Does digital technology, especially insofar as it is masculinized or seen as gender-neutral (which are generally the same thing: mankind, postman, etc.), resignify the gendered stigma conventionally attached to care work, affective work, and other sorts of feminized work that never quite counts as “real” labor?

This question comes out of a conversation I was having with some of my graduate students about Karen Gregory’s recent response to Ian Bogost’s Atlantic piece on hyperemployment. I don’t have an answer for this question, but I think it’s very important to consider. (Somebody’s probably already written a fabulous piece on it–and if they have, please point me to it!) So, in this post I want to set up the question for further discussion.

The gist of Bogost’s concept of hyperempoyment is this: if we are employed, we all work all the time. Digital technologies have made it easy for a second, third, fourth (and so on ad infinitum) shifts to be built in to every job (middle-class, managerial-style, non-retail or food-service job, presumably). He writes:

It’s easy to see email as unwelcome obligations, but too rarely do we take that obligation to its logical if obvious conclusion: those obligations are increasingly akin to another job—or better, many other jobs. For those of us lucky enough to be employed, we’re really hyperemployed—committed to our usual jobs and many other jobs as well. It goes without saying that we’re not being paid for all these jobs, but pay is almost beside the point, because the real cost of hyperemployment is time. We are doing all those things others aren’t doing instead of all the things we are competent at doing. And if we fail to do them, whether through active resistance or simple overwhelm, we alone suffer for it:  the schedules don’t get made, the paperwork doesn’t get mailed, the proposals don’t get printed, and on and on.

Gregory’s point–which I fully agree with–is that women and minorities have always had a second (and third, and fourth) shift. They’ve always been expected to do the things like make schedules, mail paperwork, and reproduce the conditions for productive labor generally. She writes:

I am wondering if what Bogost is drawing attention to has less to do with “employment” than with the uneven redistribution and privatization of the labor of social reproduction, an antagonism that feminist theorists have been writing about for more than thirty years…This tacit agreement, however, extends beyond social media and e-mail and is really a form of housework and maintenance for our daily lives.

For more than thirty years, Marxist feminists have been arguing that women’s unpaid labor–housework, reproduction, etc.–is a prerequisite for capitalist wage labor, surplus value extraction, and profit-making. Capital can extract surplus value from waged labor only because the wage laborer is supported by (extracts surplus value from) unwaged labor, mainly in the form of the wife. Gregory’s argument is that what Bogost is pointing to isn’t a new phenomenon so much as a reconfiguration of an ongoing practice: we are all our own wives and moms, so to speak. Indeed, as Bogost’s example suggests, our smartphones wake us up, not our moms, just as emails accomplish a lot of the relational work (scheduling, reminding, checking in, etc.) conventionally performed by women.

Women are trained from a young age to perform this relational, caregiving, extra-shift work. Femininity–the gender ideal and norm–is the technology that helps women perform these tasks with ease and efficiency. Conforming to feminine ideals like cuteness, neatness, cleanliness, attention to (self)presentation, receptivity to others, and so on, trains you in the skills you need to accomplish feminized care/second+ shift work. Need to persuade people to do unpleasant things (like get out of bed)? It helps to be cute and/or nurturing! Need to create a clearly legible calendar or schedule that represents a family’s hectic and convoluted schedule? It helps to have neat handwriting, fine motor skills, and design sense (which girls of my generation definitely learned by, say, passing elaborately-decorated and folded notes between classes)! You get the idea.

Now that “men” (by which I mean, masculinized or non-feminine subjects) are also expected to perform these sorts of tasks as part of their hyperemployment contracts, we rely on technologies other than femininity to assist us in accomplishing this work. Just think about the ways personal computers and smartphones regendered and re-classed secretarial labor. Typing isn’t feminized and classed in the way it once was (my mom’s boss’s wife still won’t type her own emails, because typing is for secretaries, not bourgeois housewives). Typing is universal, at least among the educated middle- and upper-classes. (At this point I want to go reread Sadie Plant’s Zeroes and Ones, which is an old-ish but great book about technology, gender, femininity, and women.)

So where does this leave femininity? I wonder if femininity functions as a way of disaggregating valuable ‘second shift’ work (qua hyperemployment) from valueless but still socially and economically necessary second shift work? There are definitely feminized ways of using these technologies that enable hyperemployment: texting sometimes gets derided as teen girl excess, Pinterest seems to be heavily feminized, etc. How do contemporary ideals of femininity train girls’ bodies to relate to technology in specifically feminized ways, ways that are tied to class, race, ability, etc.? (e.g., “good girls use technology wisely in their STEM careers, but bad girls use it excessively in their texting/shopping/selfies/etc.”) How might thinking about the feminization of digital technologies/platforms/etc. help us think about Gregory’s question: “I am wondering what solidarities can be drawn among bodies, selves, and data (and other nonhuman actors)—solidarities that might really take care of all of us”?

Robin is on twitter as @doctaj.