Skip to content

Digital Labor at the New School

Trebor Scholz and the New School for Social Research are sponsoring a conference in a few weeks on the political economy of Web 2.0 called “The Internet as Playground and Factory.” Participants have been having a fascinating discussion on the mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity. Here are some ideas from the conference description:

Only a small fraction of the more than one billion Internet users create and add videos, photos, and mini-blog posts. The rest pay attention. They leave behind innumerable traces that speak to their interests, affiliations, likes and dislikes, and desires. Large corporations then profit from this interaction by collecting and selling this data. Social participation is the oil of the digital economy. Today, communication is a mode of social production facilitated by new capitalist imperatives and it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between play, consumption and production, life and work, labor and non-labor. . . . Currently, there are few adequate definitions of labor that fit the complex, hybrid realities of the digital economy.

This conference confronts the urgent need to interrogate what constitutes labor and value in the digital economy and it seeks to inspire proposals for action. Most interaction labor, regardless whether it is driven by monetary motivations or not, is taking place on corporate platforms. Where does that leave hopeful projections of a future of non-market peer production? Are strategies of refusal an effective response to the expropriation of value from interacting users? How is the global crisis of capitalism linked to the speculative performances of the digital economy?

Every aspect of life drives the digital economy: sexual desire, boredom, friendship — and all becomes fodder for speculative profit. We are living in a total labor society and the way in which we are commoditized, racialized, and engendered is profoundly and disturbingly normalized. The complex and troubling set of circumstances we now confront includes the collapse of the conventional opposition between waged and unwaged labor, and is characterized by multiple “tradeoffs” and “social costs”—such as government and corporate surveillance.

I became involved in the conference after seeing Trebor, danah boyd, and Ethan Zuckerman discuss online life’s possibilities last year. Not that many people currently feel “exploited” by companies like Facebook, Comcast, or Google. What I find so compelling about this conference is the chance to reconceptualize what we (and companies like these) owe one another online.