Radical media, politics and culture.

Andrew Ross, "On the Digital Labor Question"

On the Digital Labor Question Andrew Ross

(Transcribed October 16th, 2009 from a lecture presented at September 29, 2009, at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School)

The Freelancers Union was established in 2007 to offer a social safety net and political advocacy on behalf of independent workers who contract their labor to multiple employers. Though it is now the fastest growing union in New York, a city with far more than its per capita share of creative workers, its services model has not yet been fully acknowledged by the labor movement, not even as the national share of “non-standard employment” approaches 33% (almost certainly an undercounted figure). The union emerged from the chrysalis of Sara Horowitz’s Working Today, which earned its laurels in the late 1990s, at the height of the New Economy push to promote “free agency” among the city’s burgeoning digital workforce. A decade later, it remains the only real institutional effort to provide stability to the precarious lives of the city’s independent workers, many of whom were the first to fall into the deep hole of the current recession.

The needs of this workforce has attracted a good deal of commentary in recent years as part of a burgeoning analysis of the creative labor of artists (broadly defined) who were once considered marginal to the productive economy, but are increasingly profiled and promoted as the model workers of the new economy. Wherever their labor is organized into the formal silos of the so-called “creative industries,” it has garnered the attention of national statisticians bent on building the case for a new high-growth sector, irresistible to investors, politicians, and real estate speculators who know the presence of artists can have on land value. [1] But well beneath the statisticians’ radar there is a more telling story about the degradation of work that has occurred as part of the transition to a Internet-centered economy based on the widespread use of non-paid amateur or user labor. This short essay will review some of the features of that transition.

The Price Paid by Talent

Those of you who remember the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike of 2008-09 will no doubt recall the writers’ struggle to win a revenue share from residuals–or online versions of content to which they had contributed. In the public mind, this was generally seen as a fair claim. Why? Because surely creators of intellectual property deserve to enjoy the fruits of their labor. But how many will remember what was bargained away in return for recognition of the writers claim? Since 2005, one of the writers guild’s top campaign goals has been to organize employees of TV reality shows, and, while union leaders entered the strike vowing to achieve this goal, the media moguls’ ultimate condition for reaching an agreement over new media residuals was that the WGA take off the table its claim for jurisdiction over the reality (and animation) sector. The upshot? Concessions were made to those employees—the writers–who feed the copyright milkcow at the expense of the below-the-line em ployees who are shut out of the WGA.

This raw deal speaks volumes about the ongoing restructuring of the creative industries (or the copyright industries as they are more bluntly termed in the U.S.) Creative employees who are close to the prize of IP have a fair, though precarious, shot at lucrative returns, while those below-the-line, to use the term favored in Hollywood, are cut loose. Since 2001, the space allotted to reality TV and “challenge” game shows has ballooned to more than 20% of prime-time network programming. The production costs are a fraction of what producers pay for conventional, scripted drama, and the ratings and profits have been mercurial. From the outset, owners have insisted that producers and editors are not “writers” who pen scripts and dialogue, because they would have a claim on IP, and so the WGA was shut out of reality programming. As a result, the sector teems with substandard conditions—18 hour work days, chronic job instability, no meal breaks, no health benefits, and employer c oercion to turn in time cards early. Wage rates are generally half of what employees on scripted shows are paid, and most overtime goes unpaid. When employees vote to join the union they are summarily fired or are threatened with blacklisting. Nor are the amateur contestants any better off. If they are paid, it is generally a minimal stipend, and the price for their shot at exposure is to endure conditions–sleep deprived and plied with hard alcohol–that are designed to spark tension, conflict and confrontation onscreen. A growing number of lawsuits, in the US, UK and France are aimed at establishing legal protections for amateur talent as well as for writers, editors, and production assistants.

These violations of work standards occur in the sector of old media that is most clearly aligned with the neo-liberal ethos of the jackpot economy. It’s an ethos which demands that we are all participants in a game that rewards only a few, while the condition of entry into this high-stakes lottery is to leave your safety gear at the door; only the most spunky, agile, and dauntless will prevail, but often at high psychic cost–witness Susan Boyle’s recent return to the spotlight after a long bout of medication and institutionalization. Yet the labor infractions I have been describing are only visible because they take place against the heavily unionized backdrop of the entertainment industries. In the world of new media, where unions have no foothold whatsoever, the formula of overwork, underpayment, and sacrificial labor is entirely normative. The blurring of the lines between work and leisure, the widespread use of amateur or user input on the social web or in open source, a nd the systematic expropriation of Tiziana Terranova first described as “free labor” has prompted some commentators to ask whether the experience of digital environments should direct us to rethink entirely our basic understanding of labor and enterprise. [2] While skeptical, I am certainly open to such inquiries and look forward to any such discussion.

Work You Just Couldn’t Help Doing

As far as waged work goes, I am inclined to see new developments in the digital workplace as a part of a continuum that stretches back to the managerial introduction in the 1920s of human relations to humanize the workplace and stave off workers’ forms of industrial democracy. This human relations movement was upgraded after the so-called “revolt against work” in the 1970s in response to widespread worker discontent with alienation on the job, and, in many ways, reached its apotheosis in the permissive work milieu of the dotcom era, where the template was also forged for digitally extending value-adding work far outside the physically bounded workplace and into every waking moment of an employee’s life. This combination of work gratification and time sacrifice established the industrial formula for self-exploitation among creative workers. As one of my informants for No-Collar (my ethnographic study of new media companies) put it, her job offered “work you just couldn’t help doing.” [3] Subsequent ethnographic studies of knowledge and creative industry workplaces show that job gratification still comes at a heavy sacrificial cost–longer hours in pursuit of the satisfying finish, price discounts in return for aesthetic recognition, self-exploitation in response to the gift of autonomy, and dispensability in exchange for flexibility.,

At the same time, however, there is another history of work to consider, and that is the story of how manufacturers and service providers have succeeded in transferring work from the producer to the consumer. My student Michael Palm has written a dissertation on the rise of self-service and he begins his story with the transition from the Bell telephone operators to customer dialing which required a good deal of persuasion and education for customers to take on the work. At this more advanced point in the history, we have more or less accepted the massive amount of time we are asked to devote to researching and assembling consumer products, not to mention the input that is considered mandatory for customer services of all sorts. These investments of personal time are only the most palpable expressions of what Italian post-operaiste theorists like Mario Tronti called the social factory, where a large share of the work of production is performed in the interstices of society, and because they are tangible–and because we continually weigh the benefits against the cost of these personal time investments– they tend to be the ones that irritate us the most, and so we end up venting our anger on robovoices or on hapless call center employees in Bangalore.

Value From the Social Web?

The more sophisticated techniques for extracting value from consumers or amateur users can be found in the digital platform economy where social participation on the web is more and more the raw material for engines of speculative profit. By far the majority of the users of social networking sites are unaware of how the volunteer content of their communications is subject to data mining, sold to marketers and advertisers, or is hoarded by entrepreneur hosts bent on getting bought out. Concomitant with the reality TV shows, the prize for users is to win attention, accumulate “friends,” score a hit, and draw some bankable or socially valuable advantage from the exposure. But for the business entrepreneur, the outcome is a virtually wage-free proposition. There are costs involved for bandwidth, hosting, and maintaining commercial platforms, but as far as the monetizable product goes, it is the users, or prosumers, as industry strategists call them, who create all the surplus va lue (which could be described as the difference between the value such free services offer to users and the value they create for business).

Those users who are aware of this economy are likely to consider this a reasonable trade–we have free access to your services and in return we surrender all rights to you over the use of our content and personal data. And, as for those for whom the web has opened up a whole new universe of information-rich public goods–including the potential for anti-capitalist organizing, really really free markets, peer-to-peer common value creation, and alternative economies of all sorts—the role the social web is currently playing in new modes of capital accumulation is simply the price one pays for preserving a free medium of exchange whose scope of activity is large enough to outpace any government or corporate surveillance. It’s another kind of trade-off, in other words, and the balance, for the time being, is still in favor of the commons. From this point of view, all of the interactive free labor that goes into user-generated value can be seen as a kind of tithe or tribute we pay t o the Internet as a whole so that the expropriators stay away from the parts of it we really cherish.

Should we no longer view this interactive input as labor in any conventional understanding of political economy or should we see it as just another transfer of work from more regulated kinds of labor market? My instinct is to think along the lines of the latter, with the proviso that there is a great deal of overlap between the traditional economy of unpaid work (mostly in the home) and that of work transfer. Technolibertarians who have consistently viewed cyberspace as a haven of free being are notoriously oblivious to the impact of the cut-price labor economy that is its default mode. The flourishing of self-publication and amateur content has been a clear threat to the livelihoods of professional creatives whose prices are driven down by, or who simply cannot compete with, the commercial mining of the online, discount alternatives to their services. Print journalism is only the most recent, well-publicized example of a profession trampled underfoot as advertisers and owne rs switch to online assets. Indeed, it’s ironic to see how media critics who are more accustomed to proclaiming that the “press is free only for those who own one” have lately been defending these bastions of information gatekeeping as stable sources of valued livelihoods. Our regret that the amateur blogosphere can serve as a corrosive force against the payscales of professional labor may be only half the story one would like to tell about the blogosphere, but it is the half that is routinely neglected in the technolibertarian rush to portray the rapid flowering of Internet self-publication as a refreshing break from the filtering of the editorial gatekeepers. Those of us who were weaned on Media Studies’ classic eulogies (Benjamin, Enzensberger, McLuhan) to the concept of an active media audience (the audience as producer) might be forgiven for mouthing “watch what you wish for” when we review all of the ways in which interactive labor of the social web and the discount eth os of online enterprise in general have taken their toll on the formal labor markets of the brick-and-mortar world. (Academe, of course, has its own version of this with the digital diploma mills run by the University of Phoenix and all the other online institutions that are the network backbones of the new global university, and I won’t even begin to get into the topic of IT’s role in offshore outsourcing (about which I wrote a book called Fast Boat to China). The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest figures for the publishing industry show employment at 275,000, down by 36% from its peak a decade ago at 430,000. Internet employment has risen since the recession began, but since we are only talking about 5,000 jobs or so, it will take several decades for digital job gains to make up for the old media losses of the last year. [4] It can plausibly be concluded that much of the work accounted for by the gap between old and new media is simply being transferred into the interstice s of the amateur/user economy that prevails on the web.

The Spirit of Braverman

I’ve been less than even-handed in my response to the question Whither Digital Labor? Why? because those who see the digital realm as a technology of de-skilling, outsourcing and work degradation are far outnumbered by those who see it as a medium of reskilling, innovation, and common value creation. And because the minority view needs to be expressed whenever there is an opportunity to do so. So I’m content to channel the spirit of Harry Braverman in this regard and for the purpose of this discussion. [5] But I will add this as final teaser. The emergence of this new mode of production that we sometimes call knowledge capitalism does probably require all of the good things we associate with the information commons in the same way as the emergence of industrial capitalism depended on free inputs like clean air, uncontaminated water, disposable animal species, and dirt-cheap underground mineral deposits.

1. Geert Lovink, and Ned Rossiter eds. My Creativity (Amsterdam: Insitute for Network Cultures, 2007); Richard Florida The Rise of the Creative Class, And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2002); John Hartley, eds. Creative Industries (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004). David Harvey “The Art of Rent: Globalization and the Commodification of Culture,” in Spaces of Capital (New York: Routledge, 2001): Ursula Huws, ed. (2007) “The Creative Spark in the Engine” special issues of Work, Organization, Labour & Globalization Vol. 1, No. 1. (2007); Andrew Ross, Nice Work If You Can Get It (New York: NYU Press, 2009).

2. Tiziana Terranova, “Free Labor” Social Text 18.2 (2000) 33-58

3. Andrew Ross, No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and its Hidden Costs (Basic Books, 2002)

4. Paper Cuts, Left Business Observer, #121 (September 2009)

5. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974)

Andrew Ross is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. A frequent contributor to The Nation, Artforum and the Village Voice, he is the author of several books, including, most recently, Nice Work if You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times, Fast Boat to China--Lessons from Shanghai, Low Pay, High Profile: The Global Push for Fair Labor, No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and its Hidden Costs, and The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney’s New Town. He has also edited several books, including No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers, Anti-Americanism, and The University Against Itself: The NYU Strike and the Future of the Academic Workplace.