- Antisocial Media: Anxious Labor in the Digital Economy by Greg Goldberg
By Greg Goldberg
New York University Press. 2018, https://nyupress.org/books/9781479821907/, 224 pages
We are in an age of anxiety—although as Goldberg notes, this is hardly a new phenomenon. Numerous ages have been described as an age of anxiety over the last six decades, and the phrase itself was popularized in the title of a W.H. Auden poem from 1948. Especially since the Great Recession, a good deal of attention has been paid to the exploitation of leisure through so-called playbor, the fear of job loss through automation, and the degradation of the jobs that remain through the rise of the sharing economy.
Goldberg is quick to issue the disclaimer, in the introduction, that his book is not about these "imagined transformations" as much as it is about the "hand-wringing that both accompanies... and structures these imagined transformations" (1). Although the author does not support these changes, he also declines to offer an exhaustive collection of reasons for why such changes should be opposed. For Goldberg, the empirical texts that discuss these three transformations are not actually focused on the changes at hand, but "are more precisely concerned about the dissolution of social bonds" (13). As a result, Antisocial Media is not so much a critique of social changes, but a criticism of the arguments against such changes.
The book's three main chapters—Playing, Automating, and Sharing—are focused on each of these transformations. The chapter on playing examines Julian Kucklich's concept of "playbor," which can be described as both unpaid online activity that isn't typically viewed as labor, but has economic value (especially for the companies that monetize the work), such as posting on Facebook or Instagram. A second component of playbor includes the informal design and unusual workplace perks that are often associated with the tech industry such as in-office massages, haircuts, climbing walls, and never-ending free food. Goldberg believes that playbor troubles scholars because "exploitation is supposed to be immiserating, not fun" (51) and involves a comparison of unequal qualities: the pleasure experienced by YouTube viewers is not equal to the profit generated by YouTube. A similar argument is made about gamification techniques. Goldberg argues that this requires rejecting the idea that viewing or playing pleasure could ever be equal to profit, and yet, the videos on YouTube are also often created for free by individuals who hope to one day share in those profits but are unlikely to ever become influencers or YouTube stars. The exploitation of playbor is not simply limited to the pleasure-seeking viewers, but also includes the unpaid creators.
The chapter on automating, and the loss of jobs to robots, is about more than the loss of income to laborers, Goldberg argues, but is actually unsettling because it "threatens to undermine an institution through which responsible subjects are formed" (86). Work is not simply a source of income, but also social control and anxiety arises about what will happen to workers—and society in general—if such a mechanism ceases to exist.
As a critique, Antisocial Media raises some interesting questions and particular turns of phrases. One can imagine that a Kindle version would show a large number of popular highlights, sentences marked for their astuteness or unique phrasings.
At the same time, the focus on criticism, as opposed to empirical findings, can be frustrating, especially in the chapter on the so-called sharing economy. As Goldberg points out, the two primary objections to this technologically-enabled economic movement are that it represents a " regression from steady, full-time employment" and its respective benefits and promise of security, and that it is "structurally coercive" because workers are forced into such jobs as a result of unemployment and underemployment (p. 127). Yet, according to Goldberg, critics are motivated by concerns over the maintenance of "communal, collective relations established through particular forms of unwaged labor or... carefully articulated market practices coded as ethical" (129). To support this claim, Goldberg argues that critics focus on Uber and Airbnb as opposed...