June 9, 2023

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The political economy of communication: are digital technologies facilitating new forms of exploitation?

With the omnipresence of online systems in our day-to-day lives and interactions, the political financial system of interaction can aid us to understand the extent to which these channels are liberatory or exploitative. 

The online has turn out to be a basic-to-join, anyone-can-play program wherever the web sites and tactics of operate and engage in progressively wield folks as a source for economic amelioration by a handful of billionaire house owners.

Although the moment deemed a liberatory form of expression and conversation, modern yrs have seen the increase of ‘Big Tech’ and, with it, the misuse of personalized info and business surveillance.

This itself has essential ramifications for struggles all over privateness and mental home legal rights (as shown by the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal). As we progressively devote our time on the net – no matter if for get the job done or for leisure – our time both of those as workers and audience is turning out to be further commodified.

When looking at what makes an moral electronic apply, we have to request the dilemma: does a digital globe depart us rife for exploitation?Mark-zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg testifies in 2018 adhering to the privateness scandal. Photograph: Xinhua / Barcroft Pictures (via The Guardian)

What is the political economy of conversation?

1 certain theoretical framework that attempts to respond to this is the ‘political economic system of interaction’, a crucial idea in the industry of media studies that strives to disseminate the distribution and consumption of digital technologies.

Vincent Mosco, a main media scholar, techniques the framework as ‘the research of the social relations, notably the energy relations, that mutually represent the creation, distribution, and consumption of resources, including conversation resources’. In addition, the political economic climate of communications also potential customers us to feel about what it implies to be a producer, distributor or client and to take pleasure in the growing ambiguity about what constitutes these categories.

Broadly speaking, it involves two primary proportions.

  1. The 1st of these examines how media and conversation systems enhance, obstacle or influence current class and social relations. It does this with certain focus on how economic variables influence politics and social relations.
  2. 2nd, the political financial system of interaction analyses how private possession,

    aid mechanisms (e.g. paid promoting) and governing administration guidelines impact media behaviour and information.

    It’s the mix of these two dimensions that distinguishes the political economic climate of conversation from other variants of conversation, economic or cultural examination.

As a result of software of this framework to our on-line interactions, we can greater conceptualise our roles in this system as having two very clear functionalities: that of the worker and the buyer.

The part of the employee and the data society 

All through the 19th century, technological innovation had a crucial economic significance for the reason that of its function in increasing labour productivity.

The improvement of mechanical infrastructures, these types of as railways and transport of goods, aided the generation of and obtain to careers for much more people today.

On the other hand, in the wake of the industrial revolution – and considering that the 1960s especially – there has been a important shift in employment styles in the Worldwide North, with a better aim on data-based mostly generation somewhat than field-based mostly. 

Facts and its development, use, distribution and manipulation is now a central factor not only in employment, but also the quite formation of our societies, which are progressively organised in relation to the development of facts. 

Theories relating to the facts society have currently manufactured claims for the changing nature of work and the reduction in manufacturing-primarily based roles, supplying way to the rise of ‘cognitive capitalism’.

While bodily labour does not disappear – far from it – it does reduce its centrality, instead managing in conjunction with ‘digital labour’ and net-based mostly work environments. 

While this may well be a new variety of labour, it is topic to old forms of exploitation: there are no minimum wages or health insurance policy, and federal or condition regulators have experienced negligible intervention.

So, are these interaction-centered technologies inherently exploitative?

Some academics have argued just that, suggesting that the design of these digital platforms is simply a regurgitation of capitalist hierarchy.

Christian Fuchs – a prolific writer on the topic – advocates for a participatory financial state and democratisation of industrial authority buildings an world wide web platform can only be participatory, he insists, if it involves participatory possession structures.

For Fuchs, electronic platforms that are not developed on a participatory economic climate product cannot be accessed similarly throughout classes, and can hardly ever be really egalitarian.

The extent to which network-dependent communication systems are liberating employees is unclear, yet there are obvious examples of how they have enabled exploitation. 

On the other hand, much more contemporary discussions have regarded how these tech developments have transformed our notion of time and space, further blurring the strains concerning ‘work time’ and ‘leisure time’. These discussions about room-time compression and world wide room of flows take part in a for a longer period history regarding the purpose of technological know-how in the transformation of room and time.

Although they ended up occurring lengthy-right before the digital age, it has achieved new, perhaps hazardous stages with the proliferation of communication technological innovation into all factors of our life.

This can be more explored in Arwid Lund’s idea of ‘Playbour’

Labour and leisure time

The distinction amongst labour and leisure time has extended been a resource of academic debate, significantly among Marxist students.

In his 2012 e book ‘24/7: Late Capitalism and the Finishes of Slumber’, Jonathan Crary states:

“No individual can ever be searching, gaming, operating, running a blog, downloading, or texting 24/7. Even so, considering that no minute, spot, or now exists in which just one can not shop, consume, or exploit networked sources, there is a relentless incursion of the non-time of 24/7 into just about every part of social or particular life.”

Without a doubt, the sheer extent to which digital technologies have penetrated social relations provides the area-time configuration of the 24/7 environment appreciably additional impression than earlier, particular person technological systems.

The position of the viewers

The economics of business enterprise types of media complicate the simplistic division among get the job done time and leisure time obvious in mass communication. This is specially commonplace in our use of social media.

The idea of waged and unwaged labour is a Marxist idea, where capital tries to commodify disposable time. The result in is the imperialistic tendency of capitalism:

“But its inclination often, on the one side, to build disposable time, on the other, to convert it into surplus labour.” (Marx, 1857/58).

Dallas Smythe further more conceptualised this as the ‘commodified audience’. He contends that the economic connection which is the key driver of media as an industry is a single whereby audiences – or far more specially the attentive capacities of audiences – are bought to advertisers.

The likely audience get to is what dictates the expense of promotion areas the bigger the quantities, the larger the expense.

Whilst Smythe’s idea was revealed in 1977, the foundations of it are as appropriate these days as they were 40 many years in the past – most likely even additional so.

It articulates thoughts on how to ‘do’ the political economy of conversation, and goes some way in detailing the media marketplace obsession with rankings and continuous monitoring of viewers engagement the worth is in the figures.

The increase of capitalist social media this kind of as Fb, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Weibo has not rendered the ideas of labour time and its benefit superfluous, but is rather an expression of new features of labour’s price.

The extra time a person spends on Facebook, for case in point, the much more profile, searching, communication, behavioural, content material data they produce that can be available as a commodity to advertising clientele.

This results in hyper pertinent adverts getting introduced to the viewers, resulting in increased clicks and profits for the customer. The very same is correct for consumer-generated written content websites, on which person labour generates material and transaction facts are surveyed and offered to advertising purchasers, which get obtain to the interest of especially specific teams. 

This commodification of our supposed leisure time can be found as further more exploitation a cycle of capitalist labour and creation in which we are unwittingly trapped. 


There is no denying that digital technologies have opened us up to new varieties of expression that are inherently liberating. Furthermore, by transferring details and communications on the net, it has authorized for remote working and a increased perform-daily life equilibrium in some sectors. 

Having said that, as digital gets to be a necessity in nearly all our day-to-day interactions, the position of these on the web media stores need to also be critically analysed in terms of consumer exploitation/liberation.

This requires critiquing electronic systems as a indicates of production, investigating concerns of media monopoly, media corporation’s mergers and consolidations, back links involving federal government and the media, and work arrangements of media personnel.

In the 1970-80s, the political financial system of interaction and the media was tremendously revised by analysing media as a web page of production in and of alone, therefore highlighting the productivist position of audience in the generation of media worth, the two as a commodity and as labour ability. It is vital that the similar scrutiny is utilized to digital channels.