Sunday, April 08, 2007

Guest Speaker: Gina Neff

In her articles, Neff notes that personal innovation and creativity shaped the creation of the internet and cyberspace. She describes the earlier forms of cyberculture, as observed in the social networking of workers in New York City's Silicon Alley. All of Neff's articles represent a few of the many stages of the social history of information.

The Changing Place of Cultural Production: Locating Social Networks in a Digital Media Industry, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 597 (2005): 134-152.

Several scholars have suggested that networks increase workers' mobility within industries that rely on network forms of organization, and regional networks may substitute for types of workforce support that used to be found within organizations, such as internal labor markets, job training, and job security (137-8).

  • Silicon Alley's tech workers had the same job security as low-end service workers. Why was individual recognition and social networking so important to these workers that they were willing to tradeoff more traditional forms of support?

Regionally based networks encourage collaborative practices across and within organizations, help diffuse continually changing technical information, and build environments of innovation that provide positive economic externalities for firms and workers (138).

  • The dotcom crash signaled a re-development of the technical industry and corporate culture moved back to the foreground of the economy. Can creativity and an independent culture truly compete in a capitalistic market?

The parties and nightlife of Silicon Alley helped to constitute the production of the industry, not the other way around (140).

  • What other forms of networking have emerged among tech workers that have shaped our understanding of new media?

Entrepreneurial Labor among Cultural Producers: “Cool” Jobs in “Hot” Industries, Social Semiotics, 15 (2005): 307-334, with Elizabeth Wissinger & Sharon Zukin.

An unappreciated dimension of the impact of one relatively small sector of the overall economy is that work in culture industries has cultural value: the industry is "hot," and the jobs are "cool" (310).

  • What is it about these new media jobs that makes them so alluring and why are workers so willing to take risks in order to achieve such a position? What are the tradeoffs for "cool" jobs? Who ultimately benefits from such risk-taking: corporations or workers?

Permanently Beta: Responsive Organization in the Internet Era, in Philip Howard and Steve Jones, eds., Society Online: The Internet in Context, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2003, pp 173–188, with David Stark.

Permanently beta would be a product that never leaves the test phase. The internet makes it possible to distribute products that are continually updateable and almost infinitely customizable-- products that, in effect, never leave a type of beta phase (177).

  • What shift in cultural values accompanied the commercialization of the internet?


natezilla said...

Silicon Alley's tech workers had the same job security as low-end service workers.

This may be something to think about. Do they have the same job security as lower-end workers? I may be wrong, but the readings from the semester seem to indicate that SA techies often job hopped and worked as creative contract workers. They knew ahead of time that their employment was temporary. These workers are extremely creative, but the worth of their creativity is rivaled by their cost to the institution, and if some other creative force came along, they were replaceable because of their high cost.

If we compare these workers to low-end service workers, I believe a there may be a different type of occupational leverage at work. Wal-Mart, McDonalds, and other low-end service workers may have greater job security because their labor is worth so little. It becomes more costly to replace low-end workers than to hire new ones. In this case the value lies in keeping low earning workers, not replacing them.

Barbara said...

I agree that low-end service workers may be a different issue in the technology world from the skilled workers that Neff is discussing. The skilled workers are project-specific commodities, it seems to me, only they don't necessarily see their commodification. They need to engage in social networking outside of work hours at a level that hampers family and personal life, and they are in an environment similar to that of fashion models--quickly obsolete and only a few stars can actually make a living. I thought the picture painted by Neff's articles was really quite a bleak one. Even in "Permanantly Beta", which was more positive, the restraints of code, the in-group "hacker"nature of those working together on a supposedly permanently beta enterprise such as Mozilla, seems a mixed picture. Is it really permanently beta?-- I use Firefox as my browser, but make no effort to improve it--I am a consumer only, and there are many like me.

KimNakho said...

I also couldn't agree with the dichotomy between 'participant' permanent beta model and 'consumer' traditional model. The product itself may be in a permanently beta status, but for the average user it is simply the 'most current version'. Moreover, Microsoft has already proven that even an "end product" intended solely to be consumed can be in a permanent beta stage by releasing crappy OS' and making you download endless patches. I think the grey area between them should be taken more into attention.

Jeff Gibbens said...

No argument with anything anyone has posted. These comments are very helpful.

The book by Ross cited in the Silicon Alley article, No collar, is a text we read in the first iteration of the class, and I recommend it highly. The beginnings of employee organization and traditional labor consciousness are discussed in Ross's ch. 7, "Optimize me." The key issue is that while Internet companies were expending enormous energy to make employees comfortable in the workplace, the survival of the industry in 2000 came down to cash flow. As far as employees were concerned, the financial issues were offstage.

In the article about models, I was reminded of how the public image of flight attendants has changed in 50 years, due to cost cutting in the airline industry, civil rights actions by employees, and unionization by attendants. Glamor has been sacrificed, but attendants have greater status and job security, along with more dignity. How models could organize to protect themselves I don't know. Actors, who have similar physical issues, are very militant.