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From Sharing to Cooperation: Lessons from Mondragón in the “New Economy”

Here is a copy of the talk that I gave at the “First International Conference on the Links between USA and Spain” in April, 2014 at the University of Alcala.  The title of the talk is “From Sharing to Cooperation: Lessons from Mondragón in the ‘New Economy.'”

As you may know, the phrase “the new economy” emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s and it is by no means “new” at this point, but rather points us toward an economy that has decidedly moved from Fordist arrangements of labor and production to what has been referred to as “post-Fordist”, relying on “flexible” or causalized labor and “just in time” production. Within that larger framework of a “new” economy, we have witnessed the rise of what is more specifically called “the sharing economy” and, in this paper, I sketch the terrain of labor, technology, data, and value that this phrase has come to indicate. I do this, however, because I am interested in interrogating the social figure– the private, entrepreneurial individual –that sits at the heart of this emerging economy. I do this because I want to argue that the “sharing economy”, while seemingly rapidly multiplying and spreading across several realms of social life, is an unsustainable and exploitative labor arrangement that privileges the short-term interests of individuals, while simultaneously opening the individual and environments and objects (such as homes) to data extraction and surveillance.

As we will see as I outline this terrain, many seem resigned to this fate of “dataveillance”, while others speak of it as a new, transformative mode (often through the language of disruption and innovation) of social and economic relations that will fundamentally alter how we live. That transformative vision carries with it several social problematics, which I will address. It is, then, within this larger critique that I am making of the sharing economy that I turn to Mondragón to ask about sustainable forms of “sharing.” I turn to Mondragón here to ask the question: How might we move from an extractive “sharing” economy to a form of economy that is truly capable of sustaining communities?

My work here is inspired by a movement, which is taking place in New York called “platform cooperativism.” As Trebor Scholz has written, this movement would bring about “worker–owned cooperatives” that “could design their own apps-based platforms, fostering truly peer-to-peer ways of providing services and things, and speak alternatives to the new platform capitalists.” I will return to Scholz’s notion of platform cooperatives at the end of my talk, but I will also take Mondragón specifically into consideration because I think it offers us a larger vision of what is possible and perhaps helps us to see the social and economic stakes of our current data economy. In this paper I argue we need not only new platforms, but a more fully re-conceptualized sense of what work and labor might be and the social relations such labor might engender.

Let me back up for a minute and sketch out the phrase “sharing economy” so that we have a sense of both what it purports to be and what it relies upon. On the surface, the sharing economy has emerged as a series of platforms that enable individuals to use the Web to provide a variety of services and commodities on a peer-to-peer level. The large players in this economy are currently Airbnb, Uber, TaskRabbit, but there has really been a proliferation of these platforms. Currently, you can find platforms that will allow you to hire an individual to clean your house, conduct domestic repairs, bring you lunch, walk or “borrow” your dog, eat with someone, cook you a meal, find you a parking space, or carpool, baby sit your children and, generally, the business model here is that if something requires “care”, that care can be outsourced, as well as monetized via an informal labor arrangement in which individuals simply accesses a platform to set the terms of demand and supply. This “sharing” economy is often touted as being mutually beneficial to both parties. The person who needs their house cleaned bypasses any middle man and simply hires an individual cleaner for a few hours and the individual cleaner, it is assumed, voluntarily and knowingly enters into this arrangement because this allows them to work “flexibly” and “on their own terms.” Here, managers and bosses are replaced with what seems to be no one, except of course those developing and designing the platform code and analyzing its quite valuable data. The data element here, of course, is designed to remain faceless, as though sharing economy platforms simply emerge out of the good will of well-meaning entrepreneurs who see an opportunity to “connect” people or resources.

This hidden world of code and algorithmic labor is what Frank Pasquale refers to a “black box society” or a society in which the very algorithms that come to shape and inform our lives are obscured from us. This phrase should be immediately resonate with anyone who has recently used the Internet, particularly a service like Amazon. Amazon exists as set of conveniences, acquiring data from our every click, yet we have no access to the code the set those preferences, nor do we have access to the ways in which our data is analyzed, shared, or sold. Perhaps even more troubling, we might not even see this as a problem or believe that we have a right to that information or computational process.

While the sharing economy has often been touted as a new mode of living in which people empower themselves through participating in this new, digitally mediated (seemingly ephemeral) project of crowdsourcing, I would argue that the sharing economy is actually predicated on creating new terrains of rent and that participation here—the very peer-to-peer collaboration and that supposedly leads to greater choice and flexibility—is dependent, first and foremost, on having something to “share” or what we might think of as “something that can be offered up to the digital platform, or something that can be made data-ful.” That something can be a home, a car, pets, time, talents, attention and individuals are often invited to share through the most practical of all invitations—the creation of passive income, or rent. Guy Standing writes, “Rental income enables people to make money simply through the possession of scarce assets. Sometimes assets may be ‘naturally’ scarce: if fertile land is owned by a few landlords, they need not work themselves but can rent it out to others for a high price. This income is rent, not profits from a productive activity, as the landlords do nothing to earn it aside from owning the land.”

And, whether you are renting your home out or you are picking up odd jobs through Uber or TaskRabbit, the social figure of this economy is that of the enterprising, entrepreneurial individual. The rhetoric of the sharing economy has actually been quite good as democratizing this figure— We can all be entrepreneurs of our selves or what Foucault referred to as “homo economicus.” Here, production and consumption tend to collapse into one another as though this could “do away with” the messy world of work labor. However, this social figure, I would argue, should actually be thought of as the PR wing of a very powerful anti-labor lobby, which has much more to do with restructuring the nature of various legislations and regulations (and yet, in a sort of classic neoliberal move, extend the nature of governance.) As you may know, platforms such as Uber and Airbnb have been very vocal in “disrupting” local regulatory systems. In December of 2014, a Spanish judge, following a complaint by the Madrid Taxi Association, ruled that Uber drivers didn’t have official authorization and accused the service of “unfair competition.” On the same day, judges in The Netherlands banned UberPop ride-sharing service, which was launched as a pilot project in Amsterdam, with the Hague-based Trade and Industry Appeals Tribunal reporting, “Drivers who transport people for payment without a license are breaking the law.” These companies, however, often argue that they should be exempt from existing regulations because their services are ordered over the Web and therefore not subject to “local” regulation.

Indeed, we can see the “sharing economy” and its rhetoric of individualism as one wing of a much larger fight against labor, labor law, and labor’s rights to organize. In many ways, the sharing economy is simply a continuation of a much longer, historical assault against organized labor globally and we would be remiss if we did not recognize the global aspirations here. The sharing economy is a social form that is emerging in tandem with what anthropologist Julian Brash refers to as a new form of a capitalist class—that of the transnational capitalist (or the TCC.) This is not simply a professional managerial class that we saw rise in the 1980s and 1990s, but is a global, mobile strata that takes the world, particularly as we see in the work of David Harvey and Saskia Sassen, urban cities, as spaces of necessary investment and capture. And, of course, the flip side of this global aspirational class is the extension of massive income inequality and dispossession lived out through a wide range of social processes including gentrification, but also the casualization of work and the making of microforms of work, work that purposefully will no longer be recognized, formally, as work.

This is the really the goal of Uber, which refuses to see itself as an employer. Rather, it claims it is simply a “tech company.” Those who take up the platform to either seek the services or to rent out their services (and property such as their own car) are required also to take on the risk of the company. In this way, the sharing economy is as much about the degradation of labor as it is about “connecting” individuals to one another.

Indeed, there is much we could talk about here in terms of the future of work, but for the remainder of my time I would like to take up the claim that Dean Baker recently made, which is that “rather than try to squash sharing-economy companies, which would almost certainly not be possible, in any case, a far better strategy for progressives is to take advantage of the innovations they offer and restructure them in ways that ensure that the public and service providers all benefit. This can be done, if we are prepared to try some new tactics.”

Here, is where I would like to shift gears and argue that these lessons can indeed come from Mondragón. While there is again much we can talk about here, I would like to focus on four specific lessons that Mondragón—the world’s largest worker cooperative— offers the discussion of the sharing economy. Those lessons are what am I labeling 1.) A pragmatic ideal 2.) Social investment 3.) Equilibrio or the blending of entrepreneurship and community care 4.) and the role that education together with technology must play in charting a course out of the exploitation of the data economy. Let me simply turn to each of these lessons.

Pragmatic ideal: The first lesson that Mondragón offers is a quite an idealistic one, but something that must be reiterated: The future of labor is not written. As Trebor Scholz has written, “there is no one future of labor” and despite the rambunctious rhetoric of the digital economy and its algorithmic wisdom, which at turns threatens to both put us all out of work, as well as automate fully the very nature of work, it is essential that we realize another way forward is possible—a way that places humans back at the heart of the economy. More and more this simple injunction to the social imaginary feels like a radical act, as though we forget that humans code and create algorithms. They are not gods nor are they pre-determined and that there is no reason (aside from very powerful political interests) that these incredible technologies cannot be put toward new and better ends. In this regard, the history of Mondragón, with its birth in both the exclusion of Fascism and the insights of what seems to be a rather charismatic figure of Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, is actually a testament to the ability of humans to find a path forward for communities within dire conditions.

Social Investment: While mentions of Mondragón often bring objections that the very specific political, economic, cultural and religious conditions of Mondragón’s establishment make it an unreplicable model, these arguments were already discredited in 1975 by the sociologist William Foote Whyte who argued that while we must be close students of history there is much to be learned from the organizational lessons of Mondragón, specifically the ways in which banking, education, and technology were understood as fundamental to the success of the endeavor. In the words of Arizmendiarrieta, “cooperativism without the structural capacity to attract capital and assimilate capital at the level of the requirements of industrial productivity is but a temporary solution” and it is here that I want to argue that Mondragón, in its slow, deliberate process of making what I call a “social choice” to build the underlying institutions which would then support a cooperative social organization offer us one of its strongest lessons. As Roy Morrison has suggested in his social history of Mondragón, the project was nothing less than a deliberate attempt to produce a new social reality through investment and through a restructuring of the financial and technological supports that give rise to an ecology of cooperatives. In a time when venture capital rules the terms of development, such a restructuring of the flows of capital is essential. As I will argue in the conclusion of the paper, that social choice needs to be fully contemplated, specifically when we begin to think about the future of those who code and the role that education can play.

Equilibrio: From Entrepreneurialism to Community: The third lesson that Mondragón offers is the realization that the language of entrepreneurialism need not be solely the purview of the individual, but rather can be modulated to reflect a larger concern with community, the environment, and the future. As Foucault has so articulately shown us, neoliberalism’s insistence that the entrepreneurial self come to stand in for an ethical mode of living has been embraced as a fait accompli, as a sort of bottom line subjectivity for bottom line thinking. Mondragón stands as a testament that participation in the market can be put toward a greater good and that the process of seeking equilibrio can be a collective ethical practice, capable of producing substantive resources for more than a single person.

The role of education: Finally, and perhaps to me the most interesting lesson that Mondragón offers is the role that education, the university, and technology must play in the development of cooperative institutions. The example of Mondragón forces us to consider two interwoven — and deeply political — societal goals of education. These goals are to create an informed citizenry and to develop the skills for a workforce, which as we know is a workforce being put out of work. We have, at least in the United States, been very eager to adopt technology as means of “solving educational” problems, yet we do this with technology and code and data that students (and faculty) rarely see or touch. Mondragón offers the example that students must become producers of both the technologies and the modes of investment that guide the development of these technologies. If there is any hope to build a sustainable future of equitable resource distribution is lies in unveiling the contemporary economic moment to students AND equipping them with the technological skills to rebuild. It also will require providing models such as Mondragón, which can provide a new blueprint for economic organization and social and cultural existence.







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This is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I thought I would offer a preliminary definition of a word that I made up after reading Randy Martin’s Financialization of Everyday Life. The word came up again today, after a Twitter exchange with Audrey Watters, Bon Stewart, and Tressie McMillan Cottom about Pearson’s abysmal delivery of the GED, which requires individuals to pay for sample tests with a credit card.

Creditonormativity: Asserts that participation in the credit system of finance is the norm and is therefore the only and expected financial orientation. This orientation is then used to legitimate participation in a range of otherwise exclusionary social exchanges and relations. A creditonormative society is compulsory and involves the alignment of body, mind, and wallet with the biopolitical governance of financialization.

“You don’t have a credit card?”
“You have to have a credit card.”
“How are you going to rent a car?”
“How are you going to get a cell phone?”
“How are you going to rent an apartment?”
“How are you ever going to buy a house?”
“How are you going to buy a plane ticket?”
“Pay as you go credit cards? No, that’s not what I meant.”
“Your debit card has been declined. Don’t you have another card?”
“Cash. No, we don’t accept cash.”
“How are you going to live without a credit card?”

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Good Wives: Algorithmic Architectures as Metabolization

Below is the text of the talk I gave at Digital Labor: Sweatshops, Picket Lines, and Barricade, which was held in New York last week (November 14th-16th) The title of the talk is “Good Wives: Algorithmic Architectures as Metabolization.”

This talk has a few different starting points, which include a forum I held last March on Angela Mitropoulos’ work Contract and Contagion that explored the expansions and reconfigurations of capital, time, and work through the language of Oikonomics or the “properly productive household”, as well as the work that I was doing with Patricia Clough, Josh Scannell, and Benjamin Haber on a paper called “The Datalogical Turn”, which explores how the coupling of large scale databases and adaptive algorithms “are calling forth a new onto-logic of sociality or the social itself” as well as, I confess, no small share of binge-watching the TV show the Good Wife. So, please bear with me as I take you through my thinking here. What I am trying to do in my work of late is a form of feminist thinking that can take quite seriously not only the onto-sociality of data and the ways in which bodily practices are made to extend far and wide beyond the body, but a form of thinking that can also understand the paradox of our times: How and why has digital abundance been ushered in on the heels of massive income inequality and political dispossession? In some ways, the last part of that sentence (why inequality and political dispossession) is actually easier to account for than understanding the role that such “abundance” has played in the reconfiguration or transfers of wealth and power.

So, let me back up her for a minute… Already in 1992, Deleuze wrote that a disciplinary society had give way to a control society. Writing, “we are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family” and that “everyone knows that these institutions are finished, whatever the length of their expiration periods. It’s only a matter of administering their last rites and of keeping people employed until the installation of the new forces knocking at the door. These are the societies of control, which are in the process of replacing the disciplinary societies.” For Deleuze, whereas the disciplinary man was a “discontinuous producer of energy, the man of control is undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network.” For such a human, Deleuze wrote, “surfing” has “replaced older sports.”

We know, despite Marx’s theorization of “dead labor”, that digital, networked infrastructures have been active, even “vital”, agents of this shift from discipline to control or the shift from a capitalism of production and property to a capitalism of dispersion, a capitalism fit for circulation, relay, response, and feedback. As Deleuze writes, this is a capitalism fit for a “higher order” of production. I want to intentionally play on the words “higher word”, with their invocations of a religiosity, faith, and hierarchy, because much of our theoretical work of late has been specifically developed to help us understand the ways in which such a “higher order” has been very successful in affectively reconfiguring and reformatting bodies and environments for its own purposes. We talk often of the modulation, pre-emption, extraction, and subsumption of elements once thought to be “immaterial” or spiritual, if you will, the some-“things” that lacked a full instantiation in the material world. I do understand that I am twisting Deleuze’s words here a bit (what he meant in the Postscript was a form of production that we now think as flexible production, production on demand, or JIT production), but my thinking here is that very notion of a higher order, a form of production considered progress in itself, has been very good at making us pray toward the light and at replacing the audial sensations of the church bell/factory clock with the blinding temporality of the speed of light itself. This blinding speed of light is related to what Marx called “circulation time,” or the annihilation of space through time, and it is this black hole of capital, this higher order of production and the ways in which we have theorized its metaphysics, which I want to argue, have become the Via Negativa to a Capital that transcends thought. What I mean here is that this form of theorizing has really left us with a capital beyond reproach, a capital reinstated in and through the effects of what it is not—it is not a wage, it is not found in commodities, it is not ultimately a substance humans have access or rights to…

In such a rapture of the higher order of the light, there has been a tendency to look away from concepts such as “foundations” or “limits” or quaint theories of units such as the “household”, but in Angela Mitropoulos’ work Contract and Contagion we find those concepts as the heart of her reading of the collapse of the time of work into that of life. For Mitropoulos, it is through the performativity and probalistic terms of “the contract” (and not simply the contract of liberal sociality, but a contract as a terms of agreement to the “right” genealogical transfer of wealth) that we should visualize the flights of capital. This broadened notion of the contract is a necessary term for fully grasping what is being brought into being on the heels of “the datalogical turn.”

For Mitropoulos, it is the contract, which she links to the oath, the promise, the covenant, the bargain, and even faith in general, that “transforms contingency into necessity.” Contracts’ “ensuing contractualism” has been “amplified as an ontological precept.” Here, contract is fundamentally a precept that transforms life into a game (and I don’t mean simply game-ifyed, but obviously we could talk about what gameification means for our sense of what is implied in contractual relations. Liberal contracts have tended to evoke their authority from the notion of autonomous and rational subjects—this is not exactly the same subject being invoked when you’re prompted to like every picture of a cat on the internet or have your attention directed to tiny little numbers in the corner of screen to see who faved your post, although those Facebook numbers are micro-contracts. One’s you haven’t signed up for exactly.) For Mitropoulos, it is not just that contracts transform life into contingency; it is that they transform life into a game that must be played out of necessity. Taking up Pascal’s wager Mitropoulos writes,

the materiality of contractualism is that of a performativity installed by its presumption of the inexorable necessity of contingency; a presumption established by what I refer to here as the Pascalian premise that one must ‘play the game’ necessarily, that this is the only game available. This invalidates all idealist explanations of contract, including those which echo contractualism’s voluntarism in their understanding of (revolutionary) subjectivity. Performativity is the temporality of contract, and the temporal continuity of capitalism is uncertain.

In other words, one has no choice but to gamble. God either exists or God does not exist. Both may be possible/virtual, but only one will be real/actual and it is via the wager that one must, out of necessity, come to understand God with and through contingency. It is through such wagering that the contract—as a form of measurable risk—comes into being. Measurable risk—measure and risk as entangled in speculation— became, we might say, the Via Affirmativa of early and industrializing capital.

This transmutation of contingency into measure sits not only at the heart the contract, but is as Mitropoulos writes, “crucial to the legitimatized forms of subjectivity and relation that have accompanied the rise and expansion of capitalism across the world.” Yet, in addition to the historical project of situating an authorial, egalitarian, liberal, willful, and autonomous subject as a universal subject, contract is also interested in something that looks much more like geometric, matrixial, spatializing, and impersonal. Contract does not solely care about “subject formation”, but also the development of positions that compose a matrix— so that the matrix is made to be an engine of production and circulation. It is interested in the creation of an infrastructure of contracts, or points of contact that reconfigure a “divine” order in the face of contingency.

The production of such a divine order is what Mitropolous will link back to Oikonomia or the economics of the household, whereby bodies are parsed both spatially and socially into those who may enter into contract and those who may not. While contract becomes increasingly a narrow domain of human relations, Oikonomia is the intentional distribution and classification of bodies—humans, animal, mineral— to ensure the “proper” (i.e. moral, economic, and political) functioning of the household, which functions like molar node within the larger matrix. Given that contingency has been installed as the game that must be played, contract then comes to enforces a chain of being predicated on forms of naturalized servitude and obligation to the game. These are forms of naturalized servitude that are simultaneously built into the architecture of the household, as well as made invisible. As Anne Boyer has written in regard to the Greek household it, probably looked like this:

In the front of the household were the women’s rooms—the gynaikonitis. Behind these were the common areas and the living quarters for the men—the andronitis. It was there one could find the libraries. The men’s area, along with the household, was also wherever was outside of the household—that is, the free man’s area was the oikos and the polis and was the world. The oikos was always at least a double space, and doubly perceived, just as what is outside of it was always a singular territory on which slaves and women trespassed. The singular nature of the outside was enforced by violence or the threat of it. The free men’s home was the women’s factory; also—for women and slaves—their factory was a home on its knees.

This is not simply a division of labor, but as Boyer writes, “God made of women an indoor body, and made of men an outdoor one. And this scheme—what becomes, in future iterations, public and private, of production and reproduction, of waged work and unpaid servitude—is the order agreed upon to attend to the risk posed by those who make the oikos.”

This is the order that we believe has given way as Fordism morphed into Post-Fordism and as the walls of these architectures have been smoothed by the flows of endlessly circulated, derivative, financialized capital. Yet, what Mitropoulos’ work points us toward is the persistence of the contract. Walls may crumble, but the foundations of contract re-instantiate, if not proliferate, in the wake of capital’s discovery of new terrains. The gynaikonitis with its function to parse and delineate the labor of the household into a hierarchy of care work—from the wifely householding of management to the slave-like labor of “being ready to hand”— does not simply evaporate, but rather finds new instantiations among the flights of capital and new instantiations within its very infrastructure. Following Mitropoulos, we can argue that while certain forms of disciplinary seemingly come to an end, there is no shift to control without a proliferating matrix of contract whose function is to re-impose the very meaning—or rather, the very ontological necessity, of measure. It is through the persistent re-imposition of measure that a logic of the Oikos is never lost, ensuring—despite new configurations of capital—the genealogical transfer of wealth and the fundamentally dispossessing relations of servitude.

Let me shift a gear here ever so slightly and enter Alicia Florrick. Alicia is “The Good Wife”, who many of you know from the TV show of the same name. She is the white fantasy super-hero and upper middle class working mother and ruthless lawyer who has successfully exploded onto the job market after years of raising her children and who is not only capable of leaning in after all those years, but of taking command of her own law firm and running for political office. Alicia is a “good wife” not solely because she has stood beside her philandering politician husband, but because as a white, upper-class mother and lawyer, she is nonetheless responsible for the utmost of feminized and invisible labor—that of (re)producing the very conditions of sociality. Her “womanly” or “wife-ish” goodness is predicated on her ability to transform what are essentially, in the show, a series of shitty experiences and shitty conditions, into conditions of possibility and potential. Alicia works endlessly, tirelessly (Does she ever sleep?) to find new avenues of possibility and configurations of the law in order to create a very specific form of “liberal” order and organization, believing as she does in the “power of rules” (in distinction to her religious daughter, a necessary trope used to highlight the fundamentally “moral” underpinning of secular order.)

While the show is incredibly popular, no doubt because viewers desire to identify with Alicia’s capacity for labor and domination, to me the show is less about a real or even possible human figure than it is about a “good wife” and the social function that such a wife plays. In Oikonomic logic, a good wife is essential to the maintenance of contract because she is what metabolizes the worlds of inner and outer, simultaneously managing the inner domestic world of care within while parsing or keeping distinct its contagion from the outer world of contract. That Alicia is white, heternormative, upper middle class, as well as upwardly mobile and legally powerful is essential to aligning her with the power of contract, yet her work is fundamentally that of parsing contagions to the system. Prison bodies and prison as a site of the “general population” haunt the show as though we are meant to forget that Alicia’s labor and its value are predicated on the existence of space beyond contract—a space of being removed from visibility. The figure of the good wife therefore not only operates as a shared boundary, but reproduces the distinctions between contractable relations and invisible, obligated labor or what I will call metabolization. Our increasing digitized, datafied, networked, and surveilled world is fully populated by such good wives. We call them interfaces. But they should also be seen as a proliferation of contracts, which are rewriting the nature of who and what may participate.

I would like to argue that good wives—or interfaces—and their necessary shadow world of obligated labor are useful frameworks for understanding the paradox I mentioned when I first began: how and why has digital abundance been ushered on the heels of massive income inequality and political dispossession? In the logic of the Oikos, the good wife of the interface stands in both contradistinction and harmony with the metabolizing labor of the system she manages, which is comprised of those specifically removed from “the labor” relation— domestic workers, care workers, prisoner laborers—those who must be “present” yet without recognition. The interface stands in both contradistinction and harmony with the algorithm that is made to be present and made to adapt. I want to argue that the “marriage” of the proliferation of interfaces and with the ubiquitous, and adaptive computation of digital algorithms is an Oikonomic infrastructure. It is a proliferation of contracts meant to insure that the “contagion” of the algorithm, which I explore in a moment, remain “black boxed” or removed from visibility, while nonetheless ensuring that such contagious invisible work shore up the power of contract and its ability to redirect capital along genealogical lines. While Piketty doesn’t uses the language of the Oikos, we might read the arrival of his work as a confirmation that we are in a moment re-establishing such a “household logic”—an expansion of capital that comes with quite a new foundation of the transfer of wealth.

While the good wife or interface is a boundary, which borrowing from Celia Lury, that marks a frame for the simultaneous capture and redeployment of data, it is the digital algorithm that undergirds or makes possible the interfaces’ ontological authority to “measure.” However, algorithms, if we follow Luciana Parisi are not simple executing a string of code, not simply providing the interface with a “measure” of an existing world. Rather, algorithms are, as Luciana Parisi writes in her work on contagious architecture, performing entities that are “not simply representations of data, but are occasions of experience insofar as they prehend information in their own way.” Here Parisi is ascribing to the algorithm a Whiteheadian ontology of process, which sees the algorithm as its own spatio-temporal entity capable of grasping, including, or excluding data. Prehension implies not so much a choice, but a relation of allure by which all entities (not only algorithms) call one another into being, or come into being as events or what Whitehead calls “occasions of experience.” For Parisi, via Whitehead, the algorithm is no longer simply a tool to accomplish a task, but an “actuality, defined by an automated prehension of data in the computational processing of probability.”

Much like the good wife of the Greek household, who must manage and organize—but is nonetheless dependent on— the contagious (and therefore made to be invisible) domestic labor of servants and slave, the good wife of the interface manages and organizes the prehensive capacities of the algorithm, which are then misrecognized as simply “doing their job” or executing their code in a divine order of being. However, if we follow Parisi, prehension does not simply imply the direct “reproduction of that which is prehended”, rather prehension should be understood itself be understood as a “contagion.” Writing, “infinite amounts of data irreversibly enter and determine the function of algorithmic procedures. It follows that contagion describes the immanence of randomness in programming.” This contagion, for Parisi, means that “algorithmic prehensions are quantifications of infinite qualities that produce new qualities.” Rather than simply “doing their job”, as it were, algorithms are fundamentally generative. They are, for Parisi, producing not only new digital spaces, but also programmed architectural forms and urban infrastructures that “expose us to new mode of living, but new modes of thinking.” Algorithms are metabolizing a world of infinite and incomputable data that is then mistaken by the interfaces as a “measure” of that world—a measure that can not only stand in for contract, but can give rise to a proliferation of micro contracts that populate the circulations of sociality.

Control then, if we can return to that idea, has come not simply about as an undulation or a demise of discipline, but through an architecture of metabolization and measure that has never disavowed the function of contract. It is, in fact, an architecture quite successful at re-writing the very terms of contract arrangements. Algorithmic architectures may no longer seek to maintain the walls of the household, but they are nonetheless in the rapid production of an Oikos all the same.

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Big data, like Soylent Green, is made of people

Karen Gregory | City College
Ghost in the Machine
Response to Frank Pasquale given at Triple Canopy
November 1, 2014

Discussions of automation have, of late, seemed to bifurcate along two lines. The first line suggests that we, the puny humans, are doomed. The machines (the robots, bots, algorithms, algorithmic architectures…) have arrived and they are better than us. Therefore, they have or will soon win capitalism’s great hierarchical and competitive race to the bottom. The second line of flight also suggests we are doomed, but this time by our own visions of utopia. Here is a vision of such intensive Taylorism and management that the words Taylorism and management misdirect the fantasy, sending us back to the wrong political economy—a political economy dependent on the disciplining of body for the relatively linear production of goods and commodities.
Our new automated utopia is not an assembly line, but a rather a vision in which machines of loving grace, interfaces of capture and algorithmic decision-making, become the very structures of determination that makes our lives possible. I don’t know about you, but being, as Richard Brautigan wrote, “all watched over” in a “cybernetic ecology”, where we are “joined back to nature” and “returned to our mammal brothers and sisters” sounds like its own form of hell, particularly when we take a feminist or post-colonialist approach to understanding such “nature.”

Beyond this bifurcation of doom, we can also see—particularly in Frank’s work on health care— that automation, in tandem with big data and ubiquitous computing, promises a form of personalized care that is actually predicated on the participation of a much larger and abstract social body. In the production of these massive data sets, upon which the promise of “progress” is predicated, we are actually sharing not only our data, but the very rhythms, circulations, palpitations, and mutations of our bodies so that the data sets can be “populated” with the very inhabitants that animate us. If there is any hope within these dooming scenarios, it is that we realize we do indeed need one another or rather that we have become deeply entangled in one another. Big data, like Soylent Green, is made of people. To me, the ubiquity of data acquisition and computation, suggests that we are in what is really quite a “weird solidarity” with one another, a solidarity that seems to surpass national and political boundaries and even economic interests.

However, this insight into solidarity does not seem to be the direction we are moving—in part, I think, because the conversation of automation is really a tangle of several conversations that speak to different levels of sociality and mingle a mix of human emotions (as of yet, we don’t know how the algorithms feel.) As we talk about the coming “robot overlords” we can see this mixture in a fear of change and the sadness of loss or even a melancholy, as well as a speculative curiosity about potential new social relations and arrangements.

I would argue that we are in the midst of a crisis of the social imagination. The very concepts of work, labor, time, and productivity are being pressured, but so are the very morality or ethics of this system—the Protestant ethics of capitalism— which are meant not only to insure that we desire to work, but which also to give rise to a private, individual, and accountable subject— or a subject capable of entering into contract relations, which, by the way, are the relations by which we have ascribed most enforceable rights. As big data and its possibilities for automation rewrite the relationship the between labor, time, and subjectivity, I would say that contract relations will be pressured to the point of being quaint.

Lately, I have been noticing that a lot of writing about automation likes to equate the current human predicament to that of horses. For example, Noah Smith in the Atlantic last year wrote, “Now, humans will never be completely replaced, like horses were. Horses have no property rights or reproductive rights, nor the intelligence to enter into contracts.” But the terrain of rights— and the very subject who may participate in those rights-is precisely the terrain that is being reformulated by ubiquitous computing and automation. In a paper I recently co-authored with Patricia Clough, Josh Scannell and Benjamin Haber, we suggested that it is not only the bounded, private, individual subject of the liberal disciplinary society that is being pressured, but that the coupling of large scale databases and adaptive algorithms are calling forth a new “onto-logic of sociality itself.” This onto-logic is post-probabilistic, which means we aren’t talking about an easy empiricism of statistical outcomes, but rather an empiricism based in the desire or impulse to capture and redeploy the indeterminacy of life itself. As we wrote, “big data doesn’t care about you so much as the bits of seemingly random information that bodies generate or that they leave behind as a data trail; the aim is to prehend novelty.” Within this “datalogical turn”, as we call it, “there is not only a decentering of the human subject, but the definition of the bodily broadens beyond the human body. As such, we write, “bodily practices themselves instantiate as data, which in turn produces a surplus of bodily practices.”

So, on the one hand we have here a very abstract ontological challenge, as well as a very political and very practical problem on our hands. What do we do as we look to the end of work as the ideological apparatus of resource distribution? While we can debate whether or not new forms of human activities will be required or will emerge in relation to the machines of loving grace (for example, housekeeping technology certainly hasn’t reduced the need for housework), we do know that this ontological shift is being carried in on the heels of massive wealth capture and historically high levels of inequality—not only economic inequality, but political dispossession. As Smith writes:

For most of modern history, two-thirds of the income of most rich nations has gone to pay salaries and wages for people who work, while one-third has gone to pay dividends, capital gains, interest, rent, etc. to the people who own capital. This two-thirds/one-third division was so stable that people began to believe it would last forever. But in the past ten years, something has changed. Labor’s share of income has steadily declined, falling by several percentage points since 2000. It now sits at around 60% or lower. The fall of labor income, and the rise of capital income, has contributed to America’s growing inequality.

While Taylorism was always a system of control which was predicated on observation, surveillance, and measurement (management is not simply to manage towards production, but to control for error), the automation we are speaking of here is entangled across spaces and times, and becomes increasing so as the boundaries that once marked the home, the factory, the school, the hospital… dissolve and blur into life itself. So, while automation will come with the promise of robotically generated abundance, the algorithmic architectures that are coming to underpin the material conditions of human life will also guarantee that those in power remain in power. On the one hand, therefore, we are in need of a rather immediate and radical politics to insure we make it through this transformation of sociality. This is perhaps a radical politics not to only demand wages and benefits and the stability of schedules from the owners of capital, but a politics of solidarity that can reconceptualize how and where value is being produced, as well as how and where humans reside among and with machines and algorithms.

Such a radical politics needs to ask different questions– not are we doomed, but who and what is this “we”? What exactly is being automated or “being made to act” here?

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Call for Abstracts: Mini-Conference on Digital Sociology

Eastern Sociological Society

New York City

February 26-March 1, 2015

Millennium Broadway Hotel

In keeping with the Eastern Sociological Society’s theme of “Crossing Borders”, the Digital Sociology Mini-Conference seeks papers that address the many borders crossed – national, disciplinary, theoretical, methodological, epistemological – in digital ways of knowing. As Daniels and Feagin (2011) have observed digital technologies have offered both challenges and exciting possibilities for the ways in which sociologists do their work. Yet, as Lupton (2014) notes, the field of sociology has only just begun to take account of the broader implications that the digital has raised about the “practice of sociology and social research itself.” Similarly, Clough and colleagues (2014) suggest that the “datalogical turn” underway in the social sciences poses not only serious challenges to sociological methodologies, but requires more robust theorizing of the social itself.

Digital Sociology as a field is gaining more traction in Australia, Canada and the UK than the US, but the burgeoning field of digital sociology is still “before the beginning” in theorizing and articulating the digital turn for the social sciences (Wynn, 2009).  Despite the fact that many of the social implications of the Internet were articulated more than a decade ago by leading sociologists such as Castells, DiMaggio and colleagues, Sassen, and Wellman, (Castells, 1997; DiMaggio, et al., 2001; Sassen, 2002; Wellman, 2001), North American sociology overall has been less concerned with defining its relationship to the digital and has instead been content to cede this terrain to those working in communication, cultural and media studies, library and information science, and journalism.

We maintain that the field of sociology has insights to offer the questions that emerge from the proliferation of digital technologies and that a sociology without a thorough understanding of the digital will be a discipline that is irrelevant to the most pressing issues of the 21st century. The digital spaces where we increasingly interact, learn, and work lack fundamental sociological frameworks that might help us better understand such spaces (McMillan Cottom, 2014). Sociologists who wish to make sense of the social and the digital are faced with developing research methods that can account for lived realities, as well as articulate structural shifts in the nature of labor, economy, politics, and governance (Gregory, 2014). Therefore, we are convening this Mini-Conference on Digital Sociology as a way of sharing new forms of knowledge creation, connecting sociologists engaged in this work, and strategizing the future of “digital sociology” within the discipline in ways that “cross borders” of North American sociology.

We will consider abstracts on a wide range of topics, including – but not limited to – the following themes:

  • Digital Sociological Methods: How do traditional, analog sociological methods become digital? Are there new, “born digital” sociological methods? Will big data replace survey methodology? What are ethics of doing digital sociology?
  • Critical Theories of the Digital Itself: How have we theorized the digital? What challenges does the digital pose to epistemologies underlying sociological methods?
  • Digital Structures, Digital Institutions: The datafication of everyday life is posing unique challenges to the composition of social institutions and giving rise to new instantiations of education, finance, labor, and governance. How do we theorize, study, and conceptualize the recomposition of these institutions?
  • Identity, Community, and Networks: How do sociological concepts of micro and macro, personal and public, “front stage” and “back stage,” evolve as digital and mobile technologies increasingly blur these boundaries? How do case studies of networks further the field of digital sociology?
  • Race, Racism and Digitally Mediated Spaces: How do existing sociological concepts of race and racism expand our understanding of digital diasporas, racist video games, regulating hate speech in a global era, hashtag activism, racial justice social movements and racist countermovements, the ways that racialization “happens” in digitally mediated spaces?   
  • Queering Digital Technology: How do we deploy – and queer – sociological theories to make sense of the twined realities that historically marginalized groups (like LGBTQ people) use digital technologies to connect across geographic distances, share resources and to work for social change while simultaneously experiencing the expanded practices of digital surveillance, loss of privacy, and identity-based harassment, even leading to violence?

We encourage submissions from scholars at all levels, and are particularly enthusiastic to support the work of graduate students and early career researchers. We welcome submissions for individual papers and for entirely constituted sessions. The organizers share a commitment to creating a field that honors diverse voices, and as such are excited to see scholars from groups that are typically underrepresented in sociology. When proposing entirely constituted sessions, please keep this commitment to diverse voices in mind.

Because we aim to foster dialogue beyond the parameters of the meeting, papers presented will be considered for inclusion in an open-access, peer-reviewed volume on Digital Sociology. If you have any questions about proposals, topics, or session ideas please contact one of the organizers: Karen Gregory (, Tressie McMillan Cottom ( or Jessie Daniels (

For papers, please submit an abstract of no more than 250 words, as well as the title of the paper, name of presenter, institutional affiliation and contact details. For wholly constituted sessions, please include a short description of the concept behind your session, and then include all of the abstracts (along with names and affiliations of presenters) in one document. Please email your submissions Proposals not accepted for the Mini-Conference will be submitted to the ESS general call for submissions.

Deadline: October 1, 2014

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References Cited

Castells, Manuel. The information age: Economy, society and culture. Vol. 2, The power of identity. (New York: Blackwell, 1997).

Clough, Patricia, Karen Gregory, Benjamin Haber, and R. Joshua Scannell. “The Datalogical Turn.” Pp. 182-206, in Nonrepresentational Methodologies: Re-Envisioning Research, ed. Phillip Vannini (Oxford: Taylor & Francis, 2014).

Daniels, Jessie, and J. Feagin. “The (coming) social media revolution in the academy.” Fast Capitalism 8, no. 2 (2011). Available online:

DiMaggio, Paul, Eszter Hargittai, W. Russell Neuman, and John P. Robinson. “Social implications of the Internet.” Annual Review of Sociology (2001): 307-336.

Gregory, Karen. Enchanted Entrepreneurs: The Labor of Esoteric Practitioners in New York City. Dissertation, CUNY Graduate Center. New York: 2014.

Lupton, Deborah. Digital Sociology. (New York: Routledge, 2014).

McMillan Cottom, Tressie. “Democratizing Ideologies and Inequality Regimes in Digital Domains”. Paper presented at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society Series, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. July 29, 2014. Online <PDF

Sassen, Saskia. “Towards a sociology of information technology.” Current Sociology 50, no. 3 (2002): 365-388.

Wellman, Barry. “Computer networks as social networks.” Science 293, no. 5537 (2001): 2031-2034.

Wynn, Jonathan R. “Digital sociology: emergent technologies in the field and the classroom.” In Sociological Forum 24, no. 2,  (2009): 448-456.

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The Labor of Disruption

This is the print version of a talk I gave at the Cultural Studies Association annual conference this year in Salt Lake City.  I had intended to publish it this week but given the recent publication of Jill Lepore’s piece on disruption for the New Yorker I thought I should probably expedite the process and ditch my planned rewrites.  To be perfectly honest, I’ve only skimmed Lepore’s argument and haven’t read through any of the responses yet either, but plan on doing so today and tomorrow and will have some thoughts up here then.

The presentation was accompanied by a firmly tongue in cheek Prezi that can be found here.  What follows is my attempt to moved towards a critique of disruption theory that is centered around the question: Where is “labor” in disruption? Thanks for reading:

First used in an article by Clayton Christensen and Joseph L. Bower in the January/February 1995 issue of Harvard Business Review, the term “disruptive technology” and it’s more commonly used (and arguably bastardized) versions “disruption” and “disrupt” have become the dominant buzzwords in not only the Silicon Valley tech sector but contemporary American capitalism writ large. For those of us in academia, the term is probably most familiar from the last few years of the explosion (and seemingly hopeful implosion) of MOOCs, sold to administrators and the general public as disrupting the bureaucracy and elitism of the Ivory Tower and bringing education to the masses. But increasingly you see the term attached to anything that has to do with “the digital” or Silicon Valley. The purpose of this presentation is to greater understand what it is that we talk about when we talk about “disruption.” By returning to Christensen and his various co-authors’ earlier texts, teasing out their metrics for what is and what is not “disruptive,” and locating the shift in the active subject of the term from the established firm to the individual, I’m attempting to situate disruption the buzzword in it’s own history and within the capitalist milieu it has come to dominate.

Christensen and Bower’s original 1995 article “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave,” Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail originally published in 1997, and pieces like Christensen and Michael Overdorf’s 2000 Harvard Business Review article “Meeting the Challenge of Disruptive Change” are works that are directed primarily to a corporate management audience and are intended as advice for managers as to how to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to changes in the technologies their firms produce. The disruptive technology, and hence the process of disruption, is generally defined as a product that initially offers less performance and features than an established technology and appeals to an emerging market that in it’s first instance is not valuable enough to warrant the interest of what the literature refers to as “incumbents.” Christensen argues that what established firms are best at is creating what he calls “sustaining” technologies, or technologies that “foster improved product performance” Disruptive technologies on the other hand are “innovations that result in worse product performance, at least in the near-term.” Christensen further says “generally disruptive technologies have other features a few fringe (and generally new) customers value. Products based on disruptive technologies are typically cheaper, simpler, smaller, and frequently more convenient to use.”  The development of the disruptive technology eventually catches up with the sustaining technologies it is disrupting and in logic of endlessly progressing capitalism, the disruptive pattern begins anew, pictured as a never ending “Technology S-curve.”

The archetypal example that Christensen uses in both the original article and in the Innovator’s Dilemma is the disk drive industry from the late 1970s into the mid-90s. Christensen argues that the disruptive innovations of the 5.25” and 3.5” drives changed the industry because both sizes were drastically less powerful, popular, and profitable when first introduced. The market for drives in the earlier period of his timeframe was primarily in mainframe computing which required much greater computing power than the 5.25” drive could provide. The emerging market for desktop computing was largely ignored by major drive makers because the profit margins weren’t big enough for larger firms to pay attention to. The same went for the 3.5” drives that served the portable computer market that developed in the late 80s. In the process, many firms who didn’t see the disruption coming failed and several new “entrants” became successful. Both the original article and the Innovators Dilemma cite the disruption of the 3.5” drive’s development by former Seagate (an incumbent) employee Finis Connor and his entrant company Connor Peripherals. In the account, Connor left Seagate disgruntled after having his work with the 3.5” drive not given enough institutional support. His disruptive innovation and disruptive company stole the marketshare of Seagate in the emerging market, which soon came to dominate the scene.

However, if we take this archetypal trajectory and indeed much of the empirical evidence in The Innovators Dilemma and stretch it past the rather short temporal frame that he places it in, it actually displays a marked tendency for disruptive technologies to accomplish a concentration of capital at the top of a hierarchical structure through the process of cannibalization of mid-level firms that are susceptible to rapid changes in the architecture of production. The largest firms are not nearly as susceptible to disruptive technologies. This is a cannibalization up the food chain. In a footnote of The Innovators Dilemma, Christensen admits that vertically integrated corporations are not actually affected by disruptive technologies. He points out that IBM was never truly effected by the consecutive disruptions of the 5.25 and 3.5 inch drives that changed the face of personal computing. In addition, vertical integration aside, the Connor Peripherals and Seagate story ends in the eventual buyout of Connor Peripherals by Seagate for $1.1 billion.

Some of this process is just the exigencies of industrial production, to be sure. Changes in the manufacturing process are exceptionally costly so firms who have either been able to outsource production entirely and act only as assemblers of units are much more likely to survive. Speaking of the gains that could be made in the portable computer market Christensen remarks: “Competing in the portable computer value network, however, entails a very different cost structure. These computer makers incur little expense in researching component technologies, preferring to build their machines with proven component technologies procured from vendors. Manufacturing involves assembling millions of standard products in low-labor-cost regions.”

This is only the second explicit reference to labor in the entire book and it comes almost as an aside deep into chapter 2. The implications are clear, though. Low cost labor and the elimination of traditionally costly employees like a direct sales force lowers the profit margin threshold, which in turn allows for a greater degree of flexibility towards innovation. When less is invested in things like sales and production, research and development can get the lion share of the resources. The point made is essentially the difference between the fixed capital/dead labor heavy of Fordist industrial production versus flexible, just-in-time Post-Fordist production. And so my argument is in part that all “disruption” meant in its initial instance was “Post-Fordism.”

However, Christensen did not stop writing and the forces of capitalism were not bound to just-in-time production. Christensen, obviously seeing that theories about industrial production were more than likely going to be disrupted (nudge nudge wink wink) by the early 2000s started to bring his theories to culture, education and service industries. His most recent work has argued for the need/inevitability of disruption in the health care industry (2008’s The Innovator’s Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care), higher education (the aforementioned 2008 book Disrupting Class and the more recent The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from Inside Out), and more general works about innovation that target the Silicon Valley world that has taken up his cause most fervently. He also has a number of acolytes, not the least of which is Eric Reis, author of the Lean Startup, a book and “movement” that defines “start-up” as an organization dedicated to creating something new under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

As “disruption theory” has been taken into industries that are based not in the production of material objects but in services, the issue of labor in the theory becomes much clearer. What is disrupted and what is innovated is a way to reduce labor costs. That might be through circumventing costly regulations and a unionized workforce, (think of Uber here), drastically reducing the amount of laboring bodies (think MOOcs), or through soliciting unpaid labor through appeals to community (think crowdsourcing like Wikipedia). The disruptive technology is that which reduces the cost of labor (labor that offers “less performance” and “less features”). And the easiest way to reduce the cost of labor, is to either a) create a technology or business structure that allows for a capture of labor previously done for free/cheaper b) create technology that enables the dissemination of information normally done by many to be done by one or c) to see yourself and your ideas as the disruption, become the disruptor yourself.

This option of being the individual disruptor (the title of a recent Christensen book is How Will You Measure Your Life) represents a shift from a focus on the technology itself, to the actor who produces that technology or simply the idea of that action. Christensen’s definition of technology that he gives in his early writings is instructive here: “the process by which an organization transforms labor, capital, materials, and information into products and services of greater value.” That organization is you, and your process is explicitly the ideology of contemporary capitalism. In the transistion from “post-fordism” to whatever we call contemporary capitalism, disruption theory’s main points persist. Christensen’s “resources-processes-values-culture” framework in which the most flexible and innovative of these elements is the resources is particularly salient. Christensen sees an increasing inflexibility as one progresses from the processes of work towards a value structure that determines the prioritization of how resources are allocated. Processes become routinized, finally ending in those values being codified as they become a part of a firm’s culture. In a word, bureaucracy. The individual disruptor is the sworn enemy of “bureaucracy” and is sworn to attack. Instead of “catching the wave” we are implored to be the wave itself. Disruption is the dream of the arbitrage of the size of the waves, the bends in the s-curve. The infinite and instant profitability of your heroic ideas.

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Guest post: How digital workers are getting organized

How Digital Workers are Getting Organized: The Freelancers’ Rights Movement

By Joel Dullroy

Digital workers probably don’t call themselves freelancers. Indeed, they presently are unlikely identify with any worker category at all. Whatever name they use to describe their condition – independent worker, contractor, micro entrepreneur – they nevertheless exist in a grey zone in which long-fought-for rights and protections do not apply. The freelancing grey zone has a physical corollary: special economic zones, or free trade zones, those areas where companies operate in a legal no-man’s-land. And like the freelancing workforce, these zones were once exceptional, but have become ubiquitous.

Ascertaining the real size of the freelancing workforce is a difficult task. Few national statistical agencies adequately categorize independent workers. At worst they are not counted at all; at best they are lumped together with other self-employed workers such as storekeepers, who have similar but not identical conditions. We have compared the existing data on freelance workers from the United States and Europe, and present our results in our new e-book, Independents Unite! Inside the Freelancers’ Rights Movement (see page 29-30). The various studies show that between four and 10 per cent of the European workforce is now independent or self-employed. In the United States, studies place the number of freelancers anywhere between 10 and 30 per cent of the workforce. The vast discrepancy is cause for concern, for if this demographic is not properly counted, how can effective policy ever be implemented to meet its concerns?

Indeed properly counting freelancers is one of the simple starting demands of the nascent freelancers’ rights movement, a growing coalition of organizations around the world representing the independent workforce. In the U.S., the foremost proponent of the movement is the Freelancers Union. In European countries organizations such as the PCG in the United Kingdom, the PZO in the Netherlands, Germany’s VGSD and Italy’s ACTA are fighting on behalf of freelancers. These groups have different constituencies, ideologies, approaches and demands, but they are united in their attempt to shape an atomized landscape of disjointed individuals into a cohesive political front with clout. As the size of the freelancing workforce grows, so to does their claim for a voice in politics and society.

The freelancers’ rights movement faces challenges, not the least being to convince freelancers themselves to take part. But if the various organizations can hold together, form a unified voice, create effective campaigning machinery and rally independent workers, they stand a chance of creating a new form of worker organization, one that utilizes the very tools of digital labor to its own advantage.

We provide an overview of the freelancers’ rights movement, its various participating bodies, and a political history of the rise of the freelancing class in our new e-book, which can be downloaded as a PDF or in Kindle format for free from

Joel Dullroy is a journalist and freelance activist in Berlin. He is author of the book Independents Unite! Inside the Freelancers’ Rights Movement.

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Viewing and Reading…

Following Dan’s wonderful write-up yesterday, today I’m watching Lisa Nakamura here:

and reading Anne Cong-Huyen’s “Dark Mass,” or the Problems with Creative Cloud Labor:

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Panel Review: Identity Work and Identity Play Online

By Dan Greene (@Greene_DM)

Last Sunday, I was lucky to be able to convene a panel with my colleagues Laura Portwood-Stacer (NYU), Lisa Nakamura (University of Michigan), Anne Cong-Huyen (UCLA), and Tara McPherson (USC) at the American Studies Association in D.C. that was intended to act as a retrospective on digital cultural studies and a conversation about its future. The plan was to give quick 10 minute talks on current research, and then have Tara respond to them and moderate the discussion. After everything wrapped up—with a packed room on a Sunday, thanks all!—I confessed to the panel that my thinking in bringing everyone together was basically “These are good, critical people who both stand out in the field and know how it works, they’ll have keen observations on the politics of digital communications and and the politics of studying them—we all get along and something good will come out of that.” But I was delighted to see a more focused debate emerge, alongside a series of questions we felt we needed to keep asking: What counts as work and how far can you get by telling someone that their play is work? What gets described as a feature of the social Web and what gets described as a bug? Why are pervasive atmospheres of racism or sexism written off as ‘trolling’? How do we move beyond tired debates of exploitation versus empowerment? Is it ever worth talking about one ‘internet’?

Karen Gregory was kind enough to offer me (@greene_dm) this platform to share our conversation with a broader audience. Below I’m going to quickly summarize each of our talks and some of McPherson’s responses to them before commenting on some of the themes that emerged from our roundtable discussion. The latter includes both the questions above and interventions specific to the field such as a return to Marxist feminists such as Selma James and Silvia Federici, and a turn, prompted by Nakamura’s talk on race and virality and McPherson’s coinage of the phrase, to a ‘critical platform studies’ that moves us from media archeology’s focus on the thing itself to the social infrastructure that makes the thing work or not work in different political and cultural contexts. Please also take a look at the original abstracts for the panel and our talks, as well as Jack Gieseking’s Storify of the Twitter backchannel. Let’s keep talking.

Access to Self and City: 
Internet Entrepreneurs and the Politics of Presentation and Space 

ASA Write-up Picture 1

I’m involved in long-term fieldwork with different communities in different positions in Washington, D.C.’s booming information economy.  D.C.’s municipal government, like so many other cash-strapped cities, has embraced a version of Richard Florida’s ‘creative class’ policy which pins our economic future on recruiting and maintaining creative class workers—especially the tech entrepreneurs that are the favored sons and daughter of the present moment—through place-making projects that focus on friendly forms of diversity and lifestyle amenities. Working with tech entrepreneurs who design and produce, but also work on and through, various social media platforms, I have been struck by how the production of social media spaces neatly parallels the production of gentrified city spaces through creative class policy. Twitter, Facebook and FourSquare may gentrify our self-presentation in a manner similar to how cities are gentrified by creative class policies, creative workers, and real estate investment designed to capitalize on them.

Tech entrepreneurs often use social media to erase the line between work and play so that every interaction is a potential networking opportunity. Formerly private information is made public in the name of authenticity; though some information, such as political or religious beliefs, is scrubbed in the name of more seamless sharing. This information—where you are, when, with whom—is both a useful interpersonal wedge in business negotiations and the raw material of the data economy. But these social norms end up alienating those who cannot or will not lifestream—including one of my participants who is a new mother. Gentrification of city spaces does not only replace housing stock and push low-income residents out, it is also an uneven process that filters attention to specific high-status areas (i.e., D.C.’s venture capital, condo-building, and restaurant opening booms all overlap in the same 20005 zip code) just as social media creates ‘filter bubbles.’  And just as lifestyle amenities (parks, restaurants, clubs) are the chief place-making recruitment tools of creative class policy, so too are they the chief check-in points for location based social media, and the backgrounds for the most shareable group photos. Why do these overlaps exist? At this early stage, I hazard a guess that both social media and gentrification act as ‘spatial fixes’ for desperate capital: social media outsources value production to previously uncapitalized areas of everyday life and provides a profit-making opportunity via speculation in unprofitable companies; while gentrification of downtown D.C. kicked off during the recession, when other real estate markets were tanking, and already shows signs of a potential speculative bubble not unlike that in social media companies. So it looks like creative class policy, and the cultural and financial hype over creative workers, may actually be a symptom of capitalist crisis (the addict’s search for a ‘fix’) rather than a bulwark against it.

The Work of Social Media Refusal:
Thoughts on Labor, Productivity, and Identity among Facebook Resisters

ASA Write-up Picture 2Laura Portwood-Stacer (@lportwoodstacer) just published a book on lifestyle activism in anarchist communities and continues that vein of research in her current work on the refusal of social media sites like Facebook—asking whether the choice to stop Liking and checking-in can ever constitute a collective politics or whether it’s just the 2010s version of “Oh, I don’t own a TV.” Many of her participants, and the various anti-Facebook manifestoes that have emerged from these protestors, readily identify the alienation and exploitation on which Facebook’s business model is based. They complain of their time being colonized, their every interaction being commodified by a company whose processes and profits are not shared with its billion-strong user workforce, their conversations and emotions being translated into sterile Likes and shares. But what happens next? Facebook refusers often want to quit so that they can focus on real, important, waged work. Or they use the act of quitting as a status symbol; a case of bourgeois refinement framed against the social excesses of Facebook zombies, often framed in feminized terms of too much flirting and baby pics. As McPherson noted, Portwood-Stacer is here less concerned with whether refusal works—whether it functions as a strike that threatens Facebook—and more concerned with what work refusal does for refusers.

Portwood-Stacer thus theorized a question with which we were all concerned in one form or another: What does it mean to strike from the social factory? And is ‘strike’ even the right way to think about the relationship between society and value today? She wants us to think past notions of consent and exploitation—after all, we all consent to our EULAs and most refusers acknowledge exploitation but opt out of it instead of rally against it—and ask what free labor feels like, and what it means to tell users they are laborers. She looks towards the historic wages for housework campaigns as a useful corollary. Getting paid for housework was only ever one goal of those campaigns. The real thrust was to show that value is only ever produced via uneven social relations, that corporate profits would not exist without unwaged labor. This is what Kathi Weeks calls the utopian demand: Not just a request for a policy change, but a call to rally around particular social perspective, the distance between this world and another possible one. In this perspective, social media is just the latest development in capitalism’s exploitation of free labor (we could also think about the control of native traditions or our very genes through intellectual property) and the recognition of that relationship is just as important as any call for better privacy, more consent, or pay for free labor.

Voces Móviles and the Precarity of Work in Online/Offline Spaces

 ASA Write-Up Picture 3Anne Cong-Huyen (@anitaconchita), an important voice in the #transformDH collective, presented a piece of her dissertation research, which focuses on close readings of technological precarity. Here she walked us through the Voces Móviles online storytelling project and work space, which allows migrant day laborers, called ‘reporters’ on the site, in and around Los Angeles to share life histories, working conditions, and photographs. Many are anonymous, some are linked into ongoing narratives, but all work against the sanitized images of Southern California as either sunny paradise or fast-moving media mecca; images which erase the blood and sweat that goes into maintaining those lawns, pools, and offices. Indeed, the creative class lifestyles and consumption-oriented gentrification I reviewed in my presentation would not be possible without the human infrastructure which Voces Móviles makes visible.

In a political climate where day laborers are painted in broad strokes as at best disposable workers and at worst social leeches, Voces Móviles emphasizes the diversity of these communities: their different skills and work environments, different ethnic and national backgrounds, and different struggles with the naturalization process. Indeed this variation emerges in the design of the site, where outsiders struggle to tie the different images, voices, and stories together into coherent narratives. There are thousands of posts, over 660 pages. This work required of the reader reminds them not only of the invisible work of the day laborers but the additional work they take on in order to tell their stories—and forces us to distinguish between different kinds of work and the value placed on each. Again, as with Portwood-Stacer, we see parallels between traditional analyses of social reproduction and newer critiques of free labor online. Voces Móviles also forces us to recognize that the seemingly ephemeral nature of any information economy is always rooted in the material: devices and their construction, service work catering to creatives, but also the time it takes for a body to get off a ladder, take out their phone, snap a picture, and get back to work.

Antiviral Media:
The Market for Primitive Africa in Internet Vigilante Trophy Websites.

ASA Write-Up Picture 4

Finally, Lisa Nakamura (@lnakmur) closed the presentations by using the culture of 419eater—a site which documents the various humiliations African internet scammers are subjected to by Western internet users—and other digital pillories to intervene in two debates: media archaeology and the marketing-oriented conversation over ‘spreadable media.’ For Henry Jenkins et al, memes that don’t spread are dead. But Nakamura wants us to remember that memes don’t appear out of thin air, that hate spreads as quickly as laughter and is always culturally bound (e.g., lynching postcards and the Abu Gharib photos could be read as cultural ancestors of the scam baiters), and that some memes deserve to die—we just don’t know how to kill them. So now we have a series of ethical questions: Why share? Why is it better to spread? And what makes something ‘spreadable’ besides technical features that make it easy to send and receive? This is another moment where we’re reminded that what is often labelled as an invasion of the social web—the racism and sexism written off as ‘trolling’—has been there since the beginning; that the colonial relationships re-enacted by the scambaiters are features, not bugs, of global internet cultures. Decolonizing the internet is thus partly about building alternatives to current social spaces. Voces Móviles is one example, but so too Critical Commons, Vojo, and Mukurtu. But this is also a critical project that asks us not necessarily to jump to build another tool but to sit and reflect on how we got where we are.

Similarly, Nakamura critiqued the formalist, Kittlerian media archeology tradition for searching for this or that previously unseen or unknown innovation, the heroic recovery of glitches and roads-not-taken by ‘digital ghostbusters.’ This archaeological urge to excavate and exhibit is a close relative to the abject spectacle of 419eater—where technological backwardness is found, displayed, and made viral—or memes of feminine vulnerability. Here Nakamura is not uncovering some hidden racist agenda in media archaeology or fan studies, but sketching an alternative project that doesn’t separate container from contents and asks after the labor, racialized and otherwise, of spreadable spectacle. This ‘digital archaeology’ would track genealogies of racism and sexism that otherwise seem to just appear from thin air and go viral in different media.

Response and Discussion

I’ve integrated some of McPherson’s (@tmcphers) comments on specific papers into the preceding discussion, but want to sketch out two more themes that emerged from her closing remarks and the discussion that followed.

First, why Marxist feminism in media studies and why now? This was a largely unplanned collective turn that we and our audience found ourselves making together—though it is a turn signaled by work like Weeks’ and a possible renaissance of Marxian political economy across disciplines dominated by poststructuralism in recent decades. Marxist feminism seems better able to cope with the messy materials of everyday technologies than poststructural approaches. Within James, Federici, Dalla Costa and others, we find an intimate understanding of how value is socially produced by marking certain spaces and activities as more or less socially necessary; a keen attention to the collective politics around individual questions of what counts as an act of work, love, or play; and a general attention to the feminization of work and poverty in the current era. They help us ask better questions about who is building our machines and why, whether refusal is consumer democracy or free labor strike, and how the free labor critique can become more politically mobilizing. On that last point, Marxist feminism helps chart a third way between ‘spreadable media’ critiques of social media as empowering (which ignores political-economic relations) and more traditional Marxist critiques of social media as exploitative, alienating labor (which ignores what people actually do online and why they keep doing it).

Second, how do we balance the critique of the platform with that of the social relations in which it is enmeshed? This is an open question. The Californian ideology that dominates our common sense of what information technology is and what it does stresses spreadability but also transparency. But sometimes small is good, growth is dangerous, and the DIY imperfect is more powerful than the smooth and shareable. We can see this with Voces Móviles and similar projects which showcase the messy processes of democratic technologies, but also puncture the fantasy that the commons, technological, intellectual, or otherwise, are every truly open. The free and open commons is, if not a myth, then a “limit case”, for McPherson. And any critical platform studies that we build together must read, analyze, and make with actually existing politics of technological use and abuse in mind, and with an eye to other possible technological worlds—even if they’re only temporary spaces of refusal, privacy, or play.

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