So I have started reading Franco Berardi’s (“Bifo’s”) book The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, and it is amazing. While I’m not necessarily into the historical bits about Italian workerism, I am incredibly interested in the things that he has to say about media studies. More particularly, the second chapter of the book, titled “The Soul at Work,” is about the way that labor has transformed in the last bit of the 20th century and into the 21st.
Bifo coins a new term for the workers of the 21st century–the cognitariat. The cognitariat is defined by the way that they perform labor. They all have the same physical skillset–an ability to use computer systems, to click and type. They way they are specialized and atomised, or alienated, is in their mind–their mental labor is different from the others. There are architects and writers, IT professionals and technicians working for oil companies.
Berardi, though he doesn’t use this language, suggests that the real danger of this kind of work is the way that it begins to structure the life of the worker. No longer is it simply the factory floor and the eight hour clock that structures the worker’s life. It is the cell phone, always on, making the worker available as a resource for capital 100% of the time. Berardi says it fairly clearly here:
Digital labor manipulates absolute abstract signs, but its recombining function is more specific the more personalized it gets, therefore ever less interchangeable. Consequently, high tech workers tend to consider labor as the most essential part in their lives, the most specific and personalized. (76)
In other words, digital labor becomes a graft to the worker, defining the limits of life and turning into a second skin, a second set of totalizing obligations that have to be fulfilled.
Taking this a step further than Bifo–this enables fascism, in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of the term, to the highest degree. Intellectual labor changes labor from a thing that has to be done to a thing that wants to be done. Work becomes desirable, not just because of enterprise, but because it fulfills some basic desires and needs of the worker. The intellectual worker becomes the happiest cog in the most ambivalent machine.
Certain arguments make a lot of sense in the framework that Berardi sets up, especially in the context of video games. Bifo writes:
But it is also true that the time apparently freed by technology is in fact transformed into cyber time, a time of mental processing absorbed into the infinite production processes of cyber space.
In Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal writes about how video games become a way of reestablishing lost community in the digital age. Since we are separated by our jobs, the loss of communal communication, etc., we desire to be brought together in digital communion. We want to do things together–to perform actions collectively, or what McGonigal calls “epic” actions.
Instead, I think that we need to look at what Bifo proposes. The cognitariat is trained to use her mind all the time–to constantly produce digital labor. I think it is no shock or surprise that a huge chunk of World of Warcraft players come from the digital labor force. McGonigal argues that they are looking for communal experience; Berardi forces us to ask the question: Are they so used to producing cognitive labor that they cannot turn their productive capacity off?
MMORPGs are often described as jobs by both players and detractors alike, and I think there is something to that: the menial tasks of collection missions are drudgery to the maximum, much like coding or simple, but highly specialized, tech jobs.
Berardi quotes a radical journal from the 1970s called A/traverso: “The practice of happiness is subversive when it becomes collective.” I think that is both fundamentally true and also incredibly misleading, and Jane McGonigal takes us down the misled path. Berardi makes us question the things that make us happy, and more importantly, should make us cringe that we are constantly performing labor, even when playing games–a practice that some theorists attempt to place outside of time, narrative, and political practice.