[iDC] Introduction: The Internet as Playground and Factory

pat kane playethical at gmail.com
Sun Jun 7 17:49:14 UTC 2009

Hi all,

I'm Pat Kane, I've also been invited by Trebor to kick off and  
develop some of the discussions arount the nature, pleasure and pains  
of "digital labor", leading up to the NY conference in November. I'm  
a rights-holding musician, writer and consultant, and author of The  
Play Ethic (http://www.theplayethic.com).

In terms of a debate about whether users' interactivity with net  
platforms is a form of exploitation of labor (in the Marxist sense),  
I'm aware that I might be living a somewhat schizophrenic life. In  
one domain, I'm a working musician who is part of a UK "legacy" act  
from the 80's, Hue And Cry. Since our relaunch in late 2008, our  
strategy has been to use the enthusiasm of online fandom to reanimate  
our "brand", by using flexible and media-rich social networks  
(particularly Ning) to capture the passions raised both by our live  
performance, and other traditional outlets of media exposure (radio,  
TV, press).

In these sites – particularly the Music Club, at http:// 
hueandcry.ning.com - we actively encourage and facilitate all kinds  
of 'fan labor' (cultural note: our biggest hit was called "Labour of  
Love" in 1987, more inspired by Gramsci than Bateson). This can  
include: cam-phone audio-visual recording from gigs; giving fans the  
opportunity to suggest and vote on songs they'd like us to perform  
and record; allowing fans to upload their own covers of our songs.  
But this doesn't include a lot of emergent, spontaneous activity that  
comes from the users' own ability to generate sub-networks and forums  
of their own, within the Hue And Cry Music Club site. We don't charge  
subscription fees to the site (like many other bands), and we have a  
programme of regular updates of audio-visual content produced by my  
musical partner and I – again, freely streamed.

There's much to say about this experience – which I hope to share at  
the NY conference in November. But in terms of kicking off this  
debate, the core point might be that our presumption has been that  
we're dealing with a radically counter-commercial audience and  
environment – one in which digital networked distribution of music  
has driven its price point to effectively zero, and in which that  
music has almost become a kind of 'community currency'. By that I  
mean a system of exchange whose value accumulation is fan enthusiasm  
and commitment, rather than straightforward monetary rent from IP- 
identified saleable objects. (Although as Spotify, Last.fm and other  
outfits show, a licensing system may be a possible recommodifier of  
music consuming habits, though with the pressure of 'free' keeping  
overall revenue much lower than the heydays of CD sales).

So in terms of making a living, we have fallen upon the maxim "use  
what is ubiquitous to drive people to what is scarce" – ie use the  
ubiquity and free circulation of digital content to raise awareness  
about those real-world moments of spatio-temporal enclosure (the gig,  
the meet'n'greet, the music workshop) whose boundaries can be  
controlled, and thus commodified. (Our refinement on that is to  
create our own 'ubiquitous' commons of Hue And Cry music within the  
Music Club – 'reterritorialising', to no doubt misuse Deleuze, the  
deterritorialised flows of digital culture). It's not that we don't  
try to sell recordings anymore – we do, and we are doing so, though  
the objects these recordings are attached to are way beyond the old  
CD, and are more lifestyle/luxury products with music inserted, an  
extension of our "brand" across non-musical physical objects. But our  
working presumption is that recorded music, because of digitisation,  
networks and their innovations, is always under a huge gravitational  
force dragging it towards free usage.

And just to be clear, I come at the question of what value is being  
realised by commercial platform owners by the free labor of users  
from a small-business perspective – as artists seeking some kind of  
income from our endeavours and enterprises. We are rights-holders in  
our own small company, who seek to use non-commercial, part- 
commercial (the usual social platforms) and fully-commercial (ie  
larger distributors and syndicators) networks to promote our music,  
both recorded and performed.

Commercially, I should be agnostic-ironic about what networks are  
best for that purpose. But civically, I'm a supporter of the  
'innovation commons' of the Net a la Lessig, and would resist any  
attempt to tamper with the basic end-to-end architecture of the Web  
(ie, to create tiers of net access with protocols restricted, for  
whatever reason). I guess I have to stake out my petit-bourgeois,  
mixed-economy, social-democrat traders' identity at the beginning.  
And what I'm looking for from a conference/discussion on 'the  
internet and playground and factory' is a new political economy of  
the Net that can find a place for creative and sustainable cultural  
enterprise, within this complex landscape (as Yochai Benkler says in  
the Wealth of Networks) of market, state and 'sharing' economies. I  
feel that the answers may lie as much in welfare and social policy.  
That is, what kind of social provisions and support can be made for a  
'general intellect' now active throughout society, as the Italian  
Marxists say? Does a four day week or a citizens' income more  
effectively answer our anxieties about our affective and cognitive  
'lives' pouring into these networks, than a discourse about how our  
free labor benefits Google's bottom line?

Pat Kane
Twitter: theplayethic



All mail to: playethical at gmail.com

The idea is all there is. Trust me.
- Ornette Coleman http://bit.ly/2VDLPI

On 4 Jun 2009, at 16:46, 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 ‘labor’ 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 “tradeoffs” and  
> “social
> costs”—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 people’s  
> 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 “cyber sweatshops” 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 “virtual
> proletariat”?
> 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
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