Are You a Digital Drone?

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 16, Pages 666-667

Are You a Digital Drone?

Most people, especially young people, view the Internet as a “playground” and much of what they do their as fun; as an enjoyable leisure-time activity. There is, however, an alternative perspective on this. While you might not see yourself in this way, there are those in sociology and other fields who are coming to look at much of the Internet as a “factory” and what you do there as a form of labor or work (Scholz, 2013). From the latter perspective, you are seen as spending hours every day slaving away on such tasks as updating your Facebook page and checking recent additions to other’s pages or detailing your most recent fashion choices on Pinterest. To some observers, you seem to resmble worker-bees tirelessly toiling away at a never-ending series of tasks.

In addition to thinking about what you do on the Internet as a fun, leisure-time activity, you might also see it as a series of tasks that you perform largely for yourself. They therefore seem to stand in contrast to traditional occupational activities in which you are working for others and in the process enhancing their interests while gaining little for yourself except for the pay involved. However, many critics now view what you do on the computer as very much like such work since you are often working for others and in the process making them wealthier. However, one important difference is that you are not working for a wage; on the internet you are usually engaging in “free labor”; you are working for nothing (Terranova, 2013).

For example, when you write product reviews for Amazon.com you are enhancing the value of that site and the company; you are working for them and you are not being paid for that work. Similarly, you work for Facebook, again for nothing, when you indicate your various likes and dislikes, especially for commercial products. More troubling is the much greater amount of such work that you do even though you are unaware of doing it. Google, for example, uses various data-mining techniques (web crawlers, personalized algorithmns) to track all of many things that you click on (Ross, 2013). The results are used to determine the kinds of advertisements that appear on your computer screen. Google earns money, lots of money, from those advertisers.

To put it baldly, the value of these computer-based businesses is based largely on the “work”- those clicks and likes- that you do for them free of charge. In a capitalist world you ought to be paid by all of them, but of course you are not paid. From the perspective of the critics of capitalism, you are being exploited by firms such as Google and Facebook (Fuchs, 2013). In fact, you are being exploited more than the paid workers in the capitalist system. Most of them are being paid relatively little, but you are paid nothing at all. Low paid work often yields great profits, but work that is unpaid leads to an even higher rate of profit. As a result, Google earns huge profits with a comparatively small workforce and while Facebook is not yet nearly as profitable, it has a market value of $100 billion even though it only has about two thousand paid employees.

While you might regard sites such as Facebook and Pinterest as playgrounds, you might feel a bit different about them, and perhaps behave differently, if you also thought about them as modern-day factories and yourself as unpaid drones slaving away on those sites for the benefit of their corporate owners.

References

Fuchs, Christian. “Class and Exploitation on the Internet.” Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 211-224.

Scholz, Trebor, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013.

Ross, Andrew. “In Search of the Lost Paycheck.” Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 13-32.

Terranova, Tiziana. “Free Labor”. In Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 33-57.

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