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Working Cyberspace

If we envision cyberspace as a site of more democratic forms of communication and resistance, we begin to imagine its transformative potential.
Tim Jackson

Issue #32, April 1997

In a society of simulation, fantasy does not replace reality; it precedes it.
— Derrick de Kerckhove
The world as we see it is passing.
— Paul of Tarsus

I have been working hard lately. My back is sore. My eyes are dry, red, and sensitive to light. My hands feel as if they have been locked into a fixed curl. Yet, despite these physical ailments I am not physically tired. I haven't even broken a sweat during all of my labors. Although my mind is fatigued, I remain restless and find sleep difficult. My mind continues to labor while my body remains in a suspended state of atrophy. You see, I live and work in cyberspace.

I am writing this in a small town within a rural mountain range in Pennsylvania. It is deep winter. It is 3:00 AM. I am not being paid to write this, yet I am writing about work in cyberspace; I am working the concept of cyberspace. I am an academic and this is spring break. This type of work is a privilege, as is my profession in general. My work in cyberspace allows me the opportunity to think about the conditions and implications of such work. I am therefore no longer officially working, yet I labor on-virtually. You see, there are no time clocks or bells ringing the end of the workday in one of my several physical work-sites (in this case the one that is also my home). Work in cyberspace runs on the endless digital march, the binary on-off transition which breaks the otherwise cyclical flow of time/space.

Being in digital time differs from analog time in that events in digital time exist without a horizon. Digital time occurs in sharp breaks and contrasts from one state to another without the flow of analog time, such as the slow procession of a sunset or the transition from a warm summer evening to a chilly night. Imagine digital seasons or sunsets, where the sights and sounds of one moment simply cease and those of another begin, when the temperature changes from below freezing to a humid 98 degrees Fahrenheit in an instant, or when the sun simply disappears and the moon shines. What if we aged in a non-linear manner, jumping from infancy to late life and back to pubescence in a manner of seconds or minutes or days?

The digital fragmentation of time/space in these examples illustrates the schizophrenic dimension of life in cyberspace, where thoughts/events often collide in a surreal manner. To a lesser degree, these are some of the contradictions that my analog body experiences as my more digital mind works in cyberspace. Even my text/thoughts begin to construct non-sequential digital narrative structures despite my best efforts to stream an analog path of ideas. For example, the way I jump from a story, to a quote, to more theoretical considerations within this text illustrates the collision of ideas within the digital domain of cyberspace. The nature of communication in this context breaks with the traditional flow of ideas in an essay.

Workers of the world, fan out.
— Stewart Brand, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT

Work in cyberspace is schizophrenic in part because it gives the worker the delusional sense of being simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. As a result, working in cyberspace often leads to a withdrawal from the social relationships which are normal to workers within physical public spaces and communities. In a purely pragmatic sense, public spaces in many cities are decaying due to the removal of the tax base by the rise of virtual business. Homelessness and increased poverty and crime are other outgrowths of these economic turns. The ongoing shift in North America from a manufacturing economy which deals principally with the production of material goods, to that of an information economy which produces and exchanges content, causes serious shifts in the physical and social dimensions of labor and identity politics. In the information economy, many workers are no longer required to congregate in workplaces to do their jobs. The work of the body becomes eclipsed by the work of the mind. At its worst, urban public spaces which had traditionally been the sites for business are becoming dangerous geographical zones which one must pass through to reach the bunker of one's private space and/or cyberspatial worksite.

In late capitalist societies, the Internet provides the final terrain for terrestrial colonization-the space of the individual and collective conscious. The ability to sell virtual experiences via new forms of entertainment media (e.g. CD-ROMS, video games, WebTV) or digital media in its raw electronic state offers a most elegant form of commodity exchange, requiring no material manufacture, little if any shipping costs, no warehousing, and often using transient or flex-labor forces. Selling material goods or services is a costly business, while selling ideas, entertainment content, or the access to information through digital networks is fast, cost efficient, and even environmentally more friendly.

Nicholas Negroponte describes this economic transition in his book Being Digital as the "difference between bits and atoms." Negroponte's text exudes a class bias, written towards the target populations of "executives, politicians, and parents" (read rulers, rulers, and consumers). Using examples such as Evian water to illustrate how difficult this business of selling atoms is, he notes that by "early in the next millennium your right and left cuff links or earrings may communicate with each other by low-orbiting satellites and have more power than your present PC," and that phones in the future will behave "like a well-trained English butler." This utopian vision of the future is a necessary condition for the type of high tech dog-and-pony shows that Negroponte's Media Lab must perform for executives, politicians, and maybe a few parents in order to fund their research at the Media Lab and similar research institutions and think tanks. While such a vision of the future enables significant research funding, most of the citizens within this brave new world will continue to drink less than pure water and can eat neither desk-top PC's nor digital cuff-links.

But of course, the people who are truly invisible . ... are the people involved in the industrial division of labor now, in the present. It's often commented upon that these stories exclude the workers who actually make the parts and work in the semi-conductor workplaces and assembly lines in South East Asia and elsewhere. People who play no role whatsoever in any of these stories, romantic or otherwise, about information technologies.
— Andrew Ross, Cybernetic Capitalism and Surplus Intelligence

While digital commodities such as data, software, and the currencies of international banking flow as bits in the network of late capitalism, they do require a physical technological matrix. Despite the illusion of being simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, cyberspace is a physical place, and we enter it by accessing files stored with a specific IP address in real computers in real locations. These real spaces are the physical dimension of work in cyberspace. Given these conditions, it is important to recognize that the manufacturing of new media hardware is similar to previous forms of industrial manufacturing such as the automobile, textile, and steel industries. However, the sites of new media hardware manufacturing are spread over several continents, true to digital form in non-linear and decentralized fashion, and are therefore harder to localize as sites for social and ecological injustice as opposed to previous centers for industrial manufacturing such as Detroit, Manchester, and Pittsburgh. This dispersion of manufacturing sites makes the organization of workers much more unlikely and veils the limitations of labor organization and the environmental regulation of such sites.

It is therefore important to recognize these manufacturing workers alongside the information or content workers in cyberspace, even though few of these hardware workers have access to the more transformative possibilities of life and work in cyberspace. Unionization under such manufacturing conditions is unlikely, although the collective organization of these and other lower paid employees may prove to be a function that cyberspace provides for some of them through networked communication. The privilege of working in cyberspace is therefore more complex if we are to include the workers who manufacture the technologies of the future outside of the Rome of the New Media Empire-Silicon Valley and other satellites of privilege. The manufacturing workers of cyberspace represent a class which is quite distinct from the designers of cyberspace (programmers, interface designers, writers, artists, and engineers).

A nomadic society cannot experience enclosed space.
— Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy

These two classes of workers in cyberspace experience the worksite in very different ways. The social function of the meeting (whether experienced physically or via telepresence) for the designers or architects of cyberspace has for many replaced the ritual of lunch or the coffee break as a social gathering, and usually offers few opportunities for communicating anything other than the professional problems at hand. Of course, these general observations speak more to the conditions of the privileged worker in cyberspace than the millions of temp workers (e.g. basic data-entry or desk-top publishing workers) who often have to perform within quotas under quantitative and behavioral forms of surveillance, or the unpaid labor force of primarily women who may yearn for the occasional adult conversation within public spheres. These workers, along with their sisters and brothers who manufacture the hardware which enables cyberspace are the true factory laborers of the information age, and their working conditions range from cybersweat-shops in basements or spare bedrooms to open industrial spaces housing hundreds of cubicles connected to the assembly line of local area networks.

Even those of us who enjoy the privilege of professions in cyberspace where we may operate with a higher degree of autonomy and with a minimum of surveillance must relinquish a certain degree of communicative intimacy in order to participate in life and work in cyberspace. Although I have lived in the same university town for four years, I have maintained the bulk of my social relationships through infrequent travel and through phone and e-mail communication. This is of course in part due to the vagabond nature of many new media professions, in which friends are often on the move and contact is infrequent. Flex-work in cyberspace is sometimes far too flexible within the context of social relations.

This lack of an intimate long-term sense of a physical community beyond the limited communicative realm of chat rooms, BBSs, and MOOs and MUDs remains a problem for the workers of cyberspace who spend a significant amount of time working in isolation. Edward Novak provides a few examples of the various forms of life and work in cyberspace in an online posting entitled "I've Fallen Into Cyberspace and I Can't Get Out!":

  • The young couple, linked to the Internet, lives in the wilderness of Wyoming and receives only Publisher's Clearinghouse offers in their mailbox. All the important information in their lives comes to them through their computer.
  • The entrepreneur, in [her/]his home office, conducts business around the world with a fax, a modem, a copying machine, and a telephone.
  • The telecommuter who lives in an exurb a hundred miles outside of Washington, D.C., comes into the office once a week; the rest of his time, he works out of the home.
  • The company, looking to control costs, kicks all its employees out of their offices and makes them set up shop in their cars with cellular phones and laptop computers.

In a Canadian conference panel presentation on Digitization in the Workplace, Marc Belanger predicts that in the workplace of cyberspace "there will be a decentralization of work, a shift from work within a central organization to the work of an individual. It will be a challenge to organize work in cyberspace ... [where] with no capital or head office, every site will be a centre."

Machines for seeing modify perception.
— Paul Virilio, Aesthetics of Disappearance

Cyberspace opens up a distinctly new form of public space. In some respects, this space realizes the Marxist goal of providing the worker with the means of production. Nevertheless, work in cyberspace also illustrates another principle of capitalism as defined by Marx, by masking the forms of its own production. The illusion of cyberspace as a virtual place disconnected from manufacturing and the exchange of very real commodities hides the ways in which the business of cyberspace impacts our larger ecology. It must be acknowledged that the worksite of cyberspace may indeed offer new ways to improve the quality of life by providing new forms of communal organization. Cyberspace may offer the possibility for rethinking dominant beliefs in capitalism and new forms of restructuring labor relations. However, these possibilities are foreclosed by the role that powerful corporate and national forces will continue to play in structuring the empire of cyberspace. A more guarded depiction of the positive role that new forms of flex-work offered by cyberspace, such as telecommuting, would be that these options provide the possibility for more contact with intimate members of your physical or virtual communities, while simultaneously imposing more of your work identity upon the participants in your private life.

As we slouch farther towards the chaos attractor at the end of time, we find most of our networks, electronic or otherwise, working against their original aims or being diverted towards different ends. Subnetworks and metanetworks grow like mold over the original medium. Be it a symptom of social decay, cyberian genesis, or both, the growth of the new colonialism around and within our old systems and structures brings a particular sort of darkness-before-dawnish-darkness to the close of this millennium.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace

While some consider cyberspace an information super-highway leading to a utopian future through technology, I believe cyberspace provides the last terrestrial frontier for empire building, as in the adage "all roads lead to Rome". While all roads on the Internet do not lead to Silicon Valley, the force of late capitalism in cyberspace is no less imperial in nature. The toll for travel and work in cyberspace is indeed prohibitive to many in late capitalist societies and to the majority of our global population. Such a culture of the plugged-in and plugged-out contributes to the construction of empirical enclaves surrounded by the apparently technologically barbarous (although more likely poor) plugged-out citizens of this new world order. In addition, the use of telecommuting contributes to the breakdown of the borders of personal and public spaces and constructs new conditions for the contemporary workplace and workspace.

Nevertheless, if we envision cyberspace as a site of more democratic forms of communication and resistance, we begin to imagine the transformative potential of cyberspace, as well as its implicit and explicit limitations as a social space. A truly utopian vision for cyberspace would involve working within the context of physical possibilities, building a future where humanistic and ecological needs are integrated with technology in a way which might broaden and deepen democratic life for all of the citizens of this distributed dynamic network called earth. This project is, as Henry Giroux defines it, the "struggle for a concrete utopia."

Guiding cyberspace towards such a concrete utopia requires the acknowledgment that our work in cyberspace has very real implications to the wetware of our bodies, the hardware of the Internet, and the complex systems of our global ecology. Our labors are ultimately never virtual.

Timothy Jackson teaches new media studio and theory at Penn State University. He can be reached at

Copyright © 1997 by Tim Jackson. All rights reserved.