[iDC] Introduction: The Internet as Playground and Factory

Frank Pasquale frank.pasquale at gmail.com
Fri Jun 5 22:48:42 UTC 2009

Hi List,

I’m a law professor (presently visiting at Yale, with a home base at
Seton Hall).  I am looking forward to the conference.  I want to
respond to this question:

"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

We all “pay attention” (literally and figuratively) at monolithic
sites like Google, Facebook, and eBay.  Promoters of those companies
say that our “return” for that activity is finding sites, staying in
touch with friends, finding bargains, etc.  They convert our attention
into cash from advertisers and sellers.  Some questions I like to ask

1) Is the amount of control and cash the operators of the sites get
commensurate with their own contributions to the site’s order and

2) How much of the site’s success is due to its owners’ innovative
genius—and how much is owed to the activities of users?  For example,
when a user thinks of a really good Google search query, has the user
“co-authored” the results that come up?   Not under current copyright
law, but there’s a moral case there.

Similarly, Google’s supremacy in search may largely be due to its
dataset of how people responded to past searches.  If its secret
methods of ranking webpages are largely built on analysis of users’
actions, don’t users deserve some credit as co-creators?  Or, more
plausibly, isn’t the company acting less as a provider of services and
more like a cultural voting machine—counting votes as to what’s the
“winner” for billions of search queries?  If so, should there be more
accountability?  The German constitutional court recently embraced the
principle that vote-counting has to be understood by all.

3)   Maybe it’s inevitable that there would be one dominant search
engine, or social network.  David Grewal’s fundamental insight (in the
book Network Power) is that the “individual choice” celebrated in
markets (and many other settings) is often simultaneously both “forced
and free.”  For example, “[T]he network power of English isn’t the
result of any intrinsic features of English (for example, “it’s easy
to learn”): it’s purely a result of the number of other people and
other networks you can use it to reach.”  Might the same be said of
Facebook, eBay, or Google?  If so, what are the implications for their
governance or regulation?

Some say that platforms like Google and Facebook were always
inevitable, and those companies just happened to be in the right place
at the right time.  Alperovitz & Daly's new book makes this argument
generally (at

They ask: "Why should only a tiny fraction of our citizens keep most
of the money made off [our technical and cultural] heritage if, in
fact, it is [our] common background that gave them their success?"  As
one reviewer puts it, "Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly [propose] a new way
of looking at great wealth. It is not the primary product of luck,
they say, nor is it the child of skill. Rather, it is society that
allows individuals to achieve great things and earn such magnificent
rewards."  They give several examples of laureled "innovators" who in
fact barely advanced tech beyond other, less celebrated, figures.

Both Microsoft Word and the ISO 9000 standards gained power in a
self-reinforcing way; as more people adopted them, others anticipated
their further adoption and “fell into line” in promoting the
standards. Grewal worries that “privately owned technological
standards not only [threaten] the freedom of users to choose the best
standards for their needs . . . [but also result in] . . .a great deal
of power [being] handed over to the private owner of that standard.”
I have the same worries about the corporate platforms on which much
Web 2.0 labor is being conducted.

Anyway, I try to provide some commentary on these questions in some
blog posts and articles.  I’ll append them after my signature for
anyone interested.

All best,


PS: For more of my thoughts on the topic, see:

Is Web 2.0 an Engine of Inequality?, at

Federal Search Commission? (authored with Oren Bracha):

Network Power, Forced and Free:

Is MySpace Exploiting You?, at

Beyond Innovation and Competition: The Case for Transparency at
Internet Intermediaries (available on request)

On Thu, Jun 4, 2009 at 11:46 AM, Trebor Scholz <trebor at thing.net> wrote:
> 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
> value?
> 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
> proletariat²?
> 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
> issues?
> -Trebor Scholz
> http://digtallabor.org
> _______________________________________________
> iDC -- mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity (distributedcreativity.org)
> iDC at mailman.thing.net
> https://mailman.thing.net/mailman/listinfo/idc
> List Archive:
> http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/
> iDC Photo Stream:
> http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/idcnetwork/
> RSS feed:
> http://rss.gmane.org/gmane.culture.media.idc
> iDC Chat on Facebook:
> http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2457237647
> Share relevant URLs on Del.icio.us by adding the tag iDCref

More information about the iDC mailing list