The worker places his life in the object; but now it no longer belongs to him, but to the object. The greater his activity, therefore, the fewer objects the worker possesses. What the product of his labour is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The externalization of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life which he has bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien.
Karl Marx – 1844 Manuscripts
Karl Marx remains a controversial figure about which society at large still has found little to agree upon. To this day his ideas are praised and ridiculed by equal measure and depending who you ask, he can be described as an inspirational intellectual, a misguided quack, or practically anything in between. However, looking back at his writings while confronting the challenges of the 21st century, one aspect of Marx’s writings becomes perfectly clear: the man knew what he was talking about when it came to e-readers.
Well, sort of. Whether it is because he was overly occupied detailing what he saw to be the historical inevitability of the Proletarian Revolution or because he’s been dead since 1883, Marx has found little time to write specifically about the emergence of e-readers and e-books in the last few years. Despite this oversight, after taking a gander through his writings on alienated labour I’ve found there is actually a surprising amount that can be applied to this contemporary phenomenon in reading. Not much of it is positive. In fact, I’m pretty sure that had the man known for sure about the Kindle, you can bet that he would have mentioned more than one spectre haunting Europe. And if you think about where he’s coming from, it’s an idea worth considering.
While it is impossible to give a full summary of Marx’s ideas on alienated labour in such a short article, in general Marx perceived alienated labour as being very detrimental to an individual. To him, when individuals labour, they in effect impart a piece of themselves into the object they create. If they labour to produce an object that they no longer control and that instead works against them, it ends up confronting the labourer as something ‘alien’ to them. This, not surprisingly, is bad and harms an individual. The connection to e-readers may not exactly seem clear yet after such an incomplete summary. By applying this idea to the concept of reading, though, I believe it is possible to see e-readers as threatening their victims wherever you find them in use.
All you really need to do to connect Marx to e-readers is to think of reading as a form of labour. As far as I can tell this isn’t a hard leap to make, and I implore you to do it. I don’t mean labour in the sense that reading is hard or that it takes a lot of effort, but instead specifically in how by reading people are actively producing things. Don’t believe me? By reading something – whether a novel, an essay, an article or anything else – people are producing ideas and understanding. We gain knowledge of facts or different perspectives by which to interpret things every time we read something. By changing the way we understand and interpret things these gains change us somewhat as individuals. Our ‘labour’ of reading comes to produce not just new ideas but, in a sense, a new self. In this idealized way reading can be seen as the opposite of alienating. As the products of our labour are parts of ourselves they serve to validate rather than oppose the individual who creates them.