Serfing the Net

The material underside of the digital economy.

When you think of criticisms of technology, what image comes to mind? For many it might be akin to Frankenstein’s monster. After all, technology is a thing we unleash onto the world, sometimes with the best of intentions, often in ignorance. And like Dr. Frankenstein when faced with his monster, we may recoil in terror. Certainly atomic weapons ignite such feelings. Even far more prosaic pieces of technology, such as smart phones, may be seen in this light. Always on, they leave us forever available for work of one kind or another.

Some commentators, such as French sociologist Bruno Latour, say we must love our monsters. In other words, we must do the opposite of Dr. Frankenstein, and rigorously confront the existence of our creations. But who is to say that when we confront them in this way we do not end with a conception as off-putting as that of Karl Marx, who at one point described capital (and by extension, the technologies it utilizes) as something “vampire-like, [which] only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”

It is metaphors like these that make critical texts come alive, adding flavour to what can all too often be the thin gruel of theoretical reasoning. In his most recent book, Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex, Nick Dyer-Witheford, a professor of media and information studies at Western University, concentrates on exactly such metaphors, mining them for their allusive power in helping us understand the economic contradictions we must live with today.

For Dyer-Witheford, the metaphor that does the most heavy lifting comes from physics. In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels describe capitalist globalism as “uninterrupted disturbance … everlasting uncertainty and agitation” in which “all fixed fast-frozen relations … are swept away” and “all that is solid melts into air.” Dyer-Witheford interprets this as a vortex—what Hans Lugt calls the “rotating motion of a multitude of material particles around a common center.” From here he steps out to diagnose and examine the role that digital technologies are playing in the vortex of our world. As he puts it, his book is about:

digital capital’s making of a planetary working class tasked with working itself out of a job, toiling relentlessly to develop a system of robots and networks, networked robots and robot networks, for which the human is ultimately surplus to requirements … It is about a global proletariat caught up in a cybernetic vortex.

The main feature of technology in our world today is that we cannot seem to escape its Faustian bargain: with new machines and computers comes increased productivity, yet with increased productivity and the cut-throat competition that accompanies it comes the need to take advantage of these productivity gains and reduce labour costs. Every new technology, then, comes prepackaged with anxieties about what the future looks like for those people who are made redundant with every new piece of software, every new automated checkout counter, every new robotic arm on the assembly line.

This anxiety, to mainstream economists anyway, is misplaced. They place their faith in the market to take that surplus labour and plug it into a new, labour-hungry field of production. But what about the time between jobs? What about years and years of economic stagnation and the hunger and poverty that come with it? And maybe most importantly, what if it turns out the economy does not need those newly unemployed, now or years in the future? What if this reserve army just gets bigger and bigger?

It is telling that even mainstream liberal economists such as Paul Krugman or Paul Mason have begun to worry whether robots will permanently take over a whole range of jobs. The latter expects crisis, while the former has begun to float the possibility of something he describes as “post-­capitalism.” It used to be assumed that the welfare state existed to assuage these fears about radical change or social strife, but as the world has limped from recession to recession since 2007, there has been little to suggest the golden days of welfare capitalism are coming back.

Inside this structured but sometimes chaotic vortex Dyer-Witheford walks the reader through a series of vignettes. For example, his discussion of cybernetics begins with a letter from one of the founders of the field, Norbert Weiner (who also went on to found the field of neuroscience), to Walter Reuther, then president of the United Auto Workers. This fascinating letter has Weiner steadfastly refusing to help a “leading industrial corporation” develop robotic technologies to replace workers. This was in 1949. Dyer-Witheford then proceeds through the history of cybernetics and its role in taking Detroit apart, piece by piece. Weiner refused to help, but he knew that even if he did not somebody else would.

Dyer-Witheford does the same work with silicon, describing both the process of extracting and producing silicon chips for our computers (carefully secured and environmentally devastating quartzite quarries in the Appalachian Mountains) as well as the culture and labour that are necessary for the growth and dominance of Silicon Valley. On one side there is the fabled and romantic ideal of professional well-paid coder-hackers, on the other the feminized and low-skilled service labour that necessarily springs up around them. The reality for the former is that deskilling technologies—as they were once used against auto workers in Detroit and elsewhere—are just as much at work in supposedly “high skill” workplaces like Google or Facebook. Both kinds of labour, in the end, are key to the current makeup of the cyber-proletariat.

Maybe what is most important about a book like Cyber-Proletariat is that it demands rigorous attention to the material world when considering the consequences of digital technologies. We need to beware of the digital utopian who pretends that with the advent of the internet the day to day texture of our lives recedes into the endless plane of cyber space. We must also never forget the costs that cyber space can impose on the material world: the environmental degradation and toxic waste needed to mine rare-earth minerals, the delicate hands needed to assemble the circuit boards of our smart phones, the growing economic pressure to let out our apartments and cars through rent-seeking services like Airbnb or Uber.

It is the mark of a well-versed writer to strive for clarity when so many dwell in obfuscation. It is doubly needed here, if the wider public is to fully appreciate the ways in which we are inextricably entangled with technology as we move forward with political change. It can only be hoped that Cyber-Proletariat will be one of those books that sparks a wider discussion of how it is not our technology that will save humanity from misery and despair, but rather a rethinking of how to organize our whole society.Although Cyber-Proletariat deals with a rarefied topic, it is the opposite of a dense, academic tome. Compared to Dyer-Witheford’s past works such as Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-technology Capitalism or Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games, it is considerably more accessible.