Aspects of Digital Labor
and Online Persona

Modified text, New Museum seminar series, fall 2015PERSONA December 7th, 2015

Immaterial labor describes the process of producing affective and cognitive commodities through work that exists outside of the Marxist wage-based definition of labor as a material-commodity-producing activity; such goes of the Wikipedia article, written ironically by a significant amount of immaterial labor itself, much of the original text, my own labor of love. Irony is always present when working to make invisible processes visible–it takes work to explain the position of marginalization, to add information into already skewed systems.

In this talk, I’d like to introduce aspects of these conversations that might be useful in the further analysis of immaterial and digital labors in the context of identity and Persona:

* The procrastination principle
* Software is eating the world
* Dialogic information temporalities
* The pseudoscience of data science
* The sexualization of the whistleblower

What leverage does it give us to think about the production of the online persona as the production of the commodity? One example of digital labor’s rising legal recognition is recent worker’s agreements putting a limit on work email to separate work from leisure. Recent reporting points to "a French labour agreement signed on April 1st by unions and employers in the high-tech and consulting field.." and refer(s) to an "obligation to disconnect communications tools after an employee has worked a 13-hour day. But sources also tell us that this French email ban was reported too optimistically by the international media, the idea of work email restrictions remains something of a pipe dream amidst rising freelance and working-from-home markets, although it continues to be explored by governments and eager media speculators.

Does calling some things labor change what we do? This question has been considered by behavioral economists considering the introduction of payment into online economies. Research indicates that people’s motivations change when payment / compensation is introduced into an economy that previously relied on altruism or reciprocity. Such considerations have begun to be applied to peer-production economies like Wikipedia, as questions are raised about how the digital labor required of self-selected volunteers might contribute to its content gaps. Would provisioning compensation for user-produced content increase or decrease the content produced? Additionally, how would corporations and negative actors (political campaigns for example) capitalize on the provisioning of compensation for content creators through the use of bots or automated practices? How are they already doing so via digital sweatshops and Facebook “like” farms?

Some worry that calling something labor de-valuates what we do by putting it in an economic context. When we produce affect are we necessarily producing commodities? Has the historical legacy of repressive Communist states–Leninism, Stalinism, and Trotskyism– made labor an alienating discourse to individuals, to potential allies in activism, to business that might be able to enact policy changes to leverage our digital labor concerns? Could we imagine a world in which Facebook would call its Users a labor force? Are anarcho-capitalists investing in apps for Democratic social organizing (Twitter included) allies? Still, the language of Marxism is helpful. Many of the problems of crowdsourcing / content creation are the problem of the web being engineered in a slanted way that privileges those with the means of production–in this case server space, hosting, and thus the ability to profit off of ads.

Immaterial labor is linked to the rise in labor-based activism of considerations of reproductive labor in Autonomist projects like Wages for Housework, especially Silvia Federici, Selma James, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, and Leopoldina Fortunati, though the history of people calling attention to invisible labor goes back much farther in history including discussions of women’s work, slave labor, and questions of the weight of administration and architecture on the human psyche.

In recent iterations, Antonio Negri, and Franco Bernardi, participants in action-based strain of Marxism, the Autonomia Operaia, have emphasized the place of workers movements in resisting capitalistic processes through self-organized action. Through these theories, finding language of collective “psychopathology” and more recently the rise of affect theory, re-activating the language of the immaterial.

Now, immaterial labor is going another evolution, increasing lines of critique that are about revealing invisible processes of the internet, and then also provisioning a critique that acknowledges that these processes are not in fact, invisible. The word immaterial does the work of activating the discussion about how our online work has material consequences for the body–carpal tunnel, spinal posture, and for industry–the sharing economy, digital sweatshops, etc. Such critiques have been carried on by those working on digital labor–quoting from the Wikipedia article: "Digital labor is a term for a schema of ideas focusing on exploring and understanding the high levels of cognitive and cultural labor associated with the replacement of jobs in the increasingly automated industrial sector, into globalized production systems embedded in high-technology, and into a knowledge economy." In this way, immaterial labor has been repurposed again to tackle the issue of how our constant production of metadata through participation in social media is linked to the surveillance state.

Consent has been an ongoing theme in discussions of immaterial labor. Traditional wage-based work involved consent through working contracts, but as work becomes immaterialized, less detectable by classical definitions, it becomes less consensual. Consensual agreements or simplified contracts between social media and user-generated content platforms and their users have been proposed as a way of minimizing immaterial labor by allowing users to have more control over the use and circulation of the content, data, and metadata they produce. In what way can we construe consent online when digital systems are becoming more mandatory?

Now I’d like to offer some further aspects of the digital labor problem, some concepts my own, others here described as a ways understand the issues and problems around discussing and acting on topics related to digital labor.

The procrastination principle

The procrastination principle theorized in Jonathan Zittrain’s book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (2008) is the idea of, “the release of intentionally incomplete systems which depend upon the anticipated improvements of unnamed community members who see value in the project.” Zittrain writes; “the procrastination principle rests on the assumption that most problems confronting a network can be solved later or by others.” This terms helps us describe the collaborative nature of the web, and some of its major underlying problems effecting labor.

From a digital labor perspective, the internet’s absence of regulation about ‘quality of service’, bandwidth, dispute resolution, compensation for content creators, etc. is an aspect of the procrastination principle. The internet was designed in a way that makes it difficult to track an image’s circulation across the web, aided also by the ubiquity of screenshot image-creation technologies. In this way, image attribution, let alone the profiting off of licensing technologies by content producers becomes a technical nightmare. The Semantic web project is one imagined future that might have positive implications for the problem of tracing content flows. When ideas are technically difficult to imagine they tend to also represent significant political hurdles.

As with many problems of the internet, the question arises as to whose responsibility regulation might be. The procrastination principle points to the hodge-podge aspect of the internet, and also to provisioning solutions to many of the problems we face in regards to digital labor and the declining ability of content creators to profit from their work. For some, this translates to making tools that help people access stronger cryptography using simpler methods, (i.e. the LEAP Encryption Access Project) for others it means making software that makes it easy to donate whistleblowing information to journalists (SecureDrop), but have we given up on a top down approach, thereby exporting our hopes for a more democratic web to industries that capitalize off of our fragility and insecurity about new technologies?

Software is eating the world

software eats the world

“Why Software is Eating the World” is the title of venture capitalist Marc Andressen’s 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal about the rise of online services and the disruption of non-tech industries by software. This metaphor is useful to describe a distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ technologies–soft technologies as those that exist as ideas capable of being embodied in a variety of physical forms like money, writing, and now software.

“Photography..” he writes “..was eaten by software long ago. It’s virtually impossible to buy a mobile phone that doesn’t include a software-powered camera, and photos are uploaded automatically to the internet for permanent archiving and global sharing.” Software is also eating much of the value chain of industries that are widely viewed as primarily existing in the physical world like hotels (Airbnb), transportation (Uber), and entertainment (from Blockbuster to Netflix).

This metaphor remains useful as we think about the abstraction and application of open-sourcing, crowdsourcing, and the above described procrastination principle on contemporary social theories, art, and business models alike.

Dialogic information temporalities

My definition of online persona might start with a literary approach– considering the ways that society and the self intersect through particular narrativized choreographies of the self based on relationships to the dialogic­–space and to time. Information configures our relationships to time and space. The internet is a speculative market competing for the time of consumers. The formats that we are allowed, modify our actions, our health. A discussed example is how the internet has oriented the experience of time of those hired in digital, microwork sweatshops to the time zones of the West, where workers are forced to adopt nocturnal sleep cycles to correspond to urban Western time zones.

Literary theorist Mikhail Bahktin’s notion of dialogicality, used by anthropologists to describe the notion of wandering (i.e. adventuretime), could also be ascribed to the way we “waste time on the web” through browsing experiences with no endpoint in mind. Dialogicality can be applied to any textual field, textual beneficial to be described in the loosest of senses as a choreography of time, the way that each medium might have a correspondent to its own reorientation to the time-signature of life.

In defining work that finds an absence of material-commodities, what is produced by the worker? Perhaps it’s not what the producer makes but how their time, and sense of time and space is reconfigured by digital experiences. Advertising remains the internet’s primary market, for example, has turned consumption into a productive activity where the consumer’s time online translates to value generated by advertising revenue. Advertising has figured out how to put a price on time.

On the other hand, there is also an increasing tendency to describe leisure as “out of time,” perhaps this is why the hipster burning man “back to nature” aesthetic has reached new heights.

The Pseudoscience of Data Science

Data science is a field drawing from a continuation of some of the data analysis fields such as statistics, data mining, and predictive analytics, similar to Knowledge Discovery in Databases (KDD), and represents one of the most lucrative and widely growing sectors of our time, intimately tied to the rise of personal devices and the casualization of the internet, the internet of things (IoT), and the rise of the surveillance state.

It’s history can be linked to the rise of statistical government, opinion-polling, and focus groups in the New Deal era described in filmmaker Adam Curtis’ 2002 BBC film The Century of the Self. The film describes the adoption of psychological theories and the rise of the use of psycho-analysis to create marketing strategies–a “strategy of desire.” A quote from the film’s narrative indicates that in the 20th century, “irrelevant objects became powerful symbols of how we wanted to be seen by others.” This film calls to attention the digital labor problem– that the entire industry profiting off of our affective labor is built on dis-proven, speculative science, the science of advertising.

The gathering of digital metadata by corporations has focused on text mining algorithms for personality data and dichotomy-based algorithms built on speculative or disproven science. Using a specific example of a methodology used to sell targeted advertising and other things we might not know about, the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, a psychometric test predicated on Jung’s theory of psychological type. The use of such personality insight services exemplify the way the industry of advertising, growing a market of profiting off of our affect and emotions, is built on unproven, speculative science criticized by professional psychologists for decades. These algorithms fix our psychological functions in certain algorithmic models, meanwhile these environments create arguably more opportunity for fluidity, and limit our flexibility to certain models– increasingly policing and sexualization.

The sexualization of whistleblowing

The sexualization of whistleblowing

Amidst widespread recognition of mass surveillance and calls for reform, we look for heroes in democratizing forums and new forms of collectivizing, the speculative industry of anti-surveillance fashion, and whistleblowers. So much is seen is the recent “office culture” trends, and start-up appropriation of collectivizing as a way of boosting productivity, like ‘working from home,’ a collapse of domestic space and the office. Also seen in the way startups have taken on the rhetoric of institutional critique, social movements and autonomy seen in the Kickstarter model and online fundraising. The way these industries export jobs that were previously done by institutions to workers, with a ‘social good’ / ‘flexibility’ branding strategy.

Then there is the proselytization of digital rights martyrs, Ed Snowden in particular. The body has long been a symbol of the mind, and this is why figures offering us some sort of governmental or institutional salvation get sexualized. The whistleblower, like also the troll, is a character type solidified by fulfilling a known social choreography sedimented in culture long before the outcry of those in magnified for their internet politics in recent years. The whistleblower is a heretic, speaking out against the sovereign with privileged information gleaned from insider experience.

Moving forward, we must be aware of the way that the conspiratorial has been subsumed by the mainstream. It’s a popular thematic now to describe and bemoan micro-violences, like the way advertising is sold to us based on data generated from the listening in on the small microphones on our phone, or the labor of the online job market websites like LinkedIn, but perhaps we need to slow down the lens speed and look at wider phenomena, aware of how these narratives are being fed to us, to figure out how to proceed at enacting positive change.

Provisioning further study

There is a significant rode ahead. For academia–digital and immaterial labors have not yet been placed in one discipline- they require a multidisciplinary approach inclusive, but not limited to: communication, information science, Marxist feminism, CSE, law, affect theory, and so on. To activist circles–digital and immaterial labors might seem like an alienating, fringe issue when bigger problems exist yet everything is enmeshed, "always already."

Perhaps we can look to how using these languages might otherwise help the fight against poverty, and for affordable quality health care, be used by unions and other dire political issues might be rejuvenated and brought to a younger, digital, audience who has been called politically apathetic.*~