Digital Labour and Prosumer Capitalism

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* Book: Olivier Frayssé and Mathieu O'Neil (Eds). Digital labour and prosumer capitalism: The US matrix. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015



Frayssé, O. and O’Neil, M.:

"This book originated in an international conference organised by the Work, Culture and Society research centre at Paris Sorbonne University in May 2013 on the theme of the dissemination of what Dan Schiller (1999) has called “digital capitalism”. We were interested in the economic and sociological foundations of the expansion into the work sphere of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). How did ICTs interact, in synergy and conflict, with other social facts? What new types of labour, at work and at home, did ICTs help generate? The globalization of these ICTs and their accompanying practices and discourses also raised the issue of interculturality, as various cultures have become involved in a process of appropriation and modification of the globalized US culture, and we were keen to explore critiques of American exceptionalism in this field. We felt that the factors leading to the emergence in the United States and subsequent global spread of “digital capitalism” had not been sufficiently interrogated. While Schiller identified the political framework and policies that made it possible for major telecommunication firms and hardware and software manufacturers to develop distinct business models and an (allegedly) specific form of capitalism in the United States, the dissemination of ICT-enabled business practices has not received the amount of critical analysis it deserves.

The global dimension of both recreational and professional uses of ICTs makes them look universal and, so to speak, ahistorical. Yet these uses have a precise origin: individuals have elaborated, reoriented, and shared these new techniques in specific places and at identifiable moments. In the area of networked communication and computation for example, engineers and hobbyists (“hackers”) such as Paul Baran, Vint Cerf, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Stallman, Bill Joy, etc., were not only white, male, and middle-class: they were also citizens of the United States of America. Many dimensions of Internet culture are accordingly clearly rooted in North America: the premium placed on freedom of speech; the spirit of association (building grass-roots organizations for every purpose); the ability to connect very rapidly, if not always deeply, with strangers; the enthusiasm of volunteer work; and the new attitudes towards production and consumption that emerged in the 1960s. Moreover, the growing adoption of ICTs, and of the Internet, goes hand in hand with deep changes in labour markets such as flexibility, cost-cutting, casualization of work, and deregulation, which ICTs have contributed to amplify, a phenomenon once again largely originating in the US. The United States has continued to play a major role in the development and spread of ICTs, while the extension of the global mediasphere has been accompanied by a corresponding extension of the anglosphere.

One of this book’s aims is thus to reterritorialize issues that have been globalized. This does not mean ignoring the evolution of the Internet away from its original US location. Things have changed since 1998, when most commercial domain names were located in the US, and with themajority of those being concentrated in midtown Manhattan and North-East San Francisco (Zook, 2005: 32). Nor do we disagree with the necessity of “rethinking the Internet as international” (Goggin and McLelland, 2009: 4). But a first step towards a true understanding of the globalization of any phenomenon is a relocalization, designed to identify the historical and geographical conditions of possibility of its birth and growth. If “digital capitalism” was born in the USA, does this matter at all? We think so.


This collection features work by some of the leading theorists of value and labour in the digital age. Ursula Huws focuses on the regulatory environment, Eran Fisher detects a trade-off between increases in exploitation and decreases in alienation, Johan Söderberg is attentive to the subversive potential of the rejection of property rights and Vincent Mosco points to the next stage in digital labour, cloud working.'


"The first two chapters provide a historical overview of the context from which digital labour and prosumption emerged. The introductory chapter, “Setting the Standards: the USA and Capitalism in the Digital Age”, by Ursula Huws, points to several key aspects of US influence over the current global economy, emphasising the setting of standards for ICTs in what she calls the Digital Age of capitalism: from ISO standards and the original technical standards developed to make the Internet possible, to those applicable to massive online open courses (MOOCS), to global certification processes by Microsoft or Cisco, or the use of global English, the US has been fashioning the global digital economy. At the same time, the very success of the global standardization effort brings new life to one of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, classically identified by Marx, between the international nature of production and national boundaries.

It thus raises the question: “in creating the behemoth that is the global digital economy, has capitalism finally also created the means of its own dissolution?”

The second chapter, “How the Counterculture Redefined Work for the Age of the Internet”, examines the cultural dimension of the diffusion of ICTs. The type of US soft power that was disseminated along with the growth of digital capitalism has its roots in the 1960s counterculture. Olivier Frayssé examines how the counterculture was essentially a rebellion against Fordism: in the countercultural project, mass production by robotized workers would be replaced by customized artisan productions; culture was to be made, not consumed; couch potatoes staring at their TV screens would be replaced by active content producers, passive consumers by prosumers; the notion of work itself was to be reinvented. Because of its anti-Fordist origins, participants in the counterculture could adapt to, and inform the post-Fordist labour regime. Prosumers primarily produce services, as noted by the Tofflers (2006), whose experience as labour union activists helped them identify the gimmicks designed to entice consumers to work for free for retailers.

In the third chapter, “The Costs of Paying, or Three Histories of Swiping”, Michael Palm employs a simple but efficient methodological approach: “The question of what is new about any technology should always be accompanied by the question, what isn’t?” In the tradition of historians of technology such as David Noble, Palm revisits the major technological changes mainly pioneered in the US, by pursuing three threads: the self-service concept, starting with supermarkets during the Great Depression and now the norm on the Internet; the telephone interface, from the automation of switchboards to the omnipresence of keypads, with the touch-tone keypad (rolled out by AT&T in 1963), or the touch screen swiping “revolution” (introduced on Apple’s iPhone in 2007); and the evolution of Transaction Technology from the cash register to the “Chase Paymentech Future Proof terminal”.

In chapter four, “Work and Prosumerism: Collaborative Consumption in the United States”, Marie-Christine Pauwels discusses peer-to-peer platforms such a as Airbnb or Zipcar, where participants exchange and share goods and services in what is now branded as the “sharing economy”. Collaborative consumption is based on the premise that access is more important than ownership. These practices are heralded as a revolutionary business model that will deeply transform work and consumption patterns. Pauwels shows that behind the empowerment rhetoric and flowery discourse on the brave new world of digital entrepreneurialism lie power struggles, complex labour issues, and a subtle reinterpretation of our identities as workers and as consumers.

In the fifth chapter, “The Moral Technical Imaginaries of Internet Convergence in an American Television Network” Adam Fish examines a similar process of disenchantment at work in the television industry in the United States. The development of “convergence” between online and offline media provoked the rise of a new discourse about participatory democracy as well as the hopes for lucrative business opportunities in the form of viewer-created content. Fish employs the concept of “moral technical imaginary”, defined as the simultaneity of technical, moral, and social orderings. He populates it with ethnographic and historical detail, including data gathered during six years of participant observation, interviews, and employment with Current TV, an American-based television news network co-founded by Al Gore to democratize television production. Popular empowerment designed to diversify (in the Jeffersonian tradition) the hegemonic public sphere ended up producing a commercial format which hyped conventional marketing tools such as “testimonials” and iconic sponsoring.

Producing content is also one of the themes of our sixth chapter, Eve Bantman’s “Marketing Migration in North America: The Business Model of Brokerage in a Networked Age”. In this case study of the interconnection of ICT operations, migration and employment in a US community of expatriates in Merida (Mexico), Bantman explores the relationship between ICTs and transnational real-world movements of labour and capital, stressing the tension between delocalisation and relocalisation. The case study also explores the issues of platform management and control of prosumer input. In chapter seven, “The Dialectics of Prosumption in the Digital Age”, Eran Fisher insists on the specificity of contemporary prosumption: the immateriality and networked aspects of production. Prosumption is understood here as “a new mode of production, which blurs the longstanding distinction between producers and consumers, authors and readers, speakers and audience”. Using examples from the USA, Fisher shows how Web 2.0 makes prosumption an increasingly important source of surplus-value appropriation by capital. He proposes a double dialectical approach, both to the production / consumption relationship and to the exploitation / alienation paradigm.

Immaterial and affective labour are also Thibaut Clément’s focus in chapter eight, “Whistle While you Work: Work, Emotion, and Contests of Authority at the Happiest Place on Earth”. Clément discusses to what extent the expansion of the Disney studio’s narrative and technical know-how into the service industries marks a shift toward a new stage in cognitive capitalism, with economic exchange in the firm’s parks revolving predominantly around the production of desired emotions. This shift comes complete with a new distribution of labour – one that extends to visitors, whose participation fits definitions of “prosumer work” – as well as with new forms of struggle between staff and management. Strategic rewritings of attractions’ storylines occasionally allows employees to expand their roles within the park’s work organization and also highlights the socio -technical nature of narratives in Disney parks. This chapter illuminates the development of work as play-acting and the engineering of emotions. The abundance of instances where individuals accept to work for free by engaging in prosumer work is a puzzling question that the literature mentioned in chapter seven does not completely account for. Chapters Nine and Ten explore the issue from the vantage point of what Adam Arvidsson (2008) calls the “ethical economy”, where workers are not motivated by financial incentives, but by self-fulfilment validated by a community of peers. Interpretations of the relationship of the ethical model to the traditional capitalist model hinge around whether the abjuration of exclusive property rights over what is being produced (the defining characteristic of ethical legal licenses such as the General Public License or certain variants of Creative Commons) is celebrated, denied, or co-opted (O’Neil, 2015).

In chapter nine, “The Coming of Augmented Property: A Constructivist Lesson for the Critics of Intellectual Property”, Johan Söderberg explores one of the reasons why workers in the virtual realm are supposed to work for free: “information exceptionalism”, which sets the production, reproduction and communication of information apart from other products, such as physical or service goods. Söderberg squarely confronts the validity of this exceptionalism, which, being based on the constructed notion of economic scarcity, establishes a distinction between a virtual world where digital commons should be the norm, and a non-virtual world where private property is the only operational paradigm. The scarcity or abundance of any kind of goods, including physical goods, depends on a political choice. Atoms too wants to be free, but, as with information, are everywhere in chains. Private property is not likely to be abolished with 3D printing, but this innovation may lead to a future regime of augmented property and generalised piracy.

In Chapter 10, “Wikipedians on Wage Labour within Peer Production”, Arwid Lund proposes a qualitative case study of the attitude of Swedish Wikipedians towards their activity, as they are confronted with the issue of the use of wage labour inside an ethical project. The chapter provides a point of entry into the question of prosumer subjectivity and enables the author to explore a question whose importance is likely to rise, namely the overlapping of coerced (waged) and volunteer (unwaged) work in hybrid economies. Finally, Vincent Mosco’s conclusion highlights this volume’s contribution to the stud y of digital capitalism and draws our attention to the rise of cloud technology, whereby a few large data centers can meet firms’ ICT needs at lower cost, with less professional personnel. As firms outsource their work to prosumers and their expertise to cloud services, definitions of work, labour and value will increasingly have to be re-defined and re-imagined in order for the seemingly inexorable rise of unpaid work to be made more just, and more sustainable. A discussion of universal income is beyond the scope of this volume, but should be included in future debates. We hope you enjoy reading these chapters and that this book will contribute to a clearer understanding the work and labour issues in the Digital Age of capitalism." (