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Internet as playground and factory: An interview with Trebor Scholtz, by Daphne Dragona and Ilias Marmaras.

>>> Last November you organized one of the biggest and most successful conferences on social media. With the overall title “Internet as Playground and Factory,” the conference approached critically the very features of today’s Web. Participation, contribution, antagonism, sharing: So, is it about play or rather about work?

TS: It's both; the playground is the factory. Just think about it: one billion people have net access and four times that many people own a cellphone. This is not merely a scenario in which control and consumption are pushed to new heights, it is also a setting in which people can be used to an extent that is unprecedented. Digital labor is central to the Internet, which at this point is completely colonized by commercial interests. A portion of the currently unemployed see a career in this free labor, a full-time job of broadcasting themselves, as making themselves available for public consumption, often without pay or health insurance.

>>> Would you consider digital labor as the latest and most complete expression of immaterial and affective labour? How does today's form of labor differentiate itself from previous historically forms? Could you describe some contemporary examples ?

TS: This “new digital labor” is not new at all; it is merely a shift of labor markets to places where labor does not look like labor. We are all digital laborers now. Traditional exploitation of labor was complemented by the monetization of attention between the 1880s and 1950s. Later, starting in the 1990s, exploitative capitalist modes of operation shifted to the net. Today, "digital labor" takes on various forms - from waged distributed labor and data provision to attention and geospatial labor. Most people take part in social games like Farmville, for example, without thinking that they participate and that gives a lot power to enterprises, which expropriate value from net users.

Some digital workers on’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) are making a pitiful $1.14 an hour but they may not think of their activity in terms of labor. They are putting their cognitive surplus to work. MTurk's slogan "Why work if you can turk?" further obfuscates these acts of labor. These processes of monetization and coercion of "free" relations of exchange on the Social Web are not just a luxury problem in the overdeveloped world alone. Txteagle, for example, enables mobile phone subscribers, largely in African countries, to earn small amounts of money or airtime in exchange for distributed labor. Samasource puts refugees in Kenya to work for $2 an hour. The alternative for these refugees would be working in a quarry for less than that. Liveops allows people to stay at home to work as telephone operators for the Red Cross. Crowd sourcing, data input, and attention to teeth whitening ads on social networking services all constitute sources of value in the new digital economy. Andrew Ross recently emphasized that there is a great deal of overlap between intensified forms of expropriation of digital labor and traditional economies of unpaid domestic work (e.g., nannies, nurses).

However, the Internet does not just converge with technologies of the screen; it is also enmeshed with wireless and locative communication technologies, geographic information systems, and worn devices. “Auto-location” technologies allow services like Digital Angel, Flickr, or Google Latitude to outsource the creation of user-generated geospatial content. Without being recognized as “labor,” location and tracked mobility are turned into profits for corporations. Facebook plans to join forces with Foursquare to make location information of Facebook friends visible to each other. Ubiquitous computing turns the built environment into zones of unnoticed value production where enterprises and governments collect sell data. Free-ish location-based services like Foursquare or Gowalla come at the price of geospatial privacy. John Poindexter’s dark vision of total information awareness becomes a reality, making Orwell, J. Edgar Hoover, or the smell archives of the Stasi look mighty antiquated. Some victims of the earthquake in Haiti were located and rescued from under the rubble because their mobile phones could be located. Safety becomes closely tied up with technology, life becomes ever more efficient and convenient while spectacle becomes ever more individualized.

Virtual volunteerism, contextual advertising, and social production, driven by the desire for praise, entertainment, and peer recognition, have become significant driving forces of consumer capitalism and an economy of narcissism. Every step you take, every move you make becomes part of the location-aware tango of commoditization.

>>> How does this new type of playful work affect users? How aware are they of their labour and exploitation by third parties? What potentials do you see for a real change?

TS:  The term exploitation is not uncontroversial as descriptor for what is happening online. Especially young people are more willing to consider the ways in which they are being had in terms of expropriation. As of now, net users are taking advantage of large commercial platforms to market themselves and so far only very few of them developed a sense of victimhood or lack of payment.

What can be done about it? There are intellectual challenges for lawyers to propose formulations of traditional labor law for the Internet to give workers rights that they'd have in non-mediated working contexts. All of us online need to wake up and demand transparency of the data that are recorded about us and even more importantly what exactly happens with those data.

We want to know which records are kept about us. We want to know if the stories that are told about us are correct and to whom they are sold. And if there is a not-for-profit equivalent to the tedious social networking giants, let's join it. And those who can afford it, should leave these sites.

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Page last modified on May 06, 2011, at 08:07 AM