Nowtopia - Net Work

Virtual Spine of the Commons

The open source community is pretty much tech support for the revolution, if you will, or tech support for the new society.

—Will Doherty

…It is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it… The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not exist in the workers’ consciousness, but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power… The production process has ceased to be a labor process in the sense of a process dominated by labor as its governing unity. Labor appears, rather, merely as a conscious organ, scattered among the individual living workers at numerous points of the mechanical system; subsumed under the total process of the machinery itself, as itself only a link of the system, whose unity exists not in the living workers, but rather in the living (active) machinery, which confronts his individual, insignificant doings as a mighty organism.

—Karl Marx

The Internet is an ongoing creation of a staggering, unmeasurable cooperative effort by an unknowable number of contributing workers. It is several decades old, but expanding continuously, always reaching more people and more places, affecting ever more aspects of life and work. This world-spanning system of wires, circuits, microchips, machines, and frequencies shaped by global capitalist imperatives provides the physical foundation for the automated office and far-flung capitalist managerial control. The physical network has also facilitated an unparalleled and largely unregulated proliferation of communicative relationships which themselves are producing unprecedented connections, movements, behaviors, and social knowledge.

The Internet balances on radically opposite assumptions about the material basis of our lives. It is a curious hybrid of money-making business and a sprawling gift economy of avid writers, programmers, designers, and inventors, mutually dependent while working (often unconsciously) towards antagonistic goals. Private ownership and its foundational fear of scarcity push the Internet to extend and intensify the exploitation of human labor. The commodity form is imposed on the “products” that traverse the Internet, while wherever possible human connections are reduced to mere transactions. Elsewhere, the integration of computers and information technology into material production greatly intensifies the exploitation of human work, expanding production systems geographically and temporally while ever more tightly subordinating individual workers to rhythms and expectations beyond their comprehension or control.

The Internet also reveals a nearly limitless abundance that stimulates sharing and cooperation for its own sake, a digital commons reinforcing human interconnectedness and interdependence. In a late capitalist world of numbing barbarism and alienated isolation, the powerful allure of meaningful communication inspires passionate engagement and remarkable time investments by millions. This participatory commons harbors every kind of human relationship, from the banality of buying and selling to the unconstrained sharing of poetry, art, music—any kind of expression that depends on communication. A post-capitalist life founded on generalized abundance is prefigured in self-expanding autonomous communications spaces on-line. But that is only one possible future, and far from inevitable.

The two opposed visions of the Net co-exist in tense mutual dependence. Equipment vendors, infrastructure owners, and increasingly, retailers require users by the million. Netizens can only exist with an elaborate technical infrastructure maintained—in this society—by private capital and nation states. Nevertheless, the infrastructure can be used to attack capital’s control both directly and indirectly. Activist programmers use free software to provide communications infrastructure to oppositional groups fighting cultural and political battles. Indymedia centers and blog sites provide open publishing platforms for independent opinion, and noncommercial news reporting. Thousands publish photos, music, and writings for free distribution on the Net. Millions share thoughts and experiences via email and private discussion lists, plenty of it publicly posted, too. Self-organized and self-directed independent programmers spend endless hours working to produce “elegant,” free software, often trumping commercial competitors in design and capabilities.

The Internet can be stuffed into the tiny box we call the “Market” or it can prompt a revolutionary redesign of how we do what we do, and how it fits into an urgently needed planetary ecological renaissance. In the first decade of the 21st century, social forces are pulling in both directions. The Internet—and the creative, often unpaid software work that makes use of it—is evolving amidst an epoch-shaping fight over the purpose and status of this new arena of human socializing. Prolific free communication on the Net constitutes an ongoing material experience unlike anything available in pre-Internet societies. Its practitioners are learning something new about cooperation, sharing, and collective and derivative social endeavors. Furthermore, the quasi-communistic results of free software production (even the more business-oriented open-source projects) are an ongoing affirmative “NO” to the shoddy quality and profit-distorted work undergirding commercial software produced at large corporations.

Abundant on-line creativity demonstrates the social nature of modern work more clearly than ever before, even though most work has always been dependent on social cooperation. Much of the Net has grown on the foundation of free software, leading in turn to the crazy proliferation of new creative uses, predominantly outside of exchange or commodification. All these daily acts of communication and creative sharing facilitated by the Net escape the capitalist imperative to measure individual work, pay for some tasks and not others (and at inexplicably divergent rates), while continually haranguing people to accept a “fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”

Maurizio Lazzarato notes that “waged labor and direct subjugation (to organization) no longer constitute the principal form of the contractual relationship between capitalist and worker. A polymorphous self-employed autonomous work has emerged as the dominant form, a kind of ‘intellectual worker’ who is him or herself an entrepreneur, inserted within a market that is constantly shifting and within networks that are changeable in time and space.” In other words, economic life has been transformed by an increasingly blurred line between work as life-activity and work for pay. Individuals often produce work that is shared freely in one moment and then sold to an employer another. Though a majority of people do not work in computer- or Internet-related business, the growing precariousness of fixed employment in most fields parallels the relationships emerging in on-line and related work.



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The Commoner

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