Digital Labor, Materiality, and Urban Space

Notes on Key Terms

In order to help you focus your reading and to serve as a mnemonic device, I have provided key terms for each week of class. You will need to know these terms for the final exam. Please note that the definition I will request is not the dictionary definition of the term, but an elucidation of the term as we have used it in the context of the class: in our discussions, in our readings, and in our project work. You will be  expected to cite relevant authors (though not exact quotes or page numbers) as well as class discussions.

For some examples of “keywords” on which you might like to model your definitions, see Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (though I wouldn’t expect you to be quite as thorough as Williams!).

Digital Labor, Materiality, and Urban Space

Notes on Key Terms

Week One

materiality

Week Two

digital utopianism

computational metaphor

Week Three

supply chains

capital

Week Four

globalization

Week Five

data center

node

Week Six

infrastructure

network

Week Seven

modularity

glitch

Week Eight

digital labor

emotional labor

Week Nine

control

freedom

Week One

materiality

Materiality seems to be that which is obviously tangible to the consumer. For example, although bits are often housed in a tangible form of “movies, payrolls, expletives, or poems...moved as electrons in copper wire, light pulses in glass fiber, or modulations in

radio waves..stored in gigantic data warehouses, on DVDs sent through the mail, or on flash drives on keychains.” (Blanchette 4), bits are still not considered material because the bits themselves, or “bits—variations of magnetic field, voltages,or pulses of light: (Blanchette 1), are still not obviously tangible to the consumer. Thus, they are not part of materiality, but rather immateriality. Physical matter comes to mind for materiality; however, digital media still has matter even though it may not be physical to people.  Digital media is still made up of bits which are made up of atoms and therefore there is a physicality to it.  Plus what about the digital leftovers or traces after deleting something on a computer?  “Deleting” does not mean the material is gone, it has just been allocated elsewhere in an alternate digital form.

Authors to consider: Bill Brown (immateriality and materiality seem opposed, but really they’re linked); infrastructure readings as examples of materiality; Andrew Blum (making infrastructure material); field trip.

Week Two

digital utopianism

The notion that technology and the Internet can overturn the old way of doing things, and usher in a new era of true freedom, equality, and other enlightened ideals. Might be associated with the New Communalists of the 1960s/1970s, who had the idea that you could withdraw from society and create your own utopia, in the same way that digital utopianists think you could withdraw from society. Encourages individualism, can be self-governing. Hints at a new environment in which control is less centralized, connectivity between individuals is encouraged.

Authors to consider: Turner (Whole Earth Catalog; the New Communalists (retreat from politics) vs. the New Left (engagement with politics); connections with military)

computational metaphor

The computational metaphor is a way of describing the symbiotic relationship between computers and humans and how they effectively work together with a circular flow of information. Coined by Kevin Kelly, who described it as a “contact language” -- a metaphor that helps us understand the world. According to Turner, the computational metaphor views the “universe as a computer, thinking as a type of computation, DNA as a software, and evolution as an algorithmic process” (15). It’s a way of characterizing thinking as a machine, and human relationships as the flow of information, rather than the interaction of actual bodies.

Explicitly discussed in Turner. Idealizes the flow of information as though it doesn’t rely on physical objects. Relates to Ensmenger and Light’s articles on women in computing.

Week Three

supply chains

Route that goods travel in order to get commodities from raw materials to the consumer. Can be adjusted to increase value. Complex, multi-faceted -- as complicated as a neural network -- links between capitalists, laborers, and consumers. Human labor is the only way to add value to raw materials. Supply chains have been around since the advent of trade, but have expanded from local areas to worldwide. Since the industrial revolution, production networks have expanded. Rapid communication is crucial to increasing speed and efficiency (and to prevent the overaccumulation of raw materials). Lauren: They’re hard to track because manufacturers sometimes don’t even know where they get their stuff, so people who consume the products don’t even know.

capital

According to David Harvey, “capital” is the flow of commodities in the marketplace. It can be used to refer to raw materials (labor power, means of production such as raw materials, machinery, and energy). It can be an investment. It can have a short-term return (e.g., buying products wholesale) or a long-term return (investing in a company’s expansion). Can be anything, as long as it’s circulating within the marketplace. There’s also “human capital” (training and educating workers). Capital needs to keep moving, or it stops being capital. Capital is a noun, but in order for something to qualify as capital, it needs to be circulating within the market. Alex: capital is reminiscent of data or information; needs to keep moving, constantly circulating. Jacqueline: just-in-time shipping is important to consider, too. Lauren: we can think of just-in-time as a product of information flowing like capital.

Week Four

globalization

Weisbrout defines the term as “an increase in trade and capital flows across national boundaries.” A global interconnectedness between countries through trade, investments, contracts that ties the successes and failures of countries together, often through exploitation like workers’ rights violations that would be illegal in the profiting country. A consequence is also that multinational corporations push underdeveloped countries to become producing hubs for the first world. Globalization is complemented by advances in digital technology and communications. From the point of view of a corporation, globalization can be viewed as a rational way to structure production. Globalization can obscure our understanding of national borders; we may be under the assumption that t gloablization encompasse she whole world equally, even though that’s not always the case, in terms of political inequalities. Economic globalization is one way to connect the world, but it may not be the best method of promoting equality. Weisbrout characterizes our understanding of globalization as “an inevitable technologically driven process in which there are ‘winners and losers.”’ Globalization affects not only the global economy, but also the national economy. The IMF and World Bank have a lot of power over the regulation of the economics of globalization. We read an article from the New York Times about Apple and globalization, in which executives claimed that we must rely on fast and cheap labor, as opposed to middle-class positions, in order to keep up with the competitive market.

Week Five

data center

Where tech companies store their servers. Where the physical manifestation of the Internet and telecommunications exist (such as wires, etc). Require certain complex internal apparatus such as lighting and temperature control. A data center can exist within a variety of other institutions, such as a bank or a school (e.g., UCLA’s servers). Data centers’ architecture has changed over time; at the moment, data centers are deliberately nondescript. Data centers can be seen as proof of the materiality of the Internet. Their existence threatens the idea of the Internet as a free, immaterial space. People managing data centers describe their positions as “real estate” management. Andrew Blum mentioned that companies like Facebook are proud of their data centers because of their modern design, while a company like Google actually erases its data center from its map.

node

A location of centralized information (within the Internet’s infrastructure). Pressure point within the Internet infrastructure. An important geographical link. According to Kevin Lynch, nodes are “focal points, intersections, or loci.” Accumulations of capital within the infrastructure. Nodes can have physical consequences on the spaces they occupy.Gi

Week Six

infrastructure

Physical structures that facilitate the flow of general resources globally, or throughout a city, or even an enterprise (which can then be put to more specific uses). Inherently physical and tangible. Infrastructure connects different entities together. Challenges our assumptions that the Internet is structured by limitless and uncontrollable resources. (See “glitch.”) We don’t often look at the infrastructure; we forget that it’s there.

network

A network is comprised of nodes through which information flows. It’s a connection of certain points. [All the points in a network are working toward a similar goal (e.g., a business network).] All the nodes must be interoperable. Different kinds of networks (closed and open). Closed networks are more secure, while open networks are more accessible. Information can enter a network and navigate to its destination through “hops.” The “self-healing” characteristics of the Internet depend on the ability of information to take multiple routes. We can use network as a concept, in addition to referring to a physical entity.

Week Seven

modularity

Dividing up a task into distinct actions. Tasks work independently of each other, but they work toward a common objective. Tied to McPherson’s discussion of “lenticular logic,” which emphasizes the presence of modules and nodes in a system, in which the relationship of the nodes are suppressed -- so it’s hard to find connections between two nodes. (Alex: Could be a response to the complexity of the structures in which we live. We’re formatting the network so that we can easily adjust, edit, update.) Modularity divides structural racism into distinct categories and tries to tackle them independently of each other. McPherson argues that this is ineffective. McPherson argues that modularity is built into UNIX -- and the fact that we all use UNIX continues to affect our thinking.

glitch

Nakamura’s “Glitch Racism” refers to the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (or GIFT), which posits that a normal person who hides behind a screen will act differently from the way they would normally act. Nakamura argues that referring to online racism as a “glitch” is a way to avoid acknowledging that people are actually racist “in real life.” Nakamura says that a glitch is a “short-term deviation from the correct value.” Racism is seen as a glitch because it’s seen as an obstacle to the idea of a free and open Internet. The idea of the “glitch” makes racism seem natural and normal.

Week Eight

digital labor

Forms of labor that is taking place in the virtual world. Often seems invisible, since it’s not physical labor that people can observe. Fandom could be seen as a form of digital labor, because you’re adding value to an object by adding meaning and status to it. Emotional labor can often be involved in digital labor, because digital labor often entails service (e.g., call center employees, or content moderators). We don’t always have a great vocabulary for forms of digital labor. Author to consider: Abigail De Kosnik.

emotional labor

Labor which involves manipulating and producing (inauthentic) emotions. For example, service and care positions, flight attendants, nurses, mental health professionals. teachers.n Women are more expected to take on emotional labor than men, because it is considered to be more natural for them. Because of the expectation that it’s natural for women to perform emotional labor, these jobs are often lower-paid.

Week Nine

control

the limit of freedom. limiting movement of things. (Gilles Deleuze “Postscript on control society”): control society comes after discipline society, people are modularized, turned into metrics. Power doesn’t live in any one place; it’s everywhere.

Facebook as a metonym: it’s an instrument of control – you’re breaking yourself up into chunks. It’s a modularized way to modularize.

freedom

Wendy Chun: Freedom to act in a market. movement that applies equally to objects and people, as opposed to liberty. We think of freedom as the fullest achievement of human autonomy. Chun’s allegory: Looking for freedom on the Internet is like looking for freedom within a gated community.