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<nettime> FAQ DIGITAL WORK
Richard Barbrook on Sat, 13 Feb 1999 11:00:55 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> FAQ DIGITAL WORK


FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS: DIGITAL WORK

DIGITAL WORKERS AND ARTISANS: GET ORGANISED!

* How does digital work differ from its analogue forms?

Although developed for military and corporate purposes, digital
technologies also create opportunites for working people. With these
amazing tools, we are not only able to invent new aesthetic forms, but
also can work in more satisfying ways. Above all, digital technologies can
allow us to rediscover the dignity of artisan labour without losing the
material benefits delivered by the analogue working methods of Fordism.
Over the past two centuries, industrialisation has slowly replaced skilled
craft labour with repetitive factory and office work. In the Fordist
factory, even the pace of working can be determined by the speed of the
assembly lines. For most of this century, people have grudgingly accepted
the boring nature of their jobs. In return, they have been given enough
wages to buy large amounts of goods and services produced by Fordist
industrialisation. However, once their living standards are sufficient,
most people also want to enjoy satisfaction in their work. They don't just
want money, but also respect.

In many areas, the introduction of digital technologies investment has
perpetuated all the worst features of the Fordist assembly line. From
call-centres to html-sweatshops, employees continue to face the problems
of low salaries, job insecurity, flexible contracts, long hours, lack of
union recognition and unhealthy working conditions. Yet, in other
companies, the situation can be entirely different. Using digital
technologies, people combine the creative freedom of artisan labour with
the high productivity of Fordism. Because each extra copy can be
reproduced at a very low price, the high costs of employing craft labour
for making the first copy of a film, programme or recording are
economically viable. With the advent of the Net, the potential
productivity of creative work is even greater. Like the artisans of the
proto-industrial epoch, digital workers have to use craft skills to
produce quality artefacts. Like labourers in a Fordist factory, they can
reproduce multiple copies of the same product. In the age of the Net,
digital work could synthesise the best features of its analogue
predecessors: the high skills of the artisans and the high productivity of
the factory hands.

* How can digital work be creative?

In a capitalist society, paid work is performed to produce goods and
services which can be sold in the marketplace or will be purchased by the
state. Like other products, hypermedia products also have to be made to
the specifications of others. Within some companies, digital technologies
have increased the power of management to supervise and control the
activities of their employees in the minutest detail. The separation of
conception from production found within the Fordist factory continues in
many post-Fordist workplaces. Even in more artisanal sectors, people often
have to use standardised software packages and mainstream graphic designs
to get the job completed on time and within budget. For these contracts,
creativity is restricted to producing a quality product which will satisfy
the needs of its users.

However, the constant changes in hypermedia software and design fashions
have also opened up opportunities for more innovative and experimental
types of work. With clients seeking products which realise the full
potential of new technologies, skilled workers can push forward the
technical and aesthetic limits of their craft. Instead of continually
repeating what has already been done, digital workers can demonstrate
their creativity by producing artefacts which have never been seen before.
Yet, as managers become more techno-savvy, even this limited form of
workplace autonomy is now be threatened. By organising themselves in a
union, digital workers can celebrate their skills in creating new
technical and aesthetic forms. Above all, they can successfully defend
their recently-acquired rights to experiment and innovate.

* What skills are involved in digital work?

In many sectors, the introduction of computer and Net technologies hasn't
abolished Fordist methods of working. In financial institutions, much of
the labour remains tedious data-processing. In call-centres, each moment
of an individual's working-day is still closely supervised. Even within
new media, many people primarily carry out routine coding and design for
their jobs. Yet, despite these continuities with Fordism, the production
of digital artefacts also encourages new methods of working. Because of
the ease of reproduction, most of the costs of manufacture are no longer
expended making multiple copies of the same product. Instead, investment
is concentrated upon the design and building of the first copy of a
digital artefact. Because such tasks are difficult to mechanise, this form
of production must be carried out by craft labour. In order to make useful
and beautiful products, digital artisans need both technical and aesthetic
skills for their work. Because different people's abilities are often
combined to complete a specific job, these workers must have social skills
to collaborate easily with each other. Above all, digital artisans must
possess the self-confidence to run their own working lives. By coming
together in a union, workers don't just gain recognition for their
individual skills from their peers. More importantly, collective
representation wins respect for the creative powers of digital workers
from society as a whole.

* What distinguishes digital artisans from cyber-entrepreneurs?

According to neo-liberal cyber-gurus, the dissemination of computer and
Net technologies will create a completely 'new paradigm' where everyone
can become a cyber-entrepreneur. Yet, despite some important changes in
the methods of working, the divisions between management and workers
persist. Above all, the most important social question within capitalism
remains: who controls economic institutions? Although the personal
relations between management and employees are less formal, the old
Fordist techniques for supervising and controlling all aspects of
production from above persist. Despite all the rhetoric of the 'new
paradigm', the spread of new information technologies perpetuates - and
sometimes intensifies - the old class divisions of capitalism.

Yet, the increased importance of craft labour within the digital economy
has forced even long-established corporations to change their methods of
management. Rather than directly supervising skilled workers, large
companies increasingly prefer to sub-contract their tasks either to small
companies or directly to individual artisans. Instead of bureaucrats
directing people to perform tasks, market competition for short-term
contracts instead controls workers who couldn't be disciplined by other
means. Like their proto-industrial predecessors, self-employed digital
artisans can earn high wages and control the pace of their work. Compared
to those in traditional jobs, they are members of a new 'labour
aristocracy'. However, most of these skilled workers still have little or
no say in the companies which employ them. If they own a few shares, they
usually have little influence over the strategy of the firm. Even those
artisans who do control their own companies remain subordinate to market
disciplines imposed by their corporate clients. Needing to ensure products
are delivered on time and within budget, they are either forced either to
become managers themselves or sell their companies to someone else so they
can still engage in creative work. As the commercial sector of the Net
grows, individuals employed in this new branch of production must begin
protecting their collective interests. They can each gain by together
gathering knowledge about the behaviour of employers and the nature of
working conditions. As in other sectors, digital workers need one common
labour organisation: the trade union.

* What divides digital workers from each other?

According to some cyber-gurus, the spread of information technologies will
quickly remove almost all barriers between people. Yet, within the
newly-emerging sectors of production, many traditional forms of social
differences persist - or have even got worse - as market competition has
intensified. As in the past, the division of labour within the digital
economy continues to determined by age, gender and background. The
shopfloor employees of call-centres are overwhelmingly older women with
little formal education. The digital artisans are much more likely to be
young men with degrees or similar qualifications. As well as continuing
social polarisation within industrialised countries, digital technologies
also perpetuate the global division of labour which was created in last
century by European imperialism. While Northern workers can explore the
creative potential of the latest software and hardware, people in the
South are mainly employed to carry out repetitive and boring
data-processing. While they remain divided by such deep-rooted social and
geographical differences, digital workers are ironically now less
collectivist and internationalist than many of their employers. They can
only discover what unites them by coming together in a trade union.

* What are the common interests of digital workers?

Whether working as an employee of a Fordist corporation or as an artisan
carrying out a contract, all digital workers need good conditions to carry
out their jobs. Their place of work should be safe, comfortable and
healthy. The technologies used in production should not harm their users
over the long-term. Work patterns should not lead to people getting
industrial illnesses. As in every other industry, digital workers also
need to advance their economic position as a group. Within corporations,
they must jointly negotiate their terms and conditions of employment.
Within contract work, they must establish industry agreements on rates for
jobs and common business practices. Above all, data-processors and digital
artisans must develop political solidarity between each other as workers,
both vertically and horizontally. They all have a common interest in
ensuring that the state advances the legal, welfare and other interests of
employees rather than hinders them.

* How can digital workers organise to advance their common interests?

For generations, workers formed trade unions to bargain with their
employers and to campaign for political reforms. As in other industries,
workers in the emerging digital economy also need to defend their common
interests. However, most of the existing labour organisations are not
responding quickly enough to the changes in people's working lives.
Although formed to fight the employers, industrial trade unions were also
created in the image of the Fordist factory: bureaucratic, centralised and
nationalist. For those working within the digital economy, such labour
organisations seem anachronistic. Instead, new forms of unionism need to
be developed which can represent the interests of digital workers. As well
as reforming the structures of existing labour organisations, digital
workers should start co-operating with each other using their own methods.
As they're already on-line, people could organise to advance their common
interests through the Net. Formed within the digital economy, a virtual
trade union should emphasise new principles of labour organisation:
artisanal, networked and global.


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