Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Idea Conferences and the Digitized Ivory Tower

Evaluating Terranova’s discussion of free labor and the production of knowledge and culture for the digital economy, I can’t help but refer to the definition of information as non-rival, that our consumption of information in no way depletes its quantity or its usefulness. Thomas Jefferson put it eloquently: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”
This definition is interesting in light of current efforts to commodify knowledge, specifically knowledge born-digital via events like ‘idea’ conferences. This inclination to make a private claim on a public concept ( or if we don’t consider these ideas public, we can describe them as products of collective discourse and collaboration rather than the product of individual genius)  can be read as either an attempt to “re-impose a regime of property” onto knowledge production or a way to contribute to the networked flow of “the general intellect” or “collective intelligence.” 

Even while TEDTalk promotes a very democratizing ethos, there is a process of selection that indicates a certain exclusive expertise and a definite hierarchy (“ideas WORTH spreading”.) The entire production of ‘idea’ conferences has clear traces of capitalism such as branding and patenting, while also setting prescriptions of value onto certain concepts, the “quality of the labor” as Terranova describes and the value being notoriety. Where does the ivory tower of academia live within free labor and networked knowledge?  Can we consider the proliferation of conferences a transplant of the ivory tower into the networked multitude, or a mutation that makes a gesture towards what is the latent demand by the public for access to innovation and expertise but also maintains a self-serving exclusivity? 
I read an article in NYMag recently describing an attempted robbery that occurred at a 2009 TEDTalks, in which attendee Daniel Davidson was attacked by a man desperately trying to get his badge. That desperation for access seems to undermine the notion of free labor as concerned more with time and speed rather than space and objects. Moreover, TEDTalks are copyrighted. How do we work through issues of intellectual property, networked flows, and the proprietary logic of capitalism?

Earlier on in reading Terranova I concluded that the free laborer in the digital economy was in a clear double bind, between the increased emphasis on creative production as a type of self-fashioning (described by Paul Gilroy) and the capitalist commodification of knowledge, between liberation and immediate absorption. Now I wonder whether the attractiveness of free labor is that it isn’t a double bind, but rather it points to a mutually beneficial symbiosis within the digital economy. We enact our individuating passion by producing freely at our computers, and other parties extract value from it at no loss to us. Yet the lack of transparency surrounding how profit is extracted from the digital economy makes this relationship problematic.

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