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Author: Richard Barbrook


* How does digital work differ from its analogue forms?

Increasingly people would like to enjoy the dignity of artisan labour without losing the material benefits 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, many people would also like to rediscover satisfaction in their work. In sectors such as the media, people can already combine skilled labour with high productivity. 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. For most of their clients, digital artisans use standardised software packages and mainstream graphic designs to get the job completed on time and within budget. Their 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 artisans can demonstrate their creativity by producing wonderful artefacts which have never been seen before.

* 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.

* What distinguishes digital artisans from dotcom 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 dotcom 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? Within many sectors, the ‘new paradigm’ is obviously just a trendy Californian buzzword. 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. 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 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. Despite the rhetoric of the ‘new paradigm’, the old class divisions of capitalism persist.

* 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 other industries, 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. 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.

Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.