GDE750 – Weeks 1+2: Research & Discover, Part 1

GDE750 is the module for our final project. And while this is supposedly a marker for the end of my MA journey, it does feel like a fresh start or a chance to really prove to myself that I can make the changes to my career that I’ve wanted to make. That I no longer remain trapped and complacent in a system that I despise. That I make an effort to give back through my work rather than prop myself up only for survival and consumption. But while this all sounds so idealistic, these thoughts have been a starting point for my research into the topics I want to delve into for this final project, in that final last-ditch effort to make a difference for both myself and hopefully the little blip of a corner I occupy in society.

Labor & Employment

A big topic of discussion as of late has been labor and employment and the extent of our time spent realizing the production of capital that a majority have no access to or ownership over. This post-COVID global society is more aware of the exploitations of capitalism and its foundations are very clearly crumbling before our eyes. We’re seeing workers from large corporations in the USA successfully unionize, despite efforts from their employers to stop them in their tracks. Earlier this year, thousands of employees at Amazon, Condé Nast, The New York Times, and Starbucks unionized, even while Amazon has decided not to recognize its workers’ union. (Writer, 2022)

Credit: AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez (Writer, 2022)

The Great Resignation is another historically significant movement in the workforce of US citizens. In 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 47 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs. (Fuller and Kerr, 2022) According to an article in Harvard Business Review, there are five factors, dubbed the Five Rs, that could explain this phenomenon: retirement, relocation, reconsideration, reshuffling, and reluctance.

“Workers are retiring in greater numbers but aren’t relocating in large numbers; they’re reconsidering their work-life balance and care roles; they’re making localized switches among industries, or reshuffling, rather than exiting the labor market entirely; and, because of pandemic-related fears, they’re demonstrating a reluctance to return to in-person jobs.” (Fuller and Kerr, 2022)

It’s not just the unionization and or resignation of the US workforce that has been making news headlines; online movements like r/antiwork are leading the way in conversations about unacceptable workplace conditions, the importance of being vocal about your salary, and other employment issues that were once considered taboo to speak openly about.

Credit: u/johnpwrinkle on r/antiwork

All this is even further exacerbated by inflation, or as the World Bank is calling it, Stagflation: a period in which economic growth stagnates while the cost of living skyrockets. (World Bank, 2022) While my above examples of mobilization and movement in the workforce pertained directly to the US, the effects of this stagflation are already seen globally.

But aside from the fight for better conditions in the workplace, are we also examining the other ways in which labor has sneakily made its way into our lives?

Perpetually Working

I often feel quite tired. Putting medical issues aside, when I attempt to examine my own lifestyle to determine possible reasons for a lack of energy, despite sleeping well, nourishing my body, and so on, it’s clear that I spend too much time in front of a screen, be it my computer or any number of handheld devices. I’m self-employed, so I use Clockify to track my exact working hours, and while they don’t exceed 8 hours on most days, my devices tell me that I average more than that on total daily screen time. What is it that I’m doing in front of those screens? Part of it is my consumption of the internet and contributions to it, which I do with a sense of urgency. Like reading the daily newspaper, my day doesn’t feel complete until I’ve checked my Twitter and Reddit feeds, scrolled through a few IG stories, and perhaps shared a few as well. All in the name of staying up to date and engaged with the world that I would otherwise be cut off from.

Shouldn’t you be working?, Installation, Sticker, 2016 – Silvio Lorusso

According to Ian Bogost in his article in the Atlantic, our obligations to online tasks have become like another job, akin to full-time employment, or as he calls it, Hyperemployment.

“Increasingly, online life in general feels like this [a task]. The endless, constant flow of email, notifications, direct messages, favorites, invitations. After that daybreak email triage, so many other icons on your phone boast badges silently enumerating their demands.” – Ian Bogost (Bogost, 2013)

Going back to Clockify, this too feels like an act of labor, a job in which I attempt to better my life. I made a conscious effort to use this app last year in order to better organize my time, work more productively, and hopefully give myself more active free time in which I can regain control of my life. But the opposite became true, where my dependence on this app has perpetuated an almost permanent need to be productive, where free time is precious and the stress to do something worthwhile during this free time has caused me to procrastinate on caring for myself.

The management of our bodily functions and time has become a laborious task, often bringing a negative aspect to what might have had positive intentions. The book Hyperemployment describes sleep as an example, which is turned into labor in two ways: through the collection and analysis of valuable data about otherwise; and thanks to the tasks and exercises that self-improvement apps suggest to us to improve our sleep. (Lorusso et al., 2020)

“These apps are a new “pharmakon” – the Greek term signifying both a poison and its remedy – in the sense that they operate through an inherent duplicity whereby they provide a remedy for what they themselves take away. Constant connectivity and increasing habituation to 24/7 techno-capitalism dispossesses humans of “natural” sleep cycles and opens up new scenarios for sleep disorders, but they also simultaneously present us with remedies to re-optimize whatever hours of sleep we have left. That is: we sleep less, but we might learn how to sleep faster.” – Elisa Giardina Papa (Lorusso et al., 2020)

Credit: Wearable.com

It’s clear that we’re bound for another revolution, one that involves the rejection of technology creeping into our everyday lives and burdening us with these endless tasks. However, when we demand a change, both from ourselves and the systems we’re operating in, how do we carry that out while seemingly keeping an ever-so-important “Work-Life Balance”?

Activism as Labor

Online or digital activism is a powerful tool that has helped spur numerous movements around the world. From the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter, the messages of these movements go far beyond their communities to reach global audiences with the unintended effect of encouraging changes in their immediate locations. While there’s no doubt that it’s effective, online activism has been misused or rigged to spread misinformation and propaganda at a mass level.

Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour is a term coined by various social media platforms to mean fabricating disproportionate influence by the use of automation and inauthentic actors to give the appearance of a large supporter base. (Friedberg and Donovan, 2019)

Credit: Dean Browning’s burner account on Twitter

In 2015, Italian artist Guido Segni launched the project Work Less, Work All, We are the 99% on Fiverr.com. His project began with a gig that he launched on the crowdsourcing website, Fiverr, commissioning creators to produce videos or images in which they sing, play, or write on their bodies messages sourced from the long history of workers’ rights movements, such as “fuck capitalism” or “think global, act local.” (Lorusso et al., 2020) This project highlighted the ways in which movements can be exploited, despite their messages, to serve an insidious agenda. Through the process of carrying out this movement, the message becomes absurdly detached from the messenger.

Credit: Work Less, Work All, We are the 99% on Fiverr.com – Guido Segni

Through the aforementioned case study, it could also be said that online activism requires a fair bit of labor, whether paid or unpaid. It takes time and effort and can be a detriment to one’s well-being, including employment, mental health, or even safety in some cases.

Identity as a Marker of Resistance

For my project, I’ve had a lingering thought about exploring my own experiences with online activism and attempts at cultural and political solidarity, both as a Palestinian and an Arab living in the diaspora, and how these identity markers come into play.

Let’s touch on a topic that I myself speak about sporadically through social media and my personal projects: Palestine. With each atrocity committed by the occupied forces on the residents of the West Bank, Gaza and even Palestinians of ’48, there is a surge of uproar online, calling for justice, reprimand, and freedom of a people suffering through decades of unjust occupation. And while it feels like the entire world is up in arms about each crime committed against the Palestinians, I have to remind myself of the reality that if I’m reading about it online, I’m reading it within the confines of my own algorithmic bubble.

Historically, the Internet has been a counter-public space for Palestinian liberation politics for over a decade. However, the Israeli state and Zionist supporters worldwide have been able to harness the same technologies and platforms to mobilize technology primarily to increase pro-Israel sentiments. (Aouragh, 2016) In more recent times, there has been a slight breakthrough of Palestinian or Pro-Palestinian voices that have managed to dominate the narrative and speak out the truth without being silenced by oppositional voices. The online activism of Mohammed El-Kurd, whose family in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah is slated for eviction from their home by right-wing Israeli settler organizations, made him an instant celebrity. (Ward, 2021)

However, to keep the momentum going, I imagine that we would need to be unified and inclusive in our message to the greater public. What happens when the message is unified but the source is problematic? Does this discredit the message? Does the messenger deserve to be silenced? Will the number of messengers decrease?

And what if we use the tactics of technological automation to reach a larger amount of people? Can the message remain pure? Or will it lose its credibility? Will it be able to be inclusive of all Palestinians participating in the dispersion of this message, regardless of their age, gender, orientation, or location? If not, then what other dangers are posed in the automation of online activism?

Reference list

Aouragh, M. (2016). Hasbara 2.0: Israel’s Public Diplomacy in the Digital Age. Middle East Critique, 25(3), pp.271–297. doi:10.1080/19436149.2016.1179432.

Bogost, I. (2013). Hyperemployment, or the Exhausting Work of the Technology User. [online] The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/11/hyperemployment-or-the-exhausting-work-of-the-technology-user/281149/ [Accessed 13 Jun. 2022].

FrankeB. and Matter, H. (2021). Not at your service : manifestos for design. Zurich: Zurich University Of The Arts, Department Of Design ; Basel.

Friedberg, B. and Donovan, J. (2019). On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Bot: Pseudoanonymous Influence Operations and Networked Social Movements. jods.mitpress.mit.edu, [online] (6). doi:10.21428/7808da6b.45957184.

Fuller, J. and Kerr, W. (2022). The Great Resignation Didn’t Start with the Pandemic. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2022/03/the-great-resignation-didnt-start-with-the-pandemic.

Lorusso, S., Parisi, L., Quaranta, D., Stadler, F. and !Mediengruppe Bitnik (2020). HYPER-EMPLOYMENT : post-work, online labour and automation. S.L.: Nero.

Neidich, W. (2020). The Glossary of Cognitive Activism. Santa Monica, Ca: Archive Books.

Ward, A. (2021). The ‘TikTok intifada’. [online] Vox. Available at: https://www.vox.com/22436208/palestinians-gaza-israel-tiktok-social-media.

World Bank (2022). Global Economic Prospects June 2022. [online] World Bank. Available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2022/06/07/stagflation-risk-rises-amid-sharp-slowdown-in-growth-energy-markets.

Writer, C.P.H.S. (2022). The future of labor unions, according to Harvard economist. [online] Harvard Gazette. Available at: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2022/04/the-future-of-labor-unions-according-to-harvard-economist/.

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