How would you define work in a networked world?

(This post was originally written for LinkedIn.  Go to the LinkedIn version to engage in the conversation.)

I’ve been scratching my head trying to think about how to understand the different facets of labor that are shaping contemporary life. I don’t have good answers; I only have some provocations and a few questions, but I would love to hear your thoughts.

As a teenager, I was a sandwich artist. I’d arrive at work, don my uniform and clock in. I had a long list of responsibilities – chopping onions, cleaning the shop, preparing the food, etc. Everything was formulaic. I can still recite how to ask a customer if they want onions, pickles, lettuce, green peppers, or black olives. The job paid minimum wage and was defined by doing pre-specified tasks in an efficient and predictable manner with a smile. When my compatriots got fired, it was almost always for being late. In-between making sandwiches and doing the rote tasks, we would gossip and chat, complain about regulars and talk about run-ins with cops (who demanded free food which meant a dock in pay for whoever was working). And when my shift was over, I’d clock out and leave, forgetting about Subway even though the scent lingered and filled my car.

Today, I have my dream job. I’m a researcher who gets to follow my passions, investigate things that make me curious. I manage my own schedule and task list. Some days, I wake up and just read for hours. I write blog posts and books, travel, meet people, and give talks. I ask people about their lives and observe their practices. I think for a living. And I’m paid ridiculously well to be thoughtful, creative, and provocative. I am doing something related to my profession 80-100 hours per week, but I love 80% of those hours. I can schedule doctor’s appointments midday, but I also wake up in the middle of the night with ideas and end up writing while normal people sleep. Every aspect of my life blurs. I can never tell whether or not a dinner counts as “work” or “play” when the conversation moves between analyzing the gender performance of Game of Thrones and discussing the technical model of Hadoop. And since I spend most of my days in front of my computer or on my phone, it’s often hard to distinguish between labor and procrastination. I can delude myself into believing that keeping up with the New York Times has professional consequences but even I cannot justify my determination to conquer Betaworks’ new Dots game (shouldn’t testing new apps count for something??). Of course, who can tell if my furrowed brow and intense focus on my device is work-focused or not. Heck, I can’t tell half the time.

In the digital world, the line between what is fun and what is work is often complicated. There are people whose job it is to produce tweets and updates as a professional act, but they sit beside people in a digital environment who produce this content because it’s connected to how they’re socializing with their friends. Socializing, networking, and advertising are often intertwined in social media, making it hard to distinguish between professional and personal, paid labor and career advancement.

There are are people who understand that they’re “on the job” because of where they are physically, but there are also people whose model of work is more connected to their interaction with their Blackberries or the kinds of actions that they’re taking. And then there are people like me who have lost all sense of where the boundaries lie.

There is tremendous anxiety among white collar workers about how blurry the boundaries have gotten, but little consideration for how that blurriness is itself a mark of privilege. More often than not, those with more social status have blurrier boundaries around space, place, and time. Sometimes, this privilege comes with a higher paycheck, but freelance writers have a level of class privilege that is not afforded to the punch-in, punch-out workforce even if their actual income is paltry.

Often, there’s rampant financial and status inequality between those whose careers are defined by blurred boundaries and those who work in a prescribed manner. Many C-level execs justify their exorbitant salaries through the logic of risks and burdens without accounting for the freedoms and flexibility associated with this kind of work or recognizing the physical, psychological, and cultural costs that come with manual, service, or rote labor in prescribed environments. The freedom to control one’s own schedule has value in and of itself. Yet, not everyone with economic resources feels as though they are in control of their lives. And it’s often easier to blame the technology that tethers them than work out the dynamics of agency that are at work.

What’s at stake isn’t just that work is invading people’s personal lives or that certain types of labor are undervalued. It’s also that the notion of fun or social is increasingly narrated through the frame of work and productivity, advancement and professional investment.

Labor is often understood to be any action that increases market capitalization. But then how do we understand the practice of networking that is assumed as key to many white collar jobs? And what happens when, as is often the case in the digital world, play has capital value?

In academic circles, debates are raging over the notion of “free labor.” Much of what people contribute to social media sites is monetized by corporations. People don’t get paid for their data and, more often than not, their data is used by corporations to target them – or people like them – to produce advertising revenue for the company. The high profitability of major tech companies has prompted outrage among critics who feel as though the money is being made off of the backs of individual’s labor. Yet most of these people don’t see their activities as labor. They’re hanging out with friends or, even if they’re being professional, they’re networking. Accounting for every action and interaction as labor or work doesn’t just put a burden on social engagements; it brings the logic of work into the personal sphere.

Most of these dynamics predate the internet, but digital technologies are magnifying their salience. People keep returning to the mantra of “work-life balance” as a model for thinking about their lives, even as it’s hard to distinguish between what constitutes work and what constitutes life, which is presumably non-work. But this binary makes little sense for many people. And it raises a serious question: what does labor mean in a digital ecosystem where sociality is monetized and personal and professional identities are blurred?

As you think about your own professional practices, how do you define what constitutes work? How do you think labor should be understood in a networked world? And what does fairness in compensation look like when the notion of clocking in and clocking out are passe?

(This post was originally written for LinkedIn.  Go to the LinkedIn version to engage in the conversation.)

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7 thoughts on “How would you define work in a networked world?

  1. Matt

    I’m a researcher too, as is my wife, in a different field. We know lots of people with the privilege of making their own hours and getting to do their work wherever they want a lot of the time. No one I know has any question whatsoever about what stuff they’re doing in front of their computer is work and what’s procrastination. Maybe if you’re in PR, marketing, journalism, or you research those things there might be some blurring. Even then, if your job is social media marketing, hopefully it’s pretty clear when you’re selling a product and when you’re doing something fun for yourself. Otherwise you pretty much suck. This post kind of feels like you’re asking questions that are really pressing for you and maybe 50 other people, of whom you know 48.

  2. tz

    Something is missing, since you are asking the question… There is a body of teaching you probably missed since it comes from the Catholic Church, e.g.:

    5. Work in the Objective Sense: Technology

    This universality and, at the same time, this multiplicity of the process of “subduing the earth” throw light upon human work, because man’s dominion over the earth is achieved in and by means of work. There thus emerges the meaning of work in an objective sense, which finds expression in the various epochs of culture and civilization. Man dominates the earth by the very fact of domesticating animals, rearing them and obtaining from them the food and clothing he needs, and by the fact of being able to extract various natural resources from the earth and the seas. But man “subdues the earth” much more when he begins to cultivate it and then to transform its products, adapting them to his own use. Thus agriculture constitutes through human work a primary field of economic activity and an indispensable factor of production. Industry in its turn will always consist in linking the earth’s riches-whether nature’s living resources, or the products of agriculture, or the mineral or chemical resources-with man’s work, whether physical or intellectual. This is also in a sense true in the sphere of what are called service industries, and also in the sphere of research, pure or applied.

    In industry and agriculture man’s work has today in many cases ceased to be mainly manual, for the toil of human hands and muscles is aided by more and more highly perfected machinery. Not only in industry but also in agriculture we are witnessing the transformations made possible by the gradual development of science and technology. Historically speaking, this, taken as a whole, has caused great changes in civilization, from the beginning of the “industrial era” to the successive phases of development through new technologies, such as the electronics and the microprocessor technology in recent years.

    While it may seem that in the industrial process it is the machine that “works” and man merely supervises it, making it function and keeping it going in various ways, it is also true that for this very reason industrial development provides grounds for reproposing in new ways the question of human work. Both the original industrialization that gave rise to what is called the worker question and the subsequent industrial and post-industrial changes show in an eloquent manner that, even in the age of ever more mechanized “work”, the proper subject of work continues to be man.

    John Paul II, Laborem Exercens

    Starting with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, then every 10 years, particularly
    Quadragesimo Anno and Centesimus Annus (also by JP2). The perspective on Catholic Social teaching as it pertains to Labor is probably worth a read, since it covers the questions you ask.

  3. Luci

    Back in the day, people primarily worked to get rich, but as time has gone by, people have begun to get an education on a topic that they can make money on something that interests them. who says work can’t be fun? I mean we didn’t come on this earth to be unhappy. People usually work for what they want, and their work is often times a slightly smaller version of what they’re shooting for.
    In the English 17th century, a philosopher named John Locke created a theory that was called the Lockean “desert” Theory. It said “fruits of your labor.” This means that you “own” your labor. By mixing one’s own labor and hard work with something and improving it, you acquire a claim to that thing. No matter what a person does for work it should be satisfying in one way or another. Today’s generation isn’t getting off on what work is, but realizing why we do it and how it should be done. Just because there is a change whether big or small doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. Although Lockean’s Theory is quite old, it isn’t that far off with the acceptance of owning, being happy or proud of what you do.

  4. Suzanne

    Even when I love what I’m doing if it’s too much, I stop loving it at some point. Too-muchness never leads to contentment. Harmony is lost to that insatiable drive to achieve.
    My world feels weighted down with obligations, obligations to the machinery of a protestant work ethic and capitalism. I don’t feel free. And I don’t like this feeling. My time is mine.

    I’m basically “lazy” too, which is why I work with incredible effectiveness. I want to get done so I can go sit under a tree and do what I want to do. Problem is, everyone else in the United States is working 80+ hours a week. So I’m often there alone. I should live in another country.

    I have a fairly autonomous work-a-day world currently. I’ve had more and less in the past. I too belong to the privileged class. I’m paid modestly, but because I live simply I have a comfortable life.

    I easily spend 2 hours a day or more just being a human being with a body that needs attention. I could spend hours shopping for food and cooking, or walking atop a curb, just because it’s there.

    I don’t labor over kids, a pet or garden furniture. I don’t have the time. I sleep 8 hours a day and walk everywhere so I can smell the flowers. Yeah 40 maybe 45 hours a week doing work-stuff is just fine for me.

  5. Tony

    For me, there *is* no “work-life balanace” – there is just “work that needs to be done” and “other stuff that I want to do” – and I try my best to fit it all into my day.

    I might spend my workday surfing the internet instead of “working” – and I might spend my weekend in front of the screen “doing work” – but that doesn’t really matter to me. I judge my outputs.

    For me, work is “achieving something that is useful to the company” – and I try to keep the amount that I’m achieving at a steady, sustainable rate, while still keeping it as high as possible. So much of my thought goes into “how can I work less and achieve as much – how can we be more efficient.”

    I don’t understand the attitude that if one person gets their work done and leaves at midday they are “slacking off” – I just see it as them being twice as efficient. Leaving early might be what motivates them into doing great work, and means they have twice the time available if there is an emergency job that needs to be complete. This attitude that you’re paid to sit in a chair for a set number of hours seems pretty ridiculous to me.

    (Of course, the flip side of being able to leave early when you’ve achieved a lot is staying late when something does need to be complete, and isn’t yet… this isn’t an argument for people working less than they’re paid for. Just for having more flexibility about how they get the work done.)

  6. Brian O' Hanlon

    Danah, I was listening to an early episode of dot net rocks podcast today, created at a time in the past when there was a downturn in demand for programmers and IT skills. One of the guests made a very perceptive observation. The podcast was from March 2004, and the guests were talking both sides of the Java and Dot Net ‘cultures’, and asking a question of why animosity between the two ‘cultures’ was so fierce.

    One of the guests, just made the point that perhaps, individuals are worried that if one or other language wins over the other, that they will find themselves on the wrong side of the fence, and out of work. I mean, its that simple. Having gone through all of the ‘tribal’, and sporting spectator analyses, which didn’t seem to fit very well – I think that that analysis of fear of losing one’s livelihood, and the same being tied to something as arbitrary as a Code language – is the modern condition.

    I’ve experience of this myself (being on the wrong side of the divide). The old paradigm in construction industry related software, CAD, as it was called was based around very simple ‘architectures’ where a few PC’s connected to a file server/print server – and that was about it. Nothing more complex. Of course, with new trends (explained by many, but for instance Marti Hearst’s course on Twitter analytics at Berkeley iSchool), its about widening the architecture altogether – tablet thin clients on one end, and secure, powerful data centres on the other. Just when I was at the peak of my powers, in working in the older CAD paradigm, bang, it happened where the industry just changed over night, and I found myself out on my ear.

    I think, this is part of the modern condition – and how easy it is to find oneself on the wrong side of these great, giant technological battles. I’m still picking up the pieces from it, four, five years afterwards. So I don’t blame people as much as I used to, for being a bit tribal.

  7. Jerry Sheilds

    I know that people have not thought about this more, but we see more freelancers and other online workers who are able to do something for themselves. Digital workers are going to be more and more prevalent. On top of that, I remember that story about this accountant who outsourced all of her work to another person across the world, while she basically did nothing.

    Great article. Thanks!

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