Free Labor & Immaterial Labor: Terranova & Lazzarato

I love Italian intellectuals. And Italian intellectuals love writing manifests. Therefore, I love Italian manifests.

Perhaps this is because I cut my professional teeth on both. Before I got involved in New York’s digital media culture via “Silicon Alley”, I studied in Italy as an undergrad and worked/researched as a post-grad Fellow in a museum in Venice, Italy, which houses a large collection of Italian futurist painters. I then editorially assisted a radical, Italian investigative reporter for Italy’s largest newsweekly magazine, L’Europeo (Rizzoli). Transitioning from the “old” or tradition/legacy media to the “new” digital media, I “produced culture” sometimes as a  “free labor NetSlave/NetPioneer” and sometimes for a salary “hyper-compensated by the capricious logic of venture capitalism.” [p. 48, Terranova]. So I found myself relating to Terranova and Lazzarato on a personal and professional level while reading them, particularly when Terranova mentioned Gerry Laybourne, who is an alumna of my alma mater, and with whom I’ve had digital media-related business and social meetings.

Tiziana Terranova, whose surname interestingly translates to “new world”, is an Italian theorist and activist. Her work focuses on the effects of information technology on society through such concepts as digital work. She lectures at the Univ. of Naples and wrote “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy” in 2000.

Maurizio Lazzarato is an Italian sociologist and philosopher who resides in Paris. He was an activist in the worker’s movement in Italy in the late 1970’s and wrote “Immaterial Labor” in 1996.

Both “Free Labor” and “Immaterial Labor” read to me as manifests and Terranova gives a significant nod to Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” when she writes that since its publication in 1985, the “triangulation [of cybernetics, labor and capital] has become even more evident”. [p. 34, Terranova]

I’m glad I read Terranova first as she refers to and cites Lazzarato which made reading his “Immaterial Labor” a bit easier to grasp. Both authors are also writing pre-Web 2.0 and Terranova accurately identifies that the “New Web” is made of the big players rather than the unemployed, the dreamy and the iconoclastic who went to the Old Web as a place to reinvent themselves. [p. 52, Wired in Terranova] (I can attest to the accuracy of this, paralleled in my own career, as an Indie Producer of a web pioneering netcast from 1996-98 at the iconoclastic and then as an Associate Producer at in 2000 with my hire date the very week that AOL bought Time Warner–and we all know where that wound up!)

To summarize the highlights of Terranova’s and Lazzarato’s manifests, both are quite complex and reference the Marxian concepts from his Grundrisse, which the autonomists adopted. Grundrisse translates as “Outline” and its full title is “Fundamentals of Political Economy Criticism”. The work was unfinished by Marx, and yet its concepts were still used in the Italian workers’ movement.

Terranova seeks to “map the way in which the Internet connects to the [Italian] autonomists’ ‘social factory’ [defined as] a process whereby work has shifted from factory to society.” [p. 33, Terranova] She contends that “cultural and technical work is central to the Internet and is also a widespread activity throughout capitalist societies [arguing] that such labor is not exclusive to the so-called knowledge workers, but is a pervasive feature of the postindustrial economy.” [p. 34-35, Terranova].

Before citing Lazzarato, Terranova argues, and urges, that we must ask WHO is participating in the “digital economy” before we can pass judgment on it. [p. 40, Terranova] To answer this, she found it useful to think in terms of what the Italian autonomists and especially Lazzarato describe as “immaterial labor” [p. 41, Terranova] which is labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity. [p. 1, Lazzarato].

Lazzarato furthers the concept: “immaterial labor produces a social relationship (a relationship of innovation, production, consumption) [but] only if it succeeds in this production does its activity have an economic value.” [p. 4, Lazzarato] He specifies: “immaterial labor produces first and foremost a social relation – it produces not only commodities, but also the capital relation.” [p. 7, Lazzarato]

Lazzarato elaborates: “immaterial workers (those who work in advertising, fashion, marketing, television, cybernetics, and so forth) satisfy a demand by the consumer and at the same time establish that demand…immaterial labor produces subjectivity and economic value at the same time [demonstrating how capitalist production has invaded our lives.]” [p. 7, Lazzarato]

I must admit, I am lost when he then arrives at his main hypothesis: “the process of the production of communication tends to become immediately the process of valorization.” [p. 8, Lazzarato]

Can you shed light on this and help unpack and/or break Lazzarato down?

Meanwhile, back to Terranova who asserts that “the digital economy is the fastest and most visible zone of production within late capitalist societies, with reliance on mostly ‘immaterial products’ (commodities whose essence is said to be meaning (or lack of) rather than labor.” [p. 47, Terranova] Such commodities result from “affective labor”.  Here’s a video primer from Audiopedia:

Do you agree or disagree with Terranova’s position on affective production?

The heart of Terranova’s argument/essay/manifesto is “the over reliance of the digital economy on free labor…is part of larger mechanisms of capitalist extraction of value which are fundamental to late capitalism as a whole” [p. 51] Both Terranova and Lazzarato are adept at pointing out dualities, as Terranova continues, “the field [of late capitalism] both sustains free labor and exhausts it.” [p. 51]

I particularly liked it when Terranova observed that “[what] the digital economy…really cares about is an abundance of production, an immediate interface with cultural and technical labor” which has resonance for me with Lazzarato’s concept of immaterial labor producing a social relation.

But then, Terranova, in pointing out the most significant duality, asks in her Conclusion, “does the Internet embody a continuation of capital or break with it?” [p. 54, Terranova] She concludes “neither” which I found anti-climactic to both her essay and my experience reading it. She concludes that “rather, it’s a mutation of a wide-spread cultural and economic logic” [p. 54]

I do appreciate, however, that she maturely recognizes that “in this context, it is not enough just to demystify the Internet as the latest capitalist machination against labor.” [p. 54]

Do you find Terranova’s conclusion anti-climactic also or not? If not, why not?

I find it noteworthy that while Lazzarato uses the term “content” in 1996, Terranova appears to avoid it in 2000. She only uses it when citing Lazzarato and then in referring to “web content” and “user-based content” toward the end of her essay. This is curious to me, as this was a red-hot media keyword/buzzword particularly in the years 1996-2000.

I love Italian intellectuals.

One history of the White Supremacist version of the Free Speech Movement

Noam Cohen published a piece in the New Yorker looking at one origin story for the techno-utopian, neoliberal Free Speech Movement, and its radical right, White Supremacist inflection. Worth the read:

Planned Obsolescence. Kathleen Fitzpatrick 2011

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence. Publishing, Technology, and the Future of Academy. New York University Press: 2011.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick makes a compelling case for the need to reform university publishing. She starts with ways to revise the peer review system, and advocates for post-publication, “transparent” review rather than pre-publication, anonymous review. She navigates multiple levels throughout the book: broad forms of institutional forms of resistance – epitomized by the motto “This Is How We Have Always Done It” – but also individual anxieties triggered by the destabilization of the notion of authorship. I also appreciated her relatively balanced view on technological innovation, as she addresses the potentialities, but also the flaws of different initiatives (Slashdot, Philica, MediaCommons, etc). The politics of it all come to the fore in the last chapter, when she expounds the problems related to the trade-oriented model of US university publishing that came to prevail in the 20th century, and what to do to reconnect university press to the university community.

I shall here focus on the way Planned Obsolescence came to existence. In her conclusion, Kathleen Fitzpatrick explains the peculiar genesis of her book. After submitting her manuscript to the publishing press, she posted it online. It thus received both “traditional” and online peer review. By engaging in such process (and reporting on it), Fitzpatrick crossed the bridge between theory and practice and directly put to the test some of the ideas expounded in her book. While going over the online draft of the book, I was struck by the overall quality and supportive tone of the comments it received there. Fitzpatrick’s dual peer review experiment was able to reconcile both models of peer review for the best, perhaps because they were articulated as to be complementary while sharing a same purpose, and not in competition. A key element – and limit of the experiment, perhaps – is that Fitzpatrick got to decide on the “first circle” of reviewers. It is likely that this selection at the outset of her experiment shaped the ensuing audience, paving the way for “sharp, thoughtful criticism to make the project better” (190). As a matter of fact, the online comments she got seemed overall much nicer than anonymous feedback from journals I have read (and no need to say, much, much nicer than the average comment you get online these days). Yet, does such process of cherry-picking one’s reviewers really stand for open peer-review?

I also could not help thinking of Fitzpatrick’s early example of dual peer review in the light of the most recent Hypatia Transracialism Controversy. Instead of fostering “sharp, thoughtful criticism to make the project better”, the social-media response that followed the publication of an article on transracialism in a peer-reviewed journal (Hypatia) plainly aimed at having this article deleted. This was a textbook case of technological disruption, inasmuch as I properly understand this concept. Some counter-commentators contended that the arguments this campaign was making were mostly baseless and that they provided evidence that some of the most outspoken opponents had not even read the article they wanted to see taken down. Yet the screenshot below shows how hastily a part of Hypatia’s board of associate editors yielded to the bashing (that also included online shaming targeting an untenured assistant professor).Was that the darker side of open peer review we just saw?

Hypatia’s Facebook page. Part of an apology, posted by Hypatia’s board of associate editors on 1 May 2017, for the publication of one of the journal’s peer-reviewed articles. At the top is a statement, added 25 May 2017, that the apology does not reflect the views of the editor or board of directors (Source: Wikipedia page)


Selections from Debates in the Digital Humanities

These chapters from Debates in the Digital Humanities covered various issues that DH continues to deal with. Matthew Wilkens chapter about canons was one of the points of view that stood out to me, as I became familiar with this text. Wilkens speaks about how canons have become a status quo in DH.   He writes about how this way of thinking is detrimental to the growth of DH. Wilkens writes about how projects in DH have increased our awareness, as we continue to celebrate some of our most notable intellects. Consequently many of our traditional scholars continue to refute the notion that new technologies act as a trailblazer for traditional practices. Why is this an issue? Pedagogy should be based on results, not techniques (I’m not saying that techniques are not important). But if we are truly committed to advancing academia, we must embrace various methodologies, as we work to expand the academy.

The next text that caught my eye was from Paul Fyfe. Fyfe unpacks the relationship between digital publishing and contemporary editing. He argues that methods such as peer review and traditional proofreading have become inadequate as we approach new methods of presenting academic work in the digital world. He quotes Dan Cohen, as he explains that in the open web, true quality trumps minor errors. I definitely see Cohen’s point of view. Is it realistic to expect perfection from academic publishing? With that being said, what methods of editing produce perfection? As someone who has done some work in publishing, I understand the rigorous process that must be undertaken when striving to produce perfected product. As a graduate student with less experience in academic publishing, I question Fyfe’s expectations. Is it fair for us to expect more from academic publishing, in oppose to publishing in general? Ultimately I believe perfection is possible, but I’m not sure what would need to be done to achieve it.

ePortfolios Galore!

“Challenging the Boundaries of ePortfolio Scholarship” is the introduction to The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. Throughout the essay, the authors highlight the pieces that make up the 10th issue of the journal and brief synopses of their findings: “They confront, reconceive, and subvert technological, institutional, or pedagogical boundaries to design ePortfolios that feel organic to their unique teaching and learning situations.” The purpose of these studies are to evaluate ePortfolios and the ways that it can help to enhance learning. “Composing in a digital space changes the rhetorical situation, whether that be for students creating ePortfolios or authors publishing in an online, open access journal.”

When signing up for provocations, I chose ePortfolios since I was interested in learning more about them for my practice as a pedagogue. As I went through some of the articles, I realized how many ways ePortfolios can happen that help to enhance the meaning of learning. In “I Lit: An E-Poetry, E-Portfolio Exhibit,” the authors showcase drafts of poetry that is also followed in its final visual artistic representation. Obviously, there are drafts of any piece of writing, but I never thought of publically publishing those different versions for the world to see. Personally, I never conceived of writing poetry in this way even though I have my students work on essay drafts in my high school English courses.

The line that I feel best resonates the purpose of ePortfolios is found in “More Than Assessment: What ePortfolios Make Possible for Students, Faculty, and Curricula”:  “ePortfolios can offer students the opportunity to make connections across their experiences, synthesize their learning, and articulate the meaning and significance of their experiences and learning first to themselves—which is no small feat and should not be undervalued—and then, potentially (but not inevitably), to external audiences.” To me, synthesizing learning and collecting with the larger internet audience should be the goal of ePortfolios if we are to use them in education. We should always be asking ourselves what the broader questions are and why we are using this. However, it seems impossible to make one streamlined ePortfolio that works for everyone.

Apparently, “as of 2013, 50% of colleges and universities across the country have already adopted an ePortfolio platform,” so I question if there is a universal software that can be made that is a “one size fits all” across education institutions/environments. And if so, how would that work? If not, then how do we ensure that ePortfolios are used mindfully and purposely in instruction?

These articles also reminded me of Randy Bass, where he prophetically urges that educators should use technology mindfully in their practice. The ePortfolios mentioned in these articles seem to be that way, but it’s unclear to me how much thought and planning were put into doing this ePortfolios before their publication. Are tackling ePortfolios taking a leap of faith for educational institutions? Do teachers need to have a tech “competency” to ask students of this? And furthermore, are ePortfolios realistic in urban environments where there are inequities that exist with access to technologies? Now, with internet neutrality repealed, what does that mean for equitable access to educational material, or material that is crafted to be educational like ePortfolios?


Side note: What I also particularly loved was the resource highlighted in one section of the piece, which was used as a way for the authors to reconsider how to publish material surrounding ePorfolios. Even though it wasn’t a pivotal point of the paper, for some reason, this struck me. I looked them up, and it turns out that they are a non-profit organization that made a free platform for collaborative annotations. In other words, imagine Wikipedia and Facebook had a baby, and this baby was a super collaborator annotating pro! As soon as I finished reading the article, I downloaded the add-on to my Google Chrome browser and started playing around. Obviously, the about section was indeed annotated with people testing out the software for the first time, but things started to get interesting as I went around to various websites with it. As you bounce around from website to website, you can tell how many people annotated that page already. Anyway, this was a cool annotating resource I learned about, and I can see how it made the publishers lives easier in prioritizing materials.


More on ePortfolios

Joe Ugoretz, our visitor next week, suggests a couple of other online resources on ePortfolio that you should peruse before Monday’s class:

Browse the Pedagogy examples on the Catalyst site[]
He  posted his draft chapter on ePortfolios on his own Academic Commons blog, behind a password.  The password is itp2017.  It’s here:

Next week’s class on ePortfolios

We will be discussing ePortfolios next week with our guest presenter, Dr. Joe Ugoretz, the chief academic officer of the Macaulay Honors College, CUNY. In addition to the readings listed in the syllabus, Joe recommended that everyone explore the International Journal of ePortfolio (IJEP) . We may also have you read one or two scanned selections from the Eynon/Gambino book, but not sure as yet. Ignore the Light, Chen, and Ittelson reference for next week’s class; too hard to find the book.

Yochai Benkler. The Wealth of Networks, 2006

Yochai Benkler assesses a shift from “Industrial Information Economy” to “Networked Information Economy” (31 – 32). The former was characterized by the high cost of the means of producing and sharing (the media), which buttressed a much centralized and concentrated production of content (TV, newspapers, etc). The latter is characterized by a dramatic decrease in these costs. It opened the door a democratic, participatory and rhizomatic production of content, and to the flourishing of “nonmarket production” (56); that is, to a world in which individuals fully retrieve their power to create. Through his advocating of the saint trilogy “information, knowledge, culture”, Benkler outlines technological affordances personal computers and access to the Internet have bestowed, while responding to problems that were coming to a head at the time he was writing. Indeed, in the 2000s, and under the pressure of music and movie industries, many countries were enacting repressive regulations aimed at sanctioning and circumscribing the sprawling of copyright infringement that the Internet made possible. Taking a firm stance against such institutional, vertical forms of regulation, Benkler supports horizontal forms of self- or peer-regulation (he illustrates his point through the example of Wikipedia (71-74) Slashdot (76-80), and Amazon (!), if I remember well). Benkler also demonstrates the economic sustainability of the model of free culture, and how “libre” knowledge fosters further innovations.

Although optimistic in tone, Benkler cautions us that “there is no guarantee that networked information technology will lead to the improvements in innovation, freedom, and justice that I suggest are possible. That is a choice we face as a society”(18)… It is good to be reminded that it is at least partly thanks to idealists and altruists that we are able to share our thoughts on this blog, amongst many other things. Yet from our 2017 standpoint, Benkler’s “techno-future” sounds in many ways like a path not taken. As Tim Berners-Lee – hardly suspected of having a prejudice against the Internet – bluntly puts it in a recent interview: “The system is failing“. This failure is arguably due to phenomena that may not have been predictable back in 2006, but also to problems embedded in the ideological tenets of “hacker culture”, and stemming from the blind spots of the idealistic views on which Benkler draws. I especially take issue with the idea that voluntarily creating for free is a practice everyone can equally afford, and that sharing is an inherently altruistic practice. I shall summarize some of these problems below. Please feel free to comment, correct, and add up any thought.

Common knowledge“, “semiotic democracy and transparency” and “participatory culture” are all predicated on a generous view of humanity. Granted, Benkler does mention the possibility of misinformation (“gobbledygook”) and even trolling (75-77), but these are posited as problems that peer-production will easily redress. And… well. I will not dwell on this point, for we are all too aware of what’s happened: the destabilizing of traditional forms of knowledge hierarchization and validation has given way to the rampant spread of fake news and propagandistic forms of disinformation, to an extent only comparable to what happens during wartime, and in the face of which peer processes of accreditation have seemed mostly powerless. It is disheartening to see that faith in humanity can be proven so wrong. But perhaps this error of judgment is related to the way enemies were picked…

Indeed, Benkler posits liberal States – jointly with traditional mass industries – as the main villain of the story. An “anarchic/libertarian” view, as he puts it. From what I can remember, the debate on intellectual property was very much constructed under these terms in the 2000s. Those terms and the enemy thus picked seem to have made Benkler (along with everyone involved at the time) oblivious/unaware of the fact that digital sharing was to be done through (private and for-profits) intermediaries. Material ones (cables, physical storages aka “clouds” etc) bring up the issue of net neutrality. Digital intermediaries, such as web search engines, social media, and social networking services have generated a whole set of problems of which we are now all too aware as well. Perhaps “nonmarket behavior is becoming central to producing our information and environment” (56), but it’s also turned out that intermediaries did find ways to turn those “nonmarket” exchanges into commodities. The advent of social media and social networking services has thus dramatically reshaped the terms of the discussion throughout the last decade. The opaque processing of citizens’ data, subsequent manipulations of public opinion, the looming threat over democracies etc. spring from the ways companies have taken hold of the sharing culture the Networked Information Economy fosters (see Adeline Koh). A bit of wariness towards the very private companies (Google, Amazon, etc) that sounded so nice back then, a bit of state regulation instead of laissez-faire towards them (and instead of targeting and criminalizing individuals) might have been an answer. This is an easy thing to say now…

Keeping in mind the terms of the debate in which Benkler was engaged is also helpful to account for the insufficiencies of the binary he builds on to think of intellectual property. I  exaggerate a little bit, but the big picture is copyright = big bad industries protected by big bad states vs. commons/copyleft = universally good model for altruistic individuals. Benkler promotes an unbridled access to, reworking, and sharing of creative contents. His view is buttressed by a representation of “information, knowledge, culture” as non-rivals goods, i.e goods whose value does not decrease when sharing them, just like love or friendship (vs. rival ones, 35-36). At the individual level, that framework leaves out some important issues. In a capitalist context, one risk is to have “libre” content creation reduced to a privilege granted to those who are sufficiently stable/safe, economically and emotionally speaking, to take risks, and/or who are from a culture which encourages risks taking, and/or who are somehow insiders having a sense of which kind of creations is worth investing time and energy on. In the meantime, the rest is silenced or pressed to take more or less informed risks in the hope that their time and energy will eventually generate earnings. More bluntly: how do individuals make a living out of their creations in the reign of unbridled “cultural freedom”?

This American Life’s latest episode illustrates some of the limits entailed in Benkler’s radical stance:

The story began in 2011 when the wildlife photographer David J. Slater got stunning photos of monkeys in Indonesia. The trick is that these pictures were selfies, which made Wikipedia claim them as public domain. Wikipedians got pretty nasty about it, publicly ridiculing Slater when he asked for compensation (nicely asking, not suing). One thing led to another, and the photographer ended up being sued, for copyright infringement, by one of the monkeys… It is an interesting case for diverse reasons, notably for the blurring of the concept of “authorship” (is the monkey the author for having pressed the button?). Here, the point is that if we were to follow Benkler’s altruistic, volunteering and disinterested conception of individual content creation, this photographer could not make a living and pay for the months he spent in Indonesia. Perhaps Benkler would respond that Slater should rather become a “Joe Einstein” (p43). But then, how does one reach such status in the first place? I felt that Fred Benenson‘s framework (fungible vs. nonfungible work) and the nuances he makes between different models, along with Lewis Hyde‘s historically-based definition of commons (workable in a “stinted market, one constrained by moral concerns”, Hyde: 36) addresses these issues in a much more effective way.