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Live Coverage: Digital Labor Conference (#DL14) at New School November 14-16

Workers at Foxconn building your iPhone

"Digital Labor: Sweat Shops, Picket Lines, and Barricades" (DL#14) will take place at the New School November 14-16th. Select panels will be live streamed from 10am Friday, November 15th, at this link. Writer Dorothy Howard will provide coverage and tweet from @idctweets starting with Saturday’s sessions.

Organized for the New School by Trebor Scholz and Samuel Tannert, the Digital Labor Conference will focus on the changing function and value of labor in a digitized world besieged by income inequality and sprawling debt. Presentation topics include feminized digital labor, resource sharing, the art of trolling, freelancing and unions in creative industries, and many many more.

The participant list is too sprawling to mention here, so we’ll do with a mention of the DL14’s impressive advisory board: Lilly Irani, Frank Pasquale, Sarah Roberts, Karen Gregory, McKenzie Wark, and Winifred Poster.

From DL14 press release:

“The past decade was not only about advances in digitization, increased processing power, the popularization of cloud computing, and the “sharing economy;” it was also about the crash of the financial system in 2008, vast attacks on employment and worker rights, sprawling debt, economic inequality, dwindling numbers among the ranks of traditional labor unions as well as booming automation of everything from lawyers and professors, to cooks and farmers…DIGITAL LABOR: SWEATSHOPS, PICKET LINES, BARRICADES (#DL14) pays particular attention to the various forms of digital labor thereby making it possible to differentiate between practices that are worthy of support, practices that needs some tweaking to ensure that workers are treated fairly, and practices that are largely exploitative and should be publicly opposed and stopped.”

To read the full press release, click here.

Please join us for what should be a lively and pressing conversation.

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10:00AM - 12:30AM
Saturday’s Conference begins with six sessions to choose from “Digital Labor & Geographies of Crisis”, “24/7” (Artist panel discussion), “Digital Solidarity & Crowdsourcing,” “Algorithmic Hegemony & the Droning of Labor,” “Taxing Data Labor & Labor in the Monetized Peer Economy,” and “Civic Hacking.”

I’m in the Panel Discussion: “Algorithmic Hegemony & the Droning of Labor” http://digitallabor.org/schedule/algorithmic-hegemony-and-the-droning-of-labor

In his talk, “The Uses of Personality: Social, Bureaucratic and System Identities,” A. Aneesh discusses the changes in modern identity due to what he frames as the (Foucauldian) transfer from technology to cosmology, where, under biopower, life is folded into history, identity is framed and adapted based on the results of interaction. He describes, “modern identity is abstract, recursive, contingent on predictions of behavior, algorithmic search,” but that “whenever state controls these environments, there are necessarily asymmetries.” Further that, “Individual identity is no longer a totality, but contingent on technologies, and events.” My initial reaction is that this language is helpful for us to think through how networked bodies reveal the multiplicity/multiplicities (Bergson, Deleuze) within identity under capitalism.

Jathan Sakowski’s talk: “From Mega-Machines to Mega-Algorithms: Digitization, Datification, and Dividualization” discusses ways in which new technologies allow an intensification of human exploitation under the guise of volunteerism. An interesting example he brings up here is Coursera (a for-profit educational technology company that offers MOOCs), which recruits ‘volunteer’ translators of its course information, as part of its “Global Translator Community” (GTC) program. He uses the word “voulentariat” to describe performers of skilled work allegedly to the public good, but which in turn creates value for a corporation- value which is not shared with the volunteers. What other voluntariat publics can we think of?

Orit Halpern delves into what she calls, “architectures of divination,” where global “smart cities” which integrate information and communication technologies, specifically (e-participation in local governance, artificial intelligence embedded in physical environment, sensor networks, public sensor data gathering…) and computer aided design increasingly monetize perception and subjectivity. This talk does work to equate the rise of cybernetics (and surrounding research) with rise of financial speculation and finance. She describes how smart cities are embedded in ideological speculations of futures which, by their very definition as dynamic, evolving structures, are never to be actualized, but will continue to drive capital. Closing remark: “new ideas of zonal logic increasingly govern mentalities…”

Doris Allhutter, in her talk “Crowd Microtasking for the Semantic Revolution: of ‘Working Ontologists’ and ‘High-Quality Human Components” uses Protégé, a free, open-source ontology editor,” as a central example to demonstrate how ideology, hegemony, and performativity factor into the ongoing configurations of the semantic web, semantic computing.

Richard Gilman-Opalsky closes this panel with his talk: “On the Capitalist Dream for a World without Bodies: Digital Labor and Techno-ontology.” A central question of this talk: “Does capitalist consumption NEED bodies?” In some ways, capitalism looks on the body as an unfortunate obligation, think Black Friday crowd precocity, competition, and discomfort. Artificial Intelligence models have in some ways, focused on getting rid of the body and obviate the need for cognitive labor insisting that the flight of the brain from the body would be a kind of liberation. He leaves us with such questions as: how much do “real life” bodily gestural communication matter - should we focus on the ongoing importance of the body or liberate ourselves from the body? What would represent a less alienated state, a more radical stance?


#DL14 has been awesome so far – Mushon Zer-Aviv’s lecture on the politics of interface last night raised a lot of interesting questions. He discussed forms of web-based political resistance not only on the level of user-generated content and context, but interface – questioning the authority of what we assume to be inevitable about the web at deep levels of infrastructure and code. On the so-far uncontested authority of TCP/IP – “Politicizing TCP/IP is a project, and not just one for computer scientists.” Looking forward to seeing him launch AdNauseum, a browser extension that
“helps people see the way the Internet sees them” (based on targeted advertisements) with Helen Nissenbaum later today…


Livestream the next two days of “Digital Labor: Sweatshops, Picket Lines, Barricades” at: Digital Labor: Sweatshops, Picket Lines, Barricades on Livestream


Saturday: 1:30-4:00pm Session: “The Future of Works in the Sharing Economy”

Journalist/blogger Tom Slee discusses AirBnB and Uber in his talk “Bad Reputation.” He describes how the promise of the sharing economy is that reputation systems don’t just replace corporations- but are actually taking things that previously didn’t exist as consumable objects and making them consumable. He further critiques rating systems in sharing economy businesses which establish trust through surveillance and privacy infringement, and create precarious conditions and disciplinary systems (via surveillance) for sub-contracted Uber drivers and employees.

Denise Cheng, subject matter expert and practitioner in community builiding, asks us to “support research on how to improve worker experiences given current constraints and design grounded, applied, interventions.” She presents the reasons and justifications for many joining sharing economies and/or working as subcontractors: “P2P allows people resume building, online portfolio building, and often incentivizes people to make smarter purchases.” Based on an assessment of these current and future conditions, she suggests that schools and learning institutions must respond to changes in the labor market and teach financial literacy and business skills. Useful skills to teach future participants in the sharing economy might include: how to tell the difference between revenue and income, and business standards like ‘seasonal ribbons’ to help people be successful in these new economies. Cheng also brings up other concerns with the sharing economy: Independent contractors are not classified as employees, which means earnings are often not enough to offset loss of benefits and social welfare. Her call to action: Building legal leverage into the labor environment to assist independent contractors.

Journalist Andrew Leonard tells his story as a journalist who started covering digital labor and the digital world in the Bay Area in the mid-1990s. As a writer, he has sought to draw attention to unsustainable labor models within early free software projects, which have been repeatedly capitalized on by the “tsunami of venture capital.” He also discusses how the sharing economy uses the rhetoric of progressivism while exploiting regional tax loopholes. This kind of personal narrative, is a useful way to personalize these conversations, and bring the conversation back to the ground.

Concluding the panel, Arun Sundararajan, Professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, gives us some histories, provocations, and possible futures for P2P/sharing economies. He discusses how the massive scaling of P2P (made possible by the infusion of financial capital) was induced by the consumerization of digital technology, where consumers became the focus of business; as well as the lowering of boundaries to entrepreneurship in the past few decades. Arun also discusses how data generated from online feedback from sharing economies creates “trust infrastructure” which is, and could increasingly be tied to identity, and in turn used for character judgements and discrimination in hiring processes. Concluding his talk, he discusses how P2P/sharing economies have replaced municipalities and reframed regulatory structures abroad, realizing infrastructure in the face of local governments otherwise not providing. This seems like a potential benefit of P2P economies in the third world, but the larger question remains: what is the precarity that allows these businesses to inhabit such roles?

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Saturday 4:30-5:15pm
We are deep into the second day of the conference now, and beloved “hometown” scholar Mckenzie Wark lectures to a packed room on “Digital Labor & The Anthropocene.”

Wark begins with an analysis of contemporary changing class identities and roles, with the rise of both the “vectoral class” (the class that owns the techno-means of production and the emergent ruling class of our time) and the “hacker class” (producers of new things out of the old, who do not own the things they produce). In this discussion, he notes: classes don’t have inbuilt moralities, what they do have is different kinds of assigned agency- and also that the commodification and gamification of the biosphere eats into solidarity and agency across classes.

Wark asks us one of the central questions of this conference: is this still capitalism?

Proposing something like, “this is not capitalism, this is something worse,” for several stated reasons- including the fact that “the idea that reality is socially constructed is struck down by the building-out of digital infrastructure,” and that; “the category of the social collapses when there is no environment.” This is nature beyond ecology, such that we have to think of knew ways of considering human technicity and agency.

Closing propositions: We need new intellectual parents, no- more than that, we need to rediscover our intellectual funny uncles. In order to address current problems, we need to mine the archives, literatures, and bodies of knowledge that we have not yet attempted or have forgotten, rethink the conceptual architecture we have to work with, and rediscover conversations to re-start.


Hmm, this is a good question. My initial thought was Yelp, since volunteers write reviews of restaurants and other businesses for free. But there are also less obvious forms of this, such as reCaptcha. reCaptcha users usually don’t know that they’re actually digitizing the hard-to-decipher bits of print books.

From Wikipedia:

Like the CAPTCHA interface, reCAPTCHA asks users to enter words seen in distorted text images onscreen. By presenting two words it both protects websites from bots attempting to access restricted areas[2] and helps digitize the text of books…reCAPTCHA has worked on digitizing the archives of The New York Times and books from Google Books.[3] As of 2012, thirty years of The New York Times had been digitized and the project planned to have completed the remaining years by the end of 2013.

Seems like a pretty ingenious way to capitalize on people’s labor especially when they don’t even realize they’re performing labor.

Saturday: 6:15pm - 8:00pm
“A Relevant Past for the Digital Age? A Conversation about the Burdens and Promises of Labor History for Today”

Filling the last slot of the day, Sara Horowitz, an organizer for the Freelancers Union, and Jefferson Cowie, Professor in the Department of Labor Relations, Law, and History at Cornell University, discuss freelancing and the present state of labor amidst some of the worst income inequality in the last 100 years. There’s a “rebel rousing” tone to these presentations, drawing directly from the lexicon of labor organizing- language that is not found in the more theory-based talks from today, giving it an exciting, dynamic quality, welcomed by an audience of (what seems to be largely) academics and researchers.

Starting off the conversation, Horowitz discusses the importance of milennials in determining labor futures: “Milennials are starting to say ‘this world of my parents, with a full-time job and benefits, is not going to come up for me,”- so this is an opportunity for them to really decide what they want,” and that “Milennials have proven to be a generation of 1099s rather than W2s…”

An interesting side-note to discussions of contemporary freelancing, Horowitz remarks, is that food always comes up, and conversations about sustainability and the food crisis have been increasing among our independent, millennial laborors. It’s almost as if she’s implying that freelancers have a unique consciousness when it comes to the food crisis and environmental crisis that those who have more stable wage jobs lack. Interesting, but I’m not sure if I totally follow. Anyone have thoughts? Horowitz and Cowie further discuss what she calls a ‘new mutualism’, suggesting: “we have to create institutions and take responsibility for building services to care for our communities, rather than expecting others to take care of us.”

Towards the end of the conversation Cowie makes another interesting point: During recessions, freelancers don’t risk getting laid-off like their 9-5 peers, and are thus somewhat stabilized within their networks of employment in a way that those with full-time jobs are not. Looking forward, the perceived precarity of the freelancer, thus in some situations, might prove to be less precarious than we might think, as it has already proven to be a site for innovation and new forms of organization…

I think that food access comes up often because it’s an emotional topic that the cultural imaginary can visualize so readily–visions of famines, hungry children, etc. Hunger is also an issue that everyone can relate to on a human level. But I agree that this isn’t probably a hugely pressing concern for your run-of-the-mill Western freelancer. As someone who has been a freelancer for about seven years, I’m more concerned about the immediacy of payment and lack of legal repercussions for missed or late payments from my contractors.

PJ Rey asks what happened to Donna Haraway in mainstream contemporary analysis of the cyborgian model. He goes on to quickly conflate digital and physical prosthesis with old-hat citations–Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and McLuhan—and more recent considerations, Amy Taylor, Sandy Stone. Great! But here, in a conversation about augmented subjectivity, disability studies is haunting this presentation. Where is the emphasis on Haraway’s recent work? In a claim to thinking our prosthetic embodied experiences where are Martha Nussbaum, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder?


Theorizing the Web is based on a sample group of anonymous NYC undergrads?

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Melissa Gira Grant limns the parasitic ways that cops and NGOs leach value and information from the precarious labor sex workers perform while purporting to work for them. Many of these organizations instead work to propel the prostitute imaginary. Grant talks about Turn Off the Red Light—an NGO that created fake Tinder accounts to draw attention to their organization while saying they aim to sex work–but neglects to meaningfully engage with the communities. She pushes on the glaring hypocrisy that the same system allowing for this distribution of fantastical identities provides the visibility and access to contacts for the actual sex workers that NGOs fail to support.

Grant incisively states that this selling of bodies is actually removing the body—reducing it to a display, preserving the social relation of the voicelessness and instrumentality of the body. What can critiques of subjectivity in relation to mass media—Mary Kelly, Judith Barry—from the 80s lend to this conversation?