Virtual Webs, Physical Technologies, and Hidden Workers: The Spaces of Labor in Information Internetworks
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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 209-235

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Virtual Webs, Physical Technologies, and Hidden Workers
The Spaces of Labor in Information Internetworks

Greg Downey


Barely ten years since its inception the World Wide Web has become all but impossible to ignore. 1 My undergraduate students at a large Midwestern university in the turn-of-the-millennium United States are quite comfortable with the hyperlinked front end to the Internet that they simply call "the Web." Logging in at all hours from wired dorm rooms and public computer labs, they rely on it (often to a fault) as their main resource for communication, research, and entertainment. But in my classes I confront them with a different kind of Web: the Web as a historical and geographical problem. [End Page 209]

My favorite trick is to juxtapose two striking images of cyberspace and ask them to consider which one better reflects the reality of the Web they know so well. 2 The first is a scene from the motion picture The Matrix (a favorite among my students): as the camera looks down a long, green-glowing, number-coated, virtual hallway, three villains chasing the hero are suddenly revealed to be nothing more than chaotic blobs of alphanumeric characters, computer-generated algorithms posing as humans. 3 The Web, this image seems to say, is nothing but pure data, and any illusion of humanity is merely an advertising gimmick. The second image is a similarly long-perspective photograph of a hallway stacked floor to ceiling on both sides with boxes of all shapes and sizes. In place of the computer-generated avatars of The Matrix, casually dressed workers walk to and fro holding small electronic devices aimed at the shelves. Another science fiction film? No: the interior of one of the eight U.S. distribution centers for electronic commerce giant The point of the exercise, of course, is to question what it means to call the Web a cyberspace at all. How was this space created? Where is it located? And, especially, who makes it work?

Such questions are not limited to the classroom, but appear in the daily news as well. At one end of the wage scale, the highly skilled programmers and designers of the once booming "e-commerce" sector are starting to question their stock-option-laden compensation packages in a market where the inevitable initial public offering is no longer an automatic road to riches. 4 At the other end, many of the lower-paid workers at "e-tailers" such as only stock checkers walking the halls of warehouses, but technicians monitoring back-office "server farms" and temporary workers staffing technical-support phone lines--are demanding the right to unionize in pursuit of better wages, better hours, and more secure jobs. 5 The new virtual economy cannot escape a very old physical fact: it takes human labor to make the Web work.

This insight is crucial not only for Internet entrepreneurs but also for those who would study the Internet itself. My own interest in this topic originated in a study not of twenty-something programmers in the digital economy but of messenger boys working in the telegraph, telephone, and [End Page 210] Post Office networks of the early twentieth century. 6 In this earlier internetwork, which I call an analog information internetwork, messengers, operators, lineworkers, and the like--each occupying a key position in the internetwork--were crucial to keeping information flowing. 7 Such categories of labor--boundary workers who knit disparate communications networks together on a daily basis--are fundamental to the success of today's internetwork as well. The Internet would quickly go silent without the constant monitoring of network system operators.

Paradoxically, the more the Internet grows in scale and scope, the more its virtual attractions obscure its physical foundation. Those crucial internetworkers become visible in the historical record only when three separate processes--technological innovation, the production of space, and the daily performance of labor--are considered simultaneously. Thus, revealing such work offers a...