On Digital Labour

The digital economy has been criticized as highly exploitable, especially following the web 2.0 tide, the Utopian thought of social participation becomes a double blade, on one hand we see the new possibility of participation, collaboration, resistance, etc, on the other hand, we also see that the generation of data/metadata from users actually becomes the most important asset of the tech companies. The most obvious, and important example is Google’s services ranging from search engine, to blog service, video sharing service, photo, maps, whatever you name it. Google is not only able to learn from the data inputed by the users, but also the user’s behavious itself, which immediately constitute the metadata of the users’ identity and behaviour for further marketing. While the users also participate to make the softwere better, not only by reflecting their opinions, but most importantly, developing tools around google’s service. The whole idea of Open API is a very clever way to open up the space for constant innovation outside the google office. Google’s support of open source movement is also a clever way, since economically there is no conflict with google’s own business, since it is free anyway. The faster the industry moves, the less competitors will be there, the more innovative the other players are, the better stimulation for further innovation. This opens up the question of “openness”, it is a very difficult term, and it almost covers most of the topics of media, political, social theories, and philosophy.

10 years ago, Terranova explored the idea of “free labour” meaning those who sought entertainment online are nevertheless labouring for free. This does look suitalbe for today’s situation as well, we, the members of social networking website, google users, are contributing for the capitalists for free. You couldn’t imagine that there is no way to escapet this totality of production, it is immanent, when you look for something online, sending an email, etc. But free labour is too easy. Months before, when Yan Butang, the chief editor of Multitude had a workshop on the Crisis of Capitalism in Goldsmiths with Bernard Stiegler and Scott Lash, he was saying how evil Google is, and the whole dirty scene of cognitive capitalsim. That sounds exciting actually. By the end, I wanted to ask him a question, “do you use Google?”, but my colleauge warmed me that it is really offensive, so I gave up, anyway he is a guest. I am sure that the answer will be positive. This is not to make fun of him, but rather it points out a more difficult and complicated question, if today the media theorists believe in exploitation of free labout, why are they still using Google to let themselves be exploited? This not only means, you don’t believe what you say, but also you don’t believe what you believe. This formmer is nevertheless conscious, since I know that this is an academtic language game; the latter means that you unconsciouslly discredit your believe, you don’t really know what you are saying. The recent post by Richard Rheingold on the iDc mailinglist honestly points out this contradiction:

“Maybe that at the same time we look closely at the way commercial interests have colonized public behavior, we ought to look at the way profit motives have made available useful public goods. May Yahoo and Google live long and prosper as long as I can view and publish via Flickr and YouTube. And if this means that I’ve blurred the line between my recreation and my labor, I have to testify that even after reflection I don’t mind it at all. It’s pleasurable, in fact. And I’m equally delighted that Google gives away search to attract attention, some of which Google sells to advertisers. I remember that when I first got online with a modem, the cost of accessing skimpy information online via Lexis/Nexis and other paid data services was way beyond my means. Now I get answers for any question in seconds. How many times a day were YOU exploited by searching for something without paying a charge for the service? Informed consent seems to me to be crucial — I choose to be exploited, if exploitation is how you want to see my uploading and tagging my photographs and videos. More people ought to reflect on who is profiting from their online activity, and it seems entirely reasonable to me that many would decide not to be exploited. I would never argue that people should refrain from witholding their labor, if that’s what they want to do”

“I choose to be exploited” is an interesting reply to Yan Butang’s critique of cognitive capitalism. This doesn’t suggest of being blind to the concept of labour, on the opposite, this is an invitation to look at the issue in a more critical way. It may also make sense to look at the digital labour in terms of Neoliberlaism, according to Foucault’s interpretation of American Neoliberalism in his course on biopolitics, the idea of labour as earning stream replaces Marx and Ricardo’s idea of Labour Time, the subject of work becomes an enterprise rather than a man whose use value can be quantitized in terms of working hours (as exchange value). The labours in this sense, are people who believe that they have the freedom to choose, and they know what they have to pay to exchange for something they need. The freedom of being an Homo Oeconomicus. This is probably the subject who can say “I choose to be exploited”. I choose, since I know what I have to pay back to Google, and I choose, also means I know what I can get from this, and it is clear that this is the fundation of this digital economy. It sounds fair enough, how can you expect to get something without exchange, even gift? The gift economy, is not only the rationality for the open source movement as some theorists believe it to be, but also the foundation of the whoe digital economy as well. And in order to maintain this mode of production, a specific aesthetics have to be established, it is the aesthetics of speed, geeky, convenience, the pleasure of enjoying the public time. It is not simply free labour anymore, even if you still insist it is, hardly can negate your being “free”, when I am writing this post, I used google search many times to check the spelling of the names. It is not transaction cost as well, since I am not paying commission, it is purely an exchange.

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