Jim Gabaret, “The Myth of Data. Can internet users claim worker status?”

Work” in the digital age.

The definition of work has changed throughout history. We must understand whether it is still undergoing radical transformation in the “digital age”. The way this concept has been historically constructed for a few centuries is fairly incorporated in our shared beliefs and should be intuitively recognized, but few people have the same definition. Some of the activities we want to call “work” are debated, because of political and juridical consequences.

According to Maurizio Ferraris, work should not be seen as the production of goods and services (which can be automated), but as the production of value. This broad definition can lead to counter-intuitive uses of the concept. Indeed, each of our actions on the web, insofar as they are recorded, produces documents, therefore value. Ferraris says that what he calls “mobilization” must be recognized as work (that is to say, as value production) and remunerated. Our data can indeed do a lot. Antonio Casilli, in Waiting for the Robots, even calls for legal regulations of this “digital labor”.

In 2015, American citizens led a class action against Google to recognize as “work” the time-consuming and valuable tasks carried out by users of the search engine. For some twenty years now, the Captcha text-entry tasks asked to “prove we are not robots” have in fact been used to digitize archives of major libraries or newspapers such as the New York Times. The ReCaptcha image recognition tasks are also being used to improve street number reading for Google Street View or to feed recognition algorithms for drones and self-driving cars. The idea was to demand employee status for this work. Ultimately, the Massachusetts court refused. But wasn’t the case against Google justified? Should we then consider all our activities as Internet users as work and demand socio-economic compensation?

What is work?

The term “work” usually qualifies activities associated with efforts which deserves to be compensated. Carlo Vercellone, in “The Platforms of merchant gratuity” (2020), considers “in a Hegelian way” that work is the essence of man in all his activities of transformation of nature. The problem is that it includes art, sociality, or even simply biological existence and the natural changes of our bodies throughout our lives. Does it make sense to ask for compensations for breathing and transforming O2 in CO2?

Work seems to be an activity exploited by others or the time we alienate for others. Many movements to recognize invisibilised work seek to apply the category of work to activities on the grounds that they benefit others, such as “domestic work” which benefits capitalism, according to Silvia Federici, one of the most prominent voice of the feminist movement “Wages against housework”.

The class action against Google would then make sense. Indeed, our digital activities benefit the platforms we spend time on. Antonio Casilli explains that social networks are enriched by our cookies, our posts, likes, messages and evaluations of cultural goods or services. Our time is alienated by these technologies and benefits the platforms. It is a value creation and therefore “digital work”. Casilli even speaks of a digital affective labor: platforms organize systems of reputation and rewards to make us create social links. Ferraris, in Total Mobilization (2015), refers to the recent emergence of smartphones and apps as intentionality registration and mobilization devices, which solicit our attention with constant calls to action, signals or notifications that tire our brains.

But we could go further. Beyond active digital practices, it could be argued that mere passive online existence is work : Ferraris describes a contemporary transformation of all our praxis into poiesis, simply because living with a smartphone in our pocket produces data that can be used on a market of buyers, who use it for automation, forecasting, improving the ergonomics of sites, advertising, or profiling to sell goods, propagate religious or political ideas, or even control the opinion of a country. We should maybe recognize that living has become working.

Digital work and digital value: how to share it?

Since our practices as Internet users produce value, this could be a way to claim part of it. Casilli (2018) notes that some companies are already giving compensations. For instance, Microsoft promotes its search engine Bing by rewarding its users with vouchers to buy films and music. Some economists like Jean Tirole argue that users are already compensated by the free services they get from the search engines or social networks. But Vercellone reminds us that if users are workers, these “services” are their tool for producing value, and one would not think of saying that the machines on which the workers in a factory work are a fair compensation offered for free.

For Casilli, this is the beginning of a “bundle of labor rights” we could get in the near future, if we dare launching a collective bargaining. He does not advocate individual wages, where users would be isolated and weak in the negotiations, but a “universal digital income”, unconditional and transnational, financed by digital taxation.

Maurizio Ferraris argues that the “documedial surplus value” that platforms get by monitoring our data, if taxed reasonably on a European basis (with the lobbying power of 460 million digital workers), could form the basis of a webfare to cover the debts of the pandemic, produce education and solve many of the social problems that plague Europe in the era of the “end of work”.

Forgetting the work relationship.

One of the issuesof these ideas is that our notion of wages has been based on an implicit definition of labor, conceived as a rent of your time and workforce to someone else. I recently argued (Gabaret, Travail reproductif et parentalité, 2021) that labor must be understood as a relationship between a client and a subordinate who performs a commanded task that he would not have done spontaneously. But we often forget this relational aspect of work.

For example, sociologist Marie-Anne Dujarier speak of “consumer work” in shops with self-checkouts or ordering screens, ATMs, or online banking. Yet, is it because there have traditionally been cashiers, waiters or secretaries that these activities should naturally be considered as jobs? Many old jobs have simply disappeared because they were no longer used, such as scribe, maid of honor or oil pump attendant: that does not mean that we have taken their jobs and that we all work every time we write, dress ourselves, or buy gas. Some tasks have traditionally been paid for; but this does not imply that they are forever work. Modern “work” is indeed understandable as a relationship between the client and the worker, generally constraining, but which, unlike slavery, must be accepted by the worker, who receives financial or social compensation.

Does this definition apply to digital activities? According to Casilli, web users’ activities are work because they are in continuity with the paid work of “click workers” who report shocking pictures or ban illegal posts online. However, on the street, any passer-by can “report” a misdeed to the police, without being “at work” and asking for compensation. A security guard is at work, not because of what he does, but because he does it all day and has no other choice since he is commissioned by an employer.

Similarly, someone can tell a funny story to their friends (or post it online) without being a professional comedian: it is a free, spontaneous and momentary activity, which does not require filling ordered time slots. The same argument applies to Captcha recognition tasks, which are only occasional and a personal initiative. In this sense, they are done “for us” and not for others. Similarly, consumers who exchange information about quality of products in the marketplace have been doing the same thing as Amazon reviewers for centuries without “working”.

The myth of data.

Big data is valuable. But is it something that we give to the platforms as already valuable ? Even if it is still a debate between New Realists, I argue that no value is “already there” in the world. Nick Srnicek argues that data is the “raw material to be extracted” and the activities of users “its natural source”. Like oil, this raw material needs refining and valorization in a market. “Data” has indeed no intrinsic value and does not even exist before it is produced by platforms that know how to collect, analyze and sell it. For decades, before the internet, supermarkets have been collecting data on how customers move around the shop, to make them buy more. The web platforms have simply increased the amount of data.

Vercellone regrets that “the function of producer of informational raw materials” is underestimated, whereas Big Data is to the economy what oil was to the automobile civilization. But the user is not a producer of raw materials: he is the raw material. Not a finite stock to be mined like oil, but a constant flow like a river feeding a hydroelectric plant, which does not “work” at the dam. Admittedly, the algorithm does not produce value autonomously, and needs data, which moreover makes it evolve. But to parody Kant, we could say that if “without data, algorithms are empty, without algorithms, digital uses are blind”.

Saying our activities as internet users are direct examples for AI is again a type of myth of data which forgets the intentionality of the platforms which make sense of our online activities, take them as examples for AI and give them the value they don’t have spontaneously. Casilli himself admits this: “Hidden behind an appearance of databases and mathematical models, we find the human choice made by the designers of the interfaces, the operating rule established by the engineers, the standard implemented by the security services, and the reference framework of rates adopted by the salespeople of each platform”.

Casilli’s final argument for claiming that digital tasks are indeed work is that platforms shape them with calls to action: “rate this”, “share that”, “tell your friends you liked that”. But many of our online exchanges are spontaneous and come from natural needs for sociality or communication. Nevertheless, the constraint could be unconscious. But even if our digital practices were truly constrained, not all constraints are work: we also follow rules when entering a shop, a hospital, or any institution, from which we can be banned in case of infraction, all without working.

Conclusion: the current impasse in the political strategy of “digital work”.

The struggle for the recognition of digital labor, which aims at extending the category of “work” to digital uses, is thus not entirely coherent neither intuitive. In order to demand compensation, it relies on a concept of work defined as a relation of command, whereas our digital uses are more akin to spontaneous leisure and social exchanges, even if they benefit capitalism and have forms organized by certain cultural and economic institutions, as it was already the case, before the web, with tourist, sports, commercial or leisure infrastructures.

The concept of “work” might even be bad strategically for taxing redistribute platforms’ wealth. Indeed, work does not imply egalitarianism: it can be delegated and it is divisible internationally, technically, socially and even sexually. Talking about digital “work” to justify a webfare or a universal wage is therefore not effective.

Comparing our leisure activities as Internet users to the poorly paid work of digital workers, far from allowing us to enlarge our vision of work, could contribute to the downgrading of the latter jobs, which are poorly paid because they are thought to be easy and replaceable by the practices of users.

It also maintains the prejudice that work has necessarily a value. To see our leisure as work because it is currently integrated into a capitalist society that profits from it is a dangerous extension of “economic rationality”, which risks inciting us to make this leisure profitable, to place work at the center of our lives and to naturalize our current economy as the only possible framework for our rights and our time management.

It is not necessary to use the notion of “work” to give value to an activity. A better distribution of wealth is perfectly legitimate (after all, our societies already have systems of taxation on corporate profits) but could simply be defended as an egalitarian political project, without being justified by a workers’ right. Or it could be justified by a jusnaturalism that designates human nature as a state contrary to labor, with in view our final emancipation from work one day – perhaps through robotization, AI and basic income.

Questo articolo è parte del progetto SN-DICAP Scienza Nuova. Digital CAPital (PI: Maurizio Ferraris) finanziato dalla Fondazione CRT (Bando erogazioni ordinarie 2019)


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