[iDC] Introduction: The Internet as Playground and Factory

tiziana tterra at fastwebnet.it
Sat Jun 6 15:13:35 UTC 2009

Dear all,

Trebor has kindly invited me to launch the discussion. Unfortunately, it 
has been a bit of bad timing, since I will have to be off email for a 
few days. Still, I will be back online by next friday and maybe I could 
still contribute by starting this discussion and picking it up again 
when I re-connect.

The reason why Trebor has invited me to this discussion is an essay I 
published in 2000 in Social Text, called 'Free Labor: producing culture 
for the digital economy' 
The essay was the main output of a two-year research project into the 
'future of the internet' sponsored by the research programme 'The 
Virtual Society? (economic and social research council, UK).

The essay was written in the years 1998/1999 and argued that one of the 
most powerful lines of future development of the Internet was the 
increasingly reliance by commercial and noncommercial actors on the 
'free labor' of users to provide the content and even the software which 
keeps the Internet a lively and vibrant reality.

Free labor had also a theoretical argument that was based on the work of 
Italian post-workerist Marxists. The reason for choosing a Marxist 
perspective was the conviction that the 'economy' cannot be reduced to 
the interaction of free economic agents, that there exists an 
a-symmetry, that is a political relation, between those who perform the 
actual labor (workers) and those who pay for it and make a profit out of 
it (capitalists). Furthermore, I agree with Marxists when they claim 
that the process of accumulation of capital is not the automatic and 
beneficial result of the entrepreneur's activity, but a constitutive 
part of economic processes in societies that perpetuate and increase 
various kinds of inequalities and injustices.

The interest of post-workerist theorists was that unlike much orthodox 
Marxist economic theory they did not see the evolution of capitalist 
economies as an endless ripetition of the same old mechanisms of 
exploitation, inevitably resulting in the ultimate crisis of capital and 
correlate triumph of socialism. On the contrary, they argued that it was 
the desire of living labor to free itself from the command of capital 
and to re-appropriate the social wealth that it produced that drove 
processes of economic re-invention. In this sense, the process by which 
the 'new economy' corporate actors started to increasingly rely on the 
free labor of users is the answer of capitalist organization to the 
desire of such labor for producing and sharing those products of the 
cultural economy which they had mainly consumed in the 'broadcasting' model.

The essay is quite old now, considering all that has happened since, but 
also in the light of the subsequent popularity of post-workerist 
theorists and new publications in the field. As trebor rightly argued, 
the whole notion of 'labor', but also of that classic marxist category 
such as 'exploitation' needs some rethinking. Taking for granted that 
the contribution of users to the web 2.0 is productive of social wealth, 
common culture and monetary value, what are the reason for hanging on to 
the notion of 'labor' to describe such activity? One of the authors I 
followed in writing the essay, Maurizio Lazzarato, has since produced 
some very interesting critique of the concept of 'labor' in classical, 
neoclassical and Marxist political economy, arguing that the term carry 
the connotation of the division of labor of fordist work (Adam Smith's 
pin factory), and is thus misleading when applied to 'sympathetic 
cooperation of brains'. The whole idea of exploitation does not take 
into account other modalities of power relation in the space of 
cooperation, which might be more appropriate in describing the dynamics 
of the social web, for example.

To summarize, the notion of labor implies necessity and command. One 
works because one must make a living, and when one works one must 
exchange one's freedom and power to an external agent which dictates its 
rhythms and its conditions of production. This is still the condition 
within which waged labour operates, whether it is cognitive or manual, 
or both. Labour is measured by means of working time and/or output and 
is subject to external command.

Some of the questions that rise from these developments and ideas are then:
what is the relationship between waged work and 'free labor' when the 
same subject is most likely participating in both forms of production?

If the users' activity which goes into producing the social wealth and 
economic value of the web economy is misrepresented as labor, what would 
be a better way to describe it?

Is it possible to 'relativize' the notion of labor without succumbing to 
the idea that we are all 'free' to produce, share and contribute, and 
hence all is fine with the Internet economy which in this way becomes an 
economic Eden separated from the rest?

What is it exactly that is produced, shared and accumulated by the 
cognitive, social and cultural expenditures of users' time (memory, 
attention etc) that is central to the operation of the social web?

What are the limits imposed by proprietary structures to the freedom of 
users on the web? What are the strategies by which the social web and in 
general free cooperation are turned into new means of capital 
accumulation? What are the specific ways in which the activity of users 
is turned into countable units of value, that is money?

Can this new kind of production be turned into a way to free its users 
from the dictatorship of work, for example by means of an organization 
which would spread the money-making capacity of the Internet across the 
population of its users rather than concentrating it in the bank 
accounts and stock holdings of a few corporate giants? Could this be a 
model for another organization of the distribution of wealth which could 
free the current global working population from the necessity to work 
and hence obey and comply?

too many questions then, I hope for a good discussion...

tiziana terranova
università degli studi di napoli 'l'orientale'

Trebor Scholz 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
>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
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