Digital Labour

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* Special issue of Ephemera, 10(3/4), 2010. Ed. by Jonathan Burston, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Alison Hearn.



Content based on the conference, Digital labour: Workers, authors, citizens. Held at the University of Western Ontario on October 16-18, 2009. The conference was organized by the Digital Labour Group, an assembly of scholars from within the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS), a nondepartmentalized unit that houses programs in Library and Information Science, Journalism, and Media Studies.

Editorial introduction at



"This special Digital Labour issue of ephemera is laid out along thematic lines similar to the conference that spawned it. In the first section, Brian Holmes, Cristina Morini and Andrea Fumagalli, and Emanuele Leonardi outline key historical and theoretical neighbourhoods inside our heuristic terrain. Holmes, with the help of artists Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway, provides us with a brief history of hyper-capitalism since the collapse of Bretton-Woods and charts increasingly predatory conditions within contemporary finance capital, where animal spirits and flexible personalities gorge themselves even as they lay waste to their own food supply. Casting their eyes over this same period, Cristina Morini and Andrea Fumagalli suggest that nothing short of a reexamination of the workings of the labour theory of value is required where transitions from industrial Fordism to ‘bio-capitalism’ are in play – a re-examination, moreover, that necessarily gives prominence to affective labour in matters of value creation. Their exegesis is followed by that of Emanuele Leonardi, who works through Gilbert Simondon, Yann Moulier Boutang and Carlo Vercellone to conclude in a similar fashion that, although Marxian notions of formal and real subsumption are still necessary to analyses of emerging formations within post-Fordism, a new concept, one he terms impression, is also required if new post-Fordist modalities of exploitation are to be properly understood.

Founding assumptions pertaining to digital capitalism are likewise queried in the following section – this time focusing on matters of digital labour more specifically. David Hesmondhalgh wonders about the degree to which autonomist and other analyses of ‘free’ labour have unintentionally marginalized ‘the continuing political importance of the conditions of professional cultural production’. Understanding ‘creative labour’ as digital labour’s ‘latest manifestation’, Barry King suggests that the new dignity so regularly afforded such labour is shot through with dubious, class-associated assumptions about the moral worth of different kinds of labour. Jack Bratich asks us to consider the differently digital labours adhering to a revived, precapitalist form of cultural production, namely, the recent resurgence of DIY craft culture and the various pro-social ‘informational and communicative practices’ embedded therein.

The next two papers focus on the daily politics of labour by way of recent policy and contract initiatives. In providing an overview of Canadian copyright policy and recent struggles to see it modernized, Samuel Trosow delineates the key areas where different digital labour unions find themselves in regular disagreement. Even where organized creative and intellectual workers ‘generally share similar positions with respect to the rights of creators vis a vis their employers’, and even where ‘they share a basic unity of purpose on many work related and other social and policy issues’, differences concerning the rights of end users regarding their works and performances continue to obstruct the ongoing development of a digital commons in Canada. Recent initiatives on the part of the Canadian Labour Council leave Trosow encouraged, however, and his piece begins to chart ways forward for similarly promising initiatives to take root not only in Canada, but abroad as well. Matt Stahl then takes us south of the border to California to examine what has quickly become the new normal for contracts in the music industry, the 360 degree deal, which delimits musician agency even more completely than the contractual arrangements that preceded it. With the new realities of the 360 degree deal in mind, Stahl argues that instances of the Marxian concept of primitive accumulation remain alive and well inside the post-Fordist moment. Indeed, despite the ongoing ephemeralization of music under digital conditions of production and distribution, ‘the impetus of cultural industry enterprise toward the intensification of long term capture and control of ‘golden-egg’ laying talent appears not to disappear’. Instead it appears merely ‘to change form and venue’.

In the following section, contributors trace both changes and continuities in the digital workplace by providing a look inside management systems for digital workplaces (Michael McNally) and web site design (Helen Kennedy). While McNally critically interrogates the ways in which Enterprise Content Management Systems monitor and deskill workers by subjecting their labour to ever-more minute processes and procedures, Kennedy examines the ways that web site designers are effectively selfmanaging the regulation of standards and accessibility within their profession. This selfmanagement, Kennedy warns, should not be read as yet another symptom of neo-liberal downloading, but, rather, as processes informed by an exemplary desire to address social wrongs by doing good work. Taken together, McNally’s and Kennedy’s essays highlight what remain the ambivalent politics of digital workplaces.

Of course, these politics and the ideologies attached to them reverberate in different ways across different geographic locations. The contributions of Ajit Pyati and Sandra Smeltzer and Daniel Paré highlight and explore the implications of the ideologies of the ‘knowledge economy’ to national development strategies in India and Malaysia.

Smeltzer and Paré revisit the carriage/content distinction as it is iterated and reiterated in Malaysian business and government discourse and reveal the extent to which it has come to function as an ideological buttress for the agendas of each set of elites. Digital labourers working to build venues for value-added work and to enhance civil engagement online are the losers. Pyati likewise cocks an ear to discourses of development and concludes that the neo-liberal tone of much Indian discussion of the ‘knowledge society’ must be countered with a more critical conception of the public, digital and otherwise.

The next set of contributions interrogates, through different theoretical lenses, purported shifts in the very nature of labour and the extraction of value in the digital era. Alison Hearn examines the tensions between individual practices of online ranking and feeding-back and the digital businesses that have arisen to structure these forms of expression into quantifiable information for profit in the form of ‘reputation’. Vincent Manzerolle deploys Smythe’s concept of the audience commodity to trace the ways mobile web-enabled devices turn human communication into work and are, therefore, deeply implicated in the accumulation practices of information capital. Edward Comor engages the contentious term ‘prosumer’ head on, providing a corrective to celebratory claims about the ways in which prosumption will lead to the end of alienation, and carefully parsing the differential effects and benefits of prosumption practices across the still class-stratified working world. Although these papers take different objects as their focus, all explore the ways in which individual creative input, ostensibly ‘freely’ given, is, at best, ambivalently positioned within capitalism; for the vast majority of people these practices remain captive to and conditioned by the perennially exploitative processes of capitalist exchange.

The possibilities and implications of organized resistance to these processes of capitalist capture of human sociality and, indeed, human ‘being’, are taken up in the next group of contributions. Enda Brophy’s examination of forms of resistance in call centers provides us with concrete ways to understand contemporary processes of labour recomposition around the world. Plenary speaker Ursula Huws explores the tensions between individual creative expression and capitalist processes of control in the fields of creative labour in Europe, noting the variable role of unions in either ameliorating or exacerbating the changing conditions of work for their members. Huws notes that, while distinct, both employer and union methods of control create significant obstacles to workers’ attempts at effective strategies of resistance. In the face of these challenges, Nick Dyer-Witheford argues that a nuanced redeployment of Marx’s concept of species-being, or ‘species-becoming’, is necessary. Outlining several central concepts, such as the global worker, bio-communism, and techno-finance, Dyer-Witheford provides an epic and sobering overview of ‘the planet factory’ and the ways humans’ capacity to shape their own evolutionary trajectory are being conditioned and contained by ‘singularity capitalism’. Recently, as Dyer-Witheford writes, ‘the contending potentials of planetary labour under digital conditions have become dramatically visible in the popular revolts sweeping North Africa and the Middle East’, revealing the extent to which resistance to the planet factory must happen collectively, in and through various innovative and cooperative labours – digital and otherwise – if we are to have any hope of survival other than as wired and bioengineered instruments of capital. Our union and guild participants are afforded the last word here. Echoing Dyer- Witheford’s call for innovation and cooperation, both Lise Lareau, President of the Canadian Media Guild, and Mark Bradley, former President of the Minneapolis and St. Paul local of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, suggest that that word is coalition. Lareau stresses the need for action across many guilds and unions if digital media workers of all kinds are to win battles against the layoffs, declining wages and job stress that digitization has provoked. Bradley takes ‘the C word’ even further, suggesting that what is really required is a concomitant consolidation of collective bargaining power in the face of concomitant and ongoing corporate consolidation in the entertainment sector. Until that day arrives, however, cultivating a wider solidarity – inside and outside the business – becomes a necessary daily practice as the industry continues going digital. And yet, this solidarity cannot just be called into being.

Harkening back to issues raised earlier by Trosow, Mike Kraft’s observations remind us that if wider collective actions are ever to be realized, Digital Labour must still reconcile abiding differences between various unions regarding the equitable end uses of intellectual property. Digital production and distribution present a whole new set of challenges for working actors, not least among them the task of convincing the wider world, including many brothers and sisters labouring in other digital precincts, that rights accruing to their performances are justifiably inalienable without their consent.

Finally and not altogether unpredictably, emphases switch from compensation to access when the librarians and the academics weigh in. Melanie Mills lists numerous ways that the lives of academic librarians are getting more complicated and demanding alongside digitalization’s perpetual increase. Moreover, access to varied sources of information is becoming less flexible and open, not to mention more expensive, as librarians struggle to negotiate new terms of practice and price with digital publishers less interested in scholarship than in corporate profits and growth. Paul Jones also considers matters of scholarly communication in the digital era. He concludes in part that the efforts of intellectual workers to halt neo-liberal copyright legislation in Canada – at least to date – constitute an important victory for academic labour. The victory here is in no small part over media and entertainment capital which, we would argue (and as the last Hollywood writers’ strike attests), remains to the most exceptional degree poorly suited to the job of defending the rights of those performing labourers who have historically (if altogether unreasonably) stood to lose from the academy’s gains." (

Recommended Articles

  1. Mobilizing Digital Labour as an Audience Commodity. Vincent Manzerolle.
  2. Digital Prosumption and Alienation‎. Edward Comor.
  3. Digital Reputation Economy‎. Alison Hearn.
  4. Gilbert Simondon and the Hypothesis of Cognitive Capitalism. Emanuele Leonardi.
  5. Labour Theory of Value in Cognitive Capitalism‎‎. Cristina Morini and Andrea Fumagalli. (translated from the Italian by Emanuele Leonardi). Ephemera, special iss...")

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