Monthly Archives: June 2014

From “Consumption and Emotion: The Romantic Ethic Revisited” by Sharon Boden and Simon J.Williams


Workplace surveillance and communicative capitalism

This NYT article reports some of the ways tracking ID badges (I’m sure some nitwit calls these “smart” badges) to make employees more compliant. The badges are as dystopic-sounding as can be imagined:

Sociometric Solutions advises companies using sensor-rich ID badges worn by employees. These sociometric badges, equipped with two microphones, a location sensor and an accelerometer, monitor the communications behavior of individuals — tone of voice, posture and body language, as well as who spoke to whom for how long.

The article focuses on how companies are trying to force employees to communicate with one another more to generate productivity for the company. 

Arranging work to increase productive face-to-face communication yields measurable benefits.

For example, the company studied workers in Bank of America call centers and observed that those in tightknit communications groups were more productive and less likely to quit. To increase social communication, the shared 15-minute coffee break was introduced to the daily routine. Afterward, call-handling productivity increased more than 10 percent, and turnover declined nearly 70 percent, Mr. Waber said…
At a tech company, his company found, workers who sat at larger tables in the cafeteria, thus communicating more, were more productive than workers who sat at smaller tables.

It reads like a warped business-school application of Paolo Virno’s ideas about virtuosity and the productivity of performative communication in A Grammar of the Multitude: Let’s use blanket workplace surveillance to measure the productivity of communication! It amounts to the subsumption of sociality to capital — with capital deploying structural arrangements to capture and force out more company-friendly, value-producing communication. Virno writes:

When hired labor involves the desire for action, for a relational capacity, for the presence of others … we can say that some distinguishing traits of the human animal, above all the possession of a language, are subsumed within capitalistic production ... Nobody is as poor as those who see their own relation to the presence of others, that is to say, their own communicative faculty, their own possession of a language, reduced to wage labor.

So when fellow employees are being nice to you, they are showing you merely the false face of capital, not their own face, and exploitation continues when a co-worker sits with you at lunch. 

Workplace surveillance of employee interactions will deliver a “trove” of data, and there aren’t enough bosses to parse it all. They will turn to algorithms to sort the big-data pool, which will mean that the robots will have become our masters. The algorithm will turn up some correlated behavior that leads to improved productivity, which bosses when then force employees to conform to. So both the bosses and workers will be taking commands from the algorithm without understanding its oracular insights. 


This speaks to the way sharing economy wants to deskill and amateurize and commoditize services. The premise is a ride is a ride is a ride. And a room is a room is a room (or at least, the room provider doesn’t matter; only its location does). This punishes anyone who wants to try to differentiate their service by making it more professional or skillful. Yes, their reputation on the sharing apps may be high, but then, most everyone has a high rating on these services, because users tend to set their criteria low. As Tom Slee points out

Trashing consumerism appeals to many environmentally-minded, social-justice oriented people. But if you displace taxi drivers and replace them with casual labour, you’re not improving the work/life balance of drivers, you’re making them poorer.

The optimistic thing to say about sharing apps is they might casualize labor to the point of worthlessness, destroying capitalist “value” in the process. Theoretically, rendering services generic may point toward the reversal of alienating specialization and division of labor, toward the Marxist communist ideal of everyone being able to be hunting, fishing, reading, etc., as they choose. But short of full communism, they tend instead to make workers experience precariousness more acutely, and make them more desperate, exploitable.

Cabsplaining: A London Black Car Driver on the Uber Protest


I wanted to highlight this so I remember to mention it with respect to the so-called sharing economy. What sharing companies and apps chiefly do is invite us to turn more of our lives into capital, and thereby extend capitalism’s reach, further normalize it (which is still necessary after all these years — that is how counterintuitive its ethos can be), and further entrench it as the necessary/efficient/appropriate/beneficial way for social relations to be mediated. For the sharing economy, market relations are the only social relations.

The sharing economy appropriates a language of change and collectivity (e.g., “collaborative consumption”) to proselytize for business models that atomize individuals further, reducing their social usefulness to the spare capacity they can mobilize and marketize. Just as factories allowed deskilled workers to “cooperate” and create value that accrued to the factory owner who brought them together, sharing-economy apps implement coordination to extract value from users, offering them merely a cut of what was entirely theirs back to them, and worse, expecting them to be cheered at what a “trusting” operation it was. 

But the exchanges these platforms and apps facilitate, rather than build trust, instead induce competition (along lines of price and responsiveness) among participants. Rather than collaboration or cooperation for the sake of social bonding, they impose reciprocal exploitation. (I rate you, you rate me; who would believe in our “reputation” otherwise? And if I have nothing to sell you, what would you want to do with me?)

Nonmonetized social bonds are made to seem like wasted opportunities. The only “real” bonds between people are the ones verified and rationalized by market exchanges, which can be rendered “explainable.” Actual sharing, actual collectivity, defies market logic and economic rationality, and is inexplicable, unreal. Sharing apps help reinforce that perspective. They make visible only potential relations that will be based in monetized spare capacity, in relations of metered service provision, in wages.

Sharing economy apps epitomize the use of technology to intensify capitalism’s immiseration, which partly explains the urgency of the rhetorical offensive pushing the sharing economy forward. Through these apps, technology is deployed to impose networks (while pretending they are “communities”) and make them exploitive, to make asymmetries circulate and create incentives to maintain them. These apps supply a medium in which to discover new sorts of advantages we have over others and a means to exploit them. It lets us seek out precisely the people we can exploit this way, and invites us to name that exploitation “trust” or “sharing." 

By implementing network effects in these newly marketized relations, the sharing economy apps also institute monopoly and thereby exacerbate inequality. So they subvert or negate whatever potential technology may have to reduce the unevenness of the distribution of wealth by ultimately funneling it upward, and making everyone trapped within the networks (suddenly made explicit, with their animating logic for the kinds of connection that are valid suddenly feeling mandatory) that they have to earn every social gift they might receive, and look everywhere for advantage, not empathy or conviviality, in order to survive. 

New Statesman | Paul Mason: what would Keynes do?



I certainly never had a lot of Twitter followers, and I think noticing who was following me or unfollowing me based on something I wrote depressed me in small yet critical ways, or made me think of writing something to appeal to more readers—which I found poisonous as a writer—all that sort of currency, or thinking of being a writer as publishing, or as being an author, or as having cultural capital, instead of as reading and writing. Also feeling a fixed identity—a box—and I felt like I was not able to change or refine ideas or be in the process of becoming. That’s why I quit the online world, for now. 

I often feel this way too and end up conceiving too much of what I am thinking and writing as aphorisms for Twitter. I end up reading essays not for my own projects but to break them down into Tweets, as if it were my job to simultaneously promote everything I read and promote myself as a pithy promoter.

I would find it hard to quit the online world, and not only because it is more or less impossible to isolate it from a non-online world. I just have found I only bother to write when there is a pretense of an audience, though not necessarily an actual one, whose contours I can constantly track in real time and obsess over.

Tumblr is not an especially good facilitator of this fantasy; like Twitter it seems designed to instigate engagement through metrics, getting users to respond to the scoreboard as well as (or rather than) to one another. I especially dislike the “Activity” graph on the dashboard. 

I’m approaching 10,000 tweets on Twitter, and that seems like a “milestone” I should consider converting into a limit.

What Would Twitter Do?



Why, though, don’t people want to be perceived as publicists? Communications, or “people” skills, are certainly a valuable form of expertise in their own right. However, it seems to me that people start thinking of these skills as “manipulative” or “sleazy” when they’re openly deployed for a wage—that is to say, transformed into emotional labor. The frequent charge that publicists are “whoring” for companies captures not only the gendered nature of the work, but also the discomfort that people have with its transactional aspect.

People don’t want to be seen as publicists because they don’t want to acknowledge the extent of their collusion with the commercialism of the capitalist order, that puts forward money and self-interest as the only reasons to do anything. The emotional work publicists fail to perform is that work of disguising it, which makes them highly eligible scapegoats for capitalist commercialism. 

As Horning notes, editors also perform varying degrees of emotional labor. Horning suggests that this emotional labor, unlike that of the publicist, gets a pass because it’s coded “male.” But, per Arlie Hochschild, I’m more inclined to view all emotion work as “feminized” labor. I therefore suspect that the emotional labor performed by knowledge workers in male-dominated fields is given a pass because it largely isn’t recognized as such, or is viewed as secondary to other parts of the job.

I’m wondering if what emotion work gets coded “male” is what is accepted as “disinterested,” and what is coded “female” is what is seen as corrupt, phony, prostituted. This helps construct and reinforce the sexist view that women are inherently inauthentic (i.e. not “natural,” not men).

That’s why I urge other media workers to view the conditions of the publicist as their own—not because I think that there is some kind of “better” non-emotional robot work that we should/could be doing, but because exposing affective labor as the predominant mode of work in the current economy still feels like a useful endeavor given that this kind of work continues to go largely unacknowledged, or is seen as the province of the flack.

I’m still not sure what good can come from merely acknowledging this work. Will it then be remunerated more fairly? Will it disrupt the way gender is used to structure authentic and inauthentic work? Will it better expose complicity with commercialism and allow individuals to consciously explore counter-practices? Hopefully all of the above! 

Pink Collar | Jacobin


Jennifer Pan argues in this essay that publicists are ridiculed because they fail to adequately hide how they “perform emotional work for money.” Publicists, who are predominantly women, are set apart from everyone else who does emotional work for money (i.e. everyone in a postindustrial service economy) and scapegoated, so the rest of us can feel better about all the publicity work we do in our lives. “So often these misgivings manifest as indictments of the publicist and her work,” Pan writes, “rather than of the neoliberal economy that enables and necessitates this form of labor.” Don’t hate the player.

It’s apparently harder for people to do that when the player is female; Pan notes how gender stereotypes are roped in to suggest that women are naturally suited to PR work, which mutually reinforces the supposed triviality of both. 

Pan’s essay then detours into a discussion of emotional labor, and how it has been traditionally associated with women and thus trivialized and undercompensated in sexist society.

Publicists are similarly told to “depersonalize,” not to take rejection from editors to heart, not to let it get under their skin when angry clients berate them, and to maintain a cheerful disposition. This disengagement, though necessary for self-preservation, is also what often provokes the ire of editors and writers.

Clearly publicists need to maintain false fronts, but I am not sure that it’s entirely the cheerful disposition of publicists that makes editors hostile toward them. It may be more that publicists are the shadowy other of tastemaking editors and culture journalists, who are often shills themselves but like to pretend they are not. Sometimes the mantle of male authority is enough to mask their cravenness and their dependence on publicists to do their job of touting commercial products and white-washing it as disinterested and “objective.” Sexist society allows a male voice to almost intrinsically pass as authoritative and autonomous. 

But sometimes one must explicitly repudiate publicists so that you can create some room to get away with doing some publicity yourself. The problem with publicists isn’t exactly that they are doing the emotional labor that comes with dealing with promoting things you don’t care about; it’s that everyone is trying to hide from the way they have to be publicists themselves. They can point to pro PR people and say, Well, at least I am not as sold-out as that. As Pan notes, “the phoniness of PR work is used as a foil for the more authentic work of the writer or editor.”

Emotional labor seems to me a bit of red herring in this. Publicists are loathed by would-be tastemakers not because publicists are phonies but because tastemakers want to pretend they live in a universe where PR doesn’t need to exist, and where they themselves can be the all-knowing masters of all the cultural product in the world without having to be tipped off by professionals. 

Pan writes that “Publicity, therefore, is not so much a corrupt form of work as it is a symptom of the way that neoliberalism structures all work.” But it is still a corrupt form of work. Social media and the self-promotion it has unleashed has rooted the “symptom” even further into contemporary life, making publicity not merely a part of neoliberal work but of all of one’s life.

“We should concern ourselves with the plight of the publicist because what is demanded of her is exactly that which is increasingly demanded of all knowledge workers under neoliberalism,” Pan argues, but I’m not convinced that emotional labor is the right lens for focusing that concern. It makes it seem as though there some be some form of work that is unemotional, that we should embrace work that could be performed in perfect alienation, that we should compete with the robots for jobs that might otherwise be automated, given that they require no emotional input. 

The problem seems more that “male” gendered emotional work is privileged and valued over “female” emotional work. So the problem here is sexism more than the nature of work or the ways in which that work is inauthenticated. 

If anything, we should call our attention to the ubiquity of emotional work so that we can possibly build a society in which we can stop construing emotionality as work, stop trying to wrench alienable value out of every human impulse.

Pink Collar | Jacobin