Part 1: Work, Work, Work, Work, Work, Work
Running short on money and in desperate need of luxuries like health insurance, food, and booze I scoured the Internet for part time jobs. My primary source of income, as a dissertation fellow, pays a small stipend (nowhere near enough to live on in any city, much less a major one) and affords no benefits. And so, pockets empty, I began my search. My first stop was H-Net, though I wasn’t holding out much hope for a well-paid, part-time, quick-hire. After about 5 minutes I gave up and transitioned to Idealist and Indeed, looking for any jobs that might be intellectually stimulating, somewhat ethical, or at least tangentially related to my interests. Forty-five minutes later I was depressed on Craigslist.
From a young age we are taught to think in relation to work. We are asked what our aspirations are in the form of what we want to be when we grow up. Primary and secondary school are meant to shape those desires into some form of productive identity. College is supposed to give you the precision to master a particular subset of knowledge, enshrined in the diploma. And graduate school is for when you discover that all of your previous education has been a resounding failure, either because you are somehow still not qualified for any job or you simply have no idea what else to do. Of course this also carries with it the gross inflation of an already substantial debt load further skyward, but you think that debt is useful if it gets you somewhere.
In these things, education aims constantly towards something, a trajectory meant to culminate in an effective product. It also holds a promise, that by becoming a particular kind of person, by surviving a decades-long educatory gauntlet you are rewarded with financial security and care (health benefits especially in the U.S.). In the 21st century, for those of at least moderate privilege anyway, however, work is defined not simply by safety and security, but also as an expression of one’s fundamental identity. In looking for the ideal job, we seek to be an ideal representation of ourselves. Contemporary capital has thus made our relation to work fundamental to our being. If I become this, then I will be a particular kind of person, and I will be protected and safe. Unfortunately, however, in order for that ideal to be perpetuated, one still has to be able to get that job.
So what happens when there is no ideal job to be had? That realization, though far from being a majority opinion, is prevalent. The façade of American dream politics is being recognized by a growing number of millennials with few prospects and fewer social structures to help them.
A brief aside: This is not some nostalgia piece on how there was a time when people had endless opportunities and their relation to work was utopian. People work because under neoliberal capital they have to, as they have always had to under all forms of capital. Most don’t do something they enjoy. The very framework of capital is built on hierarchy and exploitation, even if it is not readily seen. Nor is this an attempt to flatten precarity under the universal category of work. Race, class (not the same as work), gender, sexuality, ability, citizenship, and religion make the intersectional terrain of work topographically diverse.
The lack of ideal work, across the board, however, is emblematic of our time, but it is a symptom, not a cause. It is a symptom of the toxic relation we share to work, how it defines us, shackles us, and enlists our help in perpetuating a job as a de facto necessity when more than enough wealth exists to provide adequate care for the population. In short, it is an act of perverse alchemy that heralds work as both an enduring necessity and a category of pure economy. And when work is described solely in its relation to economy, we are only offered economic solutions to its problems. The answer becomes a deification of unemployment rates rather than an assessment of the ethical implications of being a worker; a measure of the stock exchange instead of an ecological look at exploitation for profit.
Work, therefore, is an identarian vector that informs more than your economic status, it carries with it a whole host of political and ethical ideals, a constellation of material and ideological realities implicit to contemporary capital. So in a time of widespread economic turmoil, despite rose-tinted stock exchange indices and unemployment numbers, what kind of work are we doing?
Part 2: Flexible, Mobile, Fixed
Like me, a lot of people find themselves needing multiple jobs. And in scrolling through pages of craigslist job ads one particular kind of work seemed more prevalent than the rest. Benignly referred to as part of the ‘sharing’ or gig economy (and more accurately named here as access economy), services offered by companies like Uber, Postmates, Amazon Flex, and others, are distributed, yet individuated service networks. Each of these companies offers a technological infrastructure to act as middlemen between potential labor and potential clients. More than this, each relies on a mutually constitutive tandem of mobility and fixity to secure their ‘employees’ as incredibly precarious subjects.
It is no accident that Uber has become the prototypical model of an access economy company. Besides being backed by serious investor capital, it was an early proponent of utilizing the near-ubiquity of digital access to offer potential employees local, part-time, employment. Conveniently coinciding with the financial collapse of 2008, Uber provided a means for financially struggling people to collect some much needed cash, without the pesky need to provide benefits, the possibility for unionization, or even actual employment (Uber drivers are independent contractors, not actual employees). What makes this possible for companies like Uber and others is both a long lineage of eroding employee rights, one that dates to well before the smartphone age, and an ecosystem that balances the tension between mobility and fixation.
If anyone reading this has been an employee independent contractor for Uber, Postmates, Amazon Flex, or Wag (just a small sampling of the tons more that can be found here) you know how these apps work. But for anyone who doesn’t here is the process. Once you have been hired you open your app and wait…Depending on the time of day, how busy your given area is, or how willing you are to travel, you might spend a lot of time waiting. But when an opportunity comes up you are put into direct competition with other contractors attempting to work as well. This has several implications, the first being that you are made antagonistic to your fellow contractors and the second being that you have to be constantly affixed to your device. Since their inception, many have decried the constant access that smartphones (and their less advanced palm pilot/blackberry/cell phone antecedents) provide, making you constantly available for work interactions. Uber and others take this further, making constant attention to one’s device a core aspect of the job itself. Once you have (possibly) edged out the competition and gotten a fare/walk/delivery, the second part of the job is enacted, work as body in motion.
What a lot of think pieces on access economy jobs seem to omit amidst their constant attentiveness to technology and infrastructure are actual working bodies, what they are doing and what the implications of those actions are. If the archetypal worker of the late twentieth century was the office drone, trapped in a cubicle, and irresolutely affixed to their computer screen, the past several years have given rise to a new species, the data drone. The data drone is both constantly fixed and constantly mobile, sutured to their smartphone and delivering, walking, cleaning, or driving. Moreover, with the ‘help’ of their augmented technologies the data drone is solitude rather than meek solidarity, they have no water cooler, no means of employee-to-employee communication. They are beholden to multiple vectors of data aggregation including customer feedback, location tracking, built in time stamping, and are in many cases building the infrastructure for their own obsolescence. They also never know when the next job will come, if ever. In short, the data drone is itself an object of perpetual circulation. These hybrid drives of perpetual fixity/mobility evidence the primary aspect of the data drone, their precarity.
Despite this, the data drone is nevertheless a privileged subject, a referent to a much older (yet still very present) employment phenomenon, the migrant worker. A data drone needs a driver’s license, a smartphone, and citizenship. Migrant workers often don’t have access to these things. To this, in 2008 (a year before Uber came into being) Alex Rivera’s dystopian film Sleep Dealer envisions a future where migrant workers can only enter the U.S. virtually to do work. Rivera’s insight into the amalgam of exploited human and technology is to recognize the long-standing site of human as technology for profit. The maquiladora is not some faraway invention of science fiction, it is here today. Moreover, people have been standing and waiting for the possibility of a job for which they will have to be in constant motion for a long time. The genealogy of mobility and labor goes back even further than this in the United States. The U.S. was built through a series of systemic violences to the bodies of those forcibly extracted from Africa, to the indigenous peoples of the Americas continually compressed and compartmentalized, and to migrants circulating to find work and escape persecution. So when we talk about mobility and its relation to technology it is important to contextualize.
In sum, work is always about competition, contemporary technology has simply been mobilized in a way that makes this easier. The technology itself is benign. It could just as easily be used for anti-capitalist purposes, to crowdsource solidarity rather than competition. What Uber and others have figured out, however, is that many citizens are in situations dire enough to accept a position without almost any of the benefits that citizenship (read also: white, cis-male, ableness) at one point afforded. What is particularly appalling then about the state of things, is that it has taken the precarity of those once-(and still to an extent)privileged subjects for the media at large to cry foul. Insecurity, alienation, and poverty make it easier to exploit people and to misdirect who is at fault. To recognize a shared, yet substantively gradated and diverse, precarity is the first step towards combatting the hegemonic oppression of work. To be mindful of these things is to ensure that going forward we do not remake the same mistakes of the past.
Stephen is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark where he advocates for ethics and ontology beyond the human through analyses of media, science, and culture. He can be found on Twitter @mcnultyenator