Cyber-proletariat

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Joseph Kay's picture
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Jun 7 2015 18:37
Cyber-proletariat

New book by Nick Dyer-Witheford:

The utopian promise of the internet, much talked about even a few years ago, has given way to the information highway’s brutal realities: coltan mines in the Congo, electronics factories in China, devastated neighborhoods in Detroit. In Cyber-Proletariat, Nick Dyer-Witheford shows the dark side of the information revolution through an unsparing analysis of class power and computerization. He reveals how technology facilitates growing polarization between wealthy elites and precarious workers and how class dominates everything from expanding online surveillance to intensifying robotization. At the same time he looks at possibilities for information technology within radical movements, casting contemporary economic and social struggles in the blue glow of the computer screen.

http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/C/bo20704212.html

Anyone read this yet? It looks very good.

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Jun 10 2015 19:12

It's technically not out yet, though you can read the introduction at the publisher's website. I read an early version of that introduction (he's my supervisor) and I'm excited to read the rest.

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Jun 10 2015 19:39

That's odd, I finished reading it yesterday confused

(and not because I'm special, bought it off Amazon)

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Jun 10 2015 21:53

This term has been thrown around for a while. There's a bit about it in The Internet is Not the Answer

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Jun 10 2015 21:56

Saw this on Reddit today, watching now

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtSqlfZgnm4

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Jun 10 2015 22:34

Really? Then it must've been out in Europe before north america. I've got my copy on preorder from amazon and they tell me I'll have it mid July!

How did you like it?

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Jun 11 2015 05:20

Still digesting it. Generally I liked it. It uses both an autonomist notion of class composition and a TC/Endnotes notion of 'rifts', without fully settling with either, to map the vast global digital proletariat and its segmentations by race/nationality/gender. So there's plenty on toxic microchip assembly work, Silicon Valley cleaners and security guards, microtasked content-moderators, extractive workers in DRC etc, which blows the 'we're all immaterial knowledge workers now' kinda hype out of the water very persusively.

Not sure about classing social media as unpaid labour like housework. He points out that Whatsapp was acquired by Facebook for $19bn while only having 55 employees, and that it's the activity of the user-base that gives a network its value (riffing on Metcalfe's Law). That seems plausible, yet the relation seems more one of usufruct rights in return for data ownership. That seems a novel kind of exploitation relationship and I'd have liked a more specific form-analysis than analogy to other forms of unpaid labour. I've seen it compared to feudal usufruct in land/payments in kind, but that doesn't seem quite right either. McKenzie Wark calls it 'vectoralism' (the owner of the communication vector accumulates information which they can monetise), but he juxtaposes that to capitalism, when such vectors are clearly capital imho, i.e. Facebook invests in server farms and software and coders as part of M-C-M'.

So I think he's kinda onto something here, but I wasn't fully persuaded (by him, or Wark, for that matter). I thought the autonomist analysis of Web 2.0 as recuperating the flight to peer-to-peer autonomy of earlier net culture was good, and I think the point generalises; Netflix/Spotify/Amazon Prime Instant Video as capital's response to decommodified peer-to-peer file sharing etc. That said I think he missed a trick in not noting how much social media use is itself part of a clandestine refusal of work by bored clerical strata. Major reason I pay for a smartphone is to skive at work, bypassing employer web monitoring.

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Jun 11 2015 05:28

Oh yeah, and it interestingly points out that the coiner of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, wrote to UAW leader Walter Reuther after WWII, warning him wholesale automation was only a matter of time, and urging the union to aquire the rights to then-nascent automation tech so that workers could control the process not be impoverished by it. I didn't realise Wiener had labour sympathies, and was under FBI surveillance. Shame he didn't have a critique of trade unions as Reuther ignored his advice.

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Jun 11 2015 05:31

None of this is new although I'll be grabbing this book when I can afford it. Unless the two of you fine gentlemen care to engage in some decommodified peer-to-peer file sharing with the digital proletariat, instead of just talking about it (;

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Jun 11 2015 05:38

Scanning it is exploitating my unpaid labour so I'm refusing to work. I'm sure pdfs will leak soon.

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Jun 11 2015 13:00
Quote:
Oh yeah, and it interestingly points out that the coiner of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, wrote to UAW leader Walter Reuther after WWII, warning him wholesale automation was only a matter of time, and urging the union to aquire the rights to then-nascent automation tech so that workers could control the process not be impoverished by it. I didn't realise Wiener had labour sympathies, and was under FBI surveillance. Shame he didn't have a critique of trade unions as Reuther ignored his advice.

Funny. First place I read about that was on this site. His letter is here.

And I completely agree with your critique of Nick arguing that social media is productive of value. Then again he is an autonomist so it's par for the course. If only he had taken part in our (countless it seems by now) discussions on unproductive labour.

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Jun 11 2015 17:18

I can't remember if he actually says using social media produces value; iirc he says that the market capitalisation of firms like Whatsapp reflects the unpaid labour of the network users, not just the labour of its waged employees. I think that's true (though I'm not sure I'd characterise tweeting as 'labour' except in the most generic sense of 'conscious human activity'), but I think it probably needs to be unpacked a bit more. In terms of mainstream economic categories, you could argue social media networks are natural monopolies (which is a stronger claim than Metcalfe's Law). In Marxist terms, it seems like (very algorithmically targeted) advertising is their commodity and advertisers are their customers, with market capitalisation reflecting (expected) revenues.

I know a lot of 'digital autonomist' types reject this as not grasping the way networks are totally different to newspapers, but in form-analytic terms I can't see why. Take early Twitter - it had a huge market valuation, but that was speculating that they'd find an effective way to monetise their user-base. If the revenues don't materialise, the bubble bursts and the speculators lose out. I guess I don't see why posting to Twitter is any more 'exploitation' than wearing branded clothes is (free reputational labour, building the goodwill on the brand's balance sheet). But I digress.

(On Wiener, for context the guy was a child prodigy - BSc in maths at 14, PhD by 17. I was surprised he was vaguely leftist due to cybernetics' military origins, though I think I might have confused/conflated him with John von Neumann).

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Jun 11 2015 19:32
Joseph Kay wrote:
I guess I don't see why posting to Twitter is any more 'exploitation' than wearing branded clothes is (free reputational labour, building the goodwill on the brand's balance sheet).

That's a curious comparison. Everytime you tweet, follow, retweet you help build the graph. Physically changing the structure of the data in their storage. Of course the content of your tweets is less interesting than the links you make. Wearing branded clothes does nothing like it or am I missing something.

I thought the common line was that you, the potential consumer (really the data you produce), is the commodity. The more time you spend the better the data will be so everything is done to make sure you stay logged in.

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Jun 11 2015 19:52
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I thought the common line was that you, the potential consumer (really the data you produce), is the commodity. The more time you spend the better the data will be so everything is done to make sure you stay logged in

Yes, but that doesn't make it exploitation. Exploitation must occur via the wage. In the case of us using social media day-to-day it is more like we are producing raw material for capital. But this is not a relation of production mediated by the wage in any shape or form. Hence, why there is no more exploitation than wearing branded clothes.

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Jun 11 2015 20:03

Maybe the brand thing is a bad comparison. I dunno, it just doesn't seem very helpful comparing the 'unpaid labour' of posting on facebook with the unpaid labour of housework. Like, the arrangement seems like usufruct of infrastructure in exchange for ownership of data. I'm open to that being 'exploitation of labour' in some sense, but it doesn't seem anything like either abstract labour or housework (housework's private, indirectly for capital, subject to 'the patriarchy of the wage'; social media's public, directly for capital - if we use the 'users produce the commodity data' frame, not mediated by the wage at all really...).

Like it's true that everything you do on social media enhances the data profile that allows the sale of targeted ads etc, but that's increasingly true of lots of things. Every time you use your debit/credit card, it enhances the data profile that allows the bank to detect and minimise fraud losses. Are you 'labouring for the bank' every time you buy something? If this 'big data everything' is significant, it seems to demand a specific analysis of the relationships and social forms involved.

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Jun 12 2015 04:44

Has he changed his analysis substantially since Cyber-Marx , or is it more of an update?
I'll read it either way - Cyber-Marx is from like 15 years ago so there's going to be a lot of new material to deal with regardless - but I'm just wondering if there's a notable theoretical shift as well.

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Jun 12 2015 06:10

It's a long time since I read it, but iirc Cyber-Marx was focused on 'high tech', 'the general intellect', and was quite pro late Negri (though it was published just before Empire). This book is pretty critical of Empire-era Negri, in large part by stressing how there's nothing immaterial about information technology, from coltan mines to toxic PCB assembly to the unseen proletariat in Silicon Valley and the microtasked moderators around the world. So I'd say it responds to the criticism of fetishising 'high tech' by showing how cybernetics (broadly understood) has changed class composition and the labour process, even as it drives expansion of extractive and assembly work. In this one he mentions the economic crisis puncturing the 90s/2000s tech optimism, which can be read partly as self-criticism I think, though it's mainly developed through a critique of Negri & Hardt.

Kambing
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Jun 12 2015 07:18

Ok, thanks for the summary. I recall Cyber-Marx being a little more grounded in the actual labour process than Negri, if not always as critical as it could be - but then I read it after some of his later work, which could have coloured my reading.

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Jun 12 2015 07:39

Yeah I must have read it the best part of a decade ago, so I might be misremembering, or remembering it through the lens of critical reviews.

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Jun 12 2015 12:53

IIRC the Aufheben review of Cyber-Marx was pretty good. So you could read that as a refresher?

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Jun 12 2015 13:04

They're usually pretty harsh and hate Negri... that was the critical review I was thinking of!

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Jun 12 2015 15:12

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Jun 12 2015 17:19

Tbh the idea that facebook is unpaid labour 'like housework' has really pissed me off. Housework is work, it's essential labour that we do which is important for survival. Facebook, unless you are promoting something as part of your work, is a leisure activity. You could always just not do it. Housework is tiring, essential, undervalued heavily unfairly distributed essential work. It's nothing like fucking about on the internet.

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Jun 12 2015 18:15

So, here's what he actually says. He's riffing on the Wages for Facebook Manifesto, which I took as tongue-in-cheek. And also something I missed on first pass; at the end he starts talking about how chinese sweatshop workers are exploited making computers and western consumers are exploited using them (while rejecting 'direct equivalence') :-/

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Jun 12 2015 19:12

He doesn't actually talk about housework at all there does he?
Edit. Oh, he does on the left hand page. But he doesn't really say anything.

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Jun 12 2015 19:05

Only insofar as he says the Wages for Facebook manifesto's "echo of the autonomist feminist 'wages for housework' campaign against the unpaid contribution of domestic work to value creation is intentional and apropos." I don't think he's saying they're the same, but that they're both forms of unpaid work for capital. But yeah I struggle to see it as work too, hence I read the WFM manifesto as a provocation rather than a literal analogy.

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Jun 13 2015 07:59

I don't think we are doing down the amount of work necessary to run a household by making the comparison. The key is the exploitation.
In the same way as people make their gardens look nice for their own pleasure or for community pride, but the property developer in the next street makes money off it as well.

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Jun 13 2015 09:31
fingers malone wrote:
Tbh the idea that facebook is unpaid labour 'like housework' has really pissed me off. Housework is work, it's essential labour that we do which is important for survival. Facebook, unless you are promoting something as part of your work, is a leisure activity. You could always just not do it. Housework is tiring, essential, undervalued heavily unfairly distributed essential work. It's nothing like fucking about on the internet.

A thousand times this.

Nick Dyer-Witheford might be smarter than saying it so bluntly, but the idea certain as (had?) a lot of cache amongst clever PhD theory bro types.

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Jun 13 2015 15:20

See, while I instinctively reject the idea that pissing about on facebook or twitter is 'unpaid work', it does seem a reasonable thing to say about say, duolingo (where you learn a language by translating text). Yet in both cases, you get gratis use of a service in return for producing marketable data for the owner of the service.

That's not abstract labour (no commodity exchange between labourer and owner of the product of labour). Nor is it anything like housework. But it is plausibly a means by which people do free labour for capital (the main claim of the Wages for Facebook manifesto).

Like I said above, McKenzie Wark calls it 'vectoralism', but sees it as post-capitalist. Whereas is still seems obviously capitalist to me: the 'vectoralists' invest money (M) in coders (labour power) and energy, servers (means of production) in order to produce data (commodity) which yields more money (M'). The difference to 'normal' capitalist production is the additional step, that in order to produce the data-commodity, the non-waged labour of users is directly essential (whereas a factory worker can still make cars if his wife leaves him and he has to cook his own dinner, or if he's an enlightened factory worker whose wife works and they split the chores and childcare 50-50 or whatever - the role of unpaid reproductive labour is in reproducing the commodity labour power, not the commodity sold by the capitalist, it's indirect).

And without sounding like Negri, the 'labour' of duolingo is arguably a post-work form of labour, where use values for others (translated texts) and use value for oneself (language skills) are produced simultaneously (albeit at the moment, still via the mediation of capital). Like, I don't really find the ways it's being theorised very satisfying, but I don't think it's as inherently ridiculous as it might sound (and I think that's the main comparison with wages for housework - the incredulity the demand elicits, which may seem like common sense in 30-40 years).

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Jun 13 2015 18:23
Joseph Kay wrote:
where use values for others (translated texts) and use value for oneself (language skills)

Well, I think this applies to most forms of concrete labor: you learn the skill as you do it. A hairdresser doing haircuts for people produces use-values for them, but also gets to be a better hairdresser. I don't see anything post-work about it. If anything, it's a central feature of all work (humans not only transform nature but also themselves, yadda yadda yadda).

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Jun 13 2015 18:34

True. I guess the difference, if there is one, isn't the use values so much as there's an extant allocation and incentive mechanism for the labour that isn't the wage. (Still not unique, people volunteer to do first aid at events etc, but the gamified personal development approach of duolingo is arguably a novel way to incentivise and allocate what could be rote work).