by Gordon Hull
In a recent post, and by way of an important paper by Katherine Hayles, I suggested that “insofar as RFID chips negotiate the boundary between informatics and objects, and transitions between those, they should be studied as sites for the primitive accumulation of capital. That is, they are places where objects can become subsumed into capitalist market structures, while being dispossessed (following David Harvey's terminology) of whatever value they might have had before.” In the comments, Ed Kazarian suggested that the analysis also needs to think about the role of circulation and the ways that the wide diffusion of RFID tags facilitate the smooth circulation of commodities with the sorts of supply chain management techniques that characterize “just in time” capitalism. Here, I want to try to further that analysis a step or two, in part by complicating the sense in which I was using subsumption.
One of the central questions is the relation of several concepts: surplus value extraction, the circulation of commodities, and primitive accumulation (Marx’s term is “ursprunglich,” which connotes “originary” more than it does any normal associations with “primitivity”). Another important term that isn’t on the table yet is commodification, though it’s clearly critical to subsumption.
If one follows theorists like Arjun Appadurai, things exist in commodity form for only part of their “social lives.” At other times, they may play different social roles. For example (this is my example, not Appadurai’s), Walter Benjamin is famous for the thesis that mechanically-reproduced goods lack “aura.” His less well-known “Unpacking my Library” essay, however, offers the chance to nuance that claim: as he unpacks his books, he is flooded with memories of how he actually obtained them, where he was at the time, and so forth. In other words, and depending on their specific trajectories, individual examples of those goods might in fact have aura in the relevant sense. At that moment, to return to Appadurai, they are not functioning as commodities, but as things. Legal regimes can reflect this distinction: “first sale doctrine” in copyright, for example, stipulates that a copyright holder can only demand payment for the initial sale of an object containing her copyrighted work. Resales are not covered; it is this doctrine that allows vendors of used books not to worry about copyright. Although the second-hand book is a commodity in one sense, as it awaits purchase in a store, it is no longer commodified in the same way. Once purchased and incorporated into someone’s library, it leaves (at least for a time) the commodity relation.
Technology can change the nature of commodification. Compare Benjamin’s library books with ebooks designed to be read on an Amazon Kindle. One reason sellers like ebooks is that they can spend a much greater part of their lives as commodities (another is of course that the marginal cost of reproducing them is near zero). Because ebooks can only be accessed with enabling technologies, the ability of vendors to control those technologies changes how they’re read. For example, vendors might require readers to view the copyright notice or some commercials before accessing the text, as is the near universal case with commercial DVDs. They might also circumvent first sale doctrine entirely: if one purchases not the book but a license to access the text on a specific kind of device (or even a specific device, as anybody who’s dealt with iTunes and multiple computers will immediately understand), then it’s possible to design systems that either control how the text is accessed, require payment for continued access, make it impossible to give the text to someone else, or any combination of such control tactics
This dynamic in intellectual property law is not news (I wrote about analogous points here and here, ten years ago; see also, for example, this paper by Niva Elkin-Koren interpreting developments in copyright like DRM), but I think it sheds some interesting light on RFID tags. Because they can be embedded into physical objects cheaply and unobtrusively, they enable vendors to nudge objects into commodity relations in situations that where doing so had previously been much more difficult. Here’s two examples, which I pick because they are deliberately unimaginative – they are simply cases where RFID tags simply make it easier for companies to do what they already trying to do.
First, Keurig is already trying to use DRM to make sure that consumers only use their own brand of coffee with the maker (like printer companies try to make you use their expensive toner). RFID tags make it a lot harder to circumvent these sorts of things, of course, but they also make it easier to expand their reach. Suppose the coffee machine also knew if you had a certain brand of soup in your kitchen, and sent your cellphone a coupon code if you did? You might of course try to game the system and just buy a can of the soup and leave it in the cupboard, but RFID tags allow one to identify specific objects (and not just kinds of objects, like bar codes: this is part of why they are so good for supply chain management). So if that can of soup doesn’t get replaced at a certain rate, you don’t get the coupon. No homemade soup for you! If you want the discount, you have to consume the more fully commodified version.
Second, and as far back as 2004, a club in Barcelona required its VIP customers to have an embedded RFID. If clothing contains RFID tags, then clubs might contract with clothing vendors to give preferential treatment to patrons wearing the requisite brands (and who wear new enough versions of those brands). At that moment, articles of clothing – which patrons wore for their use value (whether it’s comfort, style, status-signaling, whatever) – suddenly enter the commodity chain again.
The other reason for these examples, of course, is that food and clothing are essential to subjectivity. One of the things that seems living (and not dead) in Hegel is his claim that individuals need to externalize themselves into the environment, putting their stamp (as it were) into the world (see the IP-related discussion here). By bringing articles of clothing and food products back into the system of commodity relations, and discouraging their slide into mere use values, RFID tags slowly extend the range of capital further into these areas.
I am not sure whether to call this affordance of RFID dispossession or subsumption or something else, but I do think it’s something new, and something potentially disturbing. This is not to be Orwellian, of course. Some of the uses of RFID tags sound pretty reasonable, as when hotels put washable tags into their towels to reduce theft. And, as Hayles points out, the fact that articles in shops are about to start broadcasting what they are will make it much easier for various watchdog groups to develop apps that warn users of brands with supply chain problems, bad safety records, and so forth. Oh, and there’s always ways to circumvent the technology; just ask these pigs that figured out how to defeat a system for rationing their food. But RFID tags make it a lot easier for things to be commodities for a greater percentage of their time, and harder to avoid that commodification.