Flexible production

Every so often someone on my Facebook shares a story about abandoned buildings, deserted factories, or broken-down shopping malls.

Michael Day’s photographs of Chernobyl and the abandoned town of Pripyat.

Christian Richter’s photographs of abandoned buildings in Europe.

Seph Lawless’ photographs of abandoned malls in America.

Zach Fein, Yves Marchand, and Romain Meffre’s images of abandoned industrial buildings in Detroit.

These images tap a fascination with the collapse of a prior world, a society organised around mass industrial factories. They evoke a nostalgia for a kind of city that has disappeared.

In the case of Detroit, the abandoned factories don’t just represent the collapse of the automobile industry they mark the dissolution of a whole way of life that went along with that economic formation.

Factories, hotels, skyscrapers and homes lie abandoned throughout the city since the collapse of car manufacturing there over the past generation.

These empty buildings signify the disappearance of working class families, communities and neighbourhoods.

In these abandoned buildings we see an eerie portrait of what happens when an industrial economy disappears and no new economic activity arises in those same spaces to replace it.

The networked information economy has created new winners and losers.

The cultural geographer David Harvey calls these changes in how capitalism organises itself ‘flexible accumulation’ and ‘uneven development’.

By this he means that some countries, regions, and even parts of cities have developed rapidly, while other parts have not.

Manufacturing jobs left the highly developed Western economies and is now located in emerging economies like Southern China where investors can find the right mix of affordable yet well-trained labour, functioning transport and energy infrastructure and stable government.

The factories are now in the rapidly expanding industrial cities of Southern China.

Other parts of the world might have surplus or cheap labour, but not the stable infrastructure to support industry.

In the West we increasingly find ourselves living and working in post-industrial societies. The inner-city neighbourhoods in my home city of Brisbane are like the inner-city neighbourhoods of many Australian, American, UK and European cities: while the old industrial buildings remain, they no longer house factories. Instead, they are full of loft apartments, art galleries, fashion stores, bars, cafes, co-working spaces, gyms, restaurants, pilates and yoga studios. They are dominated by the service, leisure, knowledge and lifestyle economies.

Meanwhile, cities like New York, Los Angeles, London, Frankfurt, Singapore, and Sydney become densely wired. These are the places where internet and telecommunication infrastructure converge. They are the nodal point from which the flows of information that coordinate global production and consumption emanate.

If you are studying a media or communication degree you are basically training to become part of this info-rich knowledge worker class.

Knowledge industry jobs seem ideal. Google image search ‘google office’ or ‘facebook office’ and you’ll see images of bright bean bags, gourmet food bars, and green campuses.

These are the new factories emblematic of the info-tech economies. Factories for the production of ideas.

You’ll no doubt do a very different kind of work to that your parents or grandparents did.

Your grandparents probably had a very material job. My pop did, he was a furniture polisher. There are hardly any furniture makers left in Australia anymore.

Where most people a century ago had a job making something material, now most of us are immaterial labourers: we provide services, produce ideas and manage networks.

We make ideas, creative solutions, analytics, code, social networks, events, feelings and so on.

Doing this work relies less on our physical prowess and more on our cultural capital: the ability to have the right ideas, tastes, communication skills, ways of speaking and dressing to both envision and communicate the good life to others.

The emergence of an information rich global economy is very much a story of uneven development: new winners and new losers.

Check out the iPhone factories run by corporations like Foxconn in China. Compare these images to children from New York slums in the early 19th century. Both are easy to find on Google images.

The children in New York sweatshops made clothes, shoes, and household items.

There are no kids working in organised sweatshops in New York today, but if you search for images of the dorms that iPhone manufacturers in China live in you’ll see new kinds of labour exploitation.

The iPhone factory might not be as dirty, but is deleterious to the health and wellbeing of workers in other ways. For more of this story, check out the BBC documentary 'Apple's Broken Promises' on iPhone production that came out in 2014.

David Harvey explains that flexible accumulation reorganises rather than ‘ends’ industrial modes of production. Industrial factories, with their low-paid workforces, are shifted to the ‘periphery’ of the network, where they can be managed from afar by highly skilled managers in global cities.

Harvey notes that these workers are ‘a highly privileged, and to some degree empowered, stratum within the labour force’. They become powerful because ‘capitalism depends more and more on mobilising the powers of intellectual labour’.

Global network capitalism is flexible enough to manage many alternative forms of labour. When Harvey argues that production is shifted to the ‘periphery’ of the network, he is talking about the shift of industrial factories from developed countries to developing countries, but he is also talking about the emergence of flexible and exploitative forms of work within developed countries themselves like casual labour, subcontractors, and other informal labour practices that are part of industries like media, cultural and fashion production.

To conclude this brief sketch of the emergence of a global and networked mode of economic and cultural production, let’s make three claims about the changes that have re-ordered society and its media system over the past generation.

Firstly, a system of mass consumption that catered to homogenous cultural identities has given way to a mode of consumption – and cultural life – organised around multiple niche identities. We are less consumers of identities distributed by the mass media, and more active workers in fashioning and presenting ourselves as individuals who fit into the entrepreneurial and flexible culture of global capitalism.

Secondly, mass centralised forms of production have been replaced by responsive, just-in-time and networked modes of production. Enterprises from manufacturers to media are organised in highly flexible data-driven networks that respond to multiple and rapidly changing markets.

Thirdly, disciplinary and repressive modes of control are augmented with responsive and reflexive modes of control. A networked social system can manage populations via monitoring, affirmation and rewards. The culture industry doesn’t only shape mass populations with homogenous ideologies, it increasingly offers a data-driven infrastructure that is increasingly entangled with our bodies via the smartphone.

The global information economy is characterised by new modes of production, consumption and control. In global network capitalism culture is central to making and maintaining power relationships.