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

David Golumbia dg6n at mail.eservices.virginia.edu
Fri Jun 12 11:49:05 UTC 2009

Hi list,

I've really enjoyed a lot of the recent discussion, and especially the 
comments Ned makes below; I feel I should mention that my 
recently-published book, /The Cultural Logic of Computation/ (Harvard, 
2009) discusses ERP, CRM and other logistics software in just this 
context--and also continues to insist, as several have done here, that 
there is a deeply problematic mismatch between "labor" as it is 
conceptualized in the world of computing, and the other sorts of labor 
that will and must continue to make the everyday world operate. In no 
small part due to the decade I spent as a software architect and 
programmer in the financial information industry, I am deeply skeptical 
of claims that the computerization of society will lead to a freer, more 
democratic world. I am first skeptical that there is any kind of 
automatic trend in that direction, despite the huge amounts of rhetoric 
to that effect (much of it effectively critiqued on this list, and a 
major target of my book); but I feel it is just as critical to raise the 
question even at more pedestrian levels. I continue to think that 
despite its benefits, there are significant and underacknowledged 
conflicts between "the computerization of society" and, to quote the 
philospopher Hilary Putnam, "total human flourishing."

David G.

David Golumbia
Assistant Professor
Media Studies, English, and Linguistics
University of Virginia

Ned Rossiter wrote:
> 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:
> http://journal.fibreculture.org/issue5/lovink_rossiter.html
> http://journal.fibreculture.org/issue5/neilson_rossiter.html
> 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
> sustainability.
> 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 .
> Ned
> ----
> 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
> impoverished.
> [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/
> RAND_TR214.pdf
> [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:
> http://www.lacan.com/zizek-enjoy.htm
> [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.
> 166-195.
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