‘Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex’ reviewed by Jared Smith

Reviewed by Jared Smith

About the reviewer

Jared Smith studied philosophy at the University of Georgia, and now works with technology in …

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Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex appears as part of a series from Pluto Press on cultural and political barricades in the digital age. Defensive protection or oppressive obstacle, the exact significance of a barricade often depends on which side you find yourself. But whatever the case may be, there is a sense in which erecting a barricade unites the parts it divides by making their opposition explicit. This is no less the case with the barricade that concerns author Nick Dyer-Witheford between technology-driven capital and the human labor first creating, then competing with that very same technology.

The title conveys the book’s subject as well as any title could: Dyer-Witheford has penned an examination of the proletariat under cybernetic capitalism. But it is worth noting the special care he takes defining these terms. “Cybernetics” is not a term you hear very often in tech circles anymore. A relatively old term in the field, it still carries some of the connotation for the controlling and communicating function machines were just beginning to fill in the 1940s when the term came into popular usage. Its age, in fact, is one reason why Dyer-Witheford has chosen it; implicit in the designation is the historical development of computing technology, which brings with it all the resulting economic and social changes. The other key term, “proletariat” has a longer, more volatile history. Between its frequent use in political discourse, and the drastic change of context since Marx, Dyer-Witheford makes a special effort to define “proletariat” and explain his reasoning for that definition. Dyer-Witheford uses the term “proletariat” to denote the class that must live by laboring, whether they can find work or not. Some, maybe most, readers may take that definition for granted, but if Dyer-Witheford is correct in assessing the theoretical framework from which this work evolved, then including employed and unemployed alike is a necessary qualification to make. Particular since cybernetic capitalism, the author observes, has heightened the volatility of the proletarian position to new levels (13). If the difference between employment and unemployment could simply be a new version of software, distinguishing between those that have work and those that do not loses some of its utility.

Dyer-Witheford is seeking to show that cybernetics have enabled the combination of automation and globalization which intensifies capitalism’s “moving contradiction” – the tendency to pull people into labor only to expel them once they become “superfluous”. For a very simple example, someone has to build the robot building robot before the robot can take over. Automation catalyzes the contradiction while globalization expands the pool from which to draw labor before eventually ejecting it (15).

Dyer-Witheford returns throughout the book to the well known weather metaphor for capital. But in the second chapter, he digs deep into its wide ranging applications for advocates and critics alike. Maelstrom and turbulence are common examples, but Dyer-Witheford’s choice iteration of the metaphor is the vortex if for no other reason than the sense of direction that comes with the term. Imagine watching a hurricane approaching the southern United States. As the storm strengthens, its rotational speed and diameter increase. But it is not just circling a central axis. It is pulling warm vapor from the surface into the upper atmosphere where it condenses and is forced out to the storm clouds spinning away from the eye. And all the while, the hurricane itself is moving towards the coast.

The motions in the vortex illustrate numerous points throughout the book, and the metaphor has a strong presence at the beginning and the very end, which ties the argument together very nicely. But the violent aspect of the storm metaphor is the most common way it crops back up. In a section called “In the Tornado”, Dyer-Witheford documents the rampage of the vortex through labor in the auto industry (53-6). When new technology – the assembly line in particular – made cars a popular commodity rather than a niche product, the American auto industry attracted migrating workers to the Great Lakes region, and especially to Detroit. But, once technology expanded the market of available (i.e., cheaper) labor, the factories moved on leaving workers behind. But the vortex does not stop and automation has actually brought some factories back to the Great Lakes region, leaving workers in the markets for which the factories left Detroit initially in the same predicament as their Motor City counterparts. There is a very noticeable difference, though, with the factories that have returned – the jobs do not come back, they simply vanish.

Amidst concerns over industrial job losses, supporters of capitalism often point to education as the answer. But the vortex goes through schools just as well as factories. We like to tell kids that if they work hard, they will get ahead. And there is a common twist to that syllogism: that if they work hard to learn technology, then they will end up far, far ahead. We, in the United States at least, reinforce that message by pushing for more technology in classrooms, granting STEM curriculums the priority, and introducing education policies that mimic corporate management techniques. All of which is part of an effort to prepare kids for the economy they will eventually enter. But whether there are jobs waiting for them in that economy is a question that rarely comes up when considering these efforts. Dyer-Witheford argues, persuasively, that if the largely jobless recovery from the 2008 financial crisis is a reliable indicator, we should not count on those jobs materializing by the time these students graduate (169).

But perhaps the book’s strongest aspect is the examination of the industries on which cybernetic capital really depends: mines that supply materials for circuits, poisonous assembly plants, software development sweatshops, and the precariously employed monitors that filter our social media. From the distasteful to the disturbing, judging the appropriateness of media has not been automated just yet. But media companies still need to moderate the content posted by users of their platforms. So, for now, a person has to review the content. This is where, exemplar of cybernetic globalization, Commercial Content Moderation (CCM) comes in. The moderators are precariously employed, usually contracted, working all over the world, while reviewing material that also comes from around the world. Hourly wages vary from maybe $20 an hour in North America to $2 or $3 in the Philippines (124).

The factions in CCM labor follow deeper stratification patterns in the global proletariat that Dyer-Witheford connects to the volatility maintained by cybernetic capital. Simply put, there are some places where it is usually better to be proletarian than in others. What ties the different proletarian zones together is that in each case, capital bounds ahead.

The new demographics created by cybernetic capitalism – the laid off industrial workers, the highly educated but un(der)employed recent graduates, the informally and precariously employed in capitalism’s periphery, among many others subsets of the global proletariat, captured the world’s attention in 2011 through the various protest and resistance movements reacting to this state of affairs.

Through its success in automation and globalization, cybernetics has simultaneously increased the supply of and reduced the demand for labor. Which leaves an overabundance of workers in what is sadly called “surplus populations,” for whom work is intermittent and often informal. One member of the surplus population was Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation led to the 2011 Tunisian Revolution and in turn helped start the Arab Spring, itself a turning point in a new cycle of struggles.

Recalling these resistance movements inevitably brings up the role cybernetics played in the movements. The stories of protesters using Twitter and Facebook to spread the word in Egypt and elsewhere are common. Besides the demonstrations making use of online communication to coordinate an offline presence, the 2011 cascade also included action that was entirely online – most notably the release of US diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks and the actions taken by Anonymous in support. While cablegate started late in 2010, the fallout from the leaks coincided with sympathetic movements through the following year. But more than simply taking place at the same time, the movements crossed over. Anonymous involved itself in the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia – lending technical expertise to evade surveillance and circumvent official efforts to disrupt communication (159). Protesters in the streets wore the Guy Fawkes masks that Anonymous made popular.

The improvisational use of technology by resistance movements – particularly in authoritarian states – shows the platforms, even after having been caught up in cybernetic capitalism, could recapture the radical edge of the participatory commons promised by these technologies to begin with (152).

Whereas the technology proved its potential benefits for the struggle, it also displayed its effectiveness in cracking down on resistance movements – as Edward Snowden’s information has made clear. Some of the very same technology that proved essential to the resistance movements was just as crucial to undermining them. While, for example, social media were helpful in organizing these movements, they also helped officials investigating those doing the organizing (163-5). The opposition of social media’s use for resisting and oppressing reflects a typical contrast around digital barricades. On the one side, we find idealist plans for how technology will improve the world, with plentiful opportunities for expression and radical redistribution of power. While on the other side, we’re confronted with the oppressive and malicious use of technology: mass surveillance, the Great Firewall, etc.

In the last chapter, Dyer-Witheford returns to the impetus for the series and looks forward to how the digital barricade might stand in the coming years by considering two options for the struggle against cybernetic capitalism: rejection and reappropriation. Cybernetics has reshaped the economy and so, the workforce, completely. It would be impossible to orchestrate effective movements without information technology now, even if it was possible in the past. Complete rejection is simply not an option. But neither is complete reappropriation. After all, there is a chance a capitalist bias is present in the essence of cybernetics and if left unchecked that bias could warp any reappropriation efforts recreating the same problems all over again. Neither side will have a complete answer, Dyer-Witheford argues, because in each case, the proposed solution is determined by the current velocity of capitalism’s vortex – essentially an acceleration of the present course along the reappropriation path or a total halt by rejection. What is actually needed is a departure from capitalism’s path entirely, and both proposals will play a role (196).

Dyer-Witheford methodically shows that automation in conjunction with globalization has led to a grave situation for the global proletariat. The conclusions can, frankly, be depressing despite his efforts in the last chapter to be cautiously optimistic about our prospects. Even so, it is very much worth a read. The tactful use of narrative tools makes Dyer-Witheford’s book not just accessible, but engrossing. Chapter three considers the very beginning of the information age, around WWII and the beginning of the Cold War. And he depicts the development of this technology like a great story. It is, in fact, a great story, and Dyer-Witheford tells it well. His descriptions of working conditions in the jobs behind what we see in cyberspace are just heartbreaking. He paints pictures of the working conditions in toxic clean rooms from which computer components emerge. This book embodies the best pop-economics while steeped in theory. One of the book’s highlights is wrenching depiction of e-waste junkyards on capital’s periphery. Where children troll with magnets on string among the fumes from massive fires set to melt away plastic from electronic components (111-2). Dyer-Witheford is clearly a talented storyteller and uses his skills to great effect depicting the predicament facing our economy (or at least us proletarians).

3 December 2015

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