Workers of the digital world, unite!

Imagine a crowded city bus moving through the city at the end of a workday. Many raucous conversations are happening in multiple languages, but not one is between two people on that bus. Those who aren’t talking hunch forward, earbuds dangling, while they swipe at their devices. Ursula Huws describes this scene in the opening pages of Labor in the Global Digital Economy: The Cybertariat Comes of Age, inviting us to consider not only the social advantages of communication unrestricted by spatial or geographic constraints but also what we have lost in this transformation.

Who could have imagined the speed and degree with which cell phones, Internet connectivity, and social networks now permeate our daily lives less than a decade after the first iPhone was sold in 2007? The transformation of our social and material world since the turn of the century can hardly be overstated. How much profit, moreover, is generated from personal interactions that just recently were beyond the grip of the market?

Huws asks us to consider the fees paid for cellular service, the infrastructure to provide it, the “large number of companies” that “extract coal and oil, erect windmills, run power stations, make cables, and create

channels for them to be laid under our roads and fields and oceans. Not to mention the scientists who design the rockets that are blasted into space to put the satellites into orbit.” The scale of human activity set into motion to make such scenes possible is truly staggering. But we are left to ask, “Is it worth it?”

In many ways, Labor in the Global Digital Economy takes up where Huws left off in her 2003 book, The Making of a Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World. She doesn’t offer definitive answers to the questions raised in her previous book, but she does offer insights on the changing nature of work, the increasing commodification of previously unexploited spheres of life, the changing composition of the working class, and the ways in which these changes might open new opportunities for solidarity and struggle.

Beginning with the nature of work, she contends that the idea of “occupational identity” is fading fast. For much of the twentieth century, especially in the manufacturing sector, a person could spend their entire working life performing roughly the same activity; for example, assembling brakes on a car, even if the tooling or processes might change. Huws argues that increasingly, employers want us to live in “a world in which there are no limits, in the sense of ‘this is what I do and this is what I don’t do as part of my job,’ where each job description is infinitely elastic and there is never a point at which the worker can sit back and think, ‘At last, I’m trained. I have a recognized occupation. Now I can relax and just get on with the job.’”

The demand by employers for “labor flexibility” is not a new phenomenon. However, the pace of technological change and the burden of training and retraining at ever-shorter intervals provide management with more opportunity to reconsider their options. As a result, many high-tech industries, like software development, routinely hire contract labor or employees for specific time intervals or projects. It has created a regime of permanent job insecurity and permanent stress for millions of workers, or as Huws puts it, “a world in which you are only as good as last week’s performance.”

In her discussion of the labor process, rather than trying to cover the entire weighty subject, Huws focuses on the changes to intellectual labor (as opposed to manual labor) over the recent decades. The routinization, standardization, and commodification of the labor process have blurred the lines between manual and intellectual labor. This process, at work for the better part of the twentieth century, has brought the discipline of the assembly line into quarters historically protected from such control.

However, Huws argues, the process is not a one-way street. Each new round of standardization or automation requires innovation and the accumulated expertise of a number of workers who in turn become central to its implementation. Those workers may eventually be dispensed with after implementation, but as the market demands more change and more innovation the process begins anew. While the number of necessary workers may dwindle, their relative power may multiply and less coordination may be necessary to halt the entire operation outright. Thus it is difficult to draw up a balance sheet over time between those workers who gain more control and autonomy, and workers who lose control of their work situation.

Throughout the book, Huws covers well-traveled ground but offers thought-provoking ideas on a number of subjects. For example, how should we characterize the value generated by companies like Google and Facebook? In 1977, Dallas Smythe developed the concept of the “audience commodity,” speaking then of television and radio advertising. Smythe argued that the division between worker and consumer was dissolving and that all nonsleeping time had become work-time, with some time spent producing general commodities and some time producing an “audience commodity” to advertisers and media companies.

More contemporary writers like Christian Fuchs have taken up this concept to argue that the act of sharing photos and searching the Internet have become value-generating activities or “productive labor.” Huws counters by asking if surfing the Internet can be considered a commodity, “how useful is such a broad conception of the term?” She draws on Marx to put forward a more specific definition of commodity but one that no longer seems to fit the scenario in question. So if such “audience time” is not a commodity, what is happening?

If they do not derive from the sale of commodities, how can we understand the profits made by online social networking or search engine companies? An alternative explanation, and one that has long antecedents in the offline world, is that they derive from rent.

Huws continues,

The value that accrues to the social networking and search engine sites does indeed ultimately derive from surplus value produced by labor. But this is the labor of the workers who produced the commodities that are advertised on these sites, not the labor of the people who use the sites.

This discussion, and several others, hint at Huws’s main argument, which comes through clearly in the final chapter: “The underpinnings of class in the digital age: Living, labor, and value.” Huws makes a hard argument in defense of Marx’s conception of class, where class is defined by its position in the relations of production. She engages with Hardt and Negri’s theory of “the multitude” and Guy Standing’s “precariat,” but ultimately concludes they obscure more than they illuminate.

Without a clear sense of which workers are engaged directly in the antagonistic relation to capital that characterizes commodity production, and without identifying where that point of production is located, it is impossible to identify strategies that will enable labor to confront capital or to discover where it is possible to exercise some power to shape the future in labor’s own interests.

Huws is interested in the real experiences of modern workers and their possible avenues of resistance. Throughout the book, she asks as many questions as she answers, but she is determined to bring clarity wherever she can—though she at times relies too heavily on anecdotal evidence. For anyone seeking to understand the changing nature of work, Labor in the Digital Global Economy has a lot to offer.

Issue #84

June 2012

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An interview with Michelle Alexander
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