One of the arguments which pervades Uberworked and Underpaid, by Trebor Scholz, concerns the materiality of digital labour. As someone whose back and neck start to ache if I spend too much time at a computer, I’ve always found the tendency to assume there is something mysteriously immaterial about using computers to be rather absurd. But there’s more to Scholz’s argument then this generic tendency to fail to recognise the embodied character of digital engagement. From Loc 4103

It’s worth remembering that whether a worker toils in an Amazon warehouse or works for crowdSPRING, her body will get tired and hungry. She’ll have to take care of car payments, medical bills for her children, and student debts, not to mention saving for retirement. Digital work makes the body of the worker invisible but no less real or expendable.

It strikes me that what we are talking about here is the epistemic fallacy: taking what we know to exhaust what is. The mediation involved in digital labour  impedes or entirely prevents knowledge of the material circumstances of the worker. The disaggregation and workflows facilitated by data infrastructures similarly obscure knowledge of the many workers whose efforts combine, in enormously complex way, to produce discernible outcomes. The political economy and social-technical infrastructure of digital labour is certainly complex, but it’s nonetheless useful to recognise the underlying epistemological issue at work here.

There’s an interesting passage in Uberworked and Underpaid, by Trebor Scholz, in which he discusses the contrasting experience of Amazon Mechanical Turk by users and workers. From loc 719:

While AMT is profiting robustly, 11 it has –following the observations of several workers –not made significant updates to its user interfaces since its inception, and the operational staff appears to be overwhelmed and burned out. Turkers have written and shared various browser scripts to help themselves solve specific problems. While this is a wonderful example of mutual aid among AMT workers, it is also yet another instance of how the invisible labor of Turkers remains uncompensated. While people are powering the system, MTurk is meant to feel like a machine to its end-users: humans are seamlessly embedded in the algorithm. AMT’s clients are quick to forget that it is human beings and not algorithms that are toiling for them –people with very real human needs and desires.

It’s easy to slip into characterising platforms in terms of our familiar experiences of them as end-users. This is an important reminder that their user-friendly character is a contingent expression of the interests the corporation has in maximising user engagement, rather than anything intrinsic to the technology of the platform itself. 

This is important for analytical reasons, but it’s also a crucial prop to the ideology of platform capitalism, sustaining an idea of platforms as user-friendly spaces which mediate interactions determined by external factors. As opposed to deeply rule-governed systems, with the content of those rules being determined by commercial imperatives. From loc 735:

Mechanical Turk starts to look even less positive when considering that in the case of labor conflicts, Bezos’s company remains strictly hands-off, insisting that AMT is merely providing a technical system. Why would they have anything to do with the labor conflicts occurring on the platform? This would be like Apple owning the factories in Shenzhen where its iPhones are assembled, but then rejecting any responsibility for the brutal work regimes and suicides of the workers in these factories because Foxconn controls daily operations.

I just came across this great collection on Social Europe Journal. I’d stopped following it for a while but it seems to have gone through some changes. I look forward to working my way through these:

The Digital Revolution is set to dramatically change our lives in the coming years and policy- and decision-makers need to come to terms with what these epochal transformations mean and how they can be shaped so the majority of people benefit and the dangers are mdoerated. On this page, we will collect Social Europe media on the wider subject in general and on the future of work in particular – in the framework of a project we run together with the Hans Böckler Stiftung.

How good do these look? A potentially really important book series:

Dynamics of Virtual Work Book Series Launch
University of Westminster
309 Regent Street, W1B 2HW, London
January 21, 2016, 18:00-20:00


Sponsored by the University of Westminster’s Communications and Media Research Institute (CAMRI), the University of Hertfordshire and Palgrave MacMillan, this event will launch an important new book series.

The Dynamics of Virtual Work series, is edited by Ursula
Huws, Professor of Labour and Globalization at the University of
Hertfordshire and Rosalind Gill, Professor of Cultural and Social
Analysis at City University, this series was developed under the
auspices of COST Action IS 1202.

Technological change has transformed where people work, when, how and with whom. Digitisation of information has altered labour processes out of all recognition whilst telecommunications have enabled jobs to be relocated globally. ICTs have also enabled the creation of entirely new
types of ‘digital’ or ‘virtual’ labour, both paid and unpaid, shifting
the borderline between ‘play’ and ‘work’ and creating new types of
unpaid labour connected with the consumption and co-creation of goods
and services.

Aspects of these changes have been studied separately by many
different academic experts however up till now a cohesive overarching analytical framework has been lacking. Drawing on a major, high-profile
COST Action (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) Dynamics of Virtual Work, this series will bring together leading international experts from a wide range of disciplines including political economy, labour sociology, economic geography, communications studies, technology, gender studies, social psychology, organisation studies, industrial relations and development studies to explore the transformation of work and labour in the Internet Age. The series will allow researchers to speak across disciplinary boundaries, national borders, theoretical and political vocabularies, and different languages to understand and make sense of contemporary transformations in work and social life more broadly.

The first two volumes in the series are already published, with more in the pipeline.

Already Published
Digital Labour and Prosumer Capitalism – edited by Olivier Frayssé and Mathieu O’Neil
Reconsidering Value and Labour in the Digital Age – edited by Eran Fisher and Christian Fuchs

The published books will be on sale at the event at a 50% discount and the bookseller will accept cash in British pounds only.*

This looks like a really good opportunity:

2 PhD scholarships in digital labour analysis & digital ideology critique

2 PhD scholarships in digital labour analysis & digital ideology critique
University of Westminster: Westminster Institute for Advanced Studies &
Comunication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI)
Three years, full time
£16,000 annual stipend plus fee waiver

The Westminster Institute for Advanced Studies and the Westminster
School of Media, Arts & Design are pleased to offer two PhD
Studentships, consisting of a fee waiver and annual stipend of £16,000
for three years. The Studentship will commence in September 2016, and is
available to applicants with a Home (UK) or EU fee status.

The Westminster Institute for Advanced Studies (WIAS) is a new institute
at the University of Westminster. It is an academic space for
independent critical thinking beyond borders. The WIAS’s aim is to
foster and disseminate advanced studies that generate insights into the
complex realities and possibilities of the contemporary world. The WIAS
first research focus is critical social media research. Professor
Christian Fuchs is the Institute’s director.

We welcome proposals that fit into the WIAS’s research framework of
critical social/digital media research and give particular focus to the
theoretical and empirical analysis of particular questions having to do
with a) the political economy of digital labour or b) the ideology
critique of social media data and discourses.

The Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) is one of the
leading research groups in media and communication. Its work has been
rated by the UK Government’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework as 52%
4* (world leading), and 35% 3* (internationally excellent). We have over
20 research active staff and 70 PhD students.

We have a wide and expanding range of research interests, centered on
three main research groups in social media, media policy and industries
and media history. We have established centres for the study of the
media in China, India, the Arab world and Africa. In the broadest sense
we are interested in the social, economic, political and cultural
significance of the media, and welcome proposals from prospective
students on these or any other topic related to media and communication.

Eligible candidates will hold at least an upper second class honours
degree and a Master’s degree. Candidates whose secondary level education
has not been conducted in the medium of English should also demonstrate
evidence of appropriate English language proficiency, normally defined
as 6.5 in IELTS (with not less than 6.0 in any of the individual elements).
Entry requirements:

The Studentship consists of a fee waiver and a stipend of £16,000 per
annum. Successful candidates will be expected to undertake some teaching

Prospective candidates wishing to informally discuss an application
should contact Professor Christian Fuchs,
<>, or Dr Anthony McNicholas, <>.

The closing date for applications is 5pm, 21 January 2016

Application and Application Guidelines: