Beyond the Screen: Uneven Geographies, Digital Labour, and the City of Cognitive-Cultural Capitalism. 2016. tripleC: Communication, Capital and Critique 14 (1): 99-120. With Anthony M Levenda. doi:10.31269/triplec.v14i1.699
In this paper, we demonstrate that an examination of the socio-environmental impacts of digital Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) remains a fruitless enterprise without “materializing” digital labour. We suggest a two-part approach to materializing digital labour: first, connecting political economic analyses of digital ICTs to the co-evolution and geography of planetary urbanization and technological change, and second, examining the relationships between immaterial, digital labour and the material industrial production system. In the context of broad changes in technology, social life, and urbanization, many scholars have theorized a shift towards a third phase of capitalism, beyond mercantilism and industrialism, based in immaterial, digital, and cognitive labour. We introduce the literature on cognitive-cultural capitalism and third-wave urbanization as markers of contemporary capitalism, producing uneven socio-spatial arrangements across the global-urban system. Synthesis of media and communication studies and political economies of urbanization suggests that both capital accumulation and the social lives of (planetary) urban residents are increasingly mediated and structured by online, digital ICT platforms.
We show that digital ICTs are sophisticated manipulations of nature that require and illuminate new ways of thinking about digital labour, and more broadly, of immaterial labour. We suggest that the immaterial labour associated with digital ICTs is actually material labour responsible for increasing the velocity of capital circulation, as a moment of production and an appendage of the growing complexity of third-phase capitalist industry and urbanization. The materiality of cognitive, cultural, and symbolic labour reaches beyond the city, invades the lifeworlds of a planet of urban residents, and excretes concrete, silicon, bits, servers, and energy waste producing an urban landscape beyond the city. Through an examination of data centres, we show the necessary relationship between the third-wave urbanization and its planetary reach into rural, pristine Oregon. Data centres in Oregon and the broader Pacific Northwest highlight the uneven geography of “clean” digital labour focused in large urban technopoles; the potentially harmful, material, and socioenvironmental impacts of data centres in rural areas; and the necessary and dialectic relationship between the two for cognitive-cultural capitalism. We argue that third-wave urbanization, and the concurrent and co-produced technological advancement in digital ICTs and digital ICT infrastructure, creates the conditions for capital’s subsumption of cognitive and cultural labour.