Zhenia Vasiliev: Real Software Abstraction and Class Struggle

Advisor/tutor: Bassam El Baroni
Arnhem, June 2017


The thesis looks at the possibilities for production of new class subjectivities and the class struggle within the media context of digital capitalism. Taking an idea of real abstraction, developed by economist and philosopher Alfred Sohn-Rethel, I argue that one of the key elements within media theory in relation to class is real software abstraction, a term proposed by communication and software scholar Robert W. Gehl. It expands on the original Marxian concept of real abstraction, explained by Sohn-Rethel as the social relationship of commodity exchange, and exchangeability of such commodities in particular, to include software engineering practice. A vehicle for such abstraction is the user interface. Due to its visual nature and capacity for bundling and hiding the complexity of software architecture, it enables exchange between user and software – and exchange among users. The interface allows for data collection and its later commodification, and is thus a site of production in which the capitalism enters the realm of the social. But it is not only the visual nature of the interface that is becoming more involved in the growing digital capitalist vortex, but also the vision as a human sense, and particularly the process of observation. This happens, I argue, due to the increasing role of the vision in technological progress.

The idea of struggle in this changing social landscape is growing into a cascade of struggles characterized by a non-homogenous and fleeting composition: active members constantly plug in and out and migrate between different struggles simultaneously. But the greatest strength of digital communication is also its biggest flaw: it circulates news more quickly while diminishing its impact; it incites protests on a mass scale and provides structural flexibility while rendering them short-lived via immediate fragmentation; and it facilitates subversive anti-capitalist actions but exposes them to surveillance by the ideology these actions push against. My conclusion is that while the involvement of cybernetics in capitalism does not necessarily create new class subjectivities or recompose them, some technological developments do create non-capitalist forms of production and exchange, and thus shift the conditions of struggle in unprecedented ways, creating a multiplicity of paths for resistance.