Conferation Square, December 1914-March 1915

On March 28, Nick Dyer-Witheford from the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University gave a talk on the current state of global labor in relation to digital and social media.

Dyer-Witheford’s talk was hosted by Trent University’s undergraduate program in Media Studies and was held in Bagnani Hall at Traill College. Dr. Liam Young, a limited-term associate professor in Trent’s Cultural Studies program and former student of Dyer-Witheford, invited him to Trent.

Dyer-Witheford provided an overview of his latest book, Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labor in the Digital Vortex (2015).

The author was moved by the “digital revolution” of the years 2009 to 2014. This revolution took place from New Zealand to Ukraine to North America. Riots, uprisings, protests and occupations were commonplace in the news during those years.

The increasing digitization of society and culture, Dyer-Witheford argued, is “changing class composition.” The changes are visible in the labor fields themselves and in the movements, strikes and protests that challenge global capital.

Dyer-Witheford first assessed labor in global capitalization.

He observed that the wealthiest individuals today are all involved in cybernetics. The workers in this field, unfortunately, share none of this historically unprecedented wealth.

In terms of the volume of workers, we have seen a steady disintegration of white male industrial workers in North America in favor of racialized workers in Asian countries.

Women assemble electronics in large factories in China; men, women and children survive on subsistence living in India (i.e., scavenging for discarded electronics), and women often populate call centres overseas.

Capitalism and the cybernetic industry have produced a “global proletariat.”

Indeed, the industry does not function without the cheap labor of Asian countries. Dyer-Witheford reminded us that the proletariat, as defined by Marx, did not simply mean the working class.

The proletariat are defined by their precarious status as workers; they are self-employed, contractual or unemployed.

Dyer-Witheford stated that the digital laborers overseas, if they are indeed working for a company and are not subsistence workers, are contract-based with little or no job security. Contrary to a scarcity of labor, in these countries there is an “oversupply of labor.”

This oversupply of labor plus the insufficiency of consumption brought about a “re-proletarianization” during 2009-2011. After the financial crisis of 2008, four modes of resistance appeared throughout the globe, some of which used the tools of cybernetics to begin and continue the revolt.

The first had little to do with digital or social media: the riots of the excluded. However, cellphone users were able to document these riots.

The second is workplace conflicts. The auto and electronics sector strikes in South China are one example. While the workers did not initially mobilize digitally, cellphones and instant messages, as well as cellphone pictures, were used to maintain the resistance.

The Occupy movements were of a different sort. These protests were largely comprised of young, college-aged and tech savvy individuals. The force of Occupy was due, in part, to the social media campaigns and the extensive reposting and retweeting on the respective sites.

On the one hand, social media aided in movement, on the other, these were high-traffic days for Facebook and Twitter. Facebook and Twitter function on and profit from user-generated content.

Lastly, Dyer-Witheford provided an overview of the leaks and hacks in recent years, from Snowden to Anonymous.

Dyer-Witheford observed that many of the protests, movements and strikes were failures.

He also noted the double-edged sword of digital technology: its ability to make visible what has otherwise been invisible, but also act as a weapon of surveillance. Some of the movements, etc., have also been co-opted by ethnocentric and/or fundamentalist groups.

The talk almost ended on this pessimistic note, but the movements initiated in 2011 continue to this day.

Black Lives Matter, Idle No More and various migrant-border issues bring social media into their respective struggles.

While cybernetics may dominate the global market and global labor, Dyer-Witheford concluded that there is a strong “human front against digital capital.”

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I’m a recent graduate of the Cultural Studies PhD program. My research includes contemporary film, film theory, and the history of moving-image pornography. In addition to writing for Arthur, this semester I’m teaching in the Cultural Studies department (Intro to Integrated Arts) and Continuing Education (Writing Short Film Scripts). I also work at the Trend (come say hi!), among other small jobs as they come up.