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The Precarity Effect

On the Digital Depletion Economy

Published onNov 24, 2020
The Precarity Effect
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Digital technologies consolidate wealth and influence. By creating and exploiting flexible labor and by shifting accountability to users, digital technologies expand insecure conditions for racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, women, indigenous people, migrants, the poor, and peoples in the global south.

The digital is a medium of hyper-objectification.1 It is a fantasy of hyper-efficient and fulfilling capitalism. The digital automates and abstracts governance. It is also a commodity, a product of both hyper-visiblized and invisibilized labor. The digital is a set of technologies that mediates, intensifies, abstracts, reproduces, and generalizes existing forms of domination. The digital is representation, automation, and modularity.2 The digital is a material system of signification and meaning-making that grates against minerals, skins, and soils.

Therefore, we formulate the titular term as a type of precarity associated with digitality. Technoprecarity is the premature exposure to death and debility that working with or being subjected to digital technologies accelerates. It is the unevenly distributed yet pervasive condition that the gig economy, toxic metals, denied welfare, and biometric surveillance systems perpetuate. We use the term technoprecarity to mark a contemporary expression of long-extant forms of violence under racial capitalism; for instance, our definition intentionally references Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s influential formulation of racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”3 Clearly, racism predates the digital. Yet we feel that it is crucial at this particular historical moment to mark the particular ways that precarity operates now, and the differential ways the digital exports precarity to the vast majority of us.

Precarious is a word with its own instabilities. To imprecate is to beg, or to humbly request. To be precarious, in the etymological sense of the word, is to have your ability to survive subject to the whims of a sovereign figure. In modern usage, precarious means at risk of physical danger or collapse; risky, perilous.

To be precarious has moved in sense from instability in relation to a lord or master to instability in relation to material conditions of existence. To be precarious is to be without a home, a meal, a wage, or to be excluded from the formal economy, often by a criminal conviction. To be precarious is to be without a safe haven. It may even be to live without love, without care.

Precarity is not a metaphor. It is a real thing, felt by bodies that can’t afford to be less than healthy but are sickened by toxic materials, behaviors, economies, and environments. Precarity can be a lack of work, of income, of security. Even those with work can feel it – precarity can refer to a material and psychic condition experienced by workers whose jobs are broken up into “gigs.” Surviving from gig to gig can divert you from the possibility of living any other way.

The physical and emotional labor of women and people of color has always been appropriated as a work of love, never adequately compensated even as a “gig.” For us, digital networks signal not novel dystopias but old paradigms of domination (the plantation, the colony, the prison, the military–industrial complex, the laboratory, and the special economic zone).

Precarity is most intensely concentrated among bodies relegated to zones of depletion. These are people whose zones of habitation and existence racial capitalism has subjected to long eras of resource extraction both human and natural, leaving behind toxic and depleted environments. These environments, in turn, cause harm to the bodies of those who have been subjected to such violent rule, driving them deeper into the underground, the undergig. As more move from gig to gig, others spiral further down into depletion.

And yet precarity is generalized, expanding to include even the creative class of digital producers in the enrichment zones of the world. Most people are living unsupported, in a deflated “cruelly optimistic” way, replaced by machines or, worse, treated as disposable by the algorithms that increasingly condition life chances.4 In enrichment zones, precarity is celebrated as self-empowerment, creativity, lifelong learning, and self-determination – but it is also the phenomenon of renting out your car, home, and labor without any guarantee of economic stability.

We need new vocabularies for attending to the generalized production of precarity under contemporary racial capitalism. This is not the language in which the digital dream is advertised. In the promotional brochure for digital interconnectedness, these networked lives are pictured as always hyper-productive, virtuous, connective, and efficient. But it is clear to us that both these dreams and these networks themselves are broken.5 We won’t be recruited into optimizing this network. We set ourselves a different task.

Our approach to researching questions related to digital culture emphasizes a need to critically examine the way information and communication technologies can become instruments for facilitating the exercise of power and domination, particularly along axes of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality. We are not luddites, nor are we cynical about technology. Instead, we aim to extend the humanities’ concern with issues of power and precarity to an inquiry into the way digital technologies mediate social life and make certain possibilities and impossibilities available to us. Perhaps we are naively hopeful that critique can help us build more productive and optimal technological systems for enriching social life.

“Surveillance capitalism,”6 “platform capitalism,”7 and “control society”8 are terms that have been invoked to mark some of these economic and social transformations. We search, instead, for fresh language that allows us to describe our transnational perspective on digitality and precarity, a language that foregrounds race, gender, nation, and empire. What language, then, describes something as seemingly ineffable as digital circulation, as vast as global capital, as tangible as flesh?

Capitalism in this book can be understood in reference to processes of wealth and value accumulation that depend on the cyclical expansion and compression of labor relations.9 Under capitalism, where formal waged work becomes the dominant means through which people secure the commodities that they need to survive, those who have never been privileged enough to participate in waged work, who work in informal economies, or who have been displaced from labor relations and forced to try to live without a job more crucially experience economic precarity.

Our use of the term capitalism therefore recognizes how race, gender, sexuality, citizenship, coloniality, and poverty differentially determine who is privileged enough to participate in formal labor relations and who is predisposed to more intense modes of appropriation, exploitation, and immiseration. Inspired by Cedric Robinson’s notion of racial capitalism, we insist that identity-based forces of domination saturate and structure capitalist social relations that are often assumed to be based entirely on the labor relation.10 Precarity is always the effect of intersecting forces of racist, sexist, colonial, capitalist, and homo- and heteronormative domination and oppression.

Language

We need to begin by describing this generalized condition of precarity that differentiates across zones of depletion and enrichment.

We are all born under surveillance, but not all of us are equally scrutinized. The digital writes over but does not replace previous forms of producing precarity. Forms of digital surveillance, measurement, and control are premised on ranked and graded precarity that previous forms of domination generated. But the digital does not just reproduce previous forms of precarity – it generalizes them.

Let’s pause this declamatory language for a second. Perhaps you, dear reader, feel included in the category of the precariat,11 or maybe you want to resist that inclusion. The “we” is always a problem, a floating assembly of imagining a common condition. The “we” is best thought of as blurry at the edges and hollow at the center, rather than as a stable identifier. “We” is a double movement. It stretches outwards, away from itself and towards others; it pulls inwards, chaining together elements external to it and excluding others.

The world might be imagined as becoming newly precarious, but it has long done so unevenly. The promise of the West was that precarity could be abolished in its entirety by remaking the world in the enriched image of those who claimed to have already been modern. The fantasy of modernization, economic development, and technological and scientific innovation as a virtue is haunting its creators, for it has generated, over and over, zones of depletion. The climate itself has become volatile and toxic for all, but poisoning some environments, bodies, lungs, and skins more than others.

We find evidence of so-called depletion in surprising places, even within the borders of supposedly enriched zones, and the sources of precarity are no longer easily locatable. So how do we describe geographies and peoples that are more precarious than others? And what of those that ensure their own security at the expense of others, at the increased precaritization of others? Those who used to imagine they were safe from precarity “over there” are no longer free from vulnerability. And it is always others who will imprecate to them for their daily bread: call them (us?) the West, the global north, the first world, the developed world, the empires. Those imagined to be the precarious ones: call them the south, the global south, the third world, the “underdeveloped” world. As Ojibwe environmentalist Winona LaDuke declares, “There is no such thing as the first, second, and third worlds; there is only an exploiting world … whether its technological system is capitalist or communist … and a host world. Native peoples, who occupy more land, make up the host world.”12

What if we began from the impossibility of separating the resource-enriched world from a resource-depleted world?

In this book we provide a more specific and historically grounded sense of a subset of precarities that goes beyond the “end of work” discourse that wants us to be afraid of robots. We situate fears for automation and digital technology against acute experiences, experimentations, and executions of labor displacement and devaluation, asking how and why we got here.

Who We Are

We came together as Precarity Lab in 2016 as part of a University of Michigan Humanities Collaboratory-funded project to investigate the proliferation and contestation of technoprecarity. We scrutinize who and what produces the digital, and at what cost. We place race and gender, said to be obsolete in the post-human fantasy of the digital, at the center of our work. These categories of difference bear the weight of their genesis in empire and modernity. Difference is still the operating system of governance that digitality has rendered increasingly automatic, compulsory, invisible, and surveillant. The black box of computation multiplies precarity while claiming objectivity.

Precarity is not abjection. Women, trans people, people of color, and migrants have always found dignity, meaning, pleasure, and self-knowledge within precarious conditions. We have so much to learn. We think with Anna Tsing’s notion of precarity as a condition of life.13 We study the “undercommons” theorized by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten as a way to improvise on the idea of the precariat by including an affective dimension of solidarity within the cracks that harbor life and keep us going despite it all.14

Our collective study of precarity emerges from unequal individual relationships to it. As a baseline, we have at least the security of employment as knowledge-workers, and no small amount of economic and social power. We came together as a group that has experienced living in different parts of the world, in both the enriched and depletion zones. We are all people with passports that allow us to cross borders, even if some of our racial and gendered appearances mean that we’re scrutinized in the process. Some of us work in Asia or Latin America, or in far-from-enriched parts of North America. More of us are women than are not. Most of us are cisgender, but not all. And yet we all, in one way or another, feel a need to write towards changing the world, to test what is imaginable and achievable in a damaged, depleted planet. We are a group of differently situated people in solidarity, but we are not always in agreement about how best to address wealth and resource extraction facilitated by digital technologies.

We are committed to doing this work. The university has its own reasons for financing it – Precarity Lab was funded as part of an experiment by the university to make humanities research scientific, accelerated, and fundable. The university has steadily been moving towards the lab model as a way to help solve the crisis of legitimation in the humanities. It invests in a model of collaborative problem-solving and research innovation seen in the sciences. The university seeks to professionalize graduate student training and turn faculty research and mentorship into an enterprise.

We feel more and more intensely the fragility and indescribability of our worlds. And yet we can (we must) attempt to describe the conditions that make it appear as such. Our role as knowledge workers has itself become precarious, and not just to the extent that our labor becomes casualized. As forms of social-technical knowledge become more complex, more opaque, and more black-boxed, they are designed to evade understanding. Knowledge work itself holds onto the world with an ever-more tenuous grasp.

Digital technology builds on pre-existing forms of sociotechnical domination. The myth of the digital is that it embodied and generalized the free universal subject – rational, creative, business-minded. But the digital also builds on, reproduces, generalizes and makes abstract forms of precarity inherited from the laboratories of the colony, the plantation, the factory, and the prison. We understand the lab as a method, instrument, and site that can reproduce and legitimize conditions of precarity. This entails submitting our writing and collaborative process and the larger conditions that enable them to your scrutiny.

Unpacking the Lab

We have adopted the “laboratory” (in our name and practice) to account for our highly ambivalent yet deeply entangled position in relation to ongoing attempts to upgrade and entrepreneurialize the humanities and scholarship and higher education broadly. The laboratory is a place of labor, but where labor is subordinated to the task of elaboration. In the lab, there are consistent procedures, forms of regularity that produce observable difference. The lab experiments – experiments that can be tested, verified, stabilized, and can become the prototypes for new forms of organization and governance.

The scientific laboratory was born out of the Enlightenment, the European project of modernization and colonization. The invention of the scientific lab produced not only the belief in facts, rationality, and truth, but it also produced the belief in the moral figure of the scientist, the objective and detached observer who stands above in the “god trick,” as Donna Haraway calls it.15 The lab served in the making of modern man and the taming of nature, land, and peoples. It legitimized the exploitation of those rendered “other,” those less modern and represented as “in need” of scientific intervention.

In Robert Boyle’s articulation of laboratory science in the seventeenth century, the scientist’s prejudices were supposedly excluded from the lab. By the mid-twentieth century, the lab was envisioned as no longer constrained behind walls,16 and experimenters’ immunity from prejudice supposedly followed them back into the laboratory of the world. Recapturing the modernist and imperial dimension of the lab as a method, cyberneticians helped reinstate the lab’s governmental mode to make sense of human and nonhuman entities together, to order the domains of the sensible and the senseless, to latch onto the promise of possibility. The lab is no longer only a space apart from the world. It is the general condition for experimentation everywhere. It is a mode of governance.

In the classic analyses of Max Weber and Michel Foucault, the emphasis is on the regularities of forms of modern organization or power.17 The early scientific laboratory was imagined as a restricted space outside of the regularities of these other forms of power, a space where experiments were conducted by special kinds of scientific subjects – modest witnesses recording and interpreting their data. According to this partition of the social world, the laboratory takes up problems generated outside its walls and experiments with their conditions to make new regularities – instruments that may then be used somewhere else, by someone else. But the muddied feet of actors could drag imperial debris into what only appears to be the “objective” space of the scientific laboratory.18

These forms of power and experimentation became an increasingly generalized condition. Think about the city as laboratory in sociology’s interest in black migration to the industrialized urban centers of the northern US.19 This experimentation took place within the context of anti-black racism, of domination that rendered categories of being human as precarious, as precariously human. The scientific lab, like the city-lab, cannot extricate itself from social conditions in which it is embedded. In its proliferation and intensification of bio/necropolitical regularities, the lab has proven to be an engine of precarity.

When we consider the colony, the plantation, the prison, and the factory as different kinds of social-technical regularities, but also as all being versions of the lab, what common dynamics become visible? The lab has long been the site of continual reinvestment in the project of modernization, the reproduction of the belief in science and technology as “a moral force” that operates by “creating an ethics of innovation, yield, and result”20 and by establishing dominance and control.21

Labs organize labor and people, produce and mobilize knowledge, and test and develop subjects and objects in unfree conditions. The colony was the West’s ideal laboratory, spinning scientific procedures, technologies, and techniques into policy and governmentality.22

The colony continues to be one of the most successful laboratories. Colonial rule uses techniques of governance that turn land into “zones,” regional and seemingly bounded, bordered labs that render certain terrains attractive for investment by demarcating space and the people in it as exceptions. The exceptional zone manages risk for the “experimenter,” because the zone is loosely regulated (lax environmental protection regulations, lack of labor laws) and offers tax reductions as incentives to investors. The lab operates on behalf of the empire-nation, or the empire-corporation, eager to compete in the global economy. People and land are its materials for experimentation.

The plantation and the factory are linked – the plantation forms a supply chain connection with the factory. It not only produces raw materials for the factory, but also acts as a laboratory for modes of control. Slavery enabled capitalism. As Hortense Spillers notes in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” the commodification of the slave’s flesh involved not only the bondage of Africans and people of African descent. It also transformed the bodies of slaves who were no longer able to work on the plantation due to injury or illness into a valuable resource for medical research, a “living laboratory” from which scientists could extract knowledge about human anatomy and physiology from persons whose lives forced labor had already depleted.23

The bodies of slaves themselves also importantly formed the basis of experiments with financialization in the credit economy of the Atlantic world.24 Their uncompensated lives and labor formed the capital that early venture investors leveraged. In the antebellum Mississippi, slaves represented “a congealed form of the capital upon which the commercial development of the Valley depended … The cords of credit and debt—of advance and obligation—that cinched the Atlantic economy together were anchored with the mutually defining values of land and slaves: without land and slaves, there was no credit, and without slaves, land itself was valueless.”25 And without the slave plantation, there was no factory full of workers.

Unlike sugar, indigo, and other commodities produced in the tropical and semitropical colonies of European empires, cotton re-ordered global production and trade networks and gave birth to both the factory and the European proletariat. With the explosion of the cotton industry, disparate regions of the globe became linked in unprecedented ways because cotton “has two labor-intensive stages – one in the fields, the other in factories”;26 85–90 percent of the cotton produced in America was sent to Liverpool for sale, and then processed into textiles in British factories.

Undergirded by both the raw materials and by the techniques of organizing production grown in the plantation lab, the factory played a crucial role in creating the category of “free” labor through the concentration of workers. Carefully regulating workers’ efforts and times while seeking to optimize their productivity, factories disciplined workers’ bodies and senses. The factory was a lab for studying the production process with the goal of generating efficiencies. Similar to the plantation, it also helped shape the soil for the production of lifeworlds, from living quarters to sites of entertainment and conviviality. These formations were simultaneously the products of the project of modernity yet they also set its conditions of possibility.

Plantation and factory are two different modes of organizing the extraction of labor and the production of standard commodities through repetition. They can also be thought of as zones of experimentation that generate new regularities. The city is another such zone. We might think of the city today as a laboratory for experiments in reproducing the legitimacy of information technology. Also here, the experiment is conducted on the most precarious bodies. Such experiments, when generalized, multiply the precarity that was one of their conditions of possibility in the first place.

The laboratory is not always about the production of knowledge, or the generation of new regularities that will be more efficient, more rational, more frictionless. Sometimes the lab seems to exist for no other reason than the desire to experiment on precarious bodies. The lab does not need to have any relation to reason; it may enact power to experiment simply as power. Such enactment is its reason.

Universities too have always been labs. The close linkage between military science and university research is an open secret. In the US context, university laboratories have been essential to advancing military technology since World War II, with large numbers of research faculty funded by Department of Defense contracts.

The contemporary university – or as some of us call it, the neoliberal university – has embraced a generalized laboratory practice in the name of efficiency, underfunding and dismantling programs that do not self-evidently bring investment into the institution. Higher education has become a service provider for affluent or debt-laden communities of students.

We aim to repurpose the lab model, working in and against it as a cover for the kinds of antiracist, anticapitalist, queer and feminist work that is often devalued by the university.

We are not claiming any equivalence or universality of the experience of precarity. But we are claiming that very different institutional forms have always been experimental zones, that they borrow techniques from each other, and that the digital generalizes and accelerates this practice. For example, for-profit online universities, online high school courses, and charter schools all tend to spring up in places that are already depleted of educational infrastructures and the resources that they aim to bring.

We struggle with and work within contradictions and ambivalences that are not easily resolved. Currently, we write these words in the Banff Centre, a world-class conference center for the arts in Banff, Canada, built on First Nations lands, and underwritten by wealth gained from the natural resource extraction industry.27

We are generously funded by a project whose underlying goal is to rebrand the humanities as relevant to the market economy; even as we are critical of this economization of criticality, we too are complicit in the project of making the humanities anew, as marketable to donors, as a site for treating students as human capital and cultivating faculty as entrepreneurial agents and brands. We are, as the expression has it, living the contradictions.


Thinking With

We look to black and indigenous feminism for inspiration and intervention, all the while knowing that we shouldn’t expect women of color to bear the burden of solving these problems along with their many other jobs. Indigenous feminist studies, for example, thinks beyond the analysis of commodity relations and capital accumulation, prioritizing instead relationality, space and place-making. Given how many people no longer have access to homes, jobs, or economic security, covens of care or relation may be our best and most attainable bet.

Indigenous studies also focuses our understanding of precarity in relation to the material world. The rootedness of the digital in precious metals and minerals, server farms, data centers, undersea cables, and stratospheric balloons shows the network is not an abstract model of relationality that includes some and excludes others, but a built spider’s web of metal, plastic, and silicon with devastating effect on the environment.

We also look to our indigenous sisters to hold ourselves accountable in our own imbrications with ongoing settler-colonialisms. Jodi Byrd’s reading of Choctaw novelist LeAnn Howe’s “A Chaos of Angels” provides a guiding term, haksuba, in reckoning with historic and ongoing injustice while also building towards a just future; “Haksuba or chaos occurs when Indians and non-Indians bang their heads together in search of cross-cultural understanding,” Howe tells us.28 Byrd explains, haksuba “provides a foundational ethos for indigenous critical theories that emphasize the interconnectedness and grievability embodied within and among relational kinships created by histories of oppressions.”29 As Judith Butler explains that precarious life is that which is not worthy of grief, haksuba provides us with a method for anticolonial organizing: a chaotic, corrective, productive, and transformative mourning.

Our grief, however, goes hand-in-hand with play. We are influenced by women of color/black/indigenous feminisms in our insistence on joy and play in the face of precarity. Saidiya Hartman’s writing on “the anarchy of colored girls assembled in a riotous manner” teaches us to pay attention to the social theory produced by black girls who elaborated a theory of freedom through the improvised practice of waywardness.30 We seek to work within the spirit of waywardness in our orientation towards the university and the laboratory, a waywardness in our orientation to our own experiences of precarity.

We agree that the commodification of black feminism – as Catherine Knight Steele points out, Audre Lorde’s writing is a commodity that sells organic tote-bags on Instagram – extends our over-reliance on their labor, especially their labor in creating digital life.31 Black digital feminism warns us against simple evocations of blackness as resistance. We use these theories instead to maintain our focus on the material and lived experiences of racial and gendered expropriation, and to name them as such.

We hope that our tone translates the pleasure we took in writing with each other, coming together, and loosening the strictures of traditional academic writing. We know that we write about forces that feel totalizing, weighty, frightening, or impossible to overcome. We experience the depletion of emotional life that racial capitalism imposes. In response, we offer what we can: a writing practice, and a practice of living, that permits imperfection and pleasure. Like the syncopated rhythms of the bomba drum, always in conversation with the improvised movements of the bomba dancer, this manifesto can be read to the rhythm of your own body.32 This manifesto need not be read in a linear fashion from front to back, following the numbered sequence of the chapters. Let the sound and cadence of the text respond to your own affective flows. We invite you to think and feel and write and play and make your own, wherever you are in the network of precarity.


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