Exploring what it means to work in the digital age, identifying the social issues around labour and what the meaning of labour is in a broader sociocultural and socioeconomic perspective. The traditional ideas of work are dissolving and in its place is a new cognitive and intellectual labour. Initially focusing on what labour is traditionally, how this has been criticized and the proposed resolution for these concerns. Continuing to focus on what the current work life involves, again addressing the issues around labour in the digital age and what it means going forward.
Initially it holds importance to have an understanding of what labour is traditionally and how this has developed into what it is defined as now. The ideas and theories of labour in the context of the humanities is articulated by Karl Marx as “The mode of production of material life conditions is the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” How we live, how society as a whole operates and what our part is in that society is everything. It’s the very foundation for what it means to live. The material conditions of your life dictate the life in which you live, they are crucial in every way.
Material conditions in an anglicised westernized sense typically allude towards capitalism. It is the dominant global economic model. It is based on the production of commodities for profit and wage labour which is the value placed on our time. Commodity being “in the first place an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or other” We’re surrounded by things we want, however, these things are now intangible. Data alongside human attention and affection are some of the most expensive commodities in our economy.
Capitalism drives towards having lots of wage labour, which at the same time enriches those that own the capital and the cycle becomes ever more extreme. As we continue to contribute to dominating organizations ie Google we become increasingly distinct from their power, widening the gap between the classes. Thus we get the two classes forming the bourgeoisie who control means of productions the proletariat who are the labouring class workers These classes form as a consequence of this dynamic, the former exploiting the latter. As these corporations follow the markets, our labour begins to adapt as we move rapidly towards cognitive industries.
This new dominating form of labour though is argued to be separating us from ourselves, as it has removed our autonomy, our creativity and our freedom. When you work you’re estranged from who you are as a person, there’s not a direct expression of oneself, as much as these large corporations lead you to believe. People as individual people have no association with the objects they create but they still occupy the entirety of their time with the production of whatever it is they produce.
Species being describes the human capacity to think, to plan and create. Marx argues that as one feeds into this type of economy “the poorer his inner world becomes” He draws parallels with animals, explaining how they are fixed to predetermined needs, basic functionalities which in themselves serve the extent of their purpose. In contrast, he explains the difference is that humans as self-conscious beings have the opportunity to think, to plan, to create a surplus that allows us to build houses, societies, create art and culture. As humans, we have the capacity for awareness and to think through what we do.
What a person does is of their own design, we are not constrained by animalistic characteristics Humans can separate themselves from what they are meant to do, they can choose to do things, to engage in free activity rather than life activity. Capitalism he argues would reverse this, we don’t choose anymore, we do things because we have to them to be a part of life as it is defined in a capitalist society. There is a social necessity for us to do them as our world becomes dependant on technology for example, we are gently forced into having to have these types of products in order to be able to live in our society in what’s considered a normal way.
However, it’s important to understand that these were idealistic ideas which were before the rise of the knowledge about failures in rationalism and economic models are based on idealistic assumptions of human behaviour which have since been found to be unreliable at best. People do not behave according to these assumptions, even though they would be the most logical and reasonable. Marx held a huge amount of faith in humanity, he was an idealist and was in an age in which romanticism and humanism were dominant ideas, there was a real belief that humans had some sort of inner malevolent force and empowering creativity.
His answer was communism, bearing in mind that this predates the substantial historical events which saw the extreme destruction of this idealistic structure for society. He proposed that there would be balance “In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow” allowing people to separate their labour and free time to be able to express their full potential outside their duties giving people a space for individual creativity.
How these historical ideas have transcended into the digital age. Although in the contemporary situation, while we can draw parallels with facticities and learn a lot from the analysis of the difference, the fact is that technology has had such an extensive impact on labour that these comparisons are limited. The provision of service as a commodity, tangible items and predominantly information, which recently has become a significant and powerful commodity.
In the contemporary context, there has been a critical shift in the post-industrial economy changing what it means to work. “Work is not restricted to a particular place and time or pattern.” It’s such a huge change that it hasn’t fully come into fruition yet but we are beginning to see the rise of network cultures. The idea that people work at a specific desk, in a specific place at a specific time as a paradigm is starting to dissipate. The means of production are changing from factories to “geographically distributed value networks.” thus enabling people to share their cognitive effort. Explaining why some of the most powerful entities in our society don’t physically produce because their production is cognitive – the new most valuable commodity.
When the new information industries are also creative industries that rely on the resources and creativity of those working in them, the value added then comes from innovation, not grinding alienation and sheer time spent working. This suggests a possible liberation from alienated work. The rise of cognitive work alludes towards possible alienation. Marx suggestion that we alienate ourselves from ourselves spending so much of our time doing things we don’t want to do. If the expression of our creativity is now considered labour, then surely this would create a space for people to be operating at the highest possible version of themselves.
There is an abundance of choice now available in terms of areas of what it is that we do for work. This could be considered a liberation from the ideas Marx has on labour. If our identity is constantly being expressed because we align our work with an expression of ourselves. Constantly engaging with what we are mentally stimulated by would surely cause us to have a life-changing level of satisfaction in our daily lives. Creativity and innovative thought has become so valuable that we could potentially create a space for us to work but still be free by engaging with all of the sensibilities that Marx has said were previously denied to us.
The economy adapts to such changes flawlessly, as much immaterial work is still a low skill, alienating and brutal and the reality of most information labour is that it take place in, “unequal virtual spaces…stratified by power and status, privilege and varying competencies.” On one hand, there is a consideration to who owns the future and everything that we do, while we are more engaged in it, we are only engaged in it because while we think we’re operating on technology, technology is in actual fact operating on us. We are completely and utterly consumed by our work with no physical or mental boundaries anymore.
This isn’t a liberation but an extension of that domination, an extension to the power we surrender to as the labouring class. There is no finality to the connection we now hold to work. The distinction between personal and professional lives is dissolving. Domination simply follows us in the form of iPhones and brings an expansion of work into all times and places. Thus an inherent tension/contradiction in modern forms of capitalism.
We have been conditioned to believe that large corporations are invested in caring for us as a labour force, however, consider the idea that these are in actual fact bourgeoisie disguised. Giving empty promises of fulfilment and self-actualisation. We remain alienated but are becoming less and less conscious of it. We’ve been blinded by the desire to have this type of work. The driving force behind modern day capitalism is that we have bought into the ideas that these corporations want us to believe. That your individual identity, idea generation and personal inputs are valued. Appraisal for your cognitive and intellectual abilities.
If our work is going to be immaterial, what do people who don’t have the desirable skills do? The people who don’t have natural abilities to be able to handle the digitally dependent nature of the current labour force. They still live in a capitalist society, and if you embrace the change of the rules within that society then what happens to the people who are unable to conform to the new normalities of it. It could arguably be next to impossible to know how this type of labour will affect us in the long term as cognitive strains cannot be recognised the same as physical ones. The rise in mental health issues throughout society cannot be denied as being directly associated with the cognitive society we are now engaged in.
The expectation of lifetime employment with a single organisation has disappeared. People don’t seem to care about having that protection or job security anymore. Or perhaps it just isn’t there. Basically what we have now is a lot of occupational economical insecurity. You have to continually prove your value in the labour market, so one of the challenges with this new cognitive form of labour, is that it changes all the time. The pace of the developments of software and technology meaning the requirements in versatility, multitasking and good self presentation among other things are all relative dynamics now, where they weren’t even a consideration before.
This causing extensive mental effects which we haven’t even begun to be able to understand. “We renew our affection for work because economic survival becomes more difficult and daily life becomes lonely and tedious: metropolitan life becomes so sad that we might as well sell it for money.” Adams addresses how there’s no motivation to contend this type of labour as there is no incentive to pursue an alternative.
These new media technologies could eventually make our skillset meaningless As new creative labourers it’s becoming evident that we are an expendable commodity due to the systems we engage in are designed to be intuitive. If one’s expertise has become redundant then you are no longer of use because anyone is able to do what you do. People are now striving to have some sort of creative expression through their work. We want to engage in labour that stimulates our creative and cognitive functions. The issue arises when we are living in the post-industrial economy, meaning these personal aspirations are being articulated and synthesised alongside comercial agendas. As we are part of this new creative class, will there come a point at which will all become replaceable. If so, are people solely engaging in these cognitive industries because of commercial motivations rather than acting upon their own intuition.
Taking this idea and thinking of it the same way we thought about the different stages of capitalism. Creative in the context of human expertise, critical thinking not just expressive. Not necessarily that we create ourselves expressively but we have a cognitive perspective that’s valuable, interesting solutions, problem solving and unique insights. Contemporary normalites on freelancing, self-employment and networking are all things which as seen as typical in the modern workforce are not necessarily natural to us all. People might not strice in this type of work, some might like the idea of physical labour. There is a comfort surrounding knowing what you’re doing and feeling competent as your labour does not hold the same constant change that cognitive labour typically does. There is an undeniable lack of clarity and structure when we are exposed to having to act on one’s own creativity.
The consequences of working in the digital age, is this now the new cycle of struggle, the struggle for the soul, the fact that we have allowed labour to become embedded in our soul. Franco Berardi draws on these notions of immaterial and affective labour to capture that we are now subsumed by work constantly and are becoming effected down to our very soul. He argues that as work has shifted from something mechanical and repetitive and thus ‘alienating’ to something cognitive and ‘creative’ that we are invested in as people.
The value we now associate with labour, as ourselves, we have removed the distance between who we are and what we do – coupled with the fact we live in an interconnected, always on, digital age we get this new struggle for our soul. The is no boundary to work life, we’re constantly on call, wired to our mobile phone, in a state of perceptual cognitive electrocution because we want to work as it gives us a certain level of stimulation and satisfaction, and we are able to work, at any time in any place. The worker almost lost their power because you can’t withhold your labour in a labour market that everyone is able to do what you do. You become powerless to the system and either conform or become useless.
In the globalized age, things that historically were outside the sphere of working life are now part of the process of production. All spheres of life become commodified, but capital is utterly relient on the social and everyday. What autonomous Marxism argues that this is how we need to look at capitalism, it’s the cycle of struggles and struggles at present is the fact that the rich people want to be richer and the workers have found a space to be able to help the rich get richer but by doing things that they’re actually interested in so it almost becomes a symbiotic relationship as there is a certain amount of fulfillment for both. Capital is a synthesis between those two perspectives, the argument being that post-industrial capitalism is based on the fact that there is still the borgausee/por but it has shifted to the point where the thing that we value, the commodity, the means of production, is actually of interest to the proditarian.
There is no denying that there has been a tremendous transformation in the meaning on labour as we enter this digitally saturated world. How we live depends on how society operates and material conditions undeniably dictate our experience. As humans, we have the capacity for awareness and to think through what we do, and what we do now is largely cognitive, mentally straining and never ending. The provision of service as a commodity, tangible items and predominantly information, which recently has become a significant and powerful commodity. We are now constantly working, in industries which are built on the foundation of digitization and technology. Without boundaries separating this from our personal life and even at that, the data we accumulate in this free time feeds into the agendas of these corporations we offer our labour to.
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