Digital Labor



The past decade was not only about advances in digitization, increased processing power, the popularization of cloud computing, and the “sharing economy;” it was also about the crash of the financial system in 2008, vast attacks on employment and worker rights, sprawling debt, economic inequality, dwindling numbers among the ranks of traditional labor unions as well as booming automation of everything from lawyers and professors, to cooks and farmers. 

The incursion against waged employment in favor of contingent work undermines worker rights in ways that are even more harmful than the actions by Thatcher and Reagan against miners and air traffic controllers in the 1980s. The shift away from employment to freelancing, independent contract work, and other emerging forms of labor is an affront to one hundred years of labor struggles for the 8-hour workday, employer-covered health insurance, minimum wage, workplace harassment, and many other protections that were established under the New Deal to foster social harmony and keep class warfare at bay.

 This bonfire of everything to do with employment is accompanied by an ideological rhetoric that describes emerging forms of digital labor through the lens of flexibility, self-reliance, and autonomy. It remains a question if digital labor can change the fact that almost half of all Americans are economically insecure and cannot afford basic needs like housing, childcare, food, healthcare, utilities, and other essentials. All of these developments set the global stage for emerging forms of digital labor, which become instrumental in efforts to drive down labor cost and get all the work without the worker (Rivera 2008). It is imperative to ask and find answers to the question of who is standing in solidarity with the workers who toil for labor brokers like CrowdFlower, Taskrabbit, Amazon, oDesk, and Uber, or “logo mills” like 99Designs (Schmidt 2014, Scholz 2013, Irani 2013). In Silicon Valley and the halls of business schools all over the country, discussions about these market incumbents focus on their revenue streams and resistance against regulation but the workers who wake up to go to work online every day are a blind spot in these discussions. Given the inability of traditional labor unions to protect the growing workforce in the crowd sourcing industry, for example, this conference focuses on the imagination of novel forms of association, worker cooperatives, and re-envisioned forms of solidarity and mutual aid.

The past two years have been inspiring with Occupy and #FloodWallstreet, California introducing paid family leave, the city of Seattle offering a minimum wage of $15, and NYC now paying for sick leave. In 2013, over a ten-day period, Walmart workers all over the United States staged walkouts, and in May 2014 fast food workers around the world, from New York City and Mumbai to Paris and Tokyo, coordinated a global strike by picketing workplaces like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Pizza Hut. Such momentum would have been unimaginable just three years ago.

The possibilities for worker solidarity in light of the realities of 21st-century labor, and especially digital labor, are of crucial interest to this conference. At the root of the explorations of the conference is the search for innovative, experimental ways of improving the situation for digital laborers.

DIGITAL LABOR: SWEATSHOPS, PICKET LINES, BARRICADES (#DL14) pays particular attention to the various forms of digital labor thereby making it possible to differentiate between practices that are worthy of support, practices that needs some tweaking to ensure that workers are treated fairly, and practices that are largely exploitative and should be publicly opposed and stopped. What does digital labor mean for people with disabilities, for example? (Ross, Taylor, 2014)

Ultimately, the impulse behind this event is to shape new concepts and theories as they relate to the realities of wage theft and precarization but also proposals including guaranteed basic income and shorter working hours. Consistent with the previous two conferences in the series The Politics of Digital Culture, #DL14, does not stop at radical critique; it also, at the same time, investigates alternatives. To that end, we hope to facilitate an advocacy group for some of the poorest and most exploited workers in the digital economy. First of all, such project calls for a reflection and acknowledgment of the position from which academics speak.

In her contribution to #DL14, Tiziana Terranova puts forward the idea of a “social strike,” as “a permanent experiment of invention and diffusion of forms of strikes that can be practiced also by those who cannot strike according to the traditional mode: the unemployed, the precarious, the domestic worker, the crowd worker.” In this context she discusses Anonymous-style denial of service attacks but also experimentation with popular forms of social network life such as personality tests, games, and viral link factories.

DIGITAL LABOR: SWEATSHOPS, PICKET LINES, BARRICADES is not an event exclusively by, for, and with academics. Instead, it brings together designers, labor organizers, media theorists, social entrepreneurs, labor historians, legal scholars, independent researchers, and perspectives from the workers themselves. The importance of artists, also crucial at #DL14, should be clear at least since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Haroun Farocki’s Workers Leaving the Factory, Aaron Koblin’s Sheep Market, and Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer.

Five years ago, The Internet as Playground and Factory conference energized broad discussions around exploitation, playbor, definitions of digital labor, the various ways in which value is generated and measured, the size of the digital workforce, and the identities and motivations of workers. There has been a proliferation of publications, artworks, conferences, digital tools, workshops, syllabi, and exhibitions that have taken up the issue of digital labor explicitly. Recent books included The Internet as Playground and Factory (Scholz, ed.), Living Labor (Hoegsberg and Fisher), and Cognitive Capitalism, Education, Digital Labour (Peters, Bulut, et al, eds.), and Dead Man Working (Cederstron and Fleming). Christian Fuchs’ book Digital Labor and Karl Marx was published only a few months ago.

The Internet as Playground and Factory was informed by Italian Operaismo, guided by a fascination with the Facebook exploitation thesis. For Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato, Tiziana Terranova, and Antonio Negri (and well, Marx) “to live is to labor.” Mark Andrejevic and Christian 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.

#DL14 has broadened its focus. The Facebook exploitation thesis— the suggestion that what we are doing on Facebook is in fact labor in the sense of value creation–may in fact have become less important in terms of its content while still being essential as a provocation. It leads to an investigation of the digital labor surveillance complex and the instruments of value capture on the Post-Snowden Web.

Clearly, Post-Snowden, there is also an increasing awareness of persistent, ongoing, global mass surveillance. How is this data being used? Might the surveillance of workers for security purposes simply be a pretext for gathering the data necessary to program the robot that could eventually replace them?

In the end, surely, #DL14 will be about many things and you decide what to take from it. We hope you will join us for three intensive days at The New School.

- Trebor Scholz