Photo by Aaron Thompson. This and more can be found on the #TtW14 Picasa album.
Photo by Aaron Thompson. This and more can be found on the #TtW14 Picasa album.

Possibly one of the most insidious ideas to come out of the last two decades of corporate management has been the “do what you love” ethos. Not only is the concept built on the premise that you can afford to pursue your passion for free while you find a way to monetize it, the “do what you love” mantra also assumes that what you do for money will always fill most of your working hours and be something that you primarily identify with. Its a uniquely American concept that what you do to earn a pay check says something about you. That you’re not truly an artist or a scholar until you can make a living off of that labor. I’ve been thinking a lot about the different contours of work after this year’s extremely successful iteration of Theorizing the Web. It was my first year on the committee and, while I loved every minute of it, doing this kind of work always makes you think about what sorts of work organizations are sustainable and the nature of work more generally.

Let there be no mistake- TtW was a lot of work and the committee members weren’t the only ones pulling long hours. Our amazing volunteers who did everything from stuff name badges to record an entire day’s worth of panels, deserved more recompence than the committee could give them. We had shiny stickers but that definitely doesn’t cut it. There were other people with equipment and skills that we did not possess that were monetarily compensated, but at what one might call “friend prices.” Every single penny of our attendees’ generous donations were spent and yet so much of TtW was and probably will continue to be held together with favors and voluntary labor. This arrangement has its problems but, ultimately, is one of the main contributors to the tacit “feel” of the conference: a little rough around the edges, intimate, yet public in ways that a more traditional institution is incapable of being.

Miya Tokumitsu, in a Jacobin essay about the problems of “doing what you love” warns that the DWYL mantra encourages privileged people to ignore low-status work (e.g. janitor, fast food worker) and instead turn inward and seek out self-actualizing work that comports with how we see ourselves or aspire to be. Academics are in a particularly rough spot because while their work is generally considered to be very high-status and thus one of many options for bookish DWYLers, compensation is increasingly hard to come by. She writes:

Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

Most of the TtW organizers are still grad students and, while I can’t speak for other committee members, its pretty clear that we all do Theorizing the Web because we love what it represents and the community it has garnered. Personally, I see it as an intellectual home that the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) could never provide. It is a great honor to work with such amazing people and I work hard out of love and respect for them and the larger community. That being said, we are also guilty of not thinking about compensating ourselves or potential new recruits. TtW pays dividends in social capital and CV lines, but no one is making a living off of the conference. That can be a problem if we want to expand participation in the conference.

This was my first year on the committee but speaking from what I’ve been told of the history of the conference, the pay-what-you-want registration donation was meant to reduce barriers to participation. Expensive registration fees (4S is $150 for students with early registration, then it jumps to $225. More like 4$ amirite?) can be a huge roadblock for a lot of people, but it’d be truly amazing if a conference could leave everyone whole- having not incurred a single expense due to their attendance. Truthfully, this seems like an absurd goal since no one should have to pay to do their job, but that is just one of the hundreds of contradictions that late capitalism has left at our feet.

We are certainly open to suggestions and recommendations for making Theorizing the Web the most economically just conference out there. Personally, I’m interested in finding brand new, long term organizational solutions that don’t leave us open to the increasing austerity forced onto universities and social science departments in particular. How do we radically reinvent the conference such that all attendees –from visitors to organizers– are adequately compensated for their work? These are ongoing questions that, just by being asked, could spur desperately needed changes in academia and perhaps the working world at large.

 David is on Twitter and Tumblr.