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: Reading Reflection: 1. Who is the author? What are their qualifications? Academic affiliations? Other work?

2. What is the research question that the author is trying to answer?

3. Restate the author’s argument concisely.

4. How is the author building their argument? What is the method of their research? For example, are they conducting interviews, analyzing films, etc.

5. What sources are cited? In other words, what is the author’s evidence? Or where are they getting their data from?

6. Who is the author in conversation with? Who is the audience?

7. When was the text written? How does this affect the argument?


Reading Annotation: What counts as meaningful engagement with the text?

Highlight the corresponding words in the text.Take a screenshot or copy the text and mark the page.

1.Identify passages that are confusing, ask/ answer clarifying questions

2.Try to reword difficult passages to make them more understandable

3. Reword or summarize key concepts or passages

4. Link key terms and ideas to outside materials or other course readings

5. Ask a discussion question (see below)

Elements of a thought-provoking question (this is different from a clarifying question):

It cannot be answered with a yes or no, or a quick Google search

It doesn’t ask for personal opinions, but prompts thoughtful analysis or reflection

Can refer to specific passages to preface the question and provide context

Precarity Lab
Copyright © 2020 Goldsmiths Press
First published in 2020 by Goldsmiths Press
Goldsmiths, University of London, New Cross
London SE14 6NW
Printed and bound by Versa Press
Distribution by the MIT Press
Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England
Copyright © 2020 Precarity Lab
The right of the individual contributors to be identified as the authors of this
work has been asserted by them in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their
permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologizes for any
errors or omissions and would be grateful if notified of any corrections that
should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means whatsoever without
prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations
in critical articles and review and certain non-commercial uses permitted
by copyright law.
A CIP record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 978-1-912685-98-1 (pbk)
ISBN 978-1-912685-70-7 (ebk)
List of Contributors
A Note on Precarity
The Precarity Effect
The Undergig
Techno Toxic
The Widening Gyre of Precarity
Automating Abandonment
Fantasies of Ability
Dispossession by Surveillance
The Affronted Class
Restoring the Depleted World
Covens of Care
We would like to thank all members, writers, and kindred spirits
of the Precarity Lab network, who have made the writing and
book-making possible under very unique creative circumstances.
We would like to thank our book sprint facilitator, Faith Bosworth
of BookSprints.net, for making sure that our group left our sprint
with a completed book draft. Faith, you were really the person we
needed when we needed it, and deserve much credit for everything good in here. We would also like to thank the University
of Michigan’s Humanities Collaboratory project, and especially
Peggy McCracken, Kristin Hass, and Sheri Sytsema-Geiger for
believing in this project and making sure that everyone was paid
and otherwise taken care of. Finally, we extend our sincere thanks
to Casidy Campbell and Sarah Snyder for all their support work,
and to Irina Aristarkhova and Tung Hui-Hu for their contributions
to our thinking and writing. We would also like to thank sister
projects with similar aims and ethos, including After Oil, Ecology
of Networks, Matsutake Worlds, and the Mukurtu archive.
Finally, thank you to our long-term research collaborators,
colleagues, and fellow workers across the globe, especially in the
Navajo Nation, Detroit, Palestine, China, Mexico, and Indonesia,
whose insights and friendship have shaped our thinking and
made this work possible.
Cassius Adair (he/him) is an independent scholar and radio producer from Virginia. He is writing a book about transgender people
and the internet and editing a book of speculative fiction about the
Iván Chaar López (he/him) is an Assistant Professor in American
Studies and the principal investigator of the Border Tech Lab at the
University of Texas, Austin. His work engages the fields of digital
media studies, Latina/o studies, and STS. He is currently writing
a book on the intersecting histories of unmanned aerial systems,
cybernetics, and boundary-making along the US–Mexico border.
Anna Watkins Fisher (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of
American Culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and
a founding member of the Precarity Lab collective. Her first book,
The Play in the System: The Art of Parasitical Resistance (2020),
theorizes parasitism as an ambivalent tactic of resistance in
twenty-first-century art and politics. She is also the co-editor, with
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, of New Media, Old Media: A History and
Theory Reader (2nd edn, Routledge, 2015).
Meryem Kamil (she/her) is Assistant Professor of Film and Media
Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Her work examines
new media as a tool for anti-colonial Palestinian organizing.
Cindy Lin (she/her) is a PhD candidate in the School of Information at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and a certificate
holder in the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) program.
Her research and writing draw on long-term fieldwork with state
science agencies and commercial services firms to examine the
politics of computational labor and data architectures for peatland fire control in Indonesia.
Silvia Lindtner (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of Information,
Digital Studies, and Science, Technology, and Society (STS) at the
University of Michigan. She is the Associate Director of the Center
for Ethics, Society, and Computing (ESC) and a founding member
of Precarity Lab. Her forthcoming book Prototype Nation: China
and the Contested Promise of Innovation (2020) unpacks in ethnographic and historical detail how a growing distrust in Western
models of progress and development, including Silicon Valley and
the tech industry after the financial crisis of 2007–2008, shaped the
rise of the global maker movement and the vision of China as a
“new frontier” of innovation.
Lisa Nakamura (she/her) is Gwendolyn Calvert Baker Collegiate
Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, Ann
Arbor. She is the inaugural Director of the new Digital Studies
Institute at the University of Michigan and a founding member of
the Precarity Lab collective (precaritylab.org). She is the author
of four books on race, gender, and digital media and gaming.
Cengiz Salman (he/him) is a PhD candidate in the Department of
American Culture (Digital Studies) at the University of Michigan,
Ann Arbor. His research broadly focuses on the relationship
between digital media, algorithms, unemployment, and racial
capitalism. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Social Science
from the University of Chicago (2013), and a Bachelor of Arts
degree in Anthropology with a specialization in Muslim Studies
from Michigan State University (2011). Salman is a recipient of
a Fulbright IIE Award, which he used to conduct research on
urban transformation projects in Turkey from 2011 to 2012.
Kalindi Vora (she/her) is Professor of Gender, Sexuality and
Women’s Studies at the University of California, Davis. She
is author of Life Support: Biocapital and the New History of
Outsourced Labor (2015), and, with Neda Atanasoski, Surrogate
Humanity: Race, Robots and the Politics of Technological
Futures (2019). She has edited anthologies and published articles in journals such as Radical Philosophy, Ethnos: Journal of
Anthropology, Current Anthropology, Social Identities, The South
Atlantic Quarterly, Postmodern Culture, and Catalyst: Feminism,
Theory, Technoscience.
Jackie Wang (she/her) is a black studies scholar, poet, multimedia
artist, and an Assistant Professor of Culture and Media at the New
School’s Eugene Lang College. She received her PhD in African
and African American Studies at Harvard University and was
recently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She
is the author of Carceral Capitalism (2018), a book on the racial,
economic, political, legal, and technological dimensions of the
US carceral state. She has also published a number of punk zines,
including On Being Hard Femme, and a collection of dream poems
titled Tiny Spelunker of the Oneiro-Womb.
McKenzie Wark (she/her) is the author of A Hacker Manifesto
(2004), The Beach Beneath the Street (2011), Capital is Dead (2018),
and Reverse Cowgirl (2020). She is Professor of Media and Culture
at Eugene Lang College and of Liberal Studies at the New School
for Social Research, New York City. Wark received the Thoma
Foundation 2019 Arts Writing Award in Digital Art.
A Note on Precarity
This book was written just before the onset of the COVID-19
pandemic. As it goes to publication, we are still in the midst of
reckoning with our changed and changing world. We mourn the
loss of life and we rage at how the trail of illness and death has had
disproportionate impact on communities of color. We see in this
crisis the entrenchment of an already broken system run on depletion: an intensification of environmental racism, necropolitics,
and surveillance. With this book, we hope to advance a conversation about how digital technologies amplify conditions of exploitation. We invite readers to become respondents, collaborators,
and comrades as new forms of technoprecarity emerge.
The Precarity Effect: On the
Digital Depletion Economy
Digital technologies consolidate wealth and influence. By creating and exploiting flexible labor and by shifting accountability
to users, digital technologies expand insecure conditions for
racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, women, indigenous people,
migrants, the poor, and peoples in the global south.
The digital is a medium of hyper-objectification.1 It is a fantasy
of hyper-efficient and fulfilling capitalism. The digital automates
and abstracts governance. It is also a commodity, a product of
both hyper-visiblized and invisibilized labor. The digital is a set of
technologies that mediates, intensifies, abstracts, reproduces, and
generalizes existing forms of domination. The digital is representation, automation, and modularity.2 The digital is a material
system of signification and meaning-making that grates against
minerals, skins, and soils.
Therefore, we formulate the titular term as a type of precarity
associated with digitality. Technoprecarity is the premature
exposure to death and debility that working with or being subjected
to digital technologies accelerates. It is the unevenly distributed
yet pervasive condition that the gig economy, toxic metals, denied
welfare, and biometric surveillance systems perpetuate. We use
the term technoprecarity to mark a contemporary expression of
long-extant forms of violence under racial capitalism; for instance,
our definition intentionally references Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s
influential formulation of racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or
extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”3 Clearly, racism predates the digital.
Yet we feel that it is crucial at this particular historical moment to
mark the particular ways that precarity operates now, and the differential ways the digital exports precarity to the vast majority of us.
The Precarity Effect
Precarious is a word with its own instabilities. To imprecate is
to beg, or to humbly request. To be precarious, in the etymological
sense of the word, is to have your ability to survive subject to the
whims of a sovereign figure. In modern usage, precarious means at
risk of physical danger or collapse; risky, perilous.
To be precarious has moved in sense from instability in
relation to a lord or master to instability in relation to material
conditions of existence. To be precarious is to be without a home,
a meal, a wage, or to be excluded from the formal economy, often
by a criminal conviction. To be precarious is to be without a safe
haven. It may even be to live without love, without care.
Precarity is not a metaphor. It is a real thing, felt by bodies
that can’t afford to be less than healthy but are sickened by toxic
materials, behaviors, economies, and environments. Precarity can
be a lack of work, of income, of security. Even those with work
can feel it – precarity can refer to a material and psychic condition experienced by workers whose jobs are broken up into “gigs.”
Surviving from gig to gig can divert you from the possibility of
living any other way.
The physical and emotional labor of women and people
of color has always been appropriated as a work of love, never
adequately compensated even as a “gig.” For us, digital networks
signal not novel dystopias but old paradigms of domination (the
plantation, the colony, the prison, the military–industrial complex, the laboratory, and the special economic zone).
Precarity is most intensely concentrated among bodies
relegated to zones of depletion. These are people whose zones of
habitation and existence racial capitalism has subjected to long
eras of resource extraction both human and natural, leaving
behind toxic and depleted environments. These environments, in
turn, cause harm to the bodies of those who have been subjected
to such violent rule, driving them deeper into the underground,
the undergig. As more move from gig to gig, others spiral further
down into depletion.
The Precarity Effect
And yet precarity is generalized, expanding to include even
the creative class of digital producers in the enrichment zones of the
world. Most people are living unsupported, in a deflated “cruelly
optimistic” way, replaced by machines or, worse, treated as disposable by the algorithms that increasingly condition life chances.4 In
enrichment zones, precarity is celebrated as self-empowerment,
creativity, lifelong learning, and self-determination – but it is also
the phenomenon of renting out your car, home, and labor without
any guarantee of economic stability.
We need new vocabularies for attending to the generalized
production of precarity under contemporary racial capitalism.
This is not the language in which the digital dream is advertised.
In the promotional brochure for digital interconnectedness, these
networked lives are pictured as always hyper-productive, virtuous,
connective, and efficient. But it is clear to us that both these dreams
and these networks themselves are broken.5 We won’t be recruited
into optimizing this network. We set ourselves a different task.
Our approach to researching questions related to digital culture emphasizes a need to critically examine the way information
and communication technologies can become instruments for
facilitating the exercise of power and domination, particularly
along axes of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality. We are
not luddites, nor are we cynical about technology. Instead, we
aim to extend the humanities’ concern with issues of power and
precarity to an inquiry into the way digital technologies mediate
social life and make certain possibilities and impossibilities available to us. Perhaps we are naively hopeful that critique can help
us build more productive and optimal technological systems for
enriching social life.
“Surveillance capitalism,”6 “platform capitalism,”7 and “control society”8 are terms that have been invoked to mark some of
these economic and social transformations. We search, instead,
for fresh language that allows us to describe our transnational perspective on digitality and precarity, a language that foregrounds
The Precarity Effect
race, gender, nation, and empire. What language, then, describes
something as seemingly ineffable as digital circulation, as vast as
global capital, as tangible as flesh?
Capitalism in this book can be understood in reference to
processes of wealth and value accumulation that depend on the
cyclical expansion and compression of labor relations.9 Under
capitalism, where formal waged work becomes the dominant
means through which people secure the commodities that they
need to survive, those who have never been privileged enough
to participate in waged work, who work in informal economies,
or who have been displaced from labor relations and forced to
try to live without a job more crucially experience economic
Our use of the term capitalism therefore recognizes how race,
gender, sexuality, citizenship, coloniality, and poverty differentially determine who is privileged enough to participate in formal
labor relations and who is predisposed to more intense modes of
appropriation, exploitation, and immiseration. Inspired by Cedric
Robinson’s notion of racial capitalism, we insist that identitybased forces of domination saturate and structure capitalist social
relations that are often assumed to be based entirely on the labor
relation.10 Precarity is always the effect of intersecting forces of
racist, sexist, colonial, capitalist, and homo- and heteronormative
domination and oppression.
We need to begin by describing this generalized condition
of precarity that differentiates across zones of depletion and
We are all born under surveillance, but not all of us are equally
scrutinized. The digital writes over but does not replace previous forms of producing precarity. Forms of digital surveillance,
measurement, and control are premised on ranked and graded
The Precarity Effect
precarity that previous forms of domination generated. But the
digital does not just reproduce previous forms of precarity – it
generalizes them.
Let’s pause this declamatory language for a second. Perhaps
you, dear reader, feel included in the category of the precariat,11
or maybe you want to resist that inclusion. The “we” is always a
problem, a floating assembly of imagining a common condition.
The “we” is best thought of as blurry at the edges and hollow
at the center, rather than as a stable identifier. “We” is a double
movement. It stretches outwards, away from itself and towards
others; it pulls inwards, chaining together elements external to it
and excluding others.
The world might be imagined as becoming newly precarious,
but it has long done so unevenly. The promise of the West was that
precarity could be abolished in its entirety by remaking the world
in the enriched image of those who claimed to have already been
modern. The fantasy of modernization, economic development,
and technological and scientific innovation as a virtue is haunting
its creators, for it has generated, over and over, zones of depletion. The climate itself has become volatile and toxic for all, but
poisoning some environments, bodies, lungs, and skins more than
We find evidence of so-called depletion in surprising places,
even within the borders of supposedly enriched zones, and the
sources of precarity are no longer easily locatable. So how do we
describe geographies and peoples that are more precarious than
others? And what of those that ensure their own security at the
expense of others, at the increased precaritization of others? Those
who used to imagine they were safe from precarity “over there” are
no longer free from vulnerability. And it is always others who will
imprecate to them for their daily bread: call them (us?) the West,
the global north, the first world, the developed world, the empires.
Those imagined to be the precarious ones: call them the south,
the global south, the third world, the “underdeveloped” world. As
The Precarity Effect
Ojibwe environmentalist Winona LaDuke declares, “There is no
such thing as the first, second, and third worlds; there is only an
exploiting world … whether its technological system is capitalist or
communist … and a host world. Native peoples, who occupy more
land, make up the host world.”12
What if we began from the impossibility of separating the
resource-enriched world from a resource-depleted world?
In this book we provide a more specific and historically
grounded sense of a subset of precarities that goes beyond the
“end of work” discourse that wants us to be afraid of robots. We
situate fears for automation and digital technology against acute
experiences, experimentations, and executions of labor displacement and devaluation, asking how and why we got here.
Who We Are
We came together as Precarity Lab in 2016 as part of a University
of Michigan Humanities Collaboratory-funded project to investigate the proliferation and contestation of technoprecarity. We
scrutinize who and what produces the digital, and at what cost.
We place race and gender, said to be obsolete in the post-human
fantasy of the digital, at the center of our work. These categories
of difference bear the weight of their genesis in empire and modernity. Difference is still the operating system of governance that
digitality has rendered increasingly automatic, compulsory, invisible, and surveillant. The black box of computation multiplies
precarity while claiming objectivity.
Precarity is not abjection. Women, trans people, people
of color, and migrants have always found dignity, meaning,
pleasure, and self-knowledge within precarious conditions. We
have so much to learn. We think with Anna Tsing’s notion of
precarity as a condition of life.13 We study the “undercommons”
theorized by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten as a way to
improvise on the idea of the precariat by including an affective
The Precarity Effect
dimension of solidarity within the cracks that harbor life and
keep us going despite it all.14
Our collective study of precarity emerges from unequal
individual relationships to it. As a baseline, we have at least the
security of employment as knowledge-workers, and no small
amount of economic and social power. We came together as a
group that has experienced living in different parts of the world,
in both the enriched and depletion zones. We are all people with
passports that allow us to cross borders, even if some of our racial
and gendered appearances mean that we’re scrutinized in the
process. Some of us work in Asia or Latin America, or in far-fromenriched parts of North America. More of us are women than are
not. Most of us are cisgender, but not all. And yet we all, in one way
or another, feel a need to write towards changing the world, to test
what is imaginable and achievable in a damaged, depleted planet.
We are a group of differently situated people in solidarity, but we
are not always in agreement about how best to address wealth and
resource extraction facilitated by digital technologies.
We are committed to doing this work. The university has its
own reasons for financing it – Precarity Lab was funded as part
of an experiment by the university to make humanities research
scientific, accelerated, and fundable. The university has steadily
been moving towards the lab model as a way to help solve the
crisis of legitimation in the humanities. It invests in a model of
collaborative problem-solving and research innovation seen in
the sciences. The university seeks to professionalize graduate student training and turn faculty research and mentorship into an
We feel more and more intensely the fragility and indescribability of our worlds. And yet we can (we must) attempt to
describe the conditions that make it appear as such. Our role as
knowledge workers has itself become precarious, and not just to
the extent that our labor becomes casualized. As forms of socialtechnical knowledge become more complex, more opaque, and
The Precarity Effect
more black-boxed, they are designed to evade understanding.
Knowledge work itself holds onto the world with an ever-more
tenuous grasp.
Digital technology builds on pre-existing forms of
sociotechnical domination. The myth of the digital is that it
embodied and generalized the free universal subject – rational,
creative, business-minded. But the digital also builds on,
reproduces, generalizes and makes abstract forms of precarity
inherited from the laboratories of the colony, the plantation, the factory, and the prison. We understand the lab as a
method, instrument, and site that can reproduce and legitimize
conditions of precarity. This entails submitting our writing and
collaborative process and the larger conditions that enable them
to your scrutiny.
Unpacking the Lab
We have adopted the “laboratory” (in our name and practice) to
account for our highly ambivalent yet deeply entangled position
in relation to ongoing attempts to upgrade and entrepreneurialize
the humanities and scholarship and higher education broadly. The
laboratory is a place of labor, but where labor is subordinated to
the task of elaboration. In the lab, there are consistent procedures,
forms of regularity that produce observable difference. The lab
experiments – experiments that can be tested, verified, stabilized,
and can become the prototypes for new forms of organization and
The scientific laboratory was born out of the Enlightenment,
the European project of modernization and colonization. The
invention of the scientific lab produced not only the belief in
facts, rationality, and truth, but it also produced the belief in the
moral figure of the scientist, the objective and detached observer
who stands above in the “god trick,” as Donna Haraway calls it.15
The lab served in the making of modern man and the taming of
The Precarity Effect
nature, land, and peoples. It legitimized the exploitation of those
rendered “other,” those less modern and represented as “in need”
of scientific intervention.
In Robert Boyle’s articulation of laboratory science in the
seventeenth century, the scientist’s prejudices were supposedly
excluded from the lab. By the mid-twentieth century, the lab
was envisioned as no longer constrained behind walls,16 and
experimenters’ immunity from prejudice supposedly followed
them back into the laboratory of the world. Recapturing the
modernist and imperial dimension of the lab as a method,
cyberneticians helped reinstate the lab’s governmental mode to
make sense of human and nonhuman entities together, to order
the domains of the sensible and the senseless, to latch onto the
promise of possibility. The lab is no longer only a space apart from
the world. It is the general condition for experimentation everywhere. It is a mode of governance.
In the classic analyses of Max Weber and Michel Foucault,
the emphasis is on the regularities of forms of modern organization or power.17 The early scientific laboratory was imagined as
a restricted space outside of the regularities of these other forms
of power, a space where experiments were conducted by special kinds of scientific subjects – modest witnesses recording and
interpreting their data. According to this partition of the social
world, the laboratory takes up problems generated outside its
walls and experiments with their conditions to make new regularities – instruments that may then be used somewhere else, by
someone else. But the muddied feet of actors could drag imperial
debris into what only appears to be the “objective” space of the
scientific laboratory.18
These forms of power and experimentation became an
increasingly generalized condition. Think about the city as
laboratory in sociology’s interest in black migration to the
industrialized urban centers of the northern US.19 This experimentation took place within the context of anti-black racism,
The Precarity Effect
of domination that rendered categories of being human as
precarious, as precariously human. The scientific lab, like the
city-lab, cannot extricate itself from social conditions in which
it is embedded. In its proliferation and intensification of bio/
necropolitical regularities, the lab has proven to be an engine
of precarity.
When we consider the colony, the plantation, the prison,
and the factory as different kinds of social-technical regularities,
but also as all being versions of the lab, what common dynamics
become visible? The lab has long been the site of continual
reinvestment in the project of modernization, the reproduction
of the belief in science and technology as “a moral force” that
operates by “creating an ethics of innovation, yield, and result”20
and by establishing dominance and control.21
Labs organize labor and people, produce and mobilize
knowledge, and test and develop subjects and objects in unfree
conditions. The colony was the West’s ideal laboratory, spinning
scientific procedures, technologies, and techniques into policy
and governmentality.22
The colony continues to be one of the most successful laboratories. Colonial rule uses techniques of governance that turn land
into “zones,” regional and seemingly bounded, bordered labs
that render certain terrains attractive for investment by demarcating space and the people in it as exceptions. The exceptional
zone manages risk for the “experimenter,” because the zone is
loosely regulated (lax environmental protection regulations, lack
of labor laws) and offers tax reductions as incentives to investors.
The lab operates on behalf of the empire-nation, or the empirecorporation, eager to compete in the global economy. People and
land are its materials for experimentation.
The plantation and the factory are linked – the plantation forms a supply chain connection with the factory. It not
only produces raw materials for the factory, but also acts as a
laboratory for modes of control. Slavery enabled capitalism.
The Precarity Effect
As Hortense Spillers notes in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,”
the commodification of the slave’s flesh involved not only the
bondage of Africans and people of African descent. It also
transformed the bodies of slaves who were no longer able to
work on the plantation due to injury or illness into a valuable
resource for medical research, a “living laboratory” from which
scientists could extract knowledge about human anatomy and
physiology from persons whose lives forced labor had already
The bodies of slaves themselves also importantly formed the
basis of experiments with financialization in the credit economy
of the Atlantic world.24 Their uncompensated lives and labor
formed the capital that early venture investors leveraged. In the
antebellum Mississippi, slaves represented “a congealed form
of the capital upon which the commercial development of the
Valley depended … The cords of credit and debt—of advance
and obligation—that cinched the Atlantic economy together
were anchored with the mutually defining values of land and
slaves: without land and slaves, there was no credit, and without
slaves, land itself was valueless.”25 And without the slave plantation, there was no factory full of workers.
Unlike sugar, indigo, and other commodities produced in
the tropical and semitropical colonies of European empires,
cotton re-ordered global production and trade networks and
gave birth to both the factory and the European proletariat.
With the explosion of the cotton industry, disparate regions of
the globe became linked in unprecedented ways because cotton
“has two labor-intensive stages – one in the fields, the other in
factories”;26 85–90 percent of the cotton produced in America
was sent to Liverpool for sale, and then processed into textiles in
British factories.
Undergirded by both the raw materials and by the techniques
of organizing production grown in the plantation lab, the factory
played a crucial role in creating the category of “free” labor through
The Precarity Effect
the concentration of workers. Carefully regulating workers’ efforts
and times while seeking to optimize their productivity, factories
disciplined workers’ bodies and senses. The factory was a lab for
studying the production process with the goal of generating efficiencies. Similar to the plantation, it also helped shape the soil
for the production of lifeworlds, from living quarters to sites of
entertainment and conviviality. These formations were simultaneously the products of the project of modernity yet they also set its
conditions of possibility.
Plantation and factory are two different modes of organizing
the extraction of labor and the production of standard commodities through repetition. They can also be thought of as zones
of experimentation that generate new regularities. The city is
another such zone. We might think of the city today as a laboratory for experiments in reproducing the legitimacy of information
technology. Also here, the experiment is conducted on the most
precarious bodies. Such experiments, when generalized, multiply
the precarity that was one of their conditions of possibility in the
first place.
The laboratory is not always about the production of knowledge, or the generation of new regularities that will be more efficient, more rational, more frictionless. Sometimes the lab seems
to exist for no other reason than the desire to experiment on
precarious bodies. The lab does not need to have any relation to
reason; it may enact power to experiment simply as power. Such
enactment is its reason.
Universities too have always been labs. The close linkage
between military science and university research is an open
secret. In the US context, university laboratories have been essential to advancing military technology since World War II, with large
numbers of research faculty funded by Department of Defense
The contemporary university – or as some of us call it, the
neoliberal university – has embraced a generalized laboratory
The Precarity Effect
practice in the name of efficiency, underfunding and dismantling programs that do not self-evidently bring investment into the
institution. Higher education has become a service provider for
affluent or debt-laden communities of students.
We aim to repurpose the lab model, working in and against it
as a cover for the kinds of antiracist, anticapitalist, queer and feminist work that is often devalued by the university.
We are not claiming any equivalence or universality of the
experience of precarity. But we are claiming that very different
institutional forms have always been experimental zones, that they
borrow techniques from each other, and that the digital generalizes
and accelerates this practice. For example, for-profit online universities, online high school courses, and charter schools all tend
to spring up in places that are already depleted of educational
infrastructures and the resources that they aim to bring.
We struggle with and work within contradictions and
ambivalences that are not easily resolved. Currently, we write
these words in the Banff Centre, a world-class conference center
for the arts in Banff, Canada, built on First Nations lands, and
underwritten by wealth gained from the natural resource extraction industry.27
We are generously funded by a project whose underlying
goal is to rebrand the humanities as relevant to the market
economy; even as we are critical of this economization of criticality, we too are complicit in the project of making the humanities anew, as marketable to donors, as a site for treating students
as human capital and cultivating faculty as entrepreneurial
agents and brands. We are, as the expression has it, living the
The Precarity Effect
Thinking With
We look to black and indigenous feminism for inspiration and
intervention, all the while knowing that we shouldn’t expect
women of color to bear the burden of solving these problems
along with their many other jobs. Indigenous feminist studies, for
example, thinks beyond the analysis of commodity relations and
capital accumulation, prioritizing instead relationality, space and
place-making. Given how many people no longer have access to
homes, jobs, or economic security, covens of care or relation may
be our best and most attainable bet.
Indigenous studies also focuses our understanding of
precarity in relation to the material world. The rootedness of the
digital in precious metals and minerals, server farms, data centers,
undersea cables, and stratospheric balloons shows the network
is not an abstract model of relationality that includes some and
excludes others, but a built spider’s web of metal, plastic, and
silicon with devastating effect on the environment.
We also look to our indigenous sisters to hold ourselves
accountable in our own imbrications with ongoing settlercolonialisms. Jodi Byrd’s reading of Choctaw novelist LeAnn
Howe’s “A Chaos of Angels” provides a guiding term, haksuba, in
reckoning with historic and ongoing injustice while also building
towards a just future; “Haksuba or chaos occurs when Indians and
non-Indians bang their heads together in search of cross-cultural
understanding,” Howe tells us.28 Byrd explains, haksuba “provides
a foundational ethos for indigenous critical theories that emphasize the interconnectedness and grievability embodied within and
among relational kinships created by histories of oppressions.”29
As Judith Butler explains that precarious life is that which is not
worthy of grief, haksuba provides us with a method for anticolonial
organizing: a chaotic, corrective, productive, and transformative
The Precarity Effect
Our grief, however, goes hand-in-hand with play. We are
influenced by women of color/black/indigenous feminisms in
our insistence on joy and play in the face of precarity. Saidiya
Hartman’s writing on “the anarchy of colored girls assembled in
a riotous manner” teaches us to pay attention to the social theory
produced by black girls who elaborated a theory of freedom
through the improvised practice of waywardness.30 We seek to
work within the spirit of waywardness in our orientation towards
the university and the laboratory, a waywardness in our orientation to our own experiences of precarity.
We agree that the commodification of black feminism – as
Catherine Knight Steele points out, Audre Lorde’s writing is a commodity that sells organic tote-bags on Instagram – extends our
over-reliance on their labor, especially their labor in creating digital
life.31 Black digital feminism warns us against simple evocations of
blackness as resistance. We use these theories instead to maintain
our focus on the material and lived experiences of racial and gendered expropriation, and to name them as such.
We hope that our tone translates the pleasure we took in writing
with each other, coming together, and loosening the strictures of
traditional academic writing. We know that we write about forces
that feel totalizing, weighty, frightening, or impossible to overcome.
We experience the depletion of emotional life that racial capitalism
imposes. In response, we offer what we can: a writing practice,
and a practice of living, that permits imperfection and pleasure.
Like the syncopated rhythms of the bomba drum, always in conversation with the improvised movements of the bomba dancer,
this manifesto can be read to the rhythm of your own body.32 This
manifesto need not be read in a linear fashion from front to back,
following the numbered sequence of the chapters. Let the sound
and cadence of the text respond to your own affective flows. We
invite you to think and feel and write and play and make your own,
wherever you are in the network of precarity.
The Undergig
Digital technologies enable and entrench various forms of labor
exploitation. Digitality multiplies, metastasizes, and mutates
exploitation, allowing for a more rapid extension of capital’s ratio
beyond circuits of production and circulation. Capitalism in the
age of digital technologies forces itself into relation with spheres
of life previously outside its locus of operations. But, as scholars
working within the field of post-colonial studies have suggested,1
capitalism’s expansion to new territories occurs without entirely
subsuming or encapsulating these frontiers within the logic peculiar to the points of origin of its operations. This is capitalism’s weak
force: its under-determining flexibility allows for the extension
and entrenchment of its more abstract forces into new contexts.
Further accumulation of social wealth depends on labor, exploitation, inequality, poverty, immiseration, debt.
Following the Global Financial Crisis of 2007–2008, there is
a heightened sense of urgency in Western-centric scholarly and
public media debates to make visible and intervene in the harmful
consequences of the tech industry’s naïve techno-utopianism
and techno-solutionism. The promise of technologies to solve
complex societal, economic, and political “problems” has long
masked the proliferation of exploitation and inequality behind
a rhetoric of “do good,” progress, individual empowerment, and
Important as this rising awareness of labor exploitation is, it
retains a troubling and all-too-simplistic binary view. It often goes
as follows (framed in a somewhat caricatured way): “all of us” are
“free laborers” in our day-to-day use of social media platforms –
Facebook is the ultimate “social factory”;2 “platform capitalism”
feeds off the making of intimate and personal connection; “some
The Undergig
of us” are Uber drivers, who labor in a highly fragmented work
arrangement aimed at preventing unionization and solidarity
among workers; “others” might have it even worse, coerced
to work in the physically strenuous and harmful conditions of
Amazon warehouses or the flexibilized services of postal delivery.
But all of this labor exploitation in the “gig economy” depends
on another form of exploitation, one often rendered as somehow
“deeper” down, closer to the raw material or to the machine.
Cheap labor is a precondition of the gig economy, which is
why we identify these workers as part of the undergig. Undergig
workers perform the often invisible labor needed to create the
conditions of digital life for everyone else. Electronics production extracts value from depleted zones and from factory workers,
and it produces toxicity. The undergig also often overlaps with the
“global south” category yet also exceeds such categorization.
The undergig is under-protected and underpaid. Its haunting
invisibility is a necessary precondition for the fantasy of a smoothfunctioning and fully automated digital world to come.
Operations of Capital and Experimentation
The undergig is sometimes patterned on colonial practices of
experimentation and control, and is partly the result of agents
creating new practices. The undergig depends on states to maintain differential conditions of operation and to police the borders
between the enriched and depleted worlds, as their value chains
in part depend on maintaining the differential between them.
As Sylvia Wynter has argued, colonization was crucial for
experiments with over-representing or making dominant a
particular Euro-American cishet male identity within the category
of the human. For Wynter, colonialism allowed for an extension of
this over-representation across the globe and the identification of
this image of humanity with its truth, a “truth” that continues to
act as a fulcrum upon which “all our present struggles with respect
The Undergig
to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, struggles over
the environment, global warming, severe climate change, [and]
the sharply unequal distribution of the earth resources” continues
to rest.3
The colonial practices of the old empires tended to focus on
resource extraction. The colony was a zone from which to extract
cheap nature, in the form of cheap energy, cheap food, cheap labor,
cheap land.4 The colony was a site of cheap resources, in the sense
that they would all be extracted faster than they could regenerate,
borrowing “on credit” as it were, from both the land and also from
the social organization of the colonized peoples. Operations of
extraction helped transform black slaves into living minerals, into
commodity-producing commodities.5 Resource extraction by the
old empires, then, was fundamentally an operation through which
bodies were disciplined, exploited, and dispossessed in the production of value and goods. Extraction on the cheap continues the
depletion of the colony, leaving vast horizons of sweat and blood,
toxic landscapes of deforestation, abandoned open-cut mines and
their mountainous tailings, soils exhausted by plantation methods
of cultivation.
Consider how operations of capital are integral to the production of outsides – those landscapes that beckon further expansion
and that nourish the engines of capital itself. Without outsides,
capital can’t sustain itself, has nowhere to go, and no further
bodies to push into its chains of production.6 Regularities are
achieved when the boundaries of capital are constantly undone
by the expansion of frontiers, through which cheap nature – in
all its encompassing meanings – can be brought into the fold.
Operations of capital are thus attuned to experimentation for the
ways they rehearse the borders of what can be included within the
reach of capital’s governmental power, especially for empire.
Yet empire is not a static entity or organizing principle. It is
an assemblage of dynamics through which territorial ambiguity is
produced in conjunction with legal categories of belonging and
The Undergig
exclusion.7 Its distribution of power, priorities, demands, and violence are embedded in the debris and remains of the post-colony,
and its durability stays with the most precarious. Or, to quote Ann
Stoler’s reading of Frantz Fanon, the depletion economy is a form
of power that “slashes a scar across a social fabric that differentially affects us all.”8
The Entangling Undergig
When we talk about the undergig it is seldom a “we,” though it is
poverty on all sides. It is those who are affected by the spiralling of
poverty in a seemingly circular way – it isn’t a clear-cut, linear flow
of capital, or dominated versus non-dominated. People rendered
“down there,” “below” are poor and offshored, and the people in
the gig economy are also poor – not necessarily poor in the same
way, but caught up in the same spiral of poverty proliferation.
Being female, poor, and non-white greatly increases your chances
of being employed in undergig work, perhaps earlier than others,
but this “sunken place” of digital labor is capacious; white men
can find themselves there too. Poverty spirals and tightens the
screws around those pushed to the limits of life. Poverty is a condition that legitimizes across class and rotates and feeds back into
privilege. The promise of the gig economy is that you can find a
“real job,” that you can pull yourself up without being entrenched
and stuck, while being ever more “screwed.”
The undergigged may be continuously employed, but are
often in untenable, sometimes invisible, exploitative conditions
that underwrite and enable the precarity of gig workers. And
because they fall outside the Marxist critique of gig economies,
they are harder to imagine as an organized body. Gig workers,
on the other hand, can participate in freelancers’ unions such as
new platform collectives. This does not mean that gig work is not
exploitative. Rather, very exploited non-gig workers play a vital
role in creating the technologies for gig work to exist.
The Undergig
The undergigged are also the unwilling or uncompensated
participants of operations of capital. The ones that make myriad
artifacts and infrastructures possible yet derive no benefits but
maximum hardships for their precarious labor. They are the
migrants, abused children, and the criminalized dead whose
images are used to train facial recognition technology so that
you can unlock your smartphone with a furtive glance.9 They are
the black San Francisco homeless whose bodies are mined and
appropriated to make facial recognition software more inclusive
(and surveillance more accurate).10 The monetization and dispossession of already precarious lives are foundational for the security
state. Facial recognition, after all, is a technology designed to know
again, to recall to mind and identify the countenance of the Other.
And this process makes the Other visible, exposed to practices of
control and operations of extraction. The undergigged are a seemingly vast mine in the reproduction of capital and the state, and
their management of populations.
The undergig is reproduced through shifts in geopolitical
relations, mutations of oppression and within regional national
borders. Digital economies preserve this dislocation, but in industries such as call center work, content moderation, and other
digital outsourcing. Digital objects travel while leaving the lives of
the workers behind,11 and the undergig workers entailed in producing these new commodities, the commodities that enable gig
work, may themselves be rendered invisible in critical explorations
of the novelty of the gig economy precisely because their labor
appears anachronistic.
The depletion economy works through the production
and reproduction of the undergig. Take, for instance, Walmart,
often thought of as the “world’s biggest firm.” We might think
of Walmart as producing one particular “underclass,” the flex
workers employed in its warehouses, in its delivery services, in
its supply chains. Beneath this work we might also think of the
workers employed in the factories that produce the end-consumer
The Undergig
products sold on Walmart’s platform, the engineers and designers
in Asia employed through flex jobs without health insurance, or
of the workers at the palm oil plantations of Indonesia, with labor
and land both harvested for the production of cheap goods that
in turn “feed” those Walmart employees. All these employees
represent participants in the undergig, and as Lily Irani has
suggested, rendering this labor invisible itself does a lot of cultural
work for platforms that are not simply coterminous with the tech
corporations of Silicon Valley.12
The undergig is created through the exploitation of asymmetries in power traditionally described using problematic sets of categories consisting of two to three interrelated terms: within the
border and outside, the global north and global south; first, second,
and third worlds; developed and developing nation-states; formal
and informal economies; capitalist and non-capitalist modes of
In other words, capital integrates and re-integrates workers
into the labor arrangements that reproduce social life as
well as produce and facilitate the accumulation of social
wealth. But, the labor of the undergig is labor that is undervalued, underappreciated, and most often unseen; it ensures
enough to sustain the lives of those it employs in conditions of
It is critical that we move beyond the perspective of nationstates and nationally denominated capitals as basic units of
imperial world order.13 The undergig pushes us to think about
processes of differential inclusion across sites, contexts, and
actors. It ties in together an assemblage of entities and modes of
acting that are not territorially confined by the already porous
borders of the nation-state, nor are they neatly separated capitals.
We complicate the view that there is such a thing as inequality and
exploitation along clear class, gender, and racial lines or along geographical divides, say north or south, or West and non-West, but
without sacrificing a critique of the ways in which inequality and
The Undergig
exploitation are rendered more intense for bodies that are forced
to inhabit the precarious sides of these axes. The undergig is the
unbearable weight of contemporary life, a spiral that stretches
ever outward in the consumption of lifeworlds ripe for the taking
but stubborn enough to threaten its perpetuation.
The undergig contains within it an older, pre-gigification, preplatformification type of labor: resource extraction, factory work,
electronics production in Asia (in turn often reduced to China,
which in turn is understood through the trope of Foxconn). There
is an inherent assumption in this logic that there are geographical and temporal differences that keep these forms of exploitation
separate, while interdependent; Asia (or the global south) has
“old,” backward forms of labor exploitation, from a previous era of
industrialization, which “newer” forms of labor exploitation that
occur in the West, the “global north,” rely on – an echo of critiques
that subaltern studies scholars have made with respect to political
and capitalist development in the third world.14
While the asymmetrical distribution of these forms of
exploitation is undoubtedly true, like our post-colonial studies
forebearers claim, our aim here is to “step sideways” and out of
tropes of “linear progress” of labor exploitation. Specifically,
we are interrogating how the (albeit tainted) endurance of the
promise of the “good life”15 legitimizes the proliferation of exploitation and poverty in a spiralling fashion, back and forth, in and
out, abusing (rather than flattening) temporal or spatial claims of
Companies making up the gig and platform economies of
digital capitalism distribute depletion and enrichment, sometimes in ways that follow older patterns of empire and sometimes
not. They extract surplus from undervalued labor in depleted rural
America, or in prisons, or in India, to tag and sift through images
for machine learning. Or perhaps they use artificial intelligence,
running on server farms close to power and water in cooler zones
close to the Arctic Circle in order to figure out an optimal way to
The Undergig
design “sustainable” palm oil production in Indonesia. This is
the proliferation of the fragmented undergig. The gig hidden by
distance, disproportionately performed by precarious women,
people of color, far-away farmlands and forests, and animals
whose lives are made even more miserable by precarious workers’
need for cheap meat, cheap food, cheap sustenance.
Big Tech outsources on-demand code work in India and rolls
out facial recognition technologies in Singapore’s prisons because
these places are already very precarious for coders and inmates.
Algorithms don’t do work by themselves; they depend on the
bodies and expertise of precarious people. Your computer software can schedule a ride, but a human must build the car in Flint.
You can click “purchase” for new shoes, but somebody has to dig
that coal for free shipping (Amazon ships 1 million items a day).
Algorithms can detect child pornography in a Facebook photo, but
a human worker in Delhi must witness child abuse in order to tag
this content as too traumatic for viewers. The growing undergig
endures pain for the ever smaller percentage of overcommons to
feel pleasure.16
And it’s not as if the old shit-jobs disappeared. Rather, they
are being supplemented by new shit-jobs that are also unreliable. That is why they call data taggers and image classifiers “data
janitors” – they clean the shit out of your digital life. If the export
is fewer disturbing images on Facebook or cheaper coal, what’s
being imported is dependent on an undependable kind of work –
digital precarity and the undergig.
Techno Toxic
Electronics manufacturing is toxic and disabling. Some of its most
crucial tech manufacturing tasks are still done by hand. Undergig
labor in electronics production is intimate, often metal to skin.
(And yet, paradoxically, it is the human that is rendered toxic to
the tech: key manufacturing steps for electronic devices have to
be executed in clean rooms, with workers shrouded in protective
garb.) Though automation has taken over some of this work, it has
not taken over all of it; the scale of demand for circuits and the
devices that use them keeps pace with the need for human bodies
and human capital to fuel the economy of anticipation, growth,
and expansion.
Even the “good” digital jobs (those in the tech industry that are
non-toxic, well-paid, with the possibility of advancement) are still
precarious; like the good life, good jobs now have a phantasmatic
quality defined by frequent shuffling and layoffs. And these are
the jobs that people struggle to get and keep. The worker’s body
pays the price; stress, disease, mental health all take their toll. The
depletion economy produces massive amounts of disability all
along its circuits. It also produces vast amounts of toxic detritus.
More than the electronics themselves, toxicity is the tech
economy’s biggest export. This is why we turn to how toxicity – the
spread of environmental harm and vulnerability in the depletion
economy – is the condition for digital production today.
Toxicity operates as a metaphor. Dominant video game
cultures propagate “toxic masculinity.” Abusive CEOs at startups perpetuate tech’s “toxic” workplace culture. Properties
held by struggling financial institutions might be “toxic assets.”1
These rhetorical uses signal how the idea of bodily invasion and
infection weaves in and out of our contemporary technological
Techno Toxic
discourse, even as digital technology purports to be disembodied,
smooth, clean.
Yet it is more than just a metaphor. Toxicity burrows deep
in flesh as people breathe in its evanescent particles. Brett
Walker’s deep ethnographic work on heavy-metal poisoning
in Japan teaches us that industrial toxins have no boundaries –
their traces can be found in deaths from insecticide contamination, poisonings from copper, zinc, and lead mining, or in the
congenital deformities that result from methylmercury factory
effluents.2 They all precede and underwrite the age of digital
What could it mean to think about toxicity as both the production of disabled bodies and as a potent figure for understanding
the subject? The purging of toxicity is imagined as a way to reestablish the purity of the subject. Just as toxicity is everywhere,
so too are attempts to purge the body of it: juice cleanses, water
cleanses, herbal cleanses, colon cleanses, digital cleanses. But as
Alexis Shotwell reminds us in Against Purity, there is no easy way
of immunizing ourselves against our impure pasts and complicit
Many of us are settlers living on unceded native land, stolen through
genocidal colonial practices. We feed domestic animals more food than
starving people lack, and spend money on the medical needs of pets
while eating factory farmed meat and spraying our lawn with pesticides
that produce cancer in domestic animals […] We cannot look directly at
the past because we cannot imagine what it would mean to live responsibly toward it. We yearn for different futures, but we can’t imagine how
to get there from here. We’re hypocrites maybe, but that derogation
doesn’t encompass the nature of the problem that complexity poses
for us. The “we” in each of these cases shifts, and complicity carries
differential weight with our social position—people benefiting from
globalized inequality are for the most part the “we” in this paragraph.
People are not equally responsible or capable, and are not equally called
to respond.3
Techno Toxic
There is no cleanse for precarity or for our particular roles in
sustaining it.
Toxicity Every Step of the Process
It’s no secret that the purchasing of digital devices funds worker
and human rights atrocities. Our devices rely on labor and
materials that support structures of exploitation and violence.
Each step in the production process exposes workers to a different
form of toxicity.
It begins with instrumentalizing the periodic table; rare metals
are essential materials for ever smaller and more powerful digital
devices. The map of rare metals changes the geopolitics of where
mining happens as nations scramble to control the extraction of
crucial materials. New metal mining industries graft onto formerly
colonized landscapes (Latin America, Africa, Australia); they
engage the bodies of miners exposed to these metals as countries
race each other to control these growing markets. The production
of electronics, moreover, requires the mining of high-value raw
minerals – gold and the “3Ts”: tungsten, tin, and tantalum. Digital
devices on the shelves of your closest Amazon warehouse or sitting
comfortably in your pocket are possible thanks to the entanglements between metal mining industries and the enduring detritus
of imperial refuse.
Next, we might think about how the assembly of devices also
endangers workers by exposing them to toxins. Supply chains
and the global assembly line converge on Asian (often women’s)
bodies as they assemble toxic components of high-demand
devices. Their reproductive, life-giving capacities pay the price
for ubiquitous electronics. One of the richest companies in the
world, Apple, has the highest industry mark-ups, made possible
by the labor of workers who get sick, lose the capacity to bear
children or have borne children with serious disabilities after
working in their factories. The depletion economy exports toxicity
Techno Toxic
to import cheaper devices to parts of the world privileged enough
to purchase them.
Recent projects of upgrading the manufacturing industries
in the coastal regions of China are aimed at taking human inefficiency out of the loop. While China is busy upgrading its factories into high-tech plants, the US strives to “bring back” the
slogan “Made in America.” US industrial towns are importing
toxicity. Under pressure for reelection, politicians are calling
for a return to a manufacturing economy. In 2017, the city of
Janesville, Wisconsin campaigned hard to attract a Foxconn
factory to its small town to replace a shuttered Ford plant that
had employed unionized workers. This plant was never built,
but had it succeeded, the kinds of jobs that these workers would
have had would have exposed them to toxicity. This promise of a
return to “Made in America” sits side-by-side with the desolated
integrated circuit factories of California, left behind as vast
Superfund sites.4
After consumers purchase and use electronics, they interact
with platforms such as Facebook, which in turn rely on lowcost, vulnerable labor to perform the chronic and grisly task of
content moderation. The labor of content moderators involves
having to watch and remove toxic content – sexually graphic
and violent material (images or references to pedophilia, necrophilia, animal abuse, beheadings, suicides, murders, etc.).
Facebook’s basic moderation is typically outsourced to countries like the Philippines and India for their familiarity with
Anglo-cultural norms as a result of a history of colonization and
their willingness to accept extremely low wages (on the order of
$1 to $2.50/hr).
Machine learning algorithms designed to detect violent,
illegal, inappropriate, and disturbing content online do not
simply and automatically remove media containing child pornography from the internet and keep moving. Instead, such media
are sent to content moderators who determine whether or not
Techno Toxic
flagged content did in fact contain instances of child pornography. Social networking services make poor and poorly paid
workers in the Philippines and in India moderate violent or
graphic content online.5 They often do so to the detriment of their
own mental and emotional health, so our timelines and feeds
can remain relatively innocuous. This kind of unregulated and
non-unionized work is not foreign to workers in the US. More
than 5 percent of workers there rely on this kind of crowd-work
from tech companies.6
As Mitali Thakor has argued, the incorporation of childabuse detection algorithms by law enforcement agencies has
created a new hybrid machine-labor ecosystem that is not
limited to the work of traditional law enforcement officers, but
more comprehensively includes algorithms and the computers
that run them, computer scientists and programmers, and
content moderators in addition to law enforcement.7 Policing
institutions justify marshaling resources for these hybrid
machine-labor ecosystems of “algorithmic detectives” through
a racially exclusionary appeal to child innocence in which innocence is always conferred to potential victims in photographs
through a subtle, almost unconscious evaluation of their proximity to the figure of an ideal white child.8
It is tempting to think of all this in terms of an unequal relationship between the global north, as exporter of toxicity, and the global
south, to which it is exported. This would be an over-simplification,
but it cannot be denied that surplused populations across the globe
are often the most precarious test subjects that serve the depletion
economy. And the cardinal split of the globe doesn’t quite cut, as
the proliferation of toxicity in depletion zones attests.
To examine precarity in our contemporary moment is to be
attuned to the damages, the stubborn remainders (or reminders)
of modes of power invested in the differential management of
human and nonhuman lifeworlds.
Techno Toxic
The Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation
Let us not overlook how toxicity is also dumped on people of color
and other precarious populations internally, within the territories
of the global north as well. Such territories and their populations
can become laboratories for testing the results of toxic procedures.
They are close enough to study, precarious enough to lack the
power to object, and yet held at arm’s length, internally, in the
belly of the supposedly protected global north.
Consider, for instance, that a 1970 study of the correlation
between birth defects and radiation, specifically from uranium
mining among Shiprock Navajo workers, found that the “association between adverse pregnancy outcome and exposure to
radiation were weak,” but that “birth defects increased significantly when either parent worked in the Shiprock electronics
assembly plant.”9 Similar correlations were found at other
assembly plants in California and elsewhere. Epidemiologists
knew what the industry didn’t want to know: the suffering
of indigenous women and babies was part and parcel of this
The laboratory is where people of color, indigenous people,
and poor people are. The reservation in the United States is a space
where these three identities live together. It is where experiments
have been conducted for more than two centuries now. Shiprock’s
Fairchild plant and others like it were a space for multiple kinds
of experimentation on women of color; there was also a uranium
mine nearby, and a power plant, operated by Kerr McGee (Karen
Silkwood, a white woman who blew the whistle on this toxic
industry, suffered from serious organ contamination after working
at Kerr McGee. She died in a mysterious car crash after suing the
Thus, a Navajo woman who worked at the Fairchild
Semiconductor Corporation’s electronics plant had a higher chance
Techno Toxic
of bearing a child with birth defect(s) than if she was exposed to radiation. But her chances of this occurring if she worked manufacturing
semiconductors were even higher than that.
It was legal to export toxicity to Navajo women because the
plant was built on Native land – because as sovereign nations, the
Navajo were not considered part of the US, not subject to the same
laws and protections. They were forced to receive this import, in
exchange for the export of the tiny components that would power
rockets, satellites, calculators, and eventually computers. The State
of New Mexico as a whole has high levels of both toxicity and poverty. Some of these poisons were, like uranium, “native,” and drove
the siting of national labs like Sandia and Los Alamos. New Mexico
was a space that technologists, experts, entrepreneurs, the military, and politicians imagined as empty,10 a place where weapons
could be tested and new kinds of labor could be prototyped.
The semiconductor industry in the US first knew about the
effects of toxic manufacturing practices on female workers in
1984, when a graduate student moonlighting as a health and
safety officer at Digital Equipment Corp told a young new assistant
professor, Harris Pastides, that women who worked at these
plants experienced extremely high rates of miscarriage. Digital
Equipment Corp “agreed to pay for a study” that proved that this
was true; three subsequent studies confirmed it, and the results
were reported to the Semiconductor Industry Association, which
ignored it.11
A photo essay commissioned by Bloomberg titled “These
Women Are Paying the Price for Our Digital World” shows Korean
women who suffer from brain tumors, cancer, and other disabilities
as a result of their work at a massive Samsung plant.12 Their work
is the foundation for South Korea’s identity as a high-tech nation.
The precarity experienced by these Korean women had already
happened on Native land in the US, almost ten years earlier.
Reservations have always been economic laboratories, of
cigarette consumption and gambling, things we call vices, simply
Techno Toxic
because these products were not regulated there. These areas were
made into experimental sites for the digital. From 1965 to 1975,
20 years earlier than the Pastides and other studies, almost 1,000
women worked at the state-of-the-art Fairchild Semiconductor
plant in New Mexico, on Native land. These women, along with
the thousands of others working in the Fairchild plants in Asia and
the US, built the digital industries.
It was the precarity of indigenous women (who all lost their
jobs when the plant was taken over by American Indian Movement
activists) that created the conditions of precarious workers in the
Bay Area. Like their indigenous sisters, women in the Bay Area
suffer far more breast cancer than the norm; no one seems to have
nailed down the cause.
Silicon Valley exports precarity to places such as Shiprock,
New Mexico, the Philippines, Korea, and Malaysia and because
the industry is built upon precarity; it shifts locale to where labor
is the cheapest and least accountable to regulation. Indigenous
women’s precarity produces every other kind of precarity in the
digital industries. The number of people sleeping in cars, in tents,
in RVs – more likely people of color but also the poor – on sites
such as the Stanford Campus’s El Camino Real, are an eloquent
testament to the impossibility of living with dignity in the Bay
Area, where real estate is unattainable except by the wealthy, but
where jobs as contractors and freelancers are to be had.
The body is a lab for precarious living; precarious bodies are
the crash test subjects for the juggernaut of extraction, leaving
behind on its trail sites, land, bodies marked by toxicity. Toxicity
is never separable from the question of who or what is credited as
The Widening Gyre of Precarity
To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a person
in a laboratory, everything looks like an experiment. Experiments
can vary in scale and site. If the colony is a major site of experimentation, so too is the city. Particularly those parts of the city
that are already the home to the most precarious. The publicity of
the city as a site of experimentation with precaritization offers the
opportunity for retrospective unfolding of precarity’s longue durée
through an inquiry into its compounding and spiraling effects.
Let’s think about how a previous generation of industrial
technologies enabled experimentation on a city-wide scale, the
residues of which are still with us. Let’s take this example: Michigan
is a key center of the automotive industry. In the post-war period,
the car was a component of an experimental production process
that re-engineered the space of the city. Less-precarious workers
hopped in their cars and migrated to the suburbs, leaving the
urban core depleted in terms of their tax base. The divide between
those who fled and those left behind was heavily racialized.
Ironically enough, the automotive industry not only caused
city-wide spatial experiments that intensified precarity for those
already at a disadvantage; it was itself then caught up in a global
experiment in the redesign of the supply chain for elaborate
manufacturing. General Motors (the Apple Corp of the 1950s),
once the world’s largest and most profitable corporation, tried to
maintain market dominance in the post-war economy through
implementing technical experiments with task-automating robots,
techniques for scientifically managing assembly line production,
and offshoring jobs that were relatively automation-resistant.
It’s a seldom-told story that today’s networked digital media
were born, in part, in places such as the GM factories, which
The Widening Gyre of Precarity
pioneered technological and scientific processes. The shop floor
became an experimental space for “solving the problem” of labor,
turning the screw on labor’s sliver of autonomy. Remaining competitive in the second half of the twentieth century meant intensifying industrial output without corresponding growth in demand
for manufacturing labor. Producing more industrial commodities
with fewer workers became increasingly generalized as unemployment and its threat haunted the lives of those employees whose
jobs and families had relocated to the suburbs in the late twentieth
Precarity is a social force, vectors of domination that congeal into the form of a spiral. Through labor-saving strategies
that allowed for corporate growth in periods of intense competition between manufacturers, precarity has become increasingly generalized; it has insinuated itself in the lives of even the
privileged subset of industrial workers who fled once heavily
populated industrial cities for the suburbs.
One should keep in mind, however, that the earliest
experiments with the devaluation of industrial production were
initially concentrated on the racialized and gendered bodies of
already precarious workers.
The “problem” of labor was always also the problem of race.
Black workers were an integral ingredient in the auto industry’s
labor experiment. They were hired to be precarious – first excluded
from the unions, then excluded from leadership of unions. As
workers they were the were first in, first out, and relegated to
deskilled, often dangerous jobs. In a sense they were automation’s
forerunners. It wasn’t the gig economy yet, but this lab tested ways
to cheapen human labor by racializing it.
But let us never forget the agency of those workers. In the
late 1960s, in Michigan, revolutionary black workers took on
their own white union leaderships, their bosses, and their local
governments. Their movement was defeated before it could spread
very far, and black militancy only accelerated white flight and the
The Widening Gyre of Precarity
depletion of urban cores. But for a while it was black workers who
led a counter-movement against the experimental laboratory of
racialized labor and precarity.1
The city as laboratory and the techniques of experimentation
that generate precarity have pre-histories in the pre-digital age.
But reading the city as a palimpsestic laboratory notebook, one
striated by half-marked inscriptions of precarity’s historically fluctuating intensities, allows us to see how sliding down the spiral of
precarity accelerates as the screw tightens and the gyre widens.
With each new experiment, precarity more intensely saturates the
lives of the already precarious while simultaneously drawing more
lives into the spiral’s on-ramps.
Ironically enough, the depleted urban core, into which black
communities were corralled, is now the site of a more recent
modality of precaritization; once-depleted former-industrial cities
have become sites of gentrification as more information-intensive
industries and creative industries have moved into urban spaces
and drawn knowledge workers to them. Initially celebrated as an
attempt to revitalize once-depleted cities, gentrification’s sinister
logic has led to the intensification of precarity in the lives of those
who were just scraping by. And, that was before the cost of rent
and coffee started skyrocketing.
These digital industries treat the city as an expanded laboratory for engineering yet more spirals of precarity. The digital makes
everywhere a possible site for experimentation. It is predicated
on beta versions that are released and tested so users stumble
on errors and glitches to be “fixed” even while further failures
are afoot. As “users” we are not only test subjects in a lab; we are
unpaid laboratory assistants, working to make experimental network software “better.” To be the user is also, always, to be the used.2
The city becomes programmable, and its assistants are
reworked as code and feedback into its blank slate. The automotive
industry used to experiment on the drivers who bought its products,
but consumer rights advocacy limited the degree to which live
The Widening Gyre of Precarity
humans could function as crash test dummies. With today’s tech
industry, though, the unregulated social-technical experiment is
the norm once again and has so far escaped regulation.
We get used to working with experimental tech that fails.
Some failures lead to scrambled images on computer screens,
others lead to stocks erroneously sold at an accelerated pace by
high-frequency algorithms. These errors, so integral to the logics
of digital technology, disproportionately impact already vulnerable populations or produce new experiences of precarity.
When the tech laboratory is deployed, precarity begets
precarity. A most excellent case to illustrate this is the Flint
water crisis, where the city can no longer deliver clean water to
its majority-black residents. Flint is a city of the Fordist industrial
core. Or it was. The water crisis must be understood as a product
of a protracted history of crises of deindustrialization described
above, a white-flight and automation-induced spiral of precarity
that left the town depleted of tax revenue for investing in public
infrastructures and their maintenance and forced the city to incur
debts that were impossible to pay.
The Flint water crisis was precipitated by the State of
Michigan’s decision to place the city under emergency management in 2011. After reviewing the status of Flint’s finances in 2010,
which revealed the city was operating on a $14.6-million-dollar
deficit, an estimated 45-percent increase in net debt since the
previous year, Michigan governor Rick Snyder appointed a nonelected emergency manager in December 2012 to handle the city’s
finances and balance its budget.
The crisis began garnering attention in local news just a few
months after the city switched its water source to the Flint River
in April 2014, a decision that was supposed to offer only a cheap
and temporary source of water for the city. Sourcing water from
an industrially polluted river flowing through town, however, was
not enough to directly cause the crisis. The decision that made the
difference in the case of the Flint water crisis was ultimately the
The Widening Gyre of Precarity
result of the emergency manager’s choice to cut further costs by not
adding standard anti-corrosives to the river water at its treatment
facilities. Without these added chemicals, the highly acidic water
surged through the city’s decades-old lead pipes, corroding the
rust and protective lining that prevented lead from leaching into
the water that gives life to the city’s residents.
Very soon after the city began sourcing water from the Flint
River, residents started complaining about discolored and foulsmelling water, rashes on their skin after showering, and eventually lead poisoning, and the presence of E. coli and total coliform
bacteria as well as disinfection byproducts in the water supply.
When “business-minded” governments like Snyder’s steer municipalities towards financial solvency through techniques of austerity, one cannot be surprised that these parasitic state and local
governments and their financiers are directly responsible for the
health problems currently suffered by Flint’s residents.
In 2017, the city of Flint hired engineering consultant AECOM
for $5 million to accelerate the implementation of a machine
learning algorithm that could predict which of the city’s water
pipes might still need to be replaced. The algorithm was only
accurate 70 percent of the time but initially saved the city resources
that it would have spent in investigating every pipe connecting
individual homes to municipal infrastructures. The lives of Flint’s
inhabitants could only be protected seven out of ten times. An
algorithm designed to save lives was also pushing others deeper
into toxicity and the precarity it accelerates.
The spirals of precarity turn and turn again. As more pipes
were replaced, the algorithm began detecting fewer and fewer
compromised pipes. So the city had to abandon the algorithm and
go back to searching through the entire haystack of pipes. This was a
more expensive solution that caused the city to fall further into debt.
Precarity that begets precarity is mediated by growing mistrust.
The digital laboratory fuels deindustrialization and produces
concentrated zones of depletion, where poverty leaves residents
The Widening Gyre of Precarity
vulnerable to exposure to toxins, where heavy metals circulate
through residents’ blood streams, making their little mineral
deposits in certain vital organs, eroding cognitive functioning. In
this case, computers can’t inspect pipes as carefully as humans
can, but computers are much cheaper. They create more precarity
for those humans who would have performed by hand the crucial job of caring for infrastructure. Exposure to lead brought
about cascading health problems the effects of which degrade
well-being over the course of the human life cycle, which in turn
exacerbates poverty, debt, vulnerability, and the conditions of
precarity ad infinitum: a widening gyre.3
Like the turn of a screw, the spirals of precarity tighten the
ever-enclosing process of exposure. They suffocate and poison,
dispossess and displace historically vulnerable populations. Once
white-flight leaves the city with a dwindling tax base, and once
resources are extracted from predominantly black and Latina/
o/x cities like Flint, city governments and entrepreneurial actors
begin an urban reorganization project to attract the creative class.
Artists, musicians, and so-called innovation hubs are just the
opening salvo in white-return (gentrification) to urban centers, a
return predicated on the expulsion of black and brown lives. The
underside to the enrichment of a zone is the depletion of another.
Some wounds don’t completely heal. They scab and scar.
Many are invisible to all but those who carry them. There are
certain things surveillance does not want to know, or when it
knows, it keeps to itself. Flint community members suffer trauma,
suggesting a poisoning that could be as spiritual as it is physical,
and an inability to trust its infrastructure despite several studies
confirming that the levels of lead and hazardous material in the
water are now acceptable for residential use. The community has
very little to rely upon except its own covens of care, and sometimes those are just not enough. As we might say, after Samuel
Beckett: we can’t go on; we will go on.4
Automating Abandonment
Efficiency is a specter often beckoned in appeals to automation. The computerization of the welfare state, which began
in the 1970s, was celebrated as an attempt to make the system
more efficient. A lean, digitally-mediated bureaucracy offers the
seductive promise that the state will save public funds, serve welfare recipients better by cutting out subjective decision-making
and corruption, and simplify processes as diverse as submitting
applications and filing claims.
The political demand from which the welfare state grew was
guided by the principle of incrementally overcoming unnecessary
suffering. While such a principle might once have been the guiding
light of a certain kind of reformist, gradualist labor movement, the
precarity of life is unavoidable. As we age, the odds against survival
grow. There will be suffering, there will be precarity – to imagine
otherwise is rather too romantic and utopian.
In much of the enriched world and even beyond it, reformist
labor movements struggled to embed this kind of ethical socialist
principle in forms of administered and institutional care that collectively came to be called the welfare state. Such investments
in public care led to the construction of national health systems,
but also public assistance for aged care, disability care, and so
on. It wasn’t restricted to the elderly either. In some countries,
it extended across all life stages, from birth through education,
work, retirement, and death.
The weakness of the American labor movement, rife with
racism, meant that this program was not implemented all that
thoroughly in that most enriched of rich worlds. Still, mass-scale
social engineering projects such as the New Deal and the Great
Society sought to alleviate poverty by supplementing the wage
Automating Abandonment
with entitlements, and even providing the wage itself in the case of
unemployment, retirement, or disability.
That said, Precarity Lab is not particularly nostalgic for the
post-war social welfare state. Like most institutions, those of
the social welfare state embodied mixed and even antithetical
agendas. Social welfare functioned mainly to reproduce labor
so that labor might reproduce capital. It was riddled with racial
exclusions. It insisted on normative models of gender and sexuality. It enshrined the patriarchal family model as a norm. And –
no surprise – welfare states were also laboratories. They were sites
of experiment on the physical and mental attributes of bodies.
Welfare disciplined potential recipients by making eligibility conditional on adherence to respectability, a heteronormative family
structure, and work requirements. Administrators and experts
served in gatekeeping functions, obliging precarious people in
particular to ventriloquize the comportment and language that
would open the gate to housing assistance, a scholarship, or
access to medical gender transition.
Race, gender, ability, and sexuality have been used to distinguish between the “eligible” and “ineligible.” The safety net always
had holes big enough for certain categories of people, already
living precarious lives, to fall through.
Two generations of austerity governance eroded even these
compromised forms of the social welfare state in those parts of the
enriched world that might somehow have afforded them. No longer
is the incremental elimination of unnecessary suffering the guiding
light for all to see. But there may be more going on here than just the
neoliberal shift to market-based solutions and austerity rationing.
These days, one might take an even less “charitable” view of
the purpose and function of the social welfare state, particularly
given recent experiments with technology designed to update and
automate the management of public assistance. One could even
ask if what is left of the social welfare state no longer even has the
mission of eliminating unnecessary suffering, but rather of using
Automating Abandonment
digital surveillance techniques to exacerbate suffering as a means
of control and rent extraction.
Automating the Sluggish Inefficiencies
of Bureaucracy
Algorithmic decision-making replaces the human, and sometimes
more humane, discretion of state bureaucrats such as caseworkers
and claims processors.1 Humans are bad at calculating data
compared to machines, but they can be negotiated with – they
can have compassion. This is not to say that they always do – their
decisions may not be always less racist or sexist than algorithms –
but they can.
Yet these fantasies of the technological “quick fix” to the
expensive sluggishness of government decision-making obscures
a fundamental question: efficiency for whom, and at whose
expense? The automation of public benefit administration acts
as a covert austerity accelerant that hollows out social programs,
while allowing a shell of the various programs comprising the welfare state to persist in name alone.
A US Department of Agriculture fraud detection algorithm
recently determined that a New York City grocer was processing
food assistance payments after already providing items from his
store to customers on credit.2 The grocer would allow community members to get groceries on credit when they had already
exhausted their benefits, and charge them for what they needed to
scrape by until their benefits were replenished for the month. The
grocer was not lauded for providing community members with
foods necessary to survive, and instead was barred from participating in the SNAP food assistance program altogether. Not only
did this decimate the grocer’s income, but also broadly affected
the lives of low-income members of his community. Here, the
undergig that enables benefits to be distributed without record
Automating Abandonment
and surveillance is punished for providing care, a necessary
supplement when social welfare is utterly broken.
By automating bureaucracy, “benefits” can act as techniques
of extraction in neoliberal sheep’s clothing, covering over the
sly dismantling of the welfare state under the guise of efficient
technocratic management. All too conveniently the digital technologies designed to render bureaucratic labor obsolete reproduce existing structural inequalities at best, if they do not kick
people off of public assistance programs altogether.
The Subject of Public Assistance from Eligible
Recipient to Beneficiary
The disciplining function of determining who is eligible for benefits
also continues to persist under conditions of automated efficiency.
Our allure with disrupting bureaucracy with tech-driven efficiency
distracts us from the impact of a system that decides whether or
not real people are “eligible” or “ineligible” for receiving public
support on top of layers of abstraction that are ultimately reducible
to a human-free logic to render binary profiles “ineligible.”
Machine learning algorithms might give the binary a valence of
probability, but ultimately a threshold of resemblance determines
whether or not one is included within the set of the eligible.
Because artificial intelligence is ultimately just computationally
juiced-up statistical analysis, one is at first never entirely eligible or
ineligible. Instead, data about individual behavior is determined to
correspond more or less to predetermined statistical models of eligibility and ineligibility. If one’s profile corresponds to the eligible
model beyond a certain degree of probability exceeding a minimum threshold, say, 95 percent, they will be counted as eligible.
Already precarious “beneficiaries” are often kicked out of
welfare programs and disallowed from negotiating with the
state offices that claim to serve them. Transferring authority to
Automating Abandonment
make decisions about public assistance eligibility from people to
machines makes negotiating with those accountable for making
these determinations seem impossible. The person abandoned
by the automated welfare state confronts a new object, the clunky
state interface, and is consequently no longer a subject precisely
because they have been barred from predication, from conversation and negotiation – most often, not for the first time.
For example, if a Medicaid patient makes it through the eligibility elimination round of algorithmic determination, she faces
the patient portal. Patient portals and online forms are maddeningly and terrifyingly exacting; they require specific types
of browsers or apps that don’t work well on specific types of
phones; tiny keyboards don’t lend themselves to typing strings of
numbers; bodies already burdened with urgency – pain, debility,
collections – aren’t easily capable of executing this difficult dance,
which must be done perfectly every time. The tiny link at the
bottom of the page that invites the sick and frustrated patient to
get help solving problems using the site leads to an email address
or phone number.
Appeals to the grace of overburdened state employees often
turn out to be another inconvenient email in a bloated inbox that
is slowly addressed; calling these phone numbers places one in a
seemingly endless queue, waiting anxiously, feeling as if the welfare apparatus will never respond to calls for help.
As such, private health insurance is not protection. Patients
may abruptly be denied coverage of a specific medication or
doctor’s visit on the grounds their paperwork was not filled out
perfectly, or a doctor that was listed as “in-network” is actually “out-of-network.” And the denial of service – a distributed
denial-of-service attack, if you will – affects the would-be service
providers and the would-be served; in some cases, human doctors
and nurses who have trained for years to protect human life and
address suffering fight to get to patients just as hard as we fight to
get to them for care.
Automating Abandonment
Accomplished by using opaque algorithms to flag people as
“non-compliant,” the shrinking of the pool of eligibility by welfare offices moves us towards welfare programs without welfare
recipients. The welfare state hasn’t gone away, exactly; it has
merely been hollowed out by the implementation of streamlined
bureaucratic obstructions.
Loan Forgiveness
A reminder: precarity is associated with the act of begging for what
is necessary for one’s survival. The phrase “loan forgiveness” has
precarity built into it, for the state is framed as the magnanimous
absolver of the borrower’s debt. Yet in the case of public-service
loan forgiveness, it is the indebted borrower who promises their
labor to the state in the hope of eventually being free from debt.
Consider, for example, the promise of education proffered by
student loans. Created in 2007, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness
program in the United States enabled full-time public-sector and
non-profit employees to have their student loans forgiven after ten
years of payments. To save money, the US Department of Education
contracted FedLoan to manage the PSLF program and repayment
plans. All those enrolled in PSLF repayment plans were automatically switched to the private student debt management corporation,
which is now being sued for misleading and exploiting borrowers;
99 percent of borrowers who applied for loan forgiveness under
the PSLF program were rejected, often because they were tracked
into repayment plans that rendered them ineligible for forgiveness, or they were rejected on technical grounds.3
The selling-out of educational loan forgiveness, intended to
reward the use of education for public service, to a for-profit company, illustrates the irony of the turn to technocratic governance.
Automation of social welfare program benefit-analysis has been
sold to the public sector as an easier, time-saving alternative to
bloated bureaucracies. In reality, automation multiplied obstacles
Automating Abandonment
and shrank “eligibility” on technical grounds.4 In addition, automation demanded a kind of relentless and time-consuming labor
of countering the effects of being spit out as ineligible, labor for
which many public-service-sector workers have no time.
Lured by the false promise of uplift through education, the
worker laboring to pay off an often-predatory loan required as a
condition of getting the very credentials required for employment
by the state is led to take debt by unclear information. Workers
are being screwed over by the far-from-benevolent state, both on
the axis of the wage and the axis of debt. The spirals of precarity
tighten with the turn of the screw.
Medicaid, part of that “third-rail” of American politics that is
deemed untouchable and yet covered in cost-cutters’ fingerprints,
provides a similar example. As part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)
in 2010, the federal government gave states the option of expanding
Medicaid to legal permanent residents under 65 years old, whose
incomes remained less than 133 percent of the federal poverty
level (FPL). However, the ACA also allowed states to experiment
with their own processes of providing public health care to their
residents. In some cases, this might involve imposing cost-sharing
requirements on those who already have trouble making ends
meet, and in other states requiring Medicaid recipients to prove
that they are spending several hours per month either working or
acquiring training that would allow them to more easily find a job.
The State of Michigan, for example, refers to those who are
on Medicaid as “beneficiaries” rather than “recipients” in all of
its official communications. We would not refer to lab subjects
or experimental animals as “beneficiaries” because they are providing data to enrich institutions. Medicaid has many lab-like
characteristics, including automation and experimentation on
vulnerable subjects.
Automating Abandonment
States with Medicaid waivers experiment with methods to
create a welfare state without welfare recipients. This is not governance by algorithm, but governance under cover of algorithm.
As described earlier, Medicaid is not a benefit, but a process for
refusing benefits. While Medicaid work requirements appear to
target all Medicaid recipients, they primarily single out and target
the 6 percent of Medicaid recipients who are currently out of
institutionally recognized forms of work; 62 percent of recipients
already work full- or part-time, and the 32 percent that are unable
to work are in this category due to “qualified” disabilities or
obligations related to school or caregiving. Unemployed people
who live in rural counties or former-industrial cities that simply
lack the jobs necessary to sustain their populations are likely to
lose insurance. Moreover, those who do find employment, and
work 40 hours a week at the federal minimum wage, will already
make 125 percent of the FPL. A small raise or scheduled overtime thus puts recipients of public benefits at risk of losing their
Medicaid work requirements, along with other related technical “solutions” to the supposed crisis of the welfare state, coconstitute the change in the conceptualization of “welfare” – from
a social right to an earned, and in many cases unearnable, reward.
Technocratic governance has been sold to us as an easier, timesaving alternative to bloated bureaucracies. Instead, it has led to
the multiplication of obstacles and the shrinking of “eligibility” on
technical grounds. Anyone navigating the health care system, the
welfare system, or student loan services today is intimately familiar
with the endless quest to remain eligible for these programs
by meeting requirements, acquiring and submitting accurate
personal information, or correcting errors in their profiles.
The automation of the welfare state seeks to remove government workers and beneficiaries from the social safety net system.
Automation embeds in the system a recourse to passive-voice
deniability. “Your health care visit was not approved.” “Your public
Automating Abandonment
loan was not forgiven.” Automated decisions and automated
statements pile on each other as if emanating from a faceless,
ethereal substance. Within such technopolitics, higher education
and health care are not rights: they are unexecutable code.
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