I thought I would begin by explaining the connections I see between my last book-length project—researching the difference that access to digital technologies can make in the lives of queer people at society’s margins—and my current research fleshing out the promise and perils of digital labor. My projects explore how individuals, social institutions, cultural norms, and the technologies that permeate all of our lives come together. How do they shape the world and our future? I draw on a background in anthropology and critical media studies to examine how these everyday uses of digital media transform our intimate experiences of life, politics, and identity, particularly for those with limited access to the (idealized) promise of technologies.
When I was finishing the fieldwork for Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (2009), two things stuck with me. First, at the end of the day, a lack of economic opportunities—the pervasive poverty that organizes life in the rural United States—contributed to the pain and marginalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans youth as much as, if not more than, their seemingly “out of place” LGBT identities. Second, the digital divide is so much more than the presence or absence of hardware and software. As sociologists have noted for some time, the digital divide is also a product of present or absent infrastructures of public support, civic community, media literacy, social validation, and autonomy of use (DiMaggio et al. 2001). These infrastructures set in motion where, when, how, and why technologies become levers for social change, rather than perpetrators of systemic inequalities.
There is a vibrant conversation in the United States about the growth and value of digital media’s participatory cultures, from Google relying on our searches to fine-tune its product to Kickstarter matching entrepreneurs’ innovative ideas with fans willing to back them. Much of the discussion focuses on the contributions of users—consumers producing content as they surf, comment, or shop (Jenkins 2008; Jenkins, Ford, and Green 2013). When we do talk about the impact of digital media technologies on industries, from animation to the news, we concentrate on skilled, creative knowledge workers facing the restructuring or rapid deterioration of their professional work environments and identities (see Hardt and Negri 2000). We revel in the efficiencies or lament the displacement of a particular class of workers, their professional work environments, and their middle-class identities. But, arguably, these deskilled workers are the tip of a veritable global iceberg of labor in a precarious state.
Face in the Crowd: Digital Labor, Platform Responsibilities and the Future of Work in Precarious Times, the book I am working on now, draws on findings from a two-year-long comparative ethnographic and quantitative study of the labor exchanged through crowdsourcing platforms, focusing on the work churning through four prominent platforms: Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk, Microsoft’s Universal Human Relevance System, MobileWorks, and Amara.org. My collaborator, computer scientist Siddharth Suri, and I focus on workers based in the United States and India—using interviews with those assigning and doing tasks as well as studies of the rhetorics and practices organizing this labor market—to understand: What kind of labor is crowdsourcing and under what conditions does it take place? Who does this work and what does it mean to them?
The future of work and the meaning of gainful employment are at a critical juncture. Certainly, the lack of job protections for queer-identifying people or bodies that socially register as nonconforming means higher rates of unemployment and discrimination in the workplace. While I do ask about the status of LGBTQ folks’ experiences around discrimination, it is not the focal point of my research. Yet, like all forms of identity, queerness is a driving force, as it entangles all systems of structural recognition and hierarchies of discrimination that shape cultural life. The economic crisis of the Great Recession reinvigorated a call for industries to create good, stable jobs for the next generation of workers. Understanding the heterogeneity and complexity of that “next generation” is a queer problem that deserves our attention, including but also beyond the specific identities that come to shape workforces. Lee Edelman’s (2004) notions of a queer future challenge us to rethink our reliance on living for tomorrow in the name of the next generation. Yet, at the same time, his arguments fall short in recognizing how much we live today reliant on relationships of care and interdependence that leave only the most privileged able to access the kind of autonomy presupposed in his models of a radically queer life. My hope is that by looking at how we value individuals’ working lives, we will see the queering of identity that comes with contorting our worlds to fit an imperative to work. Perhaps, then, we can get down to the business of living fully for life’s sake.
DiMaggio, Paul, Eszter Hargittai, W. Russell Neuman, and John P. Robinson. 2001. “Social Implications of the Internet.” Annual Review of Sociology 27: 307–36.
Edelman, Lee. 2004. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Gray, Mary L. 2009. Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America. New York: New York University Press.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. 2013. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: New York University Press.
Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.