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The Undergig

Published onNov 24, 2020
The Undergig
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Digital technologies enable and entrench various forms of labor exploitation. Digitality multiplies, metastasizes, and mutates exploitation, allowing for a more rapid extension of capital’s ratio beyond circuits of production and circulation. Capitalism in the age of digital technologies forces itself into relation with spheres of life previously outside its locus of operations. But, as scholars working within the field of post-colonial studies have suggested,1 capitalism’s expansion to new territories occurs without entirely subsuming or encapsulating these frontiers within the logic peculiar to the points of origin of its operations. This is capitalism’s weak force: its under-determining flexibility allows for the extension and entrenchment of its more abstract forces into new contexts. Further accumulation of social wealth depends on labor, exploitation, inequality, poverty, immiseration, debt.

Following the Global Financial Crisis of 2007–2008, there is a heightened sense of urgency in Western-centric scholarly and public media debates to make visible and intervene in the harmful consequences of the tech industry’s naïve techno-utopianism and techno-solutionism. The promise of technologies to solve complex societal, economic, and political “problems” has long masked the proliferation of exploitation and inequality behind a rhetoric of “do good,” progress, individual empowerment, and democratization.

Important as this rising awareness of labor exploitation is, it retains a troubling and all-too-simplistic binary view. It often goes as follows (framed in a somewhat caricatured way): “all of us” are “free laborers” in our day-to-day use of social media platforms – Facebook is the ultimate “social factory”;2 “platform capitalism” feeds off the making of intimate and personal connection; “some of us” are Uber drivers, who labor in a highly fragmented work arrangement aimed at preventing unionization and solidarity among workers; “others” might have it even worse, coerced to work in the physically strenuous and harmful conditions of Amazon warehouses or the flexibilized services of postal delivery.

But all of this labor exploitation in the “gig economy” depends on another form of exploitation, one often rendered as somehow “deeper” down, closer to the raw material or to the machine.

Cheap labor is a precondition of the gig economy, which is why we identify these workers as part of the undergig. Undergig workers perform the often invisible labor needed to create the conditions of digital life for everyone else. Electronics production extracts value from depleted zones and from factory workers, and it produces toxicity. The undergig also often overlaps with the “global south” category yet also exceeds such categorization.

The undergig is under-protected and underpaid. Its haunting invisibility is a necessary precondition for the fantasy of a smooth-functioning and fully automated digital world to come.

Operations of Capital and Experimentation

The undergig is sometimes patterned on colonial practices of experimentation and control, and is partly the result of agents creating new practices. The undergig depends on states to maintain differential conditions of operation and to police the borders between the enriched and depleted worlds, as their value chains in part depend on maintaining the differential between them.

As Sylvia Wynter has argued, colonization was crucial for experiments with over-representing or making dominant a particular Euro-American cishet male identity within the category of the human. For Wynter, colonialism allowed for an extension of this over-representation across the globe and the identification of this image of humanity with its truth, a “truth” that continues to act as a fulcrum upon which “all our present struggles with respect to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, struggles over the environment, global warming, severe climate change, [and] the sharply unequal distribution of the earth resources” continues to rest.3

The colonial practices of the old empires tended to focus on resource extraction. The colony was a zone from which to extract cheap nature, in the form of cheap energy, cheap food, cheap labor, cheap land.4 The colony was a site of cheap resources, in the sense that they would all be extracted faster than they could regenerate, borrowing “on credit” as it were, from both the land and also from the social organization of the colonized peoples. Operations of extraction helped transform black slaves into living minerals, into commodity-producing commodities.5 Resource extraction by the old empires, then, was fundamentally an operation through which bodies were disciplined, exploited, and dispossessed in the production of value and goods. Extraction on the cheap continues the depletion of the colony, leaving vast horizons of sweat and blood, toxic landscapes of deforestation, abandoned open-cut mines and their mountainous tailings, soils exhausted by plantation methods of cultivation.

Consider how operations of capital are integral to the production of outsides – those landscapes that beckon further expansion and that nourish the engines of capital itself. Without outsides, capital can’t sustain itself, has nowhere to go, and no further bodies to push into its chains of production.6 Regularities are achieved when the boundaries of capital are constantly undone by the expansion of frontiers, through which cheap nature – in all its encompassing meanings – can be brought into the fold. Operations of capital are thus attuned to experimentation for the ways they rehearse the borders of what can be included within the reach of capital’s governmental power, especially for empire.

Yet empire is not a static entity or organizing principle. It is an assemblage of dynamics through which territorial ambiguity is produced in conjunction with legal categories of belonging and exclusion.7 Its distribution of power, priorities, demands, and violence are embedded in the debris and remains of the post-colony, and its durability stays with the most precarious. Or, to quote Ann Stoler’s reading of Frantz Fanon, the depletion economy is a form of power that “slashes a scar across a social fabric that differentially affects us all.”8

The Entangling Undergig

When we talk about the undergig it is seldom a “we,” though it is poverty on all sides. It is those who are affected by the spiralling of poverty in a seemingly circular way – it isn’t a clear-cut, linear flow of capital, or dominated versus non-dominated. People rendered “down there,” “below” are poor and offshored, and the people in the gig economy are also poor – not necessarily poor in the same way, but caught up in the same spiral of poverty proliferation. Being female, poor, and non-white greatly increases your chances of being employed in undergig work, perhaps earlier than others, but this “sunken place” of digital labor is capacious; white men can find themselves there too. Poverty spirals and tightens the screws around those pushed to the limits of life. Poverty is a condition that legitimizes across class and rotates and feeds back into privilege. The promise of the gig economy is that you can find a “real job,” that you can pull yourself up without being entrenched and stuck, while being ever more “screwed.”

The undergigged may be continuously employed, but are often in untenable, sometimes invisible, exploitative conditions that underwrite and enable the precarity of gig workers. And because they fall outside the Marxist critique of gig economies, they are harder to imagine as an organized body. Gig workers, on the other hand, can participate in freelancers’ unions such as new platform collectives. This does not mean that gig work is not exploitative. Rather, very exploited non-gig workers play a vital role in creating the technologies for gig work to exist.

The undergigged are also the unwilling or uncompensated participants of operations of capital. The ones that make myriad artifacts and infrastructures possible yet derive no benefits but maximum hardships for their precarious labor. They are the migrants, abused children, and the criminalized dead whose images are used to train facial recognition technology so that you can unlock your smartphone with a furtive glance.9 They are the black San Francisco homeless whose bodies are mined and appropriated to make facial recognition software more inclusive (and surveillance more accurate).10 The monetization and dispossession of already precarious lives are foundational for the security state. Facial recognition, after all, is a technology designed to know again, to recall to mind and identify the countenance of the Other. And this process makes the Other visible, exposed to practices of control and operations of extraction. The undergigged are a seemingly vast mine in the reproduction of capital and the state, and their management of populations.

The undergig is reproduced through shifts in geopolitical relations, mutations of oppression and within regional national borders. Digital economies preserve this dislocation, but in industries such as call center work, content moderation, and other digital outsourcing. Digital objects travel while leaving the lives of the workers behind,11 and the undergig workers entailed in producing these new commodities, the commodities that enable gig work, may themselves be rendered invisible in critical explorations of the novelty of the gig economy precisely because their labor appears anachronistic.

The depletion economy works through the production and reproduction of the undergig. Take, for instance, Walmart, often thought of as the “world’s biggest firm.” We might think of Walmart as producing one particular “underclass,” the flex workers employed in its warehouses, in its delivery services, in its supply chains. Beneath this work we might also think of the workers employed in the factories that produce the end-consumer products sold on Walmart’s platform, the engineers and designers in Asia employed through flex jobs without health insurance, or of the workers at the palm oil plantations of Indonesia, with labor and land both harvested for the production of cheap goods that in turn “feed” those Walmart employees. All these employees represent participants in the undergig, and as Lily Irani has suggested, rendering this labor invisible itself does a lot of cultural work for platforms that are not simply coterminous with the tech corporations of Silicon Valley.12

The undergig is created through the exploitation of asymmetries in power traditionally described using problematic sets of categories consisting of two to three interrelated terms: within the border and outside, the global north and global south; first, second, and third worlds; developed and developing nation-states; formal and informal economies; capitalist and non-capitalist modes of production.

In other words, capital integrates and re-integrates workers into the labor arrangements that reproduce social life as well as produce and facilitate the accumulation of social wealth. But, the labor of the undergig is labor that is undervalued, underappreciated, and most often unseen; it ensures enough to sustain the lives of those it employs in conditions of impoverishment.

It is critical that we move beyond the perspective of nation-states and nationally denominated capitals as basic units of imperial world order.13 The undergig pushes us to think about processes of differential inclusion across sites, contexts, and actors. It ties in together an assemblage of entities and modes of acting that are not territorially confined by the already porous borders of the nation-state, nor are they neatly separated capitals. We complicate the view that there is such a thing as inequality and exploitation along clear class, gender, and racial lines or along geographical divides, say north or south, or West and non-West, but without sacrificing a critique of the ways in which inequality and exploitation are rendered more intense for bodies that are forced to inhabit the precarious sides of these axes. The undergig is the unbearable weight of contemporary life, a spiral that stretches ever outward in the consumption of lifeworlds ripe for the taking but stubborn enough to threaten its perpetuation.

The undergig contains within it an older, pre-gigification, pre-platformification type of labor: resource extraction, factory work, electronics production in Asia (in turn often reduced to China, which in turn is understood through the trope of Foxconn). There is an inherent assumption in this logic that there are geographical and temporal differences that keep these forms of exploitation separate, while interdependent; Asia (or the global south) has “old,” backward forms of labor exploitation, from a previous era of industrialization, which “newer” forms of labor exploitation that occur in the West, the “global north,” rely on – an echo of critiques that subaltern studies scholars have made with respect to political and capitalist development in the third world.14

While the asymmetrical distribution of these forms of exploitation is undoubtedly true, like our post-colonial studies forebearers claim, our aim here is to “step sideways” and out of tropes of “linear progress” of labor exploitation. Specifically, we are interrogating how the (albeit tainted) endurance of the promise of the “good life”15 legitimizes the proliferation of exploitation and poverty in a spiralling fashion, back and forth, in and out, abusing (rather than flattening) temporal or spatial claims of difference.

Companies making up the gig and platform economies of digital capitalism distribute depletion and enrichment, sometimes in ways that follow older patterns of empire and sometimes not. They extract surplus from undervalued labor in depleted rural America, or in prisons, or in India, to tag and sift through images for machine learning. Or perhaps they use artificial intelligence, running on server farms close to power and water in cooler zones close to the Arctic Circle in order to figure out an optimal way to design “sustainable” palm oil production in Indonesia. This is the proliferation of the fragmented undergig. The gig hidden by distance, disproportionately performed by precarious women, people of color, far-away farmlands and forests, and animals whose lives are made even more miserable by precarious workers’ need for cheap meat, cheap food, cheap sustenance.

Big Tech outsources on-demand code work in India and rolls out facial recognition technologies in Singapore’s prisons because these places are already very precarious for coders and inmates. Algorithms don’t do work by themselves; they depend on the bodies and expertise of precarious people. Your computer software can schedule a ride, but a human must build the car in Flint. You can click “purchase” for new shoes, but somebody has to dig that coal for free shipping (Amazon ships 1 million items a day). Algorithms can detect child pornography in a Facebook photo, but a human worker in Delhi must witness child abuse in order to tag this content as too traumatic for viewers. The growing undergig endures pain for the ever smaller percentage of overcommons to feel pleasure.16

And it’s not as if the old shit-jobs disappeared. Rather, they are being supplemented by new shit-jobs that are also unreliable. That is why they call data taggers and image classifiers “data janitors” – they clean the shit out of your digital life. If the export is fewer disturbing images on Facebook or cheaper coal, what’s being imported is dependent on an undependable kind of work – digital precarity and the undergig.


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