Tag Archives: labor

Realism and Utopianism in Discussions of Digital Labor

All of the readings we did for this week touch on a tension that exists in many forms of Left politics. On the one hand, there is a desire to find sites of possible resistance and encourage the development of an affective basis for modes of activity that exist outside of Capitalism, which seems to be what Barbrook is attempting to do in his discussion of the early open source community. On the other hand, there is the desire to bring injustices into the light—hence, the “Wages for Facebook” manifesto’s attempt to enable a discussion of the exploitative nature of Facebook by referring to people’s use of the service as “work.” One thing I find particularly striking about this juxtaposition is the way in which naming an injustice produced by Capitalism seems to require that we take on the language of Capitalism, referring to an ostensibly personal form of activity as “work,” while Barbrook’s claim that the Internet is “anarcho-communist”—as radical as the terminology of this argument is—seems to imply a much less critical attitude towards the world as it is.

While I am generally more sympathetic to Ptak than Barbrook, I am concerned that interventions like “Wages for Facebook” will only get us so far. Referring to Facebook activity as “work” brings an issue that was hidden to the foreground, but it also seems to go right along with a broad trend in American discourse towards framing more and more activities within Capitalist and managerial categories. Referring to clicking like buttons as “work” and stating that ad-driven services treat users as “products” may serve the interest of social realism, but this rhetorical move could also backfire, feeding right into the madness that, for instance, leads people to obsess over their “personal brands” and use the word “metric” to refer to any sort of standard against something is to be judged, acting as if the entirety of the world worked like a marketing firm.

One writer who has noted this specific issue in oppositional discourse is Theodore Adorno. At the end of his book Minima Moralia, Adorno arrives at a critique of Hegelian dialectic from the perspective of the anti-fascist Left. One of the issues that he raises is the tendency of dialectical thought to inadvertently reinforce the system that it is meant to critique. To use Adorno’s example, the Left must acknowledge that the romantic view of marriage can cover up the exploitative economic relations that underlie the institution. But if we instead reframe marriage as a purely economic arrangement—realistic as this view may be—we can lose sight of the possibility that it could or should be something more. The structural analogy between the two sides of a dialectic, Adorno argues, makes the immediate division of Hegel’s followers into Left and Right factions inevitable—since the vocabulary of pro- and anti-Capitalist writing is necessarily similar, politics comes to be discernable less in the formal character of a work than in the social, institutional, and discursive formations in which it is enmeshed.

We might find an example of this structural analogy between Left and Right in Franco Moretti’s work on the literary marketplace, which we discussed last semester. In a cursory reading, Moretti’s Marxist account of the “slaughterhouse of literature” could easily be mistaken for a Capitalist analysis—the terms of discussion (market, product, consumer) are largely the same. Christopher Prendergast’s accusation that Moretti’s use of evolutionary ideas makes him a Social Darwinist is unfair, but I don’t think it’s too implausible that Moretti’s work could be mistaken for a Social Darwinist project on a cursory reading, given how much his terms of analysis borrow from this viewpoint. The difference is a hair’s breadth.

Adorno responds to this seeming bind with one of his most famous aphorisms: “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption” (247). This formula suggests a different grounding for criticism that aims for transcendence rather than for “realism” of the sort that borrows its terms from the prevailing order. There are some ways in which this response is problematic, and it certainly dates itself as pre-1968. Adorno’s approach bears a suspicious resemblance to the positivist idea of a “view from nowhere;” and his big problem, of course, is his tendency to presume knowledge of what is best for other people. But I think this formula might still be useful in thinking about our own motivations in undertaking online labor. How would we articulate our reasons for blogging, for contributing to Wikipedia, or for clicking a like button if exploitation finally came to an end? How distorted would our activity appear from this standpoint? Framing the question in this way allows us to name the negative aspects of reality within terms that are not determined by the current order—but unlike the sort of techno-utopianism that peaked in the 1990s, it allows us to keep in mind that the alternative is, and perhaps will always remain, not wholly real.

Aren’t ‘we’ already constructing a ‘feminist data future’?

Creating (feminist) data in a Quantified Self (QS) type of world

Amelia Abreu shares her dream for a feminist data future—one where women (and other marginalized groups) have control of data collection, usage, and access; one where we all are compensated for our labor; one where “users can control their own narratives.”

Abreu points out some of the issues with data collection and digital technology. Like science, data is always fraught with subjectivity. As a sociologist, how I collect data, the types of questions I choose to ask, the variables I plug into my regression analysis, etc.—all these choices impact the type of data points I collect (and the results I will present/publish).

Abreu introduces us to the Quantified Self (QS) movement, point out that most QSer are males with capital who are voluntarily creating digital tools (read: self-tracking devices) with an aim of helping “people get meaning out of their personal data.” This self-control of our personal data is not as rosy as it seems—as not all of us have the ability/time/funds/etc. to use our personal data for “good.” I chuckled when I read this, thinking about how much of our personal data is already surveilled, used by the governments and corporations to track who we are and what we are doing. The QS movement could not better reflect the current neoliberal governmentality—the organization “proposes that if you, a consumer, submit to an untested battery of somewhat proprietary metrics, you yourself can have an all-around better life.”

But the problem is that not all of us can play the neoliberal role of entrepreneurs who pursue our own interest as governable subjects–who can use calculation and choice to make ourselves the best beings we can be.

Abreu points out some of QS’s flaws, focusing on its (mostly) white-male-centered method of data collection that has always seems to rule the roost–not without being challenged–and is now, hopefully, shifting, at least a bit. But back to Abreu’s discussion of the controversy. She tell us that tracking health data (very QS; very masculine) versus tracking human-relationship data (women’s work; not taken as serious data collection). She critiques the QS movement as, in its search for universal data points and scores, it does not take into account those populations its goals exclude.

This next point may seem really off topic, but I’m going to try to make it work. I’ve written about Whole Foods Market (WFM) being this ideal neoliberal institution—providing customers with opportunities to dutifully complete their neoliberal checklists: choice, self-mastery, and biological citizenship. However, I also point out what I call WFM’s paradox: it regularized a population of mostly white and elite consumer while its predominately non-white workforce cannot fill these same neoliberal checklists (they may not even be able to afford to shop in the stores in which they work).

I get QS is different–from what I understand, QSers design products for people like them. But where I see the parallel is in those who are excluded. Like QS, WFM’s corporate team also builds stores for people like them. I don’t know if there are workers, like WFM team members, on QS projects, but there are definitely potential users who are discounted (or not even thought about when these self-tracking tools are built)–and therefore, for various reasons, cannot use the technology (just like many WFM customers cannot shop in their stores).

Abreu writes: “I want Quantified Self to be a messy space, one where users willingly choose the aspects of their lives they are proudest of, and most troubled by, and allow them to track, and engage with their narratives over time on their own terms.”

But can QS, in this incarnation, be messy? I don’t think so.

QS is QS (and that’s ok for QSers but not for those of use who don’t align with the QS movement). We need our own messy spaces–created by us. These spaces must have different roots that QS, even if they have similar purposes: the collection and transmission of digital data. And it’s happening. Maybe I’m wrong? (I’m thinking of Sonia’s ITP project here, which I don’t know much about, but seems to fit as a non-QS, but QS-like project).

Perhaps we can find some of this messiness (potential) in the hashtag feminists’ work?

Can hashtag feminism bridge the virtual and the face-to-face?

Hashtag feminists are creating their own data points—perhaps they are fulfilling Abreu’s “dream of a feminist data future.” But where will those points ‘live’ in the future (other than in Twitter’s API that is not accessible).

And maybe we’re not looking towards a feminist data future but instead we are already thinking & creating in a feminist data reality? This seems probable, especially after reading Susana Loza’s article; I’d say this feminist data reality is imperfect, but it is occurring. Even Loza points out that hashtag feminism is imperfect, is in progress, and is very messy. But it’s also generating rich conversations. Educating (some) people. Making issues, rifts, inadequacies visible. Pushing for a more intersectional way not only of thinking, but also of being.

But I can’t help to worry: Are the divisions within the feminist movement (not to talk about the feminist and transgender women movement rifts) are impeding the advent of a non-white-male-centered data-logical turn?

Loza’s piece highlights an important part of hashtag feminism’s work (for me, maybe not for all hashtag feminists): the ability to connect online and offline activism. This interconnectedness seems like a natural extension of hashtag feminist’s work; taking digital conversations and translating them into face-to-face work. I found this piece (on my Twitter feed) about the importance of net neutrality for black online spaces. The piece cemented these ideas about how what happens online creeps into our face-to-face spaces.

In a Digital Age, (Black) Feminism Demands an Open Internet, Malkia Cyril quotes a section of Alicia Garza’s speech at NetGain, a conference focused on building partnerships for a stronger digital society. During her presentation, Garza, co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter, shared this: “Black Lives Matter is much more than a hashtag—it is an organizing principle. It’s more than a moment, it’s a movement for Black lives.” Garza also shares: “We’ll know that Black Lives Matter when we all have access to digital spaces that create open spaces, work for all of us, and do not criminalize us.”

Notably, Garza points to the interconnectedness of our online and offline lives. How who we are online/what conversations we start and are a part of/the hashtags we produce and reproduce–that they matter in real life too. And this is not only important for #blacklivesmatter. It’s also key for #girlslikeus, #translivesmatter, and other conversations that may not have specific hashtags associated with them.

It’s worth noting that Jessie Daniels has been writing a series of blog posts that critique white feminism’s response to inequality or what Daniels calls “the trouble with white feminism.” While this series is not solely focused on cyber-racism or digital identities, Daniels writing is closely related as it illuminates the power of the media/images/discourse and how ideas that seem natural (white feminism) need to be unpacked, challenged, and reworked. Daniel’s work (not just in this series) is a strong example of the intricacies of digital identities. Her work, and that of others (like Loza, Lee, and Abreu) demonstrate how conversations about feminism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia that take place online are serious and can have serious implications for what is happening offline.

Maybe it’s because I follow many of these activists in my (constructed) Twitter feed. Or maybe I’m an idealist. But I see value/productive power in these virtual conversations; even the messy ones, the ones where I want to scream: Are you kidding me, you’re actually writing this (potentially ignorant stuff) for all to see?!?!?!? I believe that digital conversations can move off the screen and into our face-to-face conversations.

It’s also important to remember that not everyone can or is taking part in these online/hashtag conversations (hashtag feminism is not for everyone).  Janet Mock brings up a similar point in a recent blog post about the violence affecting the trans women of color community. While some trans women of color, including Mock, have become visible via the media, many others are still invisible–and transphobia, racism, violence, and hatred persist.  Mock writes: “What we can’t expect this visibility to do is cure our society of its longstanding prejudice, miseducation and myths surrounding trans women.” As such, conversations that are happening in digital spaces also needs to occur in-person. And they must include a wider audience–in attempts to continue to counter prejudice and miseducation.

‘Choosing’ to own my labor

When Ofek, Blog Editor of biology-online.org asks Danielle Lee to commit to a non-paying guest blogging spot—she says NO–as she does not want to work for free. In response, Ofek calls Lee a ‘whore.’ The idea that this editor (a man) would call her a ‘whore’ because she values her labor (and wants to control how she uses it) is disgusting. This interaction reflects how the labor of some people (who are often women, queer, trans, low-income, brown or black) continues to be taken for granted/under- or devalued/appropriated—by those who sit in the inner circle (this is a reference to Dorothy’s Smith’s work who critiques sociology’s white/male inner circle and its power to make decisions on what types of knowledge is taught/published/learned).

I can’t help but to think about Marx and his idea that the excess (surplus) labor of the proletariat results in profit for the bourgeoisie. In choosing not to work for free, Lee is (perhaps) preventing Ofek (and his site) from making money off of her education/insight/expertise–the ‘bourgeoisie’ who benefit in this concept of surplus labor. While Lee has a ‘choice’ here, she and many other people with marginalized identities do not always (often?) have this choice. An by choosing not to give away her labor for free, Lee is taking a risk (which we can clearly see in

It’s ironic that this conversation is taking place online–so perhaps to connect back to Loza’s article and Garza’s points above, she is helping make visible the invisible and connecting online and offline issues of sexism, racism, exploitation….and many more.