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Cloud-sourcing and Cloud-working: Brave New World of Work

by Tomasz Konicz Thursday, Sep. 27, 2012 at 10:06 AM

"Nothing is more absurd than to try to enforce capitalist property relations within the expanse of the World Wide Web.. In the ideal case, the competing persons in the asocial networks should become part of a `cloud' of living workers.."


How the technologies of Web 2.0 completely change our working life

By Tomasz Konicz

[This article published in the German-English cyber journal Telepolis 8/13/2012 is translated abridged from the German on the Internet, http://www.heise.de/tp/artikel/37/37431/1.html.]

Humanity under capital is like the famous sorcerers apprentice who could not control the spirits that he conjured. If these spirits are first fully incorporated in the process of capital exploitation, humanitys greatest achievements and inventions may be turned against people and grow into a hostile and insurmountable power that makes life into hell for all wage-earners through market-mediated objective practical necessities.

This tendency of capitalist rule on whose foundation the middle class ideologies of culture pessimism and hostility to progress flourish also characterizes the contradictory Internet which on one hand promotes an enormous thrust of globalization and rationalization of capitalist goods production and on the other hand seems to already transcend the capital relation by its inherent structure. Nothing is more absurd and nonsensical than to try to enforce capitalist property relations within the expanse of the worldwide web. The windmill battle of politics and the culture industry over enforcement of copyright can only continue through mutilation of the free flow of information on the net. That battle was an important impulse in the formation of the European pirate parties.

Beyond the sphere of digital and immaterial goods, the interweaving of Internet 1.0 [1] (which facilitated the passive use of the new information- and communication channels) first made possible the tremendous dynamic of the globalization of capitalist goods production in which the global production chains could be built and successfully coordinated to an unparalleled extent. The rationalization-advances enable an intensified global predatory competition to spread in most industrial branches. In the scope of the neoliberal offensive of the past decades, an extensive transformation of working life and an intensification of performance pressure went along with that competition.

By comprehensive flexibility of the flow of work, a decentralization of production, the melting of core personnel and the corresponding development of a class of precarious day-laborers, many German corporations successfully reacted to the increasing predatory competition on the world market. Embedded in the whole society, the first phase of this web-based transformation of working life in the total neoliberal mobilization of society with the help of economic interests all resources and social areas of the nation ideologized as a performance community are forced into service of the increasing world market- and location-competition in the framework of this totalitarian economism.

However the basic structures of working life remain largely untouched. The large majority of wage-earners set out every morning on the way to their physical job in a plant, office complex or another institution beyond their dwelling. The separation between the private sphere of wage-earners and working life continues. Despite all waves of precariousness, dependent job conditions dominate the world of work in todays late capitalism.

The quickly growing temporary work branch in Germany involved forms of dependent paid labor codified with work contracts. In crisis-shaken capitalism, paid labor is still performed in jobs outside the private sphere as was the case since the acceptance of industrialization. But all this may be up for discussion because the coming upheavals could degrade the past rationalization- and globalization-advances to a mere prologue.


In a careless moment in April 2010, IBM-CEO Tim Ringo showed where the development was heading when he discussed a reduction of the personnel of the IT-giant from 400,000 worldwide to only 100,000 employees by 2017. This could be realized by applying the web-based rationalization-strategy of crowd-sourcing. He spoke [2] with the technical journal Personnel Today. There will be no building costs, no pensions and no costs for the public health system which means enormous savings, Ringo raved.

With this crowd-sourcing, an activity originally occurring within the firm is shifted to a group (crowd) of precarious wage-earners or small businesses that perform this activity in a project-referring way in competition with one another as soon as the firms leaders announce this (in capital-jargon as a call). In the interview, Ringo also made clear that the 300,000 IBM-employees earmarked for release will not be really fired since they could be re-hired as contractors. I think crowd-sourcing is very important. You have a core of stable employees while the large majority is outsourced. This very frank effort of the corporate personnel manager in April 2010 was immediately denied. IBM is now implementing this concept with the first flexibility offensives.

At the beginning of February, press reports [3] about massive planned job cuts for IBM-Germany transposed the personnel of the IT-firm into absolute nervousness. Up to 8,000 of the 20,000 IBM-employees in Germany will lose their jobs in the next years. This leaked out from top managers to the trade paper Handelsblatt.

The business leadership was silent about the queued-up deforestation for a whole month until IBM-Germany CEO Martina Koederitz issued a half-hearted denial on March 1. [4] The reports about personnel deforestation were speculative. At the moment the firm did not plan any mass terminations. On March 30, the denial of the denial followed when Koederitz addressing the job cuts in a conversation with VDI-news insisted [5] on testing new future technologies that could make the future work environment smarter, more intelligent and more flexible. IBM began developing home work in the 1980s, the IBM-CEO said.

The executive caste of the high tech corporation cultivates an elitist self-image in which IBM is stylized as a trendsetter of new business strategies and work structures that could then be adopted by the whole branch. This ideology of permanent innovation in which IBM must reinvent itself again and again is grounded in the successful transformation of the business from a hardware manufacturer to a very profitable software- and service-concern. In this regard, Big Blue is regarded as a model in the branch. The crisis-plagued hardware group HP is carrying out a transformation similar to IBM by means of a massive wave of dismissals. [6]

Thus the Damascenes sword of mass terminations is suspended over the German IBM personnel. Koederitz did not give the exact number of employees since this was allegedly hardly possible given the extreme global linkage of the corporation. The reference of the German IBM-CEO to home working in whose development IBM was responsible offers a view of the future of the present workforce if corporate leadership prevails. The latest web-techniques could produce a class of precarious day-laborers whose dwellings and jobs merge.


The organization model called Liquid [7] includes a massive flexibility of the flow of work and its more fluid organization [8] managed through shifting fields of activity to external service providers, especially free co-workers. The multitude of operationally exploited workers like the necessary workers should adjust to the demands of the corporation for liquidity or flow. Thus the liquid-concept represents the perfecting of the neoliberal dream of the breathing business that can hire and fire paid labor on whim.

What is new in this concept is that organization structures of the Internet should be massively transferred to the flow of work of the IT branch. The Internet seems to step out of the digital sphere and materialize in the reality of the working life in its structures. Internet 2.0 [9] is marked by the activity of net-actors. The swarm is its central actor. The social network forms its essential communication platform; the cloud (data cloud) is considered its central structural characteristic. These characteristics of Web 2.0 the swarm, the social network and the cloud should be transferred to the world of work.

The fundamental difference to the restructuring thrusts in the passive Internet 1.0 should be emphasized to fully grasp the extent of the threatening wave of precariousness. Internet 1.0 played a structurally passive role in the past globalization pushes because it only quantitatively modified and expanded the existing structures of company organizations. Internet 1.0 made possible a greater range of operational organization, acceleration of the exploitation process, greater efficiency gains and potential savings.

On the other hand, Web 2.0 actively contributes to the structural dissolution and defibration of the given company structures as foreseeable in IBMs liquid concept. In the future, Big Blue will write out many software projects on its own Internet portals (Liquid Portal) where certified free software developers can recruit for projects announced by IBM. IBM collaborators can offer new contracts on these project exchanges that will serve as a kind of eBay of paid labor.

This has already been practiced for some time by the so-called Liquid Community [10] on a small scale in businesses. IBM already made its first internal experiences with crowd-sourcing. 7,000 IBM co-workers had free time accounts that fit this new working method exactly, as IBM vice-president Patrick Howard raved in August 2011. [11] We make 30 percent faster deliveries with 20 percent higher quality and 33 percent lower costs in 30 months. If this massive flexibility and precariousness of the work organization should be successful, the liquid-concept already applied in beginnings will be carried out throughout the corporation.

With this external crowd-sourcing, the Internet portal Top-Coder [12], specializing in project-based job mediation with 400,000 free programmers as users will become more important. The programmer uploads a profile of his/her skills to join the general competition for contracts. IBM is described as a liquid resource in business jargon. The corresponding portal is like Facebook but the skills of employees certified by IBM and their past performance ratings can be seen there.

IBM will popularize this kind of web-based day-laborer center in the entire branch. Corresponding portals will be built and offered to other firms for a fee which will be another source of revenue. Future IBM project-leaders from the core personnel could simply click together their free co-workers from different portals for a project just as we compile a list of favorites or shopping lists on Internet portals.


The social network idealized by the media since the eruption of the Arab Spring as a means of human emancipation changed in its annexation in the exploitation process to an asocial network that puts competition and exploitation on a new level. In a terrible irony, the social network is misused to intensify the competition-mediated isolation of wage-dependent monads whose dwellings also become workplaces.

The keyword Cloud Working [13] makes the rounds in the branch to conceptualize the possibilities of Web 2.0 from an operational perspective. With the IT-term cloud, the data, programs and services are described that a user keeps on the Internet through web-based E-mail clients, social networks, video-portals, photo- and music-services and so forth. Each of us leaves behind a cloud of personal data on the Internet. In the ideal case, the competing persons in the asocial networks of paid labor should become part of a cloud of living workers who fluctuate around the core personnel of a concern dependent on the economy. This human cloud of free co-workers remains docked to the businesses by means of sub-firms, job portals and corresponding certifications.

A regular defibration of business structures that lose clarity and contours goes along with this process. In the future, many flows of work will be written out in the form of open calls on a project-basis to these day-laborers in the human cloud that wait on these calls like a swarm and offer their solutions to the corporation in competition with each other. A swarm of capital [14] could be created that makes possible enormous efficiency gains. The system is oriented to direct, global competition in which the location of individual could-members is irrelevant. Therefore the IBM leadership considers introducing global work contracts. IBM-Germany CEO Koederitz says the exact number of IBM workers in Germany cannot be known on account of the global linkage of her company.

These reflections are products of the neoliberal appeal to the personal responsibility of wage-earners. Wage-earners would actually become self-entrepreneurs who now have to pay for all the prerequisites of their paid labor: training, health care, pensions, jobs, work equipment etc while the competition intensifies and the form of homework could greatly hinder the organization of resistance.

In Germany, there are the first attempts at building Human Clouds. The portal Clickworker.com [15] already has 100,000 users including text providers and Internet researchers. No wonder IBM personnel director Ringo was so excited in 2010. The journal Personnel Today that interviewed Ringo told of a gigantic macro-economic potential for these new forms of precarious web-based work-mediation in the US: Out sourcing experts explained that employers in the private and public sectors are considering this model to cover personnel costs in the wake of the recession.

Nearly all forms of office work and many services could be moved into the cloud. The short film No Cloud Cuckoo Land [16] produced in the commission of the Verdi union describes what such a precarious brave new world of work would look like. The film develops a future scenario where wage-earners in most branches would be prepared to be cloud-workers.


This desired informality of the new Internet proletariat is a blessing and curse at once for businesses. Renunciation on a job together with stable employment, office space, social security contributions and work preparation means no obligation, loyalties or other feelings of connection on the part of the new digital precariat. Consequently an identification of the day-laborer with the concern that commonly creates a specific corporate identity is not possible any more. Even the core personnel have a very hard time ensuring the reliable cooperation of the day-laborers and quality controls of the consigned work.

Toward the end of the respective project, a cloud worker finds him/herself unemployed again in the clouds so the usual incentives for the continuous career course no longer take effect. The extensive group-conditioned control of employees on the job mirrored in the transparent architecture of many glassy postmodern office-towers obviously cannot be maintained any more with the isolated monads in the web-based swarm of capital and must be replaced by other web-supported forms of disciplining and performance rating


A pressure to transparency is the basis of web-based work control. The precarious Internet-proletariat must show their skills and certifications on public job portals like Top-Coder

Parallels could be drawn to the ratings of online mail-order businesses like eBay or on price comparison portals. This is consistent with the framework of late capitalist economism. The all-pervasive demand for transparency is also true for the precarious self-entrepreneur The employer becomes the customer of the self-entrepreneur. The neoliberal trans-valuation of all values in the world of work necessitates this.

Another means of control in the brave new world of work of Web 2.0 is the process of continuing education and gaining new skills that raise the price of the commodity labor power of the cloud-worker. The Internet proletariats offering their talents on web portals must prove that these skills can be actually applied. This happens through the process of certification in which workers take special courses or examinations


Finally the individual is another central battleground of the new control techniques. If the whole society was subordinated to economism in the course of the first phase of the neoliberal rollback, the imperative of capital exploitation should be anchored as deeply as possible in the consciousness of individual persons to mobilize their reserves in performance and creativity. The totalitarian internalization of the capital imperative should complete the web-supported monitoring and quality controls and open up new fields of exploitation for crisis-prone capitalism.

In a guest article [20] for Spiegel Online, Henrik Mueller, the editor of Manager Magazine, wrote: The really scarce factor is not capital but creativity human capital in its most beautiful form. The West will only overcome the present crisis when free societies learn to overcome this scarcity. Mueller urged a human capitalism that sets the person in the center.

In a conversation with Deutsche Welle [21], film director Carmen Losmann described how inhumanely the new human capitalism drills persons on the top floors of management pyramids today. A view of the person that imagines the person as a self-optimizing resource prevails in the milieu of human resource-management. In her documentary film Work Hard Play Hard [22], Losmann impressively dove into the world of transnational corporations and rating firms. Procedures reminiscent of brainwashing adjust the whole striving of wage-earners to the optimal exploitation of their performance resources.

This management training drives the estrangement characterizing the capitalist work process over the edge by seemingly abolishing it. The imperatives of the heteronomous capital exploitation forcing persons to their treadmills are stylized as the maxims of autonomous striving. A very subtle re-interpretation of personal development occurs. This process has partly Fascist tendencies, Losmann explains. [23]

By means of a pseudo-private work environment and corresponding techniques of human resource management, wage-earners should be completely wrapped up in striving to reach the business goals and interpret this as personal responsibility and self-control. Future generations of wage-earners should internalize this slogan We are capital. In the film, one of the capital robots entrusted with creating this capitalist new person describes this intended change of mentality as a long-term process: We want the right person. If we dont accomplish this rightly, there will be nothing in ten years. Processes and structures can change quickly. But attitudes and conduct last.

The film critic Jurgen Kiontke illustrated the result of this brainwashing [24] in a review of the Losmann-film on the union portal Gegenblende: The people in this film are dead but dont know it. Foreign control is not necessary any more. The people here work in a `task-oriented way and control themselves.

Concepts of self-optimization as already drummed into the heads of business administration students are obviously driven to the extreme. The techniques of self-denial, self-control and self-optimization hatched in the laboratory of human management should become prerequisites of paid labor in a modified form in all spheres of the work society.

The hosts of precarious workers and cloud workers reflect forms of self-optimization while the concentrated core personnel are subjected to a performance-optimizing brainwashing as shown in Work Hard Play Hard. With this pressure for internalizing its imperatives in individuals, capital carries out a fundamental reinterpretation of terms that reaches Orwellian dimensions: self-exploitation becomes self-realization and self-control becomes freedom.


How can the person including his private sphere move to the center of the concepts and strategies of accumulation optimizers in the rating firms? In his guest article for SPON, Henrik Mueller referred to this when he described human capital in its most beautiful form as the most important factor that could help master the present crisis.

Capitals access to the innermost part of the person is a crisis reflex like the orientation of the whole society in the guidelines of the increasingly stuttering capital exploitation in the past years. The capital relation reacts in an extremist way to its crisis by pushing it to the extreme. The degradation of the entire society to an economic location in the scope of economism gave corporations and states concrete advantages in the crisis-conditioned predatory competition of the past decades as the dominant position of Germany in Europe illustrates. After the totalitarian subjugation of all social areas, only the innermost part of the person is left as the last expansion field to escape the crisis dynamic. An extremist flight of the capital relation from the consequences of its exploitation movement occurs (Who is responsible for the eruption of the crisis? [25])

The person within the capital relation is in a permanent race with the machines [26] whose permanent evolution opens up ever greater potential rationalization. The more technological progress makes superfluous human labor in the production process, the more intensely regular working conditions and wages come under pressure. Precariousness and recall of the last performance reserves by means of self-optimization are the mechanisms with which an increasingly shriveling number of wage-earners are kept in work. Labor must become cheaper and more productive to temporarily survive in the race with the machines.

On the other hand, those activities in which genuine human skills and proficiencies are indispensable are excluded from the rationalization pressure. Therefore the interest of the personnel divisions in the private sphere or in the character of wage-earners increase especially with the core employees. With the core personnel, management wants access to the whole person because humanliness, the most important quality that cannot be produced technically, should be commodified. From the re-programming of the human striving for personal development in the sense of capital exploitation, creativity advances should result that open up new exploitation fields to crisis-plagued late capitalism. Under total mobilization of his/her innermost reserves, this new person who completely merges in his function as a little cog should point the way out of the crisis to capital suffocating in its own productivity.

This crisis of the capitalist work society triggered by productivity gains [27] will lead to the breaking apart of the labor market in a precarious mass of self-optimizers and a small elite of brainwashed core personnel. In this barbaric form, capitalism can only delay its collapse that is reminiscent of the dystopias of a George Orwell or Aldous Huxley.

In the end, the homework of late capitalism recalls the homework of early capitalism as practiced in the English textile industry in the 17th and 18th centuries in which home artisans produced textiles for overlords who then purchased and marketed them. By means of paid labor, early capitalism intrude3d in the houses of people before it drove them into the factories. Late capitalism will deliver the future Internet day-laborer to his/her own four walls.


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