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Quantifying Love

THE MOST SUCCESSFUL Internet companies, it seems, all learned the lesson of Tom Sawyer. By outsourcing labor to their users, it is as if they have cordially invited friends and neighbors to delight in painting their fence. Instagram does not need to hire photographers; users snap, post, and comment on photos, and their hashtags are a filing system, a taxonomy as meticulously curated as a filing cabinet. Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, relies on all of us to keep each other amused, as does the Chinese platform Weibo. Even Google, Amazon, and Alibaba, operating far afield from social media, rely on combined consumers and producers (“prosumers”) to let them know when their algorithms are helpful. They also allow customers to police the quality of products and websites so that they don’t have to pay someone to do that work. Airbnb, Uber, and eBay apply similar methods, shifting the burden of quality control by having both sides in commercial transactions rate one another. We all give up small treasures—our data—to paint the fence of platform capitalists.

We may soon do the same for government. Every society depends on free labor—work that is vital but which goes unpaid. Smart governments realize that they need to strike some balance between market activity and the free labor that supports families and communities. Policymakers promote business and growth, but they also realize that if every moment were commodified, the foundations of social reproduction would wither away. Index funds may prove a better investment than children. And if you don’t get credit for being civil, paying attention in class, or taking care of your aging parents, why would you?

There are standard solutions to such problems. Courts can drain the bank accounts of “deadbeat dads.” Churches and civil society groups can stigmatize deviants, and the carceral state can further scare scofflaws. But these approaches take resources. The perfectly efficient neoliberal state would cut out the middleman. It would learn from Silicon Valley that you can motivate people not only to rate and rank one another, but also to positively enjoy the power and responsibility that rating (and being rated) entails.

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Find the complete article and many more in this issue of Boston Review - Evil Empire (Fall 2018)
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Paperback, 128 pages “All history,” writes Maximillian Alvarez in his contribution to this issue, “is the history of empire—a bid for control of that greatest expanse of territory, the past.” Evil Empire confronts these histories head-on, exploring the motivations, consequences, and surprising resiliency of empire and its narratives. Contributors grapple with the economic, technological, racial, and rhetorical elements of U.S. power and show how the effects are far-reaching and, in many ways, self-defeating. Drawing on a range of disciplines—from political science to science fiction—our authors approach the theme with imagination and urgency, animated by the desire to strengthen the fight for a better future. Featuring Nikhil Pal Singh, Arundhati Roy interviewed by Avni Sejpal, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Yuri Herrera translated by Lisa Dillman, Pankaj Mishra interviewed by Wajahat Ali, Frank Pasquale, Adom Getachew, Maximillian Alvarez, Jeanne Morefield, Michael Kimmage, Stuart Schrader, Marisol LeBrón, and Mark Bould.