This article was written on 13 Jan 2015, and is filled under Urbanities.

Space to Rent


Image: Photos Public Domain.

Craig Epplin’s last post to Urbanities questions whether the relation of producer-consumer and planner-occupant has really been altered by the advent of “participatory” modes of technology. More specifically, new forms of cartography that permit sonic or recorded mappings of space (such as the Mapa Sonoro de México) or “real-time” marking of space (Google Maps, satellite surveillance) nonetheless reinforce the productive dichotomy between owners and workers.

This is a provocative claim on several fronts. We have perhaps naturalized a belief that we are living in “the end of history,” within a new historical paradigm thrust upon us by powerful information technologies. Without denying that this could be the case, one must also recognize that space does not respond to our perceptions of historical shift so readily. Craig does depart from a leap in how we map space and place. The traditional [paper] map is close-ended: its two-dimensional renderings deliberately eliminate a great deal of information from the actual landscape, in order to reveal a place [to place a place?] that can be more easily regulated and controlled. New forms of digital-satellite cartography are deliberately open-ended, designed to dis-place a place so as to generate new flows of information and new opportunities for profit: “Our displacements through the world,” Craig writes, “the ways we turn space into place, generate information that is fed back into the maps produced by companies like Google, maps that form the basis for many other commercial undertakings. We participate in the construction of these maps simply by using them.”

Yet the distinction between closed- and open-ended cartography does not mean that nature of space, or even the social production of space, has been transformed. What has shifted is merely the manner in which rent is drawn from space and place. Here I use the definition of “rent” from classical economics: “a payment to a factor of production in excess to the cost needed to bring that factor into production.” In essence, rent should be considered “unearned revenue.”

Maps, let us say, open streams of revenue. The close-ended map (of Mexico, for instance) locates where natural resources and human resources may be found; how they might be drawn up and exploited; and/or under which authority these actions might be regulated or promoted. Does an open-ended map do anything differently? Craig argues correctly that open-ended cartography merely adds new efficiencies to the old process of map-making.

These new efficiencies derive from users willingly providing free labor in exchange for non-compensatory “value.” The constant streaming process of making space into place, defining and redefining places on the map, requires constant labor. The new map-makers acquire this labor in exchange for “participatory” affect, at infinitesimally reduced cost. Granted, one does not acquire much labor from an individual by paying wages in affect – at least not on the individual level. The secret is to utilize information technologies to aggregate microscopic bits of labor input. I would call this a system of “nano-labor.” What we call “social media” should be understood as “the systematic exploitation of nano-labor.” For instance, I tell Facebook where I am and that I like Korean pork buns at X location. I am paid with the satisfaction of presenting myself to others I know as the kind of person who is cool enough to find Korean pork buns at X. As a result, Facebook maps X as a location it can advertise. Advertising revenue is insignificant in and of itself as concerns Facebook’s place-ment of X.  But in the aggregate it may expand valuation to Facebook as a whole on financial markets, which perceive Facebook to be a revenue-generating advertising behemoth, potentially. The price of Facebook stock remains high because the company can potentially “monetize” my nano-labor.

The social network, in other words, derives rent by not paying me a wage for my productive labor on the front-end; and it derives rent on the back-end by gaining financial value on stock markets based on a potential future valuation (rather than actual production or profitability). How does this rent-seeking relate to space?

First, on a small scale, the mapping of X as a place of interest – and millions of other X’s across the globe – is the base/source for rent. X marks the spot where rent is rent from space. But secondly, the fact that any point on the globe may be marked as spot X opens onto a far vaster scale than just mentioned. We tend to think of our present as a historical era of “deterritorialization.” The ground has no natural value, because nature and culture are indistinct. Instead, the ground is merely a matrix for the production of “soft” architecture – which is not only the design of a buildings but also the design over the negative or “empty” space between buildings. If the old close-ended and two-dimensional cartography produced maps of the dirt, the new open-ended and four-dimensional cartography produces maps of the air – including sound waves and electromagnetic waves through the air.

But this is just an intensification of productive/exploitative forces rather than an alteration of them. To wit, the open-ended map is “open” because it presents every single point on the globe as a place. There is no space left, just place. Every point on the globe is available as a place for Google and its satellites in orbit to map. This elimination of space is entirely imagined, confabulated by finance capitalism, but that hardly matters. The new cartography confabulates a scarcity of space, because it employs our constant nano-labor to mark and re-mark places all over the globe.

This scarcity of space, however phantasmatic, has dire political-economic consequences. Indeed, Joseph Stiglitz’s recent work suggests that this scarcity is the primary cause of the unprecedented inequality of wealth worldwide we are now experiencing. Since space appears scarce, the value of land increases – for those who own it. Since land-values increase, they can be used as collateral for ever-expanding flows of credit which, rather than being channeled into capital investments are merely taken as rent, thus further increasing the value of land and financial shares. And this provides financial incentive for further, catastrophic rent-seeking in the form of, for instance, gaming the political system to encourage higher risk-taking on financial markets so as to increase the haul taken in as rent. As a simplified example, Congress deregulates derivatives so that new and riskier mortgage-backed securities can be created, the profits of which will only be minimally taxed by he government – all because the rentiers have armies of lobbyists at their behest.

Make no mistake about it: Nano-labor is a matter of space. And macro-exploitation is a matter of space. And the new cartography of social media?

Old wine, new skins!

One Comment

  1. Craig Epplin
    January 16, 2015

    Fantastic post, Justin, something to return to. “Maps of the air” is a really interesting concept, especially because these sorts of maps—of electromagnetic waves, for example—are illegible to people but not to machines. A significant quantity of the production of space today (like a significant quantity of communication in general) happens through actions that completely bypass human cognition.