The digital economy and the age old problem of immaterial labor

The digital economy, and it’s main drivers in the knowledge industry, have opened up some rather unorthodox questions for economists who theorise the value of an individual’s labor. However they are not new questions; Karl Marx himself differentiated a person’s abstract from concrete labor in order to extrapolate what he called the “provision of time for the production of value regardless of the useful qualities of the product”.

From this perspective it almost looks as though Marx anticipated the difficulty dealing with abstract labor in the knowledge and digital economy, although for some, the opposite is the case. Andre Gorz, in his book Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-based Society proposes that Marx’ labor theory of value is made obsolete by what he calls impossibility of “calibrating all performance parameters”.

Economists John Haltiwanger and Ron S. Jarmin (PDF file) note that the rapid growth of e-commerce has prompted U.S. statistical agencies to find ways of “adequately measuring the changes brought on by the IT revolution”. But on the subject of measuring labor value nothing has quite advanced measuring individual performance through observing final products – which as economic theorists from Marx to Maurizio Lazzarato (French sociologist well known for his work on immaterial labor) realise paints only a partial picture.

The digital economy, and the knowledge worker, have increased the form of labor often called immaterial labor, which also throws open interesting questions for labor theorists. Advocates of the strand of Marxism called Autonomism – whose main figurehead is the well-known theorist Antonio Negri – had many things to say about immaterial labor. Tiziana Terranova in her paper entitled Free Labor: Producing culture for the digital economy noted that Italian Autonomists, particularly Lazzarato – mentioned above – viewed immaterial labor as two things: the informational content of the commodity itself, which is to say the labor involving cybernetics and computer control, and the cultural content of the commodity which involves activities not often considered labor, such as fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms and public opinion.

As these things are seldom considered labor, the term knowledge worker is a contested sociological category. For some, knowledge is the product, while the worker continues standard class relations. Andre Gorz held the opinion that the digital class struggle shifts from exploitation in the production process, to exploitation of the product (knowledge) itself. Even the Canadian business executive Don Tapscott, in his book The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril In The Age of Networked Intelligence (1997), opines that the brain acts, today, as a means of production – however he is less inclined to admit how far those means become alienated from the producer in the digital economy.

With the intense commodification of everyday internet life, the digital economy is the ideal means to bring about a digital Fordism – where a reduction in remunerated labor time (geeks and internet whizzes create programmes, applications and website platforms that companies hone in to invest and make marketable) is matched by an abundance of goods and mass consumption (many social networking tools were first created for close friends to use, out of free labor, that was eventually sold for a price to large corporations – no doubt the creators were rewarded well, but it was surely not linked to their labor value, or on how much revenue the product would eventually bring in).

Twitter, Facebook, MySpace are just some of the success stories, but the internet is host to hours and hours of free labor. Furthermore, work in the digital economy necessitates labor which is not evaluated according to usual measurements of labor. Though, much like how abstract labor was not immeasurable in Marx’ day, neither is immaterial digital labor immeasurable in ours.

Activities such as writing, reading, mailing lists, websites and online marketing may not be what Marx was talking about when he theorised upon abstract labor, but certainly there are parallels; in both abstract and immaterial labor, it is time which must be measured to understand a commodity’s value, “regardless of the useful qualities of the product”.


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