[iDC] #DL14

Trebor Scholz scholzt at newschool.edu
Fri Sep 19 20:31:14 UTC 2014

Despite the steady influx of introductions, let me make a short insertion
here. We really appreciate your contributions and look forward to more.
Keep it coming and also start to respond to other people's introductions,
don't just post your own.

For newcomers, this is the eighth in a stream of large conferences that
have been discussed on this mailing list. #DL14 will be the third event
that I convened at The New School as part of the series The Politics of
Digital Culture. The upcoming conference stands on the shoulders of The
Internet as Playground and Factory conference that took place in 2009 (
http://digitallabor.org/2009, http://goo.gl/E4hg5I). By now, you all know
that the event will take place November 14 - 16 at The New School in NYC,
and you follow our Twitter accounts for updates (@trebors, @idctweets).

With that out of the way, let's start.

My vision for #DL14 can be located somewhere between the first sequence of
Chris Marker's "A Grin Without A Cat" and Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air."
Or, perhaps the other way around. It's about 21st-century labor: the shift
away from employment toward contingent work through Uber, TaskRabbit,
99Designs, and Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk. How large is this workforce
and which emerging forms of solidarity can we envision? #DL14 questions the
ability of traditional unions to protect the ever-larger contingent
workforce. And it is about our imagination of novel associations and forms
of mutual aid.

#DL14 is also about the crooked language that is used to describe emerging
forms of work through the lens of flexibility, sharing, self-reliance, and
autonomy. And it centers on workers who get together in any way possible,
who form their own cooperatives, and who learn from the encouraging
developments in the fast food industry, at Walmart, Occupy, and the
domestic labor, and taxi associations. The ultimate goal of #DL14 is to
shape new concepts and theories as they relate to, for example, guaranteed
basic income, wage theft, and shorter work hours. We also hope to look
through the vast landscape of digital labor and identify work practices
that are worth supporting.

#DL14 is not solely about radical critique; it is also, simultaneously,
about alternatives. In that vein, we hope to establish an advocacy group
for the poorest and most exploited workers in the digital economy. Why did
Tim Berners-Lee Magna Carta for the web ignore the fact that millions of
people wake up every day to "go to work" online? Why has the Electronic
Frontier Foundation still not taken up digital work?

This isn't merely an academic event because this discourse has not only
been shaped in universities. Philosophers, artists, sociologists,
designers, toolmakers, activists, MTurk workers, journalists, legal
scholars, and labor historians … all co-shaped the ongoing debate about
digital work.

If you are not sure what the hell artists have to do with all this, go back
to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer (
http://www.sleepdealer.com), Harun Farocki's Workers Leaving the Factory (
http://vimeo.com/59338090), or Aaron Koblin's 10,000 Sheep (

This is a conversation that also calls for legal scholars to reconsider the
definition of employment and the much-debated difference between an
employee and an independent contractor. A difference, I might add, that is
deeply consequential as independent contractors are stripped of their
rights as workers.

#DL14 will give a voice to startups that decided to put in place fair labor
conditions. We will, for example, hear from one crowdsourcing upstart that
decided to implement a minimum wage floor for their contractors.  At #DL14,
you will not only hear from workers at UPS and fast food restaurants, you
will not only meet farmworkers, taxi drivers, and Mechanical Turk workers;
#DL14 will also bring these workers together with computer engineers and
other technologists to think through possibilities for worker organization.

#DL14 is set against the background of a blistering social vision of
economic inequality. 4 in 10 working Americans earned less than $20,000 in
2012. Almost half of all Americans are economically insecure today; they
cannot afford basic needs like housing, childcare, food, healthcare,
utilities, and other essentials. The restructuring of the economy away from
employment to contingent work, insidiously circumvents worker rights, in a
way that is arguably more damaging than what Reagan and Thatcher did it to
miners and flight traffic controllers in the 1980s. This restructuring
creates facts on the ground that are an affront to over one hundred years
of labor struggles for the 8 hour workday, employer-covered health
insurance, minimum wage, the abolition of child labor, workplace
harassment, and other protections that had been established through the New
Deal to foster social harmony and keep class warfare at bay.

What you can see here is a slight shift from the focus of the exchange that
we had five years ago. Since then, there has been a proliferation of
publications, artworks, conferences, tools, and workgroups, syllabi, and
exhibitions that have taken on the issue of digital labor explicitly. There
was concern for the question if digital labor is in fact distinct from
traditional forms of labor. For Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato, Tiziana
Terranova, and Antonio Negri (and well, Marx) "to live is to labor." Life
itself is put to work; we are all becoming the standing leave of his or her
for capital. The publication of the IPF book came out of that
understanding, informed by Italian Operaismo, leading up to an intense
fascination with the Facebook exploitation thesis. In retrospect, the idea
that we are exploited on Facebook – that what we are doing there is labor
in the sense of value creation – is not as urgent in terms of its content
but it is still essential as provocation. It is a provocation that leads to
an investigation of the digital labor surveillance complex and the
instruments of value capture on the Post-Snowden web. The prolific
Christian Fuchs has edited a collection of essays focusing in the
definition of digital labor (http://goo.gl/BjaAF6). Mark Andrejevic and
Fuchs, in particular, have taken up the question of exploitation in the
context of predictive analytics and data labor. Adam Arvidsson, also in his
latest book The Ethical Economy: Rebuilding Value After the Crisis, offers
counterpoints, claiming that value generation on social networking services
is more truthiness than fact. Ethan Zuckerman's recent rejection of online
advertisement (http://goo.gl/4Kfx5H), published in The Atlantic, is part of
this larger, very necessary debate about the staggering social costs of
allegedly free social networking services.

The debate around playbor and value capture took center stage for much of
the past five years and it will also continue at #DL14.

In the end surely, #DL14 will be out about many things, and you decide what
you take away from it. So, if you haven't done so already, take out your
pencil or boot up your calendar: join us at The New School in a few weeks,
also to experiment with event formats a little bit.


Trebor Scholz

Associate Professor

Culture & Media

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