Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Blog 10: Free Work and/as Civic Volunteerism

As I brought up in class, the concept of free labor is not at all new to late capitalism. In fact, as we discussed, new media institutions (e.g. Google, Facebook, AOL, open-source software) have tried to appropriate the culture and practice of free labor in the production of knowledge from the academy. The academy, meanwhile, looks back even further to democratic ideals put forward in the political theory of Rousseau and other late Enlightenment and early modern thinkers. It is this connection - between free labor as practiced via new media in late capitalism and free labor as civic volunteerism in a participatory democracy - that I would like to explore further.

By virtue of living in a participatory democracy, we are called upon to do a great deal of free labor - we need to vote, pay attention to the news, stay engaged in community affairs, etc. Meanwhile, we are also often called upon to work for (and/or give money to) social causes that we deem worthwhile (although America's obsession with charity may harken more to our brand of capitalism than to democracy in general). This kind of work can be as varied as giving food to a local homeless shelter, volunteering at a nursing home, protesting for workers' rights, or writing op-eds in the paper. I propose that we do these things for several reasons. First, it is a way of building friendships and community. Second, we have certain moral beliefs toward the causes that we support, and so this can of work gives us pleasure and satisfaction in trying to realize the kind of world that we want. Third, we might feel that it is our responsibility to the community.

I posit that the rationale behind free labor in new media is very similar to what is typically seen as volunteerism. There are, however, a few key differences, which need to be explored more. First, in typical volunteerism there is little prospect of renumeration from the work that we do (i.e. not only do we work for free, but nobody else makes money off of what we do). This is fundamentally called into question in new media (e.g. Linus, the millionaire; the NetSlaves of AOL). Second, typical volunteerism builds communities of physical proximity. Free work online builds communities of shared interests that are not place-based. This change might have important political implications, but I will ignore those for now. Third, the prospect of exhaustion would appear to be much more present in free work within new media. On the other hand, since volunteerism involves a more permanent connection tied up in place (through, for instance, personal relationships with neighbors), it is less transient and less likely to coincide with exhaustion.

I'd like to continue exploring this relationship between community volunteerism and free work in new media.

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