The invisible labour of book digitisation

Helge Peters —  January 25, 2013 — Leave a comment

If you have a chance to visit next week’s Transmediale media arts festival in Berlin (and hopefully drop by at our workshops), make sure you don’t miss Andrew Norman Wilson’s performance Movement Materials And What We Can do.

Wilson’s video piece Workers Leaving the Googleplex made the rounds in the blogs some time ago. In it he narrates his experience working for a subcontractor of Google at the company’s US headquarters, and his encounter with the Google Books ScanOps division which eventually led to him being fired. He found out that the workers who perform the rather repetitive work of scanning books must wear special badges, are kept separate from other employees in the more knowledge-intensive divisions of the company and are denied access to Google’s famed amenities. Noticing how these second-class workers are overwhelmingly people of colour, Wilson approached some of them with a video camera and the intention to find out more about their labour conditions – which quickly led to security intervening and his contract being severed.

As a follow-up, Wilson made the manual labour cloaked by Google’s secrecy visible again through a photo series pulled from Google Books. Scanned fingers of workers flipping the pages of classics like Adam Smiths Wealth Of Nations leave traces of the human labour necessary for digitising our cultural heritage.

To my mind, Wilson’s works are a most welcome reminder of the persistence of manual labour underpinning the knowledge economy, and of the ways this mostly invisible form of labour – precarised and always under threat of automation – is deeply entangled with issues of class and race. In his performance at Transmediale, Wilson will use “corporate, academic and artistic lecture techniques” in order to further interrogate this theme.

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Helge Peters

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As a full-time research associate at the Hybrid Publishing Lab, Helge is currently investigating scholarly communications and learning environments with a focus on business models and digital technologies. He holds a BA in Strategic Communication and Planning from the Berlin University of the Arts and an MA (dist.) in Media and Communications from Goldsmiths College, University of London.

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