Value extraction and the workforce of the cryptocene
Value is classically said to stem from human labor, and money to represent this value. Although those theories have been made obsolete by, among other things, the subjectivization of value which opened the door to the narratives of financialization, the idea that value should be objectively linked to the steps of its production endures in our economic imaginaries. Whether ‘labor was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things’ or whether its value was indexed to the profit derived from it—the consequences of which we can see now more clearly than ever when it comes to the wages of ‘essential workers’—the production of value with regards to labor still stands as one of the most pressing issues of the digital evolution.
It is interesting to bear in mind that, in the Western European region, work doesn’t seem to have been socially valued until relatively late—around the 18th century—but has then been largely glorified by the nascent modern education system of the 19th century. An activity traditionally devalued, or even at times condemned, since antiquity, work was then opposed to the spiritual meaning of life (and actually, to military activites too). Human beings were to find self-fulfillment with otium (meditation, reflection, poetry and politics…)—or war—, and not with its negation, negotium (trade, business…).
After centuries of direct workers exploitation, the late 20th century saw otium and negotium merge in a new knowledge economy that extracted value from intellectual and cultural work. What some view as a path towards a sort of ‘dotCommunism’ unfortunately mostly led to a ‘data is the new oil’ state of mind. The situation and the history that produced it are of course more complex and it’s an attempt at mapping them through the lense of the massification of interest in cryptography that Martín Nadal and Cesar Escudero Andaluz propose with Economy, Knowledge and Surveillance in the Age of the Cryptocene.
Not only did data extraction turn each and every internet user into an unwitting worker by turning otium into negotium, but it is also heavily damaging everyone’s attention capacity to the point of seriously reducing our critical thinking ability. This is the question addressed by Ishtar Gate, a blockchain-based micro-economy-in-the-arts platform devised by the writer and visual theorist Penny Rafferty together with Nascent, designed to reward the reading of critical content and its comment with tokens exchangeable in real life. One step further in this return to valuing otium, Sašo Sedlaček turns some data extraction technologies—such as real-time pose estimation—against themselves, and allows the users of its Oblomo platform to mine cryptocurrencies while standing still, and to exchange the product of those physically inactive moments for the workforce of other people willing to, for instance, mow your lawn or wash your car. And what if, in this age of ever-expanding automation, we could evaluate the machinic workforce and transmit it through a currency? Embedding the classical labor value theory in a rational digital cryptocurrency, the Haket designed by Telekommunisten is intended as a criticism of the Bitcoin architecture and as way to rethink it as a stable currency thus usable as a currency.