Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval on Digital Work and Digital Labour

Excerpted from Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval:

“The realm of digital media is a specific subsystem of the cultural industries and of cultural labour. Digital labour is a specific form of cultural labour that has to do with the production and productive consumption of digital media. There are other forms of cultural labour that are non-digital. Think for example of a classical music or rock concert. But these forms of live entertainment that are specific types of cultural labour also do not exist independently from the digital realm: Artists publish their recordings in digital format on iTunes, Spotify, and similar online platforms. Fans bring their mobile phones for taking pictures and recording concert excerpts that they share on social media platforms. There is little cultural labour that is fully independent from the digital realm today. The notion of digital work and digital labour wants to signify those forms of cultural labour that contribute to the existence of digital technologies and digital content. It is a specific form of cultural labour.

If culture were merely symbolic, mind, spirit, “immaterial”, superstructural, informational, a world of ideas, then digital labour as expression of culture clearly would exclude the concrete works of mining and hardware assemblage that are required for producing digital media. Williams’ Cultural Materialism, contrary to the position of Cultural Idealism, makes it possible to argue that digital labour includes both the creation of physical products and information that are required for the production and usage of digital technologies. Some digital workers create hardware, others hardware components, minerals, software or content that are all objectified in or the outcome of the application of digital technologies. Some workers, e.g. miners, not just contribute to the emergence of digital media, but to different products. If one knows the mines’ sales, then it is possible to determine to which extent the performed labour is digital or other labour.

In order to illustrate this point that culture is material, we now want return in greater detail to a passage where Marx reflects about the work of making and playing the piano. Marx wrote:
Productive labour is only that which produces capital. Is it not crazy, asks e.g. (or at least something similar) Mr Senior, that the piano maker is a productive worker, but not the piano player, although obviously the piano would be absurd without the piano player? But this is exactly the case. The piano maker reproduces capital; the pianist only exchanges his labour for revenue. But doesn’t the pianist produce music and satisfy our musical ear, does he not even to a certain extent produce the latter? He does indeed: his labour produces something; but that does not make it productive labour in the economic sense; no more than the labour of the madman who produces delusions is productive. Labour becomes productive only by producing its own opposite (Marx 1857/58, 305).

Williams remarks that today, other than in Marx’s time, “the production of music (and not just its instruments) is an important branch of capitalist production” (Williams 1977, 93).
If the economy and culture are two separate realms, then building the piano is work and part of the economy and playing it is not work, but culture. Marx leaves however no doubt that playing the piano produces a use-value that satisfies human ears and is therefore a form of work. As a consequence, the production of music must just like the production of the piano be an economic activity. Williams (1977, 94) stresses that cultural materialism means to see the material character of art, ideas, aesthetics and ideology and that when considering piano making and piano playing it is important to discover and describe “relations between all these practices” and to not assume “that only some of them are material”.

Apart from the piano maker and the piano player there is also the composer of music. All three forms of work are needed and necessarily related in order to guarantee the existence of piano music. Fixing one of these three productive activities categorically as culture and excluding the others from it limits the concept of culture and does not see that one cannot exist without the other. Along with this separation come political assessments of the separated entities. A frequent procedure is to include the work of the composer and player and to exclude the work of the piano maker. Cultural elitists then argue that only the composer and player are truly creative, whereas vulgar materialists hold that only the piano maker can be a productive worker because he works with his hands and produces an artefact. Both judgments are isolationist and politically problematic.

Taking the example of piano music and transferring it to digital media, we find correspondences: Just like we find piano makers, music composers and piano players in the music industry, we find labour involved in hardware production (makers), content and software production (composers) and productive users (prosumers, players, play labour) in the world of digital labour. In the realm of digital labour, we have to emphasize that practices are “from the beginning social and material” (Williams 1989, 206).

There is a difference if piano makers, players and music composers do so just as a hobby or for creating commodities that are sold on the market. This distinction can be explored based on Marx’s distinction between work (Werktätigkeit) and labour (Arbeit): Brigitte Weingart (1997) describes the origins of the terms work in English and Arbeit and Werk in German: In German, the word Arbeit comes from the Germanic term arba, which meant slave. The English term work comes from the Middle English term weorc. It was a fusion of the Old English terms wyrcan (creating) and wircan (to affect something). So to work means to create something that brings about some changes in society. Weorc is related to the German terms Werk and werken. Both work in English and Werk in German were derived from the Indo-European term uerg (doing, acting). Werken in German is a term still used today for creating something. Its origins are quite opposed to the origins of the term Arbeit. The result of the process of werken is called Werk. Both werken and Werk have the connotative meaning of being creative. Both terms have an inherent connotation of artistic creation. Arendt (1958, 80f) confirms the etymological distinction between ergazesthai (Greek)/facere, fabricari (Latin)/work (English)/werken (German)/ouvrer (French) and ponein (Greek)/laborare (Latin)/labour (English)/arbeiten (German)/travailler (French).

Raymond Williams (1983, 176–179) argues that the word “labour” comes from the French word labor and the Latin term laborem and appeared in the English language first around 1300. It was associated with hard work, pain and trouble. In the 18th century, it would have attained the meaning of work under capitalist conditions that stands in a class relationship with capital. The term “work” comes from the Old English word weorc and is the “most general word for doing something” (ibid, 334). In capitalism the term on the one hand has, according to Williams (ibid, 334–337), acquired the same meaning as labour—a paid job—but would have in contrast also kept its original broader meaning. In order to be able to differentiate the dual historical and essential character of work, it is feasible to make a semantic differentiation between labour and work.
The meaning and usage of words develops historically and may reflect the structures and changes of society, culture and the economy. Given that we find an etymological distinction between the general aspects of productive human activities and the specific characteristics that reflect the realities of class societies, it makes sense to categorically distinguish between the anthropological dimension of human creative and productive activities that result in use-values that satisfy human needs and the historical dimension that describes how these activities are embedded into class relations (Fuchs 2014a).

Human subjects have labour power. Their labour in the work process interacts with the means of production (object). The means of production consist of the object of labour (resources, raw materials) and the instruments of labour (technology). In the work process, humans transform an object (nature, culture) by making use of their labour power with the help of instruments of labour. The result is a product that unites the objectified labour of the subject with the objective materials s/he works on. Work becomes objectified in a product and the object is as a result transformed into a use value that serves human needs. The productive forces are a system, in which subjective productive forces (human labour power) make use of technical productive forces (part of the objective productive forces) in order to transform parts of the nature/culture so that a product emerges.

The general work process is an anthropological model of work under all historical conditions. The connection of the human subject to other subjects in figure 4 indicates that work is normally not conducted individually, but in relations with others. A society could hardly exist based on isolated people trying to sustain themselves independently. It requires economic relations in the form of co-operation and a social organization of production, distribution and consumption. This means that work takes place under specific historical social relations of production. There are different possibilities for the organization of the relations of production. In general the term labour points towards the organization of labour under class relations, i.e. power relationships that determine that any or some of the elements in the work process are not controlled by the workers themselves, but by a group of economic controllers. Labour designates specific organization forms of work, in which the human subject does not control his/her labour power (she is compelled to work for others) and/or there is a lack of control of the objects of labour and/or the instruments of labour and/or the products of labour.

Karl Marx pinpoints this lack of control by the term alienation and understands the unity of these forms of alienation as exploitation of labour: “The material on which it [labour] works is alien material; the instrument is likewise an alien instrument; its labour appears as a mere accessory to their substance and hence objectifies itself in things not belonging to it. Indeed, living labour itself appears as alien vis-à-vis living labour capacity, whose labour it is, whose own life’s expression it is, for it has been surrendered to capital in exchange for objectified labour, for the product of labour itself. […] labour capacity’s own labour is as alien to it – and it really is, as regards its direction etc.—as are material and instrument. Which is why the product then appears to it as a combination of alien material, alien instrument and alien labour—as alien property” (Marx 1857/58, 462).

Given these preliminary assumptions about the work-labour distinction and cultural materialism, one can provide a definition of digital work and digital labour:

Digital work is a specific form of work that makes use of the body, mind or machines or a combination of all or some of these elements as an instrument of work in order to organize nature, resources extracted from nature, or culture and human experiences, in such a way that digital media are produced and used. The products of digital work are depending on the type of work: minerals, components, digital media tools or digitally mediated symbolic representations, social relations, artefacts, social systems and communities. Digital work includes all activities that create use-values that are objectified in digital media technologies, contents and products generated by applying digital media” (Fuchs 2014a, 352).

Digital labour is alienated digital work: it is alienated from itself, from the instruments and objects of labour and from the products of labour. Alienation is alienation of the subject from itself (labour-power is put to use for and is controlled by capital), alienation from the object (the objects of labour and the instruments of labour) and the subject-object (the products of labour). Digital work and digital labour are broad categories that involve all activities in the production of digital media technologies and contents. This means that in the capitalist media industry, different forms of alienation and exploitation can be encountered. Examples are slave workers in mineral extraction, Taylorist hardware assemblers, software engineers, professional online content creators (e.g. online journalists), call centre agents and social media prosumers” (Fuchs 2014a, 351f).

Work and labour are not isolated individual activities, but take place as part of social relations and larger modes of how the economy is organised. The concepts of digital work and digital labour need therefore to be related to a concept that can describe the organisational structure of the economy. One such concept is Marx’s notion of the mode of production.”

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