[iDC] some thoughts on digital labor and populations

jeremy hunsinger jhuns at vt.edu
Mon Jun 8 16:25:11 UTC 2009

> Today we are arguably in the midst of massive transformations in  
> economy,
> labor, and life related to digital media.

I wonder if we are, and if we are, is it massive, and what then is the  
mass?   To what are we referring to when we consider massive in  
relation to economy; people, money, institutions, collective  
ideological functions, conventions?  surely if there is a change on a  
scale we'd be able to see it in some manner, and personally I've not  
seen it.  I see huge demographic changes, that's true, but not really  
huge cultural changes.   Perhaps I'm wrong, but my students at UIC  
weren't that into technology, they were very into paying bills and  
getting by, they used things like facebook, but then my mom is on  
facebook, I'm sort of surprised my grandmother isn't on it, but I  
suspect she is by proxy through her great grand-daughter.  However,  
when I look at their everyday lives they are not significantly  
different from what they were when I was a kid, 25-30 years ago.

Perhaps the massive change is not there, and if it isn't... what is  
there?  what is changing?  Demographics are changing, and with that  
the tax burden is changing, and with that the mode of production is  
changing, but then the mode of production has been in transformation  
my whole life.  It is probably that categorically... if the mode of  
production doesn't change and adapt, it disappears.

> 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.

I wonder if this is true.  I've seen the thesis, but... it was in the  
60's that Baudrillard and others said it was a fiction.  It is a  
metanarrative, we tried to describe the new commonalities and promote  
them.  It seems like a story we tell, much like the stories we tell  
about all people in NYC being the same in some respect.  But having  
lived there, I can say... no, the commonalities are less common though  
more everyday, like most new yorkers that i knew had never been as far  
north as columbia university and even more had never been Astoria, in  
Queens, but they had all been past the Empire State Building.   I'm  
wondering if these commonalities are sort of like that...  'having  
walked past, driven past, etc. the Empire State Building.  Sort of  
like.. 'watching Archie Bunker'.  The 'mass audience' though based on  
common experience I think is somewhat of a misconception, and to think  
that television actually provided those shared commonalities I think  
is worrisome because it really isn't a very strong medium of  
distributed cognition.  As several people on this list can argue, when  
you watch Television with me, we have profoundly different experiences  
of what is going on, we might share a central narrative, but there is  
divergence in what we find important and interesting and how we react  
to that.

> 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.

I'm wondering how this is different from the proliferation of men's  
and women's clubs in the 50's.  I'd say that socializing is a human  
process and communication is also, so we use whatever we have  
available, no?

> 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?
Is it the labor of ergodic literature?  is it the labor of consumption  
like Baudrillard's Consummativity?  Is it the labor of non-knowledge/ 
general economy from Bataille, or the labor of play from Homo Ludens?   
Here I think the term labor needs context no?  is that just me?   
Labor, as a recent critique of recent marxisms, has it.... has become  
as a part of discourse merely nominative, that is... it is a naming.    
I'd argue that labor is not a catch-all name.  Some things humans do  
are labor and laborious.   We need more context to understand what  
people are referring to when they say labor, because right now, either  
everything is labor... or nothing is.

> 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.

do they?  I've seen the estimates at approximately 25 million active  
contributors worldwide and around 10x that for followers.   You might  
argue that there are more, but I think we'd need some definitions.    
Given a global capitalist market of around 1 billion these days, that  
is an estimate of the number of people who make more than around 2000  
u.s. dollars per year, meaning that they have expendable income beyond  
food, clothing, shelter.    To me that seems we are talking of a very  
small minority in a world of almost 7 billion people where unesco says  
there are at least 1 billion children living in abject poverty.  I  
mean we're talking about a very small global elite.   Even if you  
increase the estimates of producers and consumers by an order of  
magnitude, you still have a global minority.

So I'm guessing that most people aren't paying attention at all.

I'm currently working on, amongst many other projects, a  
conceptualization of 'the unconnected'.... that is.  the people who  
choose not to participate, who have participated online, performed  
online labor, and then left.  I'm thinking that this population might  
help us to see what is really going on a bit better.   Depending on  
where you are in the developed world up to 20% of internet users have  
stopped using the internet and went to other media/modes of  
communication.   I see this with email all the time.  People get  
really upset with email and give up, or blame other people, etc.   
Eventually some just quit.   Same thing happens in games, in second  
life, in facebook, etc. etc.  I ask... why do people leave?  What is  
really going on here?  some move on to other systems, others just stop  
participating....  why do they choose to disconnect.  I have an  
intuition that it is because of my first set of comments.  That is...  
people are trying to live their life and are just trying to get by,  
pay rent, etc.   They have friends, colleagues, in real life that they  
interact with and spend their time doing that.

The question then is one of whether there is... for most people, any  
transformation at all.  I suspect there is a dabbling, but it is no  
where near as profound as we often attempt to make it, nor as profound  
as the economic speculation would have it.  The latter seems to  
becoming more true as facebook and myspace are being revalued as their  
growth seems to have been attenuated.

Jeremy Hunsinger
Center for Digital Discourse and Culture
Virginia Tech
Information Ethics Fellow
Center for Information Policy Research

Imagination is the one weapon in the war against reality.
-Jules de Gaultier

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