Essay of the Day: Framework for Critically Analysing Digital Labour

* Essay: Digital Workers of the World Unite! A Framework for Critically Theorising and Analysing Digital Labour. By Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval. Triple C, Vol 12, No 2 (2014)

From the Abstract:

“The overall task of this paper is to elaborate a typology of the forms of labour that are needed for the production, circulation, and use of digital media. First, we engage with the question what labour is, how it differs from work, which basic dimensions it has and how these dimensions can be used for defining digital labour. Second, we introduce the theoretical notion of the mode of production as analytical tool for conceptualizing digital labour. Modes of production are dialectical units of relations of production and productive forces. Relations of production are the basic social relations that shape the economy. Productive forces are a combination of labour power, objects and instruments of work in a work process, in which new products are created. Third, we have a deeper look at dimensions of the work process and the conditions under which it takes place. We present a typology that identifies dimensions of working conditions. It is a general typology that can be used for the analysis of any production process. Fourth, we apply the typology of working conditions to the realm of digital labour and identify different forms of digital labour and the basic conditions, under which they take place. Finally, we discuss political implications of our analysis and what can be done to overcome bad working conditions that digital workers are facing today.”

An excerpt from the conclusion:

“In this paper, we have introduced a cultural-materialist approach for theorising digital labour. Many approaches are idealist in that they define concepts such as digital labour, virtual work, online work, cyberwork, immaterial labour, knowledge labour, creative work, cultural labour, communicative labour, information(al) work, digital craft, service work, prosumption, consumption work, audience labour, playbour, etc., only as an externalisation of human ideas that are objectified in contents and thereby neglect that this labour is based on and only possible because there is a global division of labour, in which many different forms of labour are conducted under specific modes of production. We have used Raymond Williams’ framework of cultural materialism for arguing that we should overcome digital idealism and analyse digital labour based the framework of digital materialism.

We have introduced specific concepts for a digital materialist theory of digital labour: cultural work, physical cultural work, information work, modes of production, productive forces, relations of production, digital work, digital labour, physical digital work/labour (agricultural digital work/labour, industrial digital work/labour), informational digital work/labour. Furthermore we have suggested a digital labour analysis toolbox that distinguishes elements of digital labour processes and can be used as framework for the concrete empirical analysis of specific forms of digital work/labour. Conducting such analyses often faces the problem of what the elements of analysis are. We argue for avoiding particularistic analyses that focus only on single elements of single production processes and for conducting holistic analyses that focus on the totality of elements and networks that determine and shape digital labour. The toolkit allows analysing the totality of elements of elements of digital labour processes. Digital labour analysis should also look at how one specific form of digital labour that is analysed is connected to and articulated with other forms of digital labour that express certain organisational forms of the productive forces and the relations of production.
The world of digital media is shaped by a complex global articulation of various modes of production that together constitute the capitalist mode of creating and using digital media. The digital tools that we use for writing, reading, communicating, uploading, browsing, collaborating, chatting, befriending, or liking are embedded into a world of exploitation. Yet most of us cannot and do not want to imagine a world without digital media. So the alternative is not digital Luddism, but political praxis.

Digital labour analysis can only interpret the digital media world; the point is to change it. Change can only be good change if it is informed change. Critical theory can inform potential and actual struggles for a better world. Everyday working realities of different people and in different parts of the world look so heterogeneous, different and unconnected that it is often difficult to see what they have in common. Digital labour theory and digital labour analysis can help to identify and make visible the common and different experiences of suffering and enjoyment, pleasure and pain, security and insecurity, alienation and appropriation, exploitation and resistance, creativity and toil. It is in this respect a digital sociology of critique. But it is at the same time also a political philosophy, a critical digital sociology that helps identifying and clarifying foundations and germ forms of a better future and grounding judgements about what is good and bad in the context of digital media. Digital labour theory and analysis therefore takes on the role of a critical sociology of critique that is both at once a critical sociology and a sociology of critique (Boltanski and Honneth 2009). It analyses the reality of life under digital capitalism, contributes intellectually to questioning this mode of human existence in order to show that there is and to help realise life beyond capitalism.”