“free” labor

After posting yesterday in praise of the intellectual work that gets done in fan communities, this morning on my pre-breakfast blog scroll I found this fascinating post by Cathy Davidson (director of HASTAC). She brings up a lot of the questions about labor that are the flipside of the elements of amateur production I was talking about yesterday, in the context of changing dominant modes of production from the “industrial” to the “information” age.

Now, in the DIY, remix, customizing open source Information Age, we’ve all been fed the bill-of-goods that a lot of things are “free.” Really? Have you ever added up all the costs of all the data plans in your life, the ones at home and the ones at the office and the ones when you travel? And the fury of conspicuous consumption is now a raging fire, with ever more delectable products available the moment you plunk down your $500 or $1000 for the hottest new toy out there. We are overlaying an open source “information wants to be free” ideology on an ever-more rampant consumerism that operates partly by making its own costs invisible and partly by making conspicuous consumption (non-interoperability of platforms, technologies, systems) an “app” for virtually every product that is created. Nothing has a stated shelf life. No one knows what comes next. And no one, that I know of, has begun to budget for these costs.

What often happens is that labor is outsourced, and often outsourced into what used to be called “leisure time.”

What is the metric by which we calculate a “work day” when the line between “work” and “leisure” is blurred in all directions—leisure enters into the workplace whenever we turn on a computer and work bleeds into leisure whenever we go into our email to check out how our friend is doing and get caught up with a lot of traffic from a thorny issue at work. The divide, so carefully maintained (and artificially created) by the Industrial Age has been breached . . . but we haven’t really seen how thoroughly or figured out at what cost.

Davidson is looking largely at the institutional level, at how programs and departments think about budgeting for new digital modes of engagement and about the labor involved in making that work. But she articulates burning questions about free labor, about work that people do for fun, that are utterly central to the issues about academia, fandom, and knowledge production that I raised in my previous post. Those questions have been on my mind pretty consistently of late, so I wanted to follow up with a link.

Leave a Reply