Materializing Immaterial Labour – Enda Brophy

I want to frame my response tonight to Franco Berardi’s public talk here in Vancouver as well as his recent interventions in other venues by picking up on his observation that the mobile phone is the assembly line of what he calls semiocapitalism.

I’ll begin by noting that Berardi is one of a number of authors that have underscored the special nature of the relationship that has developed between capitalism and communication in recent decades. This relationship, the American political theorist Jodi Dean suggests in Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics, is a key feature of what she terms communicative capitalism: a rising political, economic and cultural order that incorporates, depends upon, and justifies itself through the proliferation of “communicative access and opportunity.” To put it in under 140 characters: more communication produces more exploitation and inequality, not less.

I think there’s a great deal of political importance in probing the contemporary nature of this relationship between capitalism and communication. Berardi’s observation that the cell phone is the assembly line of our era brings us to the question of the labour that fuels communicative capitalism, which will be the topic of my talk tonight. I’ll argue that while Berardi’s discussion highlights critical shifts in the composition of labour under semiocapitalism, his description nonetheless obscures the broad variety of ways in which labour has been transformed in recent decades. Berardi’s discussion of the transformation of work limits itself to mutations that have occurred in certain populations, economic sectors, and geographic regions of the planet, privileging what we could call “immaterial” production, that is, labour that produces communication, culture, information, and other intangibles. This focus only gives us a part of the picture however. It also has important consequences for politics, ones which I hope we will be able to discuss. What I want to do tonight, then, is to touch upon some of the ways in which language and communication have been “put to work” and rendered productive under communicative capitalism, but also to offer a broader context for this process and in this way to materialize immaterial labour, bringing it down from the heavenly firmament to its earthly counterparts. In doing so, I’ll be drawing on some collaborative work undertaken with Greig de Peuter, on what we call “labours of mobility.”1

In many ways, mobile communication offers the perfect window through which to investigate the transformation of labour under neoliberalism. The cell phone is the fastest diffusing communication technology in history. The smartphone, and the iPhone in particular, is perhaps the most hallowed commodity of contemporary capitalism. It is always on, calling us back to work 24-7. It blurs work and play, acting as a portal through which we upload content to social media companies in our so-called “free” time. It makes communication instrumental, providing the platform through which we are encouraged to cultivate our online persona and “network,” a word that is every day less of a noun and more of a careerist verb. All of these developments point to a transformation of labour relations and exploitation for what the business guru Richard Florida has dubbed the “creative class.” But the smartphone also offers us the opportunity to be more thorough in our analysis of the transformation of labour, broadening our perspective to include the typically invisible, vastly diverse, and globally interlinked forms of labour set in motion by communicative capitalism. These forms of labour, which Berardi’s analysis obscures, occur along what Greig de Peuter and I call “the mobile circuit of exploitation.”

The initial moment in the circuit of exploitation we identify is that of extraction. Confronted here is the literal bedrock of the smartphone: tantalum, a silicate derived from columbite-tantalite, or coltan. Tantalum is an element vital to the electrical capacitors in our mobile devices. Of the geographies endowed with coltan, the vastest known deposits lie in the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose mineral wealth belies its location in the second-to-last slot on the UN’s Human Development Index. Countless gadgets contain tantalum, but Congo mining analysts describe mobile phones as “the main attraction.” Mining became a largely informal activity in the Congo in the 1990s as foreign companies abandoned Congolese sites amid Africa’s World War. A notable early 21st century display of global capitalist polarity, demand in the overdeveloped world for Sony PlayStations and Motorola mobiles initiated a coltan boom, adding incentive for competing militias to set up mining operations to bankroll their contribution to a conflict that took millions of lives in slaughter. On a visit to a Congo mining town anthropologist Jeffrey Mantz reported in 2008 that he was hard-pressed to meet a digger aware of the mineral’s eventual application. The labour process documented by human rights groups offers a picture of mostly small-scale, artisanal, and fleeting mines, dispersed across remote forests, where diggers, typically migrant, young, and male, use rudimentary tools to carry out the exceedingly dangerous pick-and-shovel work of stripping, burrowing, crushing, and hauling coltan. Diggers inhabit the most precarious step in an elaborate profit-taking process spanning from militias imposing taxes on distributors to local exporters to foreign traders. Most of the ore is ultimately purchased by a handful of processors. While the world-market in tantalum capacitors has an estimated value of two billion dollars, diggers eke out a few dollars a day.

The second moment in the circuit of exploitation we identify is that of assembly. By 2011 one and a half billion handsets were being produced every twelve months. The lion’s share of the mobile phone market is split among five firms that outsource an increasing proportion of production. Much of it passes through special economic zones, a paradigmatic neoliberal territory on which the manufacture of mobile communication devices is a preeminent activity. One contractor, Foxconn, has become notorious as news spread of worker suicides and unrest at the company whose labour force snaps iPhone parts into place. With over 1.2 million employees, Foxconn’s parent corporation, Hon Hai Precision Industry, is the world’s tenth-largest employer. Accounts of Foxconn’s factory complex reveal an overwhelmingly young and majority female workforce, a hyper-rationalized labour process marked by escalating output expectations, heightening stress, exhaustion, and predictably, mistakes (for which workers are fined), wages below the cost of living; and the growing use of student internships along the assembly lines. But the geography of mobile assembly is not limited to China. In India, special economic zones specializing in wireless handset manufacture have been touted as models to be replicated on the subcontinent. Says one Indian Nokia worker: “They want only migrant workers,” drawn from poor, far flung areas who are, according to a 2010 Civil Initiatives for Development and Peace report, believed to be more hesitant to ”voice their concerns and risk their sole source of livelihood.” Less well known is that migrant work in IT assembly now reaches into the European Union, the newest frontier of such production. In Pardubice and Kutna Hora, a hundred kilometers or so from Prague, and in Nitra, just over the border in Slovakia, a workforce of Bulgarians, Mongolians, Romanians, Poles, Ukrainians, and Vietnamese workers assembles electronics for Foxconn. This mobile workforce is essential to communicative capitalism, in which migrant workers are subject to what anthropologist Aihwa Ong terms “variegated citizenship.”

A third moment in the circuit of exploitation, and shifting from the realm of material to immaterial labour, is support. Once a handset has reached the customer’s hands, the telcos offer accessibility, responsiveness, and personalized attention, but such promises are expensive to deliver. Their solution is the same adopted in other industries—the call centre—and as a result a large and highly disciplined workforce toils in panoptic settings to enable the 4G “user experience.” Working at the interface between communicative capitalism and the high-value customer segment accessing the web through its smartphones, these employees address billing complaints, resolve technology failures, sell services, and collect on overdue accounts. As one of the fastest-growing jobs in the information society, call centre work is highly feminized, affective and precarious. At the end of the twentieth century, employment in these workspaces was swelling by 20% a year globally and 100,000 jobs were being added every twelve months. By 2006 some 15,000 call centres had opened in Europe alone, fuelling the continent’s fastest-growing form of employment. In Ireland and the Netherlands in the first decade of the 21st century, one out of every three new jobs was reported to be a call centre position, and in America over 4 million people, close to three per cent of the entire working population, have been estimated to toil in one. Employment growth has not been restricted to the so-called “developed” world either, as the call centre workforce has grown rapidly in India, the Philippines, Barbados, South Africa and many other countries. Afghanistan, one of the most war-ravaged countries on earth, has a fledgling call centre sector supporting the growing market for mobile phones in that country: “Taliban call in and the women talk to them,” Zermina, a manager at one of Kabul’s call centres, tells BBC reporter Lyse Doucet, illustrating how the workplace has been translated into the most diverse settings, producing novel compositions of labour wherever it goes.

The fourth moment in the circuit of exploitation is design. The relationship between communicative capital and cell phone users is increasingly mediated by mobile applications, and the design of smartphone apps has been the most celebrated form of work along the circuit of wireless production. Closer inspection reveals a more ambivalent picture of employment in the industry. Gorged by eager streams of venture capital, promising fledgling studios are morphing into familiar hierarchical structures of corporate high tech. The fortunes of individual app developers are disproportionately shaped by the whims of Apple and Google, companies that have unleashed a production model whereby application development—and risk—is outsourced to a global pool of workers, yet the companies are ensconced as gatekeepers of the app portal, seizing a percent of the sales. As independent developer Matthijs Hollemans blogs, “[i]n the long run, working on your own products is more profitable than working on other people’s products—but only if yours become a success.” At the extreme end of such flexible employment, online labour brokers such as Odesk, Elance, and Fancy Hands dole out small fragments of app development work, a venture which has flourished in recent years. Evolving techniques of mobile-enabled exploitation can be examined via case studies of start-ups like Jana. Viewing feature-phone users in the Global South as an “untapped work force,” according to the BBC’s Alka Marwaha, Jana dispatches SMS consumer surveys for “global brands,” eyeing what app developer Nathan Eagle calls “frontier economies,” compensating txt-workers in airtime and, in this way, converts access to communication into currency. Dubbing smartphones a vehicle for a “second paycheck,” another start-up, GigWalk, enlists itinerant temps for location-based data-gathering assignments, often photo-based, paying out a couple of dollars per “gig.” And mobiles facilitate not only the fragmentation of paid labour but also the dispersion of “free labour.” As well as radically expanding opportunity for feeding content to social networks, mobiles afford marketers unprecedented capacity to “locate the customer in space,” as Gerard Goggin notes in Cell Phone Culture: Mobile Technology in Everyday Life. That the mobile advertising firm AdMob was bought by Google for $750 million indicates the lucrative market emerging for what Vincent Manzerolle calls the “mobile audience commodity,” while unpaid audience labour is a backbone of billion-dollar Web 2.0 businesses like Yelp.

Communicative capitalism produces almost unthinkable technological refuse, and electronic waste is the fastest-growing toxic stream on the planet today. The last moment of the circuit of wireless exploitation we identify is disassembly. On the wrong side of this digital divide are the populations forced to make a living upon the detritus. Mobile phone sales in 2012 totalled 1.75 billion, but these technologies get old quick. When the machines through which we access the mobile Internet are disposed of they bloat the international market for e-waste disposal, adding to the mountains of discarded gadgets leeching their poisonous externalities into the soil and groundwater. After tidy profits on the junk is made by international e waste brokers, at the end of the cycle of wireless accumulation (most notoriously in China, India, and Ghana) nightmarish scenarios are unfolding in which old and young have little choice but to engage in the noxious labour of e-waste disassembly, recuperating valuable metals from discarded technology by methods including burning with fire or dipping into vats of acid. In Guiyu, southern China, the main destination for Western e-waste, lead poisoning is endemic, high levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals have been found in children, and workers in recycling workshops suffer from skin, respiratory, and gastrointestinal ailments. But this digital divide snakes through the global North as well: US government contractor Unicor uses inmate labour for electronics recycling in seven federal prisons. A recently published report by Environment News Service described prison staff and inmates working “coated in toxic dust,” and trailing heavy metals back to their homes and cellblocks at the end of their shift. These are the settings in which the cycle of wireless accumulation runs its course, only to be renewed at the point of design upgrade, setting it in motion once again.

With this circuit in mind, I’ll wrap up by returning to the evocative image Bifo gives of the mobile phone as the assembly line of semiocapitalism. In offering this image, Berardi points to the hypothesis that value, in his words in The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, no longer derives from “a physical relationship between work and things,” but rather from “the subsumption of communication and production by the linguistic machine.” Put differently, the assembly line and the material production have been eclipsed by the mobile phone and the production of “ideas, information, images, knowledges, code, languages, social relationships, affects, and the like,” as Michael Hardt enumerates.

Surveying the circuit of wireless accumulation as I just did, however, shows us that by far the most prominent feature of the labours supporting the mobile commodity is their extraordinary heterogeneity: diggers use pre-industrial techniques to extract ore in highly informal resource economies; proletarianized migrants perform hyper-Taylorized work in gargantuan factories where mobile devices are assembled; teams of entrepreneurial software engineers design apps that are entered into the intellectual property lottery; precariously-employed call-centre workers deploy scripted linguistic labour to manage mobile consumers; cellular subscribers do digital piecework in their spare moments and, the rest of the time, feed their collective intelligence and social networks into the mobile Internet economy; and e-waste workers scavenge through the debris of perpetual upgrade to eke out a subsistence livelihood on the “planet of slums,” to use Mike Davis’ description. The workforce along the circuit of wireless exploitation displays the features described by Paolo Virno in “The Ambivalence of Disenchantment” (from Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics), who suggests post-Fordism is “a sort of ‘umbrella’ under which is replicated the entire history of labor: islands of mass workers, enclaves of professionals, swollen numbers of the self-employed, and new forms of workplace discipline and individual control. The modes of production that over time emerged one after the other are now,” Virno adds, “represented synchronically, almost as if at a world’s fair.” This labour is complex and interdependent, and it comes into being on an immediately global scale. Inquiring into the circuit of wireless accumulation reminds us that the ethereal extraction of value from affective interaction in some contexts depends heavily on the misery of intensely material labour in others. Looking more closely at the myriad labours of mobility highlights the fact that the disappearance of the assembly line in some contexts relies on the hyper-intensification of the factory and assembly-line labour in others. At still other points of the circuit, new hybrids are evolving in which the immaterial labour of language put to work is subjected to the discipline of Fordist Taylorization: as one call centre employee memorably described her daily toil, working in these places is like having “an assembly-line in the head.” So rather than semiocapital being characterized by a radical shift from materiality to immateriality and abstraction, we find co-presence and intermingling rather than displacement. The cell phone is the new assembly line of semiocapitalism we could say, but the assembly line is also the new assembly line of semiocapitalism. Language has been put to work, but this does not, as Alisa del Re points out, happen independently of bodies. The bodies in question are also striated by geographic region, racialized bodies, gendered bodies living in diametrically different contexts but also experiencing a basic co-presence within the world market. Perhaps a better way to think of it is that the assembly line is now global, concatenating different forms of labour and subjectivity in a planetary circuit.

Reactivating the social body will require acknowledging the tremendous diversity of bodies that labour under communicative capitalism, the different contexts of their struggles, the unpredictable nature of their acts of disobedience. As one comrade recently answered Berardi, let’s not substitute the depression of southern Europe for the horizon of the world! Within semiocapital the exploitation of workers has hardly disappeared, but neither has labour’s capacity to respond. Capital’s decisive move into the production and reproduction of immaterial commodities has created a different set of vulnerabilities and an additional set of antagonisms, all of which remain to be explored. Let’s not abandon the streets, or the factory gates, in too much of a hurry.


1 See Enda Brophy and Greig de Peuter, “Labours of Mobility: Communicative Capitalism and the Smartphone Cybertariat,” in Materialities and Imaginaries of the Mobile Internet, eds. Tom Swiss, Jan Hadlaw, and Andrew Herman (New York: Routledge, forthcoming).