Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy

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Citation: Tiziana Terranova (2000) Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy. Social Text (RSS)


Tagged: Sociology (RSS) NatematiasGenerals (RSS), theory (RSS), labor (RSS), marx (RSS), autonomism (RSS), cyberlibertarian (RSS), cyberutopian (RSS), free labor (RSS), digital labor (RSS)


In this article written just before the dot com crash, Terranova argues that "free labor" in online platforms represents the nature of labor "widespread in late capitalist societies" (33). By doing so, she links the idea of the "digital economy" with the idea of the "social factory" put forward by Italian autonomist marxists[1].

Terranova opens the article with the example an effort by seven AOL's 14,000 chatroom hosts to prompt a U.S. Departmentof Labor investigation into what they called "electronic sweatshops" of community management work[2]. Terranova argues that this free labor is "voluntarily given and wunwaged, enjoyed and exploited" and ranges from "building websites modifying software packages, reading and participating in mailing lists, and building virtual spaces on MUDs and MOOs" (33).

Terranova also acknowledges critiques of the idea of labor itself (especially in marxist forms) coming from postmodernism, coming from Donna Haraway, who challenged the domination of ideas of gender, race, sexuality and class[3], and coming from Gilroy, who points out the role of artistic expression as "self-fashioning and communal liberation" (Gilroy qtd in Terranova)[4]. In response, Terranova points out that the Internet has supported "trends toward increased flexibility of the workforce, continuous reskilling, freelance work, and.. 'supplementing' (bringing suppplementary work home from the conventional office)" (34)[5], implying that these challenges, the "informatics of domination" that Haraway describes, need to be viewed through a labor perspective.

The Digital Economy

Terranova summarizes the idea of the digital economy, both the argument that it is a network of digital artisans with components of liberatory gift economies (among other economies) [6], and the view that it offers a coordinated system of collective intelligence that fosters fulfillment through work [7].

Terranova further argues that the role of capital online is not to co-opt authentic digital cultures, but rather that there's something more complex happening.

Knowledge Class and Immaterial Labor

Terranova argues that debates about digital inclusion, while important for evaluating the political claims made for the Internet, are misleading because studying class on the Internet won't reveal the political potential of the Internet. Instead of focusing on the class of people online, Terranova argues that we should focus instead on labor online, drawing from Lazzarato's work on Immaterial Labor[8].

Terranova argues that this immaterial labor, the "collective intelligence" of the Internet, "encompass the work of writing/reading/managing and participating in mailin lists/Web sites/chatlines" (42). As a result, the Internet is not a "free-floating postindustrial utopia, but in full mutually consisting interaction with late capitalism, especially... global venture capital" (43).

Collective Minds

Whether a hive mind or collective intelligence[9], the Internet affords greater reactiveness, flexibility, and collective potential. This cyberlibertarian, cyberutopian view, says Terranova, looks very close to that of autonomous marxists' idea of "general intellect" inspired by Marx’s Grundrisse. Companies attempt to extract value from this collective knowledge labor, while marxists might light it to be a liberatory project, says Terranova.

Ephemeral Commodities and Free Labor

Terranova argues that "the Internet is about the extraction of value out of continuous, updateable work, and it is extremely labor intensive" (48). Most of this is free labor. However, "free labor... is not necessarily exploited labor," notes Terranova, who notes that many people carry out this labor as an exchange with each other. She makes the fascinating observation that the digital labor debate has played out primarily in discussions of open source rather than the work carried out by AOL's 30,000 "community leaders" (49). At this point, Terranova provides an overview of open source and a reflection on the fate of Netscape.

Enter the New Web

Terranova next describes a hypothetical reality show based on actual web conversations, "people shows." She argues that the Internet can be imagined as a people's show that is just as part of capitalism, but with less moral mediation than television (53).


Terranova argues that "free labor is strucural to the late capitalist cultural economy," questioning the dichotomy between Internet as capital or anti-capital and putting forward an idea where the Internet is "not so much a break as an intensification, and therefore a mutation, of a wide-spread cultural and economic logic." She argues that the purpose of this has not been to support social change but to identify an observed tendency.

Theoretical and practical relevance:

A highly cited work linking immaterial labor and the Internet, that sets out an idea of "free labor" that includes exploited and non-exploited community work in a wider sense than just open source.

Notable References

  1. Terranova's note: See Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt, Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); and Toni Negri, The Politics of Subversion: A Manifesto for the Twenty-first Century (Cambridge: Polity, 1989) and Marx beyond Marx: Lessons on the “Grundrisse” (New York: Autonomedia, 1991). The quote is from Negri, Politics of Subversion, 92.
  2. Margonelli, L. (1999). Inside AOL’s Cyber–Sweatshop. Wired, 7(10).
  3. Haraway, Donna (1991) "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century" in Donna Haraway: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Routledge, 1991), 159.
  4. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London and New York: Verso, 1993)
  5. Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Cambridge, Mass.:Blackwell, 1996), 395
  6. See Richard Barbrook, “The Digital Economy,” (posted to nettime on 17 June 1997; also at; “The High-Tech Gift Economy,” in Readme! Filtered by Nettime: ASCII Culture and the Revenge of Knowledge, ed. Josephine Bosma et al. (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Autonomedia, 1999), 132–38. Also see Anonymous, “The Digital Artisan Manifesto” (posted to nettime on 15 May 1997).
  7. Don Tapscott, The Digital Economy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996), xiii
  8. Maurizio Lazzarato, “Immaterial Labor,” in Marxism beyond Marxism, ed. Saree Makdisi, Cesare Casarino, and Rebecca E. Karl for the Polygraph collective (London: Routledge, 1996), 133
  9. Eugene Provenzo, foreword to Pierre Levy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (New York: Plenum, 1995), viii