Thursday, September 29, 2016

Marta-Led Demons

Didja miss me don't even answer that shut up you're not even that funny okay you are. There is a snippet below about labour theories of value in the era of Quantified Self.

Here's the context (or skip to the snippet): I've been finishing up a Creative Writing PhD, which is a funny sort of thing. Actually, it's several funny sorts of things, because there's a fair bit of formal variation from university to university, and from PhD to PhD. Which is a good thing. I understand in Coventry, evaluation of the practice component focuses quite heavily on your performance, with respect to the other PGRs in your intake, within a vast verdant combat arena tucked full of traps, weaponry, intrigue and heartbreak. But in every practice-led PhD, there's always a 'practice' component -- for me, that means some fiction, including "Froggy" and Marta -- and then a critical/reflective component.

I initially found that critical/reflective bit quite difficult, since it wasn't a mode of writing I was familiar with / fruitfully unfamiliar with when I got started. But I think I more or less have got it now, which is pretty cool because I'm supposed to hand it in next week.

One aspiration for afterwards, BTW, is to spin off my two cents on practice-led research (also known as practice-as-research or practice-based research, although each phrase has its own connotations) and especially on how it formally relates to speculative fiction.
  • Speculative fiction may sometimes aspire to 'lead' research, offering to shift our technoscientific imaginary, and opening spaces which stricter R&D methodologies may explore (shout out DARPA you avant-garde murderous fucks). 
  • 'Hard' speculative fiction may also be implicated with expert discourses (whether that's physics or sociology), in a way which resembles the dialectic between the creative and the critical/reflective components of practice-led research. 
  • Both speculative fiction and practice-led research are prone to adopting a slightly tricksterish attitude toward external evaluation, eluding or deferring judgment by a kind of bait-and-switch which insists that you've usually evaluated the wrong thing, and that they know more than they're letting on. Speculative fiction's version of this is, of course: "oh no, of course I don't claim to predict the future, ha ha ha" (zooms meaningfully away on hoverboard with fixed wide-eyed stare). 
In a nutshell, I feel like practice-led research and speculative fiction have stuff in common, which means things can actually get quite awkward (but interesting) when you try to do both of them at once.

All of this serves as a kind of apology for various aspects of the following snippet (which probably bug only me anyway), which is a fragment of reflective commentary, about a very brief passage in the mini-novel Marta and the Demons

(So it's me talking about some fiction I wrote. But in this bit, the themes of money, labour, and Quantified Self predominate. The yys are because I haven't done the page numbering yet and/or because I generously "allow readers to decide for themselves". Also, I've shouted it out before, but Tim Maughan's sf-ish vignette "Zero Hours" is great and still really relevant here).

Work as Money

[...] This scene [a drunken conversation between Myeong and Carly, about trying to invent a labor-based currency,] was partly inspired by schemes such as Local Exchange Trading Systems and time‑based currencies.[1] Under such systems, a member might earn one credit by working for one hour, which can be spent to hire an hour’s labor from another member. It was easy to imagine Carly thinking along these lines; at this moment in Carly and Myeong’s relationship, it felt right that Carly might have recently re-calibrated her speculative faculties, and be eager to support inchoate wishes, while still ready to feel like the grounded pragmatist of the pair.

Carly comes up with the name “WorkCoin,” and envisions WorkCoin’s value deriving from “the number of hours [worked]” (M: yy). But for Myeong, whose entrepreneurial obliviousness is reaching its peak, the word ‘hours’ is already enough to cut Carly short. 

One objection to time‑based currencies is that every hour of work is qualitatively different to every other hour. Of course, flattening such heterogeneity according to egalitarian principles, rather than market mechanisms, may be part of the appeal of time-based currencies. But I wanted Myeong to focus on something different. Myeong wants to preserve the qualitative heterogeneity of work, conceived primarily as a phenomenological heterogeneity, but with gestures toward the importance of third-person perspectives.

My second inspiration for this scene was Viviana Zelizer’s account of money’s own heterogeneity. Zelizer contests money’s reputation as a uniform, impersonal, and fungible social relation. For Zelizer, “people are constantly creating new monies, and they do so by segregating different streams of legal tender into funds for distinct activities and relations” (Zelizer 2011: 89). Money “may well ‘corrupt’ values into numbers, but values and sentiment reciprocally corrupt money by investing it with moral, social, and religious meaning” (Zelizer 2011: 97). Myeong, Zelizer, and I conspired to flesh out Myeong's aspiration, barely acknowledging Carly's contributions. Instead, Myeong would aspire to use technology to accentuate, extend, and rationalize money’s existing heterogeneity, in order to reflect the heterogeneity of work. Every hour of work is different from every other. Every penny is different from every other. Why shouldn’t we map one set of differences onto the other?

Myeong’s vision is probably ultimately incoherent. Formulating it coherently certainly offers a challenge. First, how should work be demarcated from non-work (cf. §2.5.2)? We certainly cannot get by, in this context, with the approximation that paid work is ‘real’ work (not without begging the question). Nor should we really want to. Nancy Hartsock tersely invokes the theme of what counts as ‘real’ work by describing “a third person, not specifically present in Marx’s account of transactions between capitalist and worker (both of whom are male),” who “follows timidly behind, carrying groceries, baby, and diapers” (Hartsock 1983: 234). Second, since any sum of WorkCoin will have passed through many hands, whose work should count as “what real people [have] really done, to make that money exist” (M: yy)? Third, even if work could somehow be legitimately demarcated and documented, how can WorkCoin legibly represent such data for human subjects? Who could experience something like WorkCoin, and what would they experience? How could WorkCoin’s quantifications be visualized, aestheticized, and perhaps – given Myeong’s desire for a WorkCoin in which “you could see the workers” (M: yy) – embodied and personified? Fourth, even if a legible WorkCoin were possible, why should that materially alter labor’s subjugation within some interlocking “matrix of domination” (Collins 2000: yy)? In other words, a fine-grained mapping of labor to value may sometimes lead to fairer compensation. But it can also – as the example of Amazon shortly shows – lead to something else entirely. On a larger historical timescale, the questions multiply. How would Myeong’s WorkCoin reflect the particularity of work, when that work is implicated with events – such as the production of the means of production – which have taken place long before WorkCoin came into being? Or when some properties of today’s work may take months or centuries to surface? How would something like WorkCoin function as a transferable IOU (cf. §3.4.2, §4.1), connected not only with past labor, but also with promises of future labor? Whenever I tried to extend the quantification of labor deep into the past and future, I felt it lost its particularity again. It became more nebulous and colorable, more manipulable by existing power hierarchies. Beyond these questions lay further concerns about access and exclusion, about privacy, and about energy and sustainability.

While I tried to position WorkCoin as a wild and impractical fancy, it is also “essential that estrangement leads to the realization that things do not have to be the way they are” (Spiegel 2008: 370). I expected WorkCoin could create a space for speculation about more practical implementations of a labor-based currency, both in terms of its enticements and its dangers.

One precedent is the Quantified Self phenomenon – loosely what Myeong has in mind when she refers to “fuddy-duddy, gamified, making-flossing-fun, improve-the-way-you-sit bullcrap” (M: yy). Quantified Selves are people who aim to improve their self-knowledge and autonomy through “novel ways of self-tracking with the help of digital technologies” (Lupton 2016: 9).[2] Gary Wolf, one popularizer of the term, describes his fine-grained self-tracking in a work context:

Taking advantage of the explosion of self-tracking services available on the Web, I started analyzing my workday at a finer level. Every time I moved to a new activity – picked up the phone, opened a Web browser, answered e-mail – I made a couple of clicks with my mouse, which recorded the change. After a few weeks I looked at the data and marveled.
(Wolf 2010: n.p.)
Similar tracking technology is also used in factories, warehouses, and other workplaces; a high-profile example is Amazon’s avant‑garde brutalizing of its workforce, “in the use of monitoring technologies to track the minute-by-minute movements and performance of employees” (Head 2014: n.p.):

With this twenty-first-century Taylorism, management experts, scientific managers, take the basic workplace tasks at Amazon, such as the movement, shelving, and packaging of goods, and break down these tasks into their subtasks, usually measured in seconds; then rely on time and motion studies to find the fastest way to perform each subtask; and then reassemble the subtasks and make this “one best way” the process that employees must follow.
(ibid. n.p.)
While such monitoring technologies come nowhere near to disentangling “real people” or “[o]ur own true selves” (M: yy) from the abstract figure of the worker, they do enrich that figure with fine‑grained data. They suggest how Myeong’s first bold vision of WorkCoin, as a marvellous money inscribed with all the heterogeneity of work, might yield to something more practicable. Instead of expressing “[o]ur true selves,” a WorkCoin analogue might simply express some salient data about the work which underlies it.[3]

Some time later, after attending a workshop involving time-based currencies, and speculatively exploring hybrid forms of monetary value  with price determined by interactions of supply, demand, and labor time  I did consider fleshing out WorkCoin further, perhaps in a later story. At the same time, I was wary that, merely seeking to estrange money, I might inadvertently glamorize, celebrate, normalize or naturalize the use of such intimately oppressive tracking technologies; or I might point to unlikely ways of appeasing, containing, or mitigating technologies that are hungrily bent on coercing workers to squeeze every last drop of labour-power from their bodies (Moore and Robinson 2015: 7). For the time being at least, I decided to let WorkCoin, like the incomes perceived by Li Shu (M: yy), and like Encarl’s Smartgularity (M: yy), remain a faintly implied shape, only partly jutting into story cycle’s representational field. 

The difficulty of theoretically demarcating work from non-work, and the brutal and exploitative history of such demarcation as it has practically occurred, could be no security against the possibility that technologically accomplished quantifications of work might in principle gain legal backing or widespread social acceptance. Stock prices already make a resounding claim to quantify the future flourishing of firms; the reputation metrics of digital matching platforms such as Uber and Airbnb make a fairly resounding claim to render precise and legible the trustworthiness of taxi drivers or holidaymakers. It seemed important to confront the possibility of some specific socio‑technological ecology of data collection, extraction, warehousing, analysis, and visualization and gamification, making a resounding claim to render ‘work’ – or perhaps ‘smart work,’ ‘hard work,’ or even ‘happy work’ – as precise and legible data.

The stories Moneykins, and perhaps especially ‘Alice,’ often feature imagery of bodies surfacing and stretching free from the media in which they have been obscured and imprisoned, and even in which they have been constituted. For instance, the Weaver breaks free from her cloud and its enigmatic Chesses, and the leprecoins from their magic metal (M: yy, yy). These images arrived in my writing of their own accord, but I started to think of them as small, scattered allegories about humans disentangling themselves from money, whether partly or fully, temporarily or for good.

At the same time, as explored in §2.1-§2.5, money can be tenacious, adaptable, and stealthy. It can linger in the places it has explicitly been banished from. Bewitchingly detailed representational regimes – such as Quantified Self technologies, the reputation metrics of the sharing economy, Doctorow’s Whuffie, or Myeong’s WorkCoin – may promise to extricate humans from money’s power, to create alternative ways of organizing collective action, and to in effect “render gold and silver of no esteem” (More 1997 [1516]: 44). Yet they may actually end up extending the power of money, in new forms, deeper into human lives. [...]

[1] See e.g. The Economy of Hours ( and TimeRepublik (; for historical background cf. Warren (1852).
[2] I prefer to say ‘Quantified Selves’ because I am a little reluctant to call Quantified Self a ‘movement’ with ‘members.’ There is an awkwardness around the term, perhaps because it tends to emphasize the agency and knowledge of the quantified individual, and downplays the way in which, even in the most sanguine circumstances, the Quantified Self is inevitably also a Quantified Other. But the term has widespread recognition, and I find even the awkwardness itself sometimes useful, a constant reminder of the unwieldiness and counterintuitivity of the subject matter.
[3] For instance, a few important dimensions of distinction might include tedium, discomfort, and other affective states; freedom and constraint; the ‘embedded labor’ of prior training and experience; the ‘quality’ of the work as measured by innumerable metrics; the danger and luck involved; and of course the work’s financial productivity. These evade tracking technologies to different degrees and in different ways. WSTT [Wearables and other Self-Tracking Technologies] measure only users, creating an illusion that the precarian worker – constructed by a particular affective and social field of which these technologies are a part – is identical with humanity,” and the illusion that this worker figure is also the defining point of human bodily capabilities and the point from which we should start – an outer limit of ‘human nature’ which restricts political and social possibility (Moore and Robinson 2015: 5; cf. also Maughan 2013).

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