Moderators/Facilitators: Jagdish Parikh, Roberto Verzola
Editing Assistance by: P.K. Murphy
Contributors: we would like to acknowledge all "Labour and the Internet" participants, and
Host: Solinet, who made this event possible.
During February 1997, Jagdish Parikh and Roberto Verzola moderated an online seminar to discuss issues concerning the Internet from workers' perspective. Originally entitled "Labour and the Internet in the Third World," the seminar brought together more than 100 participants from all around the world. Most are associated with the labour movement in various capacities.
The major themes the seminar explored are: the role of the Internet in facilitating corporate globalization; the Internet and the labor movement; global village and intellectual property rights; the Internet and people on the periphery.
Labour and the Internet: The Others/Periphery provides an overview of issues, related articles, and a discussion summary. Complete discussion material is available on Solinet. You will need to register and procure a password to access this material.
Global markets for telecommunications, computers and other information technology products are said to amount to $US 600 billion. What we're seeing is a kind of global gold rush to capture and hold new "borderless" markets.
Pundits argue that the re-allocation of economic resources in information technology is the way to "economic renewal," "job creation," "poverty reduction" and a better "quality of life." Those with scientific and technical know-how and control over its flow have a new competitive edge.
Instant global media - the telephone, TV, radio links - have been with us for decades. And banks, airlines, defense establishments and others have been using global telecommunication links for their data communications needs for years.
But the Internet makes it possible for a considerable portion (by industry standards) of consumers worldwide (some 50 million have access to the Internet) to use data communications at "affordable" prices.
Among other things, the Internet is interactive and global. It also provides the potential for the complete reorganization and tighter co-ordination of the global financial system. Many argue that its potential for global communication is unlimited. That's what makes the Internet key to the emerging information infrastructure for global trade and communications.
Some of us have travelled a long way on a new road - from wholesale opposition to computerisation to using the Internet in our day-to-day work. Even so, today's wide-spread job losses mean many unions will oppose the introduction of new technologies. What technologies are introduced and how they are introduced and to what end take on even more importance in economies with high unemployment rates.
Others, on the other hand, have turned from the wholesale advocacy of new technologies as strengtheners of democracy to a critical and pessimistic view of the emerging information infrastructure.
What isn't established is how Labour and it's allies can distinguish between their own use of new technologies and the potential impact of these technologies on their societies. We are not sure if this can be done without answering questions like "what does the Internet represent in today's economy"?
We realise that what we need to do is to link the day-to-day experiences of working people with some of the questions posed below. This is what we aim to cover during first week of this on-line dialogue:
I. Towards Unlimited Flexibility
Emerging information economies are changing how information goods (books, audio-video products, software, packaged and patented products about inventions, technical and scientific data, designs, genetic information, etc.) are produced, marketed and delivered. Global mechanisms and legal structures (like the World Trade Organization - a global legal infrastructure for managing world trade and the new emerging global economy) seek to meet the challenges of emerging information economies.
The flexibility afforded by this new infrastructure has given rise to "bodyshopping" - grabbing cheap labour - across the globe. It makes the instant flight of capital possible. This - coupled with the rapid increase of new technologies in production, marketing and distribution - is making it possible for employers to redefine the roles and rights of workers. The whole notion of jobs and workplaces is being redefined.
As Mir Ali and Maya Yajnik say in The Uneven Development of Places: From Bodyshopping to Global Assembly Lines,
The commodification of labour has been taken to such extremes that the worker is not much more than bits and bytes of information that form his output. A faceless, nameless, fragmented, unorganized and segregated labour force that is adequately skilled and relatively cheap and that operates under the aegis of a system which is willing to be cooperative while demanding little in terms of responsibility represents the apotheosis of modern capitalist achievement.
A question we would like to raise here is: how can Labour deal with the new "flexibility" in every aspect of production, distribution and employment, a flexibility that's greatly enhanced by these new technologies?
II. The Ideology of Information Technology
Communications technology, like all other technologies, is ideologically biased: it reflects the thinking and priorities of those who invented and perfected it.
The tools based on these technologies, however, may present possibilities unforeseen by the technologies' inventors.
Thus, we should not confuse how these tools can be used with what shapes the technologies that gave rise to them. (Those of you who know the history of the Internet know that it was developed for the US military to maintain command and control in the event of nuclear war.)
William F.Birdsall's The Internet and the Ideology of Information Technology argues that it is NOT the Internet that is transforming society and that fundamental changes in how information and knowledge get provided are NOT being driven by innovations in information technology. Instead, he says, they are shaped by economics.
According to Birdsall, the ideology of information technology is a set of values and propositions that strives to commodify all spheres of economic and cultural life. It is this ideology, not the technology itself, that links the adoption of information technology with free-market values and the commodification of information.
This raises the question: can the labour movement use these new technologies but develop its own analysis of the ideology sustaining them?
III. The Political Economy of Information
The rapid spread of the Internet is closely linked to the global trend towards the deregulation and liberalisation (the privatisation of the telecommunications infrastructure, tariff- free trade in information technology products, etc.) of local economies. The Internet provides the technological and commercial foundations of a "global information infrastructure."
It may be useful for us to analyse the spread and use of the Internet as a key means in marketing and delivering the information goods produced by emerging information economies.
With that in mind, I strongly recommend reading Towards A Political Economy of Information, by Roberto Verzola.
We would also like to hear your comments about the extent to which the labour movement thinks there needs to be a Labour analysis of these new technologies. And we'd like to hear about any developments in that analysis.
IV. Private Business Using Public Resources
We are likely to see a new round of foreign and developmental aid for countries and communities that are not on the "information superhighway".
Although the argument is that such aid would help their "economic growth" and permit them to share in the "benefits" of the "global information revolution," it's purpose has more do with opening new markets (information and entertainment goods to start with) around the world than in bettering everyday life in those places.
In some cases, it may mean forcing local economies to reallocate precious resources, from projects concerned with basic human needs to projects to bring them within the sphere of the Internet.
Once again, we are likely to see public resources being used to build a global infrastructure that will be eventually controlled by and primarily used for commercial purposes.
It would be interesting to know how Labour is dealing with that trend and whether Labour's current demands reflect the issues we've outlined.
V. The Commodification of Our Collective Heritage
Every day we are told that "knowledge" is the main source of wealth. But what is missing in this hype is that the ONLY knowledge that counts is either someone's "intellectual property" or is protected under patent. All other form of knowledge, all other information - that of indigenous peoples, all that's been learned from experience by people around the globe, in short, our collective heritage - gets deemed to be in the public domain and thus freely available for the corporate world to use as it will, without restriction.
What, then, is Labour's perspective on issues like intellectual property rights? How does Labour view the efforts to turn our collective heritage into private property?
Globalization | Greenwash | Headlines | Home | Hot Links | Image Gallery | Sweatshops
Research Corporations | Take Action! | Site Map