[iDC] "Exploitation only partly explains today's anxiety with online services."

Trebor Scholz scholzt at newschool.edu
Wed Nov 13 18:33:36 UTC 2013

Here in New York, it's a beautifully clear and frosty morning and I am
excited to see the list coming back to life a bit. It's so great to hear
your voices again. And there are still some 2300 of us on this list.

Hey, a year from now, we will kick off a conference at The New School
that will build on some of the questions that we raised in 2009
(http://digitallabor.org), a discussion that continued in many venues
since then. You might have seen that we dropped "Digital Labor: The
Internet as Playground and Factory" book earlier this year.
(Get it now: http://tinyurl.com/lkr2m9v). I'm quite keen on reactivating a
moderated exchange between artists, labor historians, designers, legal
scholars, and media theorists about these topics. But for more
information about the 2014 event, you'll have to wait until next week.

For now, I am posting a short article by video game designer, critic and
researcher Ian Bogost. Yes, the author graciously granted me
permission to post his text here. What about his idea of hyperemployment?
Are we all hyper-hustlers now? For me, at least when
narrowly thinking about the crowdsourcing industry, the term is
contradictory because of the very fact that workers in that industry
are defined as independent contractors and platform owners stubbornly
refuse to recognize them as employees (e.g.,
http://tinyurl.com/bhxohqk). But then, he is really talking more
broadly about exploitation, and there is so much more going on in that

A more inclusive definition of employment
(http://tinyurl.com/pewx54k), a closer look at the meaning of
exploitation online, or the Swiss Unconditional Income Initiative
could all be entry points that could help us to reboot the discussion about
various forms of invisible labor on the iDC.


Trebor Scholz


Hyperemployment, or the Exhausting Work of the Technology User
Feeling overwhelmed online? Maybe it’s because you’re working dozens of jobs

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes famously argued that by the
time a century had passed, developed societies would be able to
replace work with leisure thanks to widespread wealth and surplus. “We
shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich
to-day,” he wrote, “only too glad to have small duties and tasks and
routines.” Eighty years hence, it’s hard to find a moment in the day
not filled with a duty or task or routine. If anything, it would seem
that work has overtaken leisure almost entirely. We work increasingly
hard for increasingly little, only to come home to catch up on the
work we can’t manage to work on at work.

Take email. A friend recently posed a question on Facebook: “Remember
when email was fun?” It’s hard to think back that far. On Prodigy,
maybe, or with UNIX mail or elm or pine via telnet. Email was silly
then, a trifle. A leisure activity out of Keynes’s macroeconomics
tomorrowland. It was full of excess, a thing done because it could be
rather than because it had to be. The worst part of email was
forwarded jokes, and even those seem charming in retrospect. Even junk
mail is endearing when it’s novel.

Now, email is a pot constantly boiling over. Like King Sisyphus
pushing his boulder, we read, respond, delete, delete, delete, only to
find that even more messages have arrived whilst we were pruning. A
whole time management industry has erupted around email, urging us to
check only once or twice a day, to avoid checking email first thing in
the morning, and so forth. Even if such techniques work, the idea that
managing the communication for a job now requires its own self-help
literature reeks of a foul new anguish.

If you’re like many people, you’ve started using your smartphone as an
alarm clock. Now it’s the first thing you see and hear in the morning.
And touch, before your spouse or your crusty eyes. Then the ritual
begins. Overnight, twenty or forty new emails: spam, solicitations,
invitations or requests from those whose days pass during your nights,
mailing list reminders, bill pay notices. A quick triage, only to be
undone while you shower and breakfast.

Email and online services have provided a way for employees to
outsource work to one another. Whether you’re planning a meeting with
an online poll, requesting an expense report submission to an ERP
system, asking that a colleague contribute to a shared Google Doc, or
just forwarding on a notice that “might be of interest,” jobs that
previously would have been handled by specialized roles have now been
distributed to everyone in an organization.

No matter what job you have, you probably have countless other jobs as
well. Marketing and public communications were once centralized, now
every division needs a social media presence, and maybe even a website
to develop and manage. Thanks to Oracle and SAP, everyone is a
part-time accountant and procurement specialist. Thanks to Oracle and
Google Analytics, everyone is a part-time analyst.

And email has become the circulatory system along which internal
outsourcing flows. Sending an email is easy and cheap, and emails
create obligation on the part of a recipient without any prior
agreement. In some cases, that obligation is bureaucratic, meant to
drive productivity and reduce costs. “Self-service” software
automation systems like these are nothing new—SAP’s enterprise
resource planning (ERP) software has been around since the 1970s. But
since the 2000s, such systems can notify and enforce compliance via
email requests and  nags. In other cases, email acts as a giant human
shield, a kind of white collar Strategic Defense Initiative. The
worker who emails enjoys both assignment and excuse all at once.
“Didn’t you get my email?”

The despair of email has long left the workplace. Not just by
infecting our evenings and weekends via Outlook web access and
BlackBerry and iPhone, although it has certainly done that. Now we
also run the email gauntlet with everyone. The ballet school’s
schedule updates (always received too late, but, “didn’t you get the
email?”); the Scout troop announcements; the daily deals website
notices; the PR distribution list you somehow got on after attending
that conference; the insurance notification, informing you that your
new coverage cards are available for self-service printing (you went
paperless, yes?); and the email password reset notice that finally
trickles in 12 hours later, since you forgot your insurance website
password since a year ago. And so on.

It’s easy to see email as unwelcome obligations, but too rarely do we
take that obligation to its logical if obvious conclusion: those
obligations are increasingly akin to another job—or better, many other
jobs. For those of us lucky enough to be employed, we’re really
hyperemployed—committed to our usual jobs and many other jobs as well.
It goes without saying that we’re not being paid for all these jobs,
but pay is almost beside the point, because the real cost of
hyperemployment is time. We are doing all those things others aren’t
doing instead of all the things we are competent at doing. And if we
fail to do them, whether through active resistance or simple
overwhelm, we alone suffer for it:  the schedules don’t get made, the
paperwork doesn’t get mailed, the proposals don’t get printed, and on
and on.

But the deluge doesn’t stop with email, and hyperemployment extends
even to the unemployed, thanks to our tacit agreement to work for so
many Silicon Valley technology companies.

Increasingly, online life in general feels like this. The endless,
constant flow of email, notifications, direct messages, favorites,
invitations. After that daybreak email triage, so many other icons on
your phone boast badges silently enumerating their demands. Facebook
notifications. Twitter @-messages, direct messages. Tumblr followers,
Instagram favorites, Vine comments. Elsewhere too: comments on your
blog, on your YouTube channel. The Facebook page you manage for your
neighborhood association or your animal rescue charity. New messages
in the forums you frequent. Your Kickstarter campaign updates. Your
Etsy shop. Your Ebay watch list. And then, of course, more email.
Always more email.

Often, we cast these new obligations either as compulsions (the
addictive, possibly dangerous draw of online life) or as necessities
(the importance of digital contact and an “online brand” in the
information economy). But what if we’re mistaken, and both tendencies
are really just symptoms of hyperemployment?

When critics engage with the demands of online services via labor,
they often cite exploitation as a simple explanation. It’s a sentiment
that even has its own aphorism: “If you’re not paying for the product,
you are the product.” The idea is that all the information you provide
to Google and Facebook, all the content you create for Tumblr and
Instagram enable the primary businesses of such companies, which
amounts to aggregating and reselling your data or access to it. In
addition to the revenues extracted from ad sales, tech companies like
YouTube and Instagram also managed to leverage the speculative value
of your data-and-attention into billion-dollar buyouts. Tech companies
are using you, and they’re giving precious little back in return.

While often true, this phenomenon is not fundamentally new to online
life. We get network television for free in exchange for the attention
we devote to ads that interrupt our shows. We receive “discounts” on
grocery store staples in exchange for allowing Kroger or Safeway to
aggregate and sell our shopping data. Meanwhile, the companies we do
pay directly as customers often treat us with disregard at best, abuse
at worst (just think about your cable provider or your bank). Of
course, we shouldn’t just accept online commercial exploitation just
because exploitation in general has been around for ages. Rather, we
should acknowledge that exploitation only partly explains today’s
anxiety with online services.

Hyperemployment offers a subtly different way to characterize all the
tiny effort we contribute to Facebook and Instagram and the like. It’s
not just that we’ve been duped into contributing free value to
technology companies (although that’s also true), but that we’ve
tacitly agreed to work unpaid jobs for all these companies. And even
calling them “unpaid” is slightly unfair, since we do get something
back from these services, even if they often take more than they give.
Rather than just being exploited or duped, we’ve been hyperemployed.
We do tiny bits of work for Google, for Tumblr, for Twitter, all day
and every day.

Today, everyone’s a hustler. But now we’re not even just hustling for
ourselves or our bosses, but for so many other, unseen bosses. For
accounts payable and for marketing; for the Girl Scouts and the Youth
Choir; for Facebook and for Google; for our friends via their
Kickstarters and their Etsy shops; for Twitter, which just converted
years of tiny, aggregated work acts into $78 of fungible value per

Even if there is more than a modicum of exploitation at work in the
hyperemployment economy, the despair and overwhelm of online life
doesn’t derive from that exploitation—not directly anyway. Rather,
it’s a type of exhaustion cut of the same sort that afflicts the
underemployed as well, like the single mother working two part-time
service jobs with no benefits, or the PhD working three contingent
teaching gigs at three different regional colleges to scrape together
a still insufficient income. The economic impact of hyperemployment is
obviously different from that of underemployment, but some of the same
emotional toll imbues both: a sense of inundation, of being trounced
by demands whose completion yields only their continuance, and a
feeling of resignation that any other scenario is likely or even
possible. The only difference between the despair of hyperemployment
and that of un- or under-employment is that the latter at least
acknowledges itself as an substandard condition, while the former
celebrates the hyperemployed’s purported freedom to “share” and
“connect,” to do business more easily and effectively by doing jobs
once left for others competence and compensation, from the convenience
of your car or toilet.

Staring down the barrel of Keynes’s 2030 target for the arrival of
universal leisure, economists have often considered why Keynes seems
to have been so wrong. The inflation of relative needs is one
explanation—the arms race for better and more stuff and status. The
ever-increasing wealth gap, on the rise since the anti-Keynes,
supply-side  1980s is another. But what if Keynes was right, too, in a
way. Even if productivity has increased mostly to the benefit of the
wealthy, hasn’t everyone gained enormous leisure, but by replacing
recreation with work rather than work with recreation? This new work
doesn’t even require employment; the destitute and unemployed
hyperemployed are just as common as the affluent and retired
hyperemployed. Perversely, it is only then, at the labor equivalent of
the techno-anarchist’s  singularity, that the malaise of
hyperemployment can cease. Then all time will become work time, and we
will not have any memory of leisure to distract us.

This article available online at:


Copyright © 2013 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.

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