[iDC] Introduction: The Internet as Playground and Factory

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Thu Jun 4 15:46:15 UTC 2009

Dear all,

What follows is my introduction to the conference
"The Internet as Playground and Factory," which will take place
November 12-14 at the New School University in NYC.

Over the next few months this list will serve as one of the places for
discussion in preparation for the event and some of the exchanges that we
had on the iDC over the past few years are highly relevant to this debate.

These include:
Social information overload/time http://is.gd/OaFq
User labor http://is.gd/OaqD
"Creative labor" http://is.gd/Oaue
Labor and value http://is.gd/Oav5
Fan labor http://is.gd/Oaxg
Immaterial labor http://is.gd/OayA
Enculturation  http://is.gd/OaA1
Virtual worlds, education, and labor http://is.gd/OaAI

I hope that you'll join this discussion.

The Internet as Playground and Factory
-- Introduction
Today we are arguably in the midst of massive transformations in economy,
labor, and life related to digital media. The purpose of this conference is
to interrogate these dramatic shifts restructuring leisure, consumption, and
production since the mid-century. In the 1950s television began to establish
commonalities between suburbanites across the United States. Currently,
communities that were previously sustained through national newspapers now
started to bond over sitcoms. Increasingly people are leaving behind
televisions sets in favor of communing with -- and through-- their
computers. They blog, comment, procrastinate, refer, network, tease, tag,
detag, remix, and upload and from all of this attention and all of their
labor, corporations expropriate value. Guests in the virtual world Second
Life even co-create the products and experiences, which they then consume.
What is the nature of this interactive Œlabor¹ and the new forms of digital
sociality that it brings into being?  What are we doing to ourselves?

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.

The revenues of today's social aggregators are promising but their
speculative value exceeds billions of dollars. Capital manages to
expropriate value from the commons; labor goes beyond the factory, all of
society is put to work. 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 ³tradeoffs² and ³social
costs²‹such as government and corporate surveillance. While individual
instances are certainly exploitative in the most overt sense, the shift in
the overall paradigm moves us beyond the explanatory power of the Marxian
interpretation of exploitation (which is of limited use here).

Free Software and similar practices have provided important alternatives to
and critiques of traditional modes of intellectual property to date but user
agency is not just a question of content ownership. Users should demand data
portability, the right to pack up and leave the walled gardens of
institutionalized labor à la Facebook or StudiVZ. We should ask which rights
users have beyond their roles as consumers and citizens. Activists in Egypt
have poached Facebook's platform to get their political message out and to
organize protests. Google's Image Labeler transforms people¹s endless desire
for entertainment into work for the company. How much should Google pay them
to tag an image? Such payment could easily become more of an insult than a
remuneration. 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. Currently, there are few adequate definitions of labor that fit the
complex, hybrid realities of the digital economy. The Internet as Playground
and Factory poses a series of questions about the conundrums surrounding
labor (and often the labor of love) in relation to our digital present:

Is it possible to acknowledge the moments of ruthless exploitation while not
eradicating optimism, inspiration, and the many instances of individual
financial and political empowerment?
What is labor and where is value produced?

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?

What can we learn from the ³cyber sweatshops² class-action lawsuit against
AOL under the Fair Labor Standards Act in the early 1990s?

How does this invisible interaction labor affect our bodies? What were key
steps in the history of interaction design that managed to mobilize and
structure the social participation of bodies and psyches in order to capture

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 transnational unionization or other forms of self-organization workable
acts of resistance for what several authors have called the ³virtual

Are we witnessing a new friction-free imperialism that allows capital to
profit from the unpaid interaction labor of millions of happy volunteers who
also help each other? How can we turn these debates into politics?
How does the ideology of Web 2.0 work to deflate some of the more radical
possibilities of new social media?

How can we maintain and enforce the rights to our own gestures, our
attention, our content, and our emotional labor? In the near future, where
can we, personally, enter political processes that have an impact on these
-Trebor Scholz

More information about the iDC mailing list