[iDC] Critique (?) of immaterial labour

Francis Hunger francis.hunger at irmielin.org
Sun Aug 19 14:20:34 UTC 2007

(Sorry, this is long)


Thanks for bringing up this topic. I’d like to return with the 
discussion back to the notion of immaterial labor. I have to note in 
advance that most of the texts which I’m discussing I have read in 
German, so I can only put some low quality translations here and I think 
it’s worth to refer to original English texts if you want to go for a 
high quality translation.

Alex Foti threw in H&N and their use of the notion of immaterial labor. 
I’d like to refer to Maurizio Lazzaratos notion of immaterial work which 
he describes starting from the notion of work. „The notion of immaterial 
work articulates the new, informational and cultural dimension of the 
commodities producing quality of work.“ (Lazzarato: Immaterielle Arbeit. 
In: 1998 ID Verlag Berlin, p 39). If you know this well, you might 
scroll further down.

He draws a line, describing that since the 1970s manual work includes 
more and more intellectual work which lead to a phenomenon the Operaists 
call general intellect.. „Twenty years of structural changes in the 
large industries have lead to a strange paradox. This resulted in 
different shapes of a post-fordistic model, which is based on the 
failure of fordistic workers fight on the one hand, and on the other it 
is based on the acknowledgement of the central moment of living and 
growingly intellectualized work within the production. ... ‚the soul of 
the employee’ must become part of the company.“

The worker is expected to not only be part of the process of production 
but rather include his/her own subjectivity. „’Be subjects’ is thus a 
call for duty, far from erasing the antagonism between hierarchy and 
cooperation, between autonomy and commando. Instead that antagonism is 
being reproduced on a higher level, through mobilizing the personality 
of the individual worker and at the same moment keeping it under 
control. ... The subject is just a relay of codification and 
decodification, and the relayed messages must be ‚clear and 
significant’, while the context of communication is standarized by the 
company.“ p43

Lazzarato further claims: „The diverse activities in the fields of 
research and development, as well as the organization of human resources 
are based on ... computerized networks. The integration of scientific 
work into the industrial and tertiary production processes thus became 
one of the main productive forces.“

Further he describes the figure of the self-organized, intellectual 
worker with no leisure time

„A specialty in the commodities created through immaterial labor, ..., 
is that its value is not destroyed through the act of its consumption, 
but that this value expands, changes and even just has created the 
ideological and cultural milieu of the consumer.“ p48

„The 1980s were affected by the circumstance that it was managed on a 
global level to re-articulate the production and the command over the 
production, through integrating flows and networks of immaterial work. 
The cooperation and subjectivity existing within immaterial work became 
a warranty for the spirit of enterprise, innovation and finally also 
productivity of the post-tayloristic system.“

I’m sorry, if I bored you. Partly I had to cite this, to recall the 
concept of immaterial work myself.

I think, there are two recently emerged consumer/producer groups that 
became an important part and force of the development. The first is the 
Open Source community and the other are the Web 2.0 consumer/producers. 
So if Alex Foti asks: „How can they fight back to assert the structural 
hegemony they currently have in production in the economic, political 
and cultural realms?“ I’d rather ask: „How could they get aware of the 
point, that their own subjectivity is the driving force of the 
post-tayloristic capitalist dynamics?“

I’ve been skeptical against the Open Source Software producers community 
since years, skeptical against this white, middle-class, male students 
and engineers. For me this user/producer group is a club, which includes 
those who have enough time resources to create social capital through 
peer recognition by working on technologically oriented projects. As 
early technology adopters, the OSS producers community also actively 
shapes technology (I have to repeat: they are white, middle-class, 
male). The OSS producers community tested, improved and incorporated all 
the elements which can be found in Lazzaratos description of immaterial 
work above: Flat hierarchies, computerized networks, creating products 
in their leisure time. So the OSS producer is paradigmatic for the 
current overage of productivity in the countries of fully developed 
capitalism, which again gets induced into the circuit of production and 

I think that similar things can be said about Web 2.0 producers/users 
with the difference, that their subjectivity is not so much concentrated 
in the technological field but in the social and cultural field. Also I 
would assume, that Web 2.0 user/producers are less aware of their 
cultural capital and how it is being exploited, compared to OSS 
user/producers. (I can’t prove it, so it stays an assumption.)

So I’d partially agree with Alan Clinton when he wrote: „On the one hand 
you could view this as one of the most insidious instantiations of false 
consciousness in some time. On the other hand, one might view it in more 
Debordian terms, as the expression of an unarticulated and unrealized 
desire that is exploited in a capitalist economy by corporations, but 
which also reminds us of an inherent desire to share and be sociable 
without asking preliminary and often stifling questions about the end 
results of that imaginative interaction--in other words a desire that is 
both social and experimental in nature.“

I also think, that Google is one of the companies, who completely 
understood how important is the concept of immaterial work and their 
human capital. We all know, the stories of 20% of time to develop „crazy 
projects“ within Google. Additionally I think Google has completely 
understood how to include their users/producers to create revenue and 
they do it much better than their competitors Yahoo and Microsoft (The 
1980s success of Microsoft was based in c l o s i n g the sources, and I 
think they trouble to overcome what has become their company culture). 
This gets visible at a first glance if you realize, how much bottom-up 
created information gets included by producers/users in e.g. Google 
Earth everyday. This bottom-up information creates a surplus compared to 
the top-down information (like street names etc) which governmental 
institutions or which companies can create and sell. What makes even 
more sense is that Google exploits their users’ data traces to optimize 
Google search results and advertisements. They do that through combining 
several sources of data: geo-data in Google Earth with user profile data 
and user generated information from Adsense, Google Mail, You-Tube, 
Orkut, Blogger.com, Picasa and other Google owned brands.

One of Googles software patents reads: „In particular, there is a need 
to allow businesses to better target their ads to a responsive audience. 
For example, it would be useful to determine ads relevant to locations 
of interest that may differ from an end user's location. [...] [The 
software may do] so by determining and using location information, such 
as a bounding area defined by a map, as well as information indicating a 
user interest (e.g., keywords from a search query, a category, a 
concept, a topic, document content, etc.), to determine ads. [...] The 
present invention may also use location information when determining a 
relevancy score of an ad. [...] »User information« may include user 
behavior information and/or user profile information. [...] »E-mail 
information« may include any information included in an e-mail (also 
referred to as "internal e-mail information"), information derivable 
from information included in the e-mail and/or information related to 
the e-mail, as well as extensions of such information (e.g., information 
derived from related information).“ 

And complimentary the Google Privacy policy says: „We may combine the 
information you submit under your account with information from other 
Google services or third parties in order to provide you with a better 
experience and to improve the quality of our services. [...] We use this 
information to improve the quality of our search technology, customized 
content and advertising.“ (http://www.google.com/privacypolicy.html)

You could pick other companies, who do the same (maybe they are less 
successful, or less visible than Google is). I really wanted to make the 
point, that Google is one of the best current examples, of how 
immaterial work – within the company or by the consumer/producers) 
creates value and revenue. And I think Google has learned a lot from the 
OSS producers community and just added a more straight exploitation scheme.

This is of course just a rough sketch although this mail is already way 
to long. I’m sorry for this. I hope I got my point through and I’m 
looking forward your reactions.

best regards

Francis Hunger, Dortmund


francis.hunger at irmielin.org + + + http://www.irmielin.org

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