tt on Sun, 2 Apr 2000 12:43:41 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] Free labor 1/2

This is a paper very directly inspired by nettime debates (and other stuff),
so it won't be that unfamiliar to the list's old hands. A much longer
version will be published in the Summer issue of the journal Social Text
(Duke University Press). The basic argument, if you don't want to read the
whole thing, is that users' labor (free labor, un-waged, sometimes
exploited, voluntary labor) is the most consistent trait of the Internet
economy and also a phenomenon which goes beyond the Internet in a narrow

Have a good read

Tiziana Terranova
Department of Cultural Studies
University of East London
East Building, 4 University Way
E16 8RD

course tutor of the MA in Multimedia: Production, Theories, Cultures

Free labor: producing culture for the digital economy
Tiziana Terranova

The real not-capital  is labor.
(Karl Marx Grundrisse )

Working in the digital media industry is not as much fun as it is made out
to be. The NetSlaves of the homonymous Webzine are becoming increasingly
vociferous about the shamelessly exploitative nature of the job, its
punishing work rhythms and its ruthless casualisation
( They talk about "24-7 electronic
sweatshops", complain about the 90-hours week and the "moronic management of
new media companies". In early 1999, seven of the fifteen thousands
'volunteers' of America On Line rocked the info-loveboat by asking the
Department of Labor to investigate whether AOL owes them back wages for the
years of playing chathosts for free . They used to work long-hours and love
it; now they are starting to feel the pain of being burned by digital media.
These events point to a necessary backlash against the glamorization of
digital labor, which highlights its continuities with the modern sweatshop
and point to the increasing degradation of knowledge work. Yet the question
of labor in a 'digital economy' is not so easily dismissed as an innovative
development of the familiar logic of capitalist exploitation. The NetSlaves
are not simply a typical form of labor on the Internet, they also embody a
complex relation to labor which is widespread in late capitalist societies.
In this paper I understand this relationship as a provision of 'free labor',
a trait of the cultural economy at large, and an important, and yet
undervalued force in advanced capitalist societies. By looking at the
Internet as a specific instance of the fundamental role played by free
labor, this paper also tries to highlight the connections between the
'digital economy' and what the Italian autonomists have called the 'social
factory' . The 'social factory' describes a process whereby "work processes
have shifted from the factory to society, thereby setting in motion a truly
complex machine" (Negri 1989). Simultaneously voluntarily given and unwaged,
enjoyed and exploited, free labor on the Net includes the activity of
building websites, modify software packages, reading and participating to
mailing lists and building virtual spaces on MUDs and MOOs. Far from being
an 'unreal', empty space, the Internet is animated by cultural and technical
labor through and through, a continuous production of value which is
completely immanent to the flows of the network society at large.

Collective minds

The collective nature of networked, immaterial labor has been simplified by
the utopian statements of the cyberlibertarians. Kevin Kelly's popular
thesis in Out of Control,  for example, is that the Internet is a collective
'hive mind'. According to Kelly, the Internet is another manifestation of a
principle of self organization which is widespread throughout technical,
natural and social systems. The Internet is the material evidence of the
existence of the self-organizing, infinitely productive activities of
connected human minds . From a different perspective Pierre Levy draws on
cognitive anthropology and poststructuralist philosophy, to argue that
computers and computer networks are sites which enable the emergence of a
'collective intelligence'. Levy, who is inspired by early computer pioneers
such as Douglas Engelbart, argues for a new humanism, "that incorporates and
enlarges the scope of self-knowledge and collective thought" . According to
Levy, we are passing from a Cartesian model of thought based upon the
singular idea of cogito (I think) to a collective or plural cogitamus (we
In Levy's view, the digital economy highlights the impossibility of
absorbing intelligence within the process of automation: unlike the first
wave of cybernetics which displaced workers from the factory, computer
networks highlight the unique value of human intelligence as the true
creator of value in a knowledge economy. In his opinion, since the economy
is increasingly reliant on the production of creative subjectivities, this
production is highly likely to engender a new humanism, a new centrality of
man's [sic] creative potentials.
Especially in Kelly's case, it has been easy to dismiss the notion of a
'hive mind' and the self-organizing Internet-as-free market as euphoric
capitalist mumbo jumbo. One cannot help being deeply irritated by the
blindness of the digital capitalist to the realities of working in the
hi-tech industries, from the poisoning world of the silicon chips factories
to the electronic sweatshops of America OnLine, where technical work is
downgraded and workers' obsolescence is high  . How can we hold on to the
notion that cultural production and immaterial labor are collective on the
Net (both inner and outer) without subscribing to the idealistic cyberdrool
of the digerati?
We could start with a simple observation: the self-organizing, collective
intelligence of cybercultural thought captures the existence of networked
immaterial labor, but also neutralizes the operations of capital. Capital,
after all, is the unnatural environment within which the collective
intelligence materializes. The collective dimension of networked
intelligence needs to be understood historically, as part of a specific
momentum of capitalist development. The Italian Autonomists have
consistently engaged with this relationship by focusing on the mutation
undergone by labor in the aftermath of the factory.  The notion of a
self-organizing "collective intelligence" looks uncannily like one of their
central concepts, the "general intellect", a notion that the autonomists
"extracted" out of the spirit, if not the actually wording, of Marx's
Grundrisse.  The "collective intelligence" or "hive mind" captures some of
the spirit of the "general intellect", but removes the autonomists' critical
theorization of its relation to capital.
In the autonomists' favorite text, the Grundrisse,  and especially in the
"Fragment on Machines", Marx argues that "knowledge - scientific knowledge
in the first place, but not exclusively - tends to become precisely by
virtue of its autonomy from production, nothing less than the principal
productive force, thus relegating repetitive and compartmentalized labor to
a residual position. Here one is dealing with  knowledgeŠ which has become
incarnateŠ in the automatic system of machines" . In the vivid pages of the
"Fragment', the "other" Marx of the Grundrisse  (adopted by the social
movements of the sixties and seventies against the more orthodox endorsement
of Capital ), describes the system of industrial machines as a horrific
monster of metal and flesh:

The production process has ceased to be a labor process in the sense of a
process dominated by labor as its governing unity. Labor appears, rather,
merely as a conscious organ, scattered among the individual living workers
at numerous point of the mechanical system. Subsumed under the total process
of the machinery itself, as itself only a link of the system, whose unity
exists not in the living workers, but rather in the living, (active)
machinery, which confronts his individual, insignificant doings as a mighty
organism .

The Italian autonomists extracted from these pages the notion of the
"general intellect" as "the ensemble of knowledgeŠ which constitute the
epicenter of social production" . Unlike Marx's original formulation,
however, the autonomists eschewed the modernist imagery of the general
intellect as a hellish machine. They claimed that Marx completely identified
the general intellect (or knowledge as the principal productive force) with
fixed capital (the machine) and thus neglected to account for the fact that
the general intellect cannot exist independently of the concrete subjects
who mediate the articulation of the machines with each other. The general
intellect is an articulation of fixed capital (machines) and  living labor
(the workers). If we see the Internet, and computer networks in general, as
the latest machines-the latest manifestation of fixed capital-then it won't
be difficult to imagine the general intellect as being well and alive today.
However the autonomists did not stop at describing the general intellect as
an assemblage of humans and machines at the heart of postindustrial
production. If this were the case, the Marxian monster of metal and flesh
would just be updated to that of a world-spanning network where computers
use human beings as a way to allow the system of machinery (and therefore
capitalist production) to function. The visual power of the Marxian
description is updated by the cyberpunk snapshots of the immobile bodies of
the hackers, electrodes like umbilical cords connecting them to the matrix,
appendixes to a living, all-powerful cyberspace. Beyond the special effects
bonanza, the box-office success of The Matrix  validates the popularity of
the paranoid interpretation of this mutation.
To the humanism implicit in this description, the autonomists have opposed
the notion of a "mass intellectuality", living labor in its function as the
determining articulation of the general intellect. Mass intellectuality - as
an ensemble, as a social body - "is the repository of the indivisible
knowledges of living subjects and of their linguistic cooperationŠ an
important part of knowledge cannot be deposited in machines, butŠ it must
come into being as the direct interaction of the labor force" . As Virno
emphasizes, mass intellectuality is not about the various roles of the
knowledge workers, but is a "quality and a distinctive sign of the whole
social labor force in the post-Fordist era" .
The pervasiveness of the collective intelligence both within the managerial
literature and Marxist theory could be seen as the result of a common
intuition about the quality of labor in informated societies. Knowledge
labor is inherently collective, it is always the result of a collective and
social production of knowledge . Capital's problem is how to extract as much
value as possible (in the autonomists' jargon, to 'valorize') out of this
abundant, and yet slightly untractable terrain.
Collective knowledge work, then, is not about those who work in the
knowledge industry. But it is also not about employment. The acknowledgement
of the collective aspect of labor implies a rejection of the equivalence
between labor and employment, which was already stated by Marx and further
emphasized by feminism and the post-Gramscian autonomy . Labor is not
equivalent to waged labor. Such an understanding might help us to reject
some of the hideous rhetoric of unemployment which turns the unemployed
person in the object of much patronizing, pushing and nudging from national
governments in industrialized countries (accept any available work or
elseŠ.)  Often the unemployed are such only in name, in reality being the
life-blood of the difficult economy of 'under the table', badly paid work,
some of which also goes into the new media industry . To emphasize how labor
is not equivalent to employment also means to acknowledge how important free
affective and cultural labor is to the media industry, old and new.

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