Framework for Critically Theorising and Analysing Digital Labour
* Essay: Digital Workers of the World Unite! A Framework for Critically Theorising and Analysing Digital Labour. By Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval. Triple C, Vol 12, No 2 (2014)
"The overall task of this paper is to elaborate a typology of the forms of labour that are needed for the production, circulation, and use of digital media. First, we engage with the question what labour is, how it differs from work, which basic dimensions it has and how these dimensions can be used for defining digital labour. Second, we introduce the theoretical notion of the mode of production as analytical tool for conceptualizing digital labour. Modes of production are dialectical units of relations of production and productive forces. Relations of production are the basic social relations that shape the economy. Productive forces are a combination of labour power, objects and instruments of work in a work process, in which new products are created. Third, we have a deeper look at dimensions of the work process and the conditions under which it takes place. We present a typology that identifies dimensions of working conditions. It is a general typology that can be used for the analysis of any production process. Fourth, we apply the typology of working conditions to the realm of digital labour and identify different forms of digital labour and the basic conditions, under which they take place. Finally, we discuss political implications of our analysis and what can be done to overcome bad working conditions that digital workers are facing today."
Digital Work and Digital Labour
Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval:
"The realm of digital media is a specific subsystem of the cultural industries and of cultural labour. Digital labour is a specific form of cultural labour that has to do with the production and productive consumption of digital media. There are other forms of cultural labour that are non-digital. Think for example of a classical music or rock concert. But these forms of live entertainment that are specific types of cultural labour also do not exist independently from the digital realm: Artists publish their recordings in digital format on iTunes, Spotify, and similar online platforms. Fans bring their mobile phones for taking pictures and recording concert excerpts that they share on social media platforms. There is little cultural labour that is fully independent from the digital realm today. The notion of digital work and digital labour wants to signify those forms of cultural labour that contribute to the existence of digital technologies and digital content. It is a specific form of cultural labour.
If culture were merely symbolic, mind, spirit, “immaterial”, superstructural, informational, a world of ideas, then digital labour as expression of culture clearly would exclude the concrete works of mining and hardware assemblage that are required for producing digital media. Williams’ Cultural Materialism, contrary to the position of Cultural Idealism, makes it possible to argue that digital labour includes both the creation of physical products and information that are required for the production and usage of digital technologies. Some digital workers create hardware, others hardware components, minerals, software or content that are all objectified in or the outcome of the application of digital technologies. Some workers, e.g. miners, not just contribute to the emergence of digital media, but to different products. If one knows the mines’ sales, then it is possible to determine to which extent the performed labour is digital or other labour.
In order to illustrate this point that culture is material, we now want return in greater detail to a passage where Marx reflects about the work of making and playing the piano. Marx wrote:
Productive labour is only that which produces capital. Is it not crazy, asks e.g. (or at least something similar) Mr Senior, that the piano maker is a productive worker, but not the piano player, although obviously the piano would be absurd without the piano player? But this is exactly the case. The piano maker reproduces capital; the pianist only exchanges his labour for revenue. But doesn't the pianist produce music and satisfy our musical ear, does he not even to a certain extent produce the latter? He does indeed: his labour produces something; but that does not make it productive labour in the economic sense; no more than the labour of the madman who produces delusions is productive. Labour becomes productive only by producing its own opposite (Marx 1857/58, 305).
Williams remarks that today, other than in Marx’s time, “the production of music (and not just its instruments) is an important branch of capitalist production” (Williams 1977, 93).
If the economy and culture are two separate realms, then building the piano is work and part of the economy and playing it is not work, but culture. Marx leaves however no doubt that playing the piano produces a use-value that satisfies human ears and is therefore a form of work. As a consequence, the production of music must just like the production of the piano be an economic activity. Williams (1977, 94) stresses that cultural materialism means to see the material character of art, ideas, aesthetics and ideology and that when considering piano making and piano playing it is important to discover and describe “relations between all these practices” and to not assume “that only some of them are material”.
Apart from the piano maker and the piano player there is also the composer of music. All three forms of work are needed and necessarily related in order to guarantee the existence of piano music. Fixing one of these three productive activities categorically as culture and excluding the others from it limits the concept of culture and does not see that one cannot exist without the other. Along with this separation come political assessments of the separated entities. A frequent procedure is to include the work of the composer and player and to exclude the work of the piano maker. Cultural elitists then argue that only the composer and player are truly creative, whereas vulgar materialists hold that only the piano maker can be a productive worker because he works with his hands and produces an artefact. Both judgments are isolationist and politically problematic.
Taking the example of piano music and transferring it to digital media, we find correspondences: Just like we find piano makers, music composers and piano players in the music industry, we find labour involved in hardware production (makers), content and software production (composers) and productive users (prosumers, players, play labour) in the world of digital labour. In the realm of digital labour, we have to emphasize that practices are “from the beginning social and material” (Williams 1989, 206).
There is a difference if piano makers, players and music composers do so just as a hobby or for creating commodities that are sold on the market. This distinction can be explored based on Marx’s distinction between work (Werktätigkeit) and labour (Arbeit): Brigitte Weingart (1997) describes the origins of the terms work in English and Arbeit and Werk in German: In German, the word Arbeit comes from the Germanic term arba, which meant slave. The English term work comes from the Middle English term weorc. It was a fusion of the Old English terms wyrcan (creating) and wircan (to affect something). So to work means to create something that brings about some changes in society. Weorc is related to the German terms Werk and werken. Both work in English and Werk in German were derived from the Indo-European term uerg (doing, acting). Werken in German is a term still used today for creating something. Its origins are quite opposed to the origins of the term Arbeit. The result of the process of werken is called Werk. Both werken and Werk have the connotative meaning of being creative. Both terms have an inherent connotation of artistic creation. Arendt (1958, 80f) confirms the etymological distinction between ergazesthai (Greek)/facere, fabricari (Latin)/work (English)/werken (German)/ouvrer (French) and ponein (Greek)/laborare (Latin)/labour (English)/arbeiten (German)/travailler (French).
Raymond Williams (1983, 176–179) argues that the word “labour” comes from the French word labor and the Latin term laborem and appeared in the English language first around 1300. It was associated with hard work, pain and trouble. In the 18th century, it would have attained the meaning of work under capitalist conditions that stands in a class relationship with capital. The term “work” comes from the Old English word weorc and is the “most general word for doing something” (ibid, 334). In capitalism the term on the one hand has, according to Williams (ibid, 334–337), acquired the same meaning as labour—a paid job—but would have in contrast also kept its original broader meaning. In order to be able to differentiate the dual historical and essential character of work, it is feasible to make a semantic differentiation between labour and work.
The meaning and usage of words develops historically and may reflect the structures and changes of society, culture and the economy. Given that we find an etymological distinction between the general aspects of productive human activities and the specific characteristics that reflect the realities of class societies, it makes sense to categorically distinguish between the anthropological dimension of human creative and productive activities that result in use-values that satisfy human needs and the historical dimension that describes how these activities are embedded into class relations (Fuchs 2014a).
Human subjects have labour power. Their labour in the work process interacts with the means of production (object). The means of production consist of the object of labour (resources, raw materials) and the instruments of labour (technology). In the work process, humans transform an object (nature, culture) by making use of their labour power with the help of instruments of labour. The result is a product that unites the objectified labour of the subject with the objective materials s/he works on. Work becomes objectified in a product and the object is as a result transformed into a use value that serves human needs. The productive forces are a system, in which subjective productive forces (human labour power) make use of technical productive forces (part of the objective productive forces) in order to transform parts of the nature/culture so that a product emerges.
The general work process is an anthropological model of work under all historical conditions. The connection of the human subject to other subjects in figure 4 indicates that work is normally not conducted individually, but in relations with others. A society could hardly exist based on isolated people trying to sustain themselves independently. It requires economic relations in the form of co-operation and a social organization of production, distribution and consumption. This means that work takes place under specific historical social relations of production. There are different possibilities for the organization of the relations of production. In general the term labour points towards the organization of labour under class relations, i.e. power relationships that determine that any or some of the elements in the work process are not controlled by the workers themselves, but by a group of economic controllers. Labour designates specific organization forms of work, in which the human subject does not control his/her labour power (she is compelled to work for others) and/or there is a lack of control of the objects of labour and/or the instruments of labour and/or the products of labour.
Karl Marx pinpoints this lack of control by the term alienation and understands the unity of these forms of alienation as exploitation of labour: “The material on which it [labour] works is alien material; the instrument is likewise an alien instrument; its labour appears as a mere accessory to their substance and hence objectifies itself in things not belonging to it. Indeed, living labour itself appears as alien vis-à-vis living labour capacity, whose labour it is, whose own life’s expression it is, for it has been surrendered to capital in exchange for objectified labour, for the product of labour itself. […] labour capacity’s own labour is as alien to it – and it really is, as regards its direction etc.—as are material and instrument. Which is why the product then appears to it as a combination of alien material, alien instrument and alien labour—as alien property” (Marx 1857/58, 462).
Given these preliminary assumptions about the work-labour distinction and cultural materialism, one can provide a definition of digital work and digital labour:
Digital work is a specific form of work that makes use of the body, mind or machines or a combination of all or some of these elements as an instrument of work in order to organize nature, resources extracted from nature, or culture and human experiences, in such a way that digital media are produced and used. The products of digital work are depending on the type of work: minerals, components, digital media tools or digitally mediated symbolic representations, social relations, artefacts, social systems and communities. Digital work includes all activities that create use-values that are objectified in digital media technologies, contents and products generated by applying digital media” (Fuchs 2014a, 352).
Digital labour is alienated digital work: it is alienated from itself, from the instruments and objects of labour and from the products of labour. Alienation is alienation of the subject from itself (labour-power is put to use for and is controlled by capital), alienation from the object (the objects of labour and the instruments of labour) and the subject-object (the products of labour). Digital work and digital labour are broad categories that involve all activities in the production of digital media technologies and contents. This means that in the capitalist media industry, different forms of alienation and exploitation can be encountered. Examples are slave workers in mineral extraction, Taylorist hardware assemblers, software engineers, professional online content creators (e.g. online journalists), call centre agents and social media prosumers” (Fuchs 2014a, 351f).
Work and labour are not isolated individual activities, but take place as part of social relations and larger modes of how the economy is organised. The concepts of digital work and digital labour need therefore to be related to a concept that can describe the organisational structure of the economy. One such concept is Marx’s notion of the mode of production." (http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/549/605)
Digital Labour and Modes of Production
Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval:
"Michael Porter (1985) introduced the notion of the value chain that he defined as “a collection of activities that are performed to design, produce, market, deliver and support its product” (Porter 1985, 36). The term value chain has become a popular category for analysing the organisation of capital, which is indicated by the circumstance that 11 682 articles indexed in the academic database Business Source Premier use the term in their abstract (accessed on May 21, 2013). The term has also been used in mainstream media economics for analysing the value chains of traditional media and ICTs (see Zerdick et al. 2000, 126-135). The problem of the mainstream use of the concept of the value chain is that it focuses on the stages in commodity production and tends to neglect aspects of working conditions and class relations. Also critical scholars have used the notion of the global value chain (see for example: Huws 2008, Huws and Dahlmann 2010).
An alternative concept that was introduced by critical studies is the notion of the new international division of labour (NIDL):
The development of the world economy has increasingly created conditions (forcing the development of the new international division of labour) in which the survival of more and more companies can only be assured through the relocation of production to new industrial sites, where labour-power is cheap to buy, abundant and well-disciplined; in short, through the transnational reorganization of production (Fröbel, Heinrichs and Kreye 1981, 15).
A further development is that “commodity production is being increasingly subdivided into fragments which can be assigned to whichever part of the world can provide the most profitable combination of capital and labour” (Fröbel, Heinrichs and Kreye 1981, 14). In critical media and cultural studies, Miller et al. (2004) have used this concept for explaining the international division of cultural labour (NICL). The concept of the NIDL has the advantage that it stresses the class relationship between capital and labour and how in processes of class struggle capital tries to increase profits by decreasing its overall wage costs via the global diffusion of the production process. It is also a concept that encompasses workers’ struggles against the negative effects of capitalist restructuring.
The approach taken in this paper stands in the Marxist tradition that stresses class contradictions in the analysis of globalisation. It explores how the notion of the mode of production can be connected to the concept of the new international division of labour. The notion of the mode of production stresses a dialectical interconnection of on the one hand class relationships (relations of production) and on the other hand the forms of organisation of capital, labour and technology (productive forces). The class relationship is a social relationship that determines who owns private property and has the power to make others produce surplus-value that they do not own and that is appropriated by private property owners. Class relationships involve an owning class and a non-owing class: the non-owning class is compelled to produce surplus value that is appropriated by the owning class.
The relations of production determine the property relations (who owns which share (full, some, none) of labour power, the means of production, products of labour), the mode of allocation and distribution of goods, the mode of coercion used for defending property relations and the division of labour. Class relationships are forms of organization of the relations of production, in which a dominant class controls the modes of ownership, distribution and coercion for exploiting a subordinated class. In a classless society human control ownership and distribution in common.
Every economy produces a certain amount of goods per year. Specific resources are invested and there is a specific output. If there is no contraction of the economy due to a crisis, then a surplus product is created, i.e. an excess over the initial resources. The property relations determine who owns the economy’s initial resources and surplus. Table 2 (see further below) distinguishes modes of production (patriarchy, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, communism) based on various modes of ownership, i.e. property relations.
The mode of allocation and distribution defines how products are distributed and allocated: In a communist society, each person gets whatever s/he requires to survive and satisfy human needs. In class societies, distribution is organized in the form of exchange: exchange means that one product is exchanged for another. If you have nothing to exchange because you own nothing, then you cannot get hold of other goods and services, except those that are not exchanged, but provided for free. There are different forms how exchange can be organized: general exchange, exchange for exchange-value (x commodity A = y commodity B), exchange for maximum exchange-value, exchange for capital accumulation.
The mode of coercion takes on the form of physical violence (overseers, security forces, military), structural violence (markets, institutionalised wage labour contracts, legal protection of private property, etc) and cultural violence (ideologies that present the existing order as the best possible or only possible order and try to defer the causes of societal problems by scapegoating). In a free society no mode of coercion is needed.
The division of labour defines who conducts which activities in the household, the economy, politics and culture. Historically there has been a gender division of labour, a division between mental and physical work, a division into many different functions conducted by specialists and an international division of labour that is due to the globalization of production. Marx in contrast imagined a society of generalists that overcomes the divisions of labour so that society is based on well-rounded universally active humans (Marx 1867, 334-335). Marx (1857/58, 238) says that in class society “labour will create alien property and property will command alien labour”. The historical alternative is a communist society and mode of production, in which class relationships are dissolved and the surplus product and private property are owned and controlled in common.
The relations of production are dialectically connected to the system of the productive forces (see figure 3 in section 1 of this paper): human subjects have labour power that in the labour process interacts with the means of production (object). The means of production consist of the object of labour (natural resources, raw materials) and the instruments of labour (technology). In the labour process, humans transform the object of labour (nature, culture) by making use of their labour power with the help of instruments of labour. The result is a product of labour, which is a Hegelian subject-object, or, as Marx says, a product, in which labour has become bound up in its object: labour is objectified in the product and the object is as a result transformed into a use value that serves human needs. The productive forces are a system, in which subjective productive forces (human labour power) make use of technical productive forces (part of the objective productive forces) in order to transform parts of the natural productive forces (which are also part of the objective productive forces) so that a labour product emerges. One goal of the development of the system of productive forces is to increase the productivity of labour, i.e. the output (amount of products) that labour generates per unit of time. Marx (1867, 431) spoke in this context of the development of the productive forces. Another goal of the development of the productive forces can be the enhancement of human self-development by reducing necessary labour time and hard work (toil).
In Capital, Marx (1867) makes a threefold distinction between labour-power, the object of labour and the instruments of labour: “The simple elements of the labour process are (1) purposeful activity, (2) the object on which that work is performed, and (3) the instruments of that work” (284). Marx’s discussion of the production process can be presented in a systematic way by using Hegel’s concept of the dialectic of subject and object. Hegel (1991) has spoken of a dialectical relation of subject and object: the existence of a producing subject is based on an external objective environment that enables and constrains (i.e. conditions) human existence. Human activities can transform the external (social, cultural, economic, political, natural) environment. As a result of the interaction of subject and object, new reality is created—Hegel terms the result of this interaction “subject-object”. Figure 5 shows that Hegel’s notion of subject, object, and subject-object form a dialectical triangle.
Hegel (1991) characterizes the “subjective concept” as formal notion (§162), a finite determination of understanding a general notion (§162), “altogether concrete” (§164). He defines “the subject” as “the posited unseparatedness of the moments in their distinction” (§164). Hegel characterizes objectivity as totality (§193),“external objectivity”(§208),“external to an other” (§193),“the objective world in general” that “falls apart inwardly into [an] undetermined manifoldness” (§193), “immediate being” (§194), “indifference vis-à-vis the distinction” (§194), “realisation of purpose” (§194), “purposive activity” (§206) and “the means” (§206).The Idea is “the Subject-Object” (§162), absolute Truth (§162), the unity of the subjective and the objective (§212), “the absolute unity of Concept and objectivity” (§213), “the Subject-Object” understood as “the unity of the ideal and the real, of the finite and the infinite, of the soul and the body” (§214). Hegel also says that the “Idea is essentially process” (§215). Marx applied Hegel’s dialectic of subject and object on a more concrete level to the economy in order to explain how the process of economic production works as an interconnection of a subject (labour power) and an object (objects and instruments) so that a subject-object (product) emerges (see figure 6).
The instruments of work can be the human brain and body, mechanical tools and complex machine systems. They also include specific organizations of space-time, i.e. locations of production that are operated at specific time periods. The most important aspect of time is the necessary work time that depends on the level of productivity. It is the work time that is needed per year for guaranteeing the survival of a society. The objects and products of work can be natural, industrial or informational resources or a combination thereof.
The productive forces are a system of production that creates use-values. There are different modes of organization of the productive forces, such as agricultural productive forces, industrial productive forces and informational productive forces.
Classical slavery, serfdom and wage labour are three important historical forms of class relations that are at the heart of specific modes of production (Engels 1884). Marx and Engels argue that private property and slavery have their origin in the family: The first historical form of private property can be found in the patriarchal family (Marx and Engels 1845/46, 52). The family is a mode of production, in which labour power is no commodity, but organised by personal and emotional relationships that result in commitment that includes family work that is unremunerated and produces affects, social relations and the reproduction of the human mind and body. It can therefore also be called reproductive work.
A wage worker’s labour power has a price, its wage, whereas a slave’s labour power does not have a price—it is not a commodity. However, the slave him-/herself has a price, which means that its entire human body and mind can be sold as a commodity from one slave owner to another, who then commands the entire life time of the slave (Marx, 1857/58: 288–289). The slave in both ancient slavery and feudalism is treated like a thing and has the status of a thing (Marx 1857/58, 464–465).
In the Grundrisse’s section “Forms which precede capitalist production“ (Marx 1857/58, 471–514) as well as in the German Ideology’s section “Feuerbach: Opposition of the materialist and idealist outlooks“ (Marx and Engels 1845/46), Marx discusses the following modes of production:
- The tribal community based on the patriarchal family;
- Ancient communal property in cities (Rome, Greece);
- Feudal production in the countryside;
But how are modes of production related to each other? In a historical way, where they supersede each other, or in a historical-logical way within a specific social formation that sublates older formations but encompasses older modes of production into itself? Jairus Banaji (2011) argues that Stalinism and vulgar Marxism have conceptualised the notion of the mode of production based on the assumption that a specific mode contains only one specific historical form of labour and surplus-value appropriation and eliminates previous modes so that history develops in the form of a linear evolution: slavery à feudalism à capitalism à communism. So for example Althusser and Balibar (1970) argue that the historical development of society is non-dialectical and does not involve sublations, but rather transitions “from one mode of production to another” (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 307) so that one mode succeeds the other. This concept of history is one of the reasons why E.P. Thompson (1978, 131) has characterized Althusser’s approach as “Stalinism at the level of theory”. The Stalinist “metaphysical-scholastic formalism” (Banaji 2011, 61) has been reproduced in liberal theory’s assumption that there is an evolutionary historical development from the agricultural society to the industrial society to the information society so that each stage eliminates the previous one (as argued by: Bell 1974; Toffler 1980), which shows that in the realm of theory some liberals of today share in their theory elements of Stalinism. According to Banaji, capitalism often intensified feudal or semi feudal production relations. In parts of Europe and outside, feudalism would have only developed as a “commodity-producing enterprise” (Banaji 2011, 88). In the Islamic world capitalism would have developed without slavery and feudalism (Banaji 2011, 6).
Banaji advances in contrast to formalist interpretations a complex reading of Marx’s theory, in which a mode of production is “capable of subsuming often much earlier forms” (Banaji 2011, 1), “similar forms of labour-use can be found in very different modes of production” (6), capitalism is “working through a multiplicity of forms of exploitation” (145) and is a combined form of development (358) that integrates “diverse forms of exploitation and ways of organising labour in its drive to produce surplus value” (359).
A mode of production is a unity of productive forces and relations of production (Marx and Engels 1845/46, 91). If these modes are based on classes as their relations of production, then they have specific contradictions that can via class struggles result in the sublation (Aufhebung) of one mode of production and the emergence of a new one. The emergence of a new mode of production does not necessarily abolish, but rather sublate (aufheben) older modes of production. This means that history is for Marx a dialectical process precisely in Hegel’s threefold meaning of the term Aufhebung (sublation): 1) uplifting, 2) elimination, 3) preservation: 1) There are new qualities of the economy, 2) the dominance of an older mode of production vanishes, 3) but this older mode continues to exist in the new mode in a specific form and relation to the new mode. The rise of e.g. capitalism however did not bring an end to patriarchy, but the latter continued to exist in such a way that a specific household economy emerged that fulfils the role of the reproduction of modern labour power. A sublation can be more or less fundamental. A transition from capitalism to communism requires a fundamental elimination of capitalism, the question is however if this is immediately possible. Elimination and preservation can take place to differing degrees. A sublation is also no linear progression. It is always possible that relations that resemble earlier modes of organization are created.
Capitalism is at the level of the relations of production organised around relations between capital owners on the one side and paid/unpaid labour and the unemployed on the other side. On the level of the productive forces, it has developed from industrial to informational productive forces. The informational productive forces do not eliminate, but sublate (aufheben) other productive forces (Adorno 1968/2003, Fuchs 2014a, chapter 5): in order for informational products to exist a lot of physical production is needed, which includes agricultural production, mining and industrial production. The emergence of informational capitalism has not virtualised production or made it weightless or immaterial, but is grounded in physical production (Huws 1999, Maxwell and Miller 2012). Whereas capitalism is a mode of production, the terms agricultural society, industrial society and information society characterise specific forms of the organisation of the productive forces (Adorno 1968/2003; Fuchs 2014a, chapter 5).
The new international division of labour (NIDL) organises the labour process in space and time in such a way that specific components of the overall commodity are produced in specific spaces in the global economy and are reassembled in order to form a coherent whole that is sold as a commodity. It thereby can command labour on the whole globe and during the whole day. The approach taken by the authors of this paper advocates a broad understanding of digital labour based on an industry rather than an occupation definition in order to stress the commonality of exploitation, capital as the common enemy of a broad range of workers and the need to globalize and network struggles in order to overcome the rule of capitalism. Some of the workers described in this article are not just exploited by digital media capital, but also and sometimes simultaneously by other forms of capital. It is then a matter of degree to which extent these forms of labour are digital labour and simultaneously other forms of labour. If we imagine a company with job rotation so that each worker on average assembles laptops for 50% of his/her work time and cars for the other half of the time, a worker in this factory is a digital worker for 50%. S/he is however an industrial worker for 100% because the content of both manufacturing activities is the industrial assemblage of components into commodities. The different forms of digital labour are connected in an international division of digital labour (IDDL), in which all labour necessary for the existence, usage and application of digital media is “disconnected, isolated […], carried on side by side” and ossified “into a systematic division” (Marx 1867, 456).
Given a model of the mode of production, the question arises how one can best analyze the working conditions in a specific company, industry or sector of the economy when conducting a labour process and class analysis. Which dimensions of labour have to be taken into account in such an analysis?" (http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/549/605)
"In this paper, we have introduced a cultural-materialist approach for theorising digital labour. Many approaches are idealist in that they define concepts such as digital labour, virtual work, online work, cyberwork, immaterial labour, knowledge labour, creative work, cultural labour, communicative labour, information(al) work, digital craft, service work, prosumption, consumption work, audience labour, playbour, etc., only as an externalisation of human ideas that are objectified in contents and thereby neglect that this labour is based on and only possible because there is a global division of labour, in which many different forms of labour are conducted under specific modes of production. We have used Raymond Williams’ framework of cultural materialism for arguing that we should overcome digital idealism and analyse digital labour based the framework of digital materialism.
We have introduced specific concepts for a digital materialist theory of digital labour: cultural work, physical cultural work, information work, modes of production, productive forces, relations of production, digital work, digital labour, physical digital work/labour (agricultural digital work/labour, industrial digital work/labour), informational digital work/labour. Furthermore we have suggested a digital labour analysis toolbox that distinguishes elements of digital labour processes and can be used as framework for the concrete empirical analysis of specific forms of digital work/labour. Conducting such analyses often faces the problem of what the elements of analysis are. We argue for avoiding particularistic analyses that focus only on single elements of single production processes and for conducting holistic analyses that focus on the totality of elements and networks that determine and shape digital labour. The toolkit allows analysing the totality of elements of elements of digital labour processes. Digital labour analysis should also look at how one specific form of digital labour that is analysed is connected to and articulated with other forms of digital labour that express certain organisational forms of the productive forces and the relations of production.
The world of digital media is shaped by a complex global articulation of various modes of production that together constitute the capitalist mode of creating and using digital media. The digital tools that we use for writing, reading, communicating, uploading, browsing, collaborating, chatting, befriending, or liking are embedded into a world of exploitation. Yet most of us cannot and do not want to imagine a world without digital media. So the alternative is not digital Luddism, but political praxis.
Digital labour analysis can only interpret the digital media world; the point is to change it. Change can only be good change if it is informed change. Critical theory can inform potential and actual struggles for a better world. Everyday working realities of different people and in different parts of the world look so heterogeneous, different and unconnected that it is often difficult to see what they have in common. Digital labour theory and digital labour analysis can help to identify and make visible the common and different experiences of suffering and enjoyment, pleasure and pain, security and insecurity, alienation and appropriation, exploitation and resistance, creativity and toil. It is in this respect a digital sociology of critique. But it is at the same time also a political philosophy, a critical digital sociology that helps identifying and clarifying foundations and germ forms of a better future and grounding judgements about what is good and bad in the context of digital media. Digital labour theory and analysis therefore takes on the role of a critical sociology of critique that is both at once a critical sociology and a sociology of critique (Boltanski and Honneth 2009). It analyses the reality of life under digital capitalism, contributes intellectually to questioning this mode of human existence in order to show that there is and to help realise life beyond capitalism."