Book review

Cognitive capitalism, education, and digital labor, edited by Michael A. Peters and Ergin Bulut

Simone Becque

Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Biopolitics; Cognitive capitalism; Digital labor; Education

Becque, Simone. 2013. Cognitive Capitalism, Education, and Digital Labor, edited by Michael A. Peters and Ergin Bulut [book review]. In "Fandom and/as Labor," edited by Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 15. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2014.0554.

Michael A. Peters and Ergin Bulut, editors. 2011. Cognitive capitalism, education, and digital labor. New York: Peter Lang, 2011. $38.95 (341p) ISBN 978-1-4331-0981-2.

[1] As I sit to write this review, the lead story in the local paper is about the elementary school board's plan to sell advertising space in the schools. Placement of ads include locations such as the ball fields, gymnasium, and school entrances. This single example shows the prescience of the intersection of education and capitalism discussed in the essay collection Cognitive Capitalism, Education, and Digital Labor, edited by Michael A. Peters and Ergin Bulut. Cognitive capitalism is a response to earlier conceptualizations of capitalism: mercantile and industrial. In this newest phase, accumulation focuses on ephemeral or immaterial objects, such as an idea in the form of a patent. The editors have this to say about how cognitive capitalism and digital labor link to education: "in this environment, public universities, community and schools become the public infrastructure for knowledge capitalism" (xxxii). In other words, these educational systems are linked to an economy dominated by the production of knowledge. These essays explore the connections between cognitive capitalism, education, and digital labor. Although the book does not specifically deal with fandom issues, I do think the issues raised by the individual essays can be of use to fans and fan scholars, primarily because of the way in which fandom intersects with an economy of ideas. In an economy of ideas, all spaces are commercialized, and so the selling of advertising space in schools and product placement in movies become issues for all of us to think about.

[2] The editors have arranged the essays into two groups: the first four tackle the theoretical foundations of immaterial labor, and the next 11 essays focus on specific examples relating to education and labor with regard to cognitive capitalism. The authors come from different disciplines—education, cultural studies, mass communications, and sociology, to name a few—and the wide variety of essays in the collection reflects this interdisciplinarity. Although the essays lean more to practice than theory, overall, the collection comes across as a balanced take on the issues at hand. The book begins with an engaging essay from luminary scholar Antonio Negri, "The Labor of the Multitude and Fabric of Biopolitics," which sets the tone for the essays that follow. In the essay, he argues for the postmodern consideration of multiplicity; capital cannot collapse identities as it once did (i.e., to a class or a set of people), so we must instead contend with multiple identities. In my view, the essays take on this challenge and offer different understandings of a postmodern consideration of multiplicity.

[3] Perhaps the most provocative statement in the collection of essays comes in Jonathan Beller's essay, "Cognitive Capitalist Pedagogy and Its Discontents." Beller writes: "Today we can more easily imagine the death of the planet than we can the end of capitalism" (131). For Beller, the power structures of production depend on this inability to imagine the end of capitalism. However, this formulation struck a chord for me; I think this imaginary failing is reflected in our current media culture. One needs only to glance at the spate of television shows, books, and movies that are fascinated with imagining an end to civilization as we know it —Revolution (2012–present), the Hunger Games series (books published beginning 2008, films released beginning 2012), World War Z (2013), and the Divergent series (books published beginning 2011, films released beginning 2014), just to name a few. However, most of these imaginings maintain the spirit of capitalism and its power structures. Often, of course, these stories exaggerate power structures to help enhance the drama, as in The Hunger Games or in the 2013 film Elysium. Although I am not denying the dramatic power of the dystopian narrative, it can also be difficult to imagine a way outside of the genre's inherited structures.

[4] As a media studies scholar, I found the collection's emphasis on the creative economy and on social media to be a refreshing approach to the idea of digital labor. Indeed, the definition of cognitive capitalism offered in the introductory essay includes the importance of Web 2.0 technologies. The essay by Mark Coté and Jennifer Pybus, "Learning to Immaterial Labour 2.0: Facebook and Social Networks," takes on a specific example of Web 2.0 technology, Facebook, in order to examine the free labor of users that such sites require from their participants. This essay and several others in the collection offer further examination of Foucault's conceptualization of biopower and biopolitics. For Foucault, biopower and biopolitics are related concepts that refer to the managing of populations—their physical bodies, and hence the prefix bio—by those in political power. The mechanisms of power commonly conceptualized by Foucault and others in regard to biopower are traditionally thought of as institutions, such as hospitals, health care, and other governmental regulatory groups. Coté and Pybus use a less physical idea of biopower and investigate the ways by which social media sites like Facebook can be used to harness the biopower toward collective action while at the same time recognizing the commodified nature of the platforms that are enabling some collective movements. To put it another way, if you heard about the movement on Facebook, does that mean there's already something commodified about its goals? Or are social media sites, such as Facebook, places for action, change, and a gathering of biopower—where a company just happens to make money on the side? Coté and Pybus conclude their essay by emphasizing the possible liberating nature of social media sites. We have seen hints of the power of digital technologies in organizing, with events such the Arab Spring. From my perspective, and with my interest in media studies and fandom, I can't help but think of the possibilities of this line of thinking with regard to immaterial labor and fandom. For example, how might social media chatter about a television episode influence the perceived value of the show for a network?

[5] Also related to the issue of education and social media is Michael A. Peters's "Algorithmic Capitalism and Educational Futures," which gets at the issue of the "googlization of education" (255) and raises questions about the intersections among Google's dominance, their algorithms, and the organization of knowledge. This googlization, Peters implies, has lead to a greater centralization of the knowledge economy than has previously existed. Furthermore, when so much of our information is stored in the realm of cybernetic capitalism, what does this mean in regard to information ownership? Who owns the information stored on the cloud? Facebook, for example, has faced numerous problems relating to user privacy and ownership of digital materials. In another example, Google has recently started a program linking items users have liked on the Web and uses people's images and names to recommend those items to others during specific search queries. As the amount of information continues to grow exponentially, this kind of knowledge organization and presentation is very important.

[6] Although I find the discussions brought up in the collection thought-provoking, I had been hoping that one of the essays might grapple more directly with the idea of fan labor as it relates to education. The closest would be Toby Miller's essay, "For Fun, for Profit, for Empire: The University and Electronic Games," which discusses the relationship between universities and the Pentagon through academic journals and institutes that use research to test recruiting and training of members of the public as potential military recruits. However, with regard to fan labor, for example, what do we make of the labor performed by Wikipedia editors? Although academics are often quick to dismiss the site, it represents the organization of knowledge in a Web 2.0 culture as well as the culmination of thousands of hours of work by individuals. Wikipedia is just one instance of fan labor; others deserve further consideration. For example, the success of E. L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey (2012) and its sequels, which originally started as Twilight fan fiction, began as free fan labor and then turned a profit. Recently, Amazon has started Kindle Worlds, an attempt to monetize fan fiction stories and avoid legal issues by acquiring licenses. Although the stakes for military training and gaming seem higher for education than those posed by fan labor, understanding both is important for our digital future.

[7] As a graduate student teaching and working at a state school in a state with budget problems, I have witnessed the intersection of student learning and capitalism. The results, which turn students into commodities to be processed through a system at maximum value, are occasionally less than stellar. Certainly administrators and faculty do not always intend to approach students as commodities, but such an approach highlights the contradictions in a knowledge system that is also required to support itself financially. As Ergin Bulut states in his essay on the creative economy, "students and academics' work are becoming objects of quantification, surveillance and standardization; payments are becoming related to performance" (161). This volume succeeds in its goal of illuminating the links between this new form of capitalism and education, which has ramifications for young scholars like me hoping to inherit the keys to the academic kingdom.

[8] However, as someone without an extensive background in Marxist theory, I occasionally found the essays challenging, especially the first four focusing on theoretical underpinnings. Although I think the issues explicated in these essays are important reading for those in the field of education, they are also perhaps not for the uninitiated. It would probably not be an ideal volume for beginning students but better for graduate students and scholars. As the creative economy continues to grow, social media technologies continue to develop, and capitalism continues to reign, understanding this new era of capitalism will be useful for everyone. These questions will also continue to be relevant for fans and fan scholars as the economy of ideas continues to become more commercialized.





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