“It’s not Science Fiction”: Hidden Labor, and Trauma, of USAF Drone Pilots


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Ex-Air Force drone pilots, now whistleblowers, appear on Democracy Now!

On Friday of last week, Democracy Now! devoted its program to interviews with four whistle-blowing ex-Air Force personnel who were charged with piloting drones and unleashing bombs on people under the auspices the U.S.’s policy of “targeted killing.” The interviews coincide with the release of a documentary film, Drone, making its North American début this weekend.

The former drone pilots, both interviewed on the program and in the film, described the process of going from horror to a state of being numb to the screen-mediated violence and death they were causing. As I have discovered with CCM workers I’ve interviewed, becoming inured to screen-mediated video violence becomes a precondition of survival in workplaces that demand such viewing as a primary function of employment. And, like the CCM workers, all of their ability to discuss, deal with or receive support for the work they did was curtailed by non-disclosure regimes that precluded them from talking with anyone about the nature of their work.

In the case of the drone pilots, of course the relationship to the violence was heightened, in the sense that it was they who pulled the trigger, despite being located halfway around the world from their targets. This relationship between the immediacy of the interconnected, “flattened” world of the network society, coupled with the geospatial removal and constant screen- and physically-mediated distancing of the violence, is paradoxical and incongruous, and workers are finding themselves located directly at the nexus of the tension between the two.

“There’s always been a connection between the world of war and the world of entertainment,” says author P.W. Singer, as quoted in the film’s compelling segment on the way in which the military is using video games as recruitment tools while making the interfaces for unmanned aircraft (i.e., drones) resemble those of video games, and the skills needed to pilot them – manual dexterity and joystick control, facility with HUD, the ability to process massive amounts of information quickly – those familiar to and honed by video game players.

In 2010, I wrote a brief entry on this site, tying contemporary digital technologies and their operators, such as drone pilots, to their roots in the Cold War. At the same time, I collected a number of screenshots from an Air Force recruiting website that clearly demonstrated their desire to capitalize on the video game fantasy that war is mediated, technological and, ultimately, without human consequences. Might as well be a video game.

The screenshots are posted below.

Now available: New Publications on CCM; Google Glass, Race and Class; LIS, Diversity as Social Justice and Calls to Action;Digital Literacy

Open_Access_logo_PLoS_white.svgIn the spirit of making academic work, so often cloistered in esoteric journals or inaccessible behind paywalls, accessible to all and in a timely fashion, I have begun the process of creating pre-production files of my upcoming publication. I have deposited these files in our open access institutional repository, Scholarship@Western. I intend to negotiate for these rights in any subsequent publications and will continue on with this process, which, if the number of downloads is any indication, is quite important and key to circulating work.  Here are links to four upcoming publications that you can now access:

Commercial Content Moderation: Digital Laborers’ Dirty Work: In this chapter from the forthcoming Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class and Culture Online (Noble and Tynes, Eds., 2016), I introduce both the concept of commercial content moderation (CCM) work and workers, as well as the ways in which this unseen work affects how users experience the Internet of social media and user-generated content (UGC). I tie it to issues of race and gender by describing specific cases of viral videos that transgressed norms and by providing examples from my interviews with CCM workers. The interventions of CCM workers on behalf of the platforms for which they labor directly contradict myths of the Internet as a site for free, unmediated expression, and highlight the complexities of how and why racist, homophobic, violent, and sexist content exists, and persists, in a social media landscape that often purports to disallow it.
Book chapter forthcoming in The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class and Culture Online, edited by S. U. Noble & B. Tynes, and published by Peter Lang Publishing.

Through Google-Colored Glass(es): Design, Emotion, Class, and Wearables as Commodity and Control: This chapter discusses the implications of wearable technologies like Google Glass that function as a tool for occupying, commodifying, and profiting from the biological, psychological, and emotional data of its wearers and those who fall within its gaze. We argue that Google Glass privileges an imaginary of unbridled exploration and intrusion into the physical and emotional space of others. Glass’s recognizable esthetic and outward-facing camera has elicited intense emotional response, particularly when “exploration” has taken place in areas of San Francisco occupied by residents who were finding themselves priced out or evicted from their homes to make way for the techno-elite. We find that very few trade and popular press articles have focused on the failure of Glass along these dimensions, while the surveillance and class-based aspects of Google Glass are fundamental to an accurate rendering of the product’s trajectory and the public’s emotional response to this product. The goal of this chapter is to foreground dimensions of surveillance and economics, class and resistance, in the face of unending rollouts of new wearable products designed to integrate seamlessly with everyday life—for those, of course, who can afford them. Ultimately, we believe more nuanced, intersectional analyses of power along race, class, and gender must be at the forefront of future research on wearable technologies. Our goal is to raise important critiques of the commodification of emotions, and the expansion of the surveillance state vis-à-vis Google’s increasing and unrivaled information empire, the longstanding social costs of which have yet to be fully articulated.

Book chapter forthcoming in Emotions, Technology and Design, edited by S. Tettegah, and published by Elsevier.

Empowered to Name, Inspired to Act: Social Responsibility and Diversity as Calls to Action in the LIS Context: Social responsibility and diversity are two principle tenets of the field of library and information science (LIS), as defined by the American Library Association’s Core Values of Librarianship document, yet often remain on the margins of LIS education, leading to limited student engagement with these concepts and to limited faculty modeling of socially responsible interventions. In this paper, we take up the need to increase the role of both in articulating the values of diversity and social responsibility in LIS education, and argue the field should broaden to put LIS students and faculty in dialog with contemporary social issues of social inequality and injustice whenever possible. We also examine two specific cases of socially responsible activism spearheaded by LIS faculty and how these experiences shape, and are shaped by, curricular commitments to addressing the values of social responsibility and diversity in LIS in the classroom and through research. The development of a social responsibility orientation and skillset, along with literacies of diversity, we argue, leads to better-prepared practitioners and an LIS community that is more actively engaged with its environment. The impetus for students to act can be empowered by faculty modeling a commitment to social responsibility and diversity in their own professional lives.
Article forthcoming in Library Trends, 2016.

Enhancing Key Digital Literacy Skills: Information Privacy, Information Security, and Copyright/Intellectual Property: A Knowledge synthesis report submitted to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada


  • Knowledge and skills in the areas of information security, information privacy, and copyright/intellectual property rights and protection are of key importance for organizational and individual success in an evolving society and labour market in which information is a core resource.
  • Organizations require skilled and knowledgeable professionals who understand risks and responsibilities related to the management of information privacy, information security, and copyright/intellectual property.
  • Professionals with this expertise can assist organizations to ensure that they and their employees meet requirements for the privacy and security of information in their care and control, and in order to ensure that neither the organization nor its employees contravene copyright provisions in their use of information.
  • Failure to meet any of these responsibilities can expose the organization to reputational harm, legal action and/or financial loss.


  • Inadequate or inappropriate information management practices of individual employees are at the root of organizational vulnerabilities with respect to information privacy, information security, and information ownership issues. Users demonstrate inadequate skills and knowledge coupled with inappropriate practices in these areas, and similar gaps at the organizational level are also widely documented.
  • National and international regulatory frameworks governing information privacy, information security, and copyright/intellectual property are complex and in constant flux, placing additional burden on organizations to keep abreast of relevant regulatory and legal responsibilities.
  • Governance and risk management related to information privacy, security, and ownership are critical to many job categories, including the emerging areas of information and knowledge management. There is an increasing need for skilled and knowledgeable individuals to fill organizational roles related to information management, with particular growth in these areas within the past 10 years. Our analysis of current job postings in Ontario supports the demand for skills and knowledge in these areas.

Key Competencies

  • We have developed a set of key competencies across a range of areas that responds to these needs by providing a blueprint for the training of information managers prepared for leadership and strategic positions. These competencies are identified in the full report.
  • Competency areas include:
    • conceptual foundations
    • risk assessment
    • tools and techniques for threat responses
    • communications
    • contract negotiation and compliance
    • evaluation and assessment
    • human resources management
    • organizational knowledge management
    • planning; policy awareness and compliance
    • policy development
    • project management

Surplus3: Labour and the Digital – Toronto, October 20th, 2015

Surplus3: Labour and the Digital

A symposium celebrating the publication of Nick Dyer-Witheford’s Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex (Pluto Press/Between the Lines)

Letters & Handshakes event in partnership with Untitled-3the Digital Labour Group (University of Western Ontario)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Bahen Centre for Information Technology

University of Toronto

40 St. George St.

Room BA1180

Free and open to the public

Facebook event page

Please join us as we explore a conceptual vocabulary for grasping the contested intersection of labour and the digital in contemporary capitalism. Marking the recent publication of Nick Dyer-Witheford’s book, Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex, the Surplus3 symposium will open with 3-minute talks by ten guest presenters, each of whom will speak to one concept. These flash talks will be followed by a presentation by Dyer-Witheford and a collective conversation with our guests moderated by Alison Hearn. 

Surplus3: Labour and the Digital will be followed in early 2016 with a freely distributed publication of the same title, designed by Chris Lee, and featuring work by Public Studio.

Guests + concepts

Marcus Boon: depropriation | Brett Caraway: connective action | Nicole Cohen: hustle | Deb Cowen: logistics | Nick-Dyer-Witheford: Cyber-Proletariat | datejei cheko green: intersectional solidarity | Carla Lipsig-Mummé: climate@work | Sarah Roberts: in/visibility | Kamilla Petrick: acceleration | Indu Vashist: indigenisation | Yi Wang: the wage

Moderator: Alison Hearn

Participant bios

Marcus Boon is Professor of English at York University in Toronto. He is the author of The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs and In Praise of Copying (Harvard University Press, 2002 and 2010), and co-author with Timothy Morton and Eric Cazdyn of Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism (University of Chicago Press, 2015). He edited Subduing Demons in America: Selected Poems of John Giorno (Soft Skull, 2008). He writes about music and sound for The WireBoing Boing and others.

Brett Caraway is a professor at the University of Toronto where he teaches courses in economics, law, and media studies. His research focuses on the intersections of information and communications technology, intellectual property, labour, and collective action. His most recent contributions include the application of Marxian crisis theory to the economics of online social media and an examination of how workers fighting for better working conditions at Walmart use contemporary communication technologies in class struggle.

Nicole Cohen is an assistant professor at ICCIT and the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto. She researches the political economy of media labour and collective organizing and is finishing a book on freelance journalists’ labour conditions. She is part of the collaborative research project Cultural Workers Organize.

Deb Cowen is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Toronto. Deb’s research explores the making of intimacy, economy, space, and citizenship through warfare. Deb is the author of The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global TradeMilitary Workfare: The Soldier and Social Citizenship in Canada; and co-editor, with Emily Gilbert, of War, Citizenship, Territory. Deb edits the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, and the Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation book series at UGA Press. Deb serves on the board of the Groundswell Community Justice Trust Fund in Toronto. 

Nick Dyer-Witheford, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, is the author of Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism (University of Illinois Press, 1999) and Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex (Pluto Press, 2015).

datejie cheko green is currently Asper Fellow in Media at the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario. She is consolidating more than two decades of professional and community experiences organizing and building capacity among marginalized groups in cultural, media, social justice, non-profit, and labour sectors. 

Alison Hearn is an associate professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, and is also the past president of Western’s faculty union. Her research focuses on the intersections of promotional culture, new media, self-presentation, and new forms of labour and economic value. She also writes on the university as a cultural and political site.

Chris Lee is a graphic designer and educator based in Toronto and Buffalo. He is a graduate of OCAD and the Sandberg Institute (Amsterdam). While at the Sandberg, his work focused on speculative visualizations of (alternative) currencies, and their attendant institutions and ephemera. Chris is a member of the programming committee at Gendai Gallery, the editorial board of the journal Scapegoat and is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at the University at Buffalo SUNY.

Carla Lipsig-Mummé, Professor of Work and Labour Studies at York University, is a leading scholar on labour, work, and climate change. Beginning her working life organizing farmworkers and garment workers in the US, in Quebec Carla worked with the CSN and CSQ. She now heads two SSHRC projects and a labour-academic team studying labour’s potential role in slowing global warming. Her recent publications include Climate@Work (Fernwood, 2013) and with Steve McBride, Work in a Warming World (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015).

Kamilla Petrick is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Lakehead University and a lecturer in Communication Studies at York University. She has a doctorate in political science and two prior degrees in media studies. A long-time activist, in her doctoral dissertation she examined the history of the global justice movement in Canada using a temporal theoretical perspective. Her research interests include collective memory, digital culture, social movements, and temporality.

Public Studio is the collective art practice of filmmaker Elle Flanders and architect Tamira Sawatzky. Their multidisciplinary practice spans a wide range of topics such as war and militarization, globalization, ecology, and political dissent. Their most recent work includes The Accelerators (2015), an exhibition about trade, colonialism, and a networked constellation of events; Drone Wedding (2014), an eight-channel film installation examining surveillance in the everyday; and Visit Palestine: Change Your View (2014), in which they turned their art studio into a travel agency running tours to the West Bank.

Sarah T. Roberts is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario. Her academic and research interests are focused on digital labour and ‘knowledge work,’ and the reconfigurations of labour and production in a post-industrial, globalized context.

Indu Vashist is currently the Executive Director of SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Centre) in Toronto. She has extensive experience working within organized labour organizations and with unorganized immigrant and refugee workers. Her research interests include digital labour and labour facilitated through the internet. She is currently researching auto drivers in Chennai who use apps to find clients.

Yi Wang is a PhD student in Geography at the University of Toronto and engages with contemporary food workers’ movements across the US as sites and forces of hegemonic struggle. His approach focuses on how the production of space is tied up with formations and articulations of race, class, gender, and nation. Yi has worked with food justice and worker organizations and studied previously at UC Berkeley and UC Davis.


We wish to thank the Digital Labour Group at the University of Western Ontario for generously supporting this project.

Tak, København!

The crowd at the University of Copenhagen talk.
The crowd at the University of Copenhagen talk.

My time in lovely Copenhagen has drawn to a close, after a whirlwind visit at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, sponsored by Uncertain Archives and the Digital Culture Research Network. Special thanks to Nanna Bonde Thylstrup and to Kristin Veel for their hospitality and generosity with their time. I was honored to be interviewed by newspapers Information and Politiken and will link to the articles when they run, and visited the studios of DR (Danmarks Radio) to record an interview with Anders Høeg Nissen for his technology program, to air at a future date.

I look forward to being able to return to Denmark soon to continue the conversations that we were only able to begin during this visit. I encountered a rich and vibrant academic community deeply engaged in critically debating the contemporary digital media landscape, its impact on workers, on media users and on the public sphere. The debate ranged from the implications for traditional media outlets to how interventions might take the form of other kinds of architecture and platform development that moves away from false and problematic constructs of “neutral” to other paradigms. There is still much to be said and I look forward to returning to pick up the conversation where we left off today. Tak!

Anders Høeg Nissen in the DR studio.
Anders Høeg Nissen in the DR studio.

Fall in Europe: COST Action in Estonia and University of Copenhagen

CostactionTravel has taken me to two exciting and lovely locations in Europe this past week. It was my great pleasure to be invited to the sixth meeting of the COST Action “The Dynamics of Virtual Work,” led by a venerable and indefatigable expert in that area, Dr. Ursula Huws, and involving an extraordinary list of partners from a long list of European and cooperating nations. This particular meeting took place in Pärnu, Estonia, a lovely town on the Baltic Sea. The COST actions, funded by the European Science Foundation, are an incredible opportunity for scholars and other partners, such as union organizers, activists, and so on, to come together to learn from each other and to develop position papers and policy briefs. As such, I was extremely grateful to share my work on CCM in that context. It was great to see several old friends and meet many new ones.

Copenhagen, 2015.Now I’m visiting Copenhagen, thanks to the warm invitation from Nanna Bonde Thylstrup and the Uncertain Archives group at the University of Copenhagen, along with the Digital Culture Research Network, I will be leading a seminar with Ph.D. students and delivering a lecture on CCM to an open audience on Monday, September 21. I relish these chances to interact with colleagues I don’t normally see on a regular basis, to hear about the work that is going on here, and to share mine. I will also have a chance to meet with Danish press, including two newspaper reporters, and to be interviewed by the Danish National Radio’s technology program. I appreciate the interest in CCM work and workers and look forward to sharing it with Danish people across the country.

Digital Labor Video Series (and a few updates)

Some of the faces from Digital Labor 2014
Some of the faces from Digital Labor 2014

It has been a busy few months and my updates have been lax. Travel took me to the American Studies Association’s 2014 Meeting in Los Angeles and then, just days later, to New York City for the Digital Labor 2014 conference at The New School. Both were extraordinary events and wonderful opportunities to talk about CCM, digital labor, and politics, more generally. The ASA conference was an opportunity to meet with scholars engaged in critical research of all types, and the Digital Labor conference was a chance to drill down into the issues specific to that topic, including engaging with digital laborers and activists who were present. It was an exciting and busy month.

As a part of the New York event, many participants were captured on video discussing a wide range of issues relevant to the conference topic and theme. They are collected here and can be viewed by anyone who might be interested; the conversations are wide-range and quite fascinating. My own brief interview is here, but I encourage readers to seek out the many voices of participants that are available.

WIRED Publishes Piece on Commercial Content Moderation (CCM) in Philippines; US

Commercial content moderation (CCM) work and workers, in the Philippines and in the US, are featured in WIRED magazine.
Commercial content moderation (CCM) work and workers, in the Philippines and in the US, are featured in WIRED magazine.

After many months of anticipation, journalist Adrian Chen’s piece on commercial content moderation as practiced in BPO (business process outsourcing) sites in the Philippines is out in WIRED magazine today. In it, Chen focuses on the employees of a US firm, TaskUs, whose employees are laboring on behalf of Silicon Valley social media startup Whisper and spent time shadowing them on the job.

…Companies like Facebook and Twitter rely on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us. And there are legions of them—a vast, invisible pool of human labor. Hemanshu Nigam, the former chief security officer of MySpace who now runs online safety consultancy SSP Blue, estimates that the number of content moderators scrubbing the world’s social media sites, mobile apps, and cloud storage services runs to “well over 100,000”—that is, about twice the total head count of Google and nearly 14 times that of Facebook.

I consulted with Chen numerous times as he authored this article, drawing from my own research into CCM, a term I coined to differentiate this type of moderation from other, better-known volunteer practices. Between 2012-2013, I conducted several interviews with people working in a variety of CCM settings. CCM is not an industry, per se, but a set of practices that are undertaken in several different sites and contexts: in-house (think on-site, often at a major technology or social media firm); call center (such as the workers in the Philippines interviewed by Chen); boutique (ad agency-style firms that often cover a suite of social media management needs for a brand or company, among them CCM) and micro-labor (CCM tasks broken down into their smallest component parts, and parsed out via digital piecework sites like Mechanical Turk and oDesk).

I am currently at work on a book manuscript focusing on CCM and the workers who undertake it, but if you’d like to read some shorter pieces related to these practices, take a look at my entries here and here. You may also be interested in a few other takes on the topic, including a couple short radio interviews I’ve done, which you can access here.

I’m very pleased by the interest in this important and often unseen labor and the workers who perform these tasks for a living and I look forward to the opportunity to meet and talk with labor activists, artists, and other academics who want to bring invisible digital labor into the light at next month’s #dl14 conference at the New School. Registration is free.

Are you, yourself, a CCM worker or screener, or have you been in the past? Would you be willing to talk with me? If so, please contact me here and I’ll be back in touch as quickly as possible. 

CAPAL 2015: Academic Librarianship and Critical Practice Keynote Speaker

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I am pleased and honored to announce that I have been asked to serve as one of two keynote speakers at the 2015 Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians’ annual meeting, to be held in Ottawa, ON May 31-June 2, 2015.

The call for papers for this exciting event, whose timely theme is “Academic Librarianship and Critical Practice,” is now available, and I encourage all those interested in the topic and themes represented to consider applying.

From the call:

Practice: Critical practice asks us to consider the role of critical reflection in shaping our approaches to day-to-day professional practice. What do such concrete applications look like? How, for instance, do you apply feminist perspectives to your collections work? What does your library instruction session look like when designed through a critical pedagogy lens? What, more broadly, is the value of such applications of critical reflection?

Theory: Critical practice also points to the practice of critical theory itself – the interrogation of the limits of particular assumptions in academic librarianship and/or the investigation of LIS problems using theoretical frameworks from other disciplines. How, for instance, might postcolonial theory allow us to think more critically about intellectual freedom? What can political economy perspectives tell us about research practice in LIS?

Professional and civic engagement: Critical practice refers to critical exploration of our goals and struggles as a profession, as well their connection to other political goals such as the empowerment of students, faculty, and other members of the community, or the struggle to define universities as public space and research as public good.

Interest piqued? Please check out the complete call for participation, located here. See you in Ottawa in May!

Digital Labor: Sweatshops, Picket Lines, Barricades [#dl14]

The third in The New School’s Politics of Digital Culture Conference Series Sponsored by The New School and The Institute for Distributed Creativity. Nov 14-16.

The third in a series of conferences focused on digital labor will take place from November 14-16 in New York City. The event is open to to all and registration is free. Trebor Scholz, the visionary behind the series, shared the following words about his hopes for this fall’s conference, which I have reprinted below.

My vision for #DL14 can be located somewhere between the opening sequence of Chris Marker’s “A Grin Without A Cat” and Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air.” Or, perhaps the other way around. It’s about 21st-century labor: the shift away from employment toward contingent work through Uber, TaskRabbit, 99Designs, and Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk. How large is this workforce and which emerging forms of solidarity can we envision? #DL14 questions the ability of traditional unions to protect the ever-larger contingent workforce. And it is about our imagination of novel associations and forms of mutual aid.


#DL14 is also about the crooked language that is used to describe emerging forms of work through the lens of flexibility, sharing, self-reliance, and autonomy. And it centers on workers who get together in any way possible, who form their own cooperatives, and who learn from the encouraging developments in the fast food industry, at Walmart, Occupy, and the domestic labor, and taxi associations. The ultimate goal of #DL14 is to shape new concepts and theories as they relate to, for example, guaranteed basic income, wage theft, and shorter work hours. We also hope to look through the vast landscape of digital labor and identify work practices that are worth supporting.

#DL14 is not solely about radical critique; it is also, simultaneously, about alternatives. In that vein, we hope to establish an advocacy group for the poorest and most exploited workers in the digital economy. Why did Tim Berners-Lee’s Magna Carta for the web ignore the fact that millions of people wake up every day to “go to work” online? Why has the Electronic Frontier Foundation still not taken up digital work?

This isn’t merely an academic event because this discourse has not only been shaped in universities. Philosophers, artists, sociologists, designers, toolmakers, activists, MTurk workers, journalists, legal scholars, and labor historians … all co-shaped the ongoing debate about digital work.

If you are not sure what the hell artists have to do with all this, go back to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Alex Rivera’s “Sleep Dealer,” Harun Farocki’s “Workers Leaving the Factory,” or Aaron Koblin’s “10,000 Sheep.”


This is a conversation that also calls for legal scholars to reconsider the definition of employment and the much-debated statutory difference between an employee and an independent contractor. A difference, I might add, that is deeply consequential as independent contractors are stripped of their rights as workers.

#DL14 will give a voice to startups that decided to put in place fair labor conditions. We will, for example, hear from one crowdsourcing upstart that decided to implement a minimum wage floor for their contractors. At #DL14, you will not only hear from workers at UPS and fast food restaurants, you will not only meet farmworkers, taxi drivers, and Mechanical Turk workers; #DL14 will also bring these workers together with computer engineers and other technologists to think through possibilities for worker organization.

#DL14 is set against the background of a blistering social vision of economic inequality. 4 in 10 working Americans earned less than $20,000 in 2012. Almost half of all Americans are economically insecure today; they cannot afford basic needs like housing, childcare, food, healthcare, utilities, and other essentials. The restructuring of the economy away from employment, moving in the direction of contingent work, insidiously circumvents worker rights, in a way that is arguably more damaging than what Reagan and Thatcher did it to miners and flight traffic controllers in the 1980s. This restructuring creates facts on the ground that are an affront to over one hundred years of labor struggles for the 8 hour workday, employer-covered health insurance, minimum wage, the abolition of child labor, workplace harassment, and other protections that had been established through the New Deal to foster social harmony and keep class warfare at bay.

What you can see here is a slight shift from the focus of the exchange that we had five years ago. Since then, there has been a proliferation of publications, artworks, conferences, tools, and workgroups, syllabi, and exhibitions that have taken on the issue of digital labor explicitly. There was concern for the question if digital labor is in fact distinct from traditional forms of labor. For Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato, Tiziana Terranova, and Antonio Negri (and well, Marx) “to live is to labor.” Life itself is put to work; we are all becoming the standing leave of his or her for capital. The publication of the IPF book came out of that understanding, informed by Italian Operaismo, leading up to an intense fascination with the Facebook exploitation thesis. In retrospect, the idea that we are exploited on Facebook – that what we are doing there is labor in the sense of value creation – is not as urgent in terms of its content but it is still essential as provocation. It is a provocation that leads to an investigation of the digital labor surveillance complex and the instruments of value capture on the Post-Snowden web. The prolific Christian Fuchs has edited a collection of essays focusing in the definition of digital labor. Mark Andrejevic and Fuchs, in particular, have taken up the question of exploitation in the context of predictive analytics and data labor. Adam Arvidsson, also in his latest book The Ethical Economy: Rebuilding Value After the Crisis, offers counterpoints, claiming that value generation on social networking services is more truthiness than fact. Ethan Zuckerman’s recent rejection of online advertisement, published in The Atlantic, is part of this larger, very necessary debate about the staggering social costs of allegedly free social networking services.


The debate around playbor and value capture took center stage for much of the past five years and it will also continue at #DL14.

In the end surely, #DL14 will be about many things, and you decide what you take away from it. So, if you haven’t done so already, take out your pencil or boot up your calendar: join us at The New School in a few weeks, also to experiment with event formats a little bit.


#DL14 speakers are introducing themselves on the iDC mailing list:

In Error, The University of Illinois Stands Alone: A Letter to the Board of Trustees

The seal of the University of Illinois, now a no-go area for thousands of academics.
The seal of the University of Illinois, now a no-go area for thousands of academics.

Esteemed Board of Trustees:

My name is Sarah Roberts; I am a University of Illinois alumna and now an Assistant Professor at another institution. On the morning of August 6th, I wrote to Chancellor Wise to share my grave concern over the situation of Steven Salaita, and her unwillingness to honor his signed contract just days before he was set to take up his post, setting his life into upheaval. Appealing to Dr. Salaita’s personal tweet accounts as evidence of his supposed unfitness to take up his promised position – this, in spite of his stellar teaching record and six published monographs – Chancellor Wise set a disturbing precedent that, as I warned in my letter, would have major, deleterious repercussions for the reputation of the University and would resonate loudly throughout the academic community.

Indeed, since the time of my writing over two weeks ago, I have received no response from the Chancellor or anyone associated with her office. My letter, however, has been viewed over 2,100 times (you may view it here) and hundreds followed – by all accounts, also falling upon deaf ears without so much as an acknowledgment of receipt. But the predictions that I laid forth have come true: as of this writing, over 2000 scholars have publicly stated that they will not have any dealings with UIUC until this matter is resolved favorably, and almost 16,000 people have signed a petition demanding Dr. Salaita’s reinstatement.

These numbers are frankly unprecedented. The University of Illinois now finds itself in isolation from the rest of the global academic community. Scholars have written from Italy, France, Canada, India, Great Britain, Spain and elsewhere. They are publicly and loudly rejecting speaking engagements, and canceling those on the schedule, such as the recent high-profile cancellation of a MillerComm lecture, to name but one. They are refusing to provide academic labor, including writing promotion and tenure letters on behalf of University of Illinois faculty. They are turning their backs on talks, programs, guest-lectures, and campus visits. And as one high-level professor privately quipped to me, “Great. We already have trouble recruiting faculty here.” What prospective faculty member in his or her right mind would now want to come work at the University of Illinois, a school that now stands alone and the subject of countless articles decrying it? It has become a pariah among institutions of higher education, for one simple reason:

Because this decision is wrong.

Admitting error is a difficult thing to do. I have no doubt that Chancellor Wise had no idea this situation would erupt as it has. I believe she thought she was responding to a constituency that had been vocal and loud of its own accord. But I submit that, in this case, she has gravely erred and the consequences have been more than she anticipated.

The good news is that there is still time to act. Chancellor Wise is absolutely able to reverse her bad decision. The Board, too, can and should act to reinstate Dr. Salaita, lest it continue to be a no-go area for the thousands of academics worldwide who now utter this school’s name only with a disparaging shake of the head.

As an alumna, I cannot participate in any University of Illinois-related activities until such time that this situation is rectified appropriately and in favor of Dr. Salaita, academic autonomy and academic freedom. As I told Chancellor Wise in my unanswered letter, I have removed my name from a fundraising letter on behalf of my School. I will not contribute my alumna dollars, nor my academic labor, to the University of Illinois. I am ashamed and embarrassed of this institution. Please, reverse course and correct Chancellor Wise’s action. The reputation of the university that we all love hangs in the balance.

Sarah T. Roberts, Ph.D.
University of Illinois, ‘14

cc: pmwise@illinois.edu