Reflecting on digital labor from multiple perspectives

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-05-15

In recent years, digital technologies such as artificial intelligence have shaped new forms of digital labor. How do the bodies, consciousness, and living worlds of digital labor entities present an abstract digital landscape? As an “intelligent machine,” how do digital platforms absorb the general intelligence of professional digital workers and digital laborers as prosumers? This article reflects on and explores some of the issues concerning digital labor from a critical philosophical perspective.

Theory and controversy

The concept of digital labor can be traced back to the theory of audience commodity. Canadian communication scholar Dallas Smythe points out that the commodity form produced by mass media technology is the “audience,” that is, the non-sleep time of most people are working hours, which are used to produce general goods and for the production and reproduction of the labor force. Many scholars have either criticized or supported the theory of audience commodity. This theory has led to the emergence of three theoretical paradigms on digital labor: political economy of communication, immaterial labor theory, and labor theory of value.

The political economy of communication approach emphasizes that mass media is an integral part of the economic system, and that digital technologies transform audience commodity labor into an “attention economy,” where attention is a scarce and quantifiable commodity.

In the face of the increasingly prominent role of cognition, information, and communication in value creation, immaterial labor has become the dominant form of society. On the one hand, the skills involved in labor are increasingly transformed into automation and computer-controlled skills. On the other hand, immaterial labor transcends work in the general sense and constitutes a universal intelligence.

Based on Marx’s labor theory of value, scholars represented by Christian Fuchs have constructed a theory of digital prosumption labor. On digital platforms, the production of surplus value is not only limited to programmers and marketing personnel, but also extends to digital platform users as content producers.

The productive working hours of the former are the working hours of salaried employees, while the latter is the time spent by users on digital platforms.

Although there are certain controversies and multiple interpretation paradigms for the expression of digital labor, there is always a core issue at the practical and theoretical levels: the relationship between people as subjects and digital platforms.

On the basis of accurately grasping and fully controlling the working status, rhythm of life, emotional needs, and political expression of digital users, digital platforms have become a “big other” that obscures the “labor entities.” Therefore, the critique of digital labor is also related to its alienation, the dissolution of leisure and labor, and platform control and self-regulation.

Social ethical risks

The first risk relates to digital labor alienation. Digital labor takes the digital platform as the field and creates value for the purpose of constructing a shielded existence and a relationship of alienation between “data” and “digital entities,” resulting in the collapse of workers’ subjectivity. The first is the digital control of the entity’s body. In digital labor, the entity’s body is digitized to an unprecedented degree. The second is the digital deprivation of subjective consciousness. While expanding the space of people’s social practice, digital platforms also potentially put subjective consciousness in a shadowy state.

The second risk arises from the laborization of leisure time. The digital workplace has changed, and the workplace has expanded from the “factory” to the “living world.” The formation of social factories has led to digital labor’s dual dimensions of entertainment and productivity. In this sense, digital labor actually reframes the boundaries between entertainment and work. Digital labor erodes and plunders the time of the living world, that is, labor time extends to leisure time, and leisure time turns into labor time.

The third risk is from digital platform discipline. As a technological intermediary between people and the living world, the digital platform system has transcended the dimension of tools and has a “power of abstraction.” Digital platforms quantify, extract, and reduce life to data that can be recorded and exchanged, and all the data produced by individuals is aggregated into an abstraction––a digital commodity that can be constantly bought and sold.

Going forward

First, a responsible digital labor platform should be built, the boundaries of digital enterprise behaviors should be classified, and the legal system for digital labor improved. Digital platform enterprises should go beyond pure capital logic and build effective mechanisms and governance frameworks based on stakeholder feedback and public goodness. Furthermore, since ethical constraints are merely a soft social governance tool, a legal system is also required.

Second, a digital community should be built and data sharing promoted. Data is the result of the interaction between digital workers and the society. Allowing digital workers to participate equally in all links of digital production, distribution, and decision-making is conducive to realizing the public ownership and digital sharing of digital capital and eliminating its inherent contradictions and social risks.

Third, digital labor entities should carry out self-directed ethical construction, cultivate digital literacy, and raise awareness of their digital labor rights and interests. They should possess a sense of autonomy over their data, participate in the construction of digital platforms, and have the data literacy necessary to interact with data. This will enable them to effectively avoid issues in digital labor, such as potential data inequality, the “black box” nature and lack of transparency of algorithmic decision-making, discrimination on digital platforms, and attribution of responsibility.


Zhang Can is an associate professor from the School of Marxism at China University of Mining and Technology.

Editor:Yu Hui

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