[iDC] on digital labor

Andrew Ross andrew.ross at nyu.edu
Wed Nov 4 15:54:25 UTC 2009

Thanks, Pat, for these splendid comments. The unique perspective you bring as a practitioner/entrepreneur certainly do trump some of the features of armchair analysis.  

On the matter of these entertainment industry employees, I'd have to confess that I'll defend the rights of unionized workers anywhere. Production workers really have no say whatsoever  on the nature of production, and the input of their above-the-line colleagues is heavily constrained, so I don't think you can blame unions for the mediocrity of industrial entertainment anymore than one can blame Detroit workers for churning out gas-guzzlers (though we have heard a lot of that in recent months). In any case, my perspective on US mass entertainment has never been to lambast the system for producing pablum but rather to consider how and why, in spite of the system, and against all odds, it's remarkable how many good things do actually get made.

As for play, for sure, it fulfils many laudable social and psychic functions, as you have documented and argued with great care, but the lottery culture of neoliberalism has a generally regressive impact. The win-lose environment of games played in a league employing reasonably well-paid professionals is quite a different beast from a game played by unpaid amateurs for high-profile stakes, especially when the latter is promoted as a social norm for the economy as a whole.

On the social wage and the autonomist tradition, I have a lot to say (mostly supportive) in my last book, Nice Work if You Can Get It. And from a U.S. perspective, the EU's "flexicurity" policies, whatever their considerable shortcomings, would be a vast improvement over the meager employment security policies that are in place over here. 

The ecological horizon you invoke is an important one, and in general, I'm all in favor in transferring work in the direction of green collar livelihoods as long as it is fairly paid. The evidence is that existing green collar jobs pay much less and are usually nonunionized as is the case with most new industries. New media is certainly a case in point. So, too, the digitariat are routinely oblivious to the environmental costs of the hardware production cycle, from manufacture all the way along to e-waste.  We know all about the ecological and health hazards posed to iPhone production workers and the toxic impact of computer waste sent to south China, yet these topics seldom register in forums of this sort.  

Lastly, I tip my hat to the rogueish spirit of Vaneigem that you invoke in the maxim "We will be poorer but we may be more alive." But I don't see why these have to be mutually exclusive. Like most folks, I'd much rather be alive AND decently paid. Why settle for less?

with best wishes,


----- Original Message -----
From: pat kane <playethical at gmail.com>
Date: Tuesday, November 3, 2009 5:28 am
Subject: Re: [iDC] on digital labor
To: idc at mailman.thing.net
Cc: Andrew Ross <andrew.ross at nyu.edu>

> Beautifully argued, as ever, from Andrew, and I can't respond to  
> everything, but a few caveats:
> >
> > These violations of work standards occur in the sector of old media  
> > that is most clearly aligned with the neo-liberal ethos of the  
> > jackpot economy. It’s an ethos which demands that we are all  
> > participants in a game that rewards only a few, while the condition  
> > of entry into this high-stakes lottery is to leave your safety gear  
> > at the door; only the most spunky, agile, and dauntless will  
> > prevail, but often at high psychic cost–witness Susan Boyle’s  
> > recent return to the spotlight after a long bout of medication and  
> > institutionalization.
> I'm scratching my head here at what you're defending: the unionized  
> rights of tv workers to produce decades of passivity-inducing  
> pabulum, and worse than that (as Brian Holmes has dubbed it), a cyber- 
> marketing "Neilsenism" which locks the viewers into a sad loop of  
> uneasy identification, leading to restless consumerism? Didn't Paddy  
> Chayefsky nail all this in Network in the mid-seventies?
> And from a play studies perspective, one has to immediately  
> relativise and historicise your linking of this particular 'game' of  
> culture to neo-liberalism. As Sutton-Smith reminds us in Ambiguity of  
> Play, agonism - play-as-contestation - is an enduring modality of  
> play, functionally deep in our evolved condition, alongside others to  
> be sure. I doubt whether Simon Cowell's various spectacles are  
> qualitatively different from other symbolic expenditures of power in  
> other, certainly pre-modern eras. The point about social media, in or  
> out of the clutches of parasitic corporates, is whether we can use it  
> to tap into more expansive, enriching, sustaining games, simulations  
> and rituals.
> To my eyes, though these shows successfully commodify the  
> 'interpassive' dimensions of the network society - phone/text votes,  
> branded forums, cheap shows (the X-tra Factor) on multiple channels -  
> they are also vigorously subverted by a fourth estate (amplified by  
> social media) which is still doing its job. Witness the recent  
> convulsions of both ITV and BBC in the UK about game-show rigging.
> > Yet the labor infractions I have been describing are only visible  
> > because they take place against the heavily unionized backdrop of  
> > the entertainment industries. In the world of new media, where  
> > unions have no foothold whatsoever, the formula of overwork,  
> > underpayment, and sacrificial labor is entirely normative. The  
> > blurring of the lines between work and leisure, the widespread use  
> > of amateur or user input on the social web or in open source, and  
> > the systematic expropriation of Tiziana Terranova first described  
> > as “free labor” has prompted some commentators to ask whether the  
> > experience of digital environments should direct us to rethink  
> > entirely our basic understanding of labor and enterprise. [2] While  
> > skeptical, I am certainly open to such inquiries and look forward  
> > to any such discussion.
> Do you have no perspective on the Italian autonomists' (and in recent  
> times, Andre Gorz's) response to the spectre of free labor - the  
> horizon of a 'guaranteed income' or 'social wage', which would  
> recognise that we are cognitively and affectively producing in our  
> generality? I don't know that this is necessarily such a utopian  
> horizon, or so disconnected from policy processes. One of the  
> arguments about the nature of creative work I'm hearing in the UK and  
> Europe is that it may well demand a new conception of welfare/well- 
> being support - what has been called (and I think precipitately  
> rejected) by Rossiter and Lovink as 'flexicurity'. (for a rather  
> watery version of how this might work in terms of state allowance see  
> http://www.newdealofthemind.com/?page_id=1329). This is the commons- 
> ization of cultural production as a consequence of open digital  
> networks (and remember how it could have been different? Ted Nelson  
> and his hypertext micropayment system?).
> Never mind recompense for unionised tv workers - the whole field is  
> de-monetizing (or at least re-monetising, but at a much lower level).  
> And there's a bigger ecological horizon about the extent to which we  
> need to move away from (heavily) material consumption - wherein the  
> rush to (relatively) immaterial prosumption, production or  
> interaction, as our psychic compensation for being Northern, late- 
> modern 'flexible personalities', might be one kind of answer. I don't  
> know that agonising over the labour conditions in making trash tv is  
> the right zone in which to deploy one's critical energies.
> > Subsequent ethnographic studies of knowledge and creative industry  
> > workplaces show that job gratification still comes at a heavy  
> > sacrificial cost–longer hours in pursuit of the satisfying finish,  
> > price discounts in return for aesthetic recognition, self- 
> > exploitation in response to the gift of autonomy, and  
> > dispensability in exchange for flexibility.
> And for most creative workers, the alternative is...? A career in  
> advertising, where a satisfying finish, aesthetic recognition,  
> autonomy, and flexibility in the job are indeed handsomely rewarded -  
> but towards the end of numbed and dumbed mentalities? You seem to  
> have an angst for a pre-digital, almost Mad Men style world of  
> cultural employment, where symbolic analysts did at best mediocre, at  
> worse mendacious work, yet at least managed a serene martini in  
> comfortable surroundings at the end of an 8-hour day. Are sectoral  
> employment deals on residuals and recompense going to be enough, when  
> (as you say further on) the dream of semiotically-active, mass- 
> innovative citizenry has now come true, in all its copyright-busting  
> fecundity? And further: Will all art and culture become folk-art and  
> culture in a steady-state economy - and is the mass embrace of  
> interactive tools an anticipation of this shift?
> >  for the business entrepreneur, the outcome is a virtually wage- 
> > free proposition. There are costs involved for bandwidth, hosting,  
> > and maintaining commercial platforms, but as far as the monetizable  
> > product goes, it is the users, or prosumers, as industry  
> > strategists call them, who create all the surplus va
> > lue (which could be described as the difference between the value  
> > such free services offer to users and the value they create for  
> > business).
> I'm one of those entrepreneurs, using (though not owning) one of  
> those platforms, encouraging that kind of fan labor (http:// 
> hueandcry.ning.com). I can tell you our anxiety is that we have built  
> a fan community upon a platform whose advertising-convertible  
> interactions won't be substantial enough to maintain the  
> functionality of its social tools (whether through its own  
> bankruptcy, or a takeover leading to reduction of service). At the  
> very least, Ning's ability to allow you to export your data-base as a  
> file, and measure some degree of customer behaviour through Google  
> Analytics, means that this small-trader has the possibility to start  
> again if his platform fails. But there is no doubt that the free- 
> culture expectations induced by net behaviour has shaped Ning till  
> now - and its combination of power and low cost has given us (and  
> I'll bet many others) the possibility to conduct our cultural  
> commercial enterprise *without* a sell-out of our art to corporate  
> interest, and with a direct relationship with people who want to give  
> us money - for our performances, at least (if not to the same degree  
> our music).
> I would say a net-preneur has to have, at best, a tragic perspective  
> on the permanence of the institutions and networks which sustain  
> their enterprise. What I'd like to know is: if there are dimensions  
> of the private banking system that are too big to fail, which of our  
> commercial social networks might also fall under the same category?  
> Or alternatively: what is the public infrastructural stake in robust  
> open networks? Or: was Minitel really *that* silly?
> > Technolibertarians who have consistently viewed cyberspace as a  
> > haven of free being are notoriously oblivious to the impact of the  
> > cut-price labor economy that is its default mode. The flourishing  
> > of self-publication and amateur content has been a clear threat to  
> > the livelihoods of professional creatives whose prices are driven  
> > down by, or who simply cannot compete with, the commercial mining  
> > of the online, discount alternatives to their services. Print  
> > journalism is only the most recent, well-publicized example of a  
> > profession trampled underfoot as advertisers and owners switch to  
> > online assets. Indeed, it’s ironic to see how media critics who are  
> > more accustomed to proclaiming that the “press is free only for  
> > those who own one” have lately been defending these bastions of  
> > information gatekeeping as stable sources of valued livelihoods.
> As I said in previous post, I think there's a good ferment of  
> thinking about how journalism as an ethical, professional practice is  
> sustained in the digital meltdown of company and organisational  
> models. Could be legislation to support new, with- or non-profit  
> company structures; could be some new maleficent integration of  
> device, software and e-commerce (wait to see the deals that the  
> iTablet has cut with publishing houses). But in any case, and to  
> repeat myself, it could be that journalism becomes (has already  
> become?) one of the many operations of the 'General Intellect' in  
> necessarily steady-state economies, in a sousveillant mode. Rossiter  
> and Bauwens' separate calls for 'organised networks' might well be a  
> template for what succeeds the big-city, ad-driven newsroom. But no  
> Martinis in the wood-panelled bar at the end of the day, I would hazard.
> We (the self-consciously creative/cognitive classes) will be poorer  
> in the post-capitalist economy: however, we may well be more alive.  
> What did Vanegeim say? "We refuse a world where the guarantee that we  
> will not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom...We  
> can escape the commonplace only by manipulating it, controlling it,  
> thrusting it into our dreams or surrendering it to the free play of  
> our subjectivity".
> best, pat kane
> >
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