Tag Archive for labor

The Visible College

After having spent the last five weeks blogging about about algorithmic culture, I figured both you and I deserved a change of pace.  I’d like to share some new research of mine that was just published in a free, Open Access periodical called The International Journal of Communicationberryjam.ru

My piece is called “The Visible College.”  It addresses the many ways in which the form of scholarly publications — especially that of journal articles — obscures the density of the collaboration typical of academic authorship in the humanities.  Here’s the first line: “Authorship may have died at the hands of a French philosopher drunk on Balzac, but it returned a few months later, by accident, when an American social psychologist turned people’s attention skyward.”  Intrigued?

My essay appears as part of a featured section on the politics of academic labor in the discipline of communication.  The forum is edited by my good friend and colleague, Jonathan Sterne.  His introductory essay is a must-read for anyone in the field — and, for that matter, anyone who receives a paycheck for performing academic labor.  (Well, maybe not my colleagues in the Business School….)  Indeed it’s a wonderful, programmatic piece outlining how people in universities can make substantive change there, both individually and collectively.  The section includes contributions from: Thomas A. Discenna; Toby Miller; Michael Griffin; Victor Pickard; Carol Stabile; Fernando P. Delgado; Amy Pason; Kathleen F. McConnell; Sarah Banet-Weiser and Alexandra Juhasz; Ira Wagman and Michael Z. Newman; Mark Hayward; Jayson Harsin; Kembrew McLeod; Joel Saxe; Michelle Rodino-Colocino; and two anonymous authors.  Most of the essays are on the short side, so you can enjoy the forum in tasty, snack-sized chunks.

My own piece presented me with a paradox.  Here I was, writing about how academic journal articles do a lousy job of representing all the labor that goes into them — in the form of an academic journal article!  (At least it’s a Creative Commons-licensed, Open Access one.)  Needless to say, I couldn’t leave it at that.  I decided to create a dossier of materials relating to the production of the essay, which I’ve archived on another of my websites, The Differences and Repetitions Wiki (D&RW).  The dossier includes all of my email exchanges with Jonathan Sterne, along with several early drafts of the piece.  It’s astonishing to see just how much “The Visible College” changed as a result of my dialogue with Jonathan.  It’s also astonishing to see, then, just how much of the story of academic production gets left out of that slim sliver of “thank-yous” we call the acknowledgments.

“The Visible College Dossier” is still a fairly crude instrument, admittedly.  It’s an experiment — one among several others hosted on D&RW in which I try to tinker with the form and content of scholarly writing.  I’d welcome your feedback on this or any other of my experiments, not to mention “The Visible College.”

Enjoy — and happy Halloween!  Speaking of which, if you’re looking for something book related and Halloween-y, check out my blog post from a few years ago on the topic of anthropodermic bibliopegy.


Library 2.0

Just a quick note to say how excited I am to be heading out today to the Library 2.0 Symposium, hosted by Yale Law School.  The organizers have graciously invited me to present a version of my work-in-progress on the Amazon Kindle e-reader, which is an outgrowth of The Late Age of Print. The piece is called “Kindle: The Labor of Reading in an Age of Ubiquitous Bookselling,” and the latest draft is hosted here on my wiki site: http://striphas.wikidot.com/kindle-the-labor-of-reading-worksite-v2-0.  Comments are of course welcome and encouraged.

I plan on posting some sort  of report about the Symposium early next week, so be sure to check back then.


Mr. Bezos Goes to Lexington

Amazon.com seems to be all over the news in 2009.

In January we learned that the company posted a profit in the final quarter of last year, despite the severe economic downturn.  Then in February, Amazon released the second-generation of its heralded e-reading device, Kindle, whose text-to-speech feature prompted a swift and bitter response from the Authors Guild.  March was a relatively quiet month for the retailer — that is, until CEO Jeff Bezos decided to shake things up again.  On Friday he reported for work not at Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle but rather on the line at the company’s Lexington, KY warehouse.  He plans to work there for a week.

One can only wonder what motivations underlie Bezos’ decision to go blue-collar, if only temporarily.  The company hasn’t said much about why he’s decided to do so.

A commentator on the New York Times “Bits” Blog sees Bezos’ week in the warehouse as a stand-up move, especially given the penchant of late among billionaire CEOs to deny they had any sense of their company’s day-to-day operations.  And according to the Lexington Herald-Leader: “Local Amazon employees say Bezos is working in the warehouse with the company’s hourly employees to see what they do and hear their comments about their work.”

I’m inclined to believe that Bezos’ reasons for getting his hands dirty are many.  No doubt he feels extraordinary pressure to show that he knows what’s going on in his firm, everywhere from the corporate boardroom on down to the warehouse break rooom.

The timing of his visit to Lexington, however, raises all sorts of other questions. It just happens to coincide with the quiet-ish shutdown of three of Amazon’s distribution facilities: in Munster, IN, Red Rock, NV, and Chambersburg, PA.  More than 200 employees will be affected, though at least some will see transfers to neighboring facilities.

In its rosier moods, the book industry likes to say that it favors culture over commerce.  Perhaps that’s true, but claims like this can only be sustained by ignoring what, in The Late Age of Print, I call the book industry’s “back office.”  This consists of places like Amazon.com’s colossal warehouses, which are nothing more and nothing less than labor intensive workplaces.  I detail how so in the book; for more, check out this fascinating article from the Guardian (UK).  Here’s an excerpt:

[T]he Sunday Times reported that staff at the . . . [Amazon warehouse at] Marston Gate near Milton Keynes . . . were required to work seven days a week and “punished” for being ill (where staff with a sick note received a “penalty” point; six points meant dismissal). The quotas for packing – 140 items an hour, which is only slightly below the 5 items per two minutes of 2001. Collecting items for packing can mean walking up to 14 miles during a shift.

Given these working conditions, one can only hope that the ultimate aim of Bezos’ week in the Lexington warehouse isn’t a speed-up of Amazon’s order fulfillment system.  But given the questionable timing, that doesn’t seem implausible, either.