[iDC] Hyperemployed or Feminized Labor?

Trebor Scholz scholzt at newschool.edu
Wed Nov 20 18:53:52 UTC 2013

In 2009, we started to discuss whether it makes sense to continue the
concept of exploitation when it comes to digital work. (
http://tinyurl.com/kmhq2nm). A few freeze frames from that discussion and
others since:

Thinking about YouTube, Mark Andrejevic writes that "the notion of
exploitation is both a problematic and a crucial one for the development of
a critical approach to the productivity of interactive community-driven
sites." Ian Bogost echoes that in away: "exploitation only partly explains
today's anxiety with online services."

In the UnlikeUs Reader, Geert Lovink wrote that "discussing the latest
research trends we can see a growing tiredness of the exploitation thesis
of social media …"

I mean, sure, discussions do not tend to go toward the sexy or cool; it’s
thorny stuff.

For others, discussing digital work as exploitation represents unforgivable
Internet centrism, ignoring those billions of people whose
super-exploitation pays for our complicit lifestyles, here in the
overdeveloped world.

Douglas Davis shows how, globally, the informal sector (people without a
regular, formal job) is "most certainly a living museum of human
exploitation. There is nothing in the catalogue of Victorian misery, as
narrated by Dickens, Zola, or Gorky, that does not exist somewhere in a
Third World city today."

And then there is the plight of the miners in China and the Republic of
Congo who excavate rare earth minerals for our shiny devices.

This kind of super-exploitation surely needs to be on the back of our minds
but I wonder if this really cancels out the second order exploitation,
let's say of the lowest paid workers on Mechanical Turk. Miriam Cherry has
a great piece on that (

Nicholas Carr talked about the sharecropping of Internet users while Julian
Kücklich wrote that “the one-size-fits-all concept of exploitation we have
inherited from the Marxist tradition was probably never particularly useful
to begin with, but when we talk about forms of living where labor and
leisure are so deeply intertwined it is in danger of losing its meaning
altogether. Kücklich argued that what Terranova calls "free  labor" and
what he calls playbor... "is never entirely  exploited, nor is it ever
entirely free (in the sense of libre)."

Adam Arvidsson discussed the exploitation of communicative and affectual
processes that transpire among consumers in terms of their contribution to
the value of the brand. But Arvidsson wonders how much value is actually

Graham Murdoch figured that Internet gift relations are incorporated into
the economy of commodities leading to an intensification of exploitation.

Mark Andrejevic describes exploitation as an ”external influence,” a
channel used to fold users into the dictate of consumption. On YouTube,
"the submitted data translate, with the help of analytics-based forms, into
”external influence”-- the channel is used to induce their desires for
commercial products." Andrejevic and Michel Bauwens emphasize that not all
of digital labor is in fact exploited, giving the example of Wikipedia and

Lily Irani turns to Donna Haraway to suggest responsibility and
responsiveness as an alternate framework for thinking about exploitation.
For Irani then, exploitation is a failed sort of relation that has to be
"judged by time and situation, rather than by who has the capital or the

In the context of data labor, Howard Rheingold wrote "Informal consent is
crucial - I choose to be exploited, if exploitation is how you want to see
my uploading and tagging of my photos and videos." Could exploitation be
mutually advantageous and consensual?

For Christian Fuchs, the exploitation of digital labor involves three
elements. In short, it is about coercion, alienation, and appropriation:
"Coercion: Users are ideologically coerced to use commercial platforms in
order to be able to engage in communication…. Alienation: companies, not
the users, own the platforms and the created profit. Appropriation: Users
spend time on corporate Internet platforms that are funded by targeted
advertising capital accumulation models."

Don't you think that the understanding of workers being exploited at
unacceptable levels could influence changes in Labor Law, for example?
Could not exploitation, as a moral concept, have an impact on policy
changes and new forms of solidarity or mutual aid?

I mean, obfuscation of the actual labor dynamics is pervasive. Owners call
their workers “requesters,” “task rabbits,” “cloud workers,” or “providers”
when in fact they are just that: workers, living under precarious
conditions very much comparable to those in the fast food industry and

You probably saw the sickening news about a food drive of a Walmart in

"Please donate food items so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving


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