On February 17, 2014 I started a Facebook group titled "Immaterial Digital Labor." The group has become something of an ongoing online reading group. On any given week, the conversations might relate to surveillance, information, data, affect, identity, and gender politics - a lens into the prism of ideas and politics that intersect when we talk about the prevalence of the immaterial, the digital, and labor in the contemporary psyche. For example, in the past few days, members have posted and discussed articles on "the problem with too much information," "the paradox of saving data," and "Silicon Valley's labor uprising," to name a few.
Most members have some personal experience with immaterial digital labor, which they seem to realize soon after becoming familiar with the term. Indeed, most people with access to the internet have some sort of personal story to share about the way these conditions have affected their quality of life - but because these concerns are so new, most of us don't have ways to articulate these intuitive feelings until we are introduced to a certain vocabulary. (See: this issue's list of "selected terms".)
The term "immaterial digital labor" is misleading because immaterial conditions always have correspondent effects in the physical world. We use the word "immaterial" to understand a sort of molecularized alienation; you could call it a networked alienation, channeling through our bodies, our interfaces, the cloud. The recognition of immaterial labor might be first detected on an individual level by an intuition that someone is making money off of your expression, when the entity profiting does not - legally, financially, socially - recognize that relationship as a relationship of production.
Immaterial labor is an academic term used to describe the emotional and cognitive commodities produced by work that exists outside the traditional wage-based consideration of labor as a material-commodity-producing activity, as well as the activity of producing this new form of commodity. Immaterial labor produces physical commodities, that are not likely not shared by its producers, because the original action of production is not considered by the market or by those involved in the transaction to be labor.
Many feminists, particularly in the Italian Marxist tradition, have long considered the domestic sphere as a place of immaterial labor, a discussion that is constantly being revived. This includes the discussion of how women are disproportionately demanded to perform an overabundance of affective labor - a type of immaterial labor meaning work that requires the laborer to take on or project an affective or emotional experience.
On one level, the conversations we must have about immaterial digital labor are personal: the materiality of information, affect, libido, and violence are unquestionable. Digital labor manifests in physical syndromes, aches and pains, carpal tunnel, the related ailments of stress. Anyone who has used a laptop at night has experienced not being able to sleep because of the way a screen's light affects circadian rhythms.
On another level, these conversations also engage with the systemic: wealth inequality, poverty, and the state surveillance of marginalized bodies must remain at the forefront of any worthwhile discussion of digital labor, otherwise the conversation will risk marginalizing the technological have-nots. Digital labor is as much or more about the growing problem of electronic waste and pollution, and the second-tier click-farm market paying workers to click "Like" buttons all day under sweatshop conditions, as it is about the conditions of using Facebook, which involve micro-tasks: "liking" posts, commenting on friends' events, endlessly trying to divide work and play.
The pieces in this issue present some perspectives on exhaustion and recovery from immaterial digital labor, and some radical alternatives to these conditions. Many of these essay unpack the current conditions of digital culture: Chanelle Adams' personal essay on internet feminism; Chris Lee's essay on activist fatigue related to the labor of call-out culture. Another group of texts describe finding hope, support and inspiration amidst said conditions of digital culture: Sara Hamerman's feature on online pirate libraries considers new forms of solidarity created in light of existing information inequalities, while Liz Pelly's interview with Astra Taylor connects the dots between digital labor and cultural distribution. There is also a paper-trail of further resources in this issue, including a primer on Universal Basic Income, some definitions of useful relevant terms, and a reading list.
Immaterial labor is not always detected, or even considered to be labor. Some wouldn't dare use the term because they themselves do not feel exploited by these processes, because they consider the activity to be leisure. This itself is a new form of exceptionalism. Having the choice to not call some things labor is also a privilege.
My first introduction to immaterial labor started with an interest in how technologies evolve along changing social environments. Historian Anthony Grafton's book The Footnote details how some of the most ubiquitous forms of citation were created because of increased access to affordable books and the propagation of personal and institutional libraries, which made fact-checking easier, and created the demand for the technology of the footnote. As an undergraduate, reading Grafton, I became interested in the relationship between changing social roles and media-based technologies, how technologies develop with evolving affective conditions.
After reading Grafton's book on the footnote in college, I was soon introduced to media scholar Tiziana Terranova's paper "Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy" (2003) and New School sociologist Trebor Schulz's "From Mobile Playgrounds to Sweatshop City" (2010). These texts, as well as many on digital labor, lead naturally back to a consideration of the decrees of the student and worker's movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, particularly the Situationist (France), Provo (Holland), and the Autonomist, Workerist/Operaismo movements (Italy).
Digital labor is still finding its footing in Marxist sociology and in activist agendas, and has plenty of skeptics. You won't find many unions, for example, ready to discuss the issue of the overtime work done in the constant deluge of work-email correspondence, and perhaps they have bigger fish to fry. And yet these labors build up, interestingly unique to occupation and subculture.
When I started becoming an active Wikipedia editor in 2013, I didn't know there was a Wikipedia "community" and I didn't have experience applying the theories of immaterial digital labor to my own working conditions. But the more I participated, I realized the site was taking on some growing pains related to digital labor.
In the Wikipedia community, the culture and community of Wikipedia editors is an outgrowth of shared experience of working with Wiki-software, and producing an electronic encyclopedia. Although Wikipedia doesn't take advertising money, it is still biased by the fact that those who contribute to it are the ones who have the leisure time to do so, skewing the free encyclopedia's content and the diversity of its base of contributors. Wikipedia is a lens through which we can observe some of the complications of immaterial digital labor, yet this remains largely unacknowledged by the Wikipedia community - a topic I have investigated previously.
Since getting interested in immaterial digital labor, I have become an active organizer in the Basic Income NYC activist group, a chapter of the national political organization Basic Income Action, which recently began to organize around the idea of a universal basic income. As I explain in this issue of The Media, the goals of the Basic Income movement are directly relevant to immaterial digital labor concerns, in that, amongst many other reasons, it would provide a living wage for all people living in "a society where they generate value just by being alive and participating in the current, data-driven economy."
A lot of problems resulting from immaterial digital labor come about because of what's known as the "procrastination principle" on the web: we release things before we understand them, and then never change them because our paradigms are about futures and growth rather than examining the systems we have already built and are using. Indeed, we can use the conversations about immaterial digital labor to reconsider our relationships with economic systems in general. Why do we settle for the flawed economic systems we are in, as an entire society?
I hope you can use this issue as an opportunity to reflect on positive, community-oriented politics which might seek solutions to these significant immaterial and material struggles. Or at the very least, gain perspective that makes you feel less alone within these conditions, and a vocabulary to begin prying open further conversations.