[iDC] Hyperemployed or Feminized Labor?

Karen Gregory karen.gregory at gmail.com
Sun Nov 17 17:45:14 UTC 2013

Hello everyone, and thank you to Trebor for inviting me to participate in
the iDC conversation. My name is Karen Gregory and I am a PhD student in
sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. I've recently finished my
dissertation, entitled "Enchanted Entrepreneurs: The Labor of Psychics in
New York City", which traces the increasingly digitally mediated and
affective labor of professionalizing psychics and esoteric practitioners in
the city. Together with three other CUNY students, I recently created a Digital
Labor Reference
am looking forward to conversations here on the listserv.

I am assuming that, regardless of how you are employed, the notion
a nerve with you. Bogost’s point that most jobs contain a multitude of
invisible forms of labor is well understood; perhaps it is even becoming a
form of muscle memory for many of us. E-mail is one of the most obvious
instantiations of the often-unacknowledged demand that workers be
continually “available” and ready for work, and as such it is a powerful
social, subjectifying agent. A friend recently told me that, despite being
hired and submitting paperwork for the position, he lost a well-paying,
temporary teaching assignment because he was a day late in responding to
the director’s e-mail request for supplemental materials. When you live
paycheck to paycheck, it’s cold comfort to suggest, “Well, hey, you
probably didn’t want to work for that madman anyway.” In many ways, the
overattachment to digital devices that Bogost charts can be seen as learned
behavior emerging from a poorly controlled Milgram experiment in which we
are both the ones shocked by the persistent buzzing our devices
(“opportunity” calling) and the ones doing the shocking, giving in to
invisible structures of authority that mark the evolving, ever increasingly
digitally mediated labor landscape. In addition to that implicit demand for
attention and the assumption of “epic” levels of connectivity to digital
and mobile technologies, there is also, as Bogost suggests, an accompanying
“administration” of one’s life that takes the form of an endless to-do
list.  As he writes,

> 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...

It is undeniable that as life and work blur into each other, levels of
exhaustion mount. The persistent “doing of things” or the “getting of
things done” comes to stand in for other activities. Microsoft even
recently declared November 7 to be “Get It Done
as though to suggest that even holidays are workdays (and they are quite
literally for part-time workers this Thanksgiving at Walmart and Best-Buy).
As Microsoft rather grossly suggests in its new Office 365 campaign, there
is no physical escape from work, and “whether you are in an office park or
a national park, you can still participate in meetings.”

And, as we e-mail in the morning, text in the afternoon, and hop on Twitter
to criticize after dinner, a substrate of meta-data-labor goes to work in
ways that we can barely conceptualize, let alone make claims about its
surplus value. Bogost writes, “For those of us lucky enough to be employed,
we’re really hyperemployed,” and he is well aware that such hyperemployment
is rarely acknowledged, begets little to no wage, and may even be a form of
labor common to both the formally employed and the under- and unemployed.
If you need a stark reminder of how exhausting unemployment is, try playing
“Iain Duncan Smith’s Realistic Unemployment Simulator”:

What I am curious about, however, is the use of the term “hyperemployment.”
As Trebor suggested, the term is contradictory for workers who are refused
the designation of “employee.” Trebor mentioned crowd-sourced labor, but
the fight simply to be recognized as an employee has been a long and
well-documented struggle for workers who were excised from the National
Labor Relations Act, namely agricultural and domestic workers. While there
is agency in simply offering the term “employment” to certain activities
(waged or unwaged), I am wondering if what Bogost is drawing attention to
has less to do with “employment” than with the uneven redistribution and
privatization of the labor of social reproduction, an antagonism that
feminist theorists have been writing about for more than thirty years.
Bogost writes, “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.” This tacit
agreement, however, extends beyond social media and e-mail and is really a
form of housework and maintenance for our daily lives. In that regard, I
wonder if calling the cozy arrangement between digital technologies, data
economies, and invisible labor “employment” runs the danger of
side-stepping the deeper (gendered and racialized) antagonisms inherent in
the distinction between what is considered labor and what is considered

While I am very supportive of drawing lines of solidarities between waged
workers, the underemployed, and the unemployed (and I think Bogost’s
article can help us with that project by drawing attention to unspoken
common platforms and practices across these groups), I’m also curious if we
can approach the very notion of digital labor with a different vocabulary—
one that might reject the implicit tendencies toward individual competition
and entrepreneurial success. I mean, are you just employed or are you
“hyperemployed”? Either way, there is a culture of “what’s your
sadism ready to answer you and a large market of “management systems” and
life-coach support systems geared at helping individuals live and thrive in
the “hyperness” of the market. As Mimi Thi Nguyen has suggested in her
piece “Against Efficiency
“‘Solidarity’ may seem an old-fashioned concept, but it is one we need if
we are to refuse to concede to what neoliberalism would make of us
(entrepreneurial, exceptional, exploitable).” To that end, I am curious
about language that can shift focus from the individually employed
individual and perhaps even help us reconsider what a “share the work”
program might look like today. I am curious about language that looks not
to flatten the condition of employment but rather can ask questions like
“why am I so overworked, when others are going hungry?” While we can draw
attention to the ways in which our lives are coming to exhaust us, I am
wondering what solidarities can be drawn among bodies, selves, and data
(and other nonhuman actors)—solidarities that might really take care of all
of us.

Karen Gregory
PhD candidate
Department of Sociology
The Graduate Center
City University of New York
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