«histories and theories of digital capitalism Is it written in the stars? Global finance, precarious destinies 222 Brian Holmes Life put to work: Towards a ...»
theory & politics in organization
volume 10, number 3/4 (November 2010)
@ the authors 2010
volume 10(3/4): 214-539
Digital labour: Workers, authors, citizens 214
Jonathan Burston, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Alison Hearn
histories and theories of digital capitalism
Is it written in the stars? Global finance, precarious
Life put to work: Towards a life theory of value 234 Cristina Morini and Andrea Fumagalli The imprimatur of capital: Gilbert Simondon and the hypothesis of cognitive capitalism 253 Emanuele Leonardi digital labour: querying first assumptions User-generated content, free labour and the cultural industries 267 David Hesmondhalgh On the new dignity of labour 285 Barry King The digital touch: Craft-work as immaterial labour and ontological accumulation 303 Jack Bratich authorship, ownership, copyright, creative labour The copyright policy paradox: Overcoming competing agendas in the digital labour movement 319 Samuel E. Trosow Primitive accumulation, the social common, and the contractual lockdown of recording artists at the threshold of digitalization 337 Matt Stahl digital labour: changes and continuities at work Enterprise content management systems and the application of Taylorism and Fordism to intellectual labour 357 Michael McNally The successful self-regulation of web designers 374 Helen Kennedy digital labour: transnational dimensions The labour of ICT4D: Whither the separation of carriage and content? 390 Sandra Smeltzer and Daniel J. Paré Re-envisioning the ‘knowledge society’ in India: Resisting neoliberalism and the case for the ‘public’ 406 Ajit Pyati ‘free’ labour and the redefinition of work Structuring feeling: Web 2.0, online ranking and rating, and the digital ‘reputat
Digital labour: Workers, authors, citizens∗ Jonathan Burston, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Alison Hearn
The papers in this issue of ephemera have their origins in a conference, ‘Digital Labour:
Workers, Authors, Citizens’, held at the University of Western Ontario on October 16The conference was organized by the Digital Labour Group, an assembly of scholars from within the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS), a nondepartmentalized unit that houses programs in Library and Information Science, Journalism, and Media Studies. While the Faculty has always, since its origins more than a decade ago in the heady times of the dot.com boom, identified itself as ‘interdisciplinary’, the practical meaning of this claim has often been vague and sometimes contentious. In 2008, however, in the very different climate of global economic crisis, an exploratory meeting of faculty who saw their work as related to digital technologies and labour revealed a surprising degree of convergence. Some studied the material working conditions and cultural products of places like newsrooms, recording studios, libraries or video game companies. Others analyzed more
processes, such as neo-liberal regulatory regimes or struggles around intellectual property rights and access to information. Still others examined the ways in whichever more intimate aspects of human sociality were being rendered profitable for capital in the wake of digital media. But what emerged from the first encounters of the Digital Labour Group was a common commitment to understanding the complex political, social and cultural implications of new forms of digital labour around the globe.
Of course, and in a fashion characteristic of much scholarly undertaking, once decided upon our foundational orienting terms quickly unraveled, albeit in creative directions.
While no one would dispute that digital media technologies have profoundly altered every aspect of our lives, their effects are far too vast to ever be fully measured or assessed. The digitization of the cultural industries, for example, has changed every aspect of popular culture: from the moment of production, which increasingly shuns actors and writers in favour either of ‘real’ people or of computer generated animation, to the aesthetics of the final product with the rise of 3D and High Definition formats;
from the heightened power of audiences in the processes of distribution as a result of the Internet and social networks, to the ways digitization alters the terrain of authorship and thereby challenges the regulatory parameters within which these processes take __________ ∗ Jonathan Burston, Alison Hearn, and Nick Dyer-Witheford wish to thank Jennifer Martin for her invaluable editorial assistance on this special issue.
ephemera 10(3/4): 214-221 Digital labour editorial Burston et al.
place. Given these thoroughgoing changes, how is it possible to state categorically what ‘digitization’ denotes? And, more importantly, how might we analyze the economic and power relations that run alongside, in, and through the digital technologies themselves?
To be sure the term ‘digital’ does not simply refer to digital machines and processes but to the entire political, social and economic context and infrastructure within which they have emerged. This is how we now live in a ‘digital age’.
The same conundrum emerges with respect to the term ‘labour’, which is increasingly under pressure as an analytical category in a world where the boundaries between work and life are breaking down. Labour can no longer only be seen as a factor in industrial relations, or as a subject of interest exclusive to political economists; it must also be understood as a larger category with which to analyze many different facets of daily life. People still labour in the traditional sense, to be sure – in factories and on farms, in call centres, in the newsroom and on the sound stage. But contemporary life likewise compels us, for instance, as audiences for ever more recombinant forms of entertainment and news programming, to labour on ever-multiplying numbers of texts (as readers, facebook fans, mashup artists). When such labour is subsequently repurposed by traditional producers of information and entertainment products, the producing/consuming ‘prosumer’ (or ‘produser’) is born. Additionally, as individuals are subject to precarious, unstable forms of employment that demand they put their personalities, communicative capacities and emotions into their jobs, they are encouraged to see their intimate lives as resources to be exploited for profit and, as a consequence, new forms of labour on the self are brought into being. What are the implications of these changes in the very definitions of what constitutes ‘work’ and in the parameters of the workplace? What are the implications for our senses of selfhood, our political agency as citizens, and our creative freedom as artists and innovators?
Finally, how might we see these changes wrought by digital technology as potentially politically productive or liberatory? It became immediately apparent that the goal of the Digital Labour Group was not so much to propose a stable object of inquiry with the phrase ‘digital labour’ or to police its meanings, but, rather, to interrogate the ways in which the changing conditions of digital capitalism, and all of us who live and work in the contemporary moment, comprise its very reality.
It would disingenuous to state that our interests in digital labour are purely academic.
We are all digital labourers to some extent, especially those of us who work in the contemporary knowledge factory – the university. The figure of the purely digital professor – or, more likely, part-time instructor – looms large, as for-profit models of university education collide with the ease of the Internet, and accreditation processes move away from educational, scholarly outcomes toward vocational ones. We have all experienced the increased workload and speed up produced by the increasing technologization of our jobs. We must constantly mind our email accounts, use webpages and facebook and ‘service’ students on an ever-increasing number of digital platforms; meanwhile, due to the assumed ease of research in the digital era, pressure mounts to produce and publish ever-increasing amounts of ‘knowledge’. At the same time, digital technologies abet the reconfiguration of the university as a corporatized player in the knowledge economy, reducing education to a set of measurable deliverables and professors to content and service providers. Students play the part of a paying audience as they are encouraged to measure the efficacy of their ‘learning ephemera 10(3/4): 214-221 Digital labour editorial Burston et al.
experience’ every few minutes with the use of electronic clicker devices. Professors are discouraged from exploring the issue of academic dishonesty with their students and encouraged instead to use plagiarism software. Not only does this move presume students’ guilt, it appropriates students’ work and adds it to the database (and by extension the coffers) of privately owned companies, thereby blurring conventional definitions of student work. These are only some examples of the effects of the digital tech push in the university setting, but there are many more. Ironically enough, within a few months of the Digital Labour conference whose results are represented here, both faculty and staff unions at the University of Western Ontario came to the very verge of a strike that was only averted in eleventh hour bargaining, with several members of the Digital Labour Group frenetically engaged in negotiations, union communications strategy and picket-line preparation. Moreover, dramatic as these local events were for us, they pale beside many episodes in the cycle of student and faculty strikes, occupations, blockades and street-battle anti-cutback demonstrations that has over the last two years pulsed through the post-crash austerity-era university systems of the United States, Greece, Spain, Italy, France and the United Kingdom. These are systems that have the compounded logics of neo-liberalism and the ‘IT revolution’ in accounting practices at their managerial core, and that seem poised to rely on these logics even more in years to come. All of us in the Digital Labour Group recognize that as teachers and researchers in the increasingly digitized terrain of the corporate university, we have a very personal stake in the issues we have chosen to examine.
This recognition led us to engage not only with other scholars, but also with workers outside the academy about their experiences, insights and struggles. Hosting a conference seemed the best way to initiate a sustained conversation about the ways in which the confluence of ‘digital technology’ and ‘labour’ was forcing a redefinition of work, citizenship and creativity in the 21st century. ‘Digital Labour: Workers, Authors, Citizens’ was funded largely by monies from the Rogers Chair in Journalism and Information Technology. Jonathan Burston was the chair in 2009-2010 and he was also the event’s chief organizer. Joining academics from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and New Zealand were activists from unions in Canada and the United States representing journalists, screen actors, screenwriters, library workers and university faculty. Indeed, the decision to seek out contributions from unions and guilds representing various types of digital labour was one of the most important decisions made by the conference organizers, one which, we were later told by several participants, distinguished this event from other more purely scholarly events on similar themes. The results were gratifying indeed, not least because so much common ground between so many disparate kinds of worker, and between so many different theoretical approaches, was revealed. Yet while the papers at the conference converged around the shared problematic of digital labour, what made the event interesting was not only commonality but conflict, implicit or explicit. The readers of this collection will be able to tease out some of these tensions – between a strong showing of ‘autonomist’ Marxist variants, with their characteristic sanguine emphasis on worker power and resistance, and more classical Marxian political economy, with its more somber insistence on the dominating force of existing relations of production;
between both of these and social democratic perspectives advocating the amelioration of digital labour conditions within a market context; and also, sometimes, between the ephemera 10(3/4): 214-221 Digital labour editorial Burston et al.
theoretical concerns of all these positions and the practical priorities of the union and guild speakers.
It should also be noted here that some of the presentations from the conference have found their way into publication in other venues; we call attention particularly to articles by Brett Caraway and Nina O’Brien in Work, Organisation, Labour & Globalisation, 4(1). Also of great importance to these debates were contributions from Vincent Mosco (a plenary speaker) and Catherine McKercher, whose combined perspectives on the topics under discussion can be found in their Editors’ Introduction to that same journal issue and in their The Laboring of Communication: Will Knowledge Workers of the World Unite? (Mosco and McKercher, 2008).
Our own volume of selected papers and speeches from the Digital Labour conference, then, constitutes only one of its outcomes. What is more, subsequent to the conference (and a period of recovery for the organizers) the possibilities for academic-union collaboration continued to be explored. A series of meetings between the Digital Labour Group and three Toronto-based labour organizations, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, the Canadian Media Guild and the Writers Guild of Canada, investigated shared research interests. The outcome was a joint grant proposal to Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for a three-year grant, ‘The Future of Organized Labour in the Digital Media Workplace’, to fund research into topics including the new revenue models of digital media companies, the scale of job-shedding in Canada’s news industries, the emergence of new pools of nonunionized labour in digital media, the effects of national media regulatory regimes on employment in digital media, intellectual property issues and collective bargaining, and the possibilities and problems of unions using digital media to communicate with members and with the public in strike situations. At the time of writing this proposal is still under adjudication, but, regardless of whether or not this specific application is successful, the Digital Labour Group intends to follow a road of practical cooperation with organized (and organizing) workers.
This special Digital Labour issue of ephemera is laid out along thematic lines similar to the conference that spawned it. In the first section, Brian Holmes, Cristina Morini and Andrea Fumagalli, and Emanuele Leonardi outline key historical and theoretical neighbourhoods inside our heuristic terrain. Holmes, with the help of artists Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway, provides us with a brief history of hyper-capitalism since the collapse of Bretton-Woods and charts increasingly predatory conditions within contemporary finance capital, where animal spirits and flexible personalities gorge themselves even as they lay waste to their own food supply. Casting their eyes over this same period, Cristina Morini and Andrea Fumagalli suggest that nothing short of a reexamination of the workings of the labour theory of value is required where transitions from industrial Fordism to ‘bio-capitalism’ are in play – a re-examination, moreover, that necessarily gives prominence to affective labour in matters of value creation. Their exegesis is followed by that of Emanuele Leonardi, who works through Gilbert Simondon, Yann Moulier Boutang and Carlo Vercellone to conclude in a similar fashion that, although Marxian notions of formal and real subsumption are still necessary to analyses of emerging formations within post-Fordism, a new concept, one ephemera 10(3/4): 214-221 Digital labour editorial Burston et al.
he terms impression, is also required if new post-Fordist modalities of exploitation are to be properly understood.
Founding assumptions pertaining to digital capitalism are likewise queried in the following section – this time focusing on matters of digital labour more specifically.