Affective Commons

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* Article / Conference Paper: The Affective Commons. By Julian Waters-Lynch and Cameron Duff. School of Management, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia

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Conference Theme: Creative Disruption: Managing in a Digital Age

ABSTRACT

"We propose a new concept for a shared immaterial resource we call an ‘affective commons’. We claim the affective commons is the collective product of affective and emotional labour, and thus its management is vulnerable to a distinct social dilemma. We argue that, given forecasts of technological disruption of work, these forms of immaterial labour are likely to become more salient. We developed this account from analysis of empirical material gathered throughout a four-year ethnography of early Coworking communities in Melbourne. Coworking is form of organization where freelancers and nascent entrepreneurs interact within shared office environments. Our paper is principally theoretical, but we make reference to this context and draw on some of the data to illustrate our central claim."


Contents

By Julian Waters-Lynch and Cameron Duff:

"In making this argument we seek to bring three literatures into dialogue. First, an economic literature on technological disruption of employment and the susceptibility of certain kinds of tasks to computerisation. Second, an organisational studies literature on the role that affect and emotion play in particular organising strategies and processes. Third, a political-economic literature on conditions supporting peer production and the governance of common pool resources.


The structure of this paper is as follows.

First, we briefly review the theory of techno-economic paradigm transitions and the intimate links between technology, work and value regimes.

Second, we situate Coworking as a novel form of organisational relations that is an expression of such transitions in technoeconomic production and values.

Third, we review recent forecasts of the future of work and the susceptibility of particular tasks to computerisation. We argue that these changes not only direct human labour towards creative cognitive work but also other forms of immaterial labour, like the generation and manipulation of affect and emotion.

Fourth, we review how affect and emotion have been considered in the organisational studies literature, and argue that whilst the concept of an ‘affective atmosphere’ has been briefly considered in conventional organisational settings, it is particularly useful for analysing the organisation of non-standard working arrangements like Coworking.

Fifth, we then proceed to explicate the forms of immaterial value that Coworking services provide for participants. Finally, we make the case for conceiving of an affective commons, and differentiate its properties from other varieties of material and immaterial commons currently identified in the literature. "


Excerpt

By Julian Waters-Lynch and Cameron Duff:

"Building on the previous discussion of affective atmospheres, we propose a third type of commons, an ‘affective commons’ in which bodies produce, interpenetrate and are submerged within the shared resource. An affective commons not only requires labour to initially cultivate but the periodic mobilisation of human (and non-human) bodies to interact in formations that recharge the atmosphere and replenish the resource.

Such renewal depends on the ongoing performance of affect laden interactions. In the Coworking contexts described in this paper, typical bodily performances include welcoming gestures such as smiles and verbal greetings, verbal and nonverbal expressions of encouragement and support, various verbal and facial performances of curiosity, wonder and other emotions that contribute to a positive affective atmosphere.

Furthermore, in the ethnographic observations, perceived authenticity in these gestures, that the performances actually reflect the inner experiences of participants, appeared an important and valued quality in these performances. Affective atmospheres, however, suffer a kind of evaporation rate, in the absence of ongoing supply the atmosphere disperses. Whereas ‘congestion’ is largely viewed negatively in the configuration of material club goods, the affective commons relies on an immaterial density. It is this affective commons, often described in the vernacular by participants as a ‘vibe’ or ‘buzz’, that we argue has been both attractively influential but hitherto overlooked in contexts such as Coworking.

What motivations might mobilise bodies to habitually renew an affective atmosphere?

In Coworking contexts, one possibility is to depend on service staff to recharge it. This however places a considerable burden of immaterial labour on staff which likely becomes untenable as membership grows. Another possibility is to increasingly focus on the material aspects of Coworking, on the office location and amenities, as membership grows. The immaterial value and thick affective atmosphere may initially draw in early adopters, yet once ‘word gets out’ and more members join, this atmosphere becomes difficult to maintain. A Coworking enterprise, bolstered by the resources of a growing membership, can invest more in the material offerings - larger and more strategically located spaces with higher quality facilitates. In fact this appears to have been a common path for many enterprises in the Coworking industry. A third possibility that returns us to our immaterial commons dilemma, is to arrange the conditions of governance such that Coworking members willingly replenish the atmosphere through their contributions and interactions. This possibility requires the curation of a system that supports pro-social, non-monetary motivations, likely a combination of intrinsic belief in the purpose of a project and extrinsic-social rewards, like recognition and status (Benkler 2017). The precise features of such a governance system remain to be discovered and are certainly beyond the scope of this paper. Nevertheless the commons literature, such as the framework for institutional analysis and development (Ostrom 2007), provides a constructive place to begin such explorations and analyses."


From the conclusion

"The purpose of this paper has been to propose the concept of an affective commons. In making this argument we have attempted to draw three areas of literature into dialogue, an economic literature on technological disruption of human work tasks, an organisational studies literature on the management of affect and emotion, and a political-economic literature on institutional arrangements that support the production and maintenance of common-pool resources. We have grounded this proposition in the empirical material developed through an ethnographic study of the experiences of Coworkers in the formative period of that industry in Melbourne, Australia. Whilst the social dynamics of Coworking provide a fruitful case to consider an affective commons, we anticipate that this concept will be relevant to a number of other social domains with their distinct variants of this general collective dilemma. "

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