taj2@email.psu.edu (Tim Jackson) (by way of Pit Schultz ) on Sun, 15 Jun 1997 23:38:49 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Working Cyberspace - Tim Jackson

Working Cyberspace

Tim Jackson

    In a society of simulation, fantasy does not replace reality; it
     precedes it.
                -- Derrick de Kerckhove

    The world as we see it is passing.
                -- Paul of Tarsus

I have been working hard lately. My back is sore. My eyes are dry, red, and
sensitive to light. My hands feel as if they have been locked into a fixed
curl. Yet, despite these physical ailments I am not physically tired. I
haven't even broken a sweat during all of my labors. Although my mind is
fatigued, I remain restless and find sleep difficult. My mind continues to
labor while my body remains in a suspended state of atrophy. You see, I live
and work in cyberspace.

I am writing this in a small town within a rural mountain range in
Pennsylvania. It is deep winter. It is 3:00 AM. I am not being paid to write
this, yet I am writing about work in cyberspace; I am working the concept of
cyberspace. I am an academic and this is spring break. This type of work is
a privilege, as is my profession in general. My work in cyberspace allows me
the opportunity to think about the conditions and implications of such work.
I am therefore no longer officially working, yet I labor on- virtually. You
see, there are no time clocks or bells ringing the end of the workday in one
of my several physical work-sites (in this case the one that is also my
home). Work in cyberspace runs on the endless digital march, the binary
on-off transition which breaks the otherwise cyclical flow of time/space.

Being in digital time differs from analog time in that events in digital
time exist without a horizon. Digital time occurs in sharp breaks and
contrasts from one state to another without the flow of analog time, such as
the slow procession of a sunset or the transition from a warm summer evening
to a chilly night. Imagine digital seasons or sunsets, where the sights and
sounds of one moment simply cease and those of ,another begin, when the
temperature changes from below freezing to a humid 98 degrees Fahrenheit in
an instant, or when the sun simply disappears and the moon shines. What if
we aged in a non-linear manner, jumping from infancy to late life and back
to pubescence in a manner of seconds or minutes or days?

The digital fragmentation of time/space in these examples illustrates the
schizophrenic dimension of life in cyberspace, where thoughts/events often
collide in a surreal manner. To a lesser degree, these are some of the
contradictions that my analog body experiences as my more digital mind works
in cyberspace. Even my text/thoughts begin to construct non-sequential
digital narrative structures despite my best efforts to stream an analog
path of ideas. For example, the way I jump from a story, to a quote, to more
theoretical considerations within this text illustrates the collision of
ideas within the digital domain of cyberspace. The nature of communication
in this context breaks with the traditional flow of ideas in an essay.

    Workers of the world, fan out.
                 -- Stewart Brand, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT

Work in cyberspace is schizophrenic in part because it gives the worker the
delusional sense of being simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. As a
result, working in cyberspace often leads to a withdrawal from the social
relationships which are normal to workers within physical public spaces and
communities. In a purely pragmatic sense, public spaces in many cities are
decaying due to the removal of the tax base by the rise of virtual business.
Homelessness and increased poverty and crime are other outgrowths of these
economic turns. The ongoing shift in North America from a manufacturing
economy which deals principally with the production of material goods, to
that of an information economy which produces and exchanges content, causes
serious shifts in the physical and social dimensions of labor and identity
politics. In the information economy, many workers are no longer required to
congregate in workplaces to do their jobs. The work of the body becomes
eclipsed by the work of the mind. At its worst, urban public spaces which
had traditionally been the sites for business are becoming dangerous
geographical zones which one must pass through to reach the bunker of one's
private space and/or cyberspatial worksite.

In late capitalist societies, the Internet provides the final terrain for
terrestrial colonization- the space of the individual and collective
conscious. The ability to sell virtual experiences via new forms of
entertainment media (e.g. CD-ROMS, video games, WebTV) or digital media in
its raw electronic state offers a most elegant form of commodity exchange,
requiring no material manufacture, little if any shipping costs, no
warehousing, and often using transient or flex-labor forces. Selling
material goods or services is a costly business, while selling ideas,
entertainment content, or the access to information through digital networks
is fast, cost efficient, and even environmentally more friendly.

Nicholas Negroponte describes this economic transition in his book Being
Digital as the "difference between bits and atoms." Negroponte's text exudes
a class bias, written towards the target populations of "executives,
politicians, and parents" (read rulers, rulers, and consumers). Using
examples such as Evian water to illustrate how difficult this business of
selling atoms is, he notes that by "early in the next millennium your right
and left cuff links or earrings may communicate with each other by
low-orbiting satellites and have more power than your present PC," and that
phones in the future will behave "like a well-trained English butler." This
utopian vision of the future is a necessary condition for the type of high
tech dog-and-pony shows that Negroponte's Media Lab must perform for
executives, politicians, and maybe a few parents in order to fund their
research at the Media Lab and similar research institutions and think tanks.
While such a vision of the future enables significant research funding, most
of the citizens within this brave new world will continue to drink less than
pure water and can eat neither desk-top PC's nor digital cuff-links.

    But of course, the people who are truly invisible .... are the people
    involved in the industrial division of labor now, in the present. It's
    often commented upon that these stories exclude the workers who actually
    make the parts and work in the semi-conductor workplaces and assembly lines
    in South East Asia and elsewhere. People who play no role whatsoever in any
    of these stories, romantic or otherwise, about information technologies.
         -- Andrew Ross, Cybernetic Capitalism and Surplus Intelligence

While digital commodities such as data, software, and the currencies of
international banking flow as bits in the network of late capitalism, they
do require a physical technological matrix. Despite the illusion of being
simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, cyberspace is a physical place, and
we enter it by accessing files stored with a specific IP address in real
computers in real locations. These real spaces are the physical dimension of
work in cyberspace. Given these conditions, it is important to recognize
that the manufacturing of new media hardware is similar to previous forms of
industrial manufacturing such as the automobile, textile, and steel
industries. However, the sites of new media hardware manufacturing are
spread over several continents, true to digital form in non-linear and
decentralized fashion, and are therefore harder to localize as sites for
social and ecological injustice as opposed to previous centers for
industrial manufacturing such as Detroit, Manchester, and Pittsburgh. This
dispersion of manufacturing sites makes the organization of workers much
more unlikely and veils the limitations of labor organization and the
environmental regulation of such sites.

It is therefore important to recognize these manufacturing workers alongside
the information or content workers in cyberspace, even though few of these
hardware workers have access to the more transformative possibilities of
life and work in cyberspace. Unionization under such manufacturing
conditions is unlikely, although the collective organization of these and
other lower paid employees may prove to be a function that cyberspace
provides for some of them through networked communication. The privilege of
working in cyberspace is therefore more complex if we are to include the
workers who manufacture the technologies of the future outside of the Rome
of the New Media Empire- Silicon Valley and other satellites of privilege.
The manufacturing workers of cyberspace represent a class which is quite
distinct from the designers of cyberspace (programmers, interface designers,
writers, artists, and engineers).

       A nomadic society cannot experience enclosed space.
                 -- Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy

These two classes of workers in cyberspace experience the worksite in very
different ways. The social function of the meeting (whether experienced
physically or via telepresence) for the designers or architects of
cyberspace has for many replaced the ritual of lunch or the coffee break as
a social gathering, and usually offers few opportunities for communicating
anything other than the professional problems at hand. Of course, these
general observations speak more to the conditions of the privileged worker
in cyberspace than the millions of temp workers (e.g. basic data-entry or
desk-top publishing workers) who often have to perform within quotas under
quantitative and behavioral forms of surveillance, or the unpaid labor force
of primarily women who may yearn for the occasional adult conversation
within public spheres. These workers, along with their sisters and brothers
who manufacture the hardware which enables cyberspace are the true factory
laborers of the information age, and their working conditions range from
cybersweat-shops in basements or spare bedrooms to open industrial spaces
housing hundreds of cubicles connected to the assembly line of local area

Even those of us who enjoy the privilege of professions in cyberspace where
we may operate with a higher degree of autonomy and with a minimum of
surveillance must relinquish a certain degree of communicative intimacy in
order to participate in life and work in cyberspace. Although I have lived
in the same university town for four years, I have maintained the bulk of my
social relationships through infrequent travel and through phone and e-mail
communication. This is of course in part due to the vagabond nature of many
new media professions, in which friends are often on the move and contact is
infrequent. Flex-work in cyberspace is sometimes far too flexible within the
context of social relations.

This lack of an intimate long-term sense of a physical community beyond the
limited communicative realm of chat rooms, BBSs, and MOOs and MUDs remains a
problem for the workers of cyberspace who spend a significant amount of time
working in isolation. Edward Novak provides a few examples of the various
forms of life and work in cyberspace in an online posting entitled "I've
Fallen Into Cyberspace and I Can't Get Out!":

             o The young couple, linked to the Internet, lives in the
               wilderness of Wyoming and receives only Publisher's
               Clearinghouse offers in their mailbox. All the important
               information in their lives comes to them through their
             o The entrepreneur, in [her/]his home office, conducts
               business around the world with a fax, a modem, a copying
               machine, and a telephone.
             o The telecommuter who lives in an exurb a hundred miles
               outside of Washington, D.C., comes into the office once
               a week; the rest of his time, he works out of the home.
             o The company, looking to control costs, kicks all its
               employees out of their offices and makes them set up
               shop in their cars with cellular phones and laptop

In a Canadian conference panel presentation on Digitization in the
Workplace, Marc Belanger predicts that in the workplace of cyberspace
"there will be a decentralization of work, a shift from work within a central
organization to the work of an individual. It will be a challenge to
organize work in cyberspace ... [where] with no capital or head office,
every site will be a centre."

    Machines for seeing modify perception.
          -- Paul Virilio, Aesthetics of Disappearance

Cyberspace opens up a distinctly new form of public space. In some respects,
this space realizes the Marxist goal of providing the worker with the means
of production. Nevertheless, work in cyberspace also illustrates another
principle of capitalism as defined by Marx, by masking the forms of its own
production. The illusion of cyberspace as a virtual place disconnected from
manufacturing and the exchange of very real commodities hides the ways in
which the business of cyberspace impacts our larger ecology. It must be
acknowledged that the worksite of cyberspace may indeed offer new ways to
improve the quality of life by providing new forms of communal organization.
Cyberspace may offer the possibility for rethinking dominant beliefs in
capitalism and new forms of restructuring labor relations. However, these
possibilities are foreclosed by the role that powerful corporate and national
forces will continue to play in structuring the empire of cyberspace. A more
guarded depiction of the positive role that new forms of flex-work offered
by cyberspace, such as telecommuting, would be that these options provide the
possibility for more contact with intimate members of your physical or
virtual communities, while simultaneously imposing more of your work
identity upon the participants in your private life.

As we slouch farther towards the chaos attractor at the end of time, we find
most of our networks, electronic or otherwise, working against their
original aims or being diverted towards different ends. Subnetworks and
metanetworks grow like mold over the original medium. Be it a symptom of
social decay, cyberian genesis, or both, the growth of the new colonialism
around and within our old systems and structures brings a particular sort of
darkness-before-dawnish-darkness to the close of this millennium.
    -- Douglas Rushkoff, Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace

While some consider cyberspace an information super-highway leading to a
utopian future through technology, I believe cyberspace provides the last
terrestrial frontier for empire building, as in the adage "all roads lead to
Rome". While all roads on the Internet do not lead to Silicon Valley, the force
of late capitalism in cyberspace is no less imperial in nature. The toll for
travel and work in cyberspace is indeed prohibitive to many in late capitalist
societies and to the majority of our global population. Such a culture of
the plugged-in and plugged-out contributes to the construction of empirical
enclaves surrounded by the apparently technologically barbarous (although
more likely poor) plugged-out citizens of this new world order. In addition,
the use of telecommuting contributes to the breakdown of the borders of
personal and public spaces and constructs new conditions for the
contemporary workplace and workspace.

Nevertheless, if we envision cyberspace as a site of more democratic forms
of communication and resistance, we begin to imagine the transformative
potential of cyberspace, as well as its implicit and explicit limitations as
a social space. A truly utopian vision for cyberspace would involve working
within the context of physical possibilities, building a future where
humanistic and ecological needs are integrated with technology in a way which
might broaden and deepen democratic life for all of the citizens of this
distributed dynamic network called earth. This project is, as Henry Giroux
defines it, the "struggle for a concrete utopia."

Guiding cyberspace towards such a concrete utopia requires the
acknowledgment that our work in cyberspace has very real implications to the
wetware of our bodies, the hardware of the Internet, and the complex systems
of our global ecology. Our labors are ultimately never virtual.

Timothy Jackson teaches new media studio and theory at Penn
State University. He can be reached at taj2@psu.edu.

Bad Subjects, Issue # 32, April 1997
republished with permission on nettime-l 

Copyright (c) 1997 by Tim Jackson. All rights reserved.

This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions
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