Andy Blunden August 2017

Review of “Heteromation, and Other Stories of Computing and Capitalism
by Hamid Ekbia and Bonnie Nardi

The authors introduce the notion of ‘heteromation’ to characterise a new mode of capital accumulation – using the unpaid labor of users of computer networks and applications – to add value to their product. Heteromation is thus essentially harnessing the creative genius of human communities for private profit, at the same time as facilitating that genius in powerful new ways. The authors reject one-sided approaches to this phenomenon, avoiding both technological utopianism and libertarian conspiracy theories, but provide a nuanced analysis which can inform the formulations of strategies to fight this new stage of capitalist exploitation.

The authors explore the social and technological practises by means of which economic value is appropriated, the kinds of labor which is exploited, and how people are induced to participate. Whatever may be the side-benefits of this new logic of capitalist accumulation and the revolutions in the productive forces which accompany it, each type of heteromation has specific mechanisms for extracting value and making the benefit to capital invisible. The result has been stunning rates of capital accumulation among those corporations which have been successful in harnessing heteromation, and a frighteningly steep rise in social and economic inequality worldwide.

Heteromation exploits communicative labor, cognitive labor, emotional labor and organizing labor, and by doing so has brought about shifts in ways of life and modes of governance. Our notions of welfare, employment, retirement, insurance, training, and education have changed irrevocably. Drawn towards utopian visions of networked democracy, we are witnessing instead a burgeoning dystopia which somehow remains invisible to the naked eye.

It seems that the emergence of heteromation marks a new stage in the development of capitalism, following on from what was euphemistically called the ‘knowledge economy’ and the issues Naomi Klein first raised in ‘No Logo’ a couple of decades ago. It presents activists and social movements with even more complex challenges however, and “Heteromation and other Stories” is a good opening to a discussion about ‘what is to be done?’

Andy Blunden
August 2017