Technology is eroding the profit-motive. Most people think companies that are focused on technology, such as Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and IBM etc. are simply profiteers of technology. In fact they’ve consistently disrupted profits (on the scale of the economy as a whole) and de-capitalized long standing industries. The argument is that they’re after control. Perhaps. They’re certainly not in business for anyone else’s good. But exchanging profit for control only means they’re more disruptable than the companies they’ve disrupted, because a reduction in profit is only a reduction, while control either is or isn’t, any reduction is a complete loss. IBM has openly admitted it is in business to stay in business, as a resource, not to maximize profits.
Technology makes everything exchangeable, including motive itself. What motive can replace profit in exchange? Perhaps none. Perhaps any. Perhaps those two things are the same in the most basic way. My motive for exchanging something, say my labor for food, or shelter, or an iPad, may be just about anything. Perhaps the mistake of capitalism is to ascribe one motive to exchange when there are as many motives as there are exchanges? We know nothing other than capitalism. Even “really existing socialism” was largely a capitalist fantasy of productionism and capital formation without class strife. The fantasy of frictionless capitalism sustained the investment in technology until that investment became self-sustaining. Even science fiction that manages to project a reality without humans fails to project a reality without capitalism, though. Exchange is fundamental, and we cannot rid reality of the need for exchange. But perhaps the issue is the myth of profit-motive as foundational? But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum or it would have fallen long ago. Technology undermines it in a way that other changes could not, because it undermines what it sustains and what simultaneously sustains it, together with what realizes both.
The other side of profit-motive is property. Property is the basis of the metaphysical ‘real’, or res, as something ownable via spatial extension, durability, etc. The term “real estate” expresses this equivalence. Yet technology precisely de-realizes, in the metaphysical sense, what it produces. The “Internet of Things” is neither the internet, nor is it made of metaphysical things. It is an economy of things as de-realized. The “value” of anything insofar as it becomes part of this economy no longer lies in the product, but in its ability to participate in the economy of constant exchanges. An e-reader is such a product. While it is “thingly”, its value can be zeroed by a simple software change in the network that supports it. The notion of the IoT is a network or economy where nearly everything is de-realized in a similar way. In that situation, though, I no longer own what I purchase in the old sense, as Kindle Fire owners who had modified their devices discovered recently when a software update turned modified devices into a doorstop. If “things” properly speaking can no longer be owned, what happens to the notion of property that is both sustained by the profit-motive and sustains it?
Precisely how the “Internet of Things” or the de-realization of property will come to pass is at present undecidable. Most who have heard of it think of the companies I listed above as its foundation, but while they are certainly doing all they can to move towards it, with a faith that their version is the right one that can only be described as religious in intensity, they are by no means alone, or even the largest of the players involved, which also include titans such as General Electric, Hyundai, Lockheed, Mitsubishi, FIAT and others. Whether it will be any of these specific versions of IoT or, as is more likely, a constantly changing interplay of multiple notions of what it is, the fact remains that the companies that are the foundations of the world’s economies are racing towards some version of it. But this de-realization will accomplish something very similar to what occurred in the first instance of technological de-realization, that which affects primarily “intellectual property”. While this is a focus of strife between producers of such, distributors and consumers, the root problem is that we don’t know precisely how to value and thus both price and distribute proceeds of such, because it isn’t “property” in the sense of the metaphysical notion of the real. Nor are we likely to figure it out except by improvising once the IoT is, in whatever form, already operative. Until then the argument will be insoluble simply because it is being carried out by self-interested parties on a basis that doesn’t account for what a thing in truth has become. That truth itself has to become apparent, and the futility of self-interest on the old basis also apparent, before any sensible working out of the problem can happen. Before that, though, the race of the largest and most foundational industries into it can only destabilize things. That this appears obvious, yet everyone remains absolutely dedicated to the race implies that the change is not at root driven by corporations, by capital, or even by human beings, rather all three are driven by it. As such a decision to slow down, pause, ask what we are doing and why, is irrelevant because impossible.
Both the profit-motive and the metaphysical notion of “real property” came into existence with the invention of currency. Of course there had been “instruments of exchange” prior to that, pre-currencies such as precious metals, wine, etc. What made currency trustworthy though as measure was itself a technology, the touchstone. While people bemoan the replacement of cathedrals with bank towers they fail to realize that the Temples of the ancient world were also the mints of the ancient world. What was really earlier only becomes apparent later, as the Greek thinkers already knew. Currency though is losing currency in its other meaning. It’s losing relevance. The passing of currency as itself metaphysically real brings out its basic meaning as ‘appropriate measure’.
As measure it is merely arbitrary number, the mythos that hides that simple equivalence of money and plain number is unsustainable as currency is de-realized or virtualized. Compare a bank today with one fifty years ago. The stature has shrunk, the long marble aisles replaced with small cubicle offices. There is usually only one teller, all the other employees are managers of some kind, since the exchange of currency forms that was the primary business of a bank even in the 1980s is now done by automated systems. We no longer need to deposit paycheques and convert the currency into cheques to pay bills, cash to buy groceries, etc. Pay is deposited automatically and available on a debit card. The “temple” of the bank is no more than an intentionally inefficient server farm. Intentionally because disturbing the exchange is the only way for the bank to make money, other than gambling. The latter caused the worst financial crisis in history in 2007/2008, one likely to be repeated on a larger scale sooner rather than later. “Too big to fail” could quite easily become “too big to bail“. The bailout cost upwards of $19 trillion the last time. But the “big five” banks in the U.S. have in the meantime gone from owning 43% of the total economy to 56%.
What happens if profit-motive, the sense of property as “real”, and the sense of money as “real” are simultaneously undermined, the latter coming in a financial crisis where nobody can bail out the banks, even if anyone were still interested in doing so?
“The Passing (Away) of the Last God” – Martin Heidegger
This is not, as Heidegger points out in The Question Concerning Technology, some inescapable “fate”. We can continue blankly staring at technology and pushing it forwards, or what comes to the same thing, cursing it and looking away. We can run from what technology reveals as the essence of profit, property, currency. We can fail to see it as redefining the truth of essence itself as exchange. Or we can find in it a “freeing claim”. Like all great thinkers, Heidegger is as direct as he can be, when discussing the things that are most difficult to experience precisely because we see everything through them. It is a “freeing” claim precisely because we have no notion of how to value, price, what via our old notions cannot be considered “real” and therefore “property” in the first place.