Friday, April 26, 2013


One of the really wonderful things about the Beinecke Library's Beyond the Text symposium this weekend is the way in which it weaves together archival and poetic concerns. Tara McPherson was here earlier this week to give a talk in WGSS, and I found it so refreshing when she talked about the great students in the practice-based Ph.D. program at USC: "we cheat a little," she said, "because most of them come in with MFAs, so they have certain skills." It's so rare to hear that kind of training spoken of as a good thing. But it is a good thing. This morning Lori Emerson cited studying the Emily Dickinson archive with Susan Howe as her primary training for the media archaeology work she now does at Boulder.

In the second panel, on sound archives (Al Filreis, Jason Camlot, and Steve Evans), some conversation emerged—some spoken, some in the Twitter backchannel—around labor. It began with Jason Camlot and Al Filreis's discussions of workflows, which were largely "DIY" (I get the feeling Al spends a lot of time digitizin' away) and/or supplemented by grad or staff labor. (Steve Evans ribbed Al: "You guys aren't purely DIY—come on!")

These issues emerged more explicitly in the Q&A. One librarian noted that libraries' slowness often has to do with the cost of digitization, not in terms of equipment but of labor (because unlike the less formal structures Al had in place, libraries pay for this work). Lori noted that "DIY" often meant there was no one to whom to pass the torch when one person needed to step down, and that had much to do with the fact that this labor was uncompensated. As Jason rightly observed, this is a sustainability problem. Clearly this work is a labor of love for many people (in Al's case, visibly and wonderfully), but that does not then render it not labor.

The general consensus seemed to be that poetry and sound archives necessarily run on uncompensated labor, and that the basic question is how to get more of it. (Crowdsourcing came up a number of times.)

Jason Scott of the Internet Archive pointed out the incredible archival resource that the Internet Archive has been for a long time and continues to be, including for poetry materials (such as Naropa's archives). But this bounty was also framed in terms of volunteer labor, and in particular, the volunteer labor of young people.

This seemed to me to be a very problematic premise, especially the assumption that it's not only fine but a good idea to have young people do unpaid work—that unpaid work is somehow the natural province of youth. It's true that young people are often enthusiastic, want to learn, and have time to contribute. They may very well like doing the work. At the same time, the naturalization of unpaid or underpaid youth labor should be resisted ("it's mostly high school students": the {false} rationalization of a low minimum wage), as should the naturalization of not paying for cultural preservation work. Jason's responses to me are in the Storify, but one of them struck me as particularly interesting.

Can we take a moment to talk about mining?

Mining is perhaps now thought of as the quintessential poorly paid, dangerous, exploitative labor. There's a long history of labor conflict around mining. Getting the stuff out of the ground is a really unsavory process, but then, we also really want the stuff.

Mining is also the go-to metaphor for another often unsavory yet much-desired practice, the transmutation of "data" into usable "information." Mainly we have algorithms, overseen by humans, do the labor. Sometimes that's too hard, and you'd be better off having a human inside that machine; in that case you use Mechanical Turk. And sometimes the only thing of value that you need is labor, in which case we "crowdsource," mining the laborers themselves. The crowd's a goldmine. "So the hunter becomes the hunted, migrating from a situation in which users farm for gold, to a situation in which users are being farmed" (Galloway 137).

Is crowdsourcing "like" mining? As always with likeness: in some ways yes, in some ways no. This is less a matter of "exact resemblance to exact resemblance" than of the difference spreading. Is volunteering to digitize poetry sound recordings "like" mining? Not intrinsically—but if neither is paid, or paid sufficiently, then they are "like" in that sense, which is the only relevant sense for the comparison.

The canonical scene of mining strikes is actually not gold mining. The famous labor strikes repressed by Thatcher's government were mounted by coal miners. But gold mining looms large in the digital imagination for another reason: the phenomenon of simulacral primitive accumulation known as "gold farming." In the game World of Warcraft, the low-skill, time-intensive acquisition of "gold," which can then be sold for real currency to wealthier players, is famously associated with exploited Chinese workers, including prisoners.

As Alex Galloway observes in The Interface Effect, the figure of the Chinese gold farmer—and its installation as a racial other in ways that, as Lisa Nakamura has shown, conduce to deeply racialized social formations within the world of the game—is as powerful as ideology as it is problematic as a labor form. It serves to fashion exploitative digital labor as not-us.

And I would suggest that the eager twenty-year-old with a laptop functions similarly; in that way, too, digitizing sound archives is "like" gold mining, or rather "gold farming." Like the hypothetical minimum-wage high schooler whose income serves as pocket money, non-essential and destined for "fun," the youthful volunteer, who may very well intrinsically enjoy the work, authorizes a category of labor exploitation that is not only okay but also okay to take as the norm for the labor of cultural preservation. "I can get you a twenty-year-old!" is, in that sense, not a labor solution but its opposite: a commitment to the norm that this work will be unpaid.

Galloway, Alexander R. The Interface Effect. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity, 2012. Print.

See also Galloway, "Does the Whatever Speak?" In Race After the Internet. Ed. Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White. New York: Routledge, 2012. 111-27. Print.

Nakamura, Lisa. "Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft." In Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. Ed. Trebor Scholz. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

1 comment:

Sharat said...

This is a tough question because, as you say, it being a "labor of love" does not thereby "render it not labor." I think my trouble with where your argument goes is that it sidesteps into a world where a norm of volunteer labor is automatically financial exploitation (vis-à-vis the mining and chinese workers examples), and if we we want things like mining or labor relations in general to become better we need to acknowledge that the "remuneration" everyone is clamoring for is not necessarily going to be money. We've gone so far into devaluing all other types of remuneration that that is the real problem here.

That being said, I think the complexity comes from disentangling the giant labor system from the mess of the consumerist juggernaut. Obviously there's a ton of cultural capital that goes towards ensuring that exactly that thing doesn't happen. And if it does it will (probably) be at a huge cost to people while we're figuring it out. I just think that at a cultural moment where we have the anger of Occupy, the tumult of the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and lack of trust in our current government reigns is our best chance at creating change that deals with the multiple vectors of discrimination built into the labor system.