Mini-Review: Digital Labor by Trebor Scholz

With thanks to Marti Louw for the recommendation, I just finished reading Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, a collection of essays edited by Trebor Scholz. This book is outstanding and well worth a read.  The author chapters are communications, cognitive science, media studies, sociology, film, political science and design researchers from all points international, all participants in a conference, organized by Scholz, of the same name.

The essays share one particular common theme close to Robot Futures’ heart, and that is the nature of consumer behavior on the Internet, and how value is born, appraised and used by whom in this new system of commerce. Scholz himself writes, “The Internet has become a simple-to-join, anyone-can-play system where the sites and practices of work and play increasingly wield people as a resource for economic amelioration by a handful of oligarchic owners.”  Fundamentally, this collection argues that a cognitive labor society has been born of the Internet, as the behavior we all embody on-line is privatized by corporations for their own benefit. The arguments are nuanced, in many cases beautifully so, as authors suggest that the property of society- our cultural, social acts- has been appropriated with weak and nonexistent follow-on benefits to society itself.

One powerful side effect of the on-line labor market strategy is the confusion of producer and consumer identities. Tiziana Terranova argues, “the digital a specific mechanism of internal capture of larger pools of social and cultural knowledge;” you act in a way optimized by website owners to collect the most valuable knowledge possible from you as a producer of content, and so your very best efforts as a consumer are in fact as a producer (for which you receive no compensation, recaptcha style).

Often, in understanding just what society loses when all our actions are recorded, analyzed, correlated and evaluated, we talk of the loss of privacy. In contrast to this, Mark Andrejevic explains that the more significant loss is that of property- that information becomes the private properties of companies that exert the harvesting effort required to transform raw data into massively valuable information. Your handout, in your own small part, of that information is part of a trade you perform, argues Andrejevic, to “to secure access to the productive and informational resources of the digital era.”

An additional dynamic surfaced by Ayhan Aytes involves the degree to which each of us, as individuals, loses our ability to understand the coherent value of what we provide. Whether we volunteer for Mechanical Turk, use a recaptcha or submit our personal information to a website, the information we have is entirely disembodied from its overall cultural value, making it easier for us to submit to this extraction process and at the same time disenfranchising us from the information that we, as a community, create. The only high-altitude view is, of course, in the hands of corporations, who guard that view and the value it derives with fierce marketing and sales skills.

Just as I argue in New Mediocracy about the control of purchasing behavior through massive data mining, so Andrejevic argues that consumer behavioral control is an ultimate goal of corporations that is rapidly gaining traction thanks to technological advance.  he quotes Ian Ayres, author of “Super Crunchers: How Anything Can be Predicted-” a book that I will order right quick.  While I agree with this analysis, I think it is important to also revisit the question of politics and free democratic choice, as I explain in Robot Futures: behavioral control extends well beyond buying patterns; marketing strategies for political campaigns use every single trick invented by sales and marketing to maximize the number of votes garnered for their candidates. Highly efficient behavior control simply strips us, eventually, of the ability to claim a true democracy with a straight face. The other, robotic view that I apply to all these authors’ opinions involves the way in which robotic sensors tie human behavior in the tangible, physical world into every computational system that is, today, trapped in the Internet. Surveillance and its concordant acquisition of social property is going to spread into the physical world- into the expressions on our faces, the gestures at our fingertips and the walking patterns of our legs. The Internet has the ability to swallow the the real world with respect to disenfranchisement, surveillance and cognitive labor marketing. So read Digital Labor, and imagine a robot future in which every point the authors make extends into every tangible portion of our lifestyle as well!

2 thoughts on “Mini-Review: Digital Labor by Trebor Scholz

  1. Pingback: Machine Age 2.0: A review | robotfuturesbook

  2. Pingback: The Cost of Privacy | robotfuturesbook

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