When I started this blog, I wanted to call it ‘Cybertariat’ a word I invented for the title of an article (‘the making of a cybertariat’) I wrote for Socialist Register in 2001. The word has since been picked up by a few people and I also used this title for the collection of my essays that came out in 2003.
But the name has already been bagged on WordPress, although the blog with this name has no content. I believe this practice is known as ‘cyber-squatting’ and I am sure I am not the only victim of it. But I find it arouses very complex feelings in me.
Having to invent a new word always seems to me to be a sign of a sort of failure – a failure to use the existing language intelligently enough. Where there is a genuinely new phenomenon to be described, most people do the best they can by adapting existing terms that are close in meaning. Often this involves a terrible mishmash of words with different roots – as in ‘television’, the first half of which is from the Greek and the second half from the Latin. Occasionally, some sudden spark of inspiration gives the language a new gem. I would put ‘gridlock’ into this category.
I have a feeling ‘cybertariat’ probably comes into the first category, although I am ashamed to say I do not even know the etymology of ‘proletariat’ (taken from Marx), which gave me the tail of the word. Or indeed ‘cyber’, which I prefixed it with. It came from a desperate need (spelled out in the article) to find a term that could describe the global army of workers whose jobs involve processing information and at least raise the question of whether they might constitute a common class which is not delineated in most orthodox sociological taxonomies of class.
A couple of decades earlier I came up with ‘teleworking’ (originally as a translation of ‘teletravail’ which I found in a French article) not because i liked it but because it seemed to work better than ‘telecommuting’ which was the word currently in vogue in the USA. It seemed to me important to make the point that working from home using a telecommunications link to a remote employer or client could be done by a much broader range of people than those who had previously ‘commuted’ to work for that same employer. In other words, working from home should not be seen as a simple substitute for a regular journey to work but as part of a much wider spectrum of new opportunities for the delocalisation of work in a wired economy.
Much the same thing happened with ‘telework’ as happened years later with ‘cybertariat’. In the 1980s I set up a small research company called Analytica (I discovered that certain kinds of payments could not be made to a ‘natural person’ but only to a ‘legal entity’ and had to set up a company in order to receive the payment for some work I had done for the European Commission). It was a time when there was a huge interest in teleworking among policy-makers and suddenly a subject that had only been investigated by a few under-rewarded feminists became interesting to the sorts of consultants who make big bucks. By the mid 1990s (when it became obligatory to have some sort of presence on the Internet) I started to get comments from people on the unexpected character of my website and discovered that somebody had set up a company called ‘Telework Analytics’ which was clearly drawing a lot of traffic intended for me (of course when I wrote to them about it – it turned out to be co-owned by a consultant I had run into at conferences – I was told this was pure coincidence).
This sort of thing makes me feel very uncomfortable. Should one claim ownership rights in a word one has coined? One part of me wants to feel that it should be a simple gift to the language. Another part feels angry and ripped off when it is appropriated. At one point, when i was particularly hard up in a period when others, including some who had plagiarised large passages of my work, were making a lot of money out of ‘teleworking’, I allowed myself to be described as the person who had coined the word. I suppose it was a way of pleading for a bit of recognition but I don’t think it got me anywhere. And it also felt like a sort of diminution – a reduction of all one’s past work to a single bullet-point.
The coining of a well-recognised phrase is undoubtedly a strong feature of academic brand recognition (look at David Harvey’s ‘spatio-temporal fix’) but perhaps this is an effect, rather than a cause of fame.
I was recently at a workshop on offshore outsourcing where one of the other participants, a successful US management consultant, described himself as the person who had invented the concept of ‘componentization’. By this he meant what I have often called ‘modularisation’ – the process whereby business functions and their component tasks are standardised and broken down into increasingly substitutable units which can then be reconfigured spatially and contractually giving us the building blocks for the new global division of labour. From my point of view, his analysis was spot on – but … ‘invented’? I suppose if you come up with an analysis you haven’t met before then you are quite entitled to use this term.
It reminds me of another US consultant I interviewed a few years ago who kept using the term ‘commoditization’ as though it were a brand new concept. He meant by it what I, and many English-speaking Marxists before me, would call ‘commodification’. What I found ironic at the time was that whenever I used ‘commodification’ in the context of an analysis of offshoring outside leftist circles I was howled down as an old-fashioned socialist by exactly the sort of people who would probably have been bowled over by ‘commoditization’ coming from the lips of someone who was actually advising large corporations on how to do it.
Commodification is a concept i have been working with since the late 1970s but I am now starting to feel that work too is rather under-recognised. Perhaps i need to write the big book on it. Or perhaps I just need to grow a thicker skin.
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