Late capitalism marks a general shift, by no means total or dominant, away from industrial, factory-based labor. We now labor to produce more than goods. We produce affects, feelings, and communications that are circulated ad finitum through a networked culture. Increasingly so, we are online – tapped into this network. We share a compulsive desire to give ourselves over to the Internet. We proliferate the production/consumption of these affects, feelings, and communications not only to valorize ourselves, but also to be a part of the online social factory that is responsible for this knowledge. Terranova describes the production of knowledge in the digital economy as free labor, which necessitates collaboration, participation, and the continuous building of existing content. Is this what makes networks so enormously resilient and adaptable? That content can be so swiftly restored when thousands of people, compelled by passion, devote themselves to the Internet? And what are the risks when passion is the glue keeping the digital economy together?
There are specific forms of knowledge production that we intuitively understand as labor, such as web programming, multimedia production, and digital services, mostly because these knowledge workers are compensated for their work. But what about the forms of online activity that are not recognized as labor by knowledge workers, e.g. blogging, social media content? This type of labor serves to create cultural knowledge by setting cultural standards, opinions, tastes, fashions within larger cultural flows. It provides the “looks, styles, and sounds” that sell commodities from clothes to video games. Businesses in fact take advantage of cultural knowledge to know what people like, what they are thinking, and then monetize this knowledge. Per Terranova, business valorizes knowledge, i.e. human intelligence, as the main source of added value today. But what is interesting is that knowledge work cannot be micro-managed in a Fordist sense. Instead, knowledge production requires liberation from any sort of management. The Internet liberates the structures of the work process and encourages social collaboration by making the network a seemingly “open communications environment.”
Is this how we are being duped? Because we are providing free labor in an environment that is increasingly enjoyable for ourselves? Terrenova paints the utopian vision of sitting at home and enjoying the simple pleasures of participating on the Internet. We get to surf the web for free, but the Internet as an industry is still highly susceptible to cultural and capitalist hegemonies. Terranova makes a strong point that we are producing mass intellect collectively, but being compensated selectively [by the logic of profit]. Free labor goes unacknowledged all the time, but do we seem to care? Being online makes you feel passion, belong, and meaning. We rarely think about exploitation because nothing is lost. You cannot quantify skills, knowledge, affect, or any other immaterial component of your work. While the knowledge produced can be appropriated, incorporated into a commodity, sold, and reintroduced into cultural flows with new order and intensity, knowledge workers are not aware of/concerned about this structural inequity. They do not feel the suffering of their free labor. There is no catastrophe of the human essence.
What strikes me as important in Terranova’s argument is that the digital economy is immanent to capital. Everything online takes place within this terrain. We have our own desires, but capitalism is invested in these passions and desires. Capitalism wants us to want things though consumption and production. If the gift economy is merely an important economic tool in the capitalist system, and free labor is driven by the passions of the crowd, then what I am struggling with is that self-exploitation on the part of the laborer seems to be perpetuating and driving forward this economic system. Are these conditions for better or for worse?