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The digital revolution: at humanity's expense?

Digital economy: “our attention during free time has value for business”

On June 8th, 2021 |
4 mins reading time
Digital economy: “our attention during free time has value for business”
Yann Moulier Boutang
Professor of Economics at Université de Technologie de Compiègne
Key takeaways
  • For Yann Moulier Boutang, we are currently entering a new capitalist model, which he calls “cognitive” – no longer based on physical work, but on brain activity.
  • He says that a parallel can be drawn between the positive externalities generated by digital technology (creativity, cooperation, etc.) and pollination: for a long time, humans have focused on selling honey (the finished product), whereas the most productive activity of bees was pollination, which generates between 500 and 5,000 times more value.
  • This model of massive data capture and processing has brought about a real revolution in science, with a return to the inductive method based on collective intelligence, which has made it possible to solve problems as complex as that of the “translation machine”.
  • But it also raises the question of the commodification of our leisure time, and of intellectual property.

What is “cog­ni­tive cap­i­tal­ism”? Why do you think we are enter­ing a third phase of capitalism?

We’ve already had two mod­els of cap­i­tal­ism: mer­chant and indus­tri­al. In the indus­tri­al sys­tem, labour became the main good. That sys­tem was much more effi­cient at pro­duc­ing val­ue than the mer­chant cap­i­tal­ism that had pre­ced­ed it. The indus­tri­al mod­el was based on labour of the work­force, which is sold, then replen­ished to be sold again the fol­low­ing day. It worked very well for phys­i­cal strength – mus­cles are ener­gised and burn a cer­tain amount of sug­ar per hour, until they’re fatigued and seize up, pre­vent­ing work from con­tin­u­ing. It was very easy to under­stand how labour pow­er was exploit­ed, as it was bina­ry – dai­ly activ­i­ty then rest.

The prob­lem is that this clas­sic analy­sis no longer applies to the cur­rent sys­tem, which is based on intel­lec­tu­al work. What’s spe­cial about cog­ni­tive cap­i­tal­ism is that it includes more and more imma­te­r­i­al knowl­edge and ser­vices in its eco­nom­ic mod­el. To func­tion, it doesn’t need phys­i­cal strength, but rather cere­bral activ­i­ty. How­ev­er, the brain nev­er stops work­ing, even at night. In fact, many peo­ple have already expe­ri­enced this with remote work­ing. Unlike mus­cles, the brain nev­er rests – if your brain mon­i­tor is flatlin­ing, you’re dead!

What’s more, cere­bral activ­i­ty can­not be restrict­ed. You can phys­i­cal­ly force peo­ple to fol­low a cer­tain pace and coor­di­nate with each oth­er in a work­flow, but you can­not force brains to coop­er­ate. Atten­tion (like trust, love and all the emo­tions that char­ac­terise inter­per­son­al inter­ac­tions) can­not be defined by an organ­i­sa­tion­al chart or a con­tract. It’s the clas­sic prob­lem of teach­ers, who are pow­er­less wit­ness­es to their stu­dents’ loss of moti­va­tion – how can you stop their atten­tion from straying?

For brains to pro­duce con­tin­u­ous­ly, with­out wan­der­ing off track, cog­ni­tive cap­i­tal­ism has devel­oped means to cap­ture and hold onto atten­tion. For this, it has tools that are far more refined than con­tracts. Social media, for exam­ple, uses extreme­ly insid­i­ous design aspects to engage our herd instinct, cog­ni­tive bias­es and our taste for unpre­dictabil­i­ty1, to make us stay on their apps for as long as possible.

So, is cog­ni­tive cap­i­tal­ism based on har­vest­ing pos­i­tive externalities?

Yes. And this is exact­ly what hap­pened with bees – for many years, we were focused on sales of hon­ey or beeswax (end prod­ucts) before we realised that the most pro­duc­tive activ­i­ty of bees was actu­al­ly pol­li­na­tion, which gen­er­ates between 500 and 5,000 times more val­ue than honey!

Our leisure time has become pro­duc­tive. The sys­tem is capa­ble of exploit­ing the many pos­i­tive exter­nal­i­ties gen­er­at­ed by even the most insignif­i­cant activ­i­ties – our atten­tion, inge­nu­ity, inter­ac­tions and even sim­ple Google search­es are now ways to pro­duce val­ue. This is also how we can access these ultra-sophis­ti­cat­ed ser­vices for free.

This new form of cap­i­tal­ism also con­sid­er­ably expands the group of peo­ple con­sid­ered active, as social media activ­i­ty (non-mer­can­tile and often non-pay­ing) pro­duces extreme­ly valu­able data for com­pa­nies. This data is used to cre­ate AI that can solve prob­lems as com­plex as machine trans­la­tion, for exam­ple. It’s quite sim­ply a sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tion! Reli­able infor­ma­tion is extract­ed from big data, which is infi­nite­ly faster and cheap­er than pre­vi­ous meth­ods. These meth­ods reject­ed induc­tive rea­son­ing to the sole ben­e­fit of a “hypo­theti­co-deduc­tive” approach. Many peo­ple had been stumped by machine trans­la­tion, but col­lec­tive intel­li­gence pro­vid­ed a way to do it with­out using linguistics.

Of course, this rais­es the prob­lem of fake news – now, the truth is what­ev­er has the most search results. And, in the case of machine trans­la­tion, this can mean com­mon lan­guage mis­takes are being dis­sem­i­nat­ed wide­ly. But, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, it’s extreme­ly efficient.

This form of pro­duc­tion through social media rais­es the issue of intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty. How can prop­er­ty title be assigned in a world where knowl­edge is co-pro­duced and eas­i­ly repro­duced digitally?

In the ana­logue world, it was always pos­si­ble to tell a copy from the orig­i­nal. Intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty was there­fore based on the fact that the own­er of the orig­i­nal would a share sale of copies. How­ev­er, nowa­days, there are no more tech­ni­cal obsta­cles for copies, and this mod­el is no longer viable. There will almost cer­tain­ly be huge legal shifts over the next 15 years.

There are also debates around which alter­na­tive mod­el is best. Open source, which is based on com­plete­ly free and open data (which there­by becomes a pub­lic good) rais­es fund­ing issues. The copy­left mod­el (invent­ed by Richard Stall­man) is an inter­est­ing option, out of which the Cre­ative Com­mons (CC) sys­tem emerged, as an alter­na­tive to copy­right. We tend to think that all prop­er­ty is con­sti­tut­ed of usus (the right to use the good), fruc­tus (the right to lease it) and abusus (the right to defin­i­tive­ly alien­ate it, i.e. to sell it). But this clas­sic legal mod­el is very dif­fi­cult to apply to imma­te­r­i­al goods. The CC (Cre­ative Com­mons) project has pro­vid­ed a way to adapt it, by allow­ing infor­ma­tion or work to be shared under the same con­di­tions as those defined by the author (“share alike”). This helps to cre­ate a space that facil­i­tates the cir­cu­la­tion of infor­ma­tion, while avoid­ing the lim­i­ta­tions of clas­sic prop­er­ty law, which are often an obsta­cle to shar­ing knowledge.

Dig­i­tal pub­lic goods are the very foun­da­tion of cog­ni­tive cap­i­tal­ism, in that they stim­u­late inter­ac­tion and cre­ation. But plat­forms do not always want to play the game. The ques­tion of roy­al­ties, for exam­ple, can raise prob­lems on some social net­works. Accept­ing cook­ies or user con­di­tions actu­al­ly means you have ced­ed your rights. The pri­vate sec­tor is there­fore prof­it­ing from the pub­lic sector’s pos­i­tive exter­nal­i­ties! So, it’s jus­ti­fied to ask the pri­vate sec­tor to con­tribute to fund­ing pub­lic activ­i­ties that will increase its pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. This restruc­tur­ing of the sys­tem around dig­i­tal pub­lic goods – that was par­tic­u­lar­ly high­light­ed dur­ing the eco­nom­ic slow­down of the pan­dem­ic – is, in my view, part of a new chal­lenge fac­ing neo-lib­er­al­ism that has been in place since the Thatch­er years.

Interview by Juliette Parmentier