Situated Technologies Pamphlets 7: From Mobile Playgrounds to
Sweatshop City by Trebor Scholz and Laura Y. Liu
This rich pamphlet grew out of The Internet as Playground and Factory, a conference organized at The New School and held in November 2009. In this seventh pamphlet in the Situated Technologies Pamphlets Series, Trebor Scholz and Laura Y. Liu reflect on the relationship between labor and technology in urban space, where communication, attention, and physical movement generate financial value for a small number of private stakeholders. Online and off, Internet users are increasingly wielded as a resource for economic amelioration, for private capture, and the channels of communication are becoming increasingly inscrutable. The Internet has become a simple-to-join, anyone-can-play system where the sites and practices of work and play, as well as production and reproduction, are increasingly unnoticeable.
Norbert Wiener warned that the role of new technology under capitalism would intensify the exploitation of workers. For Michel Foucault, institutions used technologies of power to control individual bodies. In her essay “Free Labor” (1999), Tiziana Terranova described what constitutes “voluntarily given, unwaged, enjoyed and exploited, free labor on the Net.” Along these lines, Liu and Scholz ask: How does the intertwining of labor and play complicate our understanding of exploitation and “the urban”?
This pamphlet aims to understand “the urban” through the lens of digital and not-digital work in terms of those less visible sites and forms of work such as homework, care work, interactivity on social networking sites, life energy spent contributing to corporate crowd sourcing projects, and other unpaid work. While we are discussing the shift of labor markets to the Internet, the authors contend that traditional sweatshop economies continue to structure the urban environment.
The pages of this pamphlet unfold between a film still from Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer on the front cover and an image by Lewis Hine on the back. Set in the near future, Sleep Dealer imagines a world in which closed borders have brought an end to immigration, where workers in poor countries are plugged into a global digital network that enables them to control robots that work remotely in the Global North. Rivera’s protagonist lives in Mexico, but his workplace is the United States. Hooked up to the network, he delivers “work without the worker.” Lewis Hine, by contrast, documented domestic labor: children tying tags, doing crochet, sewing under the guiding control of a mother in tiny living rooms or dirty kitchens. What are the flows or discontinuities between these forms of labor?
Liu and Scholz analyze the situation of digital labor in relation to the city but also suggest tangible alternatives. Today, we are not only “on” the Social Web, we are becoming it-no matter where we are. Internet users are becoming more vulnerable to novel enticements, conveniences, and marketing approaches. Commercial and government surveillance are sure to escalate as new generations become increasingly equipped with mobile platforms, interacting with “networked things.” The goal of this pamphlet is to start a public debate about contemporary forms of exploitation. Attention must be focused on social action and, while always in need of scrutiny, state regulation and policy.
Note: There will be a panel discussion with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Laura Y. Liu, Trebor Scholz and Neil Smith organized in conjunction with this issue of Situated Technologies, published by the Architectural League, on Monday, November 1st at 7pm at Cabinet in Brooklyn, 300 Nevins Street (between Union and Sackett). More info here.