[iDC] Introduction: The Internet as Playground and Factory

Grant Wythoff gwythoff at princeton.edu
Sun Jun 7 18:22:16 UTC 2009

Hi All-

My name is Grant Wythoff, and I'm currently a PhD candidate in the
Department of English and the Program in Media and Modernity at Princeton.
My work is situated at the intersections of media theory and science
fiction, exploring the various types of worldbuilding, estrangement, and
utopianism that bubble up from moments of epistemic shifts in media
technologies.  Other areas of interest include new media culture and the
rhetoric of "content," television studies, media archaeology, 20th century
American theater and film, and Frankfurt school aesthetics.

As Howard pointed out, we are in a situation in which we must entirely
redefine our notions of labor and play, and I think this conference will be
a really exciting forum to begin thinking along these lines.  One can go as
far back as Benjamin in locating an alignment of labor and play within
industrial apparatus--his notion of "Spielraum" (playspace / room for play)
seems particularly apt in our own context as it gets at the truly
revolutionary (if not utopian) possibilities opened up for new fields of
action within the very same profit motives of commercial agents.  Yes,
information aggregators have proved immensely powerful tools of cognitive
mapping through both graphic means--witness Google's flu trends or
twitscoop--as well as good old fashioned research methodologies--i.e.
wikipedia and wikileaks.  But at the same time, we are left with an
incredibly difficult set of questions, since the space for play the media
opens for us has almost always been one that fundamentally does not belong
to us.  And here I can't help quoting the old Playstation motto, "live in
your world, play in ours."

Perhaps we can come back to this topic of profit motives intersecting with
useful "public" goods and enjoyable "private" behavior raised by Howard and
taken up by Trebor--and here I will just briefly jump across a few
interrelated ideas.

To take a case study, Eric Schmidt swears that things like flu trends,
google maps, and semantic searching are the primary business of Google while
the harvested clickwork of their targeted ads is only a necessary evil, the
fuel powering these larger ambitions.  For argument's sake, what if (and
this is a big 'what if,' used only for the purposes of a productive science
fictional tension with the real) what if through some process of natural
selection the "private" profit motives of web 2.0 companies and the creative
industries are gradually replaced (displaced? superseded?) by their useful
"public" functions?  In other words, what kind of *value* does the public at
large attribute to the information economy?

In business circles, web 2.0 is spoken of as being a failure since it "has
no business model," since there is no way to monetize it on a large scale.
To take a second case study, we are at a crucial juncture in the information
economy, with widely publicized talk of new agglomerations of news media
(spearheaded by the AP) and new forms of control over "content."  But this
talk of "monetizing" freely linked, traded, and read online news content (a
discussion that has been disseminated through the tubes of the media
themselves) has revealed in so may fascinating ways just how regressive such
proposals are.  The sense of disbelief everyone feels--grounded in their
everyday techniques of screen reading, their presence online--I believe is
evidence that we have the tools and experiences at our disposal to entirely
rethink the circulation and standard of money as well as the value of work
with the digital realm.

The question of newspapers and the loss of local voices is of course one to
be taken up by a different thread.  Leaving this aside and turning to the
topic of properly digital labor:  our work is unpaid.  But do we want

If the biggest challenge to a critique of digital labor is the fact that the
mass of clickworkers simply doesn't care, that they enjoy their free labor
(let's face it, who doesn't)--then perhaps a possible secondary line of
inquiry would bring us into the potentialities of digital networks
foreclosed by their current configurations.  Television always promised a
world represented as system--channels, flow, live feed, etc--a rhetoric
which has been notoriously difficult for cultural critics to satisfactorily
engage with.  In what ways has our image of the world evolved from that
given to us by television?  In what ways is the potential for political
critique and "pleasurable learning, cheerful and militant learning" (Brecht)
foreclosed by the current, digital configuration of the world picture?
Further, in what ways is this foreclosure itself representable (on a mass or
systemic scale) within the digital networks themselves? (The February flare
up over Facebook's new terms of service provides somewhat of an

Rambling first thoughts.  But I'm eager to see these and others bounced


Grant Wythoff

Princeton University
Department of English
McCosh 22
Princeton, NJ 08544
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