The Empire of things: our mobile and our dehumanisation

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 12 May 2011

“There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests. They have their law, and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without the continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle.”

Joseph Conrad in Nostromo

 On BBC Radio 4 last night, Johann Hari spoke about the devastating war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hari looked historically and materially at this war, which has seen more than 5 million people killed in over a decade of fighting, along with human rights’ abuses including gang-rape, mutilation, and enforced militarisation of young boys and men. Moreover, Amnesty International have consistently argued that those seeking to protect and enhance human rights in the DRC suffer threats and intimidation, and that the public administration has also utilised “excessive use of lethal force, arbitrary arrest and detention and enforced disappearances”.

Hari’s historical point critiques the dominant western narrative about this conflict, which has tended to view the war as connected to the Rwandan civil war and genocide, and which has post-colonial overtones framed by moral, ethical and cultural development. Instead, Hari emphasized the material importance of the DRC’s mineral deposits, and in particular Coltan, which

“is essential for the power-storing parts of cell phones, nuclear reactors, Play Stations, and computer chips. Coltan is increasingly exploited in the mountains in the conflict torn eastern part of the country. The Rwanda and Uganda backed rebels have primary control over the ore and are reaping huge profits which maintain and finance the protracted war. It is estimated that the Rwandan army made $20 million per month mining coltan in 2000. As coltan is necessary for the high-tech industry and as demand increases, motivation to pull out of the DRC by Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi decreases.”

So, it is argued that these minerals are “the driving forces for war”, and that those who benefit are multi-national corporations involved in western high-tech innovation and development. A recent UN Experts’ Report argued that

“exporters and consumers of Congolese mineral products should step up their due diligence efforts by publicly disclosing evidence that would demonstrate that they are not knowingly purchasing tainted minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Too many comptoirsare exploiting the legal distinction between themselves and negociants to claim they do not know the origin of the minerals they purchase, when clearly they often do, and, if they do not, it would be fairly easy to find out.”

This implicates me in that war and in that gang-rape and in that child labour, and demands that, at the very least, I ask the multinational company from which I buy my next device from where they source the minerals that are extracted for its production.

Yet I am also implicated and enmeshed within the web of a global market, in which the commodification of subjectivity is paramount, and in which my power is limited. One of the issues here is the functioning of what Hardt and Negri have called Empire, a new planetary regime in which the economic, military, administrative and communicative components combine into a system of power “with no outside”. Empire is a twenty-first century critique of global capital, which now taps its subjects as labour-power and also as consumers, learners and raw materials. Deleuze and Guattari have also argued the case that capitalism is now a planetary “production machine”, assembled from flows of labour, finance and technology, where the quest for profit drives new technical machines, new products and practices, cracks old habits, and throws all bounded domains or territories (that are geographic, social and subjective) into upheaval. It then reterritorialises these domains through enclosure, policing and commodification.

For Hardt and Negri, Empire is a regime of Foucauldian biopower, exploiting social, subjective and biological life in its entirety, for profit. So Empire and the transnational corporations that form nodes of power within it, and whose networks are circuits for accumulation and profit, covers all of our lives, though marketing, game-play, work, privatisation of public assets, data mining, advertising, the constant renewal and upgrades of technologies etc.. Critics like Virno, Tronti, Hardt and Negri have related the power of Empire to what is termed “immaterial labour” that is “the labor that produces the informational, cultural, or affective element of the commodity.” Our desire for play or for the latest device feeds Empire and the commoditisation of everyday life. This is the Empire of Things, supported by a socially diffuse intellectuality and set of desires, which is in turn generated by a vast educational apparatus.

It is not just in the DRC where these issues of high-tech needs feeding alienating behaviours are being uncovered. There are reports of workers’ rights being abused in FoxConn factories in China, which supply Apple, of game-farming in virtual sweatshops for western clients, of alleged tax avoidance by mobile phone operators against the common good. Yet the webs of Empire, its transnational circuits of raw materials, value and power keep those of us who notionally benefit from the immiseration of others at a distance from the effects of our consumption. We are disconnected from the implications and outcomes of our actions in queuing for and consuming the iPad2 or whichever new technology we favour. Instead, our discourse and our spectacle is about whether this new Chinese corporation might threaten Apple’s iPhone dominance, or the implications of that fragmentation of Android as a platform for App development, and its concomitant threat to Google’s business model. More occasionally it is about how our western, liberal data-rights are being infringed, or about how the police are using mobile technology to target protesters, or upon the impact of mobilles on bee populations. It is almost never about gang-rape and vaginal mutilation in Africa.

Virno argued that Empire keeps truths in the world at a safe distance, so that excessive consumption, equivocation over morality and ridicule of marginalised voices can enable endless, repetitive practices of commodification in a world where there are seen to be no alternatives. Cynicism becomes the defining feature of the emotional situation of our politics today – what on earth can we do about such powerlessness and distress? There is one final point that illuminates this cynicism, and that is the attack on humanities and critical theory by western governments. We are seeing UK Universities radically restructuring their academic portfolios in the name of business and the market. We are seeing a political attack on the nature and meaning of history. We are seeing a world in which the future is collapsed into the present, in order that we chase progress and development and the next upgrade. We are seeing what Marx called the annihilation of space by time. We do not stop to consider what we are doing, and alternative narratives are subject to ridicule.

At the CAL11 conference, when I presented a paper on the political economy of educational technology [slide 30], I was asked “just what are you expecting us to do”? My answer at the time was that I am not expecting you to do anything. But that I am expecting you to critique your position; to think about the ramifications of your activities and consumption; to think about your humanity. So, what is to be done by individuals and educators? Virno argues that the dominant order is destroyed “not by a massive blow to the head, but through a mass withdrawal from its base, evacuating its means of support”. This exodus also constructs a new alternative. It is defection as reconstruction, and relates to what Hardt and Negri have termed the Multitude. The multitude refers to new movements opposing global capital. It is a refusal to submit to the rule of money. The multitude refers to subjective capacity, social movement and political protest. Where these coalesce they point beyond Empire, through the realisation of alternatives.

However, we need to develop places to discuss what might be “beyond”, and how that might function. This demands that we critique the realities of our uses of technology. Hardt and Negri note that “Machines and technologies are not neutral and independent entities. They are biopolitical tools deployed in specific regimes of production, which facilitate certain practices and prohibit others.” Our engagement with devices leads Hardt and Negri to argue that “the multitude not only uses machines to produce, but also becomes increasingly machinic itself, as the means of production are increasingly integrated into the minds and bodies of the multitude.” This is developed by Dyer Witheford and de Peuter, who argue that whilst devices are enslaving, this is not to deny that they are pleasurable, but we need to recognise how that pleasure itself channels power.

Clearly global solutions are required to the catastrophes outlined by Hari in the DRC. However, I need to think about the following in my life and in my practice.

  • How do I lobby vendors, providers, re-sellers, commissioners, in order that they justify the extraction of the materials, and the production processes, that they use for their products? How do I do this in association with others and in my daily work?
  • How do I work for technological decisions, like procurement, outsourcing etc., to be based on community need related to a critical analysis of socio-environmental impact and human rights, rather than on a discourse of cost-effectiveness, monetisation, economic value, and efficiency?
  • How do I work for the use of technology in open education, rather than in a post-colonial discourse focused upon new markets?
  • How do I lobby for consensus in open systems architectures, focused upon open-sourced, community designed and implemented technologies? How do I argue that educational technology is a global and public, rather than a private or institutionalised, good?
  • How do I work for a digital or technological literacy that is ethical? How do I work up an ethics of digital literacy?
  • How do I think about the history and not the future of educational technology, so that I understand the ramifications of my actions and consumption?
  • How do I campaign for alternatives, within our everyday capitalist reality, in order to look beyond it? Where does social technology fit in that revolutionary space?

Joseph Conrad wrote about the social and material history of the Congolese, as their land was despoiled and as they were colonised in the nineteenth century. He referred to the broader colonization of Africa in an essay as “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration”. As an educational technologist I need to rediscover my history, in order to reclaim my humanity.

One Response to The Empire of things: our mobile and our dehumanisation

  1. Pingback: A note on humanity or ethics, mobiles and the Raspberry Pi | Richard Hall's Space

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