(Invisible) Internet infrastructure labor

Megan Finn, Ashwin Mathew, ShinJoung Yeo, Lilly Irani, Sheeharsh Kelkar, Aleena Chia, Morgan Ames, Kate Crawford


This panel looks at information infrastructure labor in order to understand the work that is often invisible to many Internet users. Through this inquiry, we aim to open up the black box of the how the monolithic Internet works. We aim to show how the work of some becomes invisible to others and how these labor relations produce Internet infrastructure.

“Information labor” has historically been underexamined in studies of “information revolutions,” (Blok, 2003: 5). Downey has examined information labor in studies of “Telegraph Messenger Boys” and gives a helpful framework for thinking about labor “within their internetworked institutions” in relation to occupational identities, products, changing technical systems and production of technological spaces (Downey, 2002: 13). Downy revealed the dual roles of messenger boys as workers and commodities that were an integral part within changing business strategies of telegraphy and telecommunication industry. Information labor is not isolated in these internetworked institutions, it is involved in popular discourses about jobs and technical systems. Downey’s messenger boys are examples of how one person’s work can be invisible information infrastructure to others.

As Downy contextualized the invisible messenger workforces in the era of telegraph and telecom, researchers are looking at various forms of online activities from a labor perspective, considering value creation and opportunities for capital accumulation in activities such as: (a) participation in communities; (b) use of Google, YouTube, Facebook and other online social media platforms; and (c) creation of media/content (e.g. Sholtz, 2012). Some arguments about “digital labor” have endeavored to blur the line between production and consumption, complicating traditional labor frameworks. Other arguments have centered on how “value” is created online and whether this “work” is exploitative or agentic or whether it is even “labor” at all. In general, “digital labor” includes participation in communities, social media platforms, and internet culture production, but not to the work that is involved in maintaining the underlying Internet on which much of this activity happens.

In this panel we aim to extend analysis of “digital labor” and “information labor” to Internet infrastructure labor. Scholars who write about Internet infrastructure, those who Sandvig calls “relationists,” note that infrastructure is often invisible, but also importantly relational — one person’s infrastructure is another person’s daily work (Sandvig, 2013). While the relational framing of infrastructure can be problematically recursive, here we attempt to stabilize “infrastructure”: if we think of the Internet infrastructure relationally, the concern of this panel is invisible work in Internet infrastructure that facilitates the “digital labor.”

We take from scholars like Terranova and Downey a political economy framework, and from “infrastructure studies” the imperative to “get in the guts.” We focus on specific labor in order to “make comprehensible the invisible negotiations that are producing the infrastructure” (Sandvig, 2013).

Panelists present papers that address and are not limited to the following questions:
- How does Internet infrastructure work become invisible?
- How does labor shape how the Internet infrastructure works?
- What does a labor perspective bring to infrastructure studies?
- What are the social and technical divisions of labor?
- How are Internet infrastructure laborers bound to the understandings of the Internet itself?
- How is Internet infrastructure labor bound or in opposition to traditional ideas of “class”?


Aad Blok, “Introduction,” in Uncovoring Labour in Information Revolusions, 1750-2000 ed. Aad Blok and Greg Downey, (Cambridge University Press, 2003): 5

Greg Downey, Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Technology and Geography, 1850-1950 (London: Routledge, 2002): 13.

Trebor Sholtz, ed. Digital Labor: the Internet as Playground and Factory, (London: Routledge, 2012).

Tiziana Terranova, “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy,” Social Text 63, vol. 18, no. 2 (2000).

Christian Sandvig, “Internet as Infrastructure,” The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies ed. William Dutton (Oxford University Press, 2013).

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