[iDC] Virtual sweatin’ at Sundance

info at pan-o-matic.com info at pan-o-matic.com
Mon Feb 18 15:16:11 UTC 2008

Hi Scott,

Thanks for your comments and kudos on a great project! In terms of   
Invisible Threads creating a co-operative work environment,  I  
noticed that most of the workers really enjoyed the teamwork aspect  
of the project and of working together on a shared goal. Another  
interesting component was how the ability to see/hear the "customer"  
via the live stream contributed to workers feeling more invested in  
the project - seeing the fruits of their labor to some extent.

But in terms of gesture vs RL needs, I see the economy in SL shifting  
and enabling more RL income to be earned inworld. I think this is  
compounded by SL jobs that indirectly develop RL skills such as  
greeters, real estate traders and retail managers. I am finding that  
many pay more than minimum wage and SL users in the developed world  
are currently making their RL living from them. I think it will be  
interesting in the near future to hear more about how simulated  
upward mobility inworld affects one's job status in RL.


On Feb 12, 2008, at 11:20 AM, scott at kildall.com wrote:

> Hi Stephanie,
> Thanks for sharing the details of the project. This certainly  
> articulates
> many of the odd aspects of the Second Life economy.
> One thing that is particularly compelling about your virtual  
> sweatshop is
> the co-operative element. Most of the other jobs in SL are solo
> operations: camping, dancing platforms or else services with a client:
> building objects, escorts, etc.
> I was just on a panel called "Real World Implications of Virtual
> Economies" at the Floating Points symposium through Emerson College  
> and
> Turbulence. This was following the Mixed Realities exhibition:
> (http://www.turbulence.org/mixed_realities/)
> At the symposium, we discussed many facets of the economies of both  
> Second
> Life and World of Warcraft. Some key differences arise.
> In the practice of Goldfarming, the workers are often in countries in
> parts of Asia. Usually young men around 18 or 19 years old who are  
> living
> onsite in dorm rooms with bunk beds and by day working 14+ hours to
> generate profits for their company and generating goods in the form of
> virtual characters for westerners. It mirrors the sweatshop labor
> practices in many ways -- though diverges from them in a few.
> For the Mixed Realities exhibition, Victoria Scott and myself  
> showed a new
> work called No Matter (www.nomatter.org) which  transforms imaginary
> objects (e.g. the Holy Grail, Time Machine, Schrodinger's Cat) through
> Second Life and into the real world as paper replicas (thanks to  
> OGLE by
> Eyebeam).
> The critical component of this project is a study of the economy of  
> Second
> Life: we paid builders and artists to make these objects for them and
> tracked the wages we paid them. What resulted are things such as a  
> unique
> object of the Trojan Horse that cost us $12.00 to have built (over 25
> hours of labor). In the process of working with people in SL, we  
> gained a
> deep understanding of the economy.
> One divergent factor is that virtual labor in SL (we also talked to
> campers, dancers, etc.) operates from developed countries. The  
> sweatshop
> practices can mimic RL practices but without the real economic  
> need, they
> are gesture rather than impact.
> In reality, the wages garnered in SL are less than minimum wage for  
> the
> people using it. In many cases, users probably spend more on their  
> power
> bill than the wages earned.
> The question then is why?
> A certain psychology of desire is often at operation. Many users don't
> want to transfer money in from their credit card -- even though  
> this would
> be the sensible decision. So they try to earn Lindens. Probably all  
> of us
> in Second Life are irrational consumers but it still baffles me to see
> irrational producers.
> The other thing that we discovered when working with the builders  
> is while
> some of them were building objects for us to earn Linden dollars to  
> buy
> goods for their avatars, many felt a connection with the No Matter
> project. They wanted to contribute to the final artwork. The amount  
> they
> made served as a token of their time.
> I also recall a conversation I had with someone in SL about a year  
> ago.
> She wanted to do escorting in SL because of the novelty of it: the  
> fact
> that you could try something like this without any consequences since
> there is no physical act and no social stigma (since most people on SL
> keep their identity private). From your description, it seems as if  
> the
> desire to work in a virtual sweatshop as a project is part of it --  
> and
> the fact that at the end of it, you can just quit Second Life and the
> virtual factory disappears.
> Best,
> Scott Kildall
> www.kildall.com
>> Dear IDC’ers,
>> In contributing to the discussion on Second Life and the politics of
>> virtual labor I’d like to report on a hybrid reality, social
>> networking project I recently exhibited/performed at the Sundance
>> Film Festival with Jeff Crouse, Senior Research Fellow at Eyebeam in
>> NYC. The project titled “Invisible Threads” explores the growing
>> intersection between labor, emerging virtual economies and real life
>> commodities through the creation of a designer jeans “sweatshop” in
>> Second Life (SL). The factory virtually manufactures designer jeans
>> that are “teleported” into the real world upon completion and worn by
>> real live people. Simulating an actual textile facility, machines
>> include Jaquard weaving looms, dye vats, laser fabric cutters,
>> industrial sewing machines and quality control. SL citizens hired
>> through job recruitment ads placed in the SL classifieds operate the
>> various machines as well as serve as floor managers and security.
>> I’ll first give an overview of how the project works and then I’ll
>> divulge into the nitty-gritty of being a menacing, virtual factory
>> manager.
>> For Sundance, we set up a temporary store at the New Frontier on Main
>> Street – Double Happiness Jeans. Designer jean styles include “No
>> Pants Left Behind”, “MyPants”, “LowRider” and “Casual Friday” in
>> either boot cut, skinny leg, relaxed or classic. Customers place
>> their jean orders via streaming audio and video into the virtual
>> factory. SL workers watch the stream projected on a wall of the
>> factory Orwellian style. In an assembly line fashion, the first
>> worker starts the production process that involves loading cotton
>> bales into the Jaquard loom. Once the fabric is made it moves down
>> the assembly line through each machine. Each worker stationed at a
>> machine is responsible for selecting the correct option based on the
>> customer’s order, men’s or women’s size for example. The worker also
>> has a limited time to press the correct button otherwise the assembly
>> line stops and the order has to start over. At the end of the
>> production process, the jeans go through the SL to real life (RL)
>> “portal” resulting in an output from a large format printer.
>> Customers at Sundance were able to watch the entire production
>> process on a large flat screen installed in the physical space. Once
>> in the real world, the jeans require simple assembly before being
>> worn. Using what we call the pizza roller cutter, the jeans printed
>> on a cotton canvas are quickly cut out and glue gunned together with
>> stitched reinforcement on the crotch. (After many adhesive tests and
>> many noxious fumes we found the glue gun to be the best and safest
>> adhesive. Yet after sitting around in the jeans the glue became
>> heated in the crotch area – need I elaborate further!)
>> So what was it like to run a designer jeans sweatshop amongst the
>> stars? Well aside from the cheap thrill of having Robert Redford join
>> my social network by signing my “MyPants”, the project raises some
>> serious questions about the current cultural production of play and
>> its relationship to outsourced, virtual labor. The project is based
>> on research in motion economics, Taylorism and current goldfarming/
>> virtual sweatshops.
>> In case you aren’t familiar with goldfarming, for over the past five
>> years, virtual sweatshops have been springing up all over the
>> developing world. These makeshift sweatshops, usually a small shop or
>> apartment with dormitory-style housing, employ predominantly migrant
>> workers and single mothers to work 12-16 hour shifts or more
>> “playing” games. The job involves either digging/farming for virtual
>> gold and other assets or leveling-up characters (power leveling). The
>> virtual assets and avatars are then sold online for real world
>> currency with the sweatshop entrepreneurs raking in the cash (a good
>> resource on the topic and model of distributed filmmaking http://
>> www.chinesegoldfarmers.com and of course Julian Dibbell).
>> The role of play and use of game-based models in the workforce has
>> become incredibly pervasive as exemplified in corporate culture
>> (www.seriosity.com, www.thegogame.com), education
>> (www.instituteofplay.org) and advertising (Chevron’s “Energyville” -
>> http://www.willyoujoinus.com/energyville). As Deleuze states in
>> “Society of Control”, society has evolved into a “school of perpetual
>> training” where the educational system feeds the corporation and what
>> better way than through the use of play and games.
>> We chose Second Life as our medium to explore the conflation of
>> leisure/entertainment and labor within the context of play and game-
>> based models. Second Life obviously does not follow a traditional
>> game model. Although educational institutions are starting to
>> populate the world for online training and archiving purposes (which
>> I am not dismissing), SL is ultimately about consumption and
>> simulating upward mobility. You can have your dream mansion, look
>> like Anna Nicole in her good days and drive a slick hovercraft.
>> Throughout the project we learned a lot about our workers. In the
>> early job interview phase, we asked workers why they wanted to work
>> in our factory and what expectations they had. Common jobs in SL are
>> either camping where you sit in one spot for a period of time to gain
>> Lindens (SL money) or escort services that are very similar to real
>> world adult entertainment. (If one has building or scripting skills,
>> more money can be made but for now I’ll just focused on unskilled
>> labor.) Almost all of the workers had tried the other jobs and wanted
>> a “decent” job in their second life. Most treat their second life
>> with the respect and dignity of their first life – they want a good
>> job in order to live a good life with nice things in SL. Several had
>> previous factory experience! Over several days of training sessions
>> and throughout the work days at Sundance workers developed
>> camaraderie, similar to what happens at RL jobs where you interact
>> with the same people on a day-to-day basis. A similar camaraderie and
>> the experience of fun on the job have also been noted in the world of
>> the goldfarmers.
>> So how is our factory a sweatshop and furthermore, how do you create
>> the embodied, visceral conditions of a sweatshop in a synthetic
>> world? For the goldfarmers, the general worker demographic, the
>> amount of hours worked, the dormitory-style living conditions and the
>> pay (slightly more than agricultural work) closely resembles the
>> scenario of many real world sweatshops. Plus we must consider the
>> actual job tasks involved. Digging for gold and slaying virtual
>> tigers for up to 16 hours a day is a very repetitive task that does
>> not involve a steep learning curve. And I’m sure most people on this
>> list are familiar with repetitive stress injuries such as Carpal
>> Tunnel Syndrome and other neck and back strain incurred from
>> prolonged computer use. Goldfarmers receive no health benefits
>> either. At least not to my knowledge.
>> In our “sweatshop”, workers received 200 Lindens an hour, about $.80
>> USD depending on the daily exchange rate, for basically pushing a
>> button. Workers also received a 500 m2 parcel of virtual land in
>> front of the factory on Eyebeam Island that they can use for up to
>> six months (TBD). This is about enough land for a medium size house
>> and small yard. We set up the parcels with small shack-like housing
>> to see how the factory village would evolve over the next few months.
>> Some workers have chosen to keep the shacks while others have
>> modified them to resemble more upscale dwellings or completely
>> fantastical habitats. If we view this within the economy of SL, their
>> lifestyle and salary could be considered blue collar to middle class.
>> The worker could afford clothes (a pair of designer-like jeans in SL
>> averages about 150 Lindens) and could work towards owning a small
>> home but could not afford to own virtual property, the ultimate
>> commodity in SL. Yet if we extend the virtual workers economics into
>> the real world, they obviously couldn’t afford to live in the first
>> world.
>> I realize our project is highly symbolic. Workers did not work full-
>> time or overtime and worked from the comfort of their own homes. For
>> the visitors/customers at Sundance, most not at all familiar with art
>> and technology work or Second Life, the project got them thinking
>> about how our products get made and about new models of production –
>> telematic labor and a global, virtual workforce. Since the project
>> resembled a retail store/kiosk, visitors were initially drawn to the
>> crazy jeans hanging on our clothing racks. Everything you find on a
>> real pair of jeans (pockets, belt loops, zippers) is printed onto the
>> fabric but in exaggerated form becoming a characterization of the
>> latest jeans styles – rips with knees sticking out, overly acid
>> rinses (complete environmental hazard btw), the MyPants social
>> networking jeans, the LowRider with boxers hanging out and a Double
>> Happiness/Tommy Hilfiger logo (don’t worry Trebor we saved a pair for
>> you). The jean prices were in both Linden dollars and US currency to
>> show the relationship between the price of jeans and the workers’
>> wages. It was also interesting to hear feedback from visitors who had
>> seen Alex Rivera’s film debuting at Sundance called “Sleep Dealers”
>> that is also focused on telematic labor (and won 2 awards, yeah!).
>> What at first was the role of a retail sales person during the
>> holiday season answering questions about size and fit evolved into a
>> platform for discussing these critical issues with the general public
>> (and many super smart kids!).
>> Although I could probably continue talking about the project for
>> another 10 pages of email because it resonates on so many levels I’ll
>> stop here. Our future plans include a potential showing at Fashion
>> Week which I feel would be the ultimate success of our mission (if
>> you have any contacts in the industry please send them our way) and
>> an iteration that functions similar to mechanical turk is also on the
>> table. Being good guys playing the role of bad guys has also made us
>> think about ways to advocate for virtual workers rights, an issue
>> Edward Castronova has been blogging about (http://
>> terranova.blogs.com). I would also like to post/publish more about
>> the project, specifically conversations with our virtual workers –
>> job recruitment interviews, worker expectations, feedback on working
>> in the factory. Maybe a virtual Studs Turkel’s “Working”.
>> And last but not least, I welcome your feedback on the project and
>> thoughts/comments on any of the issues I’ve attempted to tackle. I’d
>> be happy to share my resources/delicious links. More info about the
>> project including press links is available on the project site along
>> with SLurl:
>> www.doublehappinessjeans.com
>> Visit the factory in SL: Eyebeam Island 204/43/27
>> My own site is www.pan-o-matic.com and my not-so-updated blog with
>> related projects is at www.pan-o-matic.com/blog
>> Jeff Crouse's work located at http://www.jeffcrouse.info
>> (aka Supreme Hoodoo)
>> Look forward to continuing the discussion…
>> Cheers,
>> Stephanie Rothenberg
>> (aka Doctor Rodenberger)
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