What is Digital Labor? A framework for labor in the digital age

Authors: Dillon Mahmoudi, UMBC, Evan Thomas*, UMBC, Alicia Sabatino, UMBC
Topics: Economic Geography
Keywords: Digital labor, digital economy, surplus value
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/11/2021
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Virtual 34
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The concepts of “digital labor” and "digital economy” have entered the language with little critical
examination. Confusion over what constitutes digital labor thus precludes attempts to effectively
spatialize the digital. Building from historical debates on the service economy (Walker 1985) and
recent contributions on surveillance capitalism (Cinnamon 2017, Zuboff 2019) and platform
urbanism (Barns 2020), we attempt to understand what commodities are being produced,
alongside how and where surplus value is created. We then analyze existing forms of labor that
contribute to commodities—and their surplus value—to analyze their role as direct or indirect
production with particular attention to the differentiations between non-digital labor,
digitally-entangled labor, digital labor, and platform labor. We argue that the boundaries around
the digital, whether digital labor or the digital economy, may be less rigid than some scholars
claim. Instead, we argue that one of the main roles of digital labor is to facilitate and accelerate
the circulation of tactile, and often non-digital, goods. We conclude by rethinking the
spatialization of the digital and its implications for scholarship and activism.

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