Staying ahead of the curve: an interview with Vincent Mosco

Dr. Vincent Mosco is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology, Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. He graduated from Georgetown University in 1970 and received the Ph.D. in Sociology from Harvard University in 1975. Professor Mosco is the author of numerous publications on communication, technology, and society. His most recent books include ˝To the Cloud: Big Data in a Turbulent World˝ (Pluto Press 2014),˝The Political Economy of Communication˝ (Sage 2009, 2nd edition), ˝The Laboring of Communication: Will Knowledge Workers of the World Unite?˝with Catherine McKercher (Lexington Books 2008), and ˝The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace˝ (MIT Press 2004). He is also the editor, with Christian Fuchs, of the special issue of the journal Triple C titled ˝Marx is Back: The Importance of Marxist Theory and Research for Critical Communication Studies Today˝ (2012) and editor, with Catherine McKercher and Ursula Huws, of the special issue of the journal Work Organisation, Labor and Globalisation titled ˝Getting the Message: Communications Workers and Global Value Chains˝ (2010). In 2014 he was joint recipient, with Catherine McKercher, of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Professional Freedom and Responsibility award. His 2004 book ˝The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace˝ won the Olson Award for outstanding book of the year in cultural studies. In that same year he received the Dallas W. Smythe Award for outstanding achievement in communication research.

1) What got you interested in media and communication studies in the first place? How did that change over the years?

I think it is a combination of the experiential and the intellectual. I grew up in a working class neighborhood in New York City part of the first generation of people with television. The first televisions arrived when I was four, or five, years old and, because we were poor, we didn’t have money for other forms of entertainment. Television was free and we watched it a lot. But, intellectually, I took it on as a substantial research interest when I arrived at Harvard University in 1970 as a new PhD student. In that year Daniel Bell arrived at Harvard and, at that time, he was finishing The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society, and starting work on his book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. I took a strong interest. He was a brilliant man, an excellent teacher, and very demanding. I simply took every one of his classes and, after one year, he asked if I would work as his research assistant. He took me to his home and showed me a large wall covered in books and said: ˝your job this summer will be to read all these books and tell me what’s in them˝. It turned out that the books all dealt with technology, and particularly communication and information technology. I found it enormously interesting and immediately took a strong interest in questions of media and media power. When Bell, as he put it, exhausted what he could teach me about communication technology, he sent me to Anthony Oettinger, a specialist in computer science and IT at Harvard. He was a mathematician by trade who was moving into questions of computer policy. I worked with Bell and Oettinger to develop a research program. Though I had political disagreements with Bell, he taught me the importance of staying ahead of the curve in technology, and of having the courage to pursue something that might be a few years in the future – as he did with The Coming of Post-Industrial Society and other work. So I decided to look at what lie ahead of the curve. At that point it was wired mass media, or what we later came to be called cable television. I was interested in the relationship between businesses promoting these technologies, and the government regulatory system in the United States. Professor Oettinger had a strong interest in policy. When he attempted to develop natural language translation for computers and it did not succeed, he pivoted to become a policy analyst and was actually quite successful as advisor to the White House and the National Security Council. So I produced a dissertation that examined how the US regulatory apparatus controlled, or failed to control, the development of new media. That got me started in a career of looking at a whole series of new media hoping to continue to stay ahead of the curve with a strong interest in policy. Now I’ll conclude my answer simply by saying that, a few years after I finished my PhD, I met Herbert Schiller and Dallas Smythe who were the founders of the political economy approach to communication in North America. They became mentors, colleagues and friends. From them I learned the importance of what Marx called ruthless criticism, and the importance of an applied critical approach to media. With that foundation, by the late 1970s, or early 1980s, I had established a pattern of work and a research program that, with modifications, I have followed ever since.

2) How can the political economy of communication help us better understand the internet and new communication technologies? What makes the approach specific in comparison to other approaches to media and communication?

Power is certainly a central concept in the political economy of communication. By that I mean primarily institutional power and how private and public organizations gain power; how they use their power over the media to advance their particular point of view, or to minimize points of view they do not agree with. This is absolutely essential to the approach. What is also important is something I found very useful in sociology which is a view that this was an approach broad enough to encompass a wide variety of questions and disciplines. Political economy enabled me to look at the ways in which the state and the corporation overlap; the connections between the political and economic in the world; and, more broadly, the interconnections of a range of institutions around the concept of power. I have never felt that it is useful to identify the economy alone as central, or the political domain alone as determinative. The expression I use in my book The Political Economy of Communication is the “mutual constitution” of institutions within society – how do the political and economic work one on another to carry out power; what are the consistencies and contradictions that help to shape the social field, and so on. Political economy, particularly in the neomarxian or New Left tradition out of which my theoretical roots grew in the 1970s, emphasizes the dialectical approach which is again congenial to political economy. It looks not only at power from above, but at power and resistance from below and how contradictions and contentions help us to accurately map the social field. There is also the prominence in political economy of social class, class relations, class conflict, and class struggle. Furthermore, those of us who came of age in North America with movements for civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, and peace, recognized that one cannot reduce political economy to the essentialism of social class without incorporating a range of relations including gender, race, ethnicity and the intimate connections of people to the built environment. All of these found a good home in the political economy of communication as I have emphasized in my research.

3) Flexibility, outsourcing, and recently crowdsourcing have been some of the buzzwords of late capitalism, particularly with regard to knowledge workers. How have these phenomena affected the nature of work?

I should say I developed a strong research interest in labor beginning in the 1980s. One of the influences was experiential. I come from a trade union household. My father was a printer active in his union. Unlike many young people today whose experience is marginal, at best, with trade unions, we talked about unions and labor in my home. It was important for the formation of my personality and character. In the 1970s I, as many others, recognized that there are major shifts taking place within national and global capitalism; that the boom period of the post-war era was slowing and the global political economy was entering what might be called late capitalism. I felt it was important to build a bridge between media and communication studies and labor studies. My first book on labor was in 1983, an edited collection with Janet Wasko on Labor, the Working Class and the Media. It also included work from trade unionists. I felt all along that, as part of what might best be called praxis, or the unity of theory and action, theoreticians and agents of action were essential for good research. In the last ten years, my research turned to the examination of knowledge labor. By knowledge labor I mean the work of those involved in the production, distribution and exchange of information and communication resources. I take a broad definition because I believe it is essential to understand the global division of labor and to link, for example, the computer assemblers in Shenzhen, China with the designers in Cupertino, California. All of this provides insight into the global division of labor. Furthermore, there is an important political reason for a broad definition of knowledge labor. The terms you identify are reference to, by and large, capital’s response to the crisis that began in early 1970s and which continues in late capitalism – the difficulty faced by a falling rate of profit, the need to exploit new markets, including for labor. Central to this was the attack on the standard labor contract. Unions had fought for it, and over many decades succeeded in achieving full time employment with social benefits, secure jobs and, in some cases, cooperative relations in the formation of workplace rules between management and labor. Since the 1970s capital attacked this by developing new labor arrangements that would help increase its profit. The expansion in the means of communication and the ability to build global communication networks were absolutely essential to this new strategy of capital. Some of the leaders in capitalism had the foresight to recognize that the use of communication technologies could build global networks that would help them gain greater power over labor markets, build chains of accumulation worldwide, lessen the cost of labor, discipline labor, limit its power and achieve corporate capitalist hegemony in many parts of the world. Flexibility, outsourcing and even crowdsourcing are vehicles for controlling labor. But that is far from the end of the story. Labor has contested these terms and sometimes turned them to their benefit. Crowdsourcing is one example, but the resistance has been limited. We are only now beginning to see the formation of worker organizations built around digital labor – from freelancer unions to the resistance to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk in the organization Turkopticon. The labor arena is certainly an increasingly contested terrain.

4) You recently published a book about cloud computing and big data. What is the relationship between large scale data collection, data mining and the development of late capitalism?

Cloud computing is central to capital’s ability to maintain its economic and political power because the cloud gives capital the ability to control information and data on a global scale. Cloud data factories – and it’s best to call them factories because they process and do not only store data, largely through the control of a few companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, Google, IBM, and Cisco – give capital power in the form of the ability to commodify information on a greater scale. It gives them the power to manage global supply chains, maintain the global division of labor, and reach into the workforce to control it through surveillance and data analytics. The cloud also gives capital the ability to centralize many essential analytical functions which means it enables corporations that use the cloud to eliminate their IT departments and to outsource many of the knowledge functions that marketing, finance, legal and other components of the corporation used to provide internally. Now these can be carried out through the cloud thereby giving corporations greater ability to turn more of their sales into profit, rather than into wages. The cloud is very significant as a form of profiting from information. Surveillance enables greater management and control over labor which is why I have argued in To the Cloud: Big Data in a Turbulent World that we need to start a debate about the way we organize cloud computing and that we have to envision the cloud as a public resource subject to popular democratic control and not a private market commodity in the hands of big business and their allies in the surveillance state.

5) With the Snowden surveillance revelations we have concrete evidence of an uneasy relationship between states and global tech-companies. How can we establish a balance between the utility of digital technologies and their democratic use with full respect of privacy and other rights?

I think the best way that we can achieve it is to take a firm policy stance that information is a public resource like water and electricity. It is essential for social life and central to democracy. We need a debate about how to turn these private factories of information into public utilities that are available to people by right of citizenship and are there to serve the wider needs of human beings and not only the private interests of corporations, or the interest of the state, particularly in surveillance. Snowden and others have brought to the forefront the dangers and the damage that storing information in the cloud, whether government or corporate, can accomplish. What we know is that there really is another internet that most people do not have access to – the dark net controlled mainly by states and corporations that helps them achieve their ends, including managing and controlling workers, consumers and citizens. We need to develop strategies for taking back the technology in the name of democracy. Some might consider that a tall order. But I would remind them that these struggles have been an essential part of all communication technologies: from the telegraph to the telephone and broadcasting and on to our world of the internet and digital technology. There have been many successes whose benefits we still enjoy, such as public broadcasting, public education, public postal service, etc. They teach us lessons about how we might control information in the digital world. Snowden’s revelations can help to advance the education of the broader public on the need for a democratic internet.

6) Media and communication studies are inherently interdisciplinary. What is the role of disciplines, especially sociology, in this field?

I was trained as a sociologist and I am very grateful for that training in part because it taught me to think through a body of theory that, while not unique to sociology, formed its core. It also taught me to recognize in the classical theory of Marx, Weber or Durkheim and in contemporary social theory that it is essential to think theoretically. It taught me to see theory as evidence, as a way to see the world and to recognize that one cannot understand the world without having roots in theory. One of the central contributions of disciplines to the wider meta- or trans- disciplines is teaching a way to think about social problems that have their own point of vision that might be different from those in other disciplines such as economics, political science or psychology but which, when you see the world through them, offer particular insights and raise interesting questions. If you are a sociologist you must think about social class, gender relations, and race and ethnic relations because social relations are central to the core of the discipline. When one brings that to a wider meta-discipline like political economy, one takes those concepts and situates them within an understanding of political and economic power. One of our goals is to, and I’d like to use the expression which I used in the first edition of The Political Economy of Communication, take “the long march” though many disciplines in order to build a meta-discipline. That long march provides many different ways of seeing that enable you to build a broad, yet flexible, trans-discipline like political economy through which to see media and communication. There is therefore an important role for disciplines in a world of multidisciplinarity.

Interview conducted by Paško Bilić



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