Coming to Our Senses


By Theresa Henne With Thanks to Bo-Mi Choi for Her Lecture and Her Comments on the Blogpost

Capitalism has created enormous wealth. Yet people are unhappy and work harder and longer than ever before and more and more people struggle to make ends meet.  At the source of this contradiction – increasing anxiety and poverty amidst enormous productive capacity and wealth – lies capitalism’s relentless drive for surplus value (or capital), explains Bo-Mi Choi, in her public lecture “Artificial Intelligence in the Age of Surveillance Capitalism - A Critical Theoretical Perspective,” which she gave as part of the Sommerdiskurs am Wolfgangssee. Bo-Mi Choi is a lecturer in Social Studies at Harvard University, studied law „in another life“, holds a PhD in Modern Intellectual European History and lately concerns herself with the conditions for human flourishing in an algorithmic society.

In her lecture, Bo-Mi Choi quickly sketches the fundamentals of Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism in front of the audience with pen and paper: Use value = Concrete & physical … arrow to Labour … baking bread / Exchange value = abstract, social agreement ... arrow to Labour ... hours spend baking bread … quantification of labouring activities … and so on

At the heart of Bo-Mi Choi’s depiction are Marx’s concepts of the commodity form and surplus value, the latter of which represents the inner principle of capitalist accumulation, the logic that drives the system. The production costs must decrease steadily in order to allow the surplus value to increase. While the primary source of surplus value is, according to Marx, extracted from human labor power, higher levels of productivity are achieved through technological innovation. Theses innovations, however, lead to competitive advantage only as long as other market players have not yet caught up. When they do, the playing field is once again levelled.  Marx shows clearly in Capital Vol. 1 how value, or capital, is relative and conditioned on the “socially necessary labor time” attained by a given society.  Thus, as technological innovation is only a partial and above all temporal fix, people, in the long run, work harder and longer, leading to what the Marxian theorist Moishe Postone calls the “treadmill-effect” of capitalism. You run but remain in the same spot.

In the final part of her lecture, Bo-Mi Choi turns to surveillance capitalism, a term famously coined by Shoshana Zuboff. Bo-Mi Choi argues that the logic of AI-technology driving the digital economy replicates the features of capitalism. The digital economy builds on the extraction of data from our very bodies, actions and experiences, which are then used to make predictions about people’s future behaviour. The surplus value in the digital economy is extracted from the business of making and selling such predictions, e.g., in the domain of advertisement. In the logic of endless capitalistic growth, people hence would need to be ever more data-fied in order to increase the profits of the data economy. In fact, Bo-Mi Choi predicts that virtual worlds such as the Metaverse would be basically directed at this aim.

Furthermore, Bo-Mi Choi points to three arguments why AI-technology, which fundamentally is the automation of intellectual labor, so perfectly complements the capitalist logic. Both capitalism and AI:

-          are highly intransparent and abstract to the degree that people are unable to understand and hence cannot question its inner workings, which in turn leads to a sense of feeling helpless in the face of quasi-objective economic forces as well as AI technology – both of which are constituted and created by human beings

-          are based on the commodification of peoples time spent working or simply using their phone

-          translate qualitatively different experiences into quantifiable, that is, homogenous, units (e.g., bread is no longer a means to appease hunger but becomes a commodity that can be traded, as well as a numerical value on a diet tracker app).

Marx’s critique of capitalism allows us, so Bo-Mi Choi argues, to realize that capitalism is a socially created and historically specific force, not a natural one. In other words, rather than succumbing to technological determinism, we must remain critical and come to a vision of human flourishing that goes beyond merely quantitative, that is, capital gains. We need “a Nietzschean reevaluation of values.” Bo-Mi Choi ends her lecture by invoking Adorno’s appeal that we need to literally come to our senses (Selbstbesinnung). Jenny Odell’s „How to Do Nothing,“ Bo-Mi Choi points out, might serve as a potential source of inspiration for such a practice of Selbstbesinnung. To achieve an interruption of AI-driven capitalism, we might be required to disengage with the digital playground built to distract us from the real world.

The points raised by Bo-Mi Choi ended up sparking interesting discussions with industry representatives in the following days. In a panel discussion on the topic of innovation and sustainability, an audience member asks, how can the logic of the surplus value requiring the extraction of more and more value from planet earth go hand in hand with sustainability? The answer by a panellist circled around the notion of technological innovation; however, ‘The surplus value remains untouched’ seemed to be the message between the lines.

Bo-Mi, how can we come to our senses? 

Begrüßung bei Franz-Stefan Meissel
Vortrag bei Bo-Mi Choi
Frage aus dem Publikum