Working for Nothing

Posted on | March 26, 2013 | 1 Comment

Notes from Andrew Ross’ keynote at the International Labour Process conference last week. These are just the sections on virtual labour.

One of the founding principles of the labor movement was that the bosses needed the workers. Now we may be reaching a point where bosses have worked out how to get by without workers.

Three dimensions:

Offshoring: still need workers but can use cheaper ones
Productivity: existing workers work harder and longer or face cuts in wages
Unpaid labour: previously paid positions (like internships) no longer paid;
free online content as an industrial norm.

Virtual labor has several fronts:

– data mining: we know not what they do
– e-lance programs: mechanical turks, microtasks
– crowdsourcing: of creative / interesting work (the more interesting the less compulsion to demand payment)
– personalized algorithms for extracting rent
– distributed labor

Distributed labour once referred to trends like offshoring white collar work or the mobile office (anywhere, anytime work). Distributed labour now includes the boom in ‘microtasks’: small jobs that only require minimal concentration. These tasks entail deskilling and dispersal as much as they deprive workers of the broader perspective to see their work in the context of a wider whole. This lacking perspective is what makes workers unwilling to see their contribution as labor.

Virtual labor also characterized by ‘donor labor’: work that you can’t help doing (see No Collar).

On Facebook/ Google: The revenue v. employee ratio for these companies is historically unusual. This reflects the value of users’ unpaid virtual labor (their ‘click signals’).

On internship ‘opportunities’: a kind of hazing now obligatory for students seeking white collar work. A new glass ceiling giving substance to the accusation that there is a ‘cultural elite’ in the US – since only those already wealthy can afford the lost wages of successive internships.

Studies suggest the majority of unpaid internships go to women.

This adds to the argument that student debt is a condition of entry for the modern workforce, a system of indenture.


One Response to “Working for Nothing”

  1. melgregg
    March 28th, 2013 @ 2:06 pm

    For those interested, some of these ideas are available in this collection’s opening chapter, ‘In Search of the Lost Paycheck’.

    A nice footnote to the talk, as suggested by Andrew himself in passing, is this song by The Clash:

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