Digital Labor, NYC, Nov 12-14

Belatedly, I want to mention a least a bit about the great conference that I participated in two weekends ago in New York: The Internet as Playground and Factory: A Conference on Digital Labor. The gathering was organized by Trebor Scholz and took place at the Eugene Lang College for Liberal Arts at the New School.

At conferences on digital media, there are too few critical perspectives about large-scale hegemonic systems that are increasingly coming to define the computer and Internet experience. At some events, people exhibit general awareness of the complexities and problems that such systems pose, but they still turn and say oooh, shiny! when presented with Google Wave. At other events, people are glad to plow down open systems that would broadly enable communication and discourse, just for the sake of setting up the latest MyFace workalike. Many academics never even notice the irony of doing something like trying to remedy the digital divide within for-profit, rent-based Second Life. Generally, attitudes about the 2.0 range from blissful ignorance to a bit of skepticism – but not enough skepticism to temper the way we welcome our corporate shackles.

The Internet as Playground and Factory offered a beginning to the important conversation that we (in digital media) have been avoiding. Speakers addressed the lack of explicit political engagement among open source software developers, the different types of labor/work/action seen online, the complexities of labor (why are these Chinese gold farmers spending some of their free time playing the game that they toil at all day?), and other important and often-overlooked issues. While the conference was well-documented in video and the site features connections to Twitter and Flickr, the main online conversation behind the gathering has taken place on a mailing list, and social media technologies were generally used to extend communications rather than to exclude.

The award for best stunt goes to Hector Postigo, who began his talk on AOL volunteers by explaining that Facebook wasn’t paying him enough to keep updating his status and friending people: He then permanently deleted his Facebook account as happy photos of his friends and his children stared out at him and the crowd.

There were many good talks, but one standout that I’ll mention was McKenzie Wark‘s, in which he related the gamer and the hacker via a semiotic square to two other digital culture figures: the worker and the hustler. This allows various sites to be situated in relation to these four: eBay nearest the hustler, LinkedIn nearest the worker, and so on.

I was certainly an outlier in the main cluster of this conference; although I was there at the New School, the only reference to Marx in my talk was to Groucho Marx. But I was very pleased to read from various laborious productions, many of which dealt with issues of information technology work, in a session with poet, editor, and typewriter scholar Darren Wershler that was chaired by Kare Eichhorn. I read from Implementation (with Scott Rettberg, 2004),Mystery House Taken Over (with Dan Shiovitz, Emily Short, and the Mystery House Occupation Team, 2005), Book and Volume (2005) and ppg256 (2007-). Darren gave an actual paper, but also read some of the output of two systems developed with Bill Kennedy: The Apostrophe Engine and Status Update.

The conference concluded with a large group discussion. Scholz was asked why Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and others weren’t represented as speakers at the conference. He said that they were invited and declined to give presentations – but that representatives from all of these companies did end up registering and picking up badges, so they attended.

There was no manifesto or major, striking conclusion that resulted from this final discussion. This is just the beginning, though: Scholz will run two more conferences on related topics. This conference on digital labor was a great start, advancing the discussion of how we work and play online and of how we can thoughtfully approach technologies that have been made to generate profits in a certain way, even if we want to use these technologies for political, aesthetic, or other purposes. I hope that this conference’s critical approach to digital systems and online communication will be carried over into other digital media contexts, which desperately need this perspective.

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