I’ve been scratching my head trying to think about how to understand the different facets of labor that are shaping contemporary life. I don’t have good answers; I only have some provocations and a few questions, but I would love to hear your thoughts.
As a teenager, I was a sandwich artist. I’d arrive at work, don my uniform and clock in. I had a long list of responsibilities – chopping onions, cleaning the shop, preparing the food, etc. Everything was formulaic. I can still recite how to ask a customer if they want onions, pickles, lettuce, green peppers, or black olives. The job paid minimum wage and was defined by doing pre-specified tasks in an efficient and predictable manner with a smile. When my compatriots got fired, it was almost always for being late. In-between making sandwiches and doing the rote tasks, we would gossip and chat, complain about regulars and talk about run-ins with cops (who demanded free food which meant a dock in pay for whoever was working). And when my shift was over, I’d clock out and leave, forgetting about Subway even though the scent lingered and filled my car.
Today, I have my dream job. I’m a researcher who gets to follow my passions, investigate things that make me curious. I manage my own schedule and task list. Some days, I wake up and just read for hours. I write blog posts and books, travel, meet people, and give talks. I ask people about their lives and observe their practices. I think for a living. And I’m paid ridiculously well to be thoughtful, creative, and provocative. I am doing something related to my profession 80-100 hours per week, but I love 80% of those hours. I can schedule doctor’s appointments midday, but I also wake up in the middle of the night with ideas and end up writing while normal people sleep. Every aspect of my life blurs. I can never tell whether or not a dinner counts as “work” or “play” when the conversation moves between analyzing the gender performance of Game of Thrones and discussing the technical model of Hadoop. And since I spend most of my days in front of my computer or on my phone, it’s often hard to distinguish between labor and procrastination. I can delude myself into believing that keeping up with the New York Times has professional consequences but even I cannot justify my determination to conquer Betaworks’ new Dots game (shouldn’t testing new apps count for something??). Of course, who can tell if my furrowed brow and intense focus on my device is work-focused or not. Heck, I can’t tell half the time.
In the digital world, the line between what is fun and what is work is often complicated. There are people whose job it is to produce tweets and updates as a professional act, but they sit beside people in a digital environment who produce this content because it’s connected to how they’re socializing with their friends. Socializing, networking, and advertising are often intertwined in social media, making it hard to distinguish between professional and personal, paid labor and career advancement.
There are are people who understand that they’re “on the job” because of where they are physically, but there are also people whose model of work is more connected to their interaction with their Blackberries or the kinds of actions that they’re taking. And then there are people like me who have lost all sense of where the boundaries lie.
There is tremendous anxiety among white collar workers about how blurry the boundaries have gotten, but little consideration for how that blurriness is itself a mark of privilege. More often than not, those with more social status have blurrier boundaries around space, place, and time. Sometimes, this privilege comes with a higher paycheck, but freelance writers have a level of class privilege that is not afforded to the punch-in, punch-out workforce even if their actual income is paltry.
Often, there’s rampant financial and status inequality between those whose careers are defined by blurred boundaries and those who work in a prescribed manner. Many C-level execs justify their exorbitant salaries through the logic of risks and burdens without accounting for the freedoms and flexibility associated with this kind of work or recognizing the physical, psychological, and cultural costs that come with manual, service, or rote labor in prescribed environments. The freedom to control one’s own schedule has value in and of itself. Yet, not everyone with economic resources feels as though they are in control of their lives. And it’s often easier to blame the technology that tethers them than work out the dynamics of agency that are at work.
What’s at stake isn’t just that work is invading people’s personal lives or that certain types of labor are undervalued. It’s also that the notion of fun or social is increasingly narrated through the frame of work and productivity, advancement and professional investment.
Labor is often understood to be any action that increases market capitalization. But then how do we understand the practice of networking that is assumed as key to many white collar jobs? And what happens when, as is often the case in the digital world, play has capital value?
In academic circles, debates are raging over the notion of “free labor.” Much of what people contribute to social media sites is monetized by corporations. People don’t get paid for their data and, more often than not, their data is used by corporations to target them – or people like them – to produce advertising revenue for the company. The high profitability of major tech companies has prompted outrage among critics who feel as though the money is being made off of the backs of individual’s labor. Yet most of these people don’t see their activities as labor. They’re hanging out with friends or, even if they’re being professional, they’re networking. Accounting for every action and interaction as labor or work doesn’t just put a burden on social engagements; it brings the logic of work into the personal sphere.
Most of these dynamics predate the internet, but digital technologies are magnifying their salience. People keep returning to the mantra of “work-life balance” as a model for thinking about their lives, even as it’s hard to distinguish between what constitutes work and what constitutes life, which is presumably non-work. But this binary makes little sense for many people. And it raises a serious question: what does labor mean in a digital ecosystem where sociality is monetized and personal and professional identities are blurred?
As you think about your own professional practices, how do you define what constitutes work? How do you think labor should be understood in a networked world? And what does fairness in compensation look like when the notion of clocking in and clocking out are passe?
(This post was originally written for LinkedIn. Go to the LinkedIn version to engage in the conversation.)