Wages for Digital Labour

The text below was written for Wages for Digital Labour Day which is taking place as part of Emergenc(i)es on Saturday 11 June at the Trinity Centre, Bristol.


Wages for Digital Labour re-appropriates the rallying cry and theoretical backbone of Wages for Housework, an important 20th century, internationalist feminist movement.

Wages for Housework wrote in the 1970s: ‘Our isolation in the family while doing our work had hidden its social nature. The fact that it brought no wage had hidden that it was work.’[1]

The digital economy, in contrast, inverts the previous conditions of social, unwaged labour that sustains the social and economic reproduction of capitalism.

Wages for Digital Labour draws attention to the invisible, unpaid yet fundamental role that particular kinds of work perform in reproducing social and economic relations in a digital, information economy.

wages-for-digital-labourWithin today’s hyper-connected digital conditions, our unwaged labour proudly flaunts its social status. Our isolation is therefore cruelly ironic. Never has our place in the network of techno-mineral-humanity been more abundant and obvious, yet loneliness, precarity and anxiety prevent us from organising collectively.[2] And how we might yearn for the isolation of the ‘private home’. Such a space seems farcical, a distant dream, now that our lives are defined by ever diminishing privacy.

Wages for Digital Labour provokes and informs, it makes clear the procedures of value generation within the contemporary capitalist economy that trades predominantly in information or ‘data.’

It demands compensation for hours, days and years of stolen time and attention. It is to confront the economic reality of a system the digitised proletariat are embedded within and sustain day and night through compulsive data/generation.

Better to demand Wages for Digital Labour now, rather than later: our capacities to produce data will increase exponentially in the next few years. Compensation must be adequate and reflect our participation. ‘By 2020’ it is alleged, ‘more than 1.7 megabytes of new data will be created every second of everyday.’[3]

Why, you may wonder, is there so much data?

The answer is simple: there is more means to both generate and capture it.

With the advent of smart cities and the internet of things, data capture devices are and will be embedded within a range of domestic and public devices, from fridges to kettles to lamp posts to park benches (and you better make sure you don’t sit on that bench for too long. When the analytics decide you are sat there because you don’t have a home to go to, the managers of public space will take it away—the homeless, the loiterers and the ‘unproductive’ are a barrier to a efficient society and must be eliminated via data’s social engineering).

Even the most mundane actions, such as walking down the street to buy a loaf of bread will be tracked, sensed, captured and analysed.

Whether we like it or not we will be working, continually, for the information economy.

We call for Wages for Digital Labour because we are no longer child bearers but data-bearers: emotional states and facial expressions are ripe bounty for the mechanisms of data capture and analysis.

Society has become subject to widespread and some might say irreversible datafication, and we better get ready to capitalise on this opportunity.

Wages for Digital Labour raises the question of political economy, and frames it in the following, unsophisticated terms: who gets paid and who doesn’t for data/ generation?

Let us be clear: all those invitations to contribute, share, comment and even ‘prosume’ were not innocent solicitations offered by benevolent social media companies.

Out of this mesh of relationships, ‘friends’ or connections in which we are now so ensnared, a whole business model has been non-consensually erected.

Our private lives have been ripped out and ripped off.

Corporations, the most obvious being Facebook and Google have made huge profits from our continuous acts of data generation. Their relationship with us, the digital proletariat, is asymmetrical; our place within the hyper-extended internet of things, non-negotiable. We are the data/generation.

The economic future is built from data bits. The data bits we produce. This data is stolen from our personal experiences, movements and gestures. As we move through the streets we shed data, our quantified selves are ghosts in the machine. We are identified, profiled, individualised and networked by these data traces.

But are they really who we are? Can human life be reduced it to its quantified emissions?

This in-formation is stored in server farms, sold by data brokers and analysed by marketing agencies, the state and urban planners. Grand theories about the world are extracted from the ‘knowledge’ embedded within this data.

It is used to make plans, to anticipate the future that pre-figures—and disfigures—us.

All this time, despite being tethered to multiple—the latest, high speed—data-generating devices, we have not been paid for our time-based, attention captured, cognitive work.

Let us not forget, either, that pervasive media has reconfigured the working week.

Work/ life balance has slid out of all proportion in the 24/7 data-economy. Leisure. Work. It’s all the same. On call all the time. Data. Data. Data. Data.

In the future, many now claim, there will be significantly less jobs. Robots will be able to do the admin, drive cars, serve you coffee…automation—on a scale like never before—will create a widespread and endemic labour crisis.

Yet even when there are no jobs the ‘unemployed’ will continue to produce more and more data.

For that we must be paid.

Our lives will be miserable enough in this data world that we did not—and never would—choose. For who would want to be tetanised by disruptive infrastructure, subject to the most extreme—yet curiously banal—forms of surveillance?

With no job and no means to generate income—unless we learn to hook into the system, to extract value from that which we do not pay for, in short, to rip off our fellow workers—how will the mass of data labourers survive?

There have been demands for a citizen’s or social wages before, but Wages for Digital Labour is different.

It responds to economic conditions that are unprecedented in both scale and extent.

The reach of the big data tentacles is comprehensive: from the un-thought, imperceptible corners of the psyche to the intimate contours of the living room, to the far reaches of outer space and everywhere in-between. The coercive accumulation of data within ‘surveillance capitalism’[4] enlists the data /generation in all of its invasive antics.

Contagion is rife. Extract or be extracted. Our situation, exceptional. The data capture system—as shaper or economics, the social and reality—is impossible to extract oneself from.

Once upon a time—and not so long ago—there were pockets of life that were ‘removed from the circulation of capitalist valorization […] open spaces for experimentations of all kinds towards a life lived without economic constraints’.[5] These times/ spaces have now been largely enclosed.

Life, now, is surrounded—attended—by data.

The call – Wages for Digital Labour – is now made.

The demand is plain: the digital proletariat must be compensated for the work we have done, are doing and will be forced to do in the future.

We are not likely to escape since enclosure is legion, but our lives must not be ruined any more than they have been.

To paraphrase Wages for Housework:

What is the relation of the [digital proletariat] to capital and what kind of struggle can we effectively wage to destroy it? We must hastily add that this is not the same as asking: What concessions can we wring from the enemy? – though this is related. To pose the first question is to assume we’ll win; to pose the second is to calculate what we can salvage from the wreck of defeat.[6]

The wealth we have generated must be redistributed.

It must be acknowledged that our labour—and our power—counts.


[1] Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, 1972. ‘The power of women and the subversion of the community – https://libcom.org/library/power-women-subversion-community-della-costa-selma-james.

[2] Plan C, 2014, ‘We Are All Very Anxious’, http://www.weareplanc.org/blog/we-are-all-very-anxious/.

[3] Simone Grassi, 2016, ‘What is the state of open data in the world? UK leads the datafication.’ http://www.bristolisopen.com/what-is-the-state-of-open-data-in-the-world-uk-leads-the-datafication/

[4] Shoshanna Zuboff, ‘Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization’, Journal of Information Technology (2015) 30, 75–89. doi:10.1057/jit.2015.5

[5] Astrid Proll, 2010. ‘Hello London’ in Astrid Proll, ed. Goodbye to London: Radical Art & Politics in the 70’s, Hatje Cantz, 8-12, 11.

[6] Dalla Costa and Selma James, ‘The power of women and the subversion of the community.’