[iDC] introduction: where's the labour in software studies?

Ned Rossiter ned at nedrossiter.org
Thu Jun 11 23:47:10 UTC 2009

hello idc-list. I've been a happy lurker since the early days of idc,  
and I feel like I'm outing myself or something, which I guess is  
about time.  I've been following the fascinating postings on the  
question of digital labour with great interest, and hope to make more  
direct engagements with those shortly.  By way of introduction, I  
work in China at the University of Nottingham, Ningbo (a 2nd tier  
city south of Shanghai, which I commute from, across the longest  
bridge  - for the time being - in the world).  Over the past five to  
seven years I've been writing on the relationship between creative  
labour, network cultures, state transformation and the invention of  
new institutional forms (what Nick Knouf referred to as organized  
networks). Along with my book on organized networks, related edited  
volumes and essays have been published with Geert Lovink, Brett  
Neilson and Soenke Zehle.  Two relevant earlier texts are here:



Trebor asked me to say something about the relationship between  
unions and organized networks. Perhaps the first thing to say is that  
their conditions of emergence, and thus their social-technical  
dynamics, are vastly different. The former is an institutional form  
coemergent with the industrial age of Fordism and the masculine  
culture of organized labour. The latter is an emergent institutional  
form, whose contours of labour organisation share something with the  
precarity movements (largely a European phenomenon, at least in terms  
of organization and identification) and the broad condition of post- 
Fordist labour (flexible, just-in-time, insecure, informational, etc).

Having said that, there are also some affinities beginning to  
develop. One of the key issues of the 2007-2008 writer's strike in  
the US was the issue of payment for content distributed over the  
internet. Here, we see one of the central conflicts between creative  
labour and the rise of new media -- how to earn a buck when the world  
downloads content for free? Plenty has been written on the politics  
of this topic (Ken Wark's A Hacker Manifesto lays it out neatly), but  
less has been researched on the question of financial remuneration  
for free labour. This is where unions, with their traditional  
concerns with decent working conditions and fair pay, have got  
something up on organized networks, which are better at engaging  
practices of self-organization via new media of communication (see  
the recent student protests across the world, and the work of http:// 
edu-factory.org ), but are less able to deal with the social- 
technical condition of ephemerality, info-overload, increasingly  
diminishing attention spans, geocultural translation and the issue of  

I wasn't following much of the writer's strike, however, and I'm sure  
there are people on this list who can say a lot more about how  
digital media were enlisted in the strategies of the union  
organizers.  Closer to home, for me, were the strikes in Melbourne by  
taxi drivers in April 2008. Many of the drivers were Indian, and  
residing in the country on international student visas. Not organized  
through the traditional labour form of the union, but rather through  
the circulation of sms texts (a now widely adopted technique of self- 
organization, but still surprisingly unsettling for authorities), the  
strike proved highly effective at the time.  As Brett Neilson and I  
wrote in recent text (published in theory, culture & society, and  
kindly available through http://aaaarg.org ):

"It is precisely because the drivers did not organize along  
hierarchical or representative lines that their protest proved so  
baffling and threatening to the authorities. Clearly, the event was  
something other than a spontaneous uprising. It was not without  
‘structure or organizers’. Rather, the potency of the strike rested  
on its multiplicity and internal divisions, which remained illegible  
to the state but instituted a network of relations that, while  
precarious, brought the city to a halt.

The second thing that interests us about this taxi blockade is the  
fact that many of the drivers are also international university  
students. Because most of these students are present in the country  
on visas that allow them to work only 20 hours a week, they are  
forced to survive by accepting illegal, dangerous and highly  
exploitative working conditions. The question thus arises as to  
whether the blockade should be read as taxi driver politics, migrant  
politics or student politics. We would suggest that one reason for  
the effectiveness of the strike (the government, which had only  
recently refused to negotiate with unions of teachers and health  
workers, acceded to the drivers’ demands) is the fact that it is all  
three of these at the same time."

In Europe, labour organizer Valery Alzaga has been working closely  
with migrant workers in the cleaning industry. This follows on from  
the work she did with the Justice for Janitors campaign in the US. In  
both these cases, I can see a connection between union politics and  
organized networks in so far as the new political constituencies of  
self-organized migrant labour are reinventing the organizational form  
and culture of unions.

Since last September, when I moved from the polluted soup bowl of  
Beijing to the relatively clean air cities of Shanghai and Ningbo,  
I've been reacquainting myself with the matters related to the sea,  
and this includes a growing interest in what the maritime industries  
and logistics software have to tell us about new biopolitical regimes  
of labour.  It's also struck me that the emergent field of software  
studies, embodied most recently in Matt Fuller's collection -  
Software Studies\a lexicon - seems to have nothing to say about  
labour. And this is pretty surprising, considering the amount of free  
labour invested in developing open source software. Here, Julian's  
concept of playbour as a double-edged sword captures the moving  
ground of labour/life nicely.

Pasted below are some excerpts from a forthcoming paper for a  
biopolitics conference in Taiwan. Fieldwork notes associated with  
that paper can be found here: http://orgnets.cn/?cat=5

As Geert noted in comments on a draft version of the paper, We the  
global intelligentsia use Word. The global working class uses SAP/ERP.

These are also matters for software studies/media theory.  And they  
are also issues for labour politics and organized networks. The  
prospect of labour and life governed through the biopolitical regimes  
of logistics software is not some cooked up dystopian fear, but a  
concrete reality on the horizon of the future-present. The sooner  
software studies gets out of its bourgeois-anarchist ghetto of open  
source celebration and starts to engage the banality of labour and  
logistics software, then the sooner we will see the question of  
software politics find a place in the field of informational  
economies and digital media .



excerpts from a forthcoming paper - The Logistics of Labour, Life and  
Things: Maritime Industries in China as a Biopolitical Index of  
Sovereign Futures

[...] If Foucault’s interest in biopolitics moved around the  
indistinction within a neoliberal paradigm between labour and life,  
production and reproduction, then it follows that the labour of  
research might share something with the life of labour. Both subsist  
within what Foucault identified as the ‘milieu’ or environment within  
which the life of species-beings is addressed and constituted by  
power.[1] Perhaps even more forcefully, does the analytic rubric turn  
to the ‘biopolitics of experience’ when labour and life are  
constitutively indistinct?[2] No doubt one could say that experience  
has always been subject to regimes of governance that manage labour  
and life – the church, for instance, exercised its power over life  
through the ritual of prayer and worship and the social practice of  
congregation for mass. But the real subsumption of labour by capital  
in a post-Fordist era renders the organization of experience in novel  
ways. Within information societies and knowledge economies,  
experience presents itself as one of those last frontiers of capture  
in the economisation of life. Think, for instance, of search engines  
such as Google and the way economies of data-mining derive profit  
from the aggregation of the seemingly inane activity of users  
clicking from one site to the next, or from the accumulation of the  
trivial taste on social networking sites.

  Across his lectures on biopolitics, Foucault returns to a core  
definition of biopolitics, only to then take further ‘detours’ in his  
elaboration of the relationship between territoriality,  
governmentality, security, populations, economy and so forth.  
‘Biopolitics deals with the population, with the population as a  
political problem, as a problem that is at once scientific and  
political, as a biological problem and as power’s problem’.[3] What,  
for instance, is the population or species-being operating or  
constituted as a ‘problem’ in the maritime industries? For logistics,  
the problem emerges in the interruption of global supply chains –  
what RAND Corporation term ‘fault tolerance’ (a technocratic term  
suitably emptied of political substance and subjectivity).[4] The  
biopolitical problem, or population, for maritime logistics includes:  
the pirate, the stowaway, the sex worker, the so-called ‘illegal  
migrant’, the disobedient worker, the disruption of organized labour,  
etc. But what of the production of knowledge on such populations? How  
is the population of academics, NGO researchers, health  
professionals, policy-makers, think-tank consultants, etc. managed  
and organized? What are the techniques of calculus by which these  
diverse populations, subsumed into the category of ‘fault tolerance’,  
are identified and managed in the interests of securitization? Such  
questions concern the human as the species-being of bio-power. But  
what of the population of software applications and technological  
devices that, to varying degrees, are a species-being of artificial  
life increasingly able to self-manage, auto-correct and internally  
propagate as they process the informatized status of people and  
things? Technologies such as these would also belong to an analysis  
of the biopolitics of contemporary labour and life.


The rise of what I would term ‘informatized sovereignty’ takes on  
particular hues in the logistical techniques associated with the  
maritime industries.[5] Code is King. To find out more about the role  
of software in logistics, I got in touch with two logistics workers  
in China – one employed by a U.S. automotive company based in  
Shanghai and the other studying at Shanghai Maritime University,  
having previously worked in container stowage at the Shanghai Port.  
Both placed an emphasis on the importance of efficiencies in  
logistics, with one noting that ‘Well organized and highly-efficient  
workers can eliminate the risk and cost of logistics activities and  
provide added value service to customer’. This text-book response is  
embodied in software standards for logistics.

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) databases are standard platforms  
used within logistics in combination with customised software  
applications to manage global supply chains, organizational  
conditions and labour efficiencies. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)  
are software interfaces built into ERP databases to measure worker  
and organizational efficiencies, meeting of target quotas, financial  
performance, real-time status of global supply chains, and the  
capacity of the organization to adapt to changing circumstances.  
These are all quantitative indicators that register performance with  
a numerical value, however, and are not able to accommodate more  
immaterial factors such as a worker’s feelings and level of  
motivation and enthusiasm. It would seem logistics software is still  
to address the biological spectrum special to the species-being of  
human life. Yet it in another sense, such immaterialities of labour  
and life are coded into the quantitative parametres of KPIs through  
the brute force of instrumentality or calculation: no matter how a  
worker might feel, quotas have to be met and global supply chains  
must not be adversely affected.

The coded materiality of fulfilling performance quotas and ensuring  
the smooth operation of supply chains subsists within its own  
universe of auto-affirmation. The relationship between logistics  
software and self-regulation by workers assumes closure in the  
circuit of governance. One of my logistics informants put it this  
way: ‘As per our broker’s management experience, every staff is  
trained to use their internal ERP software to reflect every movement  
of their work. Moreover, the data from ERP software is also used as a  
tool or KPI to evaluate staff’s performance, thus making them work  
more efficiently’.

This ready inculcation of both disciplinary practices and the logic  
of control within the organizational culture of the company and its  
workers is quite confronting. Certainly, the managerial culture of  
universities has more than its share of whacky acronyms that  
constitute a new planetary grammar coextensive with the governance of  
labour. And the bizarre interpellation of academics into the psuedo- 
corporate audit regimes predicated on performance outcomes and  
accountability measures presents some novel terrain for theories of  
subjectivity and desire. The industry of logistics further amplifies  
such biopolitical technologies, where the labour control regime is  
programmed into the logistics chain at the level of code. A ‘Standard  
Operation Procedure’ (SOP) is incorporated into the KPI of workers. 
[6] The SOP describes the status of specific job, dividing it ‘into  
measurable control points’. My informant provided this example: ‘For  
instance, we would set SOP to our broker, which may require them to  
finish custom clearance of a normal shipment within 3 working days,  
if they fail to hit it, their KPI will be influenced and thus  
influence their payment’.

There is a sense here of how logistics software ‘reflects’ the  
‘movement’ of labour as the fulfillment of assigned tasks over a set  
period of time. This sort of labour performance measure is reproduced  
across many workplace settings. What makes it noteworthy here is the  
way in which the governance of labour is informatized in such a way  
that the border between undertaking a task and reporting its  
completion has become closed or indistinct. Labour and performativity  
are captured in the real-time algorithms of code. There is little  
scope for the worker to ‘fudge’ their reporting of tasks some days or  
even months after the event, as in the case of academia and its  
increasing adoption of annual performance reviews, where a simple cut  
and paste of the previous year’s forecast of anticipated outputs with  
a shift to the retrospective tense is usually sufficient. The Zizek  
factory tuned in early to the genre of labour performance indicators,  
with this account of lessons learnt while working at the Institute of  
Sociology in Ljubljana: ‘Every three years I write a research  
proposal. Then I subdivide it into three one-sentence paragraphs,  
which I call my yearly projects. At the end of each year I change the  
research proposal's future-tense verbs into the past tense and then  
call it my final report’.[7] Any academic who hasn’t been totally  
subsumed into the drone-like persona found in audit-land learns this  
technique of sanity management early in their career. But with the  
rise of informatized sovereignty, biopolitical control is immanent to  
the time of living labour and labour-power.[8] There is no longer a  
temporal delay between the execution of duties and their statistical  
measure. One logistics interviewee described how their broker uses  
ERP software to evaluate the KPI of workers:

'Each employee is asked to mark it in the ERP system when they finish  
their required work. There are two advantages for it: 1) If they fail  
to finish the logistics activity within SOP time, they check in the  
ERP system to find which employee did not complete his/her time  
according to SOP, which help measure employee's performance. 2) Every  
employee could track in the ERP system to know about the current  
status/movement of the logistics activities. In short, ERP software  
visualizes the movement of logistics activities by efforts of every  
link in the logistics chain'.

But as noted earlier, ERP software is a quantitative system, and as a  
cybernetic model it refuses the feedback or noise of more immaterial  
forces such as worker’s attitudes, feelings and levels of motivation  
that would have disruptive effects. Although a more sophisticated  
software environment would calculate in such variables precisely  
because their modulating power operates in a replenishing way, such  
is the parasitical logic of capital and the organic modus operandi of  
life. As it stands, the metaphor of global supply chains signals a  
totalising vision in which everything can be accounted for, measured  
and given an economic value. As Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson  
note, ‘the notion of the chain, while it carries a sense of ligature  
or bondage we wish to maintain, suggests the linkage or articulation  
of multiple units into a single linear system’.[9]

In the case of logistics, there is an institutional, discursive and  
political-economic investment in securitization and risk assessment  
that underscores the need for such linear systems of control. And  
such linearity and closure is always going to be the condition of  
undoing for a system that rests on stasis, consistency and control  
without incorporating contingency and complexity that define the ‘far- 
from-equilibrium’ conditions of life-worlds as understood in more  
advanced cybernetics.[10] The dismal ‘failure’ of the U.S. led  
consortia in the war in Iraq embodies the limits of military  
logistics and the theatre of war. But as we have been reminded in  
recent news media reports on the so-called financial crisis, all  
limits or failures of capital present new opportunities for its  
ongoing reproduction.


If this diverse array of conditions, practices and social-technical  
systems are any indication of the future-present of sovereign states  
and biopolitical technologies of population control, then it would  
seem that labour which is able to operate outside of the software  
devices special to logistics and its global supply chains might  
correspond with a life that is at once free, and economically  

[1] Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, Lectures at the  
Collège de France, 1975-76, trans. David Macey, London: Allen Lane,  
2003, p. 245.

[2] For an examination of the biopolitics of experience, see Jon  
Solomon’s paper in this conference – ‘Beyond Foucault’s Culturalism:  
Translation between Biopolitics and the Archaeology of the Human  
Sciences’, Biopolitics, Ethics, and Subjectivation: Questions on  
Modernity, International Conference at National Chiao-Tung  
University, Hsin Chu, Taiwan, 24-28 June, 2009.

[3] Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, p. 245.

[4] See Henry H. Willis and David S. Ortiz, Evaluating the Security  
of the Global Containerized Supply Chain, Santa Monica, Cal.: RAND  
Corporation, 2004, http://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/2004/ 

[5] A study of logistics in the aviation industries would, I suspect,  
produce similar findings. However, with its considerably longer  
history and thus conflict with shifting epochs, the maritime  
industries hold greater interest precisely because they were not born  
in a time of modern logistics, as the aviation industries arguably were.

[6] Standard Operation Procedure also refers, of course, to the  
routine practices of torture adopted by the U.S. military, supposedly  
as a technique of interrogation. The shared terminology here should  
come as no surprise, given the origins of logistics within the  
military-industrial complex.

[7] See Robert S. Boyton, ‘Enjoy Your Zizek! An Excitable Slovenian  
Philosopher Examines The Obscene Practices Of Everyday Life,  
Including His Own', Lingua Franca 8.7 (October, 1998). Available at:  

[8] See also Tiziana Terranova: ‘What we seem to have then is  
definition of a new biopolitical plane that can be organized through  
the deployment of immanent control, which operates directly within  
the productive power of the multitude and the clinamen’. Network  
Cultures: Politics for the Information Age, London: Pluto, 2004, p. 122.

[9] Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, ‘Care Workers, Traders, and  
Body Shoppers’, unpublished paper, 2009.

[10] See Terranova, Network Cultures, p. 122. See also Ned Rossiter,  
Organized Networks: Media Theory, Creative Labour, New Institutions,  
Amsterdam: NAi Publishers / Institute of Network Cultures, 2006, pp.  

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