When we think of computers, laptops, mobile phones, the Internet or social media our first associations are often mobility, modernity, sociality, flexibility, communication.

fuchs marx

– By Christian Fuchs

When we think of computers, laptops, mobile phones, the Internet or social media our first associations are often mobility, modernity, sociality, flexibility, communication. In my book “Digital Labour and Karl Marx” I try to show that labour, class and exploitation are not concepts of the past, but are at the heart of computing and the Internet in capitalist society. I argue that we therefore need an engagement with Karl Marx’s theory to understand digital and social media today.

Our use of digital media is grounded in old and new forms of exploited labour. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Weibo and other social media platforms are the largest advertising agencies in the world. They do not sell communication, but advertising space. And for doing so, they exploit users, who work without payment for social media companies and produce data that is used for targeting advertisements. Exploitation of various forms of labour is at the heart of digital capitalism. Increasingly, value-generation on the Internet relies on crowdsourcing labour to extremely low-paid or unpaid workers. Special platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, oDesk, PeoplePerHour or Elance have emerged for this purpose.

“Digital labour and Karl Marx” presents case studies that show that users’ activities on corporate social media is just one form of digital labour. Their usage is enabled by the labour of slaves and other highly exploited workers extracting minerals in developing countries, hardware assemblers in China, California and other parts of the world who face extremely hard working conditions that remind us of the industrial labour that Karl Marx described in 19th century Britain, low paid software engineers and information service workers in developing countries who provide labour for transnational ICT companies in the West, highly paid and highly stressed software engineers at Google and other Western ICT companies, or e-waste workers who disassemble computers under toxic conditions.

Apple is an integrated ICT company that sells hardware (Macs, iPhones, iPads, etc) operating systems, application software, hardware and entertainment content. Its profits amounted to more than 37 billion US$ in 2013. When advertising the iPhone 5, Apple said that this device is “for the colorful”.

The daily reality of Chinese Foxconn workers who produce these devices is in contrast bleak, grey, toxic, dangerous, hard to stand and sometimes deadly as the suicides committed by young Foxconn workers who were mostly poor migrants from rural areas who could no longer stand the bad working conditions showed in 2010. Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour have recently argued that working conditions at Apple have not improved, although Apple claims so in its CSR reports.

The case studies in “Digital Labour and Karl Marx” show that the profitability of ICT companies is built on the lives and deaths of a global class of exploited workers whose labour is anonymously connected an international division of digital labour. The devices and platforms hide the exploitation that is underlying them. What Marx called the fetish of commodities is the hideous and hidden reality of digital media.

There are no easy solutions. You cannot simply buy a blood-free and exploitation-free mobile phone, tablet, computer or laptop. Exploited labour is the reality of all of these devices. The phenomenon of digital labor reminds us of the importance to think about alternatives to capitalism. Production and use of digital media are embedded into multiple forms of exploitation. The information society is first and foremost a capitalist class society. The only solution is that we become conscious as a new working class and find ways to overcome the realities of exploitation.

Christian Fuchs is professor of social media at the University of Westminster’s Communication and Media Research Institute. http://fuchs.uti.at @fuchschristian 


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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