“Yo” Is an App that doesn’t let you do much: it just lets you send or receive a “Yo” message to/from another subscriber. Purists might insist on this being content, but it really is pretty de minimis, which lets you ask the obvious question: why on earth would a communication technology that doesn’t really let you communicate anything interest anyone? My colleague Robin James has a brilliant answer to that question, which is that Yo basically embodies what Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism.” Here is James:
“Yo embodies Dean’s definition of communicative capitalism: it’s a platform that eliminates message in favor of pure circulation. This works because the circulation is what generates value for data collectors, brokers, and analysts. It doesn’t matter what we say, only that we ping one another, that we establish patterns of relationships, patterns of behavior, patterns of circulation. “A contribution need not be understood; it need only be repeated, reproduced, forwarded. Circulation is the content, the condition for the acceptance or rejection of a contribution” (59): these are Dean’s words, published in 2005, but they’re also a very accurate account of Yo”
James then uses the point to ground the suggestion that concerns about metadata in particular evidence not a politics of speech, but a “politics of circulation:”
“[I]t’s not the content that matters, but the metadata–the qualitative features of that circulating datum. So when we think about having real, tangible effects on the organization of our social, political, and economic relations, we ought to think about the means, methods, and qualities of circulation. And maybe Yo, or something similarly simple, is just the sandbox we need to play in to hone our skills?”
First of all, it’s great to see the reference to Dean, whose work here really ought to get more traction in philosophy than it does. Her central thesis applies to wide swaths of material that is uncritically celebratory of new information technologies. The inconvenient message is that we fetishize communication technologies (think Internet petitions) because we have no actual political power: “under communicative capitalism, communication functions fetishistically as the disavowal of a more fundamental political disempowerment or castration” (61).
Dean means fetishization here in a loosely psychoanalytic sense. If we stick to a more strictly Marxian vocabulary, however, we arrive at something else of interest. By being an object with no use value, Yo also demonstrates the fetishization of use value inherent in positing the use:exchange value dichotomy. Here, the reference is to Baudrillard:
“Utility, needs, use value: none of these ever come to grips with the finality of subjects who face their ambivalent object relations, or with symbolic exchange between subjects. Rather, it describes the relation of individuals to themselves conceived in economic terms – better still, the relation of the subject to the economic system. Far from the individual expressing his or her needs in the economic system, it is the economic system that induces the individual function and the parallel functionality of objects and needs” (“For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign,” in Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster, 67)
Capital, in other words, rigs the game even more thoroughly than Marx realized. The very description of commodity fetishism uncritically imports capital’s measure of what people do with objects: they use them to “satisfy preferences” or “maximize utility.” Fetishization, as Marx emphasized, obscures the production process in the abstraction from “labor” (hammering nails, moving around crates of Brillo pads) to “labor power” (as an average amount of labor expended per unit time). What gets completely buried in the Marxian description, and thereby rendered completely unintelligible, is a parallel but unnoticed abstraction from “things that one does” to “use.” Lost entirely are economies that do not depend on use value. Baudrillard mentions gift economies; one might also propose Bataille’s general economy in this context.
I don’t know if this is a fair critique of Marx or not, but I do think it is illuminating in the context of Yo. Eliminating use value allows more transparently political economies to become more visible. As James notes, Exhibit A is a process of original accumulation whereby metadata gets incorporated into the system of capital as a kind of surplus labor. Here is Exhibit B: Yo is being used by the Israeli IDF to ping subscribers whenever a rocket is launched into Israeli territory. Since there’s a lot of these rockets being fired in the current crisis, this means that subscribers are constantly being pinged. There is a public safety narrative here, but it’s obviously false, as an endless and unrelenting series of pings doesn’t provide any clear way to be safer, especially for subscribers who don’t live in target areas. The goal, one assumes, is to induce vicarious anxiety on behalf of, and sympathy for, those who live in Southern Israel. In other words, Yo is functioning to create an imagined community of exactly the sort that communicative capital’s creative destruction of mass media was supposed to demolish.