Myth #32: Digital Work is immaterial.
Fabian Ferrari and Mark Graham
Myth: Governments, philanthropists, companies and supranational organizations around the globe pitch digital work as an economic boost for rural and economically marginalized areas. A key element of these optimist discourses is the presumed aspatial and immaterial nature of digital work. Because of the immateriality of the Internet, work can now be done from anywhere.
Busted: Work, and the networks that extract value from it, are increasingly embedded into planetary systems. As ever more work is commodified and traded beyond local labour markets, the hidden digital supply chains spanning our planet purport to pay little attention to the locations in which work is done.
Workers embedded into digital production networks produce immaterial outputs. These outputs can be instantly transmitted anywhere on the planet. This means that for work that relies on the production and processing of codified rather than tacit knowledge, proximity is no longer needed between workers and the objects and subjects of their work.
For many commentators, the fact that Amazon contractors in Romania listened to Alexa conversations or that Facebook commissioned Indian contractors to read private messages of users is a violation of the right to privacy. (#45) However, beyond privacy concerns, these cases are exemplary of a planetary network of extracting cognitive labour that happens in real-time.
Work, in other words, can be deterritorialized at a planetary scale. This is not an argument that geography no longer matters. Far from it. Networks of production settle precisely in the places with the most advantageous political economies. Contemporary digital production networks attempt to integrate production that is algorithmically and manually produced.
In the history of capitalism, it is not a new phenomenon that production networks of commodities are not visible to consumers. But with immaterial goods like face recognition softwares or speech assistants it is not even possible to gaze backwards in the chain of production in the same way as with coffee or chocolate because these systems are always unfolding and never fixed in nature. To a certain degree, AI systems are technical illusions, always in a state of becoming rather than a static state of being, with many workers fixing and tweaking their shortcomings. What is being pitched as AI innovations is often the combined effort of cognitive work by many underpaid human workers. (#43)
Taking seriously the materiality of digital work enables us to ask important questions aimed at understanding the relative embedded- and disembedded, material and immaterial, and territorialized and deterritorialized natures of digital production.
Truth: Digital work is impossible to conceptualize in isolation from the infrastructures that mediate, augment, and extract value from it. Production networks that fuse automated systems and human production create different forms of value; and, despite their seeming immateriality, they use and engender particular economic geographies.
Source: Mark Graham, Isis Hjorth and Vili Lehdonvirta, Digital labour and development: impacts of global digital labour platforms and the gig economy on worker livelihoods. Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research, 23 (2017) 2, 135-162; Mark Graham and Mohammad Amir Anwar, The Global Gig Economy: Towards a Planetary Labour Market? First Monday 24 (2019) 4, doi.org/10.5210/fm.v24i4.9913.