Karen Gregory

About workers today and their ability to protect their rights, because the very question has questions within it. One of them is, who are the workers that we’re talking about? Who actually qualifies as a worker? Are we talking about people who have the designation of employee? And if so, that is a real problematic term for the digital economy, which has been so successful at removing the designation of employee and really pushing people into both freelance conditions and also self-employment and entrepreneurial conditions. So without the designation of employee, which workers are we talking about? But also, the idea of working and rights brings up the question of what is work in a digital economy? When are we working? When are we not? And what is the difference between work and labor? Are we actually talking about working conditions, actual work organizations, or the organization of work in a digital economy? Or are we talking about the new productions of value and circulations of value, which in some ways bring up the question of who or what is laboring? Are people really the source of value in the digital economy or is something much more? I don’t want to use the word immaterial. In fact, we should talk a little bit about that terrible distinction between immaterial and material labor. But is there something that perhaps isn’t directly related back to the human laboring subject that is producing value in a digital economy?

I think once we begin to crack open all of those questions, then you can really have a discussion about what rights might be or what workers are even looking for today in terms of protecting themselves or in terms of creating new collectivities, if that’s even a direction workers would want to go. There’s a long, obviously a long history to all of this that the digital economy likes to separate itself from, as though the quote unquote new economy is not part of a long extension of labor’s fight for its own rights and for recognition. And so you would actually really, I think, have to think about what do workers, what if we could identify them? Who are we? Who are they? How do we want to come together in terms of new collectivities? What would workers’ demands be? What would workers’ interests be? I was saying to someone the other day that it’s not maybe so much a fight about wages and benefits as it is an actual fight for time itself. The nature of work in the digital economy tends to be completely seamless, right?

We have all these technologies that can keep us active, producing, clicking, circulating, sharing, participating, and these are all buzzwords for this economy. And in some ways, all of that activity and the life that we bring to it, all that activity is subsuming elements of our life into it and in many ways extracting value from that. This is an affective economy. This is an economy that really is drawn from our lives itself. So there’s a question there about how would you even think about what would those rights link back to? I think a huge conversation here is just the nature of time itself. What do we spend our time doing? Where are workers’ bodies? Where is our forms of attention? What types of networks of care are necessary for people working in this new arrangement? How would we come to maybe think about sharing work in a digital economy so that time and energy and attention is not so completely consumed into these infrastructures that really are hungry for our very lives?

I think also one of the last pieces on rights, and Frank Pasquale’s work here is really essential, is looking at just the completely bereft condition of labor law in America and globally and thinking about data and ownership and new markets for data and the ways in which we participate in those markets without even knowing. So the blurring between not just play and labor, but also just existing online and existing digitally and our participation in these new emerging and very speculative markets. I think that we have to really reconceptualize what it means to have a right. What do you have a right to? Do you have a right to privacy? Do you have a right to ownership? Do you have a right to some sort of profit from any of that money that’s being made in these emerging markets? So all of that is up for grabs, I think, in this conversation about how workers can really begin to even think about what they’re doing in this economy and what maybe rights and organizing for those rights would look like.