorialized factories in which spectators work, that is, in which we perform value-productive labor” (1).

Later in The World Computer Beller connects this to photography, advertising, and visual culture, including an engagement with the work of Ariella Azoulay (146-153). Both chapters 3 and 4 reveal the author's commitment to technology as a social arrangement, rather than as, say, a device or apparatus. This helps differentiate Beller's voice from the more apparatus-oriented work in media studies, the German school exemplified in Kittler or Siegert, for instance, or anyone working today under the heading of “media archeology.” Beller is doing something very different. Here my interest was particularly captured by his discussion of films by Khavn De La Cruz and Hou Hsiao-hsien, which helps decenter this story away from a typical Euro-American narrative. (One of Beller's previous books was on Filipino cinema.)

I'm intrigued by Beller's proposal that there might be “communist algorithms" and "communist derivatives” (193). Yet the two ought to be differentiated. An algorithm is merely a step by step process, a recipe to follow. But a derivative, defined as a form of financial speculation designed to manage risk, seems inherently anti-communist in the sense that it works to eliminate socio-political uncertainty. The political is the condition in which one does not know how the future will unfold.

In other words I'm not convinced by Beller's proposal for “revolutionary finance,” a proposal taken up more fully at the end of the book. Beller cites the Economic Space Agency (ECSA) and recent attempts to develop crypto currencies. A number of theorists and computer scientists are also wrapped up in this movement, including Brian Massumi, the Deleuzian who recently published 99 Theses on the Revaluation of Value: A Postcapitalist Manifesto (which I discussed previously).

For Beller, the prospect of revolutionary finance is part of an historical development toward the decentralization of authority:

"Bitcoin...[is] part of an insurrectionary history of the decentralization of authority that includes the French Revolution, decolonization, suffrage, 8 mm film, the portapak, the cheap digital camera, and the easy access to publication on the World Wide Web" (243).

Beller thinks that the redesign of economic media has something to offer social struggle. Still, he is nothing like a Bitcoin "maximalist," those staking it all on a technical miracle. Bitcoin “is not the revolution--far from it” (250), as Beller unambiguously puts it. Yet I suspect there is nothing inherently insurrectionary about decentralization--if by "insurrectionary" Beller means politically progressive--decentralization merely marking a shift in the architectonics of power that might favor reactionary tendencies as much as progressive ones. My own contribution to this debate as been around the question of "protocol," a network design style that is both decentralized and distributed, if not also collapsing more and more into centralization with each passing day.

Is there a toxic form of money and a non-toxic form of money, our job being merely to distinguish between the two? Beller's book hinges on a political discrimination, where the "good" money is elevated over the bad. Yet if Marx bequeathed anything to us, it was the notion that the money-form itself is toxic. Money is extractive abstraction in hyperbolic form. The solution is not better money built on the blockchain. The solution is the suspension of the infrastructure of extractive abstraction. Indeed blockchain is an ecological abomination if not also a socio-political one; these machines should be nuked forthwith.

At the same time Beller is motivated by a deeply Marxist instinct. For him cryptocurrencies offer an escape from the perils of leftist orthodoxy, a way to "get one's hands dirty" and engage in a critique of capital at the level of practice. How easy for Marxist academics to remain apart, above the fray, avoiding the hard work of organizing, building, and experimenting with new technologies. So while I disagree with Beller's attachment to cryptocurrencies, I certainly admire his commitment to praxis. And my argumentative tone regarding the book's conclusion is merely a testament to the evocative power of Beller's project overall, which I expect will find an eager readership.