[iDC] on digital labor

john sobol john at johnsobol.com
Wed Nov 4 18:14:16 UTC 2009

Thank you Andrew for your observant and trenchant essay and Pat for  
your delightfully penetrating response. Brian put it well a few days  
ago, but I will reiterate that for me anyway, the careful examination  
of issues of our time in the vernacular of our time is far more  
compelling than burdened extrapolations of ideas and nomenclature  
from a different era.

Andrew points out that the transformation of work today is often in  
fact the degradation of work. I agree that it is important to balance  
the hype with skepticism and realism, but I find myself, like Pat,  
asking myself, degradation from what? For answers – since so many of  
the examples provided in his essay are ones I have lived through – I  
turn to my own experience, and to my father's.

Andrew starts off talking about New York Freelancers. My father Ken  
started freelancing as a writer in New York in 1959. His first  
article was on the front page of the Village Voice at a time when the  
paper was only 8 pages long. He wrote for the Voice off and on for 20  
years, including a stint in the early 70s as one of the first (if not  
the first) newspaper TV critics. But not surprisingly, he was paid  
peanuts as a freelance journalist. So with a family to feed we moved  
to L.A. and my father went to work at animation studios Hannah- 
Barbara and Filmmation, writing the likes of Superman, Batman and  
George of the Jungle, while writing film scripts on spec. The money  
was somewhat better, but there was nothing like job security. On the  
contrary, it being Hollywood there was constant job insecurity. (For  
example, he was fired by his producer cousin just a week after  
arriving with his young family, leaving us virtually homeless.) So  
even though my father had some success there, none of the scripts  
turned into films, and we left a few years later, again due basically  
to degraded working conditions. Now, skipping far ahead to keep this  
tale from sprawling, here's how things turned out: eventually we  
ended up in Canada, in the mid-70s, with my father writing for OECA  
(now TVO), at that time an absolutely fearless public broadcaster.  
Over the next 20 years he created and wrote a dozen TV shows for OECA/ 
TVO, including many that ran for years, and still do. (including one  
lost gem from the '70s, the sadly disappeared 'Media Circus', a 3- 
hour commercial-free live analysis of TV culture set in a broadcast  
control room, with each monitor tuned to a different channel, in  
which my dad and guests like MacLuhan would discuss what was on TV  
and why. The show was on at a different time and day every week and  
was far ahead of its time.) He also hooked up with Nelvana and wrote  
many of the early animated specials that put them on the map. By this  
time he was a 'success', with TV-driven income that allowed us to  
live a middle-class lifestyle equal to my middle-class friends. There  
was still no job security, except his reputation and his ability to  
deliver top-notch scripts, but that was enough. Of note, however, is  
the pensions from ACTRA and the Writer's Guild that he earned through  
the last 2-3 decades of his career. This allowed him to retire, a  
couple of years ago, with an actual livable pension, which he now  

When I started freelancing as a journalist, some 25 years after my  
dad started, I had (at least vaguely) similar expectations and hopes.  
And at first things went quite well. I started freelancing in college  
getting $125 an article at a time when my rent was $200 a month.  
After a few years I moved to the Montreal Gazette, at that time  
Canada's largest newspaper, among other publications, and was paid  
fairly well, at least by my youthful standards. In 1988 I was getting  
$200 for a 300-word article and I was writing a few a week. But the  
newspaper industry was just starting to change, and I watched as  
entire floors of the Gazette production building started to empty of  
linotypers and proofreaders and other printing professions. As it  
happens, in terms of degrading work, I discovered to my surprise that  
I found journalism to be degrading work. Specifically I found that it  
degraded my soul to have so much power (such a very loud voice) with  
zero accountability. And I became convinced that it was that  
outrageously out-of-balance power dynamic that resulted in so many of  
my journalist colleagues being bitter, drunken sods, or at the very  
least annoying egotists. So for the most part I left journalism.  
(Interestingly, when I did wander back to the Gazette briefly about a  
decade later the price of that same 300-word article had dropped to  
$100.) Over the years I went to work as a producer of national radio,  
as a TV writer of kids shows, animation and documentaries, I wrote  
some books, ran a record label, produced festivals, played in many  
bands and performed sundry other freelance creative roles I will not  
bore you with here. But the point is that I found our fairly quickly  
that the freelance world I inherited was not my father's world. In  
his day, everywhere he went things were growing, they were profitable  
and funded. Whereas every cultural institution I went to work for -  
CBC, the Banff Centre for the Arts, Design Exchange, The Gazette –  
experienced massive layoffs during my term there. I mean gutted.  
Freelancers were always the first to go. Eventually, to cut my story  
short, I made my way to the web. Too late to ride the wave to riches  
but early enough to start doing fun and exciting things nobody else  
had done before. And being an artist I still didn't really care about  
money anyway. Which is good, because I very rarely made very much.  
Enough to live, yes, but no more. And by and large that was fine with  

Things are a little different now. My kids are older. After 25 years  
I got fed up with fighting over crumbs as an artist & freelancer and  
got a real job in the Internet industry a few years ago. Today I sell  
custom software and interactive solutions. You need it  and we build  
it. After so many years of freelance hustling I found that sales was  
an easy transition for me. Not the golf-course buddies kind but the  
kind where you actually listen and actually deliver value. I like it  
more than I thought I would but it ain't poetry, no matter how much I  
try to convince myself it is.

So in reading your analysis of how freelance creative work is being  
degraded, Andrew, on some level I find myself agreeing. Yes it's  
getting tougher, and the deck is stacked against you/us/anyone. But  
it has ever been thus and I find myself asking 'what has really  
changed?'. My father paid many long years of dues, and only succeeded  
in carving out a decent living because he was so extremely stubborn,  
so talented and willing to learn, and so entirely unsuited for any  
other occupation. He did find a semi-permanent home with flourishing  
commercial patrons, it is true, which I never was able to do, because  
they no longer exist in the same way. And the Union pension was  
crucial and wonderful, yet not really accessible to me in my career.  
So in these ways yes things have obviously changed for the worse. On  
the other hand, degradation comes in many flavours. For example, my  
ability to tell this story on my own terms, in transparent real-time  
dialogue with people around the world, is something I cherish. It is  
the opposite of journalism, which very often left me feeling  
dishonest even as I published steadily. So personally I do not lament  
the decline of the journalistic profession as we have known it, since  
I feel it was already inherently degraded. And while I wish I had  
that pension, I have also found, in pretty much every creative field  
in which I have worked, that unions are very much a mixed blessing.  
My teenage son is in a professional play right now, and is suffering  
some very odd consequences of the actor's union's upholding of his  
rights. So I am leery of unions despite my progressive instincts.

And I guess I feel, looking back at my father's journey and mine,  
that things may have been somewhat more difficult for me (as they  
have been for many North Americans of my generation, in comparison to  
our parents generation, in which so many of today's grandfathers seem  
to have been Vice-Presidents of something or other) but that by and  
large we have each had to face difficult challenges, and each found  
our own solutions. My dad would have preferred to write the great  
film scripts he was capable of. I would prefer to make as much money  
as I currently make but as a professional musician, but I never  
could. Not even close. From my perspective yes there is less security  
now, more opportunity (if this is even possible!) for exploitation,  
but this is balanced by the greater freedom, greater opportunity for  
self-production and creative commercial collaboration. Are the  
workers on Survivor being exploited? Of course. But they've always  
been and I imagine always will be. Besides, I am reasonably sure they  
like their work. And they are free to leave. Ultimately it takes  
courage to challenge yourself to succeed as a freelancer, as a  
responsible creative individual. And it takes ingenuity to maintain  
that purpose and to turn it into a living wage. But that is  
presumably what creative people are good at, no? Ingenuity and  
collaboration? Perhaps it is for the best that creative people are  
being forced to turn to their own devices, being pushed out of   
unresponsive megacorps that pay lip service to creativity but run on  
bottom-line mentalities. Perhaps it is a very good thing that play  
and work are being mixed up as they are, so long as those who know  
how to work playfully gain more scope to do so, as we seem to be doing.

I had a very different response in mind when I sat down to write.  
Something about the epistemology of work, but it appears that this is  
what I wanted to say. Maybe because my dad's on my mind, being  
somewhat unwell. I will say that he was never given anything. Worked  
his ass off and took scary risks, living on a tightrope his whole  
professional life. I expected to do that too (and did for a very long  
time) but where he found a home to support his creativity when his  
powers were at their peak, I found – for better for worse I still  
don't know – a creative day job I like and, among other things, the  
Institute for Distributed Creativity.

John Sobol


On 2-Nov-09, at 4:17 PM, Andrew Ross wrote:

> On the Digital Labor Question
> October 16th, 2009
> By Andrew Ross
> (Transcribed from a lecture presented at September 29, 2009, at the  
> Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School)
> The Freelancers Union was established in 2007 to offer a social  
> safety net and political advocacy on behalf of independent workers  
> who contract their labor to multiple employers. Though it is now  
> the fastest growing union in New York, a city with far more than  
> its per capita share of creative workers, its services model has  
> not yet been fully acknowledged by the labor movement, not even as  
> the national share of “non-standard employment” approaches 33%  
> (almost certainly an undercounted figure). The union emerged from  
> the chrysalis of Sara Horowitz’s Working Today, which earned its  
> laurels in the late 1990s, at the height of the New Economy push to  
> promote “free agency” among the city’s burgeoning digital  
> workforce. A decade later, it remains the only real institutional  
> effort to provide stability to the precarious lives of the city’s  
> independent workers, many of whom were the first to fall into the  
> deep hole of the current recession.
> The needs of this workforce has attracted a good deal of commentary  
> in recent years as part of a burgeoning analysis of the creative  
> labor of artists (broadly defined) who were once considered  
> marginal to the productive economy, but are increasingly profiled  
> and promoted as the model workers of the new economy. Wherever  
> their labor is organized into the formal silos of the so-called  
> “creative industries,” it has garnered the attention of national  
> statisticians bent on building the case for a new high-growth  
> sector, irresistible to investors, politicians, and real estate  
> speculators who know the presence of artists can have on land  
> value. [1] But well beneath the statisticians’ radar there is a  
> more telling story about the degradation of work that has occurred  
> as part of the transition to a Internet-centered economy based on  
> the widespread use of non-paid amateur or user labor. This short  
> essay will review some of the features of that transition.
> The Price Paid by Talent
> Those of you who remember the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike  
> of 2008-09 will no doubt recall the writers’ struggle to win a  
> revenue share from residuals–or online versions of content to which  
> they had contributed. In the public mind, this was generally seen  
> as a fair claim. Why? Because surely creators of intellectual  
> property deserve to enjoy the fruits of their labor. But how many  
> will remember what was bargained away in return for recognition of  
> the writers claim? Since 2005, one of the writers guild’s top  
> campaign goals has been to organize employees of TV reality shows,  
> and, while union leaders entered the strike vowing to achieve this  
> goal, the media moguls’ ultimate condition for reaching an  
> agreement over new media residuals was that the WGA take off the  
> table its claim for jurisdiction over the reality (and animation)  
> sector. The upshot? Concessions were made to those employees—the  
> writers–who feed the copyright milkcow at the expense of the below- 
> the-line em
> ployees who are shut out of the WGA.
> This raw deal speaks volumes about the ongoing restructuring of the  
> creative industries (or the copyright industries as they are more  
> bluntly termed in the U.S.) Creative employees who are close to the  
> prize of IP have a fair, though precarious, shot at lucrative  
> returns, while those below-the-line, to use the term favored in  
> Hollywood, are cut loose. Since 2001, the space allotted to reality  
> TV and “challenge” game shows has ballooned to more than 20% of  
> prime-time network programming. The production costs are a fraction  
> of what producers pay for conventional, scripted drama, and the  
> ratings and profits have been mercurial. From the outset, owners  
> have insisted that producers and editors are not “writers” who pen  
> scripts and dialogue, because they would have a claim on IP, and so  
> the WGA was shut out of reality programming. As a result, the  
> sector teems with substandard conditions—18 hour work days, chronic  
> job instability, no meal breaks, no health benefits, and employer c
> oercion to turn in time cards early. Wage rates are generally half  
> of what employees on scripted shows are paid, and most overtime  
> goes unpaid. When employees vote to join the union they are  
> summarily fired or are threatened with blacklisting. Nor are the  
> amateur contestants any better off. If they are paid, it is  
> generally a minimal stipend, and the price for their shot at  
> exposure is to endure conditions–sleep deprived and plied with hard  
> alcohol–that are designed to spark tension, conflict and  
> confrontation onscreen. A growing number of lawsuits, in the US, UK  
> and France are aimed at establishing legal protections for amateur  
> talent as well as for writers, editors, and production assistants.
> 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. 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, a
> nd 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.
> Work You Just Couldn’t Help Doing
> As far as waged work goes, I am inclined to see new developments in  
> the digital workplace as a part of a continuum that stretches back  
> to the managerial introduction in the 1920s of human relations to  
> humanize the workplace and stave off workers’ forms of industrial  
> democracy. This human relations movement was upgraded after the so- 
> called “revolt against work” in the 1970s in response to widespread  
> worker discontent with alienation on the job, and, in many ways,  
> reached its apotheosis in the permissive work milieu of the dotcom  
> era, where the template was also forged for digitally extending  
> value-adding work far outside the physically bounded workplace and  
> into every waking moment of an employee’s life. This combination of  
> work gratification and time sacrifice established the industrial  
> formula for self-exploitation among creative workers. As one of my  
> informants for No-Collar (my ethnographic study of new media  
> companies) put it, her job offered “work you just couldn’t help
>  doing.” [3] 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.,
> At the same time, however, there is another history of work to  
> consider, and that is the story of how manufacturers and service  
> providers have succeeded in transferring work from the producer to  
> the consumer. My student Michael Palm has written a dissertation on  
> the rise of self-service and he begins his story with the  
> transition from the Bell telephone operators to customer dialing  
> which required a good deal of persuasion and education for  
> customers to take on the work. At this more advanced point in the  
> history, we have more or less accepted the massive amount of time  
> we are asked to devote to researching and assembling consumer  
> products, not to mention the input that is considered mandatory for  
> customer services of all sorts. These investments of personal time  
> are only the most palpable expressions of what Italian post- 
> operaiste theorists like Mario Tronti called the social factory,  
> where a large share of the work of production is performed in the  
> interstices of society,
> and because they are tangible–and because we continually weigh the  
> benefits against the cost of these personal time investments– they  
> tend to be the ones that irritate us the most, and so we end up  
> venting our anger on robovoices or on hapless call center employees  
> in Bangalore.
> Value From the Social Web?
> The more sophisticated techniques for extracting value from  
> consumers or amateur users can be found in the digital platform  
> economy where social participation on the web is more and more the  
> raw material for engines of speculative profit. By far the majority  
> of the users of social networking sites are unaware of how the  
> volunteer content of their communications is subject to data  
> mining, sold to marketers and advertisers, or is hoarded by  
> entrepreneur hosts bent on getting bought out. Concomitant with the  
> reality TV shows, the prize for users is to win attention,  
> accumulate “friends,” score a hit, and draw some bankable or  
> socially valuable advantage from the exposure. But 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).
> Those users who are aware of this economy are likely to consider  
> this a reasonable trade–we have free access to your services and in  
> return we surrender all rights to you over the use of our content  
> and personal data. And, as for those for whom the web has opened up  
> a whole new universe of information-rich public goods–including the  
> potential for anti-capitalist organizing, really really free  
> markets, peer-to-peer common value creation, and alternative  
> economies of all sorts—the role the social web is currently playing  
> in new modes of capital accumulation is simply the price one pays  
> for preserving a free medium of exchange whose scope of activity is  
> large enough to outpace any government or corporate surveillance.  
> It’s another kind of trade-off, in other words, and the balance,  
> for the time being, is still in favor of the commons. From this  
> point of view, all of the interactive free labor that goes into  
> user-generated value can be seen as a kind of tithe or tribute we  
> pay t
> o the Internet as a whole so that the expropriators stay away from  
> the parts of it we really cherish.
> Should we no longer view this interactive input as labor in any  
> conventional understanding of political economy or should we see it  
> as just another transfer of work from more regulated kinds of labor  
> market? My instinct is to think along the lines of the latter, with  
> the proviso that there is a great deal of overlap between the  
> traditional economy of unpaid work (mostly in the home) and that of  
> work transfer. 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 owne
> rs 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. Our regret that the amateur blogosphere can serve as a  
> corrosive force against the payscales of professional labor may be  
> only half the story one would like to tell about the blogosphere,  
> but it is the half that is routinely neglected in the  
> technolibertarian rush to portray the rapid flowering of Internet  
> self-publication as a refreshing break from the filtering of the  
> editorial gatekeepers. Those of us who were weaned on Media  
> Studies’ classic eulogies (Benjamin, Enzensberger, McLuhan) to the  
> concept of an active media audience (the audience as producer)  
> might be forgiven for mouthing “watch what you wish for” when we  
> review all of the ways in which interactive labor of the social web  
> and the discount eth
> os of online enterprise in general have taken their toll on the  
> formal labor markets of the brick-and-mortar world. (Academe, of  
> course, has its own version of this with the digital diploma mills  
> run by the University of Phoenix and all the other online  
> institutions that are the network backbones of the new global  
> university, and I won’t even begin to get into the topic of IT’s  
> role in offshore outsourcing (about which I wrote a book called  
> Fast Boat to China). The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest figures  
> for the publishing industry show employment at 275,000, down by 36%  
> from its peak a decade ago at 430,000. Internet employment has  
> risen since the recession began, but since we are only talking  
> about 5,000 jobs or so, it will take several decades for digital  
> job gains to make up for the old media losses of the last year. [4]  
> It can plausibly be concluded that much of the work accounted for  
> by the gap between old and new media is simply being transferred  
> into the interstice
> s of the amateur/user economy that prevails on the web.
> The Spirit of Braverman
> I’ve been less than even-handed in my response to the question  
> Whither Digital Labor? Why? because those who see the digital realm  
> as a technology of de-skilling, outsourcing and work degradation  
> are far outnumbered by those who see it as a medium of reskilling,  
> innovation, and common value creation. And because the minority  
> view needs to be expressed whenever there is an opportunity to do  
> so. So I’m content to channel the spirit of Harry Braverman in this  
> regard and for the purpose of this discussion. [5] But I will add  
> this as final teaser. The emergence of this new mode of production  
> that we sometimes call knowledge capitalism does probably require  
> all of the good things we associate with the information commons in  
> the same way as the emergence of industrial capitalism depended on  
> free inputs like clean air, uncontaminated water, disposable animal  
> species, and dirt-cheap underground mineral deposits.
> 1. Geert Lovink, and Ned Rossiter eds. My Creativity (Amsterdam:  
> Insitute for Network Cultures, 2007); Richard Florida The Rise of  
> the Creative Class, And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure,  
> Community, and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2002); John  
> Hartley, eds. Creative Industries (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).
> David Harvey “The Art of Rent: Globalization and the  
> Commodification of Culture,” in Spaces of Capital (New York:  
> Routledge, 2001): Ursula Huws, ed. (2007) “The Creative Spark in  
> the Engine” special issues of Work, Organization, Labour &  
> Globalization Vol. 1, No. 1. (2007); Andrew Ross, Nice Work If You  
> Can Get It (New York: NYU Press, 2009).
> 2. Tiziana Terranova, “Free Labor” Social Text 18.2 (2000) 33-58
> 3. Andrew Ross, No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and its Hidden  
> Costs (Basic Books, 2002)
> 4. Paper Cuts, Left Business Observer, #121 (September 2009)
> 5. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of  
> Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974)
> Andrew Ross is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New  
> York University. A frequent contributor to The Nation, Artforum and  
> the Village Voice, he is the author of several books, including,  
> most recently, Nice Work if You Can Get It: Life and Labor in  
> Precarious Times, Fast Boat to China--Lessons from Shanghai, Low  
> Pay, High Profile: The Global Push for Fair Labor, No-Collar: The  
> Humane Workplace and its Hidden Costs, and The Celebration  
> Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property Value in  
> Disney’s New Town. He has also edited several books, including No  
> Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers, Anti- 
> Americanism, and The University Against Itself: The NYU Strike and  
> the Future of the Academic Workplace.
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