Curry Chandler

Curry Chandler is a writer, researcher, and independent scholar working in the field of communication and media studies. His writing on media theory and policy has been published in the popular press as well as academic journals. Curry approaches the study of communication from a distinctly critical perspective, and with a commitment to addressing inequality in power relations. The scope of his research activity includes media ecology, political economy, and the critique of ideology.

Curry is a graduate student in the Communication Department at the University of Pittsburgh, having previously earned degrees from Pepperdine University and the University of Central Florida.

Technology, hyperemployment, and femininity

If you’re like many people, you’ve started using your smartphone as an alarm clock. Now it’s the first thing you see and hear in the morning. And touch, before your spouse or your crusty eyes. Then the ritual begins. Overnight, twenty or forty new emails: spam, solicitations, invitations or requests from those whose days pass during your nights, mailing list reminders, bill pay notices. A quick triage, only to be undone while you shower and breakfast.

[...]

Often, we cast these new obligations either as compulsions (the addictive, possibly dangerous draw of online life) or as necessities (the importance of digital contact and an “online brand” in the information economy). But what if we’re mistaken, and both tendencies are really just symptoms of hyperemployment?

[...]

Hyperemployment offers a subtly different way to characterize all the tiny effort we contribute to Facebook and Instagram and the like. It’s not just that we’ve been duped into contributing free value to technology companies (although that’s also true), but that we’ve tacitly agreed to work unpaid jobs for all these companies. And even calling them “unpaid” is slightly unfair, since we do get something back from these services, even if they often take more than they give. Rather than just being exploited or duped, we’ve been hyperemployed. We do tiny bits of work for Google, for Tumblr, for Twitter, all day and every day.

Bogost writes, “hyperemployment offers a subtly different way to characterize all the tiny effort we contribute to Facebook and Instagram and the like. It’s not just that we’ve been duped into contributing free value to technology companies (although that’s also true), but that we’ve tacitly agreed to work unpaid jobs for all these companies.” This tacit agreement, however, extends beyond social media and e-mail and is really a form of housework and maintenance for our daily lives. In that regard, I wonder if calling the cozy arrangement between digital technologies, data economies, and invisible labor “employment” runs the danger of side-stepping the deeper (gendered and racialized) antagonisms inherent in the distinction between what is considered labor and what is considered “care.”

For more than thirty years, Marxist feminists have been arguing that women’s unpaid labor–housework, reproduction, etc.–is a prerequisite for capitalist wage labor, surplus value extraction, and profit-making. Capital can extract surplus value from waged labor only because the wage laborer is supported by (extracts surplus value from) unwaged labor, mainly in the form of the wife. Gregory’s argument is that what Bogost is pointing to isn’t a new phenomenon so much as a reconfiguration of an ongoing practice: we are all our own wives and moms, so to speak. Indeed, as Bogost’s example suggests, our smartphones wake us up, not our moms, just as emails accomplish a lot of the relational work (scheduling, reminding, checking in, etc.) conventionally performed by women.

So does technology relieve the burden on women to perform certain traditionally feminine tasks? Sure! If your husband scans the news on his iPad, you no longer need to collect the morning paper. If your kids have SpongeBob SquarePants for company, you are free to leave them bathed in television glare while you check Twitter/wallow in 21st-century guilt. On the other hand, assigning a task to a computer doesn’t necessarily make it go away. Wageless work may now be more evenly distributed among men and women, but someone still has to send the reminder emails and program the vacuum bot. We haven’t escaped the reality of unpaid labor; we’ve simply spread it around.