A month or so ago I posted excerpts from a paper I gave in London. The excerpts highlighted a particular aspect of expropriation and exploitation of the common in communicative capitalism, what I referred to as the expropriation and exploitation of the network. The argument focuses on the winner-take-all or winner-take-most characteristic of some forms of contemporary production.
What I didn't know about at the time was the "America Competes Act:"
The law—its cringeworthy official name is the America Creating Opportunities To Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act—overhauls the way the federal government supports private-sector R & D, and one of the main ways the government hopes to support R & D is with prizes. Lots of prizes.
In the rest of this post, I repost a couple of paragraphs from my discussion of prizes, the one, and network exploitation, connecting them with the Obama administration's focus on prizes.
In settings characterized by powerlaws, much is created, but only one or two creations end up known and/or profitable. Thousands of novels or written, only a few are published, fewer still are best sellers. The same holds for movies, blogs, art. As expressed in the paper:
In these examples, the common might designate the general field out of which the one emerges. Exploitation consists in efforts to stimulate the creative production of the field in the interest of finding, and then monetizing, the one. Expanding the field produces the one (or, hubs are an immanent property of complex networks). Such exploitation contributes to the expropriation of opportunities for income and paid labor, as we’ve seen in the collapse of print journalism and academic presses. We should recognize here a primary condition of labor under neoliberal capitalism. Now, rather than having a right to the proceeds of one’s labor by virtue of a contract, ever more of us win or lose such that remuneration is treated like a prize. In academia, art, writing, architecture, entertainment, design, and, in the US, increasing numbers of different areas (education, technology), people not only feel fortunate to get work, to get hired, to get paid, but ever more tasks and projects are conducted as competitions, which means that those doing the work are not paid unless they win. They work but only for a chance at pay.
Hobbes’ description of merit is helpful here. In Leviathan (chapter fourteen), Hobbes explains that the one who performs first in the case of a contract, merits that which he is to receive by the performance of the other. In the instance of a prize, we also say that the winner merits his winnings, but there is a difference: the prize is the product of the event, the contest. The relation between the one awarding the prize and the winner depends on the good will of the giver; there is nothing that specifically links me to the prize. The implication of this shift from contract to contest, from wages to prizes (a shift the consent to which has been manufactured in part via so-called reality television competition), is the mobilization of the many to produce the one. Without the work of the many, there would not be one (who is necessarily contingent).
2. The Obama administration and inducement prizes (from Slate):
So-called "inducement prizes" (as opposed to "recognition prizes," like the Nobel or the MacArthur or the Pulitzer) make up a major part of the Obama administration's grand Strategy for American Innovation. Last year, outlining its vision for a more competitive America, the White House said the government "should take advantage of the expertise and insight of people both inside and outside" Washington by using "high-risk, high-reward policy tools such as prizes and challenges to solve tough problems." This fall, Challenge.gov, a portal featuring agencies' cash rewards for new ideas, debuted. And the COMPETES Act, which first passed in 2007, included a provision clarifying some legal issues around such contests.
Notice in the preceding language--high risk, high reward. What goes unmentioned: the characteristics of those in a position to take risks. In effect, the initial supposition of the contest privileges those who have the resources to take risks. It's an amplification of an entrepreneurial attitude, an amplification and an alteration. Additionally, the work is done and then maybe paid for (the winner) and likely not (the losers). The only link between the work and the remuneration comes from the prize giver, who is now in a position of judge, charitable giver, beneficient lord and who has no obligation to any of the contestants.
There's good reason for the government to get in on it: Prizes work, and they have a surprisingly long pedigree. Most famously, in 1714, the British government offered £20,000 to anyone who could devise a reliable way of measuring longitude at sea, a problem neither Newton nor Galileo could solve. (Clockmaker John Harrison won in 1773.) Napoleon offered a prize for innovations in food preservation for his army, leading to the development of modern canning. And the $25,000 Orteig Prize spurred Charles Lindbergh to make his trans-Atlantic flight.
The Lindbergh example exposes the heroic, singular, even masculinist imaginary of the contest. It makes explicit the individualism of the contest (as does the British example) and displaces from view any sense of work as a collective enterprise, with multiple conditions and participants, all of whom depend on the prize for their livelihood, their food and their shelter. The fact that capitalism tied food and shelter to wages, is effaced, and instead we have heroic, singular, individualists.
After falling out of favor for decades, such high-publicity, fat-reward contests came into vogue again in the aughts in the wake of the 1996 Ansari X Prize for advances in commercial spaceflight. (A Paul Allen-financed group called Scaled Composites won the whole $10 million shebang in 2004.) The much feted X Prize showed that prizes, properly constructed, can be cheaper and more effective than traditional R & D. They're a performance-based investment, one that pays only for outcomes. They encourage unconventional thinkers from different fields to join in to solve a problem. And they include a prestige component, which costs the offerer nothing but can be highly valued by those pursuing the prize: The X Prize found that "competitors spent 10 to 40 times" the amount of the kitty.
Prestige--"costs the offerer nothing"
"Competitors spend 10 to 40 times the amount of the kitty"--costs are transferred onto the ones doing the work, again treated as invisible and hence with no needs and to whom the contest sponsorers have no obligations. People pay to do the work for which they will not be remunerated. It sounds like art, blogging, most writing, most creative work. As a governmental policy, or approach to funding, the logic of the prize extends, becoming normalized a new and acceptable work relation. Now, you might say--sure, but no one forces anyone to enter the competition. Yes, but what happens when this is a dominant approach to work? Those who don't choose to enter have fewer opportunities to enter into contract based work. The overall field is changed such that people have little choice but to compete under these terms.
Unsurprisingly, the funding available for prizes has exploded up in the past decade, according to a study by McKinsey, to as much, perhaps, as $2 billion. "More than 60 of these prizes have debuted since 2000, representing almost $250 million in new prize money," with awards from existing prizes tripling in the past 10 years, researchers wrote.
The evidence backing the prize boom is not entirely anecdotal, either. There is not a huge body of academic research into prizes, but what there is supports them. One oft-cited study examines the prizes offered by the Royal Agricultural Society of England between 1839 and 1939. "We find large effects of the prizes on contest entries," the researchers wrote in 2008, confirming that prizes do indeed spur innovation, as opposed to just rewarding pre-existing advances. "[W]e also detect large effects of the prizes on the quality of contemporaneous inventions."
The government—with its massive research budget and interest in helping private industry where the market fails—got into the prize business in earnest in the early aughts. NASA, for instance, created the Centennial Challenges, giving out dozens of prizes ranging from $50,000 to $2 million. (One retired engineer built a better space glove at home, working with a sewing needle.) And the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, offers a famed contest aiming to make ground combat vehicles unmanned.
"Helping private industry where the market fails"--so that's the justification? Why not helping the people? Why not replacing the market? And why install a more insidious and cut-throat version of competition?
For future thought: what are the norms associated with the contest based competition? Clearly, they have nothing to do with the so-called discipline of the market. It's interesting that this is a government intervention, but an intervention that eschews planning and obligation and the creation of a workforce with skills that could be relied on in the future. Instead, all those aspects of work are externalized and displaced onto the competitors.