Digital Labor

Niels van Doorn


Niels van Doorn is Assistant Professor of New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. He received his doctorate from the same university in 2010, after which he spent two years at Johns Hopkins University as a postdoctoral fellow. His current research focuses on new forms of value production and their ambivalent relationship to labor in digital culture, particularly in connection to the many calculative and speculative devices that drive cultural production online. His work has appeared in journals such as Cultural Studies, Environment & Planning B, Qualitative Inquiry, and Media, Culture & Society.

The Neoliberal Subject of Value: From Labor to Human Capital?
In this paper, I explore the affective ambiguities of what Tiziana Terranova (2000) has termed “free labor”, or the “voluntarily given and unwaged, enjoyed and exploited” activities that generate the digital data, content, and networks central to informational capitalism. If, as Terranova argued, free labor is characterized by exhaustion – due to the lack of means by which this labor can sustain itself – why are millions of people still sustaining a commitment to these pervasive modes of unremunerated work? To formulate an answer to this question I turn to the neoliberal theory of human capital, which effectively eviscerates the concept of labor by positing an entrepreneurial subject for whom work is a form of rational economic conduct. For this ‘neoliberal subject of value’, such conduct consists of ongoing speculative investments in one’s human capital, whose value depends on the judgments and estimations of others. Second, I argue that, in the context of an emerging digital reputation economy, these investments increasingly take on a performative dimension, to the extent that the neoliberal subject is expected to style herself into a digital virtuoso who publicly performs her value for a networked audience, eliciting their attention, affection, and approval in order to appreciate her human capital and consequently improve her employability. Third, I show how such self-appreciating performances depend on a range of evaluative devices that create environments of equivalence and hierarchical difference, in which their comparative value can be calculated and assessed. I then discuss a case study of Klout, a digital device that scores and ranks users according to their perceived ‘influence’, which has become an important – if contentious – measure of human capital in information economies and their job markets. Finally, I return to the affective ambiguities of this obfuscated free labor, which index both the aspirations and exhaustion of value-generating competitive sociality.