Back in 2014, when I first conceived of the Immaterial Labour Union, I was strongly influenced by the ideas put forward by Mirko Tobias Schäfer's book "Bastard Culture!", more explicitly Chapter 2 "Claiming Participation", as well as Tiziana Terranova's essay "Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy". The latter was especially influential in my choice to undertake this project. In it, Terranova sketches the instrumental relevance of free labor in achieving higher profit rates within the context of late capitalist societies, focusing its critique on digital economy particularly. Anchoring her exposure on Lazzarato's notion of 'immaterial labour', where the 'social' directly identifies with the 'economical'(Lazzarato 1997), Terranova's characterisation of digital economy expands and grounds cyberutopian views by adopting an historically rooted systemic reading:
“This essay describes the digital economy as a specific mechanism of internal “capture” of larger pools of social and cultural knowledge. The digital economy is an important area of experimentation with value and free cultural/affective labor. It is about specific forms of production (Web design, multimedia production, digital services, and so on), but is also about forms of labor we do not immediately recognize as such: chat, real-life stories, mailing lists,amateur newsletters, and so on.”(Terranova 2000, 38)
Thus, by mapping the development of digital economy alongside late capitalist societies' focus on knowledge work as a source of surplus, Terranova is able to escape the confusion brought about by the blurrying lines between production and consumption to highlight the still alienated character of labour within cyberspace (Terranova 2000).
It was based on this historical grounding of the term coined in 1997 by Maurizio Lazzarato, as well as its transposition to the cyberspace, that I named the project "Immaterial Labour Union", focusing precisely on the forms of labour we might not recognise as such, more specifically the labour perfomed by users of corporate social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram, etc.
In the year of 2015, days before the launch of the first issue of the zine, a debate took place in the project's mailing list which questioned the adequacy of the project's name. One of the arguments, posited by Professor Christian Fuchs, presented a philosophical opposition to the term 'immaterial labour', "because all the world and all activity is material".
It makes sense to analyse this objection in line with what Christian Fuchs defines as the International Division of Digital Labour (Fuchs 2015), comprised of all the different phases in the production, circulation and consumption of computers, mobile phones and other devices. These include, among others, slavery in mineral extractions in Congo, taylorist production lines in Shenzen, software engineering, call centre services and prosumerism. Thus, according to Fuchs, the International Division of Digital Labour is proof that historical modes of production, such as feudalism, slavery and capitalism, interact dialectically and form a network of highly exploited labour which ultimately creates profits for the ICT industry (Fuchs 2015). This should sufficiently prove that information work encompasses both physical and non-physical qualities (Fuchs 2016).
Ursula Huws shares a similar point of view as regards the belonging of digital labour to a network of activity that grows complex, fragmented and geographically dispersed (Huws 2014). In Huws's conception, there is no 'immaterial' or 'weightless' economy, and the growth in usage of such terms serves only to detach and hide the material reality of both the physical infrastructure of the Internet (e.g.: data centers, cables, sattelites, etc) and the manufacturing of material commodities (e.g.:computers, laptops, mobile phones, etc).
Nick Dyer-Witheford's "Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex" takes us deeper in the very material, revolting and environmentally degrading realities of the International Division of Digital Labour. With Dyer-Witheford we travel from Ciudad Juárez, in Mexico, where since the 1970's US industries, such as HP, Dell and Cisco, have settled so as to take advantage of poor local working conditions and lack of labour regulations, a situation further advanced by the North America Free Trade Agreement of 1994, up to China, where transnational corporations account for 85% of all hi-tech exports, the most well-known being Foxconn, most famously subcontracted by Apple, and where production occurs under inhuman working conditions with 11 hours a day, 6 days a week, low wages and poor safety standards being the norm.Among other locations, we also 'visit' the Amazon and the Congo, where mining, a key industry behind hi-tech production, wreaks havoc on both environment and people's fundamental rights.
As regards the physical infrasctructure of the Internet, Dale Lately's piece for The Baffler "Silicon Valley's Cult of Nothing" illustrates how the immaterial and very fluffy 'Cloud' is powered by coal, as the digital economy makes use of 10% of the world's total electricity generation. This 'cult of immaterialism' (Lately 2015) in fact only serves to hide the unpleasant reality of sweatshop labour, environmental destruction and, at times, even slavery. Indeed, "Immaterial Labour Union" was a problematic name as it, once more, obscured the material realities behind and around digital labour. However, the lack of time to consider a better alternative, allied with a need to prioritize my editorial functions within the zine, have postponed the solving of this pressing issue up until now. Hence, this issue serves the double purpose of highlighting the problematic assumptions carried on by the usage of the term "immaterial labour", as well as announcing the name change from "Immaterial Labour Union" to "Pervasive Labour Union".
The introduction of the scientific management of labour by Frederick Taylor in the 1880's sought to improve efficiency and productivity through the application of scientific principles to labour processes. Taylor's approach found echo even within some groups in the Soviet Union, with Alexei Gastev setting up the Central Institute of Labour with the final goal of optimizing labour processes to such an extent that the worker would become one with the machine. According to Nikolas Rose, Taylorism "accorded a visibility to previously obscure and unimportant aspects of the activities of persons, (...) calibrating and governing these minutiae of existence in accordance with these norms - of hygiene, of intelligence and so forth"(Rose, 1999). However, Taylorism's insufficient attention to the psychological wellbeing of the workers proved counterproductive, and a new school of managerial theory gained prominence which saw workers' psychological welfare as central in achieving higher economic efficiency. Throughout the 20th century, employment 'was to be situated within a wider network of relations between the worker, the employer and the state' (Rose, 1999), furthering the subsumption of the former's subjectivity to economical goals.
Today, smart urbanism, the Internet of Things, self-tracking and self-quantification devices, productivity apps etc, promise a more efficient and productive way of life by means of data collection, management, visualization and analysis. In much the same way that data collection, management, visualization and analysis allowed us to become unpaid workers for corporate social networking platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Google, whose profits derive from user data being sold to third party advertisers, these continuous developments are promising to submerge us in a state of pervasive labour. Within this context the union will continue to focus on "forms of labor we do not immediately recognize as such" (Terranova 2000), hopefully going beyond the surface of the "immaterial" and addressing such issues as, among others, the international division of labour, cybernetic governance and databased predictability.
DYER-WITHHEFORD, N. (2015) Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex. Pluto Press. FUCHS, C. (2015) Reading Marx in the Information Age - A Media and Communication Studies Perspective on Capital Volume I. Routledge.
FUCHS, C. (2016) Digital Labor And Imperialism. [Online]. Monthly Review 2016. Available from - https://monthlyreview.org/2016/01/01/digital-labor-and-imperialism/
HUWS, U. (2014). Labor in the Global Digital Economy: The Cybertariat Comes of Age. New York: Monthly Review Press.
LATELY, D. (2015) Silicon Valley's Cult of Nothing. [Online]. The Baffler 2015. Available from - http://thebaffler.com/latest/cult-of-nothing
LAZZARATO, M. (1997) Immaterial Labor. In: Virno, P. & Hardy, M. (eds.). Radical Thought In Italy: A Potential Politics.
ROSE, N. (1989) Governing the Soul: the Shaping of the Private Self. Second Edition. London: Free Association Books.
TERRANOVA, T. Free Labor: Producing Culture For The Digital Economy. [Online] p.33-58. Available from - https://we.riseup.net/assets/5722/terranova,tiziana%20free%20labor%20producing%20culture%20for%20the%20digital%20economy.pdf