[iDC] Sociology Lens - Conference Summary Part I: The Internet as Playground and Factory

PJ Rey pjrey.socy at gmail.com
Tue Nov 17 23:16:11 UTC 2009

 The following is my recent *Sociology Lens* post.  The original text is
available here<http://sociologycompass.wordpress.com/2009/11/15/conference-summary-part-i-the-internet-as-playground-and-factory/>

PJ Rey
University of Maryland

Conference Summary Part I: The Internet as Playground and Factory November
15, 2009

pj.rey <http://www.pjrey.info/>

The New School held a conference <http://digitallabor.org/> last week that
may be of interest to many Sociology Lens readers, so I have decided to
devote this week’s entry to sharing some notes from the conference.

The implosion of work and play was the most recurrent theme in the panels
that I attended.  The term “playbor” was frequently used to describe the
product of this implosion.  Panelists generally seemed to assume that
playbor was a relatively new and increasingly prevalent phenomenon.
However, one dissenter, an artist named Stephanie Rothenberg, argued that
play and productivity have coincided from the earliest days of capitalism.
She explained that hobbies (e.g., collecting, handicraft, parlor room
singsong, gardening, and animal raising) are voluntary forms of play that
produce objects with no intent to exchange them on the market.  These
activities often have significant social aspects and some hobbies, like
music or quilting, are even done collaboratively.  Given the resemblance to
hobbies, Rothenberg urges that we view playbor as the latest instantiation
of a historical trend, rather than newly emerging paradigm.  In fact she
claims that online environments like Second Life mimic the world so
hyperbolically that they offer an unprecedented opportunity for us to turn a
critical eye on ourselves.  In our distanced view of these “simulacrums,” we
find our own distanced reflections.

This emphasis on the supposed distance between our online and offline
presence in the world, however, strikes at the heart of my major criticism
of the conference:  Panelists again and again betrayed the assumption that
the online world was somehow distinct from the “real” world.  However, this
assumption was never substantiated—and I am dubious as to whether it can
be.  We know, for example, that most online interactions occur between
people who know one another from “real-life” contexts.  Moreover, I believe
users often perceive their online interactions in a different manner than we
do as sociologists.

Sociologists tend to view the variable which distinguishes online and
offline interaction (i.e., technology) as salient.  In contrast, I think it
is likely that users focus on the areas of continuity (i.e., the
interactions themselves).  This difference in emphasis, I think, is behind
the tendency to over-exaggerate the dichotomy between “virtual” and “real.”*
*Clearly, the Internet facilitates new forms of communication that are
instantaneous, spatially-compressed, asyncratic, and highly reproducible.
These communications may be different, but they are no less *real*.  It is
no less absurd to say that online interactions constitute and occur in a
separate world than it is to say that telephone calls do.  Internet
theorists appear to be making the same conflation between form and
properties that Aristotle worked to dispel over two millenia ago.

Returning to playbor, Martin Roberts argued that fun occupies a seemingly
unassailable position in our culture, whereby criticism meets almost
immediate dismissal and is largely non-existent.  He extends the theory of
the Frankfurt School by arguing that the capitalist system not only profits
from a cultural obsession with fun that is a driving force in the sphere of
consumption but now increasingly benefits from the notion that “productivity
is fun” (and it’s implicit inversion: being unproductive is not fun).  A
culture driven to seek productivity in its leisure time presents greater
opportunity for exploitation.

Interestingly, the cultural identification of fun with productivity
perfectly contradicts the technical definition of play in Johan Huzinga’s *Homo
Ludens.* Huzinga was one of several theorists including Tiziana Terranova
and Marshall McLuhan, who were repeatedly cited at the conference but
receive limited attention in sociology.

Discussion <http://digitallabor.org/discussion/> of the topics covered in
the conference is ongoing.  Interviews, panels, and other
video<http://vimeo.com/user2103510/videos/sort:date>are also

[image: Square-eye]<http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS220749+30-Sep-2009+PRN20090930>“Common
Threads and Stephanie Rothenberg Present ‘Retailing 14th Street’, An
Artistic Exploration Into the Experiences of Retail Workers,” by Reuters

[image: Square-eye]<http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/119570943/abstract>“Ma
Bell Minus the Nantucket Gam: Or the Impact of High-speed Data
Transmission,” Marshall McLuhan and Bruce Powers

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