Thursday, May 17, 2007

Book Review: The Making Of A Cybertariat

Ursula Huws, The Making Of A Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World. Monthly Review Press, 2003. 208 pp. ISBN:1-58367-088-2

With the advance of the so-called “information age” and the digital technologies that are behind it, prominent social theorists from Daniel Bell to Manuel Castells among many others have talked about the big changes in the industry structures. However, the ongoing debate remained on how fundamentally it will change the existing labor relationships. Are changes such as decentralization and networking of labor breaking the old wall between the capitalists and laborers, or is it even widening the gap? Or is something else going on?

The Making of a Cybertariat is a strong argument that takes the latter view, while incorporating that something else is happening - the rise of a new form of information age proletariat she calls ‘cybertariat.’ This book is a collection of articles labor relationships in the ‘new economy’ from 1979-2001 while Huws has been working primarily as an activist in feminism and labor relations. Over the several decades, she has analyzed and manifested some strong intuitions on the politics of technology and their effects on the positions of laborers, with special focus on the labor of housewives. As such, the collection provides much food for thoughts and controversies on the changing work relationships in the decentralized, world-wide networked world of today’s labor.

As introduced briefly, the author’s main premise in this book is that modern technologies, especially information and communication technologies (ICT) do not ‘liberate’ labor from its constraints but create a new kind of 'proletariat'. Though it is true that time and space become more flexible, she argues that even such flexibility contributes to even stronger constraints in the labor relationship. To examine the processes how such mechanisms work, Huws looks into a vast area of fields ranging from domestic work to office workers in large-scale industries.

The first part which roughly encompasses Chapter 1 and 2 looks into the changes in domestic labor and how technologies that were advertised to ‘reduce domestic labor’ has actually brought even more labor and further instability for female workers. The second part ranging from Chapter 3 to 5 examines the changes in the office work and how the blurred borders between work (space) and leisure resulted in more and unstable position of laborers. The third part, from Chapter 6 to 8, talks about women’s work and technology in the workplace. And the last part (Chapters 9-11) revisits the theoretical claims and attempt to debunk the myth of the labor liberation by technology and even tell us how to make the ‘cybertariats’ become conscious of their labor positions and interests - ultimately, make an open call for the cybertariats to united for the common goal.

In this process, Huws examines changing categories of employment, and modes of organization. She tries to show how new divisions of race and gender are born, and how traditional organizations and individuals cope with them by reshaping themselves. Her whole argument is based on three main ideas. The first is ‘commodification'. She defines it as
"the tendency of capital economies to generate new and increasingly standardized products for sale in the market whose sale will generate profits that increase in proportion to the scale of production"(p.17). It is in accordance with the traditional Marxist concept, but takes a whole new view in scale in the globalized industry and labor structure in the information age (or rather, ‘new economy’ as she refers to). The second is ‘socialization of labor'. Socialization of labor is a phenomenon that arises from commodification. People in different parts of the world co-operate in producing, distributing and marketing the same commodities. Through new forms of communication, contact between them can be virtually instantaneous. The third is ‘externalization of labor’. It refers not only to the outsourcing of labor to distant other places but also delegating parts of production labor to the actual customers - “unpaid time of the service customer is substituted for the paid time of the service worker” (p182) as exemplified by the ATM case where bank customers do most of the service works that had been previously done by the clerks.

The three concepts come together in the model of labor commodification. Activities that had been outside of the market (e.g. unpaid domestic labor) are incorporated into the market, and are subsequently replaced by craft production/consumer service. In turn, it gives rise to new industries and social labor division ("socialization of labor and process"). It causes new types of work and further international division of labor. As such, even with technology, domestic work is not reduced. For example, the laundry machine was supposed to reduce laundry labor, but resulted in more need for clean clothes, Laundromats, and the very need to have an machine in every household. As such, even more money is needed to get the commodities, driving the housewives into social labor. The labor available to them however is limited to the lower paid and unstable work, drawing a parallel to the domestic labor workers in the industrial revolution. When the wages of the First world increases, such labor gets pushed to Third world. Such socialization and externalization of labor is further enabled on a global scale by the development of communication networks. Also, the technologies make the workplace more flexible through communication and outsourcing but require the workers to pay for the tools and make them accessible to the control and demands of the workplace more than ever before. Also, close relationships with co-workers are diminished in this process.

To back up such models, Huws analyzes office workers in various dimensions such as functional relationship of work to capital, occupations, social relation to production, places in social division of labor, comparative income, and social status. And after going through them, she concludes that the workers in this technological and industrial environment can be called as a new type of proletariat. Then, can they also become a 'class' and unite to fight for their rights? It is possible, she argues, but it is not sure if a class consciousness will develop in itself because gender, race, as well as an overtly nostalgic stance of male workers and left-stance activists are in the way. And that in turn is her open call to overcome such hurdles.

Huws’ idea of distributed labor via network is similar to what Castells discovered in his theories of information society. However, she uses such observations to argue the rise of a ‘common’ class of unskilled, low-wage workers rather than the spreading of the work itself. When taking into notice that both are coming from Marxist backgrounds, it is an interesting deviation. While Castells argued that such distribution will lead to the individualization and flexibility, Huws is emphasizing the position that the workers will be placed in will be no different than simply being a low-wage low-skill worker. It is a both bold and useful view to take from an activist’s aspect. It is an attractive open call and guidance to what should be realized in the labor movement in today’s working environment.

However, there are also some drawbacks in her way of explanation preventing it from being hailed as a classic. First, the focus of her problem setting is a little vague in parts. In her accounts Huws purposely emphasizes domestic labor as the prime example of unpaid labor that has been commodified, and takes a gender-centered (‘feminist’) view. Though the gender relationships becomes part of the unequal labor relationship between the employer and the low-skilled worker, it is a little confusing to have the feminist approach and labor-centered approach mixed together. In the latter parts where office workers of both sexes are the main subject, the theme becomes clearer.

The second is that she does not present enough historical or statistical data to support the claims as a firmly grounded research material. The data Huws reviews are not strictly quantitive or historical, leaving a good deal counterarguments on hand. Instead, she draws some parts from personal experiences and focuses more on the arguments and concepts. Though it is not a critical drawback and is even useful in keeping the text to a legible 200 pages, it narrows down the audience and use of the book. It would have benefited from compressing or separating the feminism-centered parts and elaborate on the middle and latter parts on office workers and customer time deprivation.

Despite such, the questions and views raised in this book are useful in even more than the phenomenon it described. For example, the notion of ‘externalization of labor’ - especially how production work is delegated to the actual customers fits nicely into the so-called Web2.0 concepts of today. Whether on Youtube, Wikipedia or citizen journalism sites, people are gladly willing to spend their own time unpaid for production of contents that once had been originally paid work by the employed workers. And it is even regarded to be more fun, more democratic, and simply cool. Does it mean that we users are “deprived of” something? Not necessarily, but the industry is gaining something and it seldom comes back to us in the form of actual rewards (even the psychological rewards of recognition is given by the peer users). Thus, building ideas for a more labor-rewarding Web2.0 would be beneficial for both the individual users and also the development of the web as well. Or how about utilizing the concept of a global spread of similar labor relationship to build a more communicatively connected network of a bigger solidarity of labor unions? Collective bargaining could enter a whole new scale, even global.

In summary, The Making of a Cybertariat is an energetic claim that provokes us to look into the labor relationships today and gives us thought pieces to act upon. Also, it is a good counterbalance to the more intentionally value-absent or even sometimes optimistic analysis of the labor relationships in the information age such as Castells’ works.

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