A Digital Working Class?

In Cory Doctorow’s excellent short story “Anda’s Game” (which Michael Chabon included in the 2005 Best American Short Stories), a Tijuana labor organizer named Raymond explains to the title character that the missions she’s being hired to complete in a massively multiplayer online game similar to World of Warcraft are actually destroying the avatars of in-game sweatshop labor, who lose their (real) day’s wages when “killed.” Unfortunately, the scenario isn’t only fictional: such sweatshops actually do exist, and stand as remarkable evidence of the ways in which virtual online economies are increasingly intersecting with today’s “real” economy of individuated production and consumption — and having real and concrete effects on the ways people experience socioeconomic class.

Today’s individuated economy is making newly heightened demands on certain classes of people (the in-game sweatshop workers; the people holding down two jobs who take online higher education classes when they get home at night in the hopes of securing better employment) while opening up new opportunities for others (those who exploit the in-game sweatshop workers; the digerati who have the access and training to construct and manipulate new digital texts). So the immediate question to ask would seem to be: who are the new digital working classes, now that increasing efficiencies of production and the changing economy are reducing the ranks of such conventionally working-class occupations as machinists, farmers, and factory workers? Besides online in-game sweatshop workers, who else might we understand as being working class in the context of digital technologies — and how might composition pedagogies account for such people?

Actually, it’s a bit of a misleading question. After Bourdieu, we need to revise our perception of conventional and monolithic definitions of “class,” “working class,” and “middle class” as fragmented, exploded, and incoherent. We’re no longer in the age of the mass economy “working classes” as represented by Marx, E. P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and their inheritors, and the nature of work is undergoing profound change, just as the economy itself has shifted away from an economy of mass production and consumption and exists now as a heterogeneous terrain upon which digital technologies play an increasingly significant part — a part that composition, so far, has incompletely and imperfectly addressed.

In composition, conventional understandings of the working class (ones that are typically the aforementioned direct inheritors of Thompson, Hoggart, et aliis — David Borkowski’s September 2004 CCC article “Not too Late to Take the Sanitation Test” stands as a usefully representative recent example) concern themselves with relations of power and exploitation, and as a consequence propose a pedagogy that moves beyond understanding the uses of First Year Composition as merely instrumental, serving student’s success in school and job; a pedagogy that understands a use value for student writing as well as an exchange value. Certainly, those in-game sweatshop workers are being exploited; the value of their labor in the massively multiplayer online games that they “play” is appropriated as exhange value — and their “play” really holds no use value for them in the way that similar play would hold use value who engage in the game for enjoyment. What I’m looking for in the composition classroom is a way to understand the multiple forms of value (use and exchange) that students’ written work (and play) can carry; how it can go beyond just serving a future career’s communicative needs.

So given those notions of use and play, some in composition would likely tell me I’m no longer talking about class, and definitely not talking about the working class: for Borkowski, and for many others, work — figured as occupation — is a cause of class, and shapes students’ class backgrounds. Today, the conventional wisdom is that jobs are increasingly shifting to the service sector, and also that work — and play — is increasingly shaped by digital technologies. According to US Department of Labor projections, the greatest increases in employment positions between 2004 and 2014 are going to be in retail salespersons, registered nurses, postsecondary teachers, customer service representatives, and janitors. The greatest decreases, on the other hand, are going to be in farmers and ranchers, stock clerks, sewing machine operators, file clerks, order clerks, mail clerks, and computer operators (!). Retail salespersons certainly don’t control the scene or circumstances of their labor, and the working conditions of nurses are notoriously tough, and a Marxist perspective would certainly consider workers in both occupations as being exploited — but would we consider a student whose parents work in those occupations to be members of an emerging different formation of the working class?

And what about those “postsecondary teachers”? A number of scholars in composition have repeatedly drawn an opposition between the academy and the working class, but what are we to make of that in light of today’s changing nature of work? In Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri define “immaterial labor” as “labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge, or communication” (290). For Hardt and Negri, there are three varieties of immaterial labor: first, “an industrial production that has been informationalized,” second, “analytical and symbolic tasks,” and third, the emotional work involved in “the production and manipulation of affect” (293). Those in-game sweatshop workers would indicate that such immaterial labor can today occupy a position similar to that of the material labor (machinists, farmers, factory workers) that formerly constituted the majority of working class occupations. In fact, I want to argue that all three of Hardt and Negri’s forms of immaterial labor are present in the composition classroom, in the instrumental, critical, and social purposes of writing. Writing, as it circulates, reifies the labor and the process and the social relationships that created it even as it constructs a multivariate network of diverse and heterogeneous local nodes — a global intellectual commons — that contributes to the further production of knowledge.

What happens, then, if we oppose Min-Zhan Lu’s recent characterization of “a world ordered by global capital” (“An Essay on the Work of Composition: Composing English against the Order of Fast Capitalism.” CCC 56.1, September 2004) and suggest, instead, that today’s students are not constituted by but constitutive of global capital? What happens if we discard the faceless and agentless agency that Min-Zhan Lu ascribes to global capital and instead suggest that the immaterial and embodied labor students produce within and beyond the classroom actually shapes the economy, just as does the immaterial and embodied labor of the online in-game sweatshop worker?

Such labor takes place in the context of the increasing inequality of wealth and income, both nationally and globally, that is another constituent factor of class stratification. While college enrollments increase, we may see classes of students increasingly stratified by wealth, income, and access, with more poor students going to community colleges and more wealthy students going to elite universities. Where I live, there’s a community college that declares in its mission statement that it’s producing the workforce of tomorrow, and an elite institution that declares in its mission statement that it’s producing the leaders of tomorrow. Proletariat and bourgeoisie. One might imagine that with such differing mission statements, the work of first-year composition itself will vary at such institutions, with the community college students gaining facility in a more transactional, instrumental, and vocationally-focused rhetoric, and the elite students engaging with texts that transmit the tastes and values of upper-class culture.

I believe composition needs a pedagogy or pedagogies that accounts for the economic and cultural changes being wrought by digital technologies and that accounts, as well, for such a diversity of sites and purposes of writing instruction. Such a pedagogy would necessarily understand the old categories of socioeconomic class as exploded into a relational infinitude of classes (see Bourdieu’s Distinction and the first two essays in Practical Reason) and the economy as heterogenous, complex, and overdetermined (see J. K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism), comprising not only commodified market transactions based on exchange value but also other forms of transaction and other forms of value — transactions that take place within the classroom as well as outside it. Such a vision stands in direct contrariety to the common mainstream construction of an all-consuming market capitalism within which students are being trained for vocational success, and demands a mode of teaching that accounts for a broad and diverse array of forms of valuation and their intellectual work (and play).

A Digital Working Class?

13 thoughts on “A Digital Working Class?

  • Pingback:vitia » Blog Archive » Weblogs as Liminal Oscillation

  • Pingback:vitia » Blog Archive » The Goldfarmer

  • July 6, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    Your point seems to be, basically, “Hey, I treat my workers pretty well.” So what? That does not in any way mitigate the fact that goldfarmer shops have workers doing twelve-hour shifts for low wages, as documented in two well-reported stories in the New York Times. Long shifts for low wages are sweatshops, however you might want to euphemize it.

  • July 7, 2007 at 10:01 am

    In http://www.mathewingram.com/work/2007/06/17/new-york-times-portrait-of-a-virtual-sweatshop/

    Nothing in that article indicates to the educated reader that anyone is being exploited, forced, or exposed to circumstances any harsher than what can be found in typical western society.

    What those workers get paid is considered decent wages to them. Their working conditions are no worse than the average, typical working conditions found elsewhere in their nation.

    No immoral western company is outsourcing it’s work to these countries and therefore making westerners lose jobs. The vast majority of westerners profiting these Game Workshops are people who provide needed brokering services to Game Work Shops too small to do their own customer support/fraud prevention/financial bookkeeping.

    This is in stark comparison to businessmen who purposefully set out to establish REAL sweatshops in countries where decent labor laws are not yet made or strictly enforced. In these REAL sweatshops people are abused, forced to work in deadly or harmful working conditions, not educated concerning job safety in a proper manner etc.

    The ONLY reason people even get it into their heads to use the word “sweatshop” to describe this new industry is because the workers seem to be mostly from poorer countries and because it is “weird.”

    People will tell you that the “evil brokers” are exploiting the poor 24 year old Chinese “children” because they make a wild profit from them. This, also, is not true. The cost to produce AND SELL 1000 WoW gold compared to what a gold farmer gets paid shows that most the profit is eaten up by fees, taxes, fraud, marketing, paying sales stuff, and other expenses. The gold farmer probably makes MORE profit for himself per 1000 gold he farms than any other person anywhere along the line makes.

    Hearing that some poor Chinese “boy” (are 20 year olds boys?) gets paid only $180 per month to work 10 or 12 hour shifts might sound bad at first, but when you figure out the purchasing power of that wage you see that it is actually decent. Guess what? I live in one of the largest cities in China (where expenses are astronomically higher than in many of these places mentioned and *I* get paid…. $187.50 per month plus housing (my apartment is so plain and uninteresting even by Chinese standards that when my Chinese relative visits this city in a week I’m going to try to avoid letting him see it).

    I and my company are not the exception. We are the NORM. In fact, I still have never actually seen REAL EVIDENCE of any REAL (REAL) Game Sweatshops ever existing!

    New York Times using the word phrase “virtual sweatshop” one time in an article does not prove that this industry is rife with sweatshop labor! If no urban myth or viral meme was being promulgated, you would not hear me and others (the few of us who actually know) like me complaining.

    But the fact of the matter, is you, and all your readers, and many others, have been tricked into thinking the evil powers of slavery exist where, in fact, people are enjoying their life by mixing their favorite hobby with their work and getting paid well for it. It is not a job a responsible and highly educated family man would want to keep, but it is a GREAT, and I really mean GREAT, job for the people who work here. Namely 19-26 year old males.

    Please remember, $100 USD goes a looooong way in China and other similar countries. Any article that tells you how much money a person makes (if converted into your currency type) but fails to indicate what the actual purchasing power of said money is, is highly unprofessional and should not be taken as a credible source.

  • July 7, 2007 at 10:14 am

    “Unfortunately, the scenario isn’t only fictional: such sweatshops actually do exist…”

    Where “such,” according to Anda’s Game, which the “such” is referring to, equals Skinny, near-starving young pre-teen to mid teen girls forced to either work in game sweatshops or become prostitutes. They only get paid a dollar per day and lose their entire day’s wage if their character is killed once.

    No. I’m sorry. “Such” sweatshops do NOT exist. Adults choosing to either work as an employee at a Game Workshop or work as an employee at any number of other legitimate jobs, all of which offer decent working environments and wages for their locale, is in absolutely no way a sweatshop of ANY form.

    Please. Stop. Using. The. Word. “Sweatshop.” To. Describe. My. Industry.

    Thank you.

  • July 7, 2007 at 10:38 am

    Zraythe, here’s a lesson in logic for you: just because you haven’t personally seen a phenomenon doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Exploitation is a fact of life in every labor market. Yours is no exception.

    And, frankly, you protest a bit too much. Your vigor in proclaiming that no one, anywhere, ever, who farms virtual gold can possibly be exploitative is both ridiculous and so over the top as to raise significant doubts about your veracity.

  • July 9, 2007 at 9:47 am

    While it could be true that some Game Workshop’s owner uses highly immoral methods and has turned his specific business into a type of sweatshop, it is defiantly not mainstream. In fact, no solid reports have ever been made of any such business.

    Yet, most gamers, when asked where gold farmers work, will say “In a game sweatshop, of course.” Every single day, I find post after post about the evils of buying virtual currency because “it fuels slave labor.” The idea of game sweatshops has been blown completely out of proportion.

    I honestly do not think virtual farming companies are any more prone to sweatshop methodology taking over than any other type of business that exists in poorer countries. To single Game Workshops out and speak as if they are all (or the majority of them) are sweatshops is wrong.

    Surf around. See how people talk about this industry. It is clear to see that the overwhelming majority of people call it a sweatshop of some sort, even though I still have not found any real proof to indicate a single instance. Even if evidence of one or two ACTUAL game sweatshops could be found, it would still not validate the stereotypical title people have chosen to describe Game Workshops.

  • July 18, 2007 at 3:06 am

    You claim that I think that:

    “no one, anywhere, ever, who farms virtual gold can possibly be exploitative…”

    You put words in my mouth, sir. I never said it is impossible for game sweatshops to exist. I said that I’ve never seen any solid evidence of an actual game related sweatshop existing.

    CAN they exist? Sure…just like any other type of sweatshop could theoretically exist. But game sweatshops most certainly are not mainstream, as most people seem to think they are. If the game workshops which are currently operating in China are sweatshops, then almost all other businesses in China are sweatshops as well. I walk the streets of China and I see happy people going to and from their points of interest. They are no more slaves to their employment than westerners are.

    Yet the idea persists that in China a horrible evil that is “game sweatshops” is turning young girls and boys into gangsters and unhealthy, ill-treated slaves.

    Go look at wikipedia. The very definition for my industry type is labeled “Game sweatshop.” The definition itself suggestions exploitation and immoral behavior. Yet every time I try to change the wikipedia article to have a more neutral point of view it gets reverted by others who think they are the experts in this field because they read the “Wage Slaves” 1up article, which I have thoroughly proven as being mostly false/outdated.

  • July 18, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    You write, “You put words in my mouth, sir. I never said it is impossible for game sweatshops to exist.”


    Above, you write, “Game Sweatshops do not exist.”

    Above, you write, “But the fact of the matter, is you, and all your readers, and many others, have been tricked into thinking the evil powers of slavery exist where, in fact, people are enjoying their life by mixing their favorite hobby with their work and getting paid well for it.”

    Above, you write, “‘Such’ sweatshops do NOT exist.”

    Again, you seem to have fundamental difficulties with basic logic. So please, go back to your own blog, and stop wasting my time. Again, you protest a bit too much, and the vigor of your complaints raises doubts as to your veracity. If you didn’t have anything to worry about, you’d keep quiet, knowing that I wasn’t talking about people like you — now, wouldn’t you?

  • Pingback:vitia » Blog Archive » Writing for the Turk

  • November 4, 2009 at 5:43 am

    Yt th d prssts tht Chn s trrbl vl “gm swtshps” s bcmng dlnqnt chldrn nd nhlthy, ll-trtmnt slvs

  • November 4, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    Yet another self-justifying spam comment. Disemvoweled.

Comments are closed.