[iDC] Exploitation....

Julian Kücklich deludologist at googlemail.com
Thu Jun 11 12:54:31 UTC 2009

Hi all,

I recently had a long and embittered debate about exploitation at a 
panel on co-creative labour that Larissa Hjorth and I co-chaired at the 
COST298 conference. I think I was arguing that what Tiziana calls "free 
labour" (and which I call "playbour" when I write about things like 
computer game modification (modding), the policing of virtual space in 
massively multiplayer games, and the free marketing players provide by 
digging, blogging, tweeting about games, etc.) is never entirely 
exploited, nor is it ever entirely free (in the sense of libre). The 
one-size-fits-all concept of exploitation we have inherited from the 
Marxist tradition was probably never particularly useful to begin with, 
but when we talk about forms of living where labour and leisure are so 
deeply intertwined it is in danger of losing its meaning altogether.

One of the counter-arguments from an audience member at the COST298 
panel was that women's movements didn't view work so much as 
exploitation than as a liberation from the subservience dictated by 
chauvinist societies, so this is not necessarily something that only 
becomes an issue with digital technologies, but rather something that 
comes into play once we start asking questions about what constitutes 
productive labour and what makes labourers eligible for renumeration. 
Traditionally, "women's work" was obviously often unpaid, unrecognized, 
and pretty much unregulated. The same is true of many of the forms of 
labour we see arising within digital forms of life today.

I could insert the standard blurb about autonomism, refusal, and the 
multitude here, but you've obviously all read your Negri, your Tronti, 
and your Lazzarato, so let's skip that for the time being. What I find 
interesting about Mark's thoughts about exploitation is that he connects 
the concept to intellectual property and to the question of control. I 
am interested in both these things as a researcher and a gamer, and I 
find ludic models of control very useful to describe some of the 
processes that we are trying to get to the bottom of here. Play is 
necessarily a process in which the level of control the players 
experience oscillates during the game (I've written about this in terms 
of "ruled" and "unruled" space, yadayadayada, but that's neither here 
nor there), and their perception of their amount of control is not 
always accurate. Let's call it gote no sente 

Two or three things follow from that: 1) It's not so much about the 
level of control people actually have but about the level of control 
they perceive as having. 2) Being in control is not always a good thing 
(e.g. using restrictive licensing for the fruits of your labour limits 
what Henry Jenkins, for better or for worse, calls "spreadability". 3) 
Being out of control can be a good thing (for example, Minh Le's name 
only got firmly attached to Counterstrike when the mod was snapped up by 
Valve, and redistributed in a commercial version). So IPR, control, and 
exploitation are enmeshed in a tight mesh of causation, and both 
exploitation and liberation can be experienced negatively and positively 
(just as an example, let's remember that many academics like myself 
still subject themselves to the gangrape of publishing in peer-reviewed 
academic journals, and wear their bruises with pride).

Let's also remember that exploitation feels normal to many people. One 
of my friends recently lost her job, and has tried to find a new one for 
the past three months. She is resigned to the fact that when she 
eventually finds a job, it will be just as mind-numbing, meaningless, 
and degrading as the last one, but despite my attempts to get her out of 
this mindset, she desperately scours jobsites, newsletters, even (gulp) 
newspaper job ads. London being a city that provides for people with 
much less in terms of financial resources, I find it hard to accept that 
someone would cling to this kind of negative normativity so strongly, 
but my friend is not the only one. I see the same kind of desperation in 
many social networks where you "pay with your life" (and all its mundane 
lacunae) for the privilege of not being a freak. It's this kind of 
motivation, however bourgeois we may find it, that we might have to 
consider when we talk about exploitation in the digital age.


Mark Andrejevic wrote:
> Howard's post got me thinking about the need to tighten up 
> an understanding of what we might mean by the term "exploitation." The 
> very broad sense in which it is often used -- to indicate that someone 
> else benefits from our labor -- isn't a particularly useful one. 
> Theoretically it remains amorphous (how might it distinguish between 
> collaborative labor and working in a sweat shop?) and practically it 
> isn't much of a rallying cry ("Help, I'm being exploited because the 
> value of my neighbor's house went up when I painted mine!").
> I'd suggest (as a preliminary foray) that a meaningful political sense 
> of the term (one that allows us to critique exploitation) would have 
> to include at least two aspects:
> 1) a sense of loss of control over the results of our own productive 
> activity (especially when these are turned back against us) and
> 2) structured relations of power that compel this loss of control, 
> even when it looks like the result of "free" exchange. 
> I don't feel a loss of control over my own productive activity when 
> I contribute to a Wikipedia entry that may benefit others. On the 
> other hand, I might be more likely to feel this loss of control when I 
> discover, say, that details of my online activity have been collected, 
> sorted, and packaged as a commodity for sale to people who may use it 
> to deny me access to a job or to manipulate me based on perceived 
> vulnerabilities, fears, and other personal details about my mental or 
> physical well being. If I find myself in a position wherein I have to 
> submit to this kind of monitoring as a condition of access to 
> resources that I need to earn my livelihood or maintain my social 
> relations in a networked era, I might be more likely to think of this 
> situation as a truly exploitative one.  
> When it starts to become tricky -- at least conceptually -- is when my 
> work on Wikipedia (or tagging, or participating in other forms of UGC 
> production) gets folded into the 
> demographic/psychographic/geographic/(eventually biometric) forms of 
> profiling that form the basis for the emerging online commercial 
> economy. Still a meaningful conception of exploitation might help 
> distinguish between the different productive roles of our online 
> activity -- and between infrastructures that are more or less 
> exploitative.
> On Sat, Jun 6, 2009 at 7:11 AM, Howard Rheingold <howard at rheingold.com 
> <mailto:howard at rheingold.com>> wrote:
>     Trebor asked me to introduce myself in regard to his post and the
>     conference on "The Internet as Playground and Factory"
>     I've written "Tools for Thought," "The Virtual Community," and "Smart
>     Mobs." Two of those books are online at http://www.rheingold.com
>     <http://www.rheingold.com/> . I
>     teach "Social Media" and Berkeley and Stanford and "Digital
>     Journalism" at Stanford.
>     I agree with much of what you say, Trebor, but I would only add that
>     I'm entirely delighted to let Yahoo stockholders benefit from flickr.
>     It's not only a great service for sharing my own images, but a place
>     where I can find Creative-Commons licensed images to use in
>     presentations and videos. Maybe that at the same time we look closely
>     at the way commercial interests have colonized public behavior, we
>     ought to look at the way profit motives have made available useful
>     public goods. May Yahoo and Google live long and prosper as long as I
>     can view and publish via Flickr and YouTube. And if this means that
>     I've blurred the line between my recreation and my labor, I have to
>     testify that even after reflection I don't mind it at all. It's
>     pleasurable, in fact. And I'm equally delighted that Google gives away
>     search to attract attention, some of which Google sells to
>     advertisers. I remember that when I first got online with a modem, the
>     cost of accessing skimpy information online via Lexis/Nexis and other
>     paid data services was way beyond my means. Now I get answers for any
>     question in seconds. How many times a day were  YOU exploited by
>     searching for something without paying a charge for the service?
>     Informed consent seems to me to be crucial -- I choose to be
>     exploited, if exploitation is how you want to see my uploading and
>     tagging my photographs and videos. More people ought to reflect on who
>     is profiting from their online activity, and it seems entirely
>     reasonable to me that many would decide not to be exploited. I would
>     never argue that people should refrain from witholding their labor, if
>     that's what they want to do. Otherwise, I'm all for asking all the
>     questions Trebor proposes, which is why I assign students to read
>     "What the MySpace generation needs to know about working for free."
>     Howard Rheingold howard at rheingold.com
>     <mailto:howard at rheingold.com> http://twitter.com/hrheingold
>     http://www.rheingold.com <http://www.rheingold.com/>
>      http://www.smartmobs.com <http://www.smartmobs.com/>
>     http://vlog.rheingold.com <http://vlog.rheingold.com/>
>     what it is ---> is --->up to us
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dr julian raul kuecklich


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