Digital Labor

Audrey Watters


Audrey Watters is a writer who’s worked in the education field for the past 15 years: as a graduate student, college instructor, and program manager for an ed-tech non-profit. Although two chapters into her Comparative Literature dissertation, Audrey decided to abandon academia, and she now happily fulfills the one job recommended by a junior high aptitude test: freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Edutopia, MindShift, Fast Company, Inside Higher Ed, The School Library Journal, O’Reilly Radar, ReadWriteWeb, Campus Technology, and The Huffington Post, in addition to her own blog Hack Education. She’s the editor of a new publication aimed at school leaders called Educating Modern Learners, which explores the ways in which technology can work in the service of progressive education and student-directed learning. She is also currently working on a book called Teaching Machines. Teaching Machines explores the cultural history of automation in education. This drive is not simply a technological or scientific or pedagogical development, but a profoundly cultural one. How have we conceptualized the mechanics of human intelligence, for example, and how has that shaped the way in which we imagine and build so-called intelligent machines? How do teaching machines work — do teaching machines work? And whose work, whose labor, might they replace or enhance? Do teaching machines offer “personalization” or merely a more efficient standardization? Why have we been so keen for so long to automate teaching and learning? What does this say about our vision of the purpose, let alone the future of education?

Digital Labor and Geographies of Crisis 
Capital, as value in motion, often leaves local labor behind in the search for higher profits. But capital must be fixed into place for production to occur, creating a whole sociotechnical infrastructure whose form changes with the mode of production: Ford’s factories and Facebook’s platforms, Ma Bell’s wires and Equinix’s server farms. Over time this spatial fixity becomes a barrier to higher profit rates and so leads to overaccumulation and devaluation. Capitalism is constantly seeking a ‘spatial fix’ to these local problems before they can bloom into full-blown crises: A move to new geographies is sought, where new sociotechnical infrastructure can be built to elicit consumption, outsource production, or accumulate cheap labor (Harvey, 2007). This roundtable debates how these geographies of crisis are formed within digital spaces, and how digital labor is segmented, distributed, pushed and pulled across digital spaces in the lead-up to and fallout from crises. Social media may provide new spaces and times of accumulation, but free labor is often pushed elsewhere (e.g., from MySpace to Facebook) while the platforms remain, in a manner analogous to white flight (boyd, 2011). Communications infrastructure allows for financiers to trade billions of dollars across the globe in seconds, but crashes can spread just as quickly (Golumbia, 2013). Questions we’re interested in include: What does a bubble feel like from the inside and how does that experience resonate across networks? How does the primitive accumulation of digital labor compare to the industrial experience? How do digital technologies open up new modes of resistance to the speed-ups and outsourcing which capitalists use crisis to justify?

Audrey Watters will address the so-called STEM crisis and the free labor of MOOCs.

Digital Labor & Geographies of Crisis
Sat, November 15
10:00 AM - 12:30 PM