PANEL 1: EMPATHY AND PROXIMITY
Proximity to Workers in the Network
The Work We Want, 2015, landing page screenshot
The Work We Want, 2015, We Pay Peanuts game screenshot
“In our project we use the rhetoric of ‘dire predictions’ as a provocation… but let’s take it as an opportunity to do something that is based on the idea of cooperation rather than competition.”
‘Empathy’ and ‘proximity’ bring forth many questions about the selective human dimensions of resilience. Empathy implies questions about how our emotional capacities might produce, and be produced by social, cultural and technological networks. Proximity seems to imply spatial relations, which might take place across geo-political borders or between wild and urban spaces, or perhaps more generally between the local and the global. Proximity might also connote the distancing effect of power structures. We might think about material relations between management and staff, or institutional juggernauts and smaller silos that emerge within them. We might question the behavioural implications of these proximities. For example, how does our distance from or to entities in a network affect our capacity to have empathy towards them?
I want to talk about a project that I have been working on recently, called The Work We Want, which is a cross-disciplinary, collaborative undertaking looking at how the web is transforming the world of work. Funded by digital commissioning platform The Space, this project has had a number of outcomes, including outsourcing work through digital platforms, talking to workers around the world, making infographics about digital labour and sharing a series of video interviews with experts on digital labour – from the owner of a Nigerian freelancer platform to lawyers, policy-makers, workers and workers’ coops. The Work You Want culminated in an installation at the Web We Want festival at the Southbank Centre where we paid the audience in peanuts for tagging our videos about digital labour. We saw that the web is radically transforming the world of work through platforms like freelancer.com. As developing countries come online, transnational digital labour markets provide access for jobs for millions of people in low-income countries. To a certain extent this balances out some existing inequalities in income, but it is potentially rich countries that lose out, because workers in the Global South, who are highly skilled and highly driven, can undercut workers in the Global North by between eighty to ninety-five per cent. The work is highly precarious; it is aggressively competitive on a global scale and effectively un-unionised. This is because the effect of withdrawing your labour is very small when there are so many people who are vying for, and ready to carry out, your work.
Part of The Work We Want was thinking about how we respond to these changes – how do we develop resilient workers in this context? These questions are particularly pressing to art and design graduates who are likely to face freelance work as they move on from their studies. In a faceless, online network, how does a worker trust that they are going to get paid? How does the employer trust that the worker is going to do the work? And perhaps more frighteningly, in online competition, which is often ubiquitous, how does a worker trust that their colleague is not going to essentially take their work, improve it slightly and gazump them at the last minute? Traditionally you have a contract that provides the trust network for you, as when you sign a contract in a traditional employment situation, you know you are going to get paid. This does not happen in online networks. What the platforms do is come up with all kinds of technical solutions to this issue, the main one being a representational system, where employers rate workers. For example, ratings underpin freelancer.com, which is essentially the same as the ratings you see on TripAdvisor or EBay. The Oxford Internet Institute says that representation systems are absolutely vital for workers to secure jobs and remain an attractive proposition to clients. If you have three stars out of five you are going to have a really hard time trying to get work. Furthermore, for employers it is easy to give a bad rating, but you as a worker are terrified to do the same back, meaning that this technical solution just reinforces the power structures that are trying to be mitigated. If we think about ‘trust’ as a technological problem to be solved by a platform, then we will not create resilience for workers. But, if we see it as an emotional capacity to be developed within a community, then we might get somewhere better.
In our project we used the rhetoric of ‘dire predictions’ as a provocation, but there were much more positive messages in there, which mainly came from a workers coop called Altgen. Altgen is a workers coop that helps other people set up their own coops. Their message is that the situation is terrible, but let’s take it as an opportunity to do something that is based on the idea of cooperation rather than competition. I would say that implicit in this goal is the need for a type of proximity to workers in the network.
Charlotte Webb is an artist researching the impact of the internet on artistic agency and authorship. She works at the intersection of art, technology, internet culture, social media, digital sociology, critical theory and philosophy. She was recently commissioned by digital arts platform The Space to produce ‘The Work We Want’, a collaborative project on digital labour.