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Book of the Day: Digital Labor

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
18th November 2012


* Book: Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. Edited by Trebor Scholz. Routledge, 2012.

Proceedings and essays derived from an important conference in NYC which focused on the relation between play and labor (‘playbour’), that was organized under the impulse of Trebor Scholz. Below, I’m also posting my own contribution, i.e. Theses on Digital Labor.

“Digital Labor asks whether life on the internet is mostly work, or play. We tweet, we tag photos, we link, we review books, we comment on blogs, we remix media, and we upload video to create much of the content that makes up the web. And large corporations profit on our online activity by tracking our interests, affiliations, and habitsâand then collecting and selling the data. What is the nature of this interactive âlaborâ and the new forms of digital sociality that it brings into being?

The international, interdisciplinary contributors to Digital Labor suggest that there is no longer a clear divide between the personal and work, as every aspect of life drives the digital economy: sexual desire, boredom, friendship and all become fodder for speculative profit. They argue that we are living in a total labor society and the way in which we are commoditized, racialized, and engendered is profoundly and disturbingly normalized by the dominant discourse of digital culture.

Digital Labor poses a series of questions about our digital present:

How is the global crisis of capitalism linked to the hidden labor of the digital economy?

How do we address that most online interaction, whether work or play, for profit or not, is taking place on corporate platforms?

How can we acknowledge moments of exploitation while not eradicating optimism, inspiration, and the many instances of individual financial and political empowerment?

In response to these questions, this collection offers new definitions of digital labor that address and challenge the complex, hybrid realities of the digital economy.”

Thesis on Digital Labor, by Michel Bauwens:

“”Peer to peer is the ideology of the new cognitive working class. The majority of workers in Western countries are no longer involved in factory work, but are either cognitive or service workers. There are strong connections between peer-to-peer values such as openness, participation, as well as commons-orientation and the structural conditions of this new working class.

First, peer-to-peer responds to the ideal conditions for cognitive work. For cognitive work to progress, it needs participation of all those who can contribute, the knowledge needs to be freely shared, and available to all who will need the same material in the future. It is no accident that peer production was born amongst the developers of software code, who are uniquely dependent on access to shareable code in order to progress in their work.

Under structural conditions of exploitative and Intellectual Property-constrained wage-based knowledge work, peer production is the modality of life and work that cognitive workers aspire too, and engage in whenever they can either escape voluntarily from waged labor, or are obliged to engage in because of a precarious exodus outside of wage labor in the context of conditions of temporary or permanent economic crisis.

Peer-to-peer corresponds to the objective needs of the new craft structure of cognitive labor. Cognitive workers are no longer primarily engaged in long-term factory work, but have very flexible career paths, by choice or necessity, which require them to change from being wage laborers, to independent free lance consultants, to being entrepreneurs, and back again. Under conditions of chosen or forced flexibility, workers have an objective interested in being networked, in order to gain practical experience, and social and reputational capital, as well as access to networks of exchange and solidarity. Networked peer production is the best avenue to obtain these advantages.

Peer to peer, and engagement with peer production, is the objective condition of participation into networks, and therefore affects and engages all network users, to the degree that they are engaged in online collaboration and knowledge exchange, and the eventual creation of common value through such free aggregation of effort. All work however, has cognitive aspects, and so today, all workers are exposed to networks and the peer-to-peer value system. The peer-to-peer value system and peer production as a social dynamic are therefore NOT constrained to full-time knowledge workers, but to the totality of the working class and working people.

Because of the hyperproductive nature of peer production, which allows for broader participation and input, passionate engagement, and universal distribution of its benefits (conditioned by network access), it attracts the participation and engagement of capital, through the activities of netarchical capitalists.

Netarchical capital is that sector of capital, which understands the hyper-productive nature of peer production and therefore enables and empowers social production to occur, but conditioned by the possibility of value extraction to the benefit of the holders of capital.

Peer production is both immanent and transcendent vis a vis capitalism because it has features which strongly decommodifies both labor and immaterial value and institutes a field of action based on peer-to-peer dynamics and a peer-to-peer value system. Peer production functions within the cycle of accumulation of capital, but also within the new cycle of the creation and accumulation of the commons. Netarchical capital uses peer production for its own accumulation of capital; peer producers naturally strive for the continued existence and protection of their commons.

The creation of commons under the rule of capital is NOT a zero sum game. This means that the fact or objective relation between the commons and capital does not automatically constitute a hard and fast distinction between capitalist and anti-capitalist commons. Workers associated with peer production have a natural interest to maintain and expand the commons of knowledge, code and design, and under conditions of capital, the role of wage labor and capitalist investment contributes to the sustainability of both the commons and the commoners.

However, under conditions of capitalist crisis, commoners have an objective interest in maintaining commons and conditions of participation that create maximum independence from capital, and aim for its eventual replacement as dominant system. We propose that this can happen through the creation of non-capitalist, community-supportive, benefit-driven entities that participate in market exchange without participating in capital accumulation. Benefit-driven institutions are responsible for the financial sustainability and social reproduction of the commoners, as well as for the protection and strengthening of the commons.

Through the use of a new type of peer production license, commoners can freely share the commons with commons-friendly entities, while charging for-profit entities who do not reciprocate to the commons, thereby creating a positive feedback loop which creates a commons-centered counter-economy. Crucial for phase transition under conditions of capitalist crisis is to combine the emergent counter-economy, and its working solutions to issues of social reproduction, to the broad social movements that emerge to protect the life conditions of working people.

Traditional labor and their organizations has an objective interest, under conditions of declining capitalism, to adopt the idea of global and shared innovation commons, and thereby ally themselves with the emergence and deepening of peer production. In conditions of social strife, capitalist corporations can be transformed into workers-owned, self-managed entities that create their own commons of shared knowledge, code, and design.

Farmers and agricultural workers have a similar interest in the creation of shared innovation commons in order to transform soil-depleting industrial agriculture into smart eco-agriculture based on shared innovation commons uniting farmers and agricultural knowledge workers.

Commons-oriented peer production can both strengthen netarchical capital and hence the system of capital accumulation, and the reproduction of the commons. Peer producers can both benefit for corporate platforms, while struggling for their own rights as the real value creators, and in conditions of social strength, could potentially take over such platforms as common or publicly owned utilities.

Participants in commoner-owned for-benefit entities can significantly transcend purely competitive market dynamics, while avoiding authoritarian central planning, through the adoption of open book management, adaptation to the publicly available signaling, as well as through negotiated coordination of production and distribution. This does not obviate possible need for democratic planning through citizen participation, whenever this is needed and wished for. However, it creates broad areas for mutual alignment of productive capacities.

The traditional ideologies and movements of the industrial labor movement became largely associated with collective property. Peer production opens the avenue for more distributed property, whereby individuals can freely aggregate, not only their immaterial productive resources, but their material productive resources. Under those conditions, possible abuse of collective property is balanced by the individual freedom of forking productive resources.

Peer production is vital for sustainability and biosphere-friendly production methods, as open design communities design naturally for sustainability, but also transform the production process itself, for example to insure participation and more distributed access to productive resources. Combined with the development of more distributed machinery, as well as more distributed capital allocation, peer production can lead to a new system that combines smart material re-localization, with global cooperative innovation, and the existence of global phyles uniting peer production entities on a global ‘material’ scale. Phyles are transnational, community-supportive entities, which create a new layer of post-capitalist material cooperation.

Free labor is only problematic under conditions of precarity and non-reciprocal value capture by (netarchical) capital. Under conditions of social solidarity, the freely given participation to common value projects is a highly emancipatory activity.

Because of its hyper-productive nature, and inherent ecological sustainability, peer production becomes the condition for transcending capitalism. Its own logic, i.e. free contributions to a commons, managed by for-benefit associations and made sustainable through for-benefit entrepreneurship of the commoners themselves, create a seed form for a new social and economic form, centered around the core value creation of the commons, managed and contributed to by both for-benefit associations and entrepreneurial coalitions, and sustained by participatory collective services, which form the basis of a new model of the Partner State, which enables and empowers social production as the core reason of its existence.

The hyper-productivity of peer production, makes it conform to the dual conditions for phase transitions, i.e. the crisis of the old model of production, and the availability of a working alternative which can perform better while solving a number of systemic problems plaguing the current dominant form of production. The task of the movements of cognitive and other forms of labor, is to create a new hegemony and a new commons- based alliance for social change, which challenges the domination of capital, the commodity form, and the biospheric destruction that is inherent to it.”

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