Free Labour and Millennials

I recently facilitated a discussion on Tiziana Terranova’s Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy in my grad seminar on “Feminism and Technology” and although the essay was written in 2000, it could not be any more relevant in 2013 to understanding how millennials continue to be undervalued and undermined online.

That being said, the article is hardly about the plights of the unpaid internship generation or the technophiles that have become synonymous with the term “millennials.” In fact, the article does not offer judgements on the socio-cultural effects of the internet. Instead, Terranova mpas how the internet connects to what she calls the “social factory” that had emerged online at the turn of the century. This particular social factory was a result of overdeveloped countries which were desiring more meaningful commodities and productive activities as the literal factories were being exported to developing nations like China, India, and Mexico. Globalization had brought about the fantasy of knowledge labourers who, unlike factory workers, were compensated for their immaterial productions within the digital economy.

Terranova proposes the term Outernet as a means to explaining how the internet is interconnected with the real and literal flows of labour, culture, power, economics, and intrapersonal relationships. The Outernet permits a rethinking of production in late-capitalism since the immaterial labour was progressively being understood as a series of activities that are not normally recognized as work. Knowledge labourers were assumed to be essential to innovation and competition in the digital economy. Their skills were rooted in collaboration thereby succeeded in open organizational structures that were emerging online (i.e. MUDs and MOOs). The digital economy was increasingly understood as mixed according to economist Richard Barbook because there was a public element, market driven, as well as subject to mutual obligations unique to gift-economies. This particular kind of mixed-economy was a product of the convergence of new technology and new types of workers.

Terranova’s essay maintains a strong cultural marxist position although it does not elaborate on specific strategies to enact social change. Instead, she writes on what already exists as a means to understand virtual labour as a tendency rather than a concrete quality of the digital age. This vague definition allows a more open-ended understanding of free labour that applies even 13 years after what already existed. If the qualities of commodities are understood as mutations to their environment, there can be continual reassessment of commodities as more of an ephemeral process than a product. Some examples of these process-commodities are blogging, texting, listening to music, watching youtube, following twitter accounts, liking status updates, searching google, and the like!

This is why Terrnaova claims that contemporary online culture has become a materialization of Donna Haraway’s “Informatics of Domination” offered in the Cyborg Manifesto. This is because the internet has become the site of disintermediation as well as witnessing the emergence of a flexible, collective intelligence. Her seminal piece of writing has become realized because the internet provides the material and ideological support to free labour. In this instance, the term “free labour” is referring to the set of activities that individuals perform online. The “Informatics of Domination” claimed that there would be increased flexibility of the workforce, continuous reskilling, freelance workers, and more work from the office being taken home for completion. In a sense, free labourers are expected to always be on call and constantly participating in the digital economy to stay relevant, knowledgeable, and valued.

Millennials are a product of this environment that stresses the importance of the Outernet while constantly encouraging young unemployed individuals to sharpen their technology skills. This is what Terranova calls a “general intellect” which encapsulates the kind of knowledge that emerges from the relationships between individual and machine. So is it any surprise that a generation raised on television, videogames, and computer screens would have immeasurable technology skills.

Unfortunately, this is in line with Terranova’s claim of capitalism creating a reserve virtual labour force. In the immaterial labour model, where there are less commodities and more activities, each subject has virtual potential to create and be reskilled without being employed. Many of these millennials are participating in a system online where they are not reaping monetary gains from their active participation in the digital economy. Instagram likes, status updates, and followers are sought-after even by large corporations. The naturalization of these skills and labour engenders a changing value of virtual goodies.

This being said, I would like to end this with a proposed social strategy: pay your millennials for their virtual labour as well as train them how to mobilize their efforts more productively, eloquently, and with a sense of professionalism. Very recently I offered to do the social media work for a conference that my school is planning. I was excited to take the event to twitter and wordpress to create a buzz before the event and get others as excited as we were as a cohort. After a discussion in class about what was being served at the reception, I thought this would be a great opportunity to share our plans with my new net community. I created a very simple tweet that there would be complimentary wine at the reception and left it with a neat hashtag: #OCAD. Two days later, the director of my program began sending public messages to my classmates chastising us for the unprofessionalism and lack of integrity of tweets (even though it was only 1). I did everything in my power to remove the tweet, publically apologize to the class, and to the institution. Coming from my perspective, I was used to a sphere of virtual labour that celebrated and rewarded this kind of “unprofessionalism” and if it was not for my blunder, I likely would not of learned a valuable lesson about digital communication and the power of one message.

I suggest that the most powerful way to connect and empower millennials, even if they continue to exist in the virtual reserve workforce, is by teaching them how to productively contribute to knowledge labour with the skills and tools they understand. It’s unfortunate that individuals who contribute to the free labour economy are undervalued and undermined for using their experiences without expert guidance to shape their experiences.

Millennials love their technology so much they take it to bed with them!

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