[iDC] Social Production and the Labor Theory of Value

Gabriella Coleman biella at nyu.edu
Fri Oct 30 19:00:47 UTC 2009

Hi everyone,

A few thoughts below on marginal radical politics and "where" much of 
this labor occurs.

Christian Fuchs wrote:
 >> 1) If, as you suggest, Internet producers are maximally exploitable 
because no wage is paid to them, this begs the question (which has been 
discussed on this list and seemed embedded in the term 
'playlabor/playbor' itself), why do they engage in these forms of 
surplus value creation/exploitation?
 > I think one reason is that there are no viable non-commercial
 > alternatives to many popular commercial web 2.0 platforms, which is due
 > to the fact that much money is needed for organizing storage space for
 > something like MySpace, which is not easy to organize on a non-profit,
 > non-commercial basis.

It is worth noting few other elements: there are a crop of open source 
projects that are trying to provide alternatives to Web 2.0 from micro 
blogging (Identica) to video platforms (Kaltura). The judge for their 
success and ability to compete with the Big Boys of Web 2.0 will be 
time, though I would like to think we can certainly help along the way 
and note the positive intervention in this digital landscape given the 
uncontrolled, ad nauseum hype that has emerged around web 2.0 in 
2004/2005, which I feel some folks are finally starting to puncture in 
productive ways.

Then there are work collaboration sites that make use of Web 2.0 
features (Crabgrass), which are not meant to be anything but used for 
radical politics, organizing, which by definition are somewhat marginal. 
But marginal can too often be problematically equated with ineffective 
and insignificant, which empirically does not stand in so far as these 
groups are effecting change, even if there are moments, such as now 
where the landscape seems/is invisible or fragmented.

I use the "seems/is" deliberately for the same was said for much of the 
late 1980s and 1990s--that is  when a chunk of the left was largely 
declaring neoliberal materialism triumphant: it had swept not just the 
ruling class but basically everyone in its wake, leaving behind only the 
most marginalized of radical groups. And then, at the turn of the 
century there was a surprise in the form of counter globalization 
protests that spanned the globe and brought visibility to a set of 
activities that in fact were many many many years, well over a decade in 
the making. Digital technology helped fuel and facilitate some of the 
existing organizing and helped to make it visible in new ways as well.

These activities were derailed in ways that were quite profound and 
unexpected as well by 9/11 and the subsequent forms of repression and 
infiltrations well. But I think Lauren Berlant's question, which she 
applied to the protests of 68 can also be brought to bear in this case 
“How might political breakdown work as something other than a blot, or a 
botched job?”

I am not going to answer here but there are all sorts of ways these last 
wave of protests can be seen in terms beyond the blot. This is not meant 
to state that things are ok in the current state of affairs, that there 
are radical politics brewing in the invisible background that will soon 
be visible as nothing but continued political work will make this even 
possible, but it is worth keeping in mind  that visibility of radical 
politics is not a steady state and requires multi-year organizing and 
labor to reach a more visible state.

The second element I also want to address concerns the "where" of 
digital labor. Digital labor is not just about individuals at home 
staring at the screen, typing away, giving their time and labor to 
corporations, though it is certainly an integral part of the story. Much 
of it, though certainly not all happens during the day when workers of 
all sorts and stripes, from high paid system administrators to clerical 
worker, are laboring in their office as well,as John Peretti has 
addressed in a short piece. There are, to be sure, exceptions, such as 
call centers and other highly regulated spheres that do monitor what you 
can and cannot do online at work and honestly, given the fact that 
computers are tracking, logging machines, I am shocked this monitoring 
is not even more pervasive and expect it will be.

So much of this digital chatting, gaming, web site building, photo 
sharing, activist rabble rousing labor is poached from paid labor. 
Though perhaps a small insignificant detail, it nonetheless needs to be 
factored into any discussion of play-labor-factory. Of course, this 
poaching can work in ways that make office life bearable, a safety valve 
of sorts explored by Michel Anteby in a  different context (his 
ethnography of steel workers who poach time to make objects meaningful 
to them) but it is worth putting on our plate of discussion, especially 
if we are posing questions of false/capitalist consciousness, 
perception, and affect, which can be should be examined in light of the 
reality of what Anteby calls “moral grey zones."


ps-- sorry if someone has raised these issues, I have not had the free 
time to go through all of the recent discussions ;-(

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