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<nettime> free labor 2/2

Second part of edited version....

Ephemeral commodities and free labor
There is a continuity, and a break, between older media and new media in
terms of their relationship to cultural and affective labor. The continuity
seems to lie in their common reliance on their public/users as productive
subjects. The difference lies both in the mode of production and in the way=
in which power/knowledge works in the two types. In spite of different
national histories (some of which stress public service more than others),
the television industry, for example, is relatively conservative: writers,
producers, performers, managers, and technicians have definite roles within
an industry still run by a few established players. The historical legacy o=
television as a technology for the construction of national identities also
means that the latter is somehow always held more publicly accountable.
This does not mean that old media do not draw on free labor, on the
contrary. Television and print media, for example, make abundant use of the
free labor of their audiences/readers, but they also tend to structure the
latter's contribution much more strictly, both in terms of economic
organization and moralistic judgement. The price to pay for all those
real-life TV experiences is usually a heavy dose of moralistic
scaremongering: criminals are running amok on the freeways and must be
stopped by  tough police action; wild teenagers lack self-esteem and need
tough love. If this does not happen on the Internet, why is it then that th=
latter is not the happy island of decentered, dispersed and pleasurable
cultural production that its apologists claimed?
The most obvious answer to such questions came spontaneously to the early
Internet users who blamed it on the commercialization of the Internet.
E-commerce and the progressive privatization were blamed for disrupting the
free economy of the Internet, an economy of exchange which Richard Barbrook
described as "gift economy" . Indeed maybe the Internet could have been a
different place than what it is now. However it is almost unthinkable that
capitalism could stay forever outside of the network, a mode of
communication which is fundamental to its own organizational structure.
The outcome of the explicit interface between capital and the Internet is a
digital economy which manifests all the signs of an acceleration of the
capitalist logic of production. It might be that the Internet has not
stabilized yet, but it seems undeniable that the digital economy is the
fastest and most visible zone of production within late capitalist
societies. New products and new trends succeed each other at
anxiety-inducing pace. After all this is  a business where you need to
replace your equipment/knowledges and possibly staff every year or so.
=8A. Commodities on the Net are not material and are excessive (there is too
much of it, too many websites, too much clutter and noise) with relation to
the limits of 'real' social needs.
It is possible, however, that the disappearance of the commodity is not a
material disappearance, but its visible subordination to the quality of
labor behind it. In this sense the commodity does not disappear as such; it
rather becomes increasing ephemeral, its duration becomes compressed, it
becomes more of a process than a finished product. The role of continuous,
creative, innovative labor as the ground of market value is crucial to the
digital economy. The process of valorisation (the production of monetary
value) happens by foregrounding the quality of the labor which literally
animates the commodity.
In my opinion, the digital economy challenges the postmodern assumption tha=
labor disappears while the commodity takes on and dissolves all meaning. In
particular, the Internet is about the extraction of value out of continuous=
updateable work and is extremely labor intensive. It is not enough to
produce a good web site, you need to update it continuously to maintain
interest in it and fight off obsolescence. Furthermore you need updateable
equipment (the general intellect is always an assemblage of humans and thei=
machines), in its turn propelled by the intense collective labor of
programmers, designers and workers. It is as if the acceleration of
production has pushed to the point where commodities, literally, turn into
translucent objects. Commodity do not so much disappear as they become more
transparent, showing throughout their reliance on the labor which produces
and sustains them. It is the labor of the designers and programmers that
shows through a successful website and it is the spectacle of that labor
changing its product that keeps the users coming back.  The commodity, then=
is only as good as the labor that goes into it.
As a consequence, the sustainability of the Internet as a medium depends on
massive amounts of labor (which is not equivalent to employment, as we
said), only some of which is hyper-compensated by the capricious logic of
venture capitalism. Of the incredible amount of labor which sustains the
Internet as a whole (from mailing list traffic to web sites to
infrastructural questions), we can guess that a substantial amount of it is
still 'free labor'.
Free labor, however, is not necessarily exploited labor. Within the early
virtual communities, we are told, labor was really free: the labor of
building a community was not compensated by great financial rewards (it was
therefore 'free', unpaid), but it was also willingly conceded in exchange
for the pleasures of communication and exchange (it was therefore 'free',
pleasurable, not-imposed). In answer to members' requests, information was
quickly posted and shared with a lack of mediation which the early netizens
did not fail to appreciate. Howard Rheingold's book, somehow unfairly
accused of middle class complacency, is the most well known account of the
good old times of the old Internet, before the net-tourist overcame the
net-pioneer .
The free labor which sustains the Internet is acknowledged within many
different sections of the digital literature. In spite of the volatile
nature of the Internet economy (which yesterday was about community, today
is about portals, and tomorrow who knows=8A), the notion of users' labor
maintains an ideological and material centrality which runs consistently
throughout the turbulent succession of Internet fads. Commentators who woul=
normally disagree, such as Howard Rheingold and Richard Hudson, concur on
one thing; the best web site, the best way to stay visible and thriving on
the Web is to turn your site into a space which is not only accessed, but
somehow built by its users. . Users keep a site alive through their labor,
the cumulative hours of accessing the site (thus generating advertising),
writing messages, participating in conversations and sometimes making the
jump to collaborators. Out of the fifteen thousand volunteers which keep AO=
running, only a handful turned against it, the others stayed on. Such a
feature seems endemic to the Internet in ways which can be worked on by
commercialization, but not substantially altered. The 'open source'
movement, which relies on the free labor of Internet tinkers, is further
evidence of this structural trend within the digital economy.
It is an interesting feature of the Internet debate (and evidence, somehow
of its masculine bias) that users' labor has attracted more attention in th=
case of the open source movement than in that of mailing lists and websites=
This betrays the persistence of an attachment to masculine understandings o=
labor within the digital economy: writing an operating system is still more
worthy of attention than just chatting for free for AOL. This in spite of
the fact that in 1996 at the peak of the volunteer moment, over thirty
thousand 'community leaders' were helping AOL to generate at least $7
million a month . Still the 'open source' movement has drawn much more
positive attention than the more diffuse user-labor described above. It is
worth exploring not because I believe that it will outlast 'portals' or
'virtual communities' as the latest buzzword, but because of the debates
which it has provoked and its relation to the digital economy at large.
The 'open source' movement is a variation of the old tradition of shareware
and freeware software which substantially contributed to the technical
development of the Internet. Freeware software is freely distributed and
does not even request a reward from its users. Shareware software is
distributed freely, but implies a 'moral' obligation for the user to forwar=
a small sum to the producer in order to sustain the shareware movement as a=
alternative economic model to the copyrighted software of giants such as
Microsoft. 'Open source' 'refers to a model of software development in whic=
the underlying code of a program -the source code a.k.a. the 'crown
jewels'-is by definition made freely available to the general public for
modification, alteration, and endless redistribution' .
Far from being an idealistic, minoritarian practice, the open source
movement has attracted much media and financial attention. Apache, an open
source web server, is the 'Web-server program of choice for more than half
of all publicly accessible Web servers" . In 1999, open source conventions
are anxiously attended by venture capitalists, who have been informed by th=
digerati that the former is a necessity 'because you must go open-source to
get access to the benefits of the open-source development community-the
near-instantaneous bug-fixes, the distributed intellectual resources of the
Net, the increasingly large open-source code base" . Open source companies
such as Cygnus have convinced the market that you do not need to be
proprietary about source code to make a profit: the code might be free, but
tech support, packaging, installation software, regular upgrades, office
applications and hardware are not.
In 1998, when Netscape went 'open source' and invited the computer tinkers
and hobbyists to look at the code of its new browser, fix the bugs, improve
the package and redistribute it, specialized mailing lists exchanged
opinions about its implications . Netscape=B9s move rekindled the debate abou=
the peculiar nature of the digital economy. Was it to be read as being in
the tradition of the Internet =8Cgift economy=B9? Or was digital capital
hijacking the open-source movement exactly against that tradition? =8A.Rather
than representing a moment of incorporation of a previously authentic
moment, the open source question demonstrates the overreliance of the
digital economy as such on free labor, both in the sense of not financially
rewarded and willingly given. This includes AOL community leaders, the open
source programmers, the amateur webdesigners, mailing list editors and the
netslaves willing to 'work for cappucinos' just for the excitement and the
dubious promises of digital work .
Such a reliance, almost a dependency, is part of larger mechanisms of
capitalist extraction of value which are fundamental to late capitalism as =
whole. That is such processes are not created outside capital and then
reappropriated by capital, but are the results of a complex history where
the relation between labor and capital is mutually constitutive, entangled
and crucially forged during the crisis of Fordism. Free labor is a desire o=
labor immanent to late capitalism, and late capitalism is the field which
both sustains free labor and  exhausts it. It exhausts it by subtracting
selectively but widely the means through which that labor can reproduce
itself: from the burn-out syndromes of Internet start-ups to
under-retribution and exploitation in the cultural economy at large. Late
capitalism does not appropriate anything: it nurtures, exploits and exhaust=
its labor force and its cultural and affective production. In this sense, i=
is technically impossible to separate neatly the digital economy of the Net
from the larger network economy of late capitalism. Especially since 1994,
the Internet is always and simultaneously a gift economy and an advanced
capitalist economy. The mistake of the neo-liberalists (as exemplified by
the Wired group), is to mistake this coexistence for a benign, unproblemati=
As I stated before, these processes are far from being confined to the most
self-conscious laborers of the digital economy. They are part of a diffuse
cultural economy which operates throughout the Internet and beyond. The
passage from the pioneeristic days of the Internet to its 'venture' days
does not seem to have affected these mechanisms, only intensified them and
connected them to financial capital. Nowhere is this more evident that in
the recent development of the World Wide Web.

Enter the New Web

In the winter of 1999, in what sounds like another of its resounding,
short-lived claims, Wired  magazine announces that the old Web is dead: "Th=
Old Web was a place where the unemployed, the dreamy, and the iconoclastic
went to reinvent themselves=8A The New Web isn't about dabbling in what you
don't know and failing - it's about preparing seriously for the day when
television and Web content are delivered over the same digital networks." .
The new Web is made of the big players, but also of new ways to make the
audience work. In the "new web", after the pioneering days, television and
the web converge in the one thing they have in common: their reliance on
their audiences/users as providers of the cultural labor which goes under
the label of 'real life stories". Gerry Laybourne, executive of the
web-based media company Oxygen,  thinks of an hypothetical show called What
Are They Thinking? " a reality-based sketch comedy show based on stories
posted on the Web, because "funny things happen in our lives everyday."  As
Bayers also adds, "[u]ntil it's produced, the line separating that concept
from more puerile fare dismissed by Gerry, like America's Funniest,  is har=
to see" .
The difference between the puerile fare of America's Funniest and user-base=
content seems to lie not so much in  the more serious nature of the 'new
web' as compared to the vilified output of television 'people's shows'. Fro=
an abstract point of view there is no difference between the ways in which
people shows rely on the inventiveness of their audiences and the website
reliance on users' input. People shows rely on the activity (even amidst th=
most shocking sleaze) of their audience and willing participants to a much
larger extent than any other television program. In a sense, they manage th=
impossible, they create monetary value out of the most reluctant members of
the postmodern cultural economy: those who do not produce marketable style,
who are not qualified enough to enter the fast world of the knowledge
economy are converted into monetary value through their capacity to perform
their misery.
 When compared to the cultural and affective production on the Internet,
people shows also seem to embody a different logic of relation between
capitalism (the media conglomerates which produce and distribute such shows=
and its labor force=8Bthe beguiled, dysfunctional citizens of the
underdeveloped North. Within people's shows, the valorisation of the
audience as labor and spectacle always happens somehow within a
power/knowledge nexus which does not allow the immediate valorisation of th=
talk show participants: you cannot just put a Jeffrey Springer guest on TV
on her own to tell her story with no mediation (indeed that would look too
much like the discredited access slots of public service broadcasting).
Between the talk show guest and the apparatus of valorisation intervenes a
series of knowledges which normalize the dysfunctional subjects through a
moral or therapeutic discourse and a more traditional institutional
organization of production. So after the performance, the guest must be
advised, patronized, questioned and often bullied by the audience and the
host, all in the name of a perfunctory, normalizing morality.
People shows also belong to a different economy of scale: although there ar=
more and more of them, they are still relatively few when compared to the
millions of pages on the web. It is as if the centralized organization of
the traditional media does not let them turn people's productions into pure
monetary value. People shows must have morals, even as those morals are
shattered by the overflowing performances of their subjects.
Within the Internet, however, this process of channeling and adjudicating
(responsibilities, duties and rights) is dispersed to the point where
practically anything is tolerated (sadomasochism, bestiality, fetishism and
plain nerdism are not targeted, at least within the Internet, as sites whic=
need to be disciplined or explained away). The qualitative difference
between people's shows and a successful website, then, does not lie in the
latter's democratic tendency as opposed to the former's exploitative nature=
It lies in the operation, within people's shows, of molar discursive
mechanisms of territoralization, the application of a morality that the
'excessive' abundance of material on the Internet renders redundant and eve=
more irrelevant. The digital economy cares only tangentially about morality=
What it really cares about is an abundance of production, an immediate
interface with cultural and technical labor whose result is a diffuse,
non-dialectical contradiction.


My hypothesis that free labor is structural to the late capitalist cultural
economy is not meant to offer the reader a totalising understanding of the
cultural economy of new and old media. However it does originate from a nee=
to think beyond the categories which structure much net-debate these days, =
process which necessarily entails a good deal of abstraction.
In particular I have started from the opposition between the Internet as
capital and the Internet as the anti-capital. This opposition is much more
challenging than the easy technophobia/technophilia debate. The question is
not so much whether to love or hate technology, but try to understand
whether the Internet embodies a continuation of capital or a break with it.
As I have argued in this paper, it is neither. It is rather a mutation whic=
is totally immanent to late capitalism, not so much a break as an
intensification, and therefore a mutation, of a widespread cultural and
economic logic.
This return to immanence, that is to a flattening out of social, cultural
and political connections, has important consequences for me.  As Negri,
Haraway, Deleuze and Guattari have consistently argued, the demolition of
the modernist ontology of the Cartesian subject does not have to produce th=
relativism of the most cynical examples of postmodern theory. The loss of
transcendence, of external principles which organize the social world from
the outside, does not have to end up in nihilism, a loss of strategies for
dealing with power.
Such strategies cannot be conjured by critical theory. As the spectacular
failure of the Italian Autonomy reveals , the purpose of critical theory is
not to elaborate strategies which then can be used to direct social change.
On the contrary, as the tradition of cultural studies has less explicitly
argued, it is about working on what already exists, on the lines establishe=
by a cultural and material activity which is already happening. In this
sense this paper does not so much propose a theory, as identifies a tendenc=
which already exists in the Internet literature and online exchanges. This
tendency is not the truth of the digital economy, it is necessary partial
just as it tries to hold to the need for an overall perspective on an
immensely complex range of cultural and economic phenomena. Rather than
retracing the holy truths of Marxism on the changing body of late capital,
free labor embraces some crucial contradictions without lamenting,
celebrating, denying or synthesising a complex condition. It is, then, not
so much about truth-values, as about relevance, the capacity to capture a
moment and contribute to the ongoing constitution of a non-unified
collective intelligence outside and in-between the blind alleys of the
silicon age.

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