by Dr. Amy Collier, Associate Provost for Digital Learning

I took a few minutes this week to peruse feedback on the 2020 Digital Detox and, to my surprise, I found a resounding theme in the feedback. The theme can be summed up in the following questions: What do we do about the fact that so much of our work, our labor, is tied up in digital technologies? How can we address our attention in the attention economy, when our workplaces* require our involvement in the digital world and we’re expected to, as part of our work, feed the attention economy? (*and our classrooms)

One respondent mentioned that their office requires them to use social media. Another mentioned that their industry required constant attention to emails and alerts on digital communication channels, such as Slack, Skype, and WhatsApp. Another asked, “what is the responsibility of managers for setting boundaries and expectations for a healthier relationship with technology?” These concerns highlight that, in part because of digital technologies, our jobs demand our attention all of the time and via attention-hungry (and data-extracting) platforms. And, no matter how many wellness programs we make available to workers, these attention consuming intersections of digital technologies and labor are hurting workers.

Ian Bogost calls the culture of always-on (but not always visible) obligations piled on by digital technologies “hyperemployment.” He argues that, because of digital technologies, our jobs now involve many jobs. Email is a clear example of how digital technologies create new labor obligations, but also “…now every division needs a social media presence, and maybe even a website to develop and manage. Thanks to Oracle and SAP, everyone is a part-time accountant and procurement specialist. Thanks to Oracle and Google Analytics, everyone is a part-time analyst.” Writing about Bogost’s piece, Dr. Karen Gregory (University of Edinburgh) notes that “it is undeniable that as life and work blur into each other, levels of exhaustion mount. The persistent ‘doing of things’ or the ‘getting of things done’ comes to stand in for other activities. Microsoft even recently declared November 7 to be “Get It Done Day,” as though to suggest that even holidays are workdays…As Microsoft rather grossly suggests in its new Office 365 campaign, there is no physical escape from work, and ‘whether you are in an office park or a national park, you can still participate in meetings.’”

Yay?

The ways in which the digital economy demands our attention are not an accidental byproduct of the digital economy—they are a feature. Networked workers (always connected by devices, email, other communication tools), whose affective and caring labor in digital spaces is often rendered invisible, are analyzed with “productivity” metrics (how many emails? how many clicks?) that feed stories about worker value. In this economy, Gregory highlights in the video below, the challenge facing workers “is not necessarily so much a fight about wages and benefits, as it is a fight for actual time itself. We have all these technologies that can keep us active, producing, clicking, circulating, sharing…all of that activity is subsuming elements of our life into it and in many ways extracting value from that.”

Karen Gregory discusses worker rights in the digital economy from The Politics of Digital Culture on Vimeo.

It was clear from the 2020 Digital Detox feedback that digital detoxes are not the answer to this problematic situation (though they often are sold to us as the answer). I’m glad that the 2020 Digital Detox helped to raise these issues, but that is not enough. What if Middlebury supported its workers in having conversations about digital labor and its impacts on their lives and wellbeing? Here are some suggested provocations to help spark those conversations:

  • What rights do Middlebury workers want and need in this digital economy?
  • What do care and solidarity look like in this new labor arrangement? What forms of care are needed for Middlebury workers who are expected to participate in digital spaces and platforms where harassment, threats, and toxicity are rampant?
  • What could work-sharing look like so that our complete time and attention is not so consumed by digital platforms and the digital economy?
  • How can Middlebury workers have a say in what work gets automated and how those automations impact their own work and lives?

So how might we begin to have these conversations? In a 2018 keynote on Invisible Labor and Digital Utopias, the inimitable Audrey Watters shared a series of illustrations created by Jean Marc Côté in the late 1890s. The series, called En L’an 2000 (In The Year 2000) imagines how technologies would change daily life in the distant future. Here are a couple of examples:

electric device scrubbing floors

a house being driven around on a road

When looking at these images, Watters asks us to consider, “whose labor is valued, whose labor is mechanized, who works for whom, and so on.” And as we think about how our current realities measure up to these imaginations, “what is the digital supposed to liberate us from? What is rendered (further) invisible when we move from the mechanical to the digital, when we cannot see the levers and the wires and the pulleys?”

I would encourage us to explore creative and provocative ways to make the invisible labor (and forces shaping that labor) more visible here at Middlebury, in higher education, and in broader socio-political conversations. Just as Watters uses En L’an 2000 illustrations to provoke our rethinking of utopian digital futures, how might we provoke rethinking of the ways our labor intersects with, and is shaped by, the digital attention economy? How might we think beyond the 2020 Digital Detox? One example comes to mind, and I will end with this example:

Last year, Bob Cole and our DLINQ West Interns visited The Glass Room installation in San Francisco. Created by Tactical Tech, The Glass Room is a series of art installations that call into question our relationships with technology. Bob told me about one particular exhibit, called Data Production Labor, that stayed with him long after the visit. It was a scanner that tracked your labor as you scrolled through a social media feed on your device. After a few minutes of scrolling, the scanner printed a receipt for how much you should be paid for the labor it recorded you doing. The provocation is to imagine what would happen if you were compensated for the digital labor you produce. What might a Middlebury version of this exhibit provoke?Bob's photos from The Glass Room digital labor exhibit

More resources on this topic

Hyperemployment, or the exhausting work of the technology user, by Ian Bogost

Digital Labor, with Frank Pasquale & Trebor Scholz

Digital Labour and Exploitation: It’s not a done deal, with Karen Gregory

From Digital Labor to Surveillance Capitalism, with Karen Gregory

Invisible Labor and Digital Utopias, by Audrey Watters