Saturday, July 27, 2019

"Technoscience Rent: Toward a Theory of Rentiership for Technoscientific Capitalism"

From the journal Science, Technology, & Human Values:

Technoscience Rent: Toward a Theory of Rentiership for Technoscientific Capitalism 
Kean Birch1
First Published February 6, 2019
Contemporary, technoscientific capitalism is characterized by the (re)configuration of a range of “things” (e.g., infrastructure, data, knowledge, bodies) as assets or capitalized property. Accumulation strategies have changed as a result of this assetization process. Rather than entrepreneurial strategies based on commodity production, technoscientific capitalism is increasingly underpinned by rentiership or the appropriation of value through ownership and control rights (e.g., intellectual property [IP]), monopoly conditions, and regulatory or market devices and practices (e.g., investment dispute courts, exclusivity agreements). While rentiership is often presented as a negative phenomenon (e.g., distorting markets, unearned income) in both neoclassical and Marxist political economy literatures—and much in between—in this paper, I conceptualize rentiership as a technoeconomic practice and process framed by insights from science and technology studies (STS). So, rather than a problematic “side effect” of capitalism, the concept of rentiership enables us to understand how different forms of value extraction constitute, and are constituted by, different forms of technoscience. This allows STS to contribute a distinctive analytical approach to ongoing debates in political economy about economic rents and rent-seeking.

Keywords assetization, rentiership, rent-seeking, technoscientific capitalism, technoscience rent, political economy of technoscience
Tractors are an unusual starting point for research in science and technology studies (STS), but one that reflects a broader set of emerging issues in technoscientific capitalism that STS scholars could pay more attention to. In an article on the Motherboard website, Koebler (2017) claims that farmers in the United States are purchasing black market software from Ukraine in order to hack their own tractors. The reason for this is that tractor manufacturers have made it increasingly difficult, legally speaking, for farmers to do “unauthorized repairs” on their tractors. I stress “their” because Wiens (2016), writing in Wired, claims that said tractor manufacturers are reconfiguring—or “destroying” in his terms—the very nature of ownership itself, and, by extension, capitalism as we know it. Wiens argues that tractor manufacturers are basically claiming that farmers “don’t own their tractors” anymore after farmers sign license agreements in which they are forbidden to “tamper” with their tractor’s software and electronics, copyrighted by the manufacturers.

This reconfiguration of ownership is an example of rentiership or the capture of economic rents. Generally, economic rents are the value that can be extracted from economic activity—broadly conceived—as the result of the ownership and control of a particular resource (or asset), primarily because of that resource’s inherent or constructed productivity, scarcity, or quality. As a concept, economic rent is usually associated with the ownership and control of land and has its origins in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century political economy (e.g., Ricardo [1817] 2001; Marx [1894] 2010). Some classical political economists sought to defend this ownership (e.g., Thomas Malthus), although most criticized its negative effects on capital accumulation (e.g., Ricardo). Since then, and especially during the twentieth century, economic rent theory has been applied more widely to natural resources (e.g., oil), financial resources, and intangible resources such as knowledge.

Recently, economic rents and rent-seeking have moved to the center of public debate. A growing chorus of academics, politicians, journalists, activists, and commentators analyzing contemporary capitalism have turned to these concepts as a way to understand the implications of contemporary capitalism’s increasingly technoscientific characteristics. From the pro-capitalist side, the journalist Robert Colville (2017) argues that “the structure of capitalism is increasingly tending towards monopoly…[and] because of the network effects involved, this tendency is particularly pronounced in tech.” From the anti-capitalist side, the academic Guy Standing (2016) argues “Plutocratic corporations are patent hoovers, buying thousands of patents. It is a winner-takes-all market created by the regulatory apparatus, not market forces.” Numerous people raise similar issues relevant to debates in STS, including the privatization and commercialization of basic research (Stiglitz 2014), network effects of information technology (Jacobs 2015), business models of new technology platform companies (Kaminska 2016), ownership and use of personal data (Morozov 2016), threats to competition represented by corporate concentration and monopoly in tech sectors (Mazzucato 2018), and financial technology innovation (Bregman 2017)....

HT: The author's Twitter feed