Tag Archives: exploitation

“social” versus “Social”

The semantics of Silicon Valley Capitalism are precise, measured, and designed to undermine preexisting definitions of the things such capitalists seek to exploit. It is no coincidence that digital connections are often called “friends,” even though the terms “friend” and “Facebook friend” have very different meanings. And then there is “social,” a Silicon Valley shorthand term for “sharing digital information” that bears little resemblance to the word “social” as we’ve traditionally used it. From “Living Social” to “making music social,” “social media” companies use friendly old words to spin new modes of interaction into concepts more comfortable and familiar. It is easier to swallow massive changes to interpersonal norms, expectations, and behaviors when such shifts are repackaged and presented as the delightful idea of being “social” with “friends.”

But is this “social” so social? Yes and no and not quite. To elaborate, we propose a distinction: “Social” versus “social,” in which the capital-S “Social” refers not to the conventional notion of social but specifically to Silicon-Valley-Social. The point is, simply, that when Silicon Valley entrepreneurs say “social,” they mean only a specific slice of human sociality. (more…)

Gamification, Playbor & Exploitation

I’m posting to get some feedback on my initial thoughts in preparation for my chapter in a forthcoming gamification reader. I’d appreciated your thoughts and comments here or @pjrey.

My former prof Patricia Hill Collins taught me to begin inquiry into any new phenomenon with a simple question: Who benefits? And this, I am suggesting, is the approach we must take to the Silicon Valley buzzword du jure: “gamification.” Why does this idea now command so much attention that we feel compelled to write a book on it? Does a typical person really find aspects of his or her life becoming more gamelike? And, who is promoting all this talk of gamification, anyway?

It’s telling that conferences like “For the Win: Serious Gamification” or “The Gamification of Everything – convergence conversation” are taking place in business (and not, say, sociology) departments or being run by CEOs and investment consultants. The Gamification Summit invites attendees to “tap into the latest and hottest business trend.” Searching Forbes turns up far more articles (156) discussing gamification than the New York Times (34) or even Wired (45). All this makes TIME contributor Gary Belsky seems a bit behind the time when he predicts “gamification with soon rule the business world.” In short, gamification is promoted and championed—not by game designers, those interested in game studies, sociologists of labor/play, or even computer-human interaction researchers—but by business folks. And, given that the market for videogames is already worth greater than $25 billion, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that business folk are looking for new growth areas in gaming.

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Changing the Development Discourse: Access to Networks

Image c/o selector.com

If you watch the documentary “Urbanized” (now streaming on Netflix) you will eventually see an interview with the man pictured above. His name is Enrique Peñalosa and he is the former mayor of Bogotá, Columbia. During his tenure as mayor he instituted several major changes to the city’s physical and social character. His signature accomplishment was a major  bus rapid transit system that is widely regarded by urban planners as one of the most advanced in the world. (See video after the jump.) While the physical changes are no small feat, characterizing his work as simply in the domain of transit or even environmental conservation, would be missing the larger picture. Peñalosa sees urban planning, and specifically access to transportation, as a moral issue. Constitutional rights must extend beyond the juridical or the legalistic sense and into the very physical manifestations of governance. His vision can be summed up in a simple, bumpersticker-ready quote: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” In this brief essay I will apply this rationale to networked computing both in the American context and the developing world. (more…)

Notes on Virno, the Multitude, and the Web

Labor and non-labor develop an identical form of productivity, based on the exercise of generic human faculties: language, memory, sociability, ethical and aesthetic inclinations, the capacity for abstraction and learning. From the point of view of “what” is done and “how” it is done, there is no substantial difference between employment and unemployment. It could be said that: unemployment is non-remunerated labor and labor, in turn, is remunerated unemployment. -Virno (Grammar of the Multitude, p. 103)

I’m deep into my second comprehensive exam, so I’m going to self-servingly post some notes on various things I’m reading. (Feedback is most welcome.) Though Paulo Virno only mentions the Web once in In Grammar of the Multitude (p. 43), the four lectures that comprise the book are of deep relevance to the political economy of social media, particularly in situating them in the broader historical trend toward post-Fordist production.

Let’s start by unpacking that phrase “post-Fordism.” Fordism refers to Henry Ford’s innovations in assembly line production in his automotive plants. The assembly line had profound social consequences in that it made the tasks of each worker so repetitive and simplified that anyone could do them. That is to say, the assembly line created a de-skilled workforce. Fordism is also generally linked to Taylorism, which refers to Fredrick Taylor’s attempts to introduce scientific rationality in the workplace through time-and-motion studies and pay-for-performance. (more…)

Will the IPO Change the Way Users See Facebook?

Tomorrow’s initial public offering of Facebook stock has both business and tech commentators chattering away (though, in most mainstream publications, there isn’t meaningful distinction between the two). Technology coverage is too often reduced to the business of technology. Consider the top four tech headlines on the New York Times site today: “Long Odds on a Big Facebook Payday,” “Ahead of Facebook I.P.O., a Skeptical Madison Ave.,” “Spotify Deal Would Value Company at $4 Billion, “Pinterest Raises $100 Million.”

Buried in the all the personal investing advice, some interesting quesitons are being raised. For example: How can a company with few employees and so little material infrastructure generate so much value? What is it that Facebook actually produces? Is an economy based in immaterial products and services sustainable (especially given that it’s profitability is largely dependent on it’s ability to drive additional consumption in other sectors through advertising)?

But there are also a lot of questions that aren’t being asked—the kinds of culturally significant questions that business folks and economists aren’t (though perhaps should be) interested in. Here, I want ask one such question: Will Facebook’s transition to a public corporation change the way users perceive their participation on the site? While I can only speculate about how this institutional change will effect users, I want offer a few reasons I think Facebook’s IPO may cause users to see themselves in more of an explicit work-like relationship with Facebook (based on rationalistic principles of minimizing cost and maximizing gain) and less a part of some sort of non-rationalized gift economy (based on principles of sharing and reciprocity). I should be clear, here, that I am talking about users’ relationship to the platform, not their relationships with each other. Users are, of course, primarily motivated to use the platform because of their relationships with other users; however, as recent privacy debates have illustrated, a user’s perceptions of Facebook are important in determining how users use the platform and whether they use it at all. (more…)

Alienation, Exploitation & Social Media

I just published a piece in a special issue of American Behavioral Scientist on the topic of Prosumption and the Prosumer. The article will likely be of interest to many of Cyborgology blog readers. In it, I consider the applicability of Marx’s two main critiques of capitalism—alienation and exploitation—to social media. Though Marx was describing the materialist paradigm of factory production, it is useful to see how far these concepts can be stretched to account for the immaterial paradigm of digital prosumption, because, even if we observe weaknesses in how the concepts graft on to social media, these observations become a starting point for new kinds of theorizing.

Additionally, I found it important to try to bring alienation into the conversation surrounding social media. Thus far, most Marxian analysis has focused solely on exploitation (many hyperbolically claiming that we have entered an era of hyper- or over-exploitation). I argue that exploitation has remained a constant between material and immaterial modes of production and that what is most remarkable is the fact that productivity occurs on social media with so little alienation.

You can access the article on the publisher’s site or as a .pdf here.

PJ Rey (@pjrey) is a sociologist at the University of Maryland working to describe how social media and other technology reflect and change our culture and the economy.

Panel Discussion: Is Facebook Use a Form of Labor?

The Organizations, Occupations, and Work blog (associated with the American Sociological Association) organized an interesting panel discussion between Chris Prener, Christopher Land, Steffen Böehm and myself. I’ll summarize/critique the positions here and provide links for further reading.

Chris Prener initiated the conversation by asking “Is Facebook “Using” Its Members?” Prener claims that, though the company gives users “access to networks of friends and other individuals as well as social organizations and associations,” Facebook—with it’s advertising revenue “somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.2 billion”—” benefits far more in this somewhat symbiotic relationship.” He concludes that Facebook, and social media more broadly, represent “a [new] space where even unpaid, voluntary leisure activities can be exploited for the commercial gain of the entities within which those activities occur.” (more…)

Facebook is Not a Factory (But Still Exploits its Users)

This piece is posted in cooperation with the Organization, Occupations, and Work Blog.

Facebook’s IPO announcement has stirred much debate over the question of whether Facebook is exploiting/using/taking advantage of its users. The main problem with the recent discussion of this subject is that no one really seems to have taken the time to actually define what exploitation is. Let me start by reviewing this concept before proceeding to examine its relevance to Facebook.

Defining exploitation. The concept of exploitation came to prominence about a century and a half ago through the writings of Karl Marx, and he gave it a specific, objectively calculable definition—though, I’ll spare you the mathematical expressions. Marx starts from the assumption that value is created though labor (most people today acknowledge that value is contingent on other factors as well, but we need merely to accept that labor is one source of value for Marx’s argument to work). According to Marx, humans have an important natural relationship to the fruits of our labor, and our work is a definitive part of who we are. Modern capitalist society is unique from other periods in history because workers sell their labor time in exchange for wages (as opposed to, say, creating objects and bartering them for other objects). Capitalists accumulate money by skimming off some of the value created by worker’s labor and, so that the wages a worker receives is only a fraction of the total value he or she has created. The portion of the value created by a worker that is not returned back to that worker (after operating costs are covered) is called the rate of exploitation. (more…)

Incidental Productivity: Value and Social Media

For nearly two centuries, the term “production” has conjured an image of a worker physically laboring in the factory. Arguably, this image has been supplanted, in recent decades, by office worker typing away on a keyboard; however, both images share certain commonalities. Office work and factory work are both conspicuous—i.e., the worker sees what she is making, be it a physical object or a document. Office work and factory work are also active—i.e., they require the workers’ energy and attention and come at the expense of other possible activities.

The nature of production has undergone a radical change in a ballooning sector of the economy. The paradigmatic images of active workers producing conspicuous objects in the factory and the office have been replaced by the image of Facebook users, leisurely interacting with one another. But before we delve into this new form of productivity we must take a moment to define production itself.

Following Marx, we can say that any activity that results in the creation of value is production of one sort or another. Labor is a form of production specific to humans because human are capable of imagination and intentionality. (more…)

Exploitation and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk

Since 2007, the US federal minimum wage has been set at $7.15 an hour, yet workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk—many of whom live in the US—make an average of $2 (according to the estimates of Mechanical Turk researcher Alex Quinn).  As illustrated in the above image, Amazon, itself, encourages businesses (at least implicitly) to pay workers (or “turkers” as they are called) less-than-minimum wages.  Moreover, to even qualify for these low-paying tasks called HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks), turkers are often expected to complete unpaid training sessions that can last for up to an hour.  Also, because turkers receive micro-payments for each task and because the time to completion for each task is rationalized to the second, turkers receive no pay during normal periods of rest during the workday.

Mechanical Turk is a crowdsourcing platform that allow anyone to recruit laborers for short online tasks, which cannot be effectively completed by computers.  For examples, turkers might compile contact information for various businesses, sort through images and tag offensive ones, or participate in university research experiments.  Because of the piecemeal and spatially-disembedded nature of the work, it is virtually unregulated.

Can we simply dismiss this subversion of labor laws—as some commentators have—on the grounds that “$2 an hour is a decent wage in India?”  Even if we are angered by this exploitation of turkers, is it even possible to regulate an international platform of this sort?