Saturday, August 04, 2007

Immaterial Labor + il Mercato

In response to the critiques on "immaterial labor" in the sociable web on the Institute for Distributed Creativity listserve:

This morning I went with some new friends to the Saturday morning mercato in our neighboring town of San Giovanni in the Valdarno valley, south of Firenze, Italy. The market -- similar to markets and flea markets experienced within larger Italian cities, and more so sharing a likeness with the market of the town in which I currently live, Montevarchi, as well as the Greek market within the forest of apartment complexes along the Faleron coast of Athens where I have spent time with my grandparents -- was pulsating with the blood of Mediterranean public life: people, many people, trying on clothes, lots of clothes, pressing bathing suits, undergarments, shirts, pants, underpants, up against their bodies, asking their friends and family what they think, all right there in the street amid tons of other people all doing the same thing. Clothing vendors dominated this market. Clothes were cheap. Sometimes fashion gems could even be uncovered in mounds of clothes, like a second-hand store in the USA. The friends I was with were actively shopping for clothes. I joined them and bought some underwear and socks.

I was very struck by how very public this shopping experience was, more public than shopping in the Ipercoop (Italian Walmart) where the market-like variety of clothes, electronics, and food is enclosed in effectively a giant industrial hanger. It was far more public than shopping along a street of stores embedded within buildings where the near-purchase experience happens between window-shopping and trying on clothes within private changing-rooms. And it was way more public than shopping in a mall where the giant industrial hanger has eaten the street space and stuffed the stores and their changing-rooms far deep into its privatized belly.

I felt a tad uneasy this morning, standing next to girls my same age who were trying on shoes and shirts, heading into the back of vans to change into dresses and then coming back out again to look at themselves in full-body mirrors held up by young men who are also selling the clothes. I felt a tad uneasy, I realized, because I was used to a much more private shopping experience! And like sitting at a dinner table with many wonderful, kind, loquacious people, and all of them speaking a language you don't speak that well, I didn't quite know how to enter the conversation without feeling awkwardly bold and out of context. I stood in the market this morning, mezmerized by this culturally-saturated Mediterranean shopping extravaganza in the street.

For the ancient Romans there were two words for the city, "urbs" and "civitas." Urbs evoked the urban form, the built fabric. Civitas, or citizenship, evoked the life of the city and its politics, the human fabric. Urbs and civitas are not always together. An ugly town can have a lively civitas, and a beautiful built form can lack civitas.

What I experienced this morning at the mercato, a highly dynamic shopping experience outdoors in public, was an expression of civitas. Shopping this morning was not just the transaction of money nor the commercial act of shopping, it was a social energy, a means of communicating. The market experience works like a language one must learn to speak for living a certain way of life in that city. The Ipercoop and Western malls, by contrast, are more of a container for the shopping function, an urban form or urbs. Ipercoop and malls lack civitas.

And the civitas, citizenship, and socio-political life-juice, as we know, has been emerging in new public-like "spaces" online. The "free labor," "immaterial labor," "life time," "performance" or "work" put into one's presence and communications in the sociable web is an expression of civitas.

From Trebor's essay: "People take their life to the web and this activity; this labor is driven by affect, which Michael Hardt thinks of as central form of "immaterial labor" today. He writes that "this labor is immaterial, [and] its products are intangible: a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, passion—even a sense of connectedness or community." It is exactly this satisfaction that people get out of laboring in the sociable web."

Experiencing the market is the same satisfying feeling. Updating a social network profile and messaging a friend is like the trying on of clothes and asking others how it looks amid tons of other people all doing the same thing, all in the street of the public outdoor market.

"Free labor" or "immaterial labor" is not produced because people are thinking about doing it for money, or because it can generate money for others. The sharing -- expression -- of personal information on Facebook and MySpace by my peers and I (and likely you, too) may be done without a conscious reflection on the presence of a commercial and institution network that allows it to occur. These networks are like urbs and may not necessarily impact or drive the work of the civitas.

The urbs of Facebook or MySpace, YouTube or EyeSpot have access to the personal information shared and communicated within their legal frameworks, just as I have access to evesdropping or staring at people trying on clothes in the public market, or drawing or recording something I come across. And like the streets swelling with market stalls, or the forums and piazzas of ancient and modern Italy, the urbs of the sociable web have been founded by corporation and institution with enough power or clout to establish a significantly voluminous public space for a meaningful community. There is, though, a striking contrast between the level of access a digital versus physical institution of power has to the civitas it fosters. In the urbs of social networks versus the urbs of the real city: Social networks are digital and thus data information can be easily recorded and used for other purposes in other contexts. In the urbs of the city "data" is more ephemeral like spoken words, images remembered or air breathed, unless manifested in a physical or recordable way.

Of course, one would hope, the presence of urbs controlled by powerful institutions would not destroy accompanying civitas. Unfortunately this is still occuring with the Ipercoop and mall and its surrounding auto infrastructure, they are eating away at the mercato.

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