What happens when the distinctions between society and the factory, or workplace, collapse?
That the explosion of Web 2.0 came with a strong whiff of exploitation is no secret.
The general thesis, which has been floating around since 2007, is this: Facebook and Twitter gave away the means of production for free, without giving the online masses ownership over the product of their work.
By aggregating each individual’s contribution—which have no monetary value to each separate user— Facebook has managed to emerge not only as a concentrated pool of online content but has also figured out how to concentrate the economic value of that content.
In essence, we, the social media users of the Web, operate in an attention economy where our interests are primarily restricted to self-expression and socializing. Social media giants on the other hand sit on top of us and operate in a cash economy, which uses the cheap inputs of the attention economy (Facebook posts and Twitter tweets) to thrive.
This phenomenon is by no means a new spectacle and there are many names for it: NYU professor Andrew Ross calls it ‘playbor’ (play + labor), technology analyst Nicholas Carr dubs it ‘sharecropping the long tail’ and renowned philosopher Mario Tronti referred to it as once as the ‘social factory’, where the distinction between society and factory disappears.
But it is New York City-based researcher Laurel Ptak, a truly enlightened soul, who takes this discourse to a whole new level.
“What might be possible if we tried to mobilize the idea or the conversation around [receiving] wages for [using] Facebook,” Ms. Ptak asked a packed audience last year, as she unveiled her manifesto titled ‘Wages for Facebook’.
Deciding whether the logic behind asking Facebook to pay its users is correct—and it does have a number of flaws—is irrelevant. What really matters is that Wages for Facebook is the first salvo in a digital justice movement that looks to capture issues of labour, equality, and privacy within a technology framework.
Mobilization and fighting for rights in the digital world has been an uphill battle that has little to show in the way of results. Digital activism for instance is still not judged with proportion, as Aaron Swartz learned a little too late.
But perhaps what is most damning is that ‘Big Data’ is not seen as something that fundamentally opposes the interests of both the consumer and the citizen.
Big Pharma, Big Oil, Big Junk Food—all these phrases conjure up vague images of multi-billion dollar companies that are out to loot and spoil the world. A person implicitly realizes that his private interests and concerns do not coincide with the interests and aims of Reliance Industries or British Petroleum or Coca Cola. Just last week, in the U.S., the Obama administration banned the sale of junk food in schools. These kind of laws, which understand that our younger generation needs to be protected until they can make their own choices, are accepted across countries.
Big Data on the other hand is yet to acquire those connotations and implications. In fact, today’s Web and Internet is a very much a Wild Wild West type of scenario— the same way the health industry was in the 1960s, when people thought cigarettes weren’t bad for one’s health.
Today, for instance, it is perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged, to post photos of babies and infants on Facebook without worrying if it is in the child’s best interest to do so. The child then grows up and is reminded, to his horror, that the social networks of the future know more about his likes and dislikes than some of the members of his own family.
In this way, there are no relationships that social media cannot spin into a commodity and no expressions of feeling that cannot be turned into a form of labour.
Perhaps more than the general perception surrounding the social factory that our lives are quickly turning into, it is the difficulty in striking back and protesting that is far more haunting.
In the 19th century, a group of English textile artisans, who were later referred to as the Luddites, protested against labor-saving machinery by simply smashing and destroying the power looms that would have rendered them jobless.
But in today’s times, who would want to smash their Facebook and Twitter accounts? It would be like smashing a portion of one’s self— a little bit like smashing one’s past, present and future.
When social relations (Facebook) become relations of production (churning out web content that is used as a funnel for advertising), as Mario Tronti pointed out, life becomes utterly messy. The means of production is also the means of socializing, the means of entertainment, the means of expressing the self, the means of communication and so on and so forth.
The Facebook Factory is our whole world, where there are no distinctions between society and factory, and where we are constantly updating, updating and updating our Facebook profiles. At home we sit on our computers, clicking on links, posting photos and liking other people’s status messages. When we leave our home, we have miniature computers that allow us to constantly keep updating.
Wages? Who needs wages, you would say. “I have taken my life and updated it onto my Facebook profile. They are both one and the same.”