Categorized | Health, Politics

Leftist Perspectives on Zoom: Socialist Struggle while Social Distancing

by JACK WAREHAM – DYLAN BURGOON

Photograph Source: Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Scalable Grid Engine – CC0

Social distancing regulations have made video-chatting a necessity for many students, office workers, and anyone interested in maintaining their relationships while quarantined. No one foresaw that video-chatting software would receive such a large boost in popularity in 2020—least of all Zoom Video Communications, a Silicon Valley-based tech corporation that, in the past few months, has seen a $1 billion valuation turn into a $40.3 billion market cap. Zoom’s stock market frenzy was so rapid that many investors didn’t take the time to check the tickers: a penny-stock company called ZOOM Technologies, completely unrelated to the popular teleconferencing software, surged 240% before it was halted by the SEC.

However, if one follows the principles of Marxist economics, Zoom’s spike in popularity should be no surprise. As we learn from Capital Volume I, overproduction inevitably causes a declining rate of profit, which is at the very center of capitalism’s tendency towards crisis. Capitalists routinely attempt to ward off this profit-decline by reinvesting capital into advances in the means of production—new machines and technology. Zoom’s rapid ascendance can be read, then, not only as a paradigm shift in Silicon Valley, but as a symptom of the scrambling response to salvage an economic system which cannot cope with the collapse in consumption produced by Covid-19. That this reinvestment occurs as a panic response rather than a deliberate, planned choice means it will not lead to stabilization, but rather to further chaos, as Marx reminds us is the perpetual cycle of industry—boom and bust.

But while the pandemic has been a boon for financializing technocapitalists, it simultaneously kneecapped a host of international progressive movements and uprisings in Chile, France, and Lebanon—both by shifting dialogues towards the immediacy of the crisis and preventing large social gatherings like protests. Suddenly, leftist activists are confronted with a new set of questions: Is teleconferencing software—whether it be Zoom, Skype, or Google Meet—secure and private? And, if social distancing becomes a regular feature of our lives for the foreseeable future, is it possible to use these softwares to advance class-based movements? Another question, which is more abstract, but no less pertinent: Even if the working class seized the means of production—would digital technology be emancipatory? Or is the legacy of profit-extraction and worker exploitation somehow embedded into the DNA of capitalist technology?

Only the ceaseless progression of class struggle will answer these questions definitively, but leftists have long argued about the relationship between technology and the prevailing mode of production. For Luddites and anarcho-primitivists alike, industrial technology is inevitably alienating and an obstacle to liberatory struggle. But what about those of us who like high-speed internet? Theoretically, at least, it has the potential to democratize international communication and provide avenues for workers of the world to unite.

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A popular internet dictum goes: “If you’re not paying, then you are the product.” Such is the case with Skype and Google Meet, two teleconferencing softwares that collect user data for advertising, product development, and sale to third parties. Zoom, on the other hand, supplements their free platform with a series of paid subscription upgrades, presumably constituting a large slice of their revenue. But don’t be fooled – they still collect reams of data on their users, including name, physical and email address, phone number, job title, employer, type of device, IP address, Facebook profile information, and much more. In fact, until a March update, their privacy policy responded to the question “Does Zoom sell personal data?” with the amusingly shady: “Depends what you mean by ‘sell.’”

However, after a flurry of criticism surrounding Zoom’s poor security and privacy practices, they updated their data collection policy with a firm, “We do not sell your personal data.” Of course, we have every reason to regard this claim as spurious given Silicon Valley’s poor reputation with providing honest privacy clauses. But taken at face value, it would appear that Zoom users actually aren’t products. The data Zoom collects gets used to refine their product, but isn’t actually sold to third parties.

This might lead to an even stranger conclusion: by using Zoom and providing them our data, in some sense, we become workers, generating value and performing labor for the corporation while receiving no wages in return. This is one conclusion advanced by the sociologist Christian Fuchs, who has pioneered work on what he calls a digital labor theory of value. (Cristian Fuchs, “The Digital Labour Theory of Value and Karl Marx in the Age of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Weibo,” 2015.)

According to Fuchs, digital software use is actually, in many cases, a kind of productive labor. Fuchs’s scholarship constantly references Dallas Smythe, a scholar of media communications who argued that the shortening of the work-day under capitalism has led to the commodification of leisure time. Writing in the 1970s, Smythe demonstrated that media consumers of film and television performed labor for the culture industry by spurring demand for various goods. In this sense, leisure time not only reproduces the social conditions of capital by giving workers space to rest and regenerate for another day of labor, but also becomes a literal site of commodity-production—an extension of the workplace. As Brian Dolber has put it, in late capitalism, “the distinction between production and consumption [has begun] to blur.” (Brian Dolber, “Blindspots and Blurred Lines: Dallas Smythe, the Audience Commodity, and the Transformation of Labor in the Digital Age,” 2016.)

Of course, the idea that digital software use is productive labor is far from uncontroversial; some orthodox Marxists argue that only wage-labor is productive. But Fuchs, building on the insights of Marxist feminism, has argued that those who perform unwaged labor—whether it be housework or data production—are still proletarians. Just like the regimented workplace, these forms of labor operate through threat: the houseworker is coerced by the patriarchal structure while the data-producer is coerced by the leveraging of social advantage. After all, within most Gen-Z milieus, eschewing social media can make forming affective bonds with others extremely difficult.

For Fuchs, social media platforms are of great concern for Marxists; those who produce data for corporations are part of a new form of class struggle, and just like other commodity-producers, belong in the conceptual space of the proletariat. Fuchs ends his 2015 essay, “The Digital Labour Theory of Value and Karl Marx in the Age of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Weibo,” with a striking call to action:

Politics for the digital age need to consider users as political subjects. Unions, organizations of the Left and struggles are nothing that should be left to wageworkers, but need to be extended to digital media users.

The conclusion of his argument, then, is that a large-scale boycott of a digital platform would be, in effect, a strike:

That Facebook users are productive workers means that they have the power to bring corporate social media to a standstill. If users go on strike, then Facebook immediately loses money.

It’s undoubtedly an eyebrow-raising claim, and one that has received criticism from some scholars. Nevertheless, Fuchs encourages us to think collectively about the way we engage with digital corporate entities. After all, a strike of Zoom employees would merely halt their ability to add new features and perform maintenance—a strike of Zoom users could potentially disrupt the flow of capital on a much grander scale.

If producing data by using digital software is a form of productive labor, leftists should consider forming digital unions—a kind of organization that will become increasingly useful as social distancing threatens to become a recurring feature of our lives.

***

But while Fuchs’s provocation is helpful, it also points us towards a philosophical dilemma: Can Zoom and teleconferencing softwares be truly freed from the logic of capital and made to serve the interests of the people?

There are no easy answers here. In a recent Zoom-facilitated lecture for the Red May anti-capitalist conference, James Steinhoff reminded us that the task of liberating technology from capitalism has become more complicated in the digital age. “With any cloud-based technology, seizing the means of production entails grappling with spatially distributed systems made up of local machines, servers somewhere else, networks that connect them and grids that undergird all of that.”

Even if workers were to seize ownership of digital technology, might the capitalist still remain buried in its code? Are the oppressive and alienating qualities of any given technology stripped out in the moment that the worker comes to own it, or are there essential characteristics of certain technologies which have inbuilt capitalist tendencies? In the vein of Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, however, it is not difficult to imagine the logic of capitalism, like a ghost, floating between the lines of code; impossible to pin down but always subtly exerting its absent presence.

This is the argument articulated by new media scholars such as Wendy Chun: Contemporary internet technology exerts power in different ways than we traditionally think of in the case of states and businesses (Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics, 2006.). Rather than disciplinary power as articulated by Michel Foucault, wherein rigorous structure conditions us into a state of subservience, power on the internet functions through control: undesired behaviors are disabled from the start, and favorable ones are incentivized. We are provided the feeling of freedom while never presenting any danger to the interests of the software creator. There is no surveilling moderator dictating which YouTube videos are available; the omnipresent and mysterious algorithm simply “recommends” relevant content (which, some journalists have noted, tends to be alt-right videos). Power lurks in the background, ethereal and indeterminate, but nevertheless efficacious.

Might Zoom never work for the people because, without us noticing, it only pulls us further apart? Might Zoom-coordinated struggles be naturally less effective, be it intentional by part of Zoom or not, as the software is created without struggle in mind, or even against struggle? It’s far too easy to imagine government backdoor surveillance access, activists experiencing perpetual “poor connection,” or leftist accounts randomly banned for terms of service violations.

Chun, however, also reminds us not to be paranoid. The state is likely not listening to your Zoom calls, and as much as carefully crafted code can restrict our activities, it cannot prevent intentional misuse or account for every contingency. In this sense, perhaps technologies such as Zoom possess genuine inbuilt barriers, but not ones that cannot be overcome with coordinated effort—“there are more of us than there are of them,” if you will.

***

Last year, Chilean protestors made headlines globally through their mass performance of the song and dance “Un Violador en tu Camino,” originally written by feminist art collective Las Tesis. Despite the Chilean uprising facing a media blackout (save for conservative critics referring to it diminutively as riots), the performances of this song decrying state and police participation in mass sexual violence went viral, spurring similar performances in many other countries. “Un Violador” employed the tactic of the choreographed large scale song and dance—a mainstay of trendy internet video content for the past decade—to circumvent neoliberal mass media and use distributed social media popularity as a way to cultivate international solidarity and support.

There are reasons to be concerned about Zoom, much as there has been countless criticism levied against social media as it pertains to censorship and fostering fascism, but it is not impossible to imagine it as a space for creative intervention and novel tactics, much like “Un Violador” subverted the trends of YouTube popularity towards a progressive end. Even if it is not for us, we might make it for us; reappropriation of the capitalist’s tools is a longstanding leftist tradition.

As “Un Violador” highlights, however, it is not necessarily for us to know right now whether or not Zoom will work for us in earnest; who would have predicted at its peak that the “Harlem Shake” would be an effective protest tactic? Some technologies do not belong in a just world, while others that simply require ownership and stewardship by the proletariat. Which category Zoom and other teleconferencing softwares will fall into can only be discovered through communal struggle and a will to ruthlessly critique.

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