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will automate everything. This, in short, was the grand narrative propagated by tech capitalists and their admirers after the Great Recession of 2008. Endowed with massive surpluses of venture capital, pre- and post-crisis tech giants like Amazon, Google, or Uber were seen as the corporate embodiments of a capitalist future minus its long-standing economic and political pivot: the worker. Who still needs postal workers if Amazon developed automated delivery drones? Who still wants a taxi driver if Uber was about to deploy entire fleets of self-driving cars?
Today, one-and-a-half decades after Lehmann Brothers went belly up, capitalist reality seems to have overtaken techno-determinist ideology again. Self-driving cars remain a vague, periodically postponed promise, and instead of robots it is armadas of low-paid flesh-and-bone package deliverers who dash through the streets of conurbations worldwide. What the unredeemed vision of ubiquitous automation has conjured up, then, is a simple, yet consequential question: what if instead of the onset of an age of automation, we are currently living through the dawn of a new era of exploitation? It is precisely this question that is at the heart of Moritz Altenried’s recent book The Digital Factory: The Human Labor of Automation.
Altenried is not the first to have raised the issue in book-length format. Earlier works by Aaron Benanav (2022), Ursula Huws (2019), or Jason E Smith (2020) have had similar thrusts, aiming to hammer home the key point that human labor remains an indispensible precondition for today’s global capitalism, digital or not. While clearly supporting such arguments, Altenried’s seven chapters also go beyond these mostly theoretical works by advancing a convincing synthesis of theoretical breadth and empirical depth – a seamless interweaving, that is, of conceptions and perceptions to lend a formulation from McKenzie Wark (2020: 5). In contrast, and building on extensive ethnographic research, Altenried presents fascinating empirical evidence of a drastically shifting world of human work. This world has emerged across the variously scaled geographies – digital and analog, social and physical – of global logistics and urban delivery, crowdsourced data labeling and human-based AI training, to name only a few. It is across these seemingly splintered sites and situations that a new global regime of labor has consolidated: the digital factory.
Notably, the idea of the digital factory stands in considerable contrast to those theorizations of the digital age that have put their emphasis on the rise of creative, artistic or ‘immaterial’ forms of human labor. Invoking the factory as both a historic and contemporary site of strenuous, often deeply menial work, Altenried is less concerned with the creative dimensions of current labor regimes. Rather, he wants to shed light on those new digital regimes of labor that bear many of the earmarks of an earlier, Taylorist age, including its tendencies towards decomposition, deskilling and the heightened surveillance of labor. According to Altenried, then, digital capitalism is “not characterized by the end of the factory, but by its explosion, multiplication, spatial reconfiguration, and technological mutation into the digital factory” (p. 6).
While ethnographic detail is one of the strengths of the book, The Digital Factory is far from a theory-averse work. Altenried interweaves several strands of critical and radical thought in and beyond intellectual fields such as labor sociology, platform and migration studies, critical explorations of the gig economy, urban geography and architectural analysis. While I will have to say some more words on the spatial dimensions of Altenried’s work, it is worthwhile to first trace the three main perspectives – or, as Altenried calls them: vectors – that inform his overall analysis.
First, there is the vector of digital Taylorism. More than a technologically updated reincarnation of ‘classical’ Taylorism, the concept of digital Taylorism is used by Altenried to “describe how a variety of forms and combinations of soft- and hardware as a whole allow for new modes of standardization, decomposition, quantification, and surveillance of labor” (p. 7). Seen from this vantage, technologically enabled shifts in the algorithmic control and coordination of labor allow for the both elastic and spatially expansive character of the digital factory. We may think here, for example, of Uber’s ridehail app that effortlessly oversees, manages, and controls thousands of drivers at once. In short, digital Taylorism’s great promise to global capital lies in its new possibilities to subsume labor far beyond the walls of the Taylorist factory.
Closely related, The Digital Factory’s second analytical vector concerns the composition of labor itself. In particular, Altenried harnesses Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson’s (2013) notion of the multiplication of labor in order to throw into relief related trends of the increasing heterogeneity, flexibilization, and heightened mobility of labor under today’s global work regimes. While the vector of digital Taylorism foregrounds a proliferating standardization of work across the digital factory, the thesis of the multiplication of labor refines this diagnosis by emphasizing the fact that – in distinction to Fordist regimes of labor – the digital factory is compatible with the diversification of its workforce. While synchronizing the labor of tens of thousands of workers worldwide, crowdwork platforms like Upwork.com achieve this without producing the mass worker of an earlier industrial age. a Constituting a major hindrance to effective workplace organizing, workers on digital platforms usually remain spatially and subjectively isolated.
A widely diagnosed reconfiguration of space marks the book’s third and final theoretical vector. Arguably, Altenried puts forth an architectural rather than an urban spatial analysis. Operating, for the most part, on the micro-scale of bodies and buildings, the book repeatedly zooms in on emblematic spaces of the digital factory: Amazon warehouses, Walmart retail stores, container ports, data centers.
A case in point is Altenried’s intriguing discussion of the hugely popular video game World of Warcraft. Virtual playground to millions of gamers worldwide, the world of World of Warcraft stretches a vast medieval landscape of seas and forests, villages and cities populated by human and non-human avatars. Completing the game’s quests, players can collect gold and other valuable items allowing them to gradually progress through the game’s many levels. It is the time-consuming nature of World of Warcraft that companies such as Hong Kong-based Internet Media Entertainment (IGE) soon started to exploit for their business models. At the peak of its success in 2006, IGE’s website offered a whole range of in-game services in exchange for real money. The company “sold virtual goods like weapons and rare ‘mounts’ (rideable creatures), and even offered character leveling services – players could hand over their accounts and receive them back several hours later at any level they wished in exchange for money” (p. 63).
To this day, customized services of this kind are made possible by a shadow army of professional player-workers – also referred to as ‘gold farmers’ – often working at specialized World of Warcraft gaming workshops in China. Little is left to chance in these strictly organized factories of play. As Altenried notes, a “typical Chinese gaming workshop features twenty to one hundred computers and around fifty to two hundred workers playing in shifts so that every computer runs continuously. [...] Many of these digital factories offer dormitory housing and meals to their workers, who are almost exclusively men between the ages of sixteen and forty” (p. 67). While customers from the United States, Europe, Japan and Korea pay a little extra for fast progress through the game, Chinese player-workers spend hours on end on the same repetitive click tasks: “‘For 12 hours a day, 7 days a week,” as one World of Warcraft laborer puts it,” me and my colleagues are killing monsters’” (p. 67).
Embedded in an analog work environment of rigid quotas and tight supervision, player-workers often face racist attacks in the digital realm of World of Warcraft. Not seldom, other gamers perceive Chinese gold farmers as ‘immigrant intruders’ and cheaters against the game’s ethos:
In World of Warcraft’s digital space, gold farmers are addressed as illegal migrants working in a space where others play. Throughout the game’s landscapes, a constant form of racial profiling occurs to differentiate between legitimate ‘leisure players’ and unwanted ‘player-workers.’ Avatars whose names are composed of numbers or appear to not be ‘Western’ in any way are oftentimes treated with suspicion [...] Western players even form ‘vigilante’ groups to hunt down ‘Chinese farmers.’ (p. 74)
Crisscrossed by global dynamics of exploitation, racialization and virtual migration, the shadow economy of World of Warcraft features as a paradigmatic site of the digital factory. Particularly, the node of the Chinese gaming workshop vividly illustrates the merits of Altenried’s analytical focus on the architectural micro-scale. It allows him to bring to light, with fascinating detail, the minutiae of digital labor management at those sites where the powerful dynamics of the digital factory clearly have a deep impact on the configuration of spaces – analog and digital.
There are instances, however, where Altenried jumps, all too quickly to my mind, from observations on the level of the working body to much grander assumptions about the changing nature of the urban process as such. Embracing, for instance, the architect Clare Lyster’s (2016) speculative claim that the contemporary city is shaped more by urban flows than by static objects, Altenried (49) argues that in the context of last-mile delivery – as prominently effected, for instance, by Amazon Prime – “time becomes the most critical attribute of spatial production.” This, by all means, is a daring assumption. For while the idea of “cities as timescapes” (Altenried: 50) pays justified heed to the temporal and accelerative economic imperatives of an expanding urban logistics sector, it also blatantly ignores decades of urban geographic research on the reciprocal interplay between motion and fixity; a dialectic that, as argued by the likes of David Harvey (1996) or Neil Brenner (1998), long has governed the speeding up of turnover times with its multiple effects on urban environments.
It is vis-à-vis passages such as the one on last-mile delivery that one would wish for a spatial analysis somewhat more firmly grounded in critical and radical urban geography. Such a perspective would not only zoom in on those ‘sites of exception’ where capital can dictate the configuration of spaces and rhythms of daily work almost at will. Instead, it would be equally attuned to those instances where the space-producing powers of tech giants like Amazon or Google quite simply reach their limits. Or, even more interestingly, it would hone in on situations where the implementation of the business models of leading tech companies comes into conflict with, and may be variously mediated by, other urban and state-spatial dynamics not minor in import to the persistence of contemporary capitalism. In the absence of a more focused attention to such spatialized conflicts of interest – potentially arising between different factions of capital as much as between state and capital or, of course, labor and capital themselves – tech companies sometimes figure in Altenried’s description as those quasi-autonomous, seemingly omnipotent producers of space that, quite clearly, they are not.
If a certain fascination for, or even over-identification with, the powers of global tech may sometimes be at work in Altenried’s book, this does not diminish the brilliance of the overall analysis. Altenried’s insights into the fast-evolving nexus of technological change, digitalization and global labor are breathtaking. Most importantly perhaps, The Digital Factory elicits a deeper understanding of those very grounds, both social and physical, on which current and future labor struggles will have to be fought. It goes without saying that continuing, expanding and diversifying this task remains an enormous endeavor. It is to be hoped, therefore, that works of a similar intellectual rigor and comparable political depth will continue to emerge.
Benanav A (2022) Automation and the Future of Work. London: Verso.
Brenner N (1998) Between fixity and motion: Accumulation, territorial organization and the historical geography of spatial scales. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 16(4): 459-481.
Harvey D (1996) Cities or urbanization? City 1(1-2): 38-61.
Huws U (2019) Labour in Contemporary Capitalism: What Next? London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lyster C (2016) Learning from Logistics: How Networks Change Our Cities. Basel: Birkhäuser.
Mezzadra S and Neilson B (2013) Border as Method, or, The Multiplication of Labor. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Smith JE (2020) Smart Machines and Service Work: Automation in an Age of Stagnation. London: Reaktion Books.
Wark M (2020) Sensoria: Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century. London: Verso.
Fabian Namberger recently completed his PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. In his thesis Uberising the Urban. Labor, Infrastructure and Big Data in the Actually Existing Smart City of Toronto Fabian investigates how the abstract logics of Uber’s business model reconfigure the geographies of existing urban space.