In this empiricist critical appreciation of Marx, John Lanchester suggests digital goods present a difficulty. For Marx, the different values commodities possess comes down to the quantities of socially necessary labour congealed inside them. The bottle of vitamins I have on my table has painstaking lab work, the cost of trials, the ingredients, and the mass production process is the backstory behind every sugar-coated pill. And because the amount of socially necessary labour time it consumed is greater than the Che Guevara mug to my left, its value is greater.
John goes on to suggest that "one of [Marx's difficulties] is that so many of the contemporary world’s goods and commodities are now virtual (in the digital-oriented sense) that it’s not easy to see where the accumulated labour in them is." I don't see what the problem is. You can buy skins and accessories for your Xbox Live avatar, or purchase all manner of digital commodities in World of Warcraft and Second Life (does anyone still use SL?). Their lack of corporeality makes no difference as far as Marx is concerned. They remain commodities with a certain quantity of socially necessary labour time embodied within them. They do not spring fully formed from a set of chips.
A place like Facebook does not present many difficulties either. To maintain the network, Lanchester points to the hidden, poorly-paid labour in 3rd world IT centres that keeps the show on the road. Furthermore, in a comment on the piece an Edward Robinson notes:
I wonder, though, if Marx would have seen Facebook’s owners more as landowners or ‘rentiers’ than as capitalists. Websites don’t create any value, but by exploiting their property rights in highly sophisticated advertising space they allow capitalists to compete with each other in exchange for a slice of the heightened surplus value. Facebook’s appearance as a (free) leisure good is supported by its essence as prime retail space.This rentier model isn't peculiar to social media. It's the hegemonic business model (albeit with varying degrees of sophistication) operating across all sites attempting to make money from online activities.
With all this in mind, it's time to return to the four year old problem above. Lisa Adkins argued that capitalism is creating new opportunities and strategies for capital accumulation. Taking freelance web designers as an example, Adkins argued they build websites and charge according to the number of potential hits it would likely generate. In the old terms, the designer is not exploiting their labour power as would a self-employed small business owner. Instead earnings are entirely future-oriented, based on time that does not yet exist.
I was sceptical then and I remain doubly so now. I think Adkins here confuses abstract socially necessary labour with the concrete actuality of a particular kind of a digital labour process. Unlike workers who are directly involved in the production of surplus value, a freelance worker has a greater degree of freedom. Whereas someone working for an employer is contractually obliged to perform a certain set of hours over and above the work necessary to generate enough value for material and cultural subsistence, a freelancer can choose to put in enough labour time to meet the cost pressures of their self-reproduction and that's it, or work more hours (provided the market allows for it) to accumulate more capital for expansion, or more cash for personal consumption.
This in mind, the freelancer - whether an IT specialist, a consultant, a painter and decorator - bills on the basis of time required (a matter usually related to the complexity of the task), the money needed for themselves and the cost pressures bearing down on their business, materials required, and, of course, at all times these are conditioned by the prices offered by competitors on the open market.
Turning to Adkins' scenario, freelance web designers may charge on the basis of the likely number of hits a website will generate. But stepping back from the detail, this is just another way of talking about the complexity of the labour required and hence, the amount of time it will take. The language of the sales pitch does not mean that value is being quarried out of a future that does not yet exist, it is derived from the concrete keyboard-based labour of the web designer. Unfortunately, it would appear Adkins has fallen for the stories freebooting tech geeks tell themselves over and above an analysis of their labour process.
If digital goods do present a challenge to Marx's critique of political economy, the examples here demonstrate that Marx can still be used to make sense of them. After all, a digital commodity is part and parcel of the system of generalised commodity production. They are produced for profit. As long as that economic logic persists Marx will always be in the wings, ready and able to unravel it all.