Tag Archives: immaterial labor


Digital Labor Compensation—A Catch-22 Situation!?!

Laurel Ptak makes an apt analogy of “unwaged condition of housework” and that of facebook.  Both the housewife and the Facebook user/“worker” undertake their “work”—mystified by Capitalism as non-work in order for capital to function more smoothly—out of love and enthusiasm rather than financial reward.  However, if housewives unite and demand payment, who should be the one responsible for their compensation?  The husbands (because they are the direct beneficiaries)? The established corporations (as a result of housewives’ indirect contribution to capitalism)?  The government and the tax payers (as a reward for housewives’ maintaining the domestic and societal wholesomeness)?  Ptak’s “Wages for Facebook” manifesto distantly resonates with the call to political action (“Workers of the world unite!” and to protect their economic interests against bourgeoisie through class struggles) in Communist Manifesto.  But then, who should be responsible for the digital “laborers?”  If the corporations were to pay for digital contributions indiscriminately, would that change the free accessibility of online resources into hierarchized knowledge only for the wealthy? Would that deepen the capitalist grip, as many scholars have indicated?  Furthermore, is monetary payment the only way of compensation?  What about the form of self-compensation that’s driven by self-interest, (for instance, twittering for one’s own world-wide recognition)?

Maurizio Lazzarato in his mid-1990s essay “Immaterial Labor” posits that as both a virtuality and an actuality, immaterial labor is seen in every productive subject in postindustrial societies.  Knowledge is intrinsically collective in the postmodern economy, and information are produced collectively but are selectively and disproportionately compensated.  On the one hand, knowledge economy thrives on the production and consumption of intellectual property—a form of immaterial labor, as capitalist panopticon spies on everyone and punishes anyone who threatens to change the rules of the game.  On the other hand, as Richard Barbrook argues, the internet could only be successfully developed by letting its users build the system for themselves.  Tim Berners Lee famously stated that since there is a need for the infrastructure to make copies for reasons of efficiency and reliability, the concept of “copyright” makes little sense. Linux, the non-proprietary operating system, comes out of the open process of communal sharing and collaboration. By contributing one’s own work to the collective knowledge already shared online, everyone gets access to a much larger pool of information in return.  This kind of gift economy constitutes what Barbrook calls “anarcho-communism,” which is “a marriage of altruism and self-interest,” and “the only alternative to the dominance of monopoly capitalism.”

Ptak’s Communist Manifesto-sounding “Wages for Facebook” and Barbrook’s “anarcho-communism,” though both instigating anti-capitalist sentiments, seems to be occupying the opposite ends of the spectrum.  However, it is important at this moment to be reminded by authors such as Bernard Stiegler, who, in his Technics and Time 2, astutely argues for a keen consciousness of time frame and temporality of technics, which to him is the clue to understanding the future over-connected world of a human and technics symbiosis.  The two seemingly opposing proposals both operate within the capitalist metabolism, and exhibit what Stiegler would call the capitalist “temporalization of consciousness.”  Another scholar we read for this week, Tiziana Terranova, observed the limits of Barbrook’s “anarcho-communism” in her “Free Labor” article: “The relative abundance of cultural/technical/affective production on the Net […] does not exist as a free-floating postindustrial utopia but in full, mutually constituting interaction with late capitalism, especially in its manifestation as global-venture capital.” (43)  The limit of digital labor compensation, then, lies in its Catch-22 dilemma: not asking for compensation implies capitalist exploitation (as opposed to “anarcho-communism” on the surface); asking for compensation further indicates—and even encourages—capitalist exploitation.  The way out probably lies in the future unpredictable “temporalization of consciousness,” in which human beings and technics co-reside in some progressive form indescribable.