This post was written by Tristan Bannerman a Research Master’s student at the University of Amsterdam.
A major theme of the recent GDC conference Global Perspectives on Platforms and Cultural Production was that of the sense of insecurity in labor and life that we find online, more succinctly we would say precarity. Precariousness in many forms was coming up throughout the two days we shuffled around Oudemanhuispoort communing with old and new colleagues in a lovely conference. What struck me so much was the comfortability with precarity. We could only accept it. Where is precarity coming from? Do we know this already or is this new? These things floated around my mind, while I set up Zoom meetings and pointed people toward the bathroom.
Throughout my life, the concept of time has caused me as much trouble. I remember as a child struggling at the end of the school year because this thing I knew had passed and was now out of my grasp. Time, like dust in a room, you can only catch when the light hits it at a certain angle. Precarity functions somewhat similarly, it is something that is hard to grasp, and oftentimes you can only feel it secondarily. I think that the precarity we discussed and were engulfed in during the conference is in some ways that light shining through a crack in the blinds. We can gain some access to time and hopefully gain some access to the precarity we find ourselves mired in.
Bifo Berardi talks about precarity through the lens of time. Precarity is stemming from people not being understood as people, but rather being viewed as units of labor in terms of time. The person is dissolving in favor of the units of time. And on top of that time is shifting away from being something that the subject engages with. A new objective time has begun to reign. “Depersonalized time has become the real agent of the process of valorization, and depersonalized time has no rights, nor any demands.” (Berardi 32) The shift towards a temporal understanding of people or their labor is because of the rise of the semiotic economy. The creation of supercomputers that can create and store so much more information than ever before. This shift towards a more semiotic world is driven by the incredible amounts of semiotic material now for consumption and interpretation.
Time is an important aspect of the modern economy. This thinking is reflected in the work of Paul Virilio when he discusses the power of speed in the modern world. It is speed that dominates Virilio’s world, power is only useful if it can be used in a timely manner. This push towards speed is not a recent one but a development that comes from the arrival of total power in the military. The British Navy had dominion over the oceans after the Spanish Armada. Their true power was that they could be anywhere with more speed than any other navy, aptly called the Fleet in Being. As Virilio puts it in his book Speed and Politics, “The fleet in being creates a new dromocratic idea: the notion of displacement without destination in space and time.” So, to the fleet in being space and time means less because it has power over them in relation to the world around it, bounded by space and time. This applies to the speed of information. The power of the information is not that it exists but that it can be stored, processed, analyzed, and acted upon with incredible pace. Information in being. In an information in being world, we see major corporations utilize their control of time and space to rewrite how we understand instances of time.
There is a drive-in capitalism that requires it to find new markets and to find new spaces for it to sell itself. We see this in a basic business sense if you are not expanding then you are dying. This is the logic of late capitalism there needs to be constant expansion and without it, the cracks in the system are shown. David Harvey calls this time-space compression. This is through capitalism’s drive to find as many markets as possible so that it will attempt to warp time and space to allow the creation of a new market. Harvey writes, “the general effect, then, is for capitalist modernization to be very much about speed-up and acceleration in the pace of economic processes and, hence, in social life.” Just as Virilio wrote there is a speeding up but we have not increased the amount of time that exists for us. A second to me is the same second that my grandfather had. The difference is that my understanding of the second is different. For me, I know that the second contains worlds and within those worlds, something bad could happen. This time-space compression is seen in the incredible way that we can communicate with anyone around the world at any time (Harvey, 2011). The sensation of compression adds to the feeling of precarity. To quote Harvey again, “compensations, such as paid vacations, higher wages, shorter working weeks, early retirement, are all too often recuperated by capital in the form of even greater intensity and speed-up on the job.” (Harvey, 231) We lose time and we lose the ability to take it back.
I’m quite a sports fan both of my teams in particular and of sports in general. In modern North American sports, we can see this compression so clearly. We call this era of North American sports the analytics era, in baseball it is sabermetrics or Moneyball. With the arrival of big data in the sports world what was previously only qualifiable by “experts” on the sport has now turned into quantifiable actions and objects that are then turned into data and can thusly be understood in an “objective” fashion. So this means we now can see how many miles a hockey player skates in a game, not only that but we are now able to see how many times they touch the puck, and how many times after they touch the puck leads to a goal scoring chance, and from those chances how many goals are scored. This is a compression of time because what we previously understood as one unit of time, let’s say a 1-minute 30-second shift by a hockey player, is now understood as a hundreds of units of time each unit with incredible amounts of occurrences possible. There are more instances in our time. With more instances, we now almost have less time and definitely have less control over the instances. What has changed is how we record time not how we act in the world. This drives precarity because there becomes a number to achieve and you have to follow that. In hockey it seems trivial, we have less Sean Avery’s and Darcy Tucker’s which I think takes away from the game but I get it. In the labor market that most of the rest of the world finds themselves in this new precarity is acutely felt.
When talking about the workers who work the platforms in a variety of ways, we see what drives people to work online, precarity. The most often cited culprit of information economy precarity is gig work. Data from the Pew Research Center in 2021 shows that 16% of American adults are doing any platformized gig work. And for people between the ages of 18-29 30% have worked or work in the so-called gig economy. (Pew Research Center) This number is only projected to rise as the economy continues to gear itself more and more towards gig work. This move towards informal jobs and gig work is a change towards precarity. We can see this rise line up with the increased creation of information and its interpretation. As corporations gain more and more knowledge about how their systems work, they determine that the most “effective” way to run the company is to have no employees just gig workers at their beck and call.
The creation of content on the internet holds a similarly precarious nature but the appeal is that it does not seem like a real job. Just like being a movie star appealed in the past so too does making content. The only difference is that anyone anywhere can take the steps to make content whereas with movies it had more barriers to entry. There is also the appeal that the most famous “content creators” were just people who happened to upload something and that got big. This push of precarity is a necessity for these corporations. Precarity creates demand for what these corporations possess, capital and security. A theme of what is driving people to create “content” for platforms like Tik Tok, YouTube, and Instagram was that there was little money in the other options that they had. The idea being that if they produced enough content and got big enough then they would be able to supplement their pay with ad revenue or sponsorships through their platform work.
There was a great presentation in panel 3.2 “Perspectives on Labor” presented by Carlos A. Scolari, Mar Guerrero-Pico, and Fernanda Pires where they showcased the experiences of food delivery cyclists through their video creation. There was a strong emphasis in the videos collected by the scholars that many of the biggest content creators for the delivery riders were recent immigrants. Their videos showed a precarity inherent in immigrating to a new country and the difficulties that they faced dealing with Spanish governmental agencies and the food delivery apps that they are working for themselves. The precarious position that these recent immigrants is then taken advantage of by both the structure that is employing them as a freelancer and also YouTube because YouTube gains from content being produced and put on their site.
There is an appeal to precarity. The appeal to this new precarity is that it comes part and parcel with potential. The potential that you could make a lot of more money than you ever could have. The problem is there are more losing hands than winning ones. As Brooke Erin Duffy discusses with her concept of “aspirational labor” we see this drive of people towards precarity because of the potential to maybe escape it. Accelerationism on the small scale. Duffy says, “‘aspirational labor’, which I define as a forward-looking, carefully orchestrated, and entrepreneurial form of creative cultural production”. Precarity compresses time and promises that there will be more time through the precarious work. Not only that but the precarity is idealized as the necessary step to compress the time it takes to get where you want to get. The American dream of a house, white picket fence, 2.5 children, and a golden retriever has been shortened by this new precarious dream. You can jump the line to this dream by working many small jobs instead of something consistent.
The second largest employer in the United States is Amazon (behind Walmart) which has begun to utilize the power of its information gathering to add an additional layer of precarity to the lives of its employees. In Kate Crawford’s Atlas of AI (2021), Crawford goes over what is occurring in Amazon warehouses with regard to surveillance of employees. The employees are assigned a number that corresponds to their “efficiency rating”. The rating is determined by a series of factors related to the speed and quality of the employee’s work. If their rating drops below a certain number, they will be given a strike, three strikes and they are terminated. The rating number that they cannot go below is a number determined by the Amazon head offices and their algorithm for maximizing profit (Crawford 84). This algorithm preempts that if employees make x number of mistakes within their eight-hour shift that they are no longer have a positive impact on the company’s bottom line. So, they should be fired. This form of understanding of the worker and their labor is built around them being time fillers. Amazon does not need a worker they need 8 hours filled. Time and speed are the names of the game. Amazon has built itself up as being able to get you what you want before anyone else can. This system instills precarity into the very fabric of their work. Not even working at a massive corporation can insulate you from the precarity (though they are unionizing).
There is a quality to this precarity that is intriguing to me in how it is in contrast to the steadiness that is arising. The precarity seems to stand in opposition to the consistent truths that are arising as these companies become more and more powerful their place in society becomes more and more solidified. All the while, the precarity of life for the majority of the population rises. This interesting play between consistency and precarity we see in the world of TV production. The massive investments of financialized capital into the production of film and television are a new chapter in the industry. Previously the industry was so volatile that the only funding model was built around advertising or the diversified risk undertaken by a variety of production companies and distributors. Now there is far more certainty that these projects will earn money so financialized capital is investing incredible amounts into these productions. As we see with the recent trend of incredible amounts of money being put into television shows. HBO with “House of the Dragon” costing around $20 million per episode, Disney’s “WandaVision” costing $25 million per episode, and finally Amazon Prime’s “The Rings of Power” (an apt name for the most powerful company in the world) costing $58 million per episode. What I find interesting is how precarious work seems to be and how that goes in direct contrast to the solid-as-a-rock cultural institutions with an economy that seems to have unending money to throw into them. This contrast is dissonant. The industry is booming and requires so much new labor to feed this massive new investment into it. But this new labor is precarious. The move to visual effects from practical effects protects the employers from utilizing unionized labor and the freelancing mode of work is becoming more and more common. This play of certainty and precarity will be one that continues I believe. Further confounding our understanding of the form of our economies.
None of these developments are new. There has been this type of security built upon a layer of uncertainty for decades and decades. It is interesting to me that in this era of worker shortages, precarity still prevails. In a time when you would think that the workers would have some more power. But it seems that precarity has been fully baked into the culture. And as I meander my way through the tunnel of academia the light at the end of the tunnel looks more and more ominous.
Berardi, F. (2010). Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the pathologies of post-alpha generation (Kolophon: Breinigsville, PA, USA, 2010). Minor Compositions.
Duffy, B. E. (2016). The romance of work: Gender and aspirational labour in the digital culture industries. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 19(4), 441–457. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367877915572186
Harvey, D. (2011). The condition of postmodernity: An enquiry into the origins of cultural change (Nachdr.). Blackwell.
Virilio, P. (2006). Speed and politics (2006 ed.). Semiotext(e).
Tristan Bannerman is a Media Studies Research Master’s student at the University of Amsterdam. He completed a BA in Philosophy at the the University of Toronto.