Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines academic concerns that the leisurely façade of life online masks the economic exploitation of users, on whose backs companies like Facebook have amassed tremendous wealth. The chapter also considers the related critique of what it terms “leisure-at-work,” as when creative-class employees engage in various kinds of play while at the office and with the consent of their employers. The chapter draws from the antisocial thesis in queer theory to argue that concerns about the exploitation of playbor and leisure-at-work are motivated by an underlying discomfort with forms of leisure and pleasure understood as self-indulgent and irresponsible, in an effort to call readers back to the social.
Your business is our pleasure.
In 2000, on the day before Christmas, the New York Times published an opinion piece announcing that the dot com bubble had officially burst. “What a difference a year makes,” the Times wrote. The Dow Jones Internet Index had fallen 72 percent since March (when the bubble had actually burst, by most accounts), and stock prices for companies like Priceline and Pets.com were plummeting.1 Ten years and one global recession later, fears of another Internet bubble began to circulate in the press, with headlines like “Is This the Start of the Second Dot Com Bubble?” and “Investing Like It’s 1999.”2 As in the late 1990s, these fears were stoked by suspicions that stock in Internet companies was overvalued in relation to these companies’ profit potential. High profile, high cost acquisitions like Facebook’s purchase of Instagram in April of 2013 (for $1 billion) and Whatsapp in February of 2014 (for $19 billion) brought these fears to the surface.
Something important had changed since the 1990s, though. With the development of social media (or web 2.0), Internet companies had identified a source of economic value on which to build their business models: the participation of users. As Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle—founders of the Web 2.0 Summit, a high-profile tech/Internet industry conference—observed, the companies that survived the dot com bubble were those that did not simply offer preexisting services via the Internet, but rather built applications “that literally [got] better the more people use[d] them, harnessing network effects not only to acquire users, but also to learn from them and build on their contributions.”3 Value, in these cases, “was facilitated by the software, but was co-created by and for the community of connected users.”4 As O’Reilly and Battelle conclude, “Web 2.0 is all about harnessing collective intelligence.”5 More (p.40) precisely, from a business perspective web 2.0 is all about competing to harness and monetize collective intelligence. Because of network effects, this competition often has high, winner-takes-all stakes, as with Google, for example, which became dominant in the field of search in part because the efficiency of its search algorithm improves with increased use.
While the notion of “cyberspace” now seems rather quaint, one might understand competition between web 2.0 companies in quasi-spatial, colonial terms, with the Internet as a geographic territory whose valuable natural resources—its users—have become the subject of competition between companies. This is precisely how O’Reilly and Battelle framed “the battle to dominate the internet economy” in their introduction to the 2010 Web 2.0 Summit, organized under the theme “Points of Control.”6 In order to better understand competition between companies, O’Reilly and Battelle wrote, the conference would aim to “map strategic inflection points across the Internet landscape.”7 “Map” here is meant both figuratively and literally; the organizing visual motif of the conference was an illustrated map with major commercial web and telecom interests represented as countries or empires fighting for territory. This map was inspired by board games like Risk and Stratego and the fanciful maps of novels like J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, as well as by what Rudyard Kipling called “the Great Game” in the late Victorian era—that is, the struggle between Russia and England for control over access to India through Afghanistan and “all the stans,” with the idea that “if you control the passes you control access for armies, access for commerce.”8 While politically and socially obtuse—not surprising, coming from Silicon Valley—these maps highlight the extent to which much of the value at stake in controlling Internet “ecosystems” is user-created, co-created, or, at the very least, user-dependent.
To be clear, it is not simply market share that companies are competing for; the users of the services and applications in question are not simply consuming a preexisting product but rather are participating in the very production of this product. This participation can take various forms. Some of these forms—blogging, uploading images, tweeting, or producing content in some other way—are intentional: users knowingly and actively contribute some form of data, even if they do not know how this data may be collected or used. Activities like entering strings of text when searching the web can also be understood as intentional. Other (p.41) forms of participation are less intentional or are even unintentional. As the physical world is increasingly networked—a phenomenon O’Reilly and Battelle referred to in 2009 as “web squared” (though “the internet of things” would ultimately become more popular)—users generate large quantities of data simply by going about their daily lives in highly censored, tracked, and surveilled environments. As O’Reilly and Battelle explain, “The Web is no longer a collection of static pages of HTML that describe something in the world. Increasingly, the Web is the world—everything and everyone in the world casts an ‘information shadow,’ an aura of data which, when captured and processed intelligently, offers extraordinary opportunity and mind bending implications.”9 This information shadow emerges from practices like web browsing; moving through surveilled public spaces; using smartphones’ cameras, global positioning systems, microphones, accelerometers, and gyroscopes; enrolling in school; visiting a doctor; driving; and using a credit card.
Once quantified and digitized, the data produced through these various forms of intentional and unintentional participation can be managed to identify and extract value. This practice has been called “information banking,” especially in conjunction with cloud computing (whereby data storage and processing is outsourced to third-party businesses like sales-force.com). Like banks, these businesses add value by analyzing data for inefficiencies that can be eliminated and opportunities for growth that can be exploited. While the term “big data” has been used to refer to the enormous data sets now produced through participation in a networked society, it seems increasingly appropriate to use it in the same way as “big pharma,” that is, to describe the industry not the product.
How have these transformations, particularly the emergence of user participation as a source of economic value, been understood by scholars of media and the Internet working in various critical traditions? In 2000, as the dot com bubble was collapsing, Social Text published Tiziana Terranova’s “Free Labor,” an essay that proved influential for scholars looking to make sense of user participation within the context of “communicative capitalism,” though at the time of its publication, many of these forms did not yet exist; Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, MySpace, and even the early social networking service Friendster had not yet been invented. The essay takes aim at what Terranova sardonically refers to as the “idealistic cyberdrool of the digerati”—as expressed, (p.42) for example, in Kevin Kelly’s notion of a “self- organizing Internet-as-free-market.”10 Inspired, in part, by the unrest of the “NetSlaves,” including seven former AOL volunteers who asked the Department of Labor to investigate whether they might be owed back wages for their work, Terranova’s essay offers a counter to the “glamorization of digital labor,” arguing that various kinds of voluntary and pleasurable activity central to the vitality of the Internet—“building Web sites, modifying software packages, reading and participating in mailing lists, and building virtual spaces on MUDs and MOOs”—constitute a form of unpaid, exploited labor.11 Or more to the point, Terranova argues that these activities blur the boundary between labor and leisure.
Some of the activities in Terranova’s list—web and software development, content production—were already legible as forms of labor; in addition to building websites, modifying software packages, or producing cultural content on a voluntary basis, one could find formal employment doing these things. It was thus neither particularly innovative nor controversial to conceptualize amateur content producers, volunteer message board administrators, or hobbyist programmers as unpaid and exploited laborers, especially considering the extent to which employed workers had been displaced by volunteers, for example at Netscape, where layoffs and an increased reliance on volunteer contributions went hand in hand. And while the voluntary and pleasurable nature of these activities would give some scholars pause, most have agreed that the replacement of paid labor by volunteer activities is exploitative in some way.12 The logic behind this transformation is fairly transparent: corporations profit when content creation is crowdsourced rather than managed in-house, in addition to saving themselves the headache of managing creative-class workers, as Andrew Ross has argued.13
The more provocative move in Terranova’s essay was to consider as labor other kinds of voluntary and “pleasurably embraced” activity—accessing websites, chatting, and participating in mailing lists—which are not already legible as forms of labor.14 Unlike voluntary web or software development, these activities displace no jobs, rarely warrant or require remuneration, and are thus not intuitively understood as work-like, yet Terranova suggests that reframing these activities as work, or as a hybrid of work and leisure, helps to draw into focus how economic value is created and captured online, and thereby to illuminate broader (p.43) political-economic tendencies within contemporary capitalism. Terranova’s argument soon proved prescient with the emergence and eventual industry dominance of social media in the 2000s, which occasioned a widespread rethinking of inherited theorizations of labor and leisure, and sparked a debate about whether activities that appear to be leisure should be reconceptualized as labor or labor-like, or, to put it another way, whether experiences of leisure mask various kinds of hidden labor.
This chapter focuses on this debate as it has been expressed in relation to two “objects”: first, what Julian Kücklich influentially termed “playbor,” that is forms of voluntary, pleasurable online activity that are not typically understood as labor but that are similarly productive of economic value; and second, “creative class” or “no-collar” employment, and in particular the informal design, relaxed norms, and unusual amenities such as video games, skateboards and scooters, volleyball courts, haircuts and massages, free food, and so on, often associated with Internet company campuses and workplaces. As with critiques of playbor, scholars have argued that encouraging certain forms of leisure-at-work facilitates the extraction of economic value from creative labor while also obscuring this exploitation from creative laborers. In the first case, scholars redescribe play as work. In the second case, scholars directly relate leisure-at-work to the increased productivity and exploitation of workers. In both cases, what appears to be play or leisure is revealed to be work or fundamentally work-like, or to serve directly the institution of work.
This chapter offers a novel interpretation of criticism of playbor and leisure-at-work. Through analysis of scholarship in these two areas, including texts by Terranova, Ross, Trebor Scholz, Mark Andrejevic, David Hesmondhalgh, and Christian Fuchs, it argues that diagnoses of exploitation do not aim to recapture or withhold the economic value siphoned from users/workers, but rather constitute an effort to devalue certain forms of leisure, especially those that might be classified as irresponsible or antisocial entertainment or “cheap amusements” (to borrow phrasing from Kathy Peiss).15 Popular criticism of Internet use provides a roadmap of these forms: consuming pornography, endless web surfing, taking and sharing selfies, gaming, and so on. In other words, certain forms of leisure are compared to, conflated with, or linked to exploited labor because scholars reject their pleasures as equivalent in value to the profits they produce, in such a way that users/workers can be seen as (p.44) underpaid, ripped off. The fault, however, is not placed strictly onto corporate exploiters, since users/workers are complicit in their own exploitation; the primary problem for scholars is that in the first case, Internet users do not see any need for payment—they gladly exchange their data for pleasure—and in the second case, workers who play volleyball or get a massage on company time are seduced into identifying with their employer in such a way that makes them less likely to demand a just workplace with reasonable hours and job security, which is seen as more valuable than those pleasures.
Furthermore, the chapter finds that diagnoses of exploitation also constitute an effort to value collective forms of ownership, control, and management. Even those scholars who do not directly target forms of leisure understood as irresponsible or antisocial still suggest that users/workers need to be made responsible through collective forms of ownership, control, and management, typically because these forms are thought to be essential to the realization of users’/workers’ “best interests.” Here, then, it is less the presence of leisure/play/fun that is a problem, than the absence of collective ownership, control, and management, though I will ultimately suggest that this amounts to the same thing.16
The argument of this chapter is informed, in part, by an inconsistency in the playbor literature: the redescription of leisure as labor defines this new kind of labor as “a human activity sometimes undertaken solely for pleasure that has economic and symbolic value and can be performed at any time,” as Scholz has written.17 Yet not all forms of economically or symbolically valuable pleasurable activity raise flags for critics. To say that such activity comprises an expansive category would be an understatement. It might include, for example, all forms of leisure that require payment or investment, whether for goods (such as books, games, sports equipment) or services (theatre, live music, theme parks). However, critics do not target forms of leisure that are paid for with money; they care only about activities that are paid for with time and attention/activity, though this distinction would seem to matter little. For example, there is a negligible difference between paying to see a movie on demand and paying with time and attention (to advertisers) when the same movie is on broadcast television: Are you a consumer if you pay for the movie, but a worker if you watch it for free? This raises the question: What motivates the analytical separation of these two forms of leisure, a separation (p.45) central to theorizations of playbor or “digital labor” (as Scholz defines it above)?
To be certain, there can be political utility in redescribing as labor activities that are not conventionally understood as labor. Doing so might draw attention to structural conditions that coerce participation. As David Hesmondhalgh points out, this strategy has been employed by feminist scholars in arguing that domestic childcare and home maintenance ought to be considered and recompensed as labor.18 Terranova’s argument in “Free Labor” is crafted in this mold, at least in part; she observes that an overemphasis in media scholarship on open source programming as unpaid labor, and an underemphasis on the labors of browsing or chatting, is evidence of a masculinist bias.19 But unlike the labors of childcare or home maintenance, leisure online is rarely structurally coerced. This raises another question: What could be the purpose of describing uncoerced, pleasurable activities as labor or labor-like?
The argument of this chapter is also informed by an inconsistency in the literature that critiques leisure-at-work, particularly Andrew Ross’s book No Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs, which exemplifies this line of argument—namely, that permitting and encouraging leisure-at-work mask workers’ exploitation. Yet workplaces—including creative-class workplaces—routinely offer benefits that escape scrutiny, including health care, retirement packages, and family friendly policies. Where is the outrage, for example, that some universities offer faculty and staff tuition benefits, both for themselves and their children? This raises yet another question: What motivates the analytical separation and critique of particular kinds of workplace perks or characteristics that involve having fun, goofing off, and taking it easy?
Rather than engaging scholarship on playbor and leisure-at-work empirically—for example, by weighing in on how the organization of labor and leisure has changed over time—I see these inconsistencies as requiring interpretation to reconstruct their underlying motivations and aims. This is also to contest the framing of these various strands of inquiry as simply empirical and theoretical, rather than political or polemical.20 In interpreting concerns about playbor and leisure-at-work, the chapter argues that the devaluing of particular forms of leisure (and conversely, the valuing of work) is motivated not simply by a cultural elitism that favors certain forms of leisure over others but also, beneath (p.46) this, by an underlying identification and rejection of certain forms of leisure as self-indulgent and irresponsible, rather than by the unremunerated production of value, or the obfuscation of exploitation, as critics contend. In other words, the reason these forms of leisure are not seen as equivalent in economic value to the pleasures they produce is that they are not seen as engendering or connected to social value. On the contrary, these forms of leisure are understood as having little to do with the collective, communal, responsible forms of relationality valued by critics, whether because devalued forms are understood as escapist or as otherwise detrimental to valued relational bonds.21 But because of the intellectual legacy of cultural and identity studies, it has become difficult for critics to malign explicitly the tastes and habits of the masses without coming across as elitist, like the misanthropic Theodor Adorno (on fans of popular music, for instance: “They are not childlike. … But they are childish; their primitivism is not that of the undeveloped, but that of the forcibly retarded.”)22 Instead, scholars find fault with certain forms of leisure as exploitative. To draw an analogy: rather than telling us that they don’t like our (in)significant others—which would foreground critics’ own subjective, evaluative criteria—they tell us that these others are using us. It is precisely the “apparently” free nature of services like Facebook and Google, and the “apparently” liberated nature of creative-class office environments that make possible this critique.
The diagnosis of playbor and leisure-at-work as exploitative functions not only to devalue particular forms of leisure, but, relatedly, to value the institution of work, which becomes symbolically important insofar as it is linked to the formation and maintenance of responsible social subjects invested in forms of collective governance, which might take root if only users/workers would curtail their appetite for entertainment. Beneath this identification of apparently new forms of exploitation lies yet another iteration of the call for the passive masses to liberate themselves (or be liberated) from Plato’s cave, and to become active and assert control over their productive and creative activity through the institution of work. This is not just about the money—the economic value appropriated from users/workers—but more significantly, about users’/workers’ “relinquishing” of control over processes of production to capital, that is, their failure to be sufficiently collectively oriented. In other words, for these critics, exploitation is the symptom of a more pernicious underlying (p.47) problem—namely, the alienation of users/workers from processes of production that are necessary not simply for their biological survival, but for their survival as social subjects. Or perhaps it is pleasure that is the symptom, evidencing the failed socialization of a communally identified social subject.
In short, concerns about the collapse of work and leisure are motivated by a rejection of certain forms of leisure as antisocial and by a related call to the social via the institution of work. It is not so much the sacred space of leisure that is under threat, as it becomes increasingly contaminated by its proximity to work. Rather, it is the forms of relationality valued by critics—responsible, accountable, obedient, and sacrificial—secured precisely through work as a repository of meaning, a symbolic object. Far from simply mapping the collapse of work and leisure, analyses of this transformation can be better understood as an expression of anxiety stemming from the perception of a threat to the social—an anxiety that works to devalue targeted forms of leisure, with the aim of (re)producing a properly socialized subject—that is, a subject disabused of the prospect of getting something for nothing. In this way, what appears to be an empirical, analytical, and theoretical project is also, and perhaps more fundamentally, a normative project.
Play Becomes Work
The notion that playbor is exploitative draws from several preexisting streams of scholarship. First, it draws from political-economic scholarship on television beginning in the 1970s, when the growing dominance of television as a cultural form brought the issue of audiences’ economic value to the attention of scholars working in various Marxist or quasi-Marxist traditions, as Patricia Clough has detailed.23 In particular, Dallas Smythe’s 1977 essay “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism” invited scholars to take up television as a technology of production (in the Marxian sense) rather than simply as a technology of consumption.24 Contesting the notion that mass media is primarily in the business of producing meaningful content, Smythe argued that the audience is actually the media’s primary product, aggregated through the distribution of content and then sold to advertisers. Or more precisely, Smythe argued that it is “audience power”—a modification of (p.48) Marx’s “labor power”—that is sold to advertisers. Watching television could thus be conceptualized as a form of work, specifically the work of desiring mass-produced commodities and of legitimating the state.25
Smythe’s argument was subsequently picked up, debated, elaborated, and amended by a number of scholars, most notably Nick Browne and Sut Jhally, the latter of whom has similarly argued that “the media are our employers”; audiences work by watching commercials and are paid in programming.26 Also of relevance to theorizations of free labor, though sometimes overlooked, is Richard Dienst’s 1994 book Still Life in Real Time: Theory after Television, in which Dienst takes issue with Browne’s and Jhally’s treatment of television as an episodic transaction between economic agents, rather than a broader system. While Dienst recognizes that advertising often pays for television programming, and that clients who hire advertisers believe that advertisements help to increase or at least maintain their business, he argues that television does not require advertising to sustain itself. Rather, advertising cashes in on time already socialized by television; advertising realizes television’s investment in viewing time. Following Marx’s argument that capitalism places workers under social conditions that allow capitalists to harness and exploit their productive power, Dienst argues that television establishes conditions that allow television networks to harness the productivity of our free time, even though it appears as if television itself (rather than audiences’ viewing power) is the source of its profitability. Aiding this illusion, television audiences relinquish their free time willingly, seemingly unaware of the productive power of their viewing.27 In short, audiences pay for television with their time, though they rarely experience the time they relinquish as valuable. As Clough aptly summarizes Dienst’s argument: “It is not, therefore, in reading images and then consuming advertised commodities that the viewer produces surplus value. The viewer produces surplus value when he or she watches, that is, when a unit of viewing time and television image, having already been capitalized, is used up.”28
Also of particular relevance to contemporary theorizations of playbor is Jonathan Beller’s 1998 essay “Capital/Cinema” (a precursor to his 2006 book The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle). Though Beller focuses on cinema as opposed to television, the two theses he proposes fit comfortably in this line of television criticism and theory: “(1) cinematic movement is an extension of (p.49) capital circulation: the cinematic image develops out of the commodity-form; and (2) cinema becomes directly involved in the process of social production and reproduction by occupying human time and converting visual attention to labor-power—in short, the labor theory of value is a special case of what I call the theory of the productive value of human attention.”29 In Beller’s analysis, it is thus attention in its general form that produces value, not simply the attention that accompanies willful labor. In this way, Beller argues, value can be produced outside of contexts of work narrowly conceived, for example in movie theaters, homes, and even “the brain itself.”30
Contemporary theorizations of playbor also owe an intellectual debt to scholarship on consumerism, most notably Alvin Toffler’s work on prosumption—a portmanteau of “production” and “consumption,” and an influential concept for scholars of free labor—and similar concepts (for example, Axel Bruns’s “produsage”).31 While the concept of prosumption has been used primarily to describe the displacement of labor onto consumers (as in the pouring of one’s own drinks at fast food restaurants, or the scanning of one’s own groceries at the supermarket), it has also been used to describe the process of stimulating and satisfying consumers’ desires by formally engaging them in the production process—for example, by inviting them to customize products or co-create experiences.32 As George Ritzer and Nathan Jurgenson have argued, prosumer retail environments do not simply offer consumers enhanced products or services, but surreptitiously extract value from consumers through this engagement.33 While Ritzer and Jurgenson theorize prosumption as a new phenomenon, it might also be conceptualized as an extension of existing corporate practices of “coopting” non-market cultural activity and selling it back to consumers, as Terranova has suggested.34
Finally, contemporary theorizations of playbor have been influenced by the autonomist school of Marxist thought, and in particular autonomist theorizations of immaterial labor—a term that describes “a series of activities that are not normally recognized as work,” but that increasingly take on characteristics of work, particularly in terms of value production and extraction, as Terranova writes, citing Maurizio Lazzarato.35 (“Immaterial” here refers both to the primacy of affective and cognitive skills involved in this labor and to the products produced, which are (p.50) often informational and cultural commodities.) Antonio Negri, perhaps the most well-known and often-cited scholar in this tradition, contextualizes the shift to immaterial labor as an expression of “real subsumption,” whereby “life in all its walks is constituted as productive labor,” as Adam Arvidsson notes.36 This tendency has culminated in what Jonathan Crary calls “24/7 capitalism”: a political-economic system in which there is little time for anything other than production and consumption (these are collapsed in Crary’s analysis, as they are for many of the scholars cited above).37
The notion that user consumption and participation online can be understood as a form of free labor or playbor has thus been influenced by a number of distinct, though related, lines of thought. Like television audiences, prosumers, and immaterial laborers, Internet users are refigured by critics of playbor as a kind of worker, producing value through activity that the user experiences as leisure, but that capital treats as labor or labor-like. The idea that the boundary between work and leisure is blurring, shifting, or dissolving in this way is thus not entirely novel. Nevertheless, the application of this idea to make sense of user participation has sparked renewed interest and considerable debate.
While scholars largely agree that leisurely consumptive and participatory practices produce economic value, there is much debate, or rather a kind of hand-wringing self-scrutiny, concerning the pleasurable, fun nature of these practices, which might suggest that those who engage in them are not in fact exploited. As Ritzer and Jurgensen write regarding prosumption, “The idea that the prosumer is exploited is contradicted by, among other things, the fact that prosumers seem to enjoy, even love, what they are doing and are willing to devote long hours to it for no pay.”38 This kind of ambivalence is expressed not only by those skeptical of playbor as a concept, but by its proponents. For example, Scholz asks, “Does it really make sense to think of these activities or the updating and ‘liking’ of status updates as labor?”39 Terranova, too, is somewhat troubled by the fact that free labor is “simultaneously voluntarily given and unwaged, enjoyed and exploited,” and that the Internet “is always and simultaneously a gift economy and an advanced capitalist society”—the word “simultaneously” suggesting that these characteristics ought not coexist, that they do is surprising.40
(p.51) The fun, pleasurable aspect of playbor troubles scholars because it seems to suggest that playborers are not exploited; exploitation is supposed to be immiserating, not fun. Furthermore, the characterization of playbor as exploitative might easily be read as something of an insult to the exploitation of real (material) labor, which is in fact immiserating. As Hesmondhalgh pointedly asks, “Are we really meant to see people who sit at their computers modifying code or typing out responses to TV shows as ‘exploited’ in the same way as those who endure appalling conditions and pay in Indonesian sweatshops? Clearly not,” he asserts in a rejoinder to those who have characterized the web as a kind of sweatshop.41 Referencing Smythe’s work on the audience commodity, Hesmondhalgh suggests that accounts of playbor may even be unethical insofar as they compare incommensurate forms of exploitation. He sardonically asks whether laborers ought to be paid for sleeping, as this also contributes to their reproduction as laborers. For Hesmondhalgh, demanding payment for forms of labor that seem fairly low in the hierarchy of exploitation should only be done for pragmatic reasons, for example to “redistribute income and/or … highlight the ethical problems concerned” in cases where seemingly mild forms of exploitation “[contribute] significantly to broader patterns of injustice and inequality.”42
Hesmondhalgh takes a particularly strong stance against the idea that playbor is exploitative, but even proponents of the concept of playbor make a point to acknowledge and honor the exploitation of material labor as distinct from and more egregious than the exploitation of playbor. As Andrejevic writes, “It is crucial to recognize the difference between types and levels of exploitation and to prioritize critical response accordingly—just as one might distinguish between different types of material deprivation.”43 Later in the essay he doubles down on this assertion, writing that “it is harder to get worked up about the allegedly exploitative conditions of user-generated content sites than about the depredations of sweatshop labor and workforce exploitation.”44 Scholz, too, suggests that global immiseration ought to take precedence, citing exploited Foxconn workers and enslaved miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo who extract the minerals used to make laptops and mobile phones.45 Similarly conceptualizing playbor as the final moment of a longer value chain that entails the more severe exploitation of material (p.52) labor, Fuchs writes that “digital labor is based on the surveillance, blood, and sweat of superexploited labor in economic developing countries.”46
In these various accounts, the exploitation of material labor is understood as most egregious, insofar as it is most closely tied to immiseration. The exploitation of immaterial labor falls next in line, followed by forms of voluntary participation that have displaced immaterial labor. Last in line (in terms of “real” exploitation) is the exploitation of voluntary and pleasurable forms of participation not typically understood as labor—that is, playbor. However, and crucially, most of these scholars subscribe to this hierarchy not to shut down the debate surrounding playbor—as Hesmondhalgh does above—but rather to pay their respects to those workers that are most exploited in order to move forward with an analysis and critique of playbor as exploitative.
Many of the critics who characterize playbor as exploitative use the term “exploitation” in the colloquial sense, that is “to express our repulsion when someone makes use of someone else for their own purposes,” as Hesmondhalgh notes.47 In this use, “exploitation” is synonymous with value appropriation and is taken to be a self-evident wrong; it is enough simply to point out the various ways that corporations profit from various kinds of voluntary participation, or as Andrejevic puts it, “a small owner class benefits from the unpaid labor of the masses.”48 For example, taking a note from autonomists, Scholz writes that “social life on the Internet has become the ‘standing reserve,’ the site for the creation of value through ever more inscrutable channels of commercial surveillance.”49 Similarly, Terranova notes that “in 1996 at the peak of the volunteer moment, over thirty thousand ‘community leaders’ were helping AOL to generate at least $7 million a month.”50 The money or value referenced by these scholars is meant to be a smoking gun, evidence of the crime or sin of value appropriation—not only because it is wrong to take that which you did not work for, but also because value appropriation is linked to immiseration, even if not in a direct way.
The notion that voluntary online activity is labor or labor-like and, as such, is exploited (in the colloquial sense of the term), is predicated on rejecting the terms of an exchange. One side has not given enough to render the exchange fair. As Ross writes, “When all is said and done, the informal contract that underpins this kind of economy is a profoundly asymmetrical deal.”51 To assert that some class has been exploited requires (p.53) a comparison of unequal qualities, in this case, pleasure and economic value. YouTube viewers are entertained; YouTube makes a profit. Critics reject this pleasure as equal in worth to that profit. The pleasure is not sufficient in some way; it is inadequate. Even critics who recognize that there exist forms of compensation other than the wage have described this exchange as unfair. For example, Hector Postigo writes, “While it is true that hobbyists may receive more than just money for their work, when compared with the billions of dollars that video-game companies reap, it would seem that they should gain more than a good reputation for their ‘keen’ code.”52 The user thus becomes the used in these accounts.
While such characterizations would seem simply to be identifying exploited labor as such, they are actually producing (in a discursive sense) that which they claim to describe. This discursive production requires a prior rejection of the idea that the exchange between companies and users is fair; without this rejection, the exchange would be seen as fair, and the activity in question could no longer be described as labor. As John Roemer has suggested, “Identifying some labor as unpaid often requires a prior diagnosis of exploitation.”53 What I am suggesting here is that identifying leisure activities as labor or labor-like requires a similar prior diagnosis of exploitation (in the colloquial sense of the term) and, behind this, a rejection of the pleasures produced through these activities as equal in value to the profits made by the companies in question.
The phenomenon of “gamification”—that is the application of game characteristics (such as points and badges) to non-game activities—has garnered a line of criticism that exemplifies this rejection. Simply put, critics of gamification contend that users/players have been tricked, accepting insufficient symbolic rewards for the real economic value they produce. For example, McKenzie Wark describes gamification as “getting people to do things without paying them by offering them symbolic rewards in exchange” and characterizes it as a simulation of a gift economy.54 In a gift economy, Wark writes, “You do something for nothing because you want to do it,” rather than for wages.55 He argues that gamification cannot constitute a true gift economy because “the gift is not to another, and not via another to the commons in general, and the reward is not recognition by others making the same gifts.”56 It is revealing that it is not simply the absence of payment that makes gamification (p.54) exploitative here, since gift-giving—valued by Wark—also occurs in the absence of any direct payment. Rather, the problem with gamification is that gamified activities are not collectively oriented; it is not only acceptable but admirable to work without payment if this work serves the greater collective good.
Ian Bogost has similarly described gamification as “marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullshit already reigns anyway.”57 The problem, for Bogost (as for Wark), is not simply that “gamified” games are bad games, but that they replace “real incentives” with “fictional incentives” and are thus exploitative; he proposes the term “exploitationware” to describe these games.58 Bogost extends his critique beyond games to include companies like Facebook and Google, writing that “they use the carrot of free services (their purported product) to extract information that forms the real basis for their revenues (their real product).”59
To be certain, Bogost is not wholly opposed to the use of games for marketing purposes. For example, he supports using games to “[help] people understand how specific products and services might benefit particular wants or needs,” but he takes issue with “branding and messaging as a way of creating desires through affinity.”60 Bogost’s qualm here, it seems, is related to the integrity of social relationships, which he sees as endangered by marketers’ abuse of users. As he writes, “When loyalty is real, it’s reciprocal. It moves in two directions. Something real is at stake for both parties.”61 Gamification avoids establishing such real relationships, Bogost argues; instead, it replaces these with “dysfunctional perversions of relationships. Organizations ask for relationships, but they reciprocate that loyalty with shams, counterfeit incentives that neither provide value nor require investment.”62 Again, the problem with gamification is not simply that it fails to reward players’ work with monetary payment, but that the kinds of relationships it establishes are not “real,” which is to say loyal, reciprocal, responsible. The reason these relationships are not real, for Bogost, is that what is given to users in exchange for their participation—fictional incentives—is seen as having false value or no value.
(p.55) While many, perhaps most, critics of playbor direct their critique at what they see as an uneven exchange, with an underlying notion of exploitation as unjust value appropriation, for some critics—most notably Hesmondhalgh, Andrejevic, and Fuchs—this analysis does not go far enough. For them, exploitation does not simply entail value appropriation but, following a more explicitly Marxian understanding of exploitation, exclusion of the exploited from ownership over productive resources, as well as the dependence of the exploiter on the deprivations of the exploited. As Marxist scholar Erik Olin Wright elaborates, appropriation does not constitute exploitation unless these other two conditions are also met.63 Similarly, if only these two conditions are met (without value appropriation), the dynamic in question is better described as oppression, not exploitation. While the adoption by critics of this amended understanding of exploitation might suggest that they do not reject superficial pleasures, insofar as they contend that value appropriation does not on its own constitute exploitation, I will argue that the focus on exclusion as an additional condition of exploitation is similarly motivated by this rejection. However, rather than targeting leisure/pleasure directly, they target the absence of collective ownership and control, which similarly amounts to an assertion that users need to be made responsible, whether because collective ownership and control are responsible endeavors, or because the kinds of cultural content produced through collective ownership and control are assumed to be aligned with users’ “best”—that is, collective—interests.
Following a Marxian understanding of exploitation, Hesmondhalgh argues that accounts of playbor that equate exploitation with appropriation are flawed (“unconvincing and rather incoherent”); there also needs to be an element of force, however indirect or overarching, given that force is the mechanism of exclusion.64 Of course, playbor, as defined by all of the scholars cited above, is voluntary, not coerced. Acknowledging this, Andrejevic observes that “coercion does not require someone standing over the worker with a gun or some other threat of force.”65 Rather, coercion can be “embedded in the relations that structure so-called free choices.”66 In other words, users’ exchange of personal information for convenience is not free, but rather coerced because this exchange occurs “under conditions structured by the private ownership (p.56) of network resources,” not to mention users’ lack of awareness about tracking practices.67 This theorization of “embedded” coercion allows Andrejevic to argue that users have been forcibly alienated from productive resources, which, in turn, makes possible their exploitation.68 As he writes:
The ownership class that includes the founders of Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and so on could not exist without capturing and controlling components of the productive infrastructure. The value that they appropriate stems in large part from their ability to capture aspects of the activity of those who access their resources, and their ability to do so is directly related to their ownership and control of these resources. Bluntly put, the ability to exploit this activity for commercial purposes for the economic benefit of the few would disappear if these resources were commonly owned and controlled.69
Following this line of thought, if such resources were communally held and administered, the choice to participate could be reclassified as free.
Users have relinquished control, or have had it taken from them, and this is a more pressing problem than the appropriation of value for critics like Andrejevic, though the former makes possible the latter. As Andrejevic writes, “Crucial resources for interaction are no longer in our hands,” adding later that this “deprives workers of control that should be theirs.”70 How to fix this problem? Fuchs argues that the ownership structures of Internet platforms need to be made egalitarian and participatory; only then might Internet use constitute or contribute in any meaningful way to democratic relations. Fuchs imagines a future in which this could happen: “On the communist Internet, humans cocreate and share knowledge; they are equal participants in the decision-making processes that concern the platforms and technologies they use; and the free access to and sharing of knowledge, the remixing of knowledge, and the cocreation of new knowledge creates [sic] and reproduces [sic] well-rounded individuality.”71
As Fuchs’s statement suggests, the argument that users ought to control crucial resources for interaction is about making users responsible through collective ownership. But it also entails an indictment of the “knowledge,” or rather the popular culture, produced and circulated online. (p.57) Fuchs is bolder than most in making explicit his antipathy toward popular culture: “Facebook users are not involved in decisions. Facebook fan groups are dominated by popular culture, with politics being a sideline. Oppositional political figures are marginalized. … Facebook is dominated by entertainment. Politics on Facebook is dominated by established actors. Alternative political views are marginalized, and especially critical politics is not often found on Facebook. It is a more general feature of the capitalist culture industry that focuses more on entertainment because it promises larger audiences and profits.”72 Fuchs also refers the reader to a table that lists the most popular Facebook groups (ranging from 50.7 to 34.8 million likes): (1) Facebook, (2) Texas Hold ’Em Poker, (3) Eminem, (4) YouTube, (5) Rihanna, (6) Lady Gaga, (7) Michael Jackson, (8) Shakira, (9) Family Guy, (10) Justin Bieber. At the bottom of the list Fuchs includes a few “political” figures for comparison: Michael Moore (495,866 likes), Noam Chomsky (325,325 likes), and Karl Marx (186,722 likes).
In this way, criticism of playbor that follows a modified understanding of exploitation—like criticism that follows a colloquial understanding—remains grounded in the notion that there is a problem with particular forms of leisure, those that Fuchs categorizes as entertainment in contrast to “critical politics.” In this case, the problem is more clearly specified: popular culture, it seems, is not aligned with users’ best interests, whatever these might be (“well-rounded individuality”?). The attendant argument is that wresting control of the digital means of production would transform cultural production to align with these interests, rather than manipulating users into internalizing desires that are not their own and that work against their interests. That is to say, corporate control is a problem not only because it makes possible the appropriation of value, nor only because it deprives users of control that ought to be theirs, but also because it allows corporations to manipulate users—crafting content to shape their values, knowledge, opinions, tastes, and, ultimately, their behavior—with the underlying assumption that corporations do not have users’ best interests at heart, in a way that harkens back to Marx’s characterization of alienation as a concentration of control in a “sub-section of the species … who then act as gods … to direct the trajectory of the rest,” as Nick Dyer-Witheford has written.73 Along these lines, Andrejevic describes the “alienated world envisioned by interactive (p.58) marketers” as one in which “every message we write, every video we post, every item we buy or view, our time-space paths and patterns of social interaction all become data points in algorithms for sorting, predicting, and managing our behavior.”74 It is not just monitoring or tracking that presents a problem for critics, but managing, or “the systematic use of personal information to predict and influence.”75 Capital is figured as both invasive—permeating the sacred space of the social—and manipulative: “They transform our own activity … back upon ourselves in unrecognizable form, servicing interests and imperatives that are not our own.”76
This indirect problematization of culture is noteworthy for the fact that some critics in this line of thought try to avoid devaluing pleasure. For example, Andrejevic contests the notion that pleasure is at odds with exploitation, arguing that exploitation does not preclude “a sense of enjoyment or pleasure.”77 He elaborates:
Nor is it the case that accounts of exploitation necessarily denigrate the activities or the meanings they may have for those who participate in them rather than the social relations that underwrite expropriation and alienation. The point of a critique of exploitation is neither to disparage the pleasures of workers nor the value of the tasks being undertaken. To argue otherwise is to stumble into a kind of category confusion: an attempt to reframe structural conditions as questions of individual pleasure and desire. The critique of exploitation does not devalue individual pleasure any more than such pleasures nullify exploitative social relations.78
Tellingly, however, the scholars Andrejevic references in support of this claim are Nancy Baym and Robert Burnett, whose work addresses the pleasures of “pre-mass society,” “when music was always performed in communities by locals for locals rather than by distant celebrities for adoring fans.”79 Furthermore, in his response to Baym and Burnett, Andrejevic cites workers’ pleasure in their craft “or in the success of a collaborative effort well done.”80 So while Andrejevic claims that the critique of exploitation need not devalue pleasure, the pleasures he refers to are all collectively oriented, as if to point out that not all pleasure is bad (selfish, ego-driven, and so on). It seems likely that this is why (p.59) Andrejevic wants to avoid devaluing pleasure—that is, to allow for the valuing of collectively oriented pleasures.
The fantasy of a collectively owned and operated Internet imagines the displacement of a commercial relationship between users and service providers—a “bad” relationship where irresponsible pleasures are traded for users’ data and its economic value—by a collective, communal relationship along the lines that Fuchs describes above, and which might provide the kinds of pleasure Andrejevic values. If this fantasy has sway, it is because it appeals to a valuing of particular relational forms: the (social) ties that bind. It asks us to invest in the work of collective ownership and operation. It also invites us to imagine the existence of desires that cannot be met through the market—desires whose realization (through the wresting of control over productive capacities) would better serve our interests. As Andrejevic writes, the exploitation of playbor diminishes “the potential of individual and social life”—a potential we are implicitly invited to invest in.81 What are these desires and interests of “ours,” this potential? Whatever they are, this reprieve from alienation—a return to wholeness, the Garden of Eden, and so on—depends on the displacement of fleeting, disloyal, commercial relations by bonded, responsible, social ties.82 It is not only that the future in which this potential is actualized depends on the social, but that the social must also be the content of this future.
Work Becomes Play
The other primary site at which certain leisure activities have been critiqued as a form of exploitation is the “creative-class” or “no-collar” workplace, particularly in the new media sector. Though seemingly loosely related—Facebook employees, for example, would be considered in most accounts to be immaterial laborers, while Facebook users would be something like playborers—critiques of playbor and leisure-at-work are related, I will argue, through a similar problematization of particular forms of leisure as self-indulgent and insufficiently collectively oriented. I take Andrew Ross’s 2003 book No-Collar as exemplary of this line of critique. As I explain below, in Ross’s argument this problematization of particular forms of leisure is expressed through a critique of no-collar (p.60) workers as having prioritized a “humane” workplace over a “just” workplace; in this formulation, the descriptor “humane” is discursively linked to self- oriented pleasures, while “just” is linked to social bonds.
Tech offices and corporate campuses have been the subject of some fascination in the popular press since the dot com boom, with coverage in publications like the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine, and the New Yorker, as well as treatment in popular culture, as in Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle and the 2013 film The Internship, filmed on the “Googleplex” campus in Mountain View, California. In these various treatments, particular attention is paid to unusual workplace design and amenities, what Ross refers to as “gimmicks.” If the playful and autonomous ethos of tech start-ups in the 1990s was exemplified in news stories by the presence of a foosball table, the list of perks now offered at some offices is quite extensive and difficult to capture in a single object. An article in the New York Times (“Looking for a Lesson in Google’s Perks”) lists the following: “a labyrinth of play areas; cafes, coffee bars and open kitchens; sunny outdoor terraces with chaises; gourmet cafeterias that serve free breakfast, lunch and dinner; Broadway-theme conference rooms with velvet drapes; and conversation areas designed to look like vintage subway cars.”83 Allison Mooney, a Google employee interviewed in the article, adds to this list:
The perks … are “amazing.” In the course of our brief conversation, she mentioned subsidized massages (with massage rooms on nearly every floor); free once-a-week eyebrow shaping; free yoga and Pilates classes; a course she took called “Unwind: the art and science of stress management”; a course in advanced negotiation taught by a Wharton professor; a health consultation and follow-up with a personal health counselor; an author series and an appearance by the novelist Toni Morrison; and a live interview of Justin Bieber by Jimmy Fallon in the Google office. This in addition to a full array of more traditional employee benefits. Curiously, there’s some exercise equipment but no fitness center (Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. has multiple state-of-the-art fitness centers) because Manhattan employees said they preferred joining health clubs to exercising with colleagues. (Google subsidizes the gym memberships.) And there’s no open bar, although alcohol is served at T.G.I.F. parties (now held on Thursdays), one of which featured a dating game.84
(p.61) In No-Collar, Ross narrates a history of the so-called humane workplace, explaining its evolution as a result (in part) of worker demands—as expressed, for example, in the 1972 strike at the General Motors factory in Lordstown, Ohio. The elements of leisure incorporated into the no-collar workplace might similarly be understood not only as enhancing workers’ quality of life, but as an expression of their leverage, that is the power to have their needs and desires met by their employers. In fact, Ross suggests this at several points in the book, arguing that tight labor markets—that is, labor markets in which there are many available jobs and few qualified workers to fill them—generally force companies to compete for workers by offering them higher salaries and better benefits and working conditions.85 Ross notes that this is precisely what happened after World War II, then again in the 1990s, when some Fortune 500 companies offered perks like concierge services, dry-cleaning pickups, and paid sabbaticals, and most recently in the “New Economy.”86 In short, employers would surely prefer a flooded labor market—that is, a labor market with few jobs and many available workers, which forces workers to compete against each other for jobs and thereby drives down wages, benefits, perks, conditions, and general expectations.
It is significant that despite these observations, Ross seems more interested in critiquing workers’ attraction to various perks (when these are prioritized over a “just” workplace) than he is in understanding these perks as an expression of worker leverage, or, for that matter, as simply desirable in terms of quality of life.87 He makes this turn by noting that establishing a “humane” workplace is often in management’s interest as well as workers’ interest. As Ross argues, since the 1920s, workplace management reforms have occasioned increased control of employees, in part by courting their loyalty through a humanized work environment, which also diminishes the appeal of trade unionism. This tactic of courting loyalty is especially useful for employers who manage creative labor, which operates rather mysteriously and is thus difficult to control.88 Because creative labor is unpredictable, the work environment needs to be structured in a way that minimizes employees’ need to leave, facilitating productivity as it emerges in fits and starts over long stretches of time and, thereby, the extraction of economic value from creative labor. The notion that workplace amenities are offered not simply in the interest of employees, but to facilitate their productivity is (p.62) echoed in the New York Times article cited above, which quotes Ben Waber, a workplace analyst:
“Google has really been out front in this field,” he said. “They’ve looked at the data to see how people are collaborating. Physical space is the biggest lever to encourage collaboration. And the data are clear that the biggest driver of performance in complex industries like software is serendipitous interaction. For this to happen, you also need to shape a community. That means if you’re stressed, there’s someone to help, to take up the slack. If you’re surrounded by friends, you’re happier, you’re more loyal, you’re more productive. Google looks at this holistically. It’s the antithesis of the old factory model, where people were just cogs in a machine.”89
For critics like Ross, the problem with workplace amenities like those offered at Google is not simply that they are geared toward the extraction of value from creative labor, but that workers are not even aware of their own exploitation because they have been seduced into identifying with their employers, in part through the “humanization” of the work environment. For example, Ross writes that the Silicon Alley lofts (in New York) inhabited by tech companies
were reclaimed for industry, but the work they hosted looked more and more like play, and employees were encouraged to behave like artists and keep artists’ hours. The Alley’s neo-bohemian culture helped sustain the belief that this kind of work was a viable alternative to corporate America. This belief (it may be more accurate to call it a willing suspension of disbelief) was especially important to contrarians with an arts background, who had been trained to scorn the conditions of a middle-class work environment, as well as the routine rhythms of industrial time.90
According to this argument, workers have been made complicit in their own exploitation. Allison Mooney (the Google employee quoted in the New York Times story above) exemplifies this complicity: “‘People want to come in,’ Ms. Mooney said. On average, she estimates she spends nine hours a day there, five days a week. She mentioned that she recently took a day off—and ended up at the office. ‘I live in a studio apartment,’ she explained. ‘And I don’t have free food.’”91
(p.63) According to critics, this sense of passion and dedication is precisely what management aims to cultivate, and why it has structured the work environment in the way that it has, whether cynically (as a way to exploit workers), idealistically (because management values employees’ quality of life), or both. As Ross quotes Craig Kanarick, a founder of Razorfish (an “interactive agency” and the primary ethnographic subject of Ross’s book): “If I’m going to go somewhere everyday, it damn well better be a good experience, and if everyone else shows up there everyday, I can’t just bribe them. I don’t have a crew of really expensive prostitutes here that just get paid to show up. They had to really love what they’re doing, and love showing up, and love the culture.”92 Responding to this sentiment, Ross opines, “Love seemed like a high standard to expect of employees and probably not a very healthy one. Even so, I had interviewed dozens of [employees] whose passion for the company probably went beyond the zone of comfort.”93
This passion seems to disturb Ross; he suggests that these workers have essentially fallen for a trick. As he writes, “It was the social and cultural design of the workplace that stole the affections of employees”—the word “stole” here intimating the unjust or unequal nature of this exchange.94 Workers have been fooled into believing that management wants what is best for them, rather than to take was is best from them. As the husband of one of Ross’s ethnographic subjects tells him, “That’s what your book should be about. How the counterculture was duped into thinking they are not working for corporate America. It’s like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”95
However, Ross argues that it is not just the presence of foosball tables that has tricked workers: he emphasizes the importance for Razorfish employees of “grassroots impromptu sport” at the office, over and above “built-in perks” like massages and video games.96 Ross quotes an employee: “There was the official party line on culture, which was enforced fun, and then there was what we created for ourselves.”97 Of all the aspects of work at Razorfish valued by employees, none ranks higher than the democratic, quasi-anarchist organization of the workplace: “the absence of chains of command between employees and managers,” “control over their work,” and the distribution of authority and responsibility.98 Ross writes that employees “experienced the result as a restoration of personal respect and dignity and it was prized as highly as any measure of monetary compensation.”99
(p.64) In Ross’s argument, this reaction serves to demonstrate workers’ desire for autonomy and a less alienated work life, a desire that Ross clearly values. But it is also intimately connected to workers’ exploitation. As he writes:
Features that appeared to be healthy advances in corporate democracy could turn into trapdoors that opened on to a bottomless seventy-hour-plus workweek. Employee self-management could result in the abdication of accountability on the part of real managers and an unfair shouldering of risk and responsibilities on the part of individuals. Flattened organizations could mean that the opportunities for promotion dried up, along with layers of protection to shield employees from market exposure. A strong company culture was an emotional salve in good times but could turn into a trauma zone in times of crisis and layoffs. Partial ownership, or stake holding, in the form of stock options could give employees an illusory sense of power sharing, rudely shattered when they encountered the unilateralism of executive decision-making in layoffs and office closures.100
Again, it is not simply that Razorfish exploited its workers in all of these ways—long hours, unfair allocation of responsibility and risk, job stagnation, and so on—but that because of the apparently democratic organization of the workplace, many Razorfish employees, especially those who had worked for the company for a long time, were often unable to distinguish their own interests from those of management, even as they distinguished between top-down and bottom-up culture. Like critics of playbor, Ross thus imagines a kind of bait- and-switch at work here: both the transformation of work (to be democratically self-directed) and the incorporation of leisure into work serve the interests of management, even if these modifications sometimes make it difficult to manage employees in a direct way. Workers, in turn, are seen as suffering from a kind of false consciousness, unable to see their exploitation for what it is.
The most acute manifestation of this false consciousness, Ross suggests, is overwork. As he writes, “When work becomes sufficiently humane, we are likely to do far too much of it, and it usurps an unacceptable portion of our lives. If there is a single argument in this (p.65) book against the pursuit of the humane workplace, then it rests its case there.”101 However, this issue is made more complicated by the complicity of workers, or more precisely by the transformation of work (or aspects of work) into something pleasurable, perhaps into something that in a certain sense should not even be called work. As Ross continues, “Not by any boss’s coercive bidding, but through the seductive channel of ‘work you just couldn’t help but doing,’ had the twelve-hour day made its furtive return.”102 Elsewhere he characterizes New Economy workers as “so complicit with the culture of overwork and burnout that they have developed their own insider brand of sick humour about being ‘net slaves’, i.e., it’s actually cool to be exploited so badly.”103 This raises the question: Can one be overworked if work is pleasurable and not coerced? Or to put it another way: What is the problem with work if not coercion? Why even call it work?
And so it appears that it is not really the (over)work of no-collar laborers that presents a problem for Ross; if work is pleasurable and uncoerced, then overwork is hardly a problem. Nor is the problem precisely that satiated workers make for poor revolutionaries, nor even that New Economy labor is precarious and that today’s satisfied workers might be tomorrow’s disaffected unemployed or underemployed. Rather, there are two related problems. First, no-collar workers falsely believe that they have more power than they actually have. This lowers their guard, allowing capital to tap into their most creative, personal energy. As Ross writes:
Perhaps the most insidious occupational hazard of no-collar work is that it can enlist employees’ freest thoughts and impulses in the service of salaried time. … When elements of play in the office or at home/offsite are factored into creative output, then the work tempo is being recalibrated to incorporate activities, feelings, and ideas that are normally pursued during employees’ free time. For employees who consolidate office and home, who work and play in the same clothes, and whose social life draws heavily on their immediate colleagues, there are no longer any boundaries between work and leisure.104
The problem with this tapping is not simply that these “freest thoughts and impulses” ought to belong to the individual alone, away from the (p.66) reaches of capital. One gets the sense that Ross has something else in mind—namely, that workers seem to have both a desire and capacity for collective management, a capacity that is squandered through the sham democracy of companies like Razorfish: “The New Economy was a long way off from a dictatorship of the proletariat. Employee stock option plans offered a stake in company wealth but were rarely linked to genuine forms of employee participation in decisions about policy and work design and almost never to decisions about investments, hiring and firing, and the closure of offices. In this respect, they were a pale shadow of a century’s worth of previous attempts, mostly in Europe, at employee self-management.”105 In short, what ought to belong to a collective of workers has been put up for sale in the market (a concern addressed in more detail in chapter 4). For many on the radical Left, the incursion of capital into the sacred space of the community—or, more broadly, into the social—is a serious problem (to put it mildly), in part because it is thought to compromise the sovereignty of labor. When Ross writes that the decentralized no-collar workplace “‘liberates’ workers by banishing constraints on their creativity,” the use of quotation marks makes explicit the sarcasm of the passage and, perhaps, reveals some of Ross’s contempt for these duped workers.106 Indeed, it seems to irritate Ross that companies like Razorfish are perceived by their employees as democratic, collaborative, and communal, without actually being worker owned and operated.
The second problem is that there seems to be something suspect in the very pursuit of leisure-at-work and, as I will argue shortly, the pleasure of gratification, enjoyment, or fun. As Ross writes at the end of No-Collar, “Paid employment that is most free from coercion often results in the deepest sacrifice of time and vitality” (again, this is the first problem).107 He continues: “Nor does pleasure play fair. Gratification is no guarantee of justice, least of all in an economy that feeds on uncertainty and allocates rewards more unequally than it used to.”108 An analytical opposition is established here between pleasure and justice. Workers stand accused of prioritizing a “humane” workplace over a just workplace, with the implication that these workers might be a little too superficial or self-indulgent, at their own peril. This is also the subtext of a passage in which Ross describes corporate America’s anxiety about changing workplace norms:
(p.67) The informality of the no-collar workplace and work style was an obvious symbol of … nonstandard arrangements, and so the spread of casual dress and like-minded liberties into Old Economy companies was closely watched. The traditional managerial class resented the appeal of organizations where privileges could be enjoyed without serving due time in corporate ranks. But what they feared more was the normalization of … Saturnalia [the ancient Roman festival in which the roles of master and slave were reversed for a day] and the prospect that the granting of autonomy would be taken for granted by employees who had no sense of rank- ordered etiquette or patience for protocol and who had an abiding infatuation with changing things to suit themselves.109
Surely Ross is in favor of granting (true) autonomy to workers, though he also seems ambivalent about this insofar as—according to his own account—empowered workers have prioritized a “humane” workplace over and above a “just” workplace, even though more than a few of the employees interviewed seem to share Ross’s political proclivities, if in a vague or inchoate way. (Were his book written a decade later, this interest in enjoyable work might have been ascribed to millennial entitlement.)
This line of argument is strongly undergirded by a devaluing of forms of leisure understood as irresponsible and self-indulgent, just as playbor can only be understood as exploitative if it is seen as lacking in social value, and by a corresponding valuing of responsible and collectively oriented—that is to say social—relations. In Ross’s framework, these values are expressed through a juxtaposition of the “humane” and the “just,” where the “humane” is associated primarily with self-gratification and the “just” is associated with the collective, the communal, the responsible, the social. If justice is concerned with fairness (as Ross suggests above), an investment in justice is predicated on a kind of social awareness and management through which inequality can be ameliorated. Insofar as the humanization of the workplace (whether through the transformation of work into something that scarcely resembles work, or the introduction of elements of fun or play into the workplace) is understood as a self-serving project, it will always fall short of the social ideal held up by critics.
The argument that work and play are increasingly indistinguishable implicitly raises the question: What is the nature of the distinction between work and play such that this difference might collapse? In this section I offer an answer to this question—that is, that work can be distinguished from play by the presence of coercion—thereby calling into question the very notion of playbor.110 Rejecting the notion that work and play are increasingly indistinguishable (on theoretical rather than empirical grounds), I propose instead that the anxiety about this collapse expresses an attachment to work as a symbolically important social institution. In other words, if the notion that play is transforming into work or work is transforming into play is unsettling to critics, this is because these transformations would threaten the integrity of work as a symbolic means of both establishing and exhibiting one’s submission to the social. The source of this threat is precisely those forms of play/fun/amusement that are unsettling to critics insofar as they are understood as engendering antisocial hedonism. Keeping work and play separate is thus important for critics not because enforcing this distinction might protect workers/users from being exploited, but because it protects a sacred symbolic social milieu from contamination by the self-serving, individually oriented forces or drives that threaten to tear it asunder.
Hesmondhalgh’s and Andrejevic’s contributions to the playbor debate usefully identify coercion as a defining characteristic of work (though, for them, not all forms of work) insofar as one must work in order to have one’s basic needs met; it is not one’s employer but the political-economic system that forces workers to work. So while workers, if they are lucky, may choose a job from a host of alternative and presumably less desirable jobs, they generally do not have the choice to not work; they have “the liberty to work or to starve,” as Herbert Marcuse sarcastically put it.111 Whether or not work is individually pleasurable, it is thus structurally coerced. The converse is also true: when an activity is no longer structurally coerced, it no longer makes sense to understand it as work.
There is a simpler way to explain this, as I sometimes ask students in my Introductory Sociology class when examining work as a social institution: (p.69) What would you rather be doing on any given Monday morning? Of course there are always students who insist that they, or more often their parents or guardians, love what they do and would do it for free, but even these students will often acknowledge the melancholy that accompanies the end of the weekend—insofar as weekends still exist—including for those who find their work pleasurable, fulfilling, or rewarding outside of monetary compensation. Furthermore, when work is the preferable option, this may say more about one’s life outside work, which can be a greater source of struggle and strife, than it does about the desirability of work itself—a source of consternation for sociologists like Arlie Hochschild.112
A corollary to the idea that work is defined by coercion is that work is a function of the general (that is, aggregate) desirability of any given activity, or of particular organizations of that activity. So while it is possible to take pleasure in one’s work, pleasure is not simply beside the point, as Andrejevic suggests; it is easier to find a job washing dishes than watching television. To reiterate, this is not simply a question of individual determination, such that one person’s work might be another’s pleasure; one can hunt as a hobby or for a living, as Thorstein Veblen long ago observed.113 Rather, at an institutional level, work is organized around aggregate desirability in much the same way that Marx theorized exchange value as a measure of aggregate (in his terms, “socially necessary”) labor time. This contextual element helps to explain how activities previously organized and waged as work can stop being work, and instead be performed for free by fans, enthusiasts, and do-gooders—a shift made possible (in part) by the extension of digital network technologies into everyday life. For example, video-game players identify bugs and contribute game modifications, consumers provide in-depth product reviews, journalism is increasingly the purview of “netizens,” as are what used to be called “encyclopedias.” In these cases, informal online participation replaces formal employment. In short, if enough people want to (and are able to) do something of their own accord, that is if they do not need to be coerced, then the activity in question does not need to be organized institutionally as work. The reverse is also true: activities once organized outside the purview of work can be institutionalized and formalized as work. For example, the displacement of manufacturing jobs by service jobs in the United States in the 1970s occasioned a formalization (p.70) of certain capacities—“a good attitude and social skills” as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri write—necessary for these new jobs: the work of customer service, telemarketing, and so on.114 Work can thus be defined not by the production of value (insofar as leisure activities too can produce value), but by coercion as a function of the aggregate desirability of activities, in conjunction with their demand.
With this in mind, I would like to suggest that if online activities do not “feel, look, or smell like labor at all,” as Scholz has written, perhaps it is because they are not labor after all.115 This does not mean that critiques of playbor or leisure-at-work are not about work in another important way. As I will suggest, these critiques express an attachment to work as a symbolic object through which sociality is discursively established. To put it another way, what appears to be a concern about the exploitation and alienation of labor in analyses of playbor and leisure-at-work is also, and perhaps more fundamentally, a concern about a contraction of the work ethic, which itself is simply a means through which sociality can be established.
A few examples will help to illustrate how work serves as a symbolic object through which sociality is discursively established, and why a contraction of the work ethic would be so troubling to critics. In September of 2011, in the middle of his re-election campaign, Barack Obama—facing harsh criticism from opponents for failing to ameliorate the nation’s ongoing recession—delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress outlining a piece of legislation (the American Jobs Act) that he promised would jumpstart a long-stagnant economy and reduce the unemployment rate. The speech was well-received though unexceptional, peppered with rhetoric celebrating the industrious but frustrated American worker:
[Millions of Americans] have spent months looking for work. Others are doing their best just to scrape by—giving up nights out with the family to save on gas or make the mortgage; postponing retirement to send a kid to college. These men and women grew up with faith in an America where hard work and responsibility paid off. They believed in a country where everyone gets a fair shake and does their fair share—where if you stepped up, did your job, and were loyal to your company, that loyalty would be rewarded with a decent salary and good benefits; maybe a raise once in a (p.71) while. If you did the right thing, you could make it. Anybody could make it in America.116
In this passage, Obama conjures an archetypical American worker: industrious, disciplined, and fair-minded. This worker wants a “decent salary and good benefits,” but also “maybe a raise once in a while.” Why only “maybe” and “once in a while”? Because this worker is not greedy or demanding, but simply wants what is fair, what has been earned not only with work but with loyalty (to the company), sacrifice (for the family), and a general sense of responsibility.
A similar discursive formulation appears in Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address, with a nod to the movement for same-sex marriage: “It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country—the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”117 In both these passages, work is imagined as a necessary though not-quite-sufficient condition for getting ahead; one must also be responsible and “[do] the right thing.” In this way, the “bargain that built this country” is not simply a labor contract—so much work for so much pay—but also a social contract that solicits general obedience in the form of loyalty, tolerance (for those who “love” differently), responsibility, and accountability to the collective, which here takes the form of the nation. In short, it is not enough to work; one must also have a work ethic.
While it is easy to dismiss these kinds of political statements as vacuous and opportunistic, they reveal something important about the work ethic: that it is less about valuing work in and of itself than it is about valuing relations of responsibility, accountability, sacrifice, and general obedience. Work is simply the undesirable symbolic object through which one’s selflessness can be discursively established. This is quite a feat, insofar as work is structurally coerced; it is not so easy to make an ethic of something that most people are forced to do to survive.
To establish this selflessness, one must first identify with the least gratifying aspects of work—the tedium, the exhaustion, the sacrifice—since it is suffering that both produces and evidences one’s work ethic and, thereby, one’s acquiescence to the community or collective. Work must be something one endures. Blue-collar labor has a lot to offer in (p.72) this regard. One imagines backbreaking physical work, the drudgery of coal mines, farm fields, and assembly lines, what is sometimes called “honest work.” White-collar labor, too, exacts its pound of flesh: years of schooling, the tedium of pushing papers, long hours staring at computer screens, intellectually taxing problem-solving, emotionally draining social contact, and stressful negotiation of time-sensitive issues.
Importantly, this identification with the least gratifying aspects of work need not be related whatsoever to one’s valuing of actual work. Just as one can work tirelessly without a work ethic—for the money, for example—so too can one believe in the value of work without actually working. Rather than signaling the extent to which one values actual work, an identification with work sends a different message: that one is willing to suffer for unselfish reasons. Sacrifice is what makes an ethic of work; otherwise it is simply a way to make ends meet. Soldiers are noble; mercenaries are not.
Another brief example will help to illustrate this point. In my Introductory Sociology class, we spend a few weeks discussing economic inequality. In these discussions, students from wealthy families sometimes defend their wealth on the grounds that they (or rather their parents) have worked hard to get where they are. Judging by the reactions of other students in the class, the most compelling of these narratives entail long hours, arduous work, and social mobility; these are stories of suffering to get ahead. Many students, well-to-do or not, seem to have developed an allergy to the idea of getting something for nothing, an allergy made more acute by the financial crisis of 2007–2008 and, in response to this crisis, the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street and the 1% (or 99%). If it is not we who have suffered, then we can be certain to find an other somewhere else who has suffered so that we might enjoy. Better, it seems, that it be us, at least in theory—a point to which I will return shortly. Through claiming to have suffered (or for their parents to have suffered) and thus to have earned their wealth, students defend their wealth by reference to a work ethic. Even though this wealth might suggest that work is a means rather than an end in itself, here wealth functions as a symbolic testament to having suffered.
While students from wealthy families can be quick to profess their work ethic in this way, many of them will also—when prodded gently—admit to some experience with various kinds of academic shirking (as (p.73) will students from other socioeconomic backgrounds): working as little as they have to in order to secure desired grades, delaying work on assignments until the last minute, and avoiding forms of work that are particularly intellectually taxing. This might appear hypocritical: students say they value work, but in fact defer it whenever possible. However, unlike work in the cultural imaginary, actual work can be (and, I suspect, often is) undertaken not for its own sake, but for the promise of reward, financial or otherwise. As students well know, there need not be an ethic attached to work; it can also be a means to an end—money, or high grades in the hope of future money—rather than possessing value in and of itself. As Tim Kreider notes in the New York Times, “The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.”118
The wage thus complicates the work ethic: it is a reward for labor, but also a hindrance to displaying obedience, insofar as obedience entails selflessness and sacrifice, and the wage can facilitate—through the market—irresponsible forms of self-indulgent leisure. It is perhaps for this reason that Che Guevara argued that “labor should not be sold like merchandise but offered as a gift to the community,” a point discussed in more detail in chapter 4.119 To position himself on the righteous side of this thin line between reward and indulgence, Obama must admonish “those who prefer leisure over work, or prefer only the pleasures of riches and fame” (as he did in his inaugural address), even as he describes work as a “bargain” made to get ahead.120 Or as Hillary Clinton put it in a campaign speech, “The people taking care of our children and our parents, they deserve a good wage, good benefits, and a secure retirement.”121 Presumably all workers “deserve” these things, but those who perform the work of “taking care” are highlighted—elevating this kind of work over and above other kinds of work. This is a paradox: selflessness cannot be motivated by a desire for money, but one deserves payment for having been selfless. In the words of Donna Summer: she works hard for the money so you better treat her right. Max Weber famously argued that this is why ascetic Protestants made for good capitalists; driven to work tirelessly to prove their elect status, yet forbidden from self-indulgence, they could only reinvest their earnings as capital.122 In their attachment to work as a symbolic object through which the selflessness required for social bonds is established, critics of playbor (p.74) and leisure-at-work are perhaps closer to this “spirit of capitalism” than they would care to admit.
Just as it is possible to work without a work ethic, so too is it possible to indulge in various forms of leisure without making an ethic of it. (Surely some of the anxiety surrounding leisure comes from something more than a passing acquaintance with it.) And just as work serves as a symbolic object through which selflessness can be produced, so too do certain forms of leisure take on symbolic significance as manifestations of an unbound ego, of following one’s desire without regard for the good of the community or collective. It is precisely these forms of leisure that are thought to threaten or undermine the formation of responsible social subjects.
While a variety of forms of leisure have historically provoked anxieties about the dissolution of the social—for example, recreational drug use and dancing—the pleasures of media occupy a particularly central place in anxieties about leisure as an antisocial, solipsistic endeavor.123 These pleasures—those of being a reader, listener, viewer, player, and user—have long concerned scholars and critics, particularly insofar as these pleasures are thought to weaken or undermine valued identities, capacities, and forms of relationality by facilitating an escape from real world responsibilities, a suspension of reason in favor of emotion, and a giving over of oneself to fantasy and to the passivity of being entertained. To be clear, this is not to say that media are, in fact, antisocial, or that this perspective dominates media scholarship; myriad books and articles on fandom, the sociality of meaning, and participatory media, to take a few examples, have argued precisely the opposite.124 It is simply to point out that there is something about the consumption of media that seems particularly to provoke anxiety about the dissolution of the social. In connecting the two lines of scholarship examined above to a history of anxiety about media as antisocial, my aim is not simply to say, “This again.” Rather, contextualizing the anxiety that surrounds leisure-at-work and playbor as forms of exploitation within this broader pattern of anxiety will help to clarify the precise problems that particular forms (p.75) of leisure present for critics. To this end, I will review briefly a few exemplary modern and contemporary texts of media criticism.
In his 2002 book, Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives, Todd Gitlin argues that we are “supersaturated” with media.125 Drawing from the work of Georg Simmel, Gitlin argues that audiences are complicit in this saturation, immersing themselves in a torrent of media in order to stimulate “disposable feelings”—a substitute for the more substantial feelings that emerge from real interactions with real people in the real world. Following Simmel, Gitlin suggests that real feelings have become inconvenient, anathema to the instrumentality that characterizes everyday life in societies structured by money economies. The feelings stimulated by watching television, on the other hand, are easily provoked and just as easily put away, a kind of junk food for the soul.
Gitlin’s argument is reminiscent of an earlier argument made by Neil Postman, who was famously concerned that television audiences were amusing themselves to death, or, rather, were being amused to death by television.126 For Postman, this was not a question of bad practice, as if enlightened viewing practices might somehow resolve the issue; television was understood to be an inherently flawed medium, geared toward entertainment rather than reflection and leaving little room for serious thought. In fact, Postman argued, television audiences watch television precisely the way it “wants” to be watched: distractedly and with a fickle eye. No kind of programming could escape or inoculate itself to this logic, including political fare like presidential debates and educational shows like Sesame Street. As Gil Scott-Heron famously put it, the revolution will not—that is, could not—be televised.127
Back farther still, in the 1940s, Theodor Adorno similarly worried that “radio music” had a soporific and infantilizing effect on listeners: “Under the aegis of radio there has set in a retrogression of listening. In spite of and even because of the quantitative increase in musical delivery, the psychological effects of this listening are very much akin to those of the motion picture and sport spectatoritis which promotes a retrogressive and sometimes even infantile type of person.”128 For Adorno, this “retrogression” was effected through a synergy of form and content, producing listeners Adorno described as “regressed, arrested at the infantile (p.76) stage,” like children “with a sweet tooth in the candy store.”129 And like children, Adorno argued, these listeners “again and again and with stubborn malice … demand the one dish they have once been served.”130 Media technologies, in Adorno’s formulation, are akin to a hypodermic needle or magic bullet—both these images have been used to describe the dynamics of transmission theorized by Adorno and like-minded critics—injecting passive audiences with ideology through both representational and aesthetic means.
Of course, the advent of media technologies also generates enthusiasm as well, typically before cynicism sets in. For example, the widespread adoption of digital network technologies in the 1990s was often seen as a cause for hope, occasioning renewed investment in a constellation of utopian desires—a rebirth of the public sphere, a restoration of the commons, a democratization of cultural production, and an erasure or liberation of identity markers tied to relations of oppression and exploitation—though also sometimes engendering a nascent dystopian sensibility that imagined these technologies as occasioning, if not directly causing, a destruction of mind, body, society, polis, and economy.131 As backlash now seems invariably to follow initial periods of hype, so too has the utopianism made possible by the novelty of the Internet given way to this dystopian sensibility; as novelty fades, and the promise of new technologies is not brought to fruition, perceived patterns of actual use provide a foundation for dystopian anxieties. In fact, some of the most prominent contemporary dystopian media critics were once among the most ardent utopians.132
It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly the Internet lost its luster for critics, but a series of popular and well-received academic books published in the early 2010s seems to indicate the crossing of this threshold: Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Jaron Lanier’s 2011 book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, and Evgeny Morozov’s 2012 book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. Taken together these books provide a comprehensive sense of the dangers of living in the digital age, from the biological (Internet use atrophies neurological faculties, such as memory and attention), to the psychological (Internet use impedes emotional development), political/social (p.77) (Internet use weakens social bonds, the public sphere, and democracy), and economic (Internet use exacerbates exploitation, erodes the middle class, and undermines the stability of the economy).133
A similar sensibility has surfaced in popular culture. For example, in two separate commencement speeches, acclaimed novelists Jonathan Franzen (in 2011 at Kenyon College) and Jonathan Safran Foer (in 2013 at Middlebury College) both expressed concerns about the impoverishment of human relationships at the hands of digital network technologies. “I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts,” Safran Foer lamented.134 Both writers advocated for a retreat from life online, and for “[putting] yourself in real relation to real people,” as Franzen put it, rather than in relation to people online who serve as “diminished substitutes” as Safran Foer put it.135 For what it’s worth, Franzen also confessed to an infatuation with his Blackberry. Both speeches were adapted for publication in the New York Times, Franzen’s under the title of “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts,” and Safran Foer’s of “How Not to Be Alone.”
The problem for critics is not simply that audiences mistake representations for the real, but that, like Postman’s television audiences, they escape the real through their machinic attachments, as when Scholz laments that “time spent online means that we have less room in our lives to spend with friends—sitting together in the park or playing volleyball. Sometimes it seems that there is also less room for love, attention, and caring.”136 In these constructions, face-to-face interactions are conflated with valued forms of collective, communal relationality (as in the colloquial distinction between real life and life online). For example, Jodi Dean argues that when users experiment with identity online, they lack “the sense that an identity, once chosen, entails bonds of obligation.”137 She writes, “Rather than following norms”—what we should be doing—“we cycle through trends.”138 Dean takes particular issue with the “motions of clicking and linking,” which
do not produce symbolic identities; they are ways that I express myself—just like shopping, checking my friends’ updates, or following tabloid news at TMZ.com. I may imagine others like me, a virtual local, but this local remains one of those like me, my link list or followers, those who fit my demographic profile, my user habits. I don’t have to posit a collective (p.78) of others, others with whom I might need to cooperate or struggle, to whom I might be obliged, others who might place demands on me. The instant connection of networked association allows me to move on as soon as I am a little uncomfortable, a little put out.139
Dean worries that the subjectivities produced through online practices “may well be more accustomed to quick satisfaction and bits of enjoyment than to planning, discipline, sacrifice, and delay,” virtues central to the “ground-level organizational work of building alternatives” to capitalism.140 In conclusion, she writes, “In the circuits of communicative capitalism, convenience trumps commitment.”141
Recalling the distinction between the social and the relational (established in the previous chapter), one can see that the problem for critics with particular forms of leisure or play online is not that they are anti-relational, but rather antisocial. In fact, the forms of leisure (online or not) targeted by critics are problematic precisely insofar as they are thought to engender devalued forms of relationality. For example, many of the pleasures of consumer capitalism are quintessentially relational, emerging from our contact with each other and with the world, but this contact is rarely thought to be obedient, responsible, sacrificial, disciplined, active, self-controlled, or autonomous; rather, it is considered to be docile, managed, intemperate, flighty, penetrated, and passive. For example, Geert Lovink laments that the social is “no longer the dangerous mix of politicized proletarians, of the frustrated, unemployed, and dirty clochards that hang out on the streets waiting for the next opportunity to revolt under whatever banner,” but rather “a graph, a more or less random collection of contacts on your screen that blabber on and on—until you intervene and put your own statement out there.”142 Lovink writes that this transformation “troubles us theorists and critics who use empirical research to prove that people, despite all their outward behavior, remain firmly embedded in their traditional, local structures,” like family, church, and neighborhood.143 Together these statements make Lovink’s empiricism seem less like a description or diagnosis than a directive: we must return to the social.
For these critics, if there is “commons” in “communication,” it is not the glue that binds audiences or users together through webs of meaning, nor the shared cultural forms and traditions passed down and modified (p.79) by new generations. On the contrary, it is a nightmare of promiscuous and irresponsible relationality, a delight in fleeting pleasures that can thwart even the most robust attempts to interpellate consumers or users into this or that subject position. This is why even consumers with the most critically defensible taste—the listener of National Public Radio, the reader of the New York Times, the fan of quality television—must still, at the end of the day, put down the book, turn off the television, and put away the phone/laptop/computer; the (queer) medium is the message.
Neither is the problem simply a downward slide from civic-mindedness to hedonism, but more precisely what is imagined to be the passive character of this hedonism. For critics like Postman and Gitlin, the television is a “boob tube” not only in the sense of “idiot box,” but in the way it infantilizes the viewer who nurses at it. Academic treatments of culture and media have long valued the active over the passive. This is true not only of Frankfurt School critiques of consumption as terminally passive, but of the hermeneutic response to these concerns (popular, especially, in cultural and media studies), which emphasizes the sociality of meaning, so that what would appear to be a catatonic couch potato, for example, might be revealed as actively engaged in a process of contesting dominant ideologies.144 This valuing of the active is also present in more conventional approaches taken by scholars in sociology and communications, as in Uses and Gratifications Theory.145 In short, empirical disagreements about the extent to which audiences/users are active or passive mask underlying political and ethical lines of affinity; critics may understand differently, but they desire similarly.146
This common valuing of the active over the passive brings to mind Bersani’s insight (via Foucault) that “the only ‘honorable’ sexual behavior ‘consists in being active, in dominating, in penetrating, and in thereby exercising one’s authority.’”147 “To be penetrated is to abdicate power,” Bersani writes, and it is precisely through this abdication that pleasure is produced.148 The penetrated bottom, passive in discourse if not in practice, is intolerable for the same reason that the passive audience hypodermically injected with dominant ideology is intolerable. In both cases, there is a perceived refusal not just to assume power but, beneath this, to identify with the collective in such a way that would make this assumption desirable.149 This, perhaps, is critics’ underlying problem with passivity: it involves a lack of interest in or disinclination (p.80) toward responsible subjectivity, what Bersani calls “a revolutionary in-aptitude … for sociality as it is known.”150
Even now that passive audiences have been transformed into potentially active users in the eyes of those concerned, trouble remains. If anything, the squandering of the active potential of digital network technologies is even more disappointing for critics than the inevitable passivity of earlier forms of media. If the Internet is an especially frustrating medium for critics like those examined above, this is because Internet users are thought to come close to being active, unlike television audiences, which, for critics like Postman, might be rescued only by turning off their television sets and crawling back to reality like Plato’s bleary-eyed puppet-show dupes emerging from the cave. It is from this position of frustration, for example, that Evgeny Morozov implores, “We need to find ways to supplant our promotion of a freer Internet with strategies that can engage people in political and social life. Here we should talk to both heavy consumers of cat videos and those who follow anthropology blogs. Otherwise, we may end up with an army of people who are free to connect, but all they want to connect to is potential lovers, pornography, and celebrity gossip.”151
The opposition in these texts to forms of leisure understood as self-indulgent or as otherwise irresponsible helps to explain why so many on the Left seem attached to the notion that pleasure must always come at the cost of suffering, whether it is the suffering of those who indulge, or of those whose labor makes possible others’ indulgence. While this will to identify complicity appears to be motivated by an altruistic concern for the immiserated other, my argument here suggests that it more fundamentally expresses a deep-seated discomfort with forms of pleasure that release us from social bonds, from our responsibility to this other, our attachment to which may be less selflessly motivated than critics would like to believe. Underlying these accounts is a notion that pleasure must be earned through suffering or some other form of acquiescence to the social in order to be deserved. In this way, pleasure is imagined as a sort of zero-sum game, with no more pleasure allowed than suffering has made possible; it seems scarcely possible to imagine a world in which pleasure might be both abundant and free.
The notion that the boundary between work and leisure is shifting or disappearing, and more precisely that activities that appear to be leisure (p.81) are actually work or work-like in significant ways, is thus important to scholars not simply because users’ or workers’ value is appropriated, nor because they have been alienated from their own productivity, but because of an underlying attachment to work as a symbolic object through which responsible sociality is established, asserted, and maintained. This attachment to work is expressed and furthered through the anxiety that surrounds the dissolution of valued forms of relationality at the hands of particular forms of leisure. Even if debates about the exploitation of leisure have already exhausted themselves, as Geert Lovink has suggested, these debates still offer a window into the normative underpinnings and aims of critical political-economic Internet and media scholarship. One might say, in fact, that these arguments aim to redescribe leisure as work (rather than simply empirically reporting this transformation) in order to solicit readers to assert forms of self-control, self-governance, and other-directedness that critics fear they will avoid or escape precisely through targeted forms of leisure.
The anxiety surrounding the transformation of leisure into work thus aims to reestablish a boundary, not between labor and leisure, but between responsible and irresponsible forms of relationality, produced discursively through desirable and undesirable symbolic objects or activities (particular forms of leisure and work, respectively). In expressing anxiety about the collapse of work and leisure, scholars thus create discursive space for the production of responsible subjects. Incidentally, this attachment to work as a discursive vehicle for collective relationality forecloses other frameworks by which one might make sense of these phenomena. For example, users might be understood not as working, but as providing raw material for the work performed by algorithms, or by statisticians, as Goran Bolin has suggested.152
The irony in all of this is that this attachment to work seems to take the form of its opposite: an identification with overworked, underpaid, exploited laborers, or users who have been taken advantage of, who have been alienated from their own productivity, and who will never collect the economic value produced through their own participation. But critics of playbor or leisure-at-work can never be content with workers’ or users’ desires for more—more money, more fun, more stuff—insofar as these demands risk overindulging the greedy ego, threatening valued forms of collective relationality. Thus, it is not surprising that arguments (p.82) for the reduction of work in favor of work/life balance often end up valuing other social forms, like spending more time with the family or participating in the community. This is also to recognize that it is possible to advocate for less work and, at the same time, value collective relationality, which can be established and maintained through other institutional alignments.
From a queer perspective, and particularly following the antisocial thesis, the refusal or disinclination to work falls short of its antisocial potential if work will simply be replaced by other institutions through which valued forms of relationality are made normative. Referencing the slogan of the eight-hour movement—“eight hours labor, eight hours rest, eight hours for what we will”—Kathi Weeks writes, “Rather than, for example, appealing primarily to norms of family responsibility, this formulation suggests that a movement for shorter hours should be animated not only by the call of duty but also by the prospect of pleasure.”153 Is it possible to go one step farther here and ask whether such a “movement” need be animated by a call of duty at all, which, in the end, is just another form of work? Must one form of work always be traded for another, or might we forgo this attachment to work altogether?
(2) Guardian, February 2011; New York Times, March 2011.
(12) For example, in Games of Empire, Greig DePeuter and Nick Dyer-Witheford characterize game modders as exploited, following Hector Postigo’s argument in “From Pong to Planet Quake” and Julian Kücklich’s argument in “Precarious Playbour.” DePeuter and Dyer-Witheford write, “The game industry has increasingly learned to suck up volunteer production as a source of innovation and profit” (27). Similarly, Nicholas Carr has argued that amateur content producers constitute a cut-rate pool of labor: “As user-generated content continues to be commercialized, it seems likely that the largest threat posed by social production won’t be to big corporations but to individual professionals—to the journalists, editors, photographers, researchers, analysts, librarians and other information workers who can be replaced by … people not on the payroll” (The Big Switch, 142).
(16) While it might seem like criticism of playbor and leisure-at-work is attempting to reassert a boundary between labor and leisure, in fact much of this criticism appears to be invested in the elimination of antisocial forms of leisure, and/or in the transformation of work to be unalienated, which would make it freely chosen, a quality typically ascribed to leisure (this form of collapsing labor and leisure is idealized insofar as unalienated labor remains socially oriented, a point discussed later in the chapter). If there is an investment in the boundary between labor and leisure in this criticism, it is thus less to protect leisure or work from exploitation, than to preserve the social from contamination by the antisocial—an antagonism that is useful to maintain for reasons explored in the previous chapter.
(20) For example, Terranova writes, “This essay does not seek to offer a judgment on the ‘effects’ of the Internet, but rather to map the way in which the Internet connects to the autonomist ‘social factory’” (ibid., 34). She later adds, “Rather than retracing the holy truths of Marxism on the changing body of late capital, free labor embraces some crucial contradictions without lamenting, celebrating, denying, or synthesizing a complex condition” (ibid., 55).
(21) Conversely, forms of leisure that are understood as supportive of social bonds are permitted or even encouraged. This is true not only for these critics, but in much of post–Frankfurt School cultural/media studies scholarship, which finds value in audiences’ (collective) opposition to dominant ideologies.
(45) Scholz, “Crowdmilking.” Elsewhere Scholz introduces the term “crowd fleecing” in an effort to distinguish between different forms or levels of exploitation. See Scholz, Uberworked and Underpaid, chap. 4.
(73) Dyer-Witheford, “Digital Labour, Species-Becoming and the Global Worker,” 487. This argument is echoed by Jonathan Crary, who writes: “Even in the absence of any direct compulsion, we choose to do what we are told to do; we allow the management of our bodies, our ideas, our entertainment, and all our imaginary needs to be externally imposed. We buy products that have been recommended to us through the monitoring of our electronic lives, and then we voluntarily leave feedback for others about what we have purchased. We are the compliant subject who submits to all manner of biometric and surveillance intrusion, and who ingests toxic food and water and lives near nuclear reactors without complaint. The absolute abdication of responsibility for living is indicated by the titles of the many bestselling guides that tell us, with a grim fatality, the 1,000 movies to see before we die, the 100 tourist destinations to visit before we die, the 500 books to read before we die” (24/7, 60).
(85) To be clear, it is not simply the number of unemployed workers that figures here, but also the willingness of employable workers to accept particular conditions of work. It is possible for any given sector of the labor market to be “tight” despite high unemployment if the conditions in that sector are popularly deemed too unreasonable. For example, if tech companies now have to compete for workers (p.176) by offering various perks or amenities, this does not necessarily signal low unemployment; it might also signal shifting cultural norms—a certain sense of entitlement among Millennials, perhaps, that makes their labor more difficult to purchase in the labor market. This dynamic is further explored in chapter 3.
(87) If this leverage is, in fact, interesting to Ross, it is as a condition of possibility for worker sovereignty and collective organization—an opportunity wasted when workers prioritize a “humane” workplace over a “just” workplace.
(88) As Terranova quotes business and organizational strategist Don Tapscott: “Anyone responsible for managing knowledge workers knows they cannot be ‘managed’ in the traditional sense. Often they have specialized knowledge and skills that cannot be matched or even understood by management. A new challenge to management is first to attract and retain these assets by marketing the organization to them, and second to provide the creative and open communications environment where such workers can effectively apply and enhance their knowledge” (“Free Labor,” 37).
(110) To be certain, in making the argument that work and leisure can be distinguished by coercion, I do not mean to express an attachment to work as a social institution, which is how I understand critics’ anxiety about the collapse of work and leisure. Rather, it is precisely to account for the perceived threat that particular forms of leisure present to the social that maintaining this distinction is crucial.
(121) As quoted in Appelbaum, “Why Are Politicians So Obsessed With Manufacturing?.” See also Shulevitz’s argument for the Universal Basic Income in “It’s Payback Time for Women.”
(123) For more on anxiety related to drugs and pleasure, see Race, Pleasure Consuming Medicine. For more on anxiety related to dancing, see Craig, Sorry I Don’t Dance. For a canonical treatment of moral panic, see Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics.
(124) For examples of scholarship on fandom and participatory culture, see Jenkins, Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers; Jenkins, Convergence Culture; Jenkins, Textual Poachers. For further examples of scholarship on the pro-social uses of social media, see Benkler, The Wealth of Networks; Shirky, Here Comes Everybody; Alexander Cho, “Queer Reverb: Tumblr, Affect, Time”; Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope.
(131) For examples of utopianism, see Benkler, The Wealth of Networks; Jenkins, Convergence Culture; Papacharissi, “The Virtual Sphere.” For accounts of early utopianism and dystopianism in writing about the Internet, see Sterne, “The Historiography of Cyberculture”; Wellman, “The Three Ages of Internet Studies.”
(132) For example, Evgeny Morozov, Sherry Turkle, and Jaron Lanier have all made this shift.
(145) See, for example, Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch, “Uses and Gratifications Research.”
(149) My intention here is not to reduce the varied meanings of “bottoming” to what Tan Hoang Nguyen labels, in A View from the Bottom, the “dominant perception,” but rather to suggest that bottoming has been reviled according to a similar logic as being a passive media consumer. See also Scott, “Notes on Black (Power) Bottoms” in Extravagant Abjection.