This past week, I went to the New School in New York City to attend #DL14—the fifth conference on digital labor spurred by Trebor Scholz’s The Internet As Playground and Factory. Each year, the conference invites artists and activists, technologists and scholars to interrogate both the digitization of labor and the labor of digitization. This year’s participants were asked to focus on questions of contemporary worker solidarity online and off, including What does it mean to be a participant in a crowd instead of a worker in a collective? Can digital laborers organize outside the protocols of their capture? And, perhaps most importantly: What can a future of digital solidarity look like, and for whom?
The conference started Thursday night with a screening of the documentary film WORKINGMAN’S DEATH by Austrian director Michael Glawogger. The 2005 film follows several groups of manual and industrial laborers across the globe—from miners in Ukraine to butchers in Nigeria, sulfur carriers in Indonesia to welders in Pakistan—in order to remind audiences of the myth that labor in the 21st century is ‘immaterial.’ In screening the film as an epigraph to the entire conference, #DL14 took a necessary ethical stance—advocating that solidarities for digital, cognitive laborers cannot and must not preclude those for industrial and manual work.
Above: the trailer for Glawogger’s WORKINGMAN’S DEATH
After the greater context given by WORKINGMAN’S DEATH, the next morning I attended the panel Culture Workers of the World Unite! to engage the simultaneously privileged and precarious nature of contemporary cultural labor. Panelists Greig de Peuter and Nicole Cohen presented on their rigorous research group CULTURAL WORKERS ORGANIZE. In thinking about ‘flexworkers’ (i.e. precarious digital and cultural workers) as the “protagonists of a recomposition of labour politics today,” Cohen and de Peuter task themselves with parsing through the structures that could help support these workers—including traditional unions, grassroots worker associations, welfare policies, and institutional innovations. Their website currently houses a list of over 70 organizations that focus on this important theoretical and practical work.
Above: Photo by Christian Frock
Later that day, I was confronted with the difficult decision of which panel to attend: Value Capture and the Affect Machine…? Digital Labor & Sex Work…? Fairness in Crowd Work…? I ended up wandering into The Labor of Love & The New Soviet Man in Silicon Valley, and am so glad that I did. The presenters offered an incredible range of entry points into digital labor: Burak Arikan spoke about the “graph commons,” and how to open up the modes of charting and analyzing networks; Stephanie Rothenberg talked about her creative and research practices around the affect of online philanthropy—who it’s really for and how it really feels; Benj Gerdes gave a short comedic performance about co-working, freelancing, and a creepy children’s book on drones; Ben Thorp Brown read poems that he commissioned from Amazon Mechanical Turk workers about their experiences with “mTurk” labor; and Elliot Vredenburg offered his most urgent hopes for a “social media surrealism” to disrupt the “soft-Stalinism” of social media architectures.
I was most struck by Vredenberg’s presentation, which employed a polyphonic language of theoretical citations, visual metaphors, and historical hauntings to interrogate freedom and speech in social media platforms. He started with a premonition from Žižek: that capitalism would re-invent its own form of socialism in order to survive. Vredenberg posited that contemporary social media platforms ontologically fulfill this premonition, specifically mirroring a “soft-Stalinist” socialist order in which the regulation of publics is total, bureaucratic, and naturalized. Their lack of love is obtuse.
Because information processing is always political (how do we sort noise and “rabble” from validated information and “speech”?), how we speak in informational networks requires a political form or poetics. He pointed to the surrealist Polish protest movement Orange Alternative, and their strategies of over-identifying with the Stalinist order—of turning the ideal socialist subject into an extreme spectacle in order to expose its limitations. Vredenberg asks: can there be an equivalent surrealist speech for the soft-Stalinism of social media practices? I think this question is an urgent and speculative one, worth holding on to for awhile. I plan on engaging it along with other questions of silence and speaking in networks within my own research.
Later that evening, I watched the essay video “Workers Leaving the Googleplex” by Andrew Norman Wilson, who unfortunately couldn’t make it to the conference for his talk. The video, which takes its name from the 1895 Lumière film “Workers Leaving the Factory,” details Wilson’s experience working at Google next to the 3.14 ScanOps building, in which yellow badge Google workers digitize books as a form of invisiblized labor.