Παρασκευή, Ιουλίου 07, 2000

Free labor: producing culture for the digital economy

Tiziana Terranova


Social Text, 63, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer 2000, pp. 33/57.

The real not-capital is labor.

(Karl Marx Grundrisse )

Working in the digital media industry is not as much fun as it is made out to be. The NetSlaves of the homonimous Webzine ( http://www.disobey.com/netslaves/) are becoming increasingly vociferous about the shamelessly exploitative nature of the job, its punishing work rhythms and its ruthless casualisation. They talk about "24-7 electronic sweatshops", complain about 90-hours week and the moronic management of new media companies. In early 1999, seven of the fifteen thousands 'volunteers' of America On Line rocked the boat by asking the Department of Labor to investigate whether AOL owes them any back wages for the years of playing chathosts for free (Margonelli 1999: 138). They used to work long-hours and love it; now they are starting to feel the pain of being burned by new media.

It is a necessary backlash against the glamourisation of digital labour, which highlights its continuities with the modern sweatshop and point to the increasing degradation of knowledge work. Yet still the question of labor in a 'digital economy' is not so easily dismissed as an innovative development of the well-known exploitative logic of capitalism. The NetSlaves are not just far from being the only form of labor on the Internet, they also embody a complex relation to labor which is widespread in late capitalist societies.

In this paper I understand this relationship as a provision of 'free labor', a specific trait of the cultural economy at large, an important, and yet undervalued force in advanced capitalist societies. By looking at the Internet as a specific instance of the fundamental role played by free labor, this paper highlights the connections between the 'digital economy' and what the Italian autonomists have called the 'social factory' (Virno and Hardt 1996; Negri 1989; 1991). The 'social factory' describes a process whereby "work processes have shifted from the factory to society, thereby setting in motion a truly complex machine" (Negri 1989). Simultaneously voluntarily given and unwaged, enjoyed and exploited, free labor on the Net includes the activity of building websites, modify software packages, reading and participating to mailing lists and building virtual spaces on MUDs and MOOs. Far from being an 'unreal', empty space, the Internet is animated by cultural and technical labor through and through, a continuous production of value which is completely immanent to the flows of the network society at large.

Supporting this argument, however, is immediately complicated by the recent history of critical theory. How to speak of labor, especially cultural and technical labor, after the demolition job carried out by thirty years of postmodernism? In the seventies Jean Baudrillard argued that the Marxist distinction between use value and exchange value was bankrupt. In his opinion, commodies have lost any trace of the labor which was supposed to animate them, they have become pure signs without signifieds or referents, self-sufficient simulations.(Baudrillard 1988). To such nihilism, some strands of cultural studies objected that commodities are still made, still carry meanings, but these meanings are actualised by the consumer. Implicitly they suggested that the power lost by the worker in the traditional spaces of production (the factory, the office) was made up by the emergence of consumption as a site of activity. Consumption invests the commodity with desire, constructing meanings out of objects which are intrinsically polysemic, and seem to be made, literally, by nobody but their consumers.

The postmodern socialist feminism of the "Cyborg Manifesto" spelled out some of the reasons behind the antipathy of eighties critical theory for Marxist analyses of labor. Haraway explicitly rejected the humanistic tendencies of theorists who see the latter as the "the pre-eminently privileged category enabling the Marxist to overcome illusion and find that point of view which is necessary for changing the world." (Haraway 1991: 159). Paul Gilroy similarly expressed his discontent at the inedaquacy of Marxist analysis of labor as the space of social self-creation as a space which is not available to the descendants of slaves, who value artistic expression as "the means towards both individual self-fashioning and communal liberation" (Gilroy 1993: 40). If labor is "the humanizing activity that makes [white] man", then, surely, an analysis of labor does not really belong to the age of networked, posthuman intelligence.

However, the "informatics of domination" which Haraway describes in the Manifesto is certainly preoccupied with the relation between cybernetics, labor and capital. In the fifteen years since its publication, such relationship has become even more evident. The expansion of the Internet has given ideological and material support to contemporary trends towards increased flexibility of the workforce, continuous reskilling, free lance work, and the diffusion of practices such as ‘supplementing’ (bringing supplementary work home from the conventional office, see Castells 1996: 395). Advertising campaigns and business manuals suggest that the Internet is not only a site of dis-intermediation (embodying the famous death of the middle man, from bookshops to travel agencies and computer stores), but also the means through which a flexible, collective intelligence materialises.

The pervasiveness (and effectiveness) of these narratives rebukes the notion that the Internet is somehow an unreal space (which incorrectly implies that 'virtual' equals "unreal"). Whatever the assessment on the status of the real in cyberspace, however, there seems to be a substantial agreement on the fact that the Internet, and digital technologies in general, are changing things, thus drastically affecting the development of postmodern societies. If we listen to the cybertheorists and their enemies the so called information revolution rivals only the birth of Jesus (or his twin, the Anti-Christ) as the most portentous event ever to affect humanity as we know it (we will be saved/ transformed/damned by technology).

This paper does not want to give a judgement on the "effects" of the Internet, but to map the way in which the Internet connects to the autonomist 'social factory'. Therefore it is not a question of the "effects" of the Internet on the outside world, but on how the "outernet"–the network of social, cultural and economic relationships which criss-crosses and exceeds the Internet–surrounds and connects the latter to larger flows of labor, culture and power.

Cultural and technical work has become a widespread activity throughout advanced capitalist societies. Such labor is not exclusive to the so-called 'knowledge workers', but is a pervasive feature of the postmodern cultural economy. The pervasiveness of such production questions the legitimacy of a fixed distinction between production and consumption, labor and culture. It also undermines Gilroy's distinction between work as 'servitue, misery and subordination' and artistic expression as the means to self-fashioning and communal liberation. The increasingly blurred territory between production and consumption, work and cultural expression, however, does not signal the recomposition of the alienated Marxist worker. We cannot agree with the digerati's claims that the Internet turns every user into an active producer, and every worker into a creative subject. The process whereby production and consumption are reconfigured within the category of free labor signals the unfolding a different (rather than completely new) logic of valorisation, whose operations need careful analysis.

In discussing these developments, I will also draw on debates circulating across Internet sites such as nettime, telepolis, rhizome and c-theory. Online debates are one of the manifestations of the surplus value engendered by the digital economy, a hyper-production which can only be partly reabsorbed by capital. Online debates will be a constant point of reference thoughout this essay which will otherwise tend to wander between cultural studies, political economy, critical theory and continental Marxism. In doing so I wish to highlight the usefulness of thinking culturally the political economy of the Internet, in terms of practices and discourses but also in terms of lines of flights, of the insights and spaces of possibility generated by intense collective debates about culture, politics and economy.

The digital economy

The term ‘digital economy’ has recently emerged as a way to summarise some of the processes described above. As a term, it seems to describe a formation which intersects on the one hand with the postmodern cultural economy (the media, the university and the arts) and on the other hand with the information industry (the information and communication complex). Such an intersection of two different fields of production constitutes a challenge to a theoretical and practical engagement with the question of labor, a question which has become marginal for media studies as compared with questions of ownership (within political economy) and consumption (within cultural studies)

In Richard Barbrook’s definition, the digital economy is characterised by the emergence of new technologies (computer networks) and new types of worker (the digital artisans) (Barbrook 1997; 1999; also Anonymous 1997). According to Barbrook, the digital economy is a mixed economy: it includes a public element (the state's funding of the original research which produced Arpanet, the financial support to academic activities which had a substantial role in shaping the culture of the Internet); a market-driven element (a late comer that tries to appropriate the digital economy by reintroducing commodification); and a gift economy, that is the true expression of the cutting-edge of capitalist production which prepares its eventual overcoming into a future 'anarcho-communism":

Within the developed world, most politicians and corporate leaders believe that the future of capitalism lies in the commodification of information… Yet at the "cutting-edge" of the emerging information society, money-commodity relations play a secondary role to those created by a really existing form of anarcho-communism. For most of its users, the net is somewhere to work, play, love, learn and discuss with other people. Unrestricted by physical distance, they collaborate with other people. Unrestricted by physical distance, they collaborate with each other without the direct mediation of money and politics. Unconcerned about copyright, they give and receive information without thought of payment. In the absence of states or markets to mediate social bonds, network communities are instead formed through the mutual obligations created by gifts of time and ideas.

(Barbrook 1999: 135)

Within a substantial Marxist-Hegelian framework, Barbrook sees the high-tech gift economy as a process of overcoming of capitalism from the inside. The high-tech gift economy is a pioneeristic moment which transcends both the purism of the New Left do-it-yourself culture and the neo-liberalism of the free market ideologues: "money-commodity and gift relations are not just in conflict with each other, but also co-exist in symbiosis" (137). The participants to the gift economy are not reluctant to use market resources and government funding to pursue a potlach economy of free exchange. However, the potlach and the economy ultimately remain irreconcilable, and the market economy is always threatening to re-privatise the common enclaves of the gift economy, Commodification, the re-imposition of a regime of property, is, in Barbrook's opinion. the main strategy through which capitalism tries to re-absorb the anarcho-communism of the Net into its folds.

I think that Barbrook over-emphasises the autonomy of the high-tech gift economy from capitalism. The processes of exchange which characterise the Internet are not simply the re-emergence of communism within the cutting-edge of the economy, a repressed other which resurfaces just at the moment when communism seems defeated. It is important to remember that the gift economy, as part of a larger digital economy, is itself, beyond the moment of commodification, an important force within the reproduction of the labor force in late capitalism as a whole. The emission of 'free labor', as we will see later, is a fundamental moment in the creation of value in the digital economies. Commodification of the fruits of free labor is not a simple moment of appropriation coming from the outside to interrupt the gift utopia. Capitalism is prior to the emission of free labor, and the latter is not so much appropriated as channelled and distributed in an endless experimentation with valorisation (including, but also beyond commodification).

For example, in a classic example of managerial literature, The Digital Economy, Don Tapscott, describes the digital economy as a "new economy based on the networking of human intelligence" (Tapscott 1996: xiii). Human intelligence provides the much needed added-value, which in digital economies is essential to the processes of managing and stimulating innovation. Human intelligence, however, also poses a problem: it cannot be managed in quite the same way as more traditional types of labor. Knowledge workers need open organisational structures to produce, because the production of knowledge is rooted in collaboration, that is in what Barbrook defined a 'gift economy':

…the concept of supervision and management is changing to team-based structures. Anyone responsible for managing knowledge workers know they cannot be "managed" in the traditional sense. Often they have specialised 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 organisation to them, and second to provide the creative and open communications environment where such workers can effectively apply and enhance their knowledge.

(Tapscott 1996: 35) [my emphasis]

For Tapscott, therefore, the digital economy magically resolves the contradictions of industrial societies, such as class struggle: while in the industrial economy the "worker tried to achieve fulfillment through leisure [and]… was alienated from the means of production which were owned and controlled by someone else", in the digital economy the worker achieves fulfillment through work and finds in her brain her own, unalienated means of production. (Tapscott 1996: 48). Such means of production need to be cultivated by encouraging the worker to participate in a culture of exchange, whose flows are mainly kept within the company but also need to involve an 'outside', a contact with the fast-moving world of knowledge in general. The convention, the exhibition and the conference the more traditional ways of supporting this general exchange, are supplemented by network technologies both inside and outside the company. In this view, the Internet is then just a channel through which 'human intelligence' renews its capacity to produce.

This article draws on the notion of a 'digital economy' with reference to but also beyond the totalising hype of the managerial literature but also beyond some of the conceptual limits of Barbrook's work. It looks at some possible explanation for the coexistence, within the debate about the digitial economy, of discourses which sees it as an oppositional movement and others which sees it as a functional development to new mechanisms of valorisation. Is the end of Marxist alienation wished for by the manager guru the same thing as the gift economy heralded by leftist discourse?

We can start undoing this deadlock by subtracting the label 'digital economy' to its exclusive anchorage within advanced forms of labor (we can start then by de-pioneerising it). The 'digital economy' can be described as a specific mechanism of internal 'capture' of larger pools of social knowledge and cultural production. The digital economy then is not just about the valorisation of specific forms of cultural and technical production (web design; multimedia production; digital services and so on), but about a general process whereby capital acts as a channelling force within a larger cultural economy.

This process, however, is different than that described by popular, left wing wisdom about the incorporation of authentic cultural moments: it is not, then, about the bad boys of capital moving in on underground subcultures/subordinate cultures and 'incorporating' the fruits of their production (styles, languages, music) into the media food chain. This process is usually considered the end of a particular cultural formation, or at least the end of its 'authentic' phase. After incorporation, local cultures are picked up and distributed globally, thus contributing to cultural hybridisation or cultural imperialism (depending on whom you listen to).

Rather than capital 'incorporating' from the outside the authentic fruits of the collective imagination, it seems more reasonable to think of cultural flows as originating within a field which is always and already capitalism. Incorporation is not about capital descending on authentic culture, but a more immanent process of channelling of collective labor (even as cultural labor) into monetary flows and its structuration within capitalist business practices. Digitalisation ups the stakes of this voracious process: within the digital economy, cultural production is channeled in ways which reveal certain specificities about the latest developments of capital which are worth exploring, thinking and acting upon.

Knowledge class and immaterial labor

It is easy to imagine the Internet as the material and ideological heart of informated capital. From this perspective the Internet is not just the latest incarnation of capital's inexhaustible search for new markets, but it is a full consensus-creating machine, which socialises the mass of proletarianised knowledge workers into the economy of continuous innovation. After all if we do not get online soon, the hype suggests, we will become obsolete, unnecessary, disposable. If we do, we are promised, we will become part of the 'hive mind', the immaterial economy of networked, intelligent subjects in charge of speeding up the rhythms of capital's "incessant waves of branching innovations" (Kenney 1997: 93; also see Morris-Suzuki 1997). Multimedia artists, writers, journalists, software programmers, graphic designers, and activists together with small and large companies are at the core of this project, for somebody its cultural elite, for others a new form of proletarianised labor (Suvin 1991; Aronowitz and Di Fazio 1994) Accordingly, the digital workers are described as resisting or supporting the project of capital, often in direct relation to their positions in the networked, horizontal and yet hierarchical world of knowledge work.

Any judgement on the political potential of the Internet, then, is tied up not only to its much vaunted capacity to allow decentralised access to information, but also to the question of who uses the Internet and how. If the decentralised structure of the Net is to count for anything at all, the argument goes, then we need to know who is its constituent population (hence the endless statistics about use, income, gender and race of Internet users, the most polled, probed and yet opaque survey material of the world). If this population is largely made up of "knowledge workers", then it matters whether these are seen as the owners of elitist cultural and economic power or the avantgarde of new configurations of labor which do not automatically guarantee elite status.

As I argue in this paper, this is a necessary question and yet a misleading one. It is necessary because we have to ask who is participating in the digital economy before we can pass a judgement on the latter. It is misleading because it implies that all we need to know is how to locate the knowledge workers within a 'class', and knowing which class it is will give us an answer to the political potential of the Net as a whole. Therefore if we can prove that knowledge workers are the avantgarde of labor, then the Net becomes a site of resistance (Barbrook 1999); if we can prove that knowledge workers wield the power in informated societies, then the Net is an extended gated community for the middle classes (Robins 1996). Even admitting that knowledge workers are indeed fragmented in terms of hierarchy and status won't help us that much; it will still lead to a simple system of categorisation, where the Net becomes a field of struggle between the diverse constituents of the knowledge class.

The question is further complicated by the stubborn resistance of "knowledge" to quantification: knowledge cannot be exclusively pinned down to specific social segments. Although the shift from factory to office work, from production to services is widely acknowledged, it just isn't clear why some people qualify and some others do not (Webster 1995). The "knowledge worker" is a very contested sociological category.

A more interesting move, however, is possible by not looking for the knowledge class within quantifiable parameters and concentrating instead on 'labor'. Although the notion of class retains a material value which is indispensable to make sense of the experience of concrete historical subjects, it also has its limits: for example it "freezes" the subject, just like substance within the chemical periodical table, where one is born as a certain element (working class metal) but then might become something else (middle class silicon) if submitted to the proper alchemical processes (education and income). Such an understanding of class also freezes out the flows of culture and money which mobilise the labor force as a whole. In terms of Internet use, it gives rise to the generalised endorsements and condemnations which I have described above and does not explain or make sense of the heterogeneity and yet commonalities of Internet users. I have therefore found more useful to think in terms of what the Italian autonomists, and especially Maurizio Lazzarato, have described as immaterial labor. For Lazzarato the concept of immaterial labor refers to two different aspects of labor:

On the one hand, as regards the "informational content" of the commodity, it refers directly to the changes taking place in workers' labor processes… where the skills involved in direct labor are increasingly skills involving cybernetics and computer control (and horizontal and vertical communication). On the other hand, as regards the activity that produces the "cultural content" of the commodity, immaterial labor involves a series of activities that are not normally recognized as "work" - in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion.

(Lazzarato 1996: 133)

Immaterial labor, unlike the knowledge worker, is not completely confined to a specific class formation. Lazzarato insists that this form of labor power is not limited to highly skilled workers, but is a form of activity of every productive subject within postindustrial society. In the highly skilled worker, these capacities are already there. In the young worker, however, the "precarious worker", and the unemployed youth, these capacities are "virtual", that is they are there but are still undetermined. This means that immaterial labor is a virtuality (an undetermined capacity) which belongs to the postindustrial productive subjectivity as a whole. The imposition of education on young unemployeds in the UK, for example, or the obsessive emphasis on education of nineties governments can be read as attempts to stop this virtuality from disappearing or from being channeled into places which would not be as acceptable to the current power structures. However, unlike the Post-Fordists, and in accordance with his autonomist origins, Lazzarato does not conceive of immaterial labor as purely functional to a new historical phase of capitalism:

The virtuality of this capacity is neither empty nor ahistoric; it is rather an opening and a potentiality, that have as their historical origins and antecedents the "struggle against work" of the Fordist worker and, in more recent times, the processes of socialization, educational formation, and cultural self-valorization.

(Lazzarato 1996: 136)

This dispersal of immaterial labor (as a virtuality and an actuality) problematises the idea of the "knowledge worker" as a class in the "industrial" sense of the word. As a collective quality of the labor force, immaterial labor can be understood to pervade the social body with different degrees of intensity. This intensity is produced by the processes of "channeling" of the capitalist formation which distributes value according to its logics of profit.

From this point of view, the well-known notion that the Internet materialises a "collective intelligence" is not completely off the mark. The Internet highlights the existence of networks of immaterial labor and speeds up their accretion into a collective entity. The productive capacities of immaterial labor on the Internet encompass the work of writing/reading/managing and participating to mailing lists/websites/chatlines.

This explosion of productive activities is undermined for various commentators by the minoritarian, gendered and raced character of the Internet population. However we might also argue that to recognise the existence of immaterial labor as a diffuse, collective quality of postindustrial labor in its entirety does not deny the existence of hierarchies of knowledge (both technical and cultural) which pre-structure (but do not determine) the nature of such activities. These hierarchies shape the degrees to which such virtualities become actualities, that is they go from being potential to being realised as processual, constituting moments of cultural, affective, and technical production. Neither capital nor living labor want a labor force which is permanently excluded from the possibilities of immaterial labor. But this is where their desires stops from coinciding. Capital wants to retain control over the unfolding of these virtualities and their processes of valorisation. The relative abundance of cultural/technical/affective production on the Net, then, does not exist as a free floating postindustrial utopia but in full, mutually constituting interaction with late capitalism, especially in its manifestation as global, venture financial capital.

Collective minds

The collective nature of networked, immaterial labor has been simplified by the utopian statements of the cyberlibertarians. Kevin Kelly's popular thesis in Out of Control, for example, is that the Internet is a collective 'hive mind'. According to Kelly, the Internet is another manifestation of a principle of self organisation which is widespread throughout technical, natural and social systems. The Internet is the material evidence of the existence of the self-organising, infinitely productive activities of connected human minds (Kelly 1994). From a different perspective Pierre Levy draws on cognitive anthropology and poststructuralist philosophy, to argue that computers and computer networks are sites which enable the emergence of a 'collective intelligence'. Levy, who is inspired by early computer pioneers such as Douglas Engelbart, argues for a new humanism, "that incorporates and enlarges the scope of self-knowledge and collective thought" (Provenzo in Levy 1995: viii). According to Levy, we are passing from a Cartesian model of thought based upon the singular idea of cogito (I think) to a collective or plural cogitamus (we think).

What is collective intelligence? It is a form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilisation of skills... The basis and goal of collective intelligence is the mutual recognition and enrichment of individuals rather than the cult of fetishised or hypostatized communities.

(Levy 1995: 13)

Like Kelly, Levy frames his argument within the common rhetoric of competition and flexibility which dominates the hegemonic discourse around digitalisation: "The more we are able to form intelligent communities, as open-minded, cognitive subjects capable of initiative, imagination, and rapid response, the more we will be able to ensure our success in a highly competitive environment." (Levy 1995: 1). In Levy's view, the digital economy highlights the impossibility of absorbing intelligence within the process of automation: unlike the first wave of cybernetics which displaced workers from the factory, computer networks highlight the unique value of human intelligence as the true creator of value in a knowledge economy. In his opinion, since the economy is increasingly reliant on the production of creative subjectivities, this production is highly likely to engender a new humanism, a new centrality of man's [sic] creative potentials.

Especially in Kelly's case, it has been easy to dismiss the notion of a 'hive mind' and the self-organising Internet-as-free market as ideological, post-Cold War, euphoric capitalist mumbo jumbo. One cannot help being deeply irritated by the blindness of the digital capitalist to the realities of working in the hi-tech industries, from the poisoning world of the silicon chips factories to the electronic sweatshops of America OnLine, where technical work is downgraded and workers' obsolescence is high (Little Red Henski 1999). How can we hold on to the notion that cultural production and immaterial labour are collective on the Net (both inner and outer) without subscribing to the idealistic cyberdrool of the digerati?

We could start by stating the obvious: the self-organising, collective intelligence of cybercultural thought captures the existence of networked immaterial labor, but also neutralises the operations of capital. Capital, after all, is the unnatural environment within which the collective intelligence materialises. The collective dimension of networked intelligence needs to be understood historically, as part of a specific momentum of capitalist development. The Italian writers who are identified with the post-Gramscian Marxism of Autonomia have been among the most consistent group of thinkers to engage with this relationship by focusing on the mutation undergone by labor in the aftermath of the factory. The notion of a self-organising "collective intelligence" looks uncannily like one of their central concept, the "general intellect", a notion that the Italian autonomists have "extracted" out of the spirit, if not the actually wording, of Marx's Grundrisse. The "collective intelligence" or "hive mind" captures some of the spirit of the "general intellect", but removes the autonomists' critical theorisation of its relation to capital.

In the autonomists' favourite text, the Grundrisse, and especially in the "Fragment on Machines", Marx argues that "knowledge - scientific knowledge in the first place, but not exclusively - tends to become precisely by virtue of its autonomy from production, nothing less than the principal productive force, thus relegating repetitive and compartmentalised labor to a residual position. Here one is dealing with knowledge… which has become incarnate… in the automatic system of machines" (Virno 1996: 266). In the vivid pages of the "Fragment', the "other" Marx of the Grundrisse (adopted by the social movements of the sixties and seventies against the orthodox endorsement of the Capital ), describes the system of industrial machines as a horrific monster of metal and flesh:

The production process has ceased to be a labor process in the sense of a process dominated by labor as its governing unity. Labor appears, rather, merely as a conscious organ, scattered among the individual living workers at numerous point of the mechanical system. Subsumed under the total process of the machinery itself, as itself only a link of the system, whose unity exists not in the living workers, but rather in the living, (active) machinery, which confronts his individual, insignificant doings as a mighty organism.

(Marx 1939: 693)

The Italian autonomists extracted from these pages the notion of the "general intellect" as "the ensemble of knowledge… which constitute the epicenter of social production" (Virno 1996: 266). Unlike Marx's original formulation, however, the autonomists eschewed the modernist imagery of the general intellect as a hellish machine. They claimed that Marx completely identified the general intellect (or knowledge as the principal productive force) with fixed capital (the machine) and thus neglected to account for the fact that the general intellect cannot exist independently of the concrete subjects who mediate the articulation of the machines with each other. The general intellect is an articulation of fixed capital (machines) and living labor (the workers). If we see the Internet, and computer networks in general, as the latest machines-the latest manifestation of fixed capital-then it won't be difficult to imagine the general intellect as being well and alive today.

However the autonomists did not stop at describing the general intellect as an assemblage of humans and machines at the heart of postindustrial production. If this were the case, the Marxian monster of metal and flesh would just be updated to that of a world-spanning network where computers use human beings as a way to allow the system of machinery (and therefore capitalist production) to function. The visual power of the Marxian description is updated by the cyberpunk snapshots of the immobile bodies of the hackers, electrodes like umbilical cords connecting them to the matrix, appendixes to a living, all-powerful cyberspace.

To the humanism implicit in this description, the autonomists have opposed the notion of a "mass intellectuality", living labor in its function as the determining articulation of the general intellect. Mass intellectuality - as an ensemble, as a social body - "is the repository of the indivisible knowledges of living subjects and of their linguistic cooperation… an important part of knowledge cannot be deposited in machines, but rather that it must come into being as the direct interaction of the labor force" (Virno 1996: 270). As Virno emphasises, mass intellectuality is not about the various roles of the knowledge workers, but is a "quality and a distinctive sign of the whole social labor force in the post-Fordist era" (271)

The pervasiveness of the collective intelligence both within the managerial literature and Marxist theory could be seen as the result of a common intuition about the quality of labor in informated societies. Knowledge labor is inherently collective, it is always the result of a collective and social production of knowledge (Lazzarato 1999; Morris-Suzuki 1997b). Capital's problem is how to extract as much value as possible out of this abundant, and yet slightly untractable terrain.

Collective knowledge work, then, is not about those who work in the knowledge industry. It is not even about employment. The acknowledgement of the collective aspect of labor implies a rejection of the equivalence between labor and employment, which was already stated by Marx and further emphasised by feminism and the post-Gramscian autonomy (Negri 1999; Haraway 1991). Labour is not equivalent to waged labout. Such position might help us to reject some of the hideous rhetoric of unemployment which turns the unemployed person in the object of much patronising, pushing and nudging from national governments in industrialised countries (accept any available work or else….) Often the unemployeds are such only in name, in reality being the lymph of the difficult economy of 'under the table', badly paid work, some of which also goes into the new media industry (Ross 1998). To emphasise how labor is not equivalent to employment also means to acknowledge how important free affective and cultural labor is to the media industry, old and new.

Ephemeral commodities and free labor

There is a continuity, and a break, between older media and new media in terms of their relationship to cultural and affective labor. The continuity seems to lie in their common reliance on their public/users as productive subjects, while the difference lies in the televisual interposition of a normalising knowledge within a more organised mode of production. Television and print media, for example, draw abundantly out of the free labor of their audiences/readers, but they also tend to structure the latter's contribution much more strictly, both in terms of economic organisation and moralistic judgement. If this does not happen on the Internet, why is it then that the latter is not the happy island of decentered, dispersed and pleasurable cultural production that its apologists claimed?

The most obvious answer to such questions came spontaneously to the early Internet users who blamed it on the commercialisation of the Internet. E-commerce and the progressive privatisation were blamed for disrupting the free economy of the Internet, an economy of exchange which Richard Barbrook has described as a "gift economy" (Barbrook 1999). Indeed maybe the Internet could have been a different place than what it is now. However it is almost unthinkable that capitalism could stay forever outside of the network, a mode of communication which is practically immanent to its own organisational structure.

The result of the explicit interface between capital and the Internet is a digital economy which manifests all the signs of an acceleration of the capitalist logic of production. It might be that the Internet has not stabilised yet, but it seems undeniable that the digital economy is the fastest and most visible zone of production within late capitalist societies. New products and new trends succeed each other at anxiety-inducing pace. After all this is a business where you need to replace your equipment/knowledges and possibly staff every year or so.

The speed of the digital economy, its accelerated rhythms of obsolescence and its reliance on (mostly) 'immaterial' products seem to confirm the postmodern intuition about the changed status of the commodities. According to Jean Baudrillard and some strands of cultural studies, in the eighties the commodity ceases to be a material object and literally becomes the network of meanings which gives it its value. It is not the commodity per se, as an object, but the commodity as a condensed cluster of meanings which matter. Baudrillard claimed that this made the commodity independent of human labor; the Baudrillardian commodities lived in hyperreality and entertained contacts mainly with each other. The dense semiotic qualities of the commodity mesmerised the postmoderns so much that the question of labor was not deemed relevant enough to be incorporated in the theoretical landscape. Labor became a dirty word, whose affinity with the foundational taint of use-value signified a residual modernism which the postmodern were loath to touch. Labor is not value, meaning is value (as if the two could be separable).

The recurrent complain that the Internet contributes to the disappearance of reality is then based both in humanistic concerns about 'real life' and the postmodern nihilism of the recombinant commodity (Kroker and Weinstein 1994). Hypereality confirms the humanist nightmare of a society without humanity, the culmination of a progressive taking over of the realm of representation. Commodities on the Net are not material and are excessive (there is too much of it, too many websites, too much clutter and noise) with relation to the limits of 'real' social needs.

It is possible, however, that the disappearance of the commodity is not a material disappearance, but its visible subordination to the quality of labor behind it. In this sense the commodity does not disappear as such; it rather becomes increasing ephemeral, its duration becomes compressed, it becomes more of a process than a finished product. The role of continuous, creative, innovative labor as the ground of market value is crucial to the digital economy. The process of valorisation happens by foregrounding the quality of the labor which literally animates the commodity.

In my opinion, the digital economy challenges the postmodern assumption that labor disappears while the commodity takes on and dissolves all meaning. In particular, the Internet is about the valorisation of continous, updatable work and is extremely labor intensive: it is not enough to produce a good web site. You need to update it continuously to maintain interest in it and fight off obsolescence. Furthermore you need updatable equipment (the general intellect is always an assemblage of humans and their machines), in its turn propelled by the intense collective labor of programmers, designers and workers. It is as if the acceleration of production has pushed to the point where commodities, literally, turn into translucent objects. Commodity do not so much disappear as they become more transparent, showing throughout their reliance on the labor which produces and sustains them. The commodity, then, is only as good as the labor that goes into it.

As a consequence, the sustainability of the Internet as a medium depends on massive amounts of labor (which is not equivalent to employment, as we said), only some of which is hyper-compensated by the capricious logic of venture capitalism. Of the incredible amount of labor which sustains the Internet as a whole (from mailing list traffic to web sites to infrastructural questions), we can guess that a substantial amount of it is still 'free labor'.

Free labor, however, is not necessarily exploited labor. Within the early virtual communities, we are told, labor was really free: the labor of building a community was not compensated by great financial rewards (it was therefore 'free', unpaid), but it was also willingly conceded in exchange for the pleasures of communication and exchange (it was therefore 'free', pleasurable, not-imposed). In answer to members' requests, information was quickly posted and shared with a lack of mediation which the early netizens did not fail to appreciate. Howard Rheingold's book, somehow unfairly accused of middle class compliance, is the most well known account of the good old times of the old Internet, before the net-tourist overcame the net-pioneer (Rheingold 1994).

The free labor which sustains the Internet is acknowledged within many different sections of the digital literature. In spite of the volatile nature of the Internet economy (which yesterday was about community, today is about portals and tomorrow who knows…), the notion of users' labor maintains an ideological and material centrality which runs consistently throughout the turbulent succession of Internet fads. Commentators who would normally disagree, such as Howard Rheingold and Richard Hudson, concord on one thing; the best web site, the best way to stay visible and thriving on the Web is to turn your site into a space which is not only accessed, but somehow built by its users. (Rheingold 1999, Hudson 1997). Users keep a site alive through their labor, the cumulative hours of accessing the site (thus generating advertising), writing messages, participating in conversations and sometimes making the jump to collaborators. Such a feature seems endemic to the Internet in ways which can be worked on by commercialisation, but not substantially altered. The 'open source' movement, which relies on the free labor of Internet tinkerers is further evidence of this structural trend within the digital economy.

It is an interesting feature of the Internet debate (and evidence, somehow of its masculine bias), that users' labor has attracted more attention in the case of the open source movement than in that of mailing lists and websites. This betrays the persistence of an attachment to masculine understandings of labor within the digital economy. The 'open source' movement has drawn much more positive attention within the most attentive sections of netculture than the more diffuse user-labor described above. It is worth exploring it not because I believe that it will outlast 'portals' or 'virtual communities' as the latest buzzword, but because of the debates which it has provoked and its relation to the digital economy at large.

The 'open source' movement is a variation of the old tradition of shareware and freeware software which substantially contributed to the technical development of the Internet. Freeware software is freely distributed and does not even request a reward from its users. Shareware software is distributed freely, but implies a 'moral' obligation for the user to forward a small sum to the producer in order to sustain the shareware movement as an alternative economic model to the copyrighted software of giants such as Microsoft. 'Open source' 'refers to a model of software development in which the underlying code of a program -the source code aka the 'crown jewels'-is by definition made freely available to the general public for modification, alteration, and endless redistribution' (Leonard 1999: 140) .

Far from being an idealistic, minoritarian practice, the open source movement has attracted much media and financial attention. Apache, an open source web server, is the 'Web-server program of choice for more than half of all publicly accessible Web servers" (Leonard 1999). In 1999, open source conventions are anxiously attended by venture capitalists, who have been informed by the digerati that the former is a necessity 'because you must go open-source to get access to the benefits of the open-source development community-the near-instantaneous bug-fixes, the distributed intellectual resources of the Net, the increasingly large open-source code base." (Leonard 1999: 142). Open source companies such as Cygnus have convinced the market that you do not need to be proprietary about source code to make a profit: the code might be free, but tech support, packaging, installation software, regular upgrades, office applications and hardware are not.

In 1998, when Netscape went 'open source' and invited the computer tinkerers and hobbysts to look at the code of its new browser, fix the bugs, improve the package and redistribute it, specialised mailing lists exchanged opinions about its implications. Netscape’s move rekindled the debate about the peculiar nature of the digital economy. Was Netscape’s move to be read as being in the tradition of the Internet ‘gift economy’? Or was digital capital hijacking the open-source movement exactly against that tradition? Richard Barbrook saluted the Netscape’s move as a sign of the power intrinsic in the architecture of the medium.

...the technical and social structure of the Net has been developed to encourage open cooperation among its participants. As an everyday activity, users are building the system together. Engaged in 'interactive creativity', they send emails, take part in listservers, contribute to newsgroups, participate within on-line conferences and produce websites (Tim Berners-Lee, "Realising the Full Potential of the Web" ). Lacking copyright protection, information can be freely adapted to suit the users' needs. Within the hi-tech gift economy, people successfully work together through '...an open social process involving evaluation, comparison and collaboration.'"…

(Barbrook 1999: 135/136)

John Horvarth, however, did not share this opinion. The ‘free stuff’ offered around the Net, he argued, "is either a product that gets you hooked on to another one or makes you just consume more time on the net. After all, the goal of the access people and telecoms is to have users spend as much time on the net as possible, regardless of what they are doing. The objective is to have you consume bandwidth."(Horvarth 1998). Far from proving the persistence of the Internet gift economy, Horvarth claimed, Netscape’s move is a direct threat to those independent producers for whom shareware and freeware have been a way of surviving exactly those ‘big boys’ that Netscape represents:

Freeware and shareware are the means by which small producers, many of them individuals, were able to offset somewhat the bulldozing effects of the big boys. And now the bulldozers are headed straight for this arena.

As for Netscrape [sic], such a move makes good business sense and spells trouble for workers in the field of software development. The company had a poor last quarter in 1997 and was already hinting at job cuts. Well, what better way to shed staff by having your product taken further by the freeware people, having code-dabbling hobbyists fix and further develop your product? The question for Netscrape [sic] now is how to tame the freeware beast so that profits are secured.

(Horvath 1998)

Although it is tempting to stake the evidence of Netscape’s lay-offs against the optimism of Barbrook’s gift economy, there might be more productive ways of looking at the increasingly tight relationship between an 'idealistic' movement such as open source and the current venture mania for open source companies. Rather than representing a moment of incorporation of a previously authentic moment, the open source question is exemplar of the overreliance of the digital economy as such on free labor, both in the sense of not financially rewarded and willingly given. Such a reliance, almost a dependency, is part of larger mechanisms of capitalist valorisation which are totally immanent to late capitalism as a whole. That is they are not created outside capital and then reappropriated by capital, but are the results of a complex history where the relation between labor and capital is mutually constitutive. Free labor is a desire of labor immanent to late capitalism, and late capitalism is the field which both sustains free labor and exhausts it. It exhausts it by subtracting selectively but widely the means through which that labor can reproduce itself: from the burn-out syndromes of Internet start-ups to under-retribution and exploitation in the cultural economy at large. Late capitalism does not appropriate anything: it nurtures, exploits and exhausts its labor force and its cultural and affective production. In this sense, it is technically impossible to separate neatly the digital economy of the Net from the larger network economy of late capitalism. Especially since 1994, the Internet is always and simultanously a gift economy and an advanced capitalist economy. The mistake of the neo-liberalists (as exemplified by the Wired group), is to mistake this coexistence for a benign, unproblematic equivalence.

As I stated before, these processes are far from being confined to the most self-conscious laborers of the digital economy. They are part of a diffuse cultural economy which operates througout the Internet and beyond. The passage from the pioneeristic days of the Internet to its 'venture' days does not seem to have affected these mechanisms, only intensified them and connected them to financial capital. Nowhere is this more evident that in the recent development of the World Wide Web.

Enter the New Web

In the winter of 1999, in what sounds like another of its resounding, short-lived claims, Wired magazine announces that the old Web is dead: "The Old Web was a place where the unemployed, the dreamy, and the iconoclastic went to reinvent themselves… The New Web isn't about dabbling in what you don't know and failing - it's about preparing seriously for the day when television and Web content are delivered over the same digital networks." (Bayers 1999: 113).

The new Web is made of the big players, but also of new ways to make the audience work. In the "new web", after the pioneering days, television and the web converge in the one thing they have in common: their reliance on their audiences/users as providers of the cultural labor which goes under the label of 'real life stories". Gerry Laybourne, executive of new, web-based media company Oxygen, thinks of an hypothetical show called What Are They Thinking? " a reality-based sketch comedy show based on stories posted on the Web, because "funny things happen in our lives everyday."" (Bayers 1999: 156). As Bayers also adds, "[u]ntil it's produced, the line seprating that concept from more puerile fare dismissed by Gerry, like America's funniest, is hard to see". (ibidem)

The difference between the puerile fare of America's funniest and user-based content seems to lie not so much in the more serious nature of the 'new web' as compared to the vilified output of television 'people's shows'. From an abstract point of view there is no difference between the ways in which people shows rely on the inventiveness of their audiences and the website reliance on users' input. People shows rely on the activity (even amidst the most shocking sleaze) of their audience and willing participants to a much larger extent than any other television programme. When compared to the cultural and affective production on the Internet, people shows, however, seem to embody a different logic of relation between capitalism (the media conglomerates which produce and distribute such shows) and its labor force–the beguiled, dysfunctional citizens of the underdeveloped North.

Within people's shows, the valorisation of the audience as labor and spectacle always happens somehow within a power/knowledge nexus which does not allow the immediate valorisation of the talk show participants. Between the talk show guest and the apparatus of valorisation intervenes a series of knowledges which normalise the dysfunctional subjects through a moral or therapeutic discourse and a more traditional institutional organisation of production. People shows also belong to a different economy of scale: although there are more and more of them, they are still relatively few when compared to the millions of pages on the web. It is as if the centralised organisation of the traditional media does not let them turn people's productions into pure monetary value. People shows must have morals, even as those morals are shattered by the overflowing performances of their subjects.

Within the Internet, however, this process of channelling and adjutigating (responsibilities, duties and rights) is dispersed to the point where practically anything is tolerated (sadomasochism, bestiality, fetishism and plain nerdism are not targeted, at least within the Internet, as sites which need to be disciplined or explained away). The qualitative difference between people's shows and a succesful website, then, does not lie in the latter's democratic tendency as opposed to the former's exploitative nature. It lies in the operation, within people's shows, of molar discursive mechanisms of territoralisation, the application of a morality that the 'excessive' abundance of material on the Internet renders redundant and even more irrelevant. The digital economy cares only tangentially about morality. What it really cares about is an abundance of production, an immediate interface with cultural and technical labor whose result is a diffuse, non-dialectical contradiction. Free labor and yet not at last.


This paper is the provisional outcome of a long and tortous process of changing my mind about lots of things. In particular I needed a long re-route through different philosophical models in order to overcome the limitations of current analyses of the Internet. My hypothesis that free labor (in both the senses described above) is structural to the late capitalist cultural economy is not meant to provide the reader with a totalising understanding of the cultural economy of new and old media. However it does originate from a need to think beyond the categories which structure much net-debate these days.

The opposition between the Internet as capital and the Internet as the anti-capital is, in my opinion, much more challenging than the easy technophobia/technophilia debate. It is not so much a question of loving or hating technology, especially the Internet, as trying to understand whether it embodies a continuation of capital or a break with it. As I have argued in this paper, it is neither. It is rather a mutation which is totally immanent to late capitalism, not so much a break as an intensification, and therefore a mutation, of a widespread cultural and economic logic.

In this sense this paper attempts to move beyond the limits of the notion of hegemony. It is certainly useful to have a sense of the complex discursive-institutional maneuvers through which power tries to orient the interpretation of cultural and political phenomena. Any analysis whih demistifies the narratives which are used to reduce the complexity of technological and social changes is welcome. The hegemonic critique, however, implies a "reactive" understanding of cultural and social struggle: the dominant discourses create resistance after the capitalist project is completed. Furthermore, hegemonic critique pushes outside (towards political economy, for example), the question of class, which remains vaguely anchored to some type of relation to the structures of production.

Against this trend, this paper tries to propose a different route, an immanent, flat and yet power-sensitive model of the relationship between labor, politics and culture. Obviously I owe much of the inspiration for this model to the French/Italian connection, to that line of thought formed by the exchanges between the Foucault/Deleuze/Guattari axis and the Italian Autonomy (Antonio Negri, Maurizio Lazzarato, Paolo Virno, Franco Berardi), a field of exchanges formed through political struggle, exile, and political prosecution right at the heart of the postindustrial society (Italy after all has provided the model of a post-Fordist economy for the influential regulation school of Aglietta and others). On the other hand, it has been within a praxis informed by the cybernetic intelligence of English-speaking mailing lists and websites that this line of thought has acquired its concrete materiality.

This return to immanence, that is to a flattening out of social, cultural and political connections, has important consequences for me. As Negri, Haraway, Deleuze and Guattari have consistently argued, the demolition of the modernist ontology of the Cartesian subject does not have to produce the relativism of the most cynical examples of postmodern theory. The loss of transcendence, of external principles which organise the social world from the outside, does not have to end up in nihilism, a loss of strategies for dealing with power.

Such strategies cannot be conjured by critical theory. As the spectacular failure of the Italian autonomy reveals (Berardi 1998), the purpose of critical theory is not to elaborate strategies which then can be used to direct social change. On the contrary, as the tradition of cultural studies has less explicitly argued, it is about working on what already exists, on the lines established by a cultural and material activity which is already happening. In this sense this paper does not so much propose a theory, as identifies a tendency which already exists in the Internet literature and online exchanges. Free labor is a concept which embraces the contradictions of these debates without providing a synthesis: on the contrary the simultaneity of labor as something which is voluntary given and exploited needs to be acknowledged as a productive line for cultural and political praxis. Such developments lie beyond the limits of this paper, in the larger field of the digital economy at large.


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