andrew ross on Mon, 12 Jun 2000 20:10:37 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> [talk given at tulipomania dotcom]

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Text of presentation at the panel "Sillicon Valley as a Global Business
Model" Tulipomania Dotcom conference, Amsterdam, June 2, 2000

Andrew Ross

My comments on the Silicon Valley business model will focus on patterns of
work and labor that seem to have become a standard in digital and other New
Economy workplaces.  And the argument I will make is that these new work
routines have much in common with older sacrificial traditions of labor,
most familiar to artists, writers, teachers and scholarsBthe traditional
practitioners of mental labor, from whom there is much to learn.  Indeed it
looks as if these older traditions of labor are rapidly being moved from the
margins of the productive economy in Bohemia and the Ivory Tower to core
sectors of the information economy, where their artisanal or craft mentality
is become industrialized.

One place to begin is the managerial phenomenon, which you can see in
corporate rituals like Casual Friday, of relaxing workplace formality and
re-engineering a formerly alienating work environment to persuade workers
that their personality is being acknowledged to make them feel at home,
rather than at work; all the more present from feeling like an absentee.
Casual Friday is part of the new wave managerial ethos that preaches the
leveling of workplace hierarchies and liberation of workers from
bureaucratic constraints.  After several decades in which workers were
encouraged to find the true meaning of themselves in leisure time and
consumption, work, according to this ethos, is once again the place where
our identity is to be most deeply felt and shaped.  Perhaps this is just as
well in the U.S. which  boasts an economy where the amount of leisure time
available to workers has been in steady decline since the early 1970s, and
where chronic overwork, and not unemployment, is the primary feature of the
labor landscape.

For the most advanced examples of this ethos, you would have to go, not to
Wall Street, but to Silicon Alley, where start-upshave been at this game
since the mid-1990s when the physical culture of the pioneer New Media
workplace was more or less an extension of the grungy artists' loft. When
tulipomania broke out, ritzy designers were hired to create setpiece
interiors.  Trophy environments at companies like Screaming Media,
DoubleClick and Oxygen Media featured flexible, communal spaces, where
cubicles were banished, and walls were rendered translucent.  The office was
re-imagined as a giant, multi-purpose playroom for an ever-shifting team of
workers. Cool, buzzworthy graphics are flung across the walls and ceilings.
Pool tables in game rooms, basketball courts, and wellness relaxation spaces
are a relief and counterpoint to the omnipresent but deftly decentered
computer workstations. Who would ever want to go home? It was Silicon
Valley, of course, which pioneered an earlier version of the informal
workplace, where whizz kids didn't have to grow up and leave the never-never
land of  adolescence and where the thrill of invention was unsullied by the
external, social world. Silicon Alley  upgraded the informality by adding
all the hip features of an urban artist lifestyle. For the New Economy's
boosters, these environments are the ultimate physical embodiment of all the
flexibility talk that has dominated corporate culture for the last twenty
years of economic restructuring. In the technically skilled echelons of
Silicon Valley, a de luxe form of temping emerged as the model pattern of
employment, much hyped, and much overrated. Well-paid technicians,
engineers, and designers became independent contractors, eschewing benefits,
pension packages and other forms of job security for the freedoms offered by
contingent work. "Employees without jobs", they moved from company to
company, pollinating the seeds of innovation, according to the new
flexible style of corporate organization. Over the course of the 1990s
the model segued into what managerial pundits call the "free agent" --a
skilled, but flexible worker, with no enduring company loyalties beyond the
terms of the contract. The corporate crusade to downsize and shed its
permanent workforce seemed to have met its perfect love-match; workers who
do not want a regular paycheck or any form of benefits from the companies
for which they occasionally work. For the most fortunate, the freelance
lifestyle is a heady potion, and their fantasies of autonomy (while still
being paid by the Man) are seized on and glorified as a way to sell the
profile of flexible labor in general.  Indeed, a large part of the
attraction of the free agent profile draws on the appeal to bohemian glamor.

If you want, you can work out of cafes, as Hemingway and Dali did, wear
earrings, and very casual clothes, keep artists hours, and still draw a fat
paycheck. What are the consequences of this desire to assume the trappings
of the artist?  First of all, let us be clear that first and foremost, it is
an invitation to underpayment.  Artists' traditions of sacrificial labor are
governed by the principle of the cultural discount, by which artists and
other arts workers accept nonmonetary rewards---the gratification of
producing art--as compensation for their work, thereby discounting the cash
price of their labor. Indeed, it must be acknowledged that the largest
subsidy to the arts has always come from workers themselves. The mythology
of the "starving artist" is rooted in the political economy of the creative
professions, and the historical legacy of their emergence from the mold of
aristocratic patronage.

Just as important, however, is the serviceability of the artist's flexible
labor. Since flexible specialization was introduced as a leading industrial
principle, the number of artists employed in the US general labor force has
risen rapidly to over 2 million this number has doubled over the last two
decades. Whether or not we can verify a proliferation of new jobs for
artists, it is clear that the "mentality" of artists' work is more and more
in demand and is steadily being relocated from its traditional position at
the social margins of the economy and recruited into roles closer to the
economic centers of production.  Indeed, the traditional profile of the
artist as unattached and adaptable to circumstance is surely now coming into
its own as the ideal definition of the postindustrial knowledge worker:
comfortable in an ever-changing environment that demands creative shifts in
communication with different kinds of employers, clients, and partners;
attitudinally geared toward work that requires long, and often unsocial,
hours; and accustomed to a contingent, rather than a fixed routine of
self-application. A close fit, in other words, with the profile of the free
agent. Silicon Alley is a case in point. Among the original backbone of the
Silicon Alley workforce were many who had been trained primarily as artists.
In the entirely non-unionized workplaces, over half the jobs were filled by
contract employees, with no employer-supported health care. Deeply
caffeinated 85-hour workweeks without overtime pay became a way of life for
Webshop workers on flexible contracts, who invest a massive share of "sweat
equity" in the mostly futile hope that their stock options will pay off.

Even the lowliest employee feels like an entrepreneurial investor as a
result.  In most cases, the stock options turn into pink slips when the
company goes belly-up, or, in some cases, employees are fired before their
stock options are due to mature. With the explosive growth of the last two
years, the number of fulltime workers has increased noticeably (by 57%
annually). Yet in the most recent industry survey, the expected rate of
growth for part-time (30%) and freelance employment (33%) still competes
with that for full-time job creation (38%). According to this chart of
comparative compensation data for 1988 the average 1998 fulltime salary, not
including stock equity, was less than half  the equivalent in old media
industries, like advertising and television broadcasting. Evolving patterns
of subcontracting in Silicon Alley are not far removed from those that
created offshore back offices for data-processing in the Caribbean, Ireland,
and Bangalore, or semiconductor factories in countries that also host the
worst sweatshops in the global garment industry. All in all, the New Media
workplace is a prescient indicator of the near-future of labor which
combines mental labor with new technologies. Customized workplaces where
there is little distinction between work and play, where you have horizontal
networking among heroic teams of self-directed workers; the proto-hipster
appeal of bohemian dress codes, personal growth, and non-hierarchical
surroundings; the vague promise of bounteous rewards from stock option
gambles; and employees so complicit with the culture of overwork and burnout
that they have developed their own insider brand of sick humor about being
"net slaves" i.e. it's actually cool to be exploited so badly.  Industrial
capitalists used to dream about such a workforce, but their managerial
techniques were too rigid to foster it. These days, the new wave management
wing of the New Economy worships exactly this kind of work environment.

There is a similar story to tell about the sacrificial traditions of
academic labor. Indeed, the rapidity with which the low-wage revolution has
swept through higher education in the last fifteen years was clearly
hastened along by conditions amenable to discounting mental labor.  For one
thing, the "willingness" of scholars to accept a discounted wage out of
"love for their subject" has helped not only to sustain and magnify the
cheap labor supply.  Employers have long relied on maintaining a reserve
army of unemployed to keep wages down in any labor market.  Higher education
is now in this business with a vengeance.  In addition---and this is the
significant element---its managers increasingly draw on a volunteer low-wage
army.  By this I do not mean to suggest that adjunct and parttimer educators
eagerly invite their underpayment and their lack of benefits or job
security.  Nor are they inactive in protesting and organizing for their
interests.  Rather, I choose the term to describe the typical outcome of a
training in the habit of embracing non-monetary rewards as payment for work.

As a result, low compensation for a high workload becomes a rationalized
feature of the job, and, in the most perverse extension, is regarded as
proof of the worth of the academic vocation--underpayment is the ultimate
measure of the selfless and disinterested pursuit of knowledge.  So, too,
the peripatetic regimen of contingent faculty workers is germane to the
eccentric work schedule of the traditional academic, who commonly observes
no clear boundaries between being on and off the job, and for whom there is
often little distinction between paid work and free labor. For the
part-timer, desperate to retain the prestige of being a college teacher, the
identity of being a switched-on, round-the-clock thinker, eager to impart
knowledge, and in a position to freely extend her mental labor,  feeds into
the psychology of casualized work and underpayment. The industrial worker,
by comparison, is not beset by such occupational hazards. Again, what we see
is the fabrication of a model "flexible employee" out of the cloth of a
customary training in the service ideals of mental labor. Capital may have
found the makings of a self-justifying, low-wage workforce, at the very
heart of the knowledge industries so crucial to its growth and development.

All of the above leaves us, especially educators among us, with some
difficult questions. Are we contributing involuntarily to the problem when
we urge youth, in pursuing their career goals, to place principles of public
interest or collective political agency or creative expression above the
pursuit of material security? In a labor environment heavily under the sway
of neo-liberal business models, is it fair to say that this service ideal
invites, if it does not vindicate, the manipulation of inexpensive labor?
Fifteen years ago, this suggestion would have seemed ludicrous. Labor
freely offered in the service of some common benefit or mental ideal has
always been the informal economic backbone that supports political, cultural
and educational activities in the nonprofit or public interest sectors.
Selfless labor of this sort is also a source of great pleasure. But what
happens when some version of this disinterested labor moves, as I have
suggested here, from the social margins to core sectors of capital
accumulation? When the opportunity to pursue mentally gratifying work
becomes a rationale for discounted labor at heart of the key knowledge
industries, is it not time to rethink some of our bedrock values?  We do
have a responsibility to recognize the cost of our cherished beliefs in
political and educational ideals. These ideals come at a price, and
managers of the New Economy are taking full advantage of the opportunities
that exist for capitalizing on our neglect of that price.

Some part of the challenge we face lies in organizing the unorganized, in
this case, those whose professional identity has been based on a sharp
indifference to being organized. The sectors I have been describing here
draw on an intimate and shared experience of the traditions of sacrificial
labor. Yet they are divided by singular craft-like cultures, and by a
tangle of class distinctions. Those most in denial (the most secure) will
swear off any and every affinity. It will take more than a leap of faith to
establish solidarity among mental labor fractions divided by the legacy of
privileges passed down over centuries. Nevertheless, while the chief blight
of these centuries had been chattel slavery, serfdom, and indentured labor
(and we are not done with these), we must now respond to that moment in the
soulful lullaby of "Redemption Song" where Bob Marley soberly advises us:
"Emancipate yourself from mental slavery."

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