Internet – on Labor

At a relaxed dinner with a good friend recently, we discussed the difficulty of finding a job in Detroit over the last few years. We spoke about the population’s available, marketable skills, and compared the price of land/rent to the type of organizations with the capital to buy it up. Then, we touched on a curious potential outcome of the current grim circumstances. In ten or fifteen years, we posited, when the city has grown again and its workforce is active again, a primary economic driver could well be the Silicone titans. This unusual placement of internet-driven internet drivers would seem out of place in the Motor City, except for a few key factors. First, technology industries require massive investments of capital for infrastructure and of labor for support in addition to the engineers and designers who are their most visible participants. Second, the data in the United States flows through Detroit, necessitating more of those support staff as that stream grows. And finally, the low cost of land and utilities, and the propensity of large IT firms to model their operations on 19th and 20th century factories, means that the companies have incentive to move to such an area already. Some small moves in this direction could trigger large changes to the economic situation there.

Employment change by occupation, predicted between 2010 and 2020. Note strength of information, computer, etc as sectors.Another ongoing debate, this one with my mail carrier, resonates here. I have been suggesting to him for some years that the only solution to the Postal Service’s woes is to transition their operating model from primarily physical mail, to email service providing. As I argue it, when a resident registers at an address, they would be assigned a unique email address as well. If they choose to register that address, they would pay the USPS for storage space along much the same rates that we do now for PO Boxes. The government could maintain MX (mail exchange) and block servers to handle the requirements, and could hire or retrain huge numbers of employees to deal with the data and customer service management. Most importantly, the decline in physical postal service would meet with a concomitant rise in secure, easy-to-use, broadly available, and publicly guaranteed (the key point) digital postal service. My carrier agrees, in general, though he wonders whether the culture of the organization could make such a transition, and about the security of his (admittedly extraordinarily strenuous) job, as well.
These conversations highlight a massive gap in existing research about the internet: how we study its related labor. We have not yet established rules to know what counts as internet work, to know who works, and to map or test where. We have no standards yet for how labor is valued online. We need to know how it interacts between humans and machines, beyond myopic speculations on the psycho-social effects of social media, or the grand reductionism of Marxist determinism and alienation. We are concerned, here, with laying down a program to find out how labor operates on a broad scale, and indeed, how passive and active labor each affect the structure of the internet itself.
One approach would be to map the enterprises, large and small, that interact with the internet in their concentrations and transformations of labor. For example, at the large data centers discussed in the previous post [on waste], labor takes many forms, beyond programming or design. Engineers and architects, strategists and analysts all rely on a broad network of support staff, and of management. Regardless of the size of a project team, it requires an administrator who can handle its technical systems, and a manager to guide the team in the right direction. Technologists also require support from operational staff, who can keep their environments organized, pay the staff, deal with the customers or clients or students or taxpayers or or or… And I wish to include, in this estimation of a research plan, what studies of labor often eliminate: those workers without direct contact with others, in this case perhaps without interaction with computers much, but whose invisible work ought not go unreckoned. For example, janitorial and construction service workers clean or build the very machines and the rooms that house them; factory employees in far-flung locations piece together those electronic components, and other silent producers all avoid our calculations daily.
In another aspect, consumption of internet content also counts for labor, as [citation here] reminds us: we do work for content providers every time we view a page with advertisements, for example. Simply spending time on some sites makes those site owners money. And this curious inversion of labor, from producing to consuming power, often overshadows the incredibly complex labor that does produce those artifacts and lifestyles. So, in order to study such a broad and knotty terrain, the research approach could involve quantitative measures such as social network analysis to determine the value of labor and the relationship of humans to computers in general, as well as qualitative measures such as ethnographic and interpretive analyses of labor practices in these varied situations. Another approach would not map specific enterprises as a subset of an assumed general market, but would instead abstract the differences in labor from earlier, Marxist and other models, approaching the questions theoretically. Such an approach could sound immaterial to the problems at hand, except that it would provide a clearer lens on both historical and logical questions such as the status of change in technological labor, or indeed the mutual effects of rationality and technicality on one another.
Concretely, a study that incorporated techniques of qualitative and quantitative analysis, and that could handle the extremely large sets of data at hand alongside incisive questions of power or of knowledge, would have to make use of multiple media and techniques of presentation as well. For example, in order to find out how much work in a given geographical region is tied to the internet, quantitative and computational groundwork could establish patterns of behavior, and indications of discourse on the subject. Then, data visualization could bring these patterns into material form, and so a qualitative analysis would be able to treat those patterns as artifacts in their own rights, and draw out the significance of having work and technology in a mutually constitutive relationship. The rest of this series’ reviews and syntheses will turn towards the specific positions taken by previous theorists and scholars on related topics, to find the gap for original research to inhabit.

Chart for growth rate data: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, on the Internet at (visited March, 2012).

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