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.

3 thoughts on “Digital Labor at the New School

  1. A provocative concept for discussion, to be sure. I am bothered by the apparent elision of agency in the description, which mentions how “we are commoditized, racialized, and engendered.” To what extent does Pogo’s motto apply? “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

  2. Good point, Mike. I think I would follow Joe Turow, Mireille Hildebrandt, and Dan Solove in arguing that much of this profiling is secret and undetectable. I take your Pogo reference and raise with a Kafka!

    For example, I was recently complaining about the new Facebook feed and someone said: “well, you can just quit.” But can I bring dozens of friends with me to some other social network?

  3. True, true. To your Kafka, how about a Groucho? (He of “wouldn’t join a club that would accept him as a member” fame.) If I’ve commoditized your friends (for portability purposes), should I count that as an asset or a liability? I’m talking about the concept, not the pragmatics; I know that people rely on their FB friend lists.

    But as I read more and more news coverage of proposed “three strikes” legislation from European governments (download illegally too many times, and you’re cut off from the net), I’m tempted to pull a Clint Eastwood: Go ahead. Make my day. Make me stop drinking from the firehose!

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