PRINT November 2012


digital labor, January 18, 2012.

“IMAGINE A WORLD WITHOUT FREE KNOWLEDGE.” To help the public envision such a scenario, Wikipedia went black for twenty-four hours on January 18, 2012, emblazoning its front page with that ominous slogan. In support of this action, protesters took to the streets in New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, and 4.5 million people signed an online petition initiated by Google. Even fresh-faced Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted his first tweet since 2009, linking to a post that stated: “We can’t let poorly thought out laws get in the way of the internet’s development.” The point of contention: the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, two now-notorious legislative bills put forth by Congress to curb copyright infringement. Supported by the Motion Picture Association of America and other powerful lobbies, the bills were designed to provide, among other things, a legal framework for copyright holders in Hollywood and elsewhere to force search engines to block offshore domains accused of piracy. The SOPA and PIPA protest was followed by mass demonstrations in more than two hundred cities across Europe against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agree­ment, which, like the American bills, was seen as a threat to privacy and free speech.

The struggle over copyright legislation, fought in the name of democracy and by a broad citizenry across political camps, was a welcome opportunity for the Internet lobby to present themselves as spokespeople for their users and as engaged advocates for the Web as a space of freedom and empowerment. And while the protests were largely not directed against the institution of intellectual property itself, but against specific means of its enforcement, to many a user the Internet lobby appeared like a digital-age Robin Hood, taking from a greedy culture industry and giving back to the poor.

We all know this is not exactly the case. Yet while the relation between copyright infringement, its alleged costs for the music and motion-picture industries, and the profits of search engines and other Internet services has been widely discussed, what is often overlooked in the ongoing copyright debate is that these very same Internet services reap huge profits by utilizing the intellectual property of millions of users without compensation—in full accordance with existing copyright law.

User-generated content makes up a vast segment of cultural production, the importance of which, both culturally and economically, has been rapidly increasing over the past decade. By posting, commenting, or liking, users produce an ever-updating, ever-expanding body of consumable content that attracts even more users to advertising space—these services’ actual product. Facebook, Google, and their like have tapped a seemingly unlimited supply of content at no cost.

Because so much of what is available for consumption is created by the audience itself, the old characterization of the culture industry as an opium for the masses, a tranquilizer that transforms people into passive spectators, is clearly no longer adequate. With the twenty-first century we have entered an age of not merely mass-cultural consumption but mass-cultural production, of art from—and no longer just for—the masses. While the art world likes to bemoan a supposed professionalization of art, we are in fact witnessing an unprecedented deprofessionalization. Almost one billion monthly active users upload three hundred million photographs to Facebook every day, posting nearly three billion likes. More than eight hundred million unique users visit YouTube each month, uploading seventy-two hours of video every minute.

At a point where the division between high art and traditional mass culture has been widely called into question, another difference seems to be structuring our culture: that between professional cultural production and user-generated content. Just as contemporary art has for decades defined itself as critical of and in opposition to a culture industry epitomized by Hollywood—often by appropriating its products, even as these were routinely derived from avant-gardes themselves—artists such as Bernadette Corporation and Martin Kohout now turn toward this new form of content. Bernadette Corpo­ration’s Media Hot and Cold, 2010, collates customer reviews of Moby-Dick, The Coming Insurrection, the Koran, and other books—drawn from commerce sites, blogs, and social-networking sites—into hardcover books of the corresponding title. Replacing the original works with the communication surrounding their reception, Media Hot and Cold suggests not only that the latter is literature in its own right but that the former may in fact matter only as an occasion for the latter. Kohout pushed this paradigm to its logical conclusion in “Watching Martin Kohout,” 2010–11, a collection of 821 videos recorded via webcam, each depicting the artist watching a YouTube video on his computer. Titled Watching NEWS, Watching Cocaine Bust Big Dildo, etc., the individual clips were themselves published on YouTube, where they appeared next to the (often no longer available) “source” clip. Consumption and production here fully coincide as the viewer—Kohout—inscribes himself in the act of viewing. Each viewing becomes a commentary, each commentary a work in its own right. Radicalizing such productive consumption, Kohout highlights its “networked” nature and the insatiable desire (or demand) for self-presentation driving it.

IF THE ENGINE of this new culture industry is social networking, these networks, in turn, are in no small part modeled on crowdsourcing: distributing to a “crowd” of individuals, “via a flexible open call, the voluntary undertaking of a task,” according to a definition recently proposed by Enrique Estellés-Arolas and Fernando González-Ladrón-de-Guevara in the Journal of Information Science. Crowdsourcing is being applied across a range of fields, allowing businesses to drastically reduce costs: InnoCentive, for example, submits research-and-development problems in areas like business, chemistry, computer science, engineering, life sciences, physical sciences, and math to a “network of millions of problem Solvers.” Yet only the first to come up with a solution meeting the criteria of the “challenge” is rewarded. At between $500 and $1 million, this compensation is only a fraction of what such solutions would cost if developed by a traditional lab or R&D department, as most of the work invested by the crowd goes unrewarded. On Amazon’s crowdsourcing market Mechanical Turk, one can sign up to execute mostly simple or repetitive technical tasks—transcription, translation, etc.—which pay as little as one cent.

The term crowdsourcing is not usually applied to the social networking that happens on Facebook or to the sharing of videos on YouTube. Structurally, however, these activities follow the same principle of relying on a crowd of users to produce, and can be understood as a form of crowdsourcing cultural production. In these cases, the labor mostly goes unremunerated altogether. The work is then “free” in a double sense: It is done freely and for free—but it is labor, producing value nevertheless.

Via social networking and crowdsourcing, every last bit of free time can be utilized and made productive. The crowd “works” at home over breakfast, on the office computer during work hours, and on the subway or even at the bar via smartphones and tablets. And most important: The crowd works voluntarily. Thus, the leisure time won over the course of more than a century of labor disputes can finally be reinscribed into the realm of production—without friction. In many cases, the crowd will simply not view the work it performs as work—at least not as labor for the Internet services in question. Whereas old-school employees usually understand themselves as employed—i.e. used—by their employer, the user of their labor power, and accordingly expect to be paid, social networkers are defined and define themselves as users of someone else’s service.

Accordingly, when crowdsourcing phenomena are discussed, they are often perceived and described not in economic but in political terms, with observers pointing out their democratic nature. This notion of empowerment is heavily scented with the legacy of the historical and neo-avant-gardes—the author as producer, the activation of the spectator, the making of a new subject. Along the same lines, what seems at stake in the current copyright debate is the Internet as not only a space of free speech but one less dominated by property and profit: a space where property laws may exist but seem to matter little in the day-to-day life of ordinary users; a space where people contribute for free whatever they can and where they receive—or simply take—what they need. Quasi-utopian projects such as the Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit corporation that licenses the text of Wikipedia under a Creative Commons license and its code under a GNU license, are perfect symbols of this “world of free knowledge.”

But even Wikipedia seems slightly less utopian if one considers that two-thirds of its traffic is being redirected from Google, where it will rank among the top results for almost any search, serving as an important content provider. This is even truer for the new info box displayed after searching proper names: Drawing most of its information directly from Wikipedia, it can make a visit to the actual site unnecessary. “Wikipedia is one of the greatest triumphs of the Internet,” said Google cofounder Sergey Brin on the occasion of a $2 million donation to the Wikimedia Foundation in 2010. “This vast repository of community-generated content is an invaluable resource to anyone who is online.” Especially to Google, one might add.

The political meaning of participatory models of cultural production, despite all their liberatory rhetoric, cannot be separated from their larger context and the economic function they fulfill within it. By contrast, the historical avant-garde was predicated on a general restructuring of society, in the course of which private property was to be abolished. Within a proprietary system such as the one structuring our present-day world, crowdsourcing cultural production constitutes—instead of a new commons—merely a new kind of work­force called users, and a new type of artistic labor: social net work.

Jakob Schillinger is a writer and curator living in Berlin.