Whose Labor Is Hidden In AI-Capitalism?

Under AI-driven capitalism, labor seems – across classes and contexts – to be gradually becoming extinct, although it is in fact undergoing deep transformations. Thus, at the end of the day the task is to debunk the extinction myth and to inquire how it conceals the far-reaching restructuring of work. In other words, rather than buying into the myth of labor as a fading reality, it is necessary to tackle labor as a buried reality that needs to be excavated from beneath dominant narratives and power structures. The SILENT WORKS project is launching its intervention at this critical juncture. Encompassing an exhibition, a conference, and texts, the 2020 project will be curated by journalists/researchers Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki and organized by Berliner Gazette in cooperation with Haus der Statistik – two Berlin-based initiatives working towards the commons by exploring the potential of hybrid forms of collective agency.

Curators’ Statement

COVID-19: A Crisis Of…

In the past 30 years, globalization has been underpinned by ideas and laws that have enabled governments to deprioritize the needs of their citizens. After the financial crisis of 2007-08, this tendency was driven by punishing austerity, including ever harsher cutbacks and accelerated privatization. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the devastating consequences of these tendencies. The neoliberal restructuring of health care – as one of the key frameworks for deprioritizing the needs of citizens – reveals itself as a (racialized) death machine that enables capital’s requirements to be prioritized. If this tendency reshuffles the dehumanizing of capitalism from previous historical episodes such as colonialism and industrialization, it also consolidates the idea that “capitalism is an intelligent computer”—a computer that turns qualities into quantities, enshrines calculating as the dominant form of labor, and promotes the idea of self-learning, quasi-autonomous machines running production and the economy at large.

The SILENT WORKS project explores this Western phantasm as AI-driven capitalism, thereby expanding on the already established notion of “computational capitalism” (Beller, 2017). Conceived thus, the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as a crisis of this very system, coming about as, all of a sudden, the ostensible frictionlessness of self-running machines has been interrupted and distorted by an unexpected disruptive factor: de-humanized humans, whose vulnerability (also read: contagiousness) necessitates the shutdown of the system and thus the suspension of capital’s supposedly seamless and incessant circulation.

Whose Invisible Hand?

The pandemic-related crisis as a crisis of AI-driven capitalism shows the limits of the tendency to dehumanization. Hence, we are at a crossroads. Will governments and corporations take the crisis as an opportunity to rethink and remake the “operating system” in accordance with human as well as environmental needs? Or will the shutdown be used for a radicalization of AI-driven capitalism? Meaning, will the shutdown be followed by upgraded AI fantasies and technologies as a way to diminish the risks that vulnerable humans (and environments) could pose to capitalism?

The latter would mean pushing “capitalism as a self-running machine” further towards independence from humans in general and human labor in particular. This is why it is high time to vigorously confront that this ostensible independence has – from the outset – been a myth. Meaning: “capitalism as a self-running machine” was never independent of human labor, but dependent on the devaluation, decomposition, and, ultimately, dehumanization of labor. Enforcing the belief in the high-tech version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” enabled the invisibilization of hands essential to upholding the system such as laborers in basic supply (people in logistics, delivery, and tech work) and social reproduction work (people in childcare, elder care, and healthcare on the one hand, and in cleaning, maintenance, and repair on the other). In other words, while AI is being promoted and mystified, old and new forms of what we call “hidden labor” are thriving. In fact, unrecognized, underacknowledged, undervalued, unwaged, illegalized, and, ultimately, unhumaned labor is increasing and diversifying. And the underlying structures of subjugation are becoming ever more elusive hybrids of old and new forms of power.

New Labor Struggles

In all probability, governments aligned with corporations will advance AI-driven capitalism in one way or another. The reasons for this are wide-ranging: from the fact that governments, despite ostensibly shifting their agenda during the COVID-19 pandemic to “saving humans,” remain committed to capitalist priorities, to the fact that tech industries are emerging during the pandemic as the major driving forces (be it cloud infrastructure, fintech, or platform-driven services as varied as online learning and food supply). This said, a radicalization of AI-driven capitalism would entail a stronger dehumanization and invisibilization of labor. This presupposes that we as laborers consent to being invisibilized and dehumanized. But what if we don’t? Could we then become capable of confounding, contesting and recoding the structures of power to emancipatory ends—and turning AI-driven capitalism against itself?

One thing seems certain: The more we become aware of how dehumanizing and invisibilizing labor consolidates structures of power that continuously aggravate inequality and injustice, the more we gain a perspective on how labor could be mobilized from within underacknowledged, unrecognized, undervalued, unwaged, or illegalized workplaces against the very structures of power that are circumscribing them. This could activate the potential of the growing “reserve army” of workers. After all, if our labor is indispensable – but presented as disposable and even nonexistent – then capitalism’s dependency on labor has reached a critical limit. At this limit, labor gains a unique political quality.

Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki, Berlin, June 2020

Exhibition

Welcome

The SILENT WORKS exhibition will take place at the Haus der Statistik on November 7-28, 2020. It will bring artistic approaches together that explore the imperceptibilization of labor processes as the basis for coding, controlling, and conditioning social reality. This inquiry into the politics of making labor im/perceptible will shed light on the ongoing restructuring of work and, last but not least, enable a recasting of what labor means in the context of art and media. Save the date of the exhibition opening: November 7, 2020 at 5 p.m.

Following COVID-19 guidelines, entry details and opening hours are to be announced soon.

Artists

The artists invited to contribute to the SILENT WORKS exhibition include Tekla Aslanishvili (Georgia), EEEFFF (Belarus/Russia), Giorgi Gago Gagoshidze (Georgia), Melanie Gilligan (US), Benjamin Heisenberg (Switzerland), Into the Black Box (Italy), Petero Kalulé (UK), Anja Kanngieser (Australia), metroZones (Germany), NoCyberValley (Germany), oddviz (Turkey), University of the Phoenix (Canada), Peng! (Germany), and Shinseungback Kimyonghun (South Korea), Diego de la Vega Coffee Co-op (Mexico/US).

Watch a video statement by Benjamin Heisenberg about his contribution to the exhibition.

Artist Talks

At the exhibition opening on November 7, 2020 at 5 p.m. Klaus Lederer, Senator for Culture and Europe of Berlin and Deputy Governing Mayor of Berlin, will give a talk and discuss with artists of the exhibition. Additional dates of the accompanying program with artist talks inlcude an artists talk with Giorgi Gago Gagoshidze and Mellanie Gilligan on November 20, 2020 at 7p.m. The dates of guided exhibition tours will be announced soon. A closing event is planned on November 28, 2020 at 7p.m., including a panel with scholar-activists Orit Halpern, Evelina Gambino, and artists of the exhibition.

Conference

Setting + Keynotes

The SILENT WORKS conference will take place at the Haus der Statistik on November 12-14, 2020. To investigate the issues of the project in the politico-discursive realm, the BG will create an agenda consisting of current initiatives and projects at the intersection of research and activism that are critically engaging with the restructuring of work in AI-driven capitalism. The BG will offer a three-day workshop program including performances, city tours, and talks. Invited keynote speakers include scholar-activists Abeba Birhane, Jenny Chan, Nelli Kambouri, Phoebe Moore, and Noopur Raval.

Details about access to the keynotes will be announced after COVID-19 guidelines have been clarified.

Tracks + Process

Arguably the heart of the conference, the workshops will bring together activists, researchers and cultural workers from more than 20 countries. To tackle the key issues of the SILENT WORKS conference, five parallel workshop tracks will take five different approaches to cooperative practices tackling the hidden human labor in AI-driven capitalism: AAI; CAPTCHA Factory; Dull, Dangerous + Dirty; Logistical Noir; and Invisible Organization (for descriptions, see below). The workshop tracks will be limited to groups of 15 people, which – in the process – will create smaller ‘breakout groups’ (approx. 3-5 people). Led by experienced group leaders, participants will be invited to come up with possible answers to the questions raised by the SILENT WORKS initiative. The results will be made available as online resources via berlinergazette.de: they may include position papers, multimedia storytelling projects and collections of ideas. Check the workshop results from the previous BG conference and find photos from the workshops here.

Registration + Schedule

Creating a unique space for cooperation, the BG will invite key actors to form the core of the workshops, and enable the general public to register via a call for registration. The call for registration targets (up-and-coming) hackers, journalists, activists and researchers. A limited number of participants will be able to register for one of the five workshops (AAI; CAPTCHA Factory; Dull, Dangerous + Dirty; Logistical Noir; and Invisible Organization) by contacting the following email: info(at)berlinergazette.de. The registration deadline is September 1. Registration fee: 50 Euro. Please note: As the five workshops will be running in parallel, each participant will be invited to commit to a single track. On November 12 and 13, the workshops will take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. On November 14, the workshop groups will present their results to the general public. The conference hosts will provide catering throughout the entire conference, including a warm lunch.

AAI

The term Artificial Artificial Intelligence (AAI) is intended to shed light on the fact that AI only appears to work autonomously. In reality human labor is required to create this magical appearance. For this purpose, millions of micro tasks are distributed to workers via platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk. Their flexible ‘daily work’ impels one to think about the future of labor as such. Is a liberation from rigid structures under way, or are new forms of exploitation emerging?

Moderation: Kunitake Saso + Cassie Thornton. Guests: Inte Gloerich, Dia Kayyali, Katrin Kämpf, Holger Kral, Shintaro Miyazaki, Andreas Schneider, Catherine Sotirakou, Mira Wallis.

CAPTCHA Factory

It has become a daily routine that users of ‘free web services’ have to identify themselves as human beings. While such a “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart” (CAPTCHA) is officially a ‘security measure,’ it silently enables recruitment of users to do jobs that intelligent machines cannot yet do (well enough). The hidden human labor of identifying hardly legible words, blurred pictures or faces is only the tip of the iceberg. Starting from such largely unquestioned and invisiblized work processes, the following question arises: How should humans and machines work together in the future?

Moderation: Claudia Núñez + Cristina Pombo. Guests: Jose Miguel Calatayud, Géraldine Delacroix, Inga Lindarenka, Victoria Martinez, Monisha Caroline Martins, Darija Medic, Julia Molin, Rebecca Puchta, Lira Ramadani, André Rebentisch.

Dull, Dangerous + Dirty

The origin of the term robot is the Czech word ‘robota,’ which can be translated as ‘compulsory labor.’ A hundred years ago, people imagined that this work was “dull, dangerous, dirty” – essentially, work that could not be performed by humans and had to be delegated to machines. Where are the boundaries between (invisibilized) ‘compulsory labor’ and freely chosen work today? What kind of work is considered dull, dangerous and dirty and will probably continue to be done by humans in the future?

Moderation: Sabrina Apitz + Masha Burina. Guests: Sana Ahmad, Desmond Alugnoa, Miriam Arentz, Mika Buljevic, Susanne Braun, Friederike Habermann, Gosia Jagiello, Clemens Melzer, Zoran Pantelic, Kevin Rittberger, Sotiris Sideris, Martina Staneva.

Logistical Noir

Silicon Valley companies are expanding their logistical networks into every corner of the world. Increasingly, they rely on their employees to become assistants of intelligent machines that keep immaterial and material products, goods, and resources moving – like workers at Amazon warehouses who are subjected to the instructions of self-learning algorithms. In this context, possible futures of work are negotiated through new forms of refusal to work (loosely based on the motto: I am not a robot!). Which forms of current labor protests can teach us something about the needs of workers and the adaptability of companies?

Moderation: Niccolò Cuppini + Nina Pohler. Guests: Moritz Altenried, Jochen Becker, Régine Debatty, Katharina Höne, Ela Kagel, Alexander Klose, Tanja Krone, Oliver Lerone Schultz, Jacopo Ottaviani, Juliane Rettschlag, Gabriele Schliwa.

Invisible Organization

With an algorithm as their boss, workers are prevented from meeting each other and organizing themselves. Nonetheless, they are rising up together: they abandon traditional representative structures – such as labor unions – and maintain local grassroots networks. This type of “invisible organization” was pioneered during the FIAT strikes in the 1960s and appropriated by Deliveroo riders in Great Britain (2017 et seq.). How can the invisible organization of today’s increasingly invisibilized workers be mobilized to actively shape the future of work?

Moderation: Max Haiven + Yonatan Miller. Guests: Manuela Bojadžijev, Daphne Büllesbach, Juan Caballero, Alina Floroi, Bronwin Frey, hvale, Marta Peirano, Laura Wadden.

Texts

Intro

In an introductory essay, Berliner Gazette founding editors Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki explore the hidden human labor in AI-driven capitalism, in the course of which they explain the Western phantasm of AI-driven capitalism, describe the ideas behind the SILENT WORKS project and present the questions the project intends to raise. This text is indebted to the collective findings from previous Berliner Gazette projects, including “Ambient Revolts” (2018) and “More World” (2019). On the right side we present the first two paragraphs. If you want to access the entire text in English, please visit Mediapart. The German version is available on Berliner Gazette.

Under the impression of the COVID-19 pandemic Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki wrote a postscript to the introductory essay inquiring what it means to be “Working, Working Together, and Networking During the Web-Hype of the Pandemic” and how – along the way – we can debunk AI-driven capitalism’s myths. In a separate postscript Krystian Woznicki explores health and care work “On the Edges of Democracy.”

Interviews

Documenting the explosion of new labor struggles as the invisibilized work of people who provide ‘basic services’ is becoming more visible in the COVID-19 pandemic, this series of interviews brings together our findings from within emergencies in Austria, India, Italy, US, Japan, and Venezuela among others. Please read the following interviews that have been published in our SILENT WORKS blog on Mediapart.fr.

Dario Azzellini about capitalism’s system error as “disaster” and opportunity for labor struggles; Christine Braunersreuther about why the “system relevance” of care workers can no longer be denied; Sujatha Byravan about what the “corona crisis” means for mobile laborers in India – and the world at large; Niccolò Cuppini about the explosion of authoritarianism and labor struggles in Italy’s “War on Corona;” Kerstin Guhlemann about health protection in Industry 4.0 and humans as a disruptive factor; Angela Mitropoulos about the labor of saving lives and saving capitalism; Tom Holert about learning as labor and re-inventing ‘the school’ along the lines of ‘the factory,’ Eiji Oguma about why the ‘robotization of care work in Japan’ is a misleading myth, and Katja Schwaller about how invisibilized work is made visible during the “corona crisis.”

Beiträge auf Deutsch

Magdalena Taube und Krystian Woznickis Einleitungsessays sowie die Interviews mit Dario Azzellini, Christine Braunersreuther, Sujatha Byravan, Niccolò Cuppini, Tom Holert und Katja Schwaller sind auch in deutscher Sprache in der Berliner Gazette erschienen. Eine Übersicht der Beiträge findet sich hier.

Darüber hinaus sind nur dort folgende Beiträge zu lesen: “An/Greifbar: Warum BerlinerInnen gegen die digitale Kolonialisierung ihrer Stadt aufbegehren” von Jochen Becker, “Wo beginnt der Krieg? Widerstände gegen militärisch-industrielle Forschungs-Black-Boxes” von Christian Heck, “Wer arbeitet im Maschinenpark? Logistik, Künstliche Intelligenz und die Infrastruktur des Alltags” von Alexander Klose, “Abschaffung der Arbeit? Künstliche Intelligenz, Kapitalismus und Transhumanismus” von Janina Loh und “Kybernetische Proletarisierung: Wie in der Pandemie existierende Konflikte verschärft werden” von Simon Schaupp.

Beiträge zu den SILENT WORKS-Fragestellungen können im Umfang von 10.000 Zeichen bis zum 30.9.2020 unter info(at)berlinergazette.de eingereicht werden.

Photos from the Kickoff







Various modes of hidden human labor in AI-driven capitalism were explored at the SILENT WORKS kickoff event at the transmediale on January 31. The photographer Andi Weiland captured some precious moments. All photos presented here were taken at the event. They can be shared under a Creative Commons license. Please look at more of Andi’s superb photos in this flickr album.

Video statements

Janina Loh (philosopher)

Benjamin Heisenberg (artist and film maker)

These videos were produced at the SILENT WORKS kickoff event at the transmediale on January 31. They are based on interviews conducted by the Berliner Gazette team: Magdalena Taube, Andi Weiland, and Krystian Woznicki. More videos from the SILENT WORKS project are to come.

About

The curators of the SILENT WORKS project are Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki. Magdalena is editor-in-chief of the internet newspaper Berliner Gazette and professor of Digital Media and Journalism at the Macromedia University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. She is the author of “Disruption des Journalismus” (2018) published by Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam and co-editor of numerous anthologies, including “A Field Guide to the Snowden Files” (2017). Her curatorial projects include “Signals. The Snowden Files in Media, Archives and Arts” (2017) and “BQV. Büro für Qualifikation und Vermögen” (2012). Krystian is a critic, photographer, and the co-founder of Berliner Gazette. Blending writing and photography, he has created books such as “After the Planes” (2017), co-authored with Brian Massumi, “Fugitive Belonging” (2018), and his most recent work “Undeclared Movements” – published by b_books in February 2020. His curatorial projects include “As Darkness Falls” (2014), “Temporary Embassies” (2008), and “Young Japanese Cinema” (1999).

Curators

The venue hosting SILENT WORKS was built in 1968-70 in the middle of Berlin – initially as the seat of the State Central Administration for Statistics (SZS) of the German Democratic Republic. With the reunification of Germany it then became federal property. Since 2008, the Haus der Statistik has been empty. 50,000 sqm vacancy right at Alexanderplatz, in the middle of Berlin, where most people are suffering from the consequences of real estate speculation and gentrification. An artistic protest campaign at the Haus der Statistik got things moving in 2015. Shortly thereafter, the Haus der Statistik initiative was founded, an alliance of various Berlin actors: social and cultural institutions, art collectives, architects, foundations and associations supporting the goal of creating affordable spaces for displaced user groups in the city center. By founding the Cooperative for Urban Development (“ZUsammenKUNFT Berlin eG”), in April 2016, the initiative became capable of action and legal capacity, subsequently forming an association between 5 partners (KOOP5) from civil society and administration. This association is oriented towards the common good and the diversity of uses – developing the Haus der Statistik as a space for cooperative living and working. A basis for this ambitious goal will be created by ‘pioneer uses’. During the current planning and construction phase, these pioneer uses – set on the ground floors – will contribute to shaping the future of the complex.

Venue

The organization behind the SILENT WORKS project is Berliner Gazette (BG) – a nonprofit and nonpartisan team of journalists, researchers, artists and coders. We experiment with and analyze emerging cultural as well as political practices. Since 1999 we have been publishing berlinergazette.de under a Creative Commons License – with more than 1,000 contributors from all over the world – as well as organizing conferences and editing books. Latest BG projects include 2019: More World – BG con | 2018: Ambient Revolts – BG con | 2017: Signals – Exhibition | A Field Guide to the Snowden Files – Book | Friendly Fire – BG con | 2016: Tacit Futures – BG con | 2015: UN|COMMONS – BG con | 2012: BQV. Büro für Qualifikation und Vermögen – Documentary | 2006: McDeutsch – Book.

Organizer

If you want to get updates on the SILENT WORKS project, please follow BG. For instance, you can keep in touch on twitter or on facebook. Please use the Hashtag #SilentWorks when posting messages on social networks. If you wish to be updated via email, you are very welcome to join our mailing lists. On our English language mailing list we share updates on BG projects as well as initiatives from our network associates and neighbors. You can subscribe here. On our German language mailing list we provide updates on what we publish in the online newspaper berlinergazette.de as well as selected info on events in Berlin. Please find more information and a subscription option here.

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