Political Economy of the Substrate Network

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* Essay: This is not a Bit-Pipe: A Political Economy of the Substrate Network. By Rachel O’Dwyer and Linda Doyle. Fibreculture Journal, Vol. 138,

URL = http://twenty.fibreculturejournal.org/2012/06/18/fcj-138-this-is-not-a-bit-pipe-a-political-economy-of-the-substrate-network/



"Critiquing ‘free culture’ as a utopian gesture that fails to engage with the material circuits of cognitive capitalism, this paper proposes a political economy attendant to the circulation of capital at all layers of the communications network. Applying the newly invigorated theories of ‘rent’ to the shifting commons/property dialectics of the information economy, we explore the role of network infrastructure in the extraction of surplus. How is surplus from the digital commons channelled through a material substrate? How is network infrastructure transforming in response to the fluid and fluctuating dynamics of cognitive capitalism? Finally, what possibilities for political engagement and material exploit are emerging?"


"This paper explores the economic transformations to ICT business models, infrastructure and property relations emerging in tandem with an economy that places increasing emphasis on the circulation of user-generated content. Applying the newly invigorated theories of ‘rent’ to the shifting commons/property dialectics of the network economy (Harvey, 2001; Negri and Vercellone, 2007; Pasquinelli, 2008), we explore how various proprietary mechanisms facilitate the extraction of cognitive surplus. We then focus our attention on structural antagonisms emerging between competing modalities of rent and profit: where immaterial labour and tangible architectures intersect, diverge, and sometimes conflict. The diverse forms of surplus extraction across network layers are not always complementary, representative of a crisis of capital in which negotiations between fluid surplus and economic strictures threaten the consolidation of power in the substrate network. Political and economic control of infrastructure is changing as a result.

This paper provides a broad overview of the shifting terrain of physical media and as a consequence may seem to smooth many of the social and geographical particularities of information and communications technology in favour of overarching concerns: How is surplus from immaterial production channelled through a material substrate? What are the points of conflict and/or mutual enforcement between surplus extracted from infrastructure and surplus from cognitive capital? How are communications networks transforming in response to the fluid and fluctuating dynamics of the network economy? Finally, how might these transformations suggest opportunities for tactical engagement at the level of network infrastructure?"


From the Conclusion

"Earlier in this paper, we noted that access and control of communications presents a point of opposition to open networks. Contrary to the fluid circulation of digital content, the structural ingredients of the physical network are not so easily distributed. Instead, the necessary flexibility of an economy based on commons-based peer production, such as that which characterises the digital network, is at odds with the Fordist models that, until recently, consolidated core infrastructure. This has posed a significant obstacle to collectives hoping to scale a network that is free at all layers.

Today, the technological dispositif is transforming in fundamental ways. It is as yet unclear whether this reorganisation spells a potential dissolution of corporate power or simply its recombination through more flexible channels. From one perspective these changes depict a network inflected at all layers with the diagram of biopolitical production They also gesture to a decomposition of monolithic components, as rent destabilises property relations at the level of infrastructure. If a proprietary substrate underpins the expropriation of the digital commons, the current redistribution of property presents opportunities for structural exploit. Critically engaged during a stage of interpretative flexibility, alternative, commons or transient models of ownership might have positive implications for a networked information economy, emerging in a favourable position to disrupt the mechanisms of economic and political control channelled through its foundations.

Fully fleshed prescriptions are beyond the scope of this analysis, which is necessarily diagnostic. We can, however, identify possibilities for further areas of exploration, such as spectrum policy or future cellular networks, that draw on the conceptual framework of this paper.

Dialectical oppositions between licensed and unlicensed spectrum regimes have been discussed throughout this paper. Shifts toward dynamic spectrum access have significant implications as a disruptive technique. Cognitive radio – the signal processing and transmission techniques used for intelligent negotiation of available spectrum – presents the opportunity for unlicensed users to access spectrum that is owned by incumbents but substantially unutilised. This suggests a possible shift from inalienable property rights over a wireless channel towards a “spectrum commons”, where communicative capacities are distributed and partitioned as needed. Interestingly, the conceptual metaphor of “squatting” is sometimes used to describe the process of dynamic spectrum access, directly engaging the disruptive characteristics of the technique (Doyle, 2009). Dynamic spectrum access and/or an increase in unlicensed spectrum poses a direct sabotage on the rent applied over wireless infrastructure.

Another early possibility concerns the transfer of points of network control to end users. Moving from the centralised topology of traditional cellular networks, technologies such as the femtocell respond to network congestion by implementing miniature base station technologies for domestic use. 12 Users connect to the service provider’s cellular network over a personal network connection. Femtocells arguably cede aspects of network control to end users. The economic rationale behind this is controversial, based on the parasitic appropriation of user’s personal bandwidth capabilities to improve the range of a proprietary network. At the same time, it suggests a slackening of monopoly control, breaking a solid network into fluid components that might be accessed, shared, redistributed or otherwise modified.

Such proposals are tentative. When we encounter a new fluidity of property, it does not automatically follow that we encounter a diminution of corporate power, or that the consolidation of such power is necessarily “disorganised”. Instead physical networks often cede to the diagram of the networked organisation (Rossiter, 2006), as the tensions between monopoly and competition, between centralisation and decentralisation or between commons and property are negotiated in fundamentally new ways. By this we understand, as Harvey does, that capitalism might become ever more tightly woven through dispersal, geographic mobility and flexible responses in labour and consumer markets, all accompanied by hefty doses of institutional, product and technological innovation (Harvey, 1987:159). Such flexibility is the operand of post-Fordism. An observation of early innovations suggest that the growing flexibility in material property that threatens the conglomerate is often countered with a stronger enforcement of symbolic and legislative apparatuses. These might take the form of stricter intellectual property regimes, or the enforcement of communications policies and protocols that seek to ensure network surplus does not escape circulation within the capitalist system.

The recent innovations in cognitive radio, for example, have been tempered by highly conservative regulations that seriously constrain unlicensed transmissions. Even though software-defined radios present the possibility for dynamic access to licensed spectrum, proposing a commons infrastructure managed as a public good, a number of early legislations concerning power transmit regulations and questions of “occupancy” continue to limit this access.

Femtocells, as discussed, form part of the new wave of components that allow for a scalable architecture, ceding control of core cellular infrastructure to the end-user. At the same time, recent proprietary legislation appears to ensure that these possibilities are suppressed in favour of the interests of powerful corporations. When the user places a call this is sent through the proxy servers of the ISP. The user is billed (again) despite the fact that the connection is facilitated through their own wireless infrastructure. Network carrier AT&T currently occupies a monopoly position in femtocell development in the United States. Recently, independent hardware providers such as Wilson Wireless wished to supply femtocells that are service neutral. The hardware specifications for both technologies are almost identical, but the third-party innovation sabotages the closed circuit necessary for the extraction of rent. As a result, and despite identical hardware specifications, AT&T successfully lobbied the FCC to disallow transmission licences by third party developers (AT&T, 2012).

It should be clear that the tensions between monopoly and competition, between centralisation and decentralisation or between commons and property are negotiated in fundamentally new ways. The material landscape of affordance and constraint are also shifting, and new forms of critical engagement are necessary. We need to be cognisant of the mechanisms through which value is produced within and across all layers of the network. Not only do we wish to identify the techniques by which cognitive surplus is extracted through proprietary channels, but also to develop a political vocabulary that extends beyond the semiotic, towards the underlying material infrastructure of the network economy. If the ideology of free culture is to progress beyond a pipe dream, this requires an active engagement with such materially entrenched sites of production. This paper is not so much a program for future networked utopia, therefore, as an acknowledgement of the new sites of conflict through which alternative models of activism, policy or critical engineering might emerge. A conceptual framework is the first step in such an analysis."