Heterogenesis, growth, in.compatibility – neoliberal capital and immaterial labor power

Tiziana Terranova
At the beginning of computing and networking, incompatibility was a sign of heterogenesis. It was because computers had multiple genealogies and specifications that networking had to begin with the invention of ways to connect the incompatible. Incompatibility thus preceded and followed networking – as when preexisting heterogeneous mainframes and mini computers had to be connected or when new types of machines were invented and had to be integrated. With the introduction of the principles of open architecture in 1973, the primacy of differentiation and its eternal return was established. Shaped by a hacker ethics that valued openness and connection, protocological power was thus also the expression of a new kind of connective synthesis producing the bare conditions of cyberspace. One could even go as far as saying that incompatibility lies at the point where the chaotic genesis of networks as open topologies starts. (Terranova 2004)

As computers became personal, escaping corporate and university labs to make it into the homes of computer amateurs and cyberenthusiasts in the nineteen eighties, incompatibility marked a forking of the machinic phylum of personal computing. Incompatible software pointed to an uneven polarisation of populations of users – the vast majority on the one side, the small, but obstinate minority on the other. On the one side, the great Microsoft/IBM masses, multiplied through the techniques of cloning and reverse engineering, made compatibility the privilege of the majority. Operating within an MS-DOS and Windows system meant putting up with clunky design and buggy software, but also being able to take for granted one’s compatibility with almost everything. On the other side the hard core of Apple and Macintosh users, locked into smoothly designed microworlds, made incompatibility the mark of an exclusive minority (Eco 1994). Living within a MAC-OS enviroment involved limited communication with the larger world of software development, but gave you the satisfaction of sharp design and smooth processing. It will be only in the late nineties and early two thousands that the great divide will be bridged but only in order to produce another one (proprietary Apple and Microsoft on the one hand, and Open Source Linux and Ubuntu on the other).

Overcoming incompatibility

In the nineteen nineties, overall, incompatibility stops driving the evolution of the network and becomes a hurdle in the way of smooth, universal connectedness as software turns modular and eminently linkable and computing becomes ubiquitous. By the year 2000s, incompatibility signals almost exclusively the accumulation of the techno-junk generated by half a century of computing. Incompatible software is a sign that one is lagging behind, of unplanned and unwelcome obsolescence. As fully modularised software objects knit together even further the space of the web 2.0, incompatibility has become a matter of media archaeology: it is about old machines and old software, about files that refuse to be opened, about what was once new media art that becomes inaccessible. Overcoming incompatibility becomes the work of the info-artisan – carefully reconstructing appropriate conditions for old software to run again, drawing out information locked within old formats.

And yet, incompatibility as the productive limit of the open network, was never just about technical machines or the hacker ethics, but necessarily referred back to the existence of a larger, transversal social machine that invested in expansive differentiation as the engine driving value-production (Lazzarato 2002). In the forty years spanning the history of popular computing and networking, new, more powerful machines, platforms and new media objects have incessantly succeeded each other producing the network as a smooth space of compatible differentiation. Economic and libidinal investment in growth and innovation supported by exponentially increasing processing power also had an important effect: it produced the conditions of compatibility between the expansion of neoliberal capital and immaterial labour power.

For the longest time, it seems, informational capital and the networked multitudes were bonded together by the desire for proliferating, compatible, connectable, miniaturised machines and ever-increasing computing and connecting power. Struggles around the status of property and control of information flows never crossed the threshold of an incompatibility able to produce a true forking line as long as Moore Law’s acted as catalyst, mediator and midwife to the compatible convergence between intrinsically heterogeneous and conflictual forces. It might have been this transversal relation, rather than the addictive drive to compulsive communication identified by Jodi Dean, that allowed not simply the capture, but the compatible relation between the corporate Internet and precarious labour (Dean 2010). Not even the nervous exhaustion denounced by Franco Berardi has deterred the networked multitude from desiring such compatibility. Fuelled by credit and liquidity generated by financial capital, flying in the face of the diminishing returns on actual work performed, immaterial labour power has populated its homes with electronic, connectable devices and turned its body into a mobile, connected, hyper-communicative node.

But what is going to happen to such compatible convergence once the investment strategies of neoliberal capital change? Aren’t the financial and fiscal crises that started in 2008 producing a becoming-incompatible of financial capital and immaterial labour power? Up to which point is the exponential growth of immaterial capital going to be balanced out by the exponential growth of distributed computing power? For how long is the exponential curve drawn by Moore Law going to guarantee the compatible relation between these two opposing libidinal forces? Where is the threshold at which the accumulation of liquidity by one side of the polarity is no longer balanced by the growth of income and purchasing power on the other? When will the consciousness of the inequality of money paid in return for work and money generated by financial transaction and rent become unbearable? What happens when forms of public welfare guaranteeing the sustainable reproduction and reinvention of the living conditions of immaterial labour power are swallowed up by debt? Under what conditions, that is, will the relation of compatibility between financial capital and networked labour power be broken?

Works cited:

Berardi, Franco. ‘Cognitarian Subjectivation.’ e-flux 2011. Web. Dec. 22.<http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/183>

Dean, Jodi. Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2010. Print.

Eco, Umberto. ”La bustina di Minerva.” L’ Espresso. Sept 30, 1994. Print.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. Puissances de l’invention. La psychologie économique de Gabriel Tarde contre l’économie politique. Paris: Les Empecheurs de penser en ronde, 2002. Print.

Terranova, Tiziana. Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age. London: Pluto Press, 2004.


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