[iDC] some thoughts on digital labor and populations

Sean Cubitt scubitt at unimelb.edu.au
Sun Jun 14 11:30:55 UTC 2009

There's an adage in policy studies: we rarely make entirely new policy, but
adapt previous solutions. Thus the national base of telegraphy was adopted
by telecoms, held straight through to the formation of ICANN, and then
becomes a problem because the internet is not just quantitatively more
transnational but qualitatively so, at which point there comes a crisis, and
attempts to reform regulatory regimes (in this instance through IGF or, if
you're Chinese, ITU - a step back towards national governance or at least

Karl marx observed something similar concerning the 18th Brumaire. Santayana
observed that those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it..
Elsewhere marx suggested that the dead weight of histroy weighs on the minds
of the living like a nightmae (I think he had the folkloric image of the
dreamhorse in mind)

Despite the legacy of cangouilhem (Foucault, Althusser etc) history rarely
proceeds by revolution but by increment.

Thus the immaterialisation of labour can be cheerfully traced back to the
'control crisis' of the 1860s and 1870s (using Beniger's term). That such
labour is in fact entirely material ios evident from the increasing
environmental footprint of office work, not to mention the health and safety

Jeremy's realism makes sense, save that 'fundamentally the human condition'
is - I'm sure this is familiar turf - an uncomfortably universalising
phrase. The condition of humans differs radically between here and the house
next door, let alone between my kitchen and the kitchen of the coffee farmer
who supplies my breakfast. That I am even aware of her existence - and she
of mine, at least in terms of the price she gets for her crop - is evidence
that something might have changed - incrementally. It isn't the condition so
much as the relation that matters: the old bearded patriarch of the British
Library with the boils on his bum was not so wide of the mark: relations
between humans appear in the fantastical guise of a relation between things.

And services, I suppose we shd add

Change is the human condition: O Fortuna. Difference is the base of labour
and of human relations in general. The question is whether the commodity
relation means that we are not only equal but interchangeable, and that the
differences become something like potential difference, what demands flow,
and in our instance regulated flows

The persistence of the past - not just of memory or nostalgia but of things,
patterns, habits, atavisms, spiritualities and policy frameworks like
Westphalia ­ the persistenc eof the past is the ground on which we make the
future. As Adorno says in criticism of Wittgenstein: the world is all that
is not the case, all that is potential, all that could be but isn't. That is
the difference between labour and work, and it is work that is the valuable
rather than play, which has been assimilated into the artificial playworlds
of corporate culture and the ideology of consumption far more successfully
than the idea of work as the production of value other than exchange and

I really shd get to bed



On 14/06/09 4:00 AM, "davin heckman" <davinheckman at gmail.com> wrote:

> I like the "nothing has changed" vs. "everything has changed"
> dichotomy, only insofar as we can use it to force the following
> questions:
> 1. IF everything has changed in a material sense (what we use, what we
> own, how we get it, etc.), what, if any, continuity exists in our
> social and cultural existence?  (For instance, many people still brush
> their teeth, and base their decisions on perceived progressive
> technological norms for hygiene.  We must strive for sterility,
> whiteness, sanitation, hotness, etc.  So, while the motivation remains
> the same, the techniques for selling oral hygiene have
> changed--toothbrushes have batteries, you can have your teeth
> whitened, tongue scraped, etc.  But the basic drive is somewhat
> continuous, even if it has intensified due to the availability of
> consumer technologies and techniques for marketing them.
> 2.  IF everything stays the same, what, if any, changes have been made
> in the social and cultural sphere?  We still use internal combustion
> engines.  It is an old technology and an inferior one.  At one point
> it was regarded as new and revolutionary (which was how the technology
> was sold), but now it is reliable and stable and our way of life
> depends on it (or, at least, these are the arguments used to justify
> it.).  A bike is too hard.  Trains are too expensive.  You will lose
> your freedom.  Electric cars are risky.  It's a liberal pipe dream.
> Etc.
> Sometimes, you can do the exact same thing, but with profoundly
> different effects.  (Think of the history of the word "negro."  For a
> moment in time, it was used as an alternative to a more disparaging
> word, and was thus a marker of respect.  In our current milieu, it is
> considered a negative term.)  Yet, Rush Limbaugh was able to play with
> the term "magic negro," to stoke resentment in a passive aggressive
> way, to be racist in spirit while looking less racist in form.
> The answers to both of those questions tend to have similar roots, in
> that they privilege the inertia that is inherent in large institutions
> and markers of power.  And if you always ask those questions, you can
> avoid falling into the novelty or nostalgia modes, and just
> concentrate on what really matters: People.  Which is the point, that
> Jeremy was making.
> Peace!
> Davin
> On Sat, Jun 13, 2009 at 7:33 AM, jeremy hunsinger<jhuns at vt.edu> wrote:
>> Hi,  I actually want to place my position as 'realism'  not 'oldism'
>> nor 'newism'  In this discussion, I'm particularly against 2 forms of
>> promotion one is novelty and its associated fictions, and the other is
>> nostalgia.
>> I don't think that I argued that 'nothing changes'   what I was trying
>> to say is that fundamentally the human condition in late capitalism
>> hasn't changed.  Now you can argue that there is new, exciting
>> differences, and surely there are, but then i bring up the questions,
>> for whom, for what, and why...
>> On Jun 13, 2009, at 12:34 AM, Michael Bauwens wrote:
>>> Hi Jeremy,
>>> it seems to me there are two pitfalls to avoid when we discuss
>>> changes,
>>> one is oldism, nothing really ever changes, one is newism,
>>> everything is changing all at once.
>>> It seems to me that your point of view is very close to oldism ...
>>> yes, we are all still struggling to live and eat and love and pay
>>> rent, just as it was 20 30 years ago, we are still watching media,
>>> still buying stuff ...
>>> - but are we watching the same media and doing the same things with
>>> them?
>> have to say this will depend on how you look at things, i tend to look
>> at things as systems of practices and conventions/norms which become
>> institutionalized.   So from my perspective, certain technologies in
>> web 2.0 relate to new practices.  However, in terms of things like
>> 'watching' tv, 'listening' to music, etc.,  'playing' games,  we may
>> have added another level of mediation, but I am not always convinced
>> that the layer of mediation has changed things.  For instance, there
>> was a huge cultural change surrounding music with the development of
>> the sony walkman... but did the mp3/ipod change the practices in
>> significant ways, yes perhaps in terms of purchasing, as you can argue
>> about the downfall of the 'album', but did it change consumption of
>> said music, i'd have to think that it isn't as much we'd think.   The
>> question is one of data and interpretation, in the end, but there
>> needs to be some basis for the discussions and arguments about labour,
>> no?
>>> - are we buying the same things and listening to the same people
>>> when we buy?
>> I have changed brands of toothpaste.   now where did that influence
>> come from?  I think it came from standing in the grocery store trying
>> to find the one i was using and being unable, so moving to a more
>> stable brand.  Now, don't get me wrong there have been huge changes in
>> grocery shopping in the last 20 years.  However, I'm not that
>> convinced that the practices are that different.
>>> - are we doing the same things when we're not working, and working
>>> the same?
>> Maybe... maybe not.  This is the central question isn't it?  I think
>> the problem here is that the debate was centered on a smallish
>> population which is somewhat unrepresentative of the human condition.
>> However, you may argue, for instance, as we have heard argued.... that
>> the olpc's presence in the developed world will revolutionize their
>> economies, etc. etc.  transform them etc. etc.  I prefer to remain
>> skeptical.  Some people did become somewhat more wealthy with the
>> advent of the olpc.  I have not seen widespread social or economic
>> change.
>>> What does it mean for a society when most media buys are bought by
>>> peer recommendation?
>> I don't know about you, but when i was a kid, that is how i bought
>> music.
>>> What does it mean when an increasing number of  mothers go to
>>> Mumsnet instead of asking their doctor?
>> Is that different from talking to their church group or other social
>> discussion they were likely involved in before it was mediated?
>>> What does it mean when 58% of the citizens of Malmo are reportedly
>>> engaged in one form of peer production or another?
>> seems pretty small population, i suspect a definition error in the
>> survey.  I don't think i could get less than 98% if we defined it as
>> producing things with other people.
>>> So I would find it more productive to look at these changes and see
>>> to what degree they have changed life and the structure of society,
>>> to see what has changed, what not, etc... rather than say, 'nothing
>>> has changed'.
>> I'd prefer to remain skeptical that there is 'change', especially
>> massive change until we actually find a way that demonstrates that it
>> is happening.  Otherwise, i think we are just fetishizing the
>> practices of a minority, and in doing that we are reifying those
>> practices and likely universalizing them in ways that are unwarranted.
>> Don't get me wrong, things do change, but then again the question is
>> did they change in a way that is reflected for the majority of
>> people?  likely not, and if not, why are we focussing our efforts on
>> the minority, when the difference might just be the difference between
>> the majority and the minority, instead of the minority at time x
>> versus the minority at time z.
>>> Living in Chiang Mai before the internet age would have been
>>> dramatically different for us 'expats', as reported by the old
>>> timers I have discussed the issue with, as are the much more intense
>>> relations of diasporic immigrant communities with their homeland.
>>> The idea that these changes are only affecting an elite is also very
>>> questionable. I live in Thailand, where there are a multitude of
>>> cybercafe's in city streets, and you will find them in the most
>>> remote villages; there are reports that it has quite dramatically
>>> changed the life of Chinese workers, who skype their families in the
>>> villages, and look up comparative wage scales, moving to regions and
>>> factories where higher, leading to a substantial rise in wages ..
>>> (I'm sure there were other factors, but that one shouldn't be
>>> discounted, as reported by labor organizers).
>>> Again, I'm not saying that everything has changed, that all is for
>>> the better, but would you argue that the invention of print did not
>>> contribute to major changes in social structures, however long that
>>> took. And is it not to be expected that a massive increase in
>>> hitherto impossible peer communication and media expression would
>>> contribute to important social changes ...
>> That isn't really what I was arguing, I was trying to make a point of
>> the construction of 'profound change' and 'novelty', but I do agree
>> with you.  The question for me is really how we present the change and
>> it's real effects.  The digital diaspora is a great case of how
>> information technology has enabled a population to maintain social
>> ties across great distances, and likely changed the relations of their
>> everyday lives.  People can now call home, text, etc. and maintain
>> those contacts.  That transforms what we mean by diaspora and
>> transforms the practices around it.
>> But does it change labour for most people? profoundly?
>>> Count me as a sceptic regarding the nothing has changed thesis,
>>> Michel
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Prof Sean Cubitt
scubitt at unimelb.edu.au
Media and Communications Program
Faculty of Arts
Room 127 John Medley East
The University of Melbourne
Parkville VIC 3010

Tel: + 61 3 8344 3667
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Skype: seancubitt

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