Gabriella Lukacs on her book, Invisibility by Design

Invisibility by Design

Interview by I-Lin Liu

I-Lin Liu: Could you share with us what prompted you to take on this research on Japanese women’s participation in digital labor? Do you see any continuation between this book and your previous one, which focuses on commercial television and the production of television programs in Japan?

Gabriella Lukacs: The idea for the book came from a Japanese friend who told me about net idols in the early 2000s. I was completing research on Japan’s television industry then, but my friend’s enthusiasm about how the emerging digital economy would rectify gender discrimination in Japan’s labor market stayed with me. In my first two books and the book project I am currently completing about leftist media activism in Hungary, I study the intersection of gender and labor in various contexts of media production. My first project investigated how gender structured labor relations in the production of prime time television and how these power dynamics shaped the content of televisual entertainment in Japan. Continuing this research, the project that became Invisibility by Design examines how male Internet entrepreneurs harnessed women’s unpaid labor to develop Japan’s digital economy. Adopting a political economic approach, both books studied key industries in the broader domain of media production. The two projects were in dialogue in that they examined parallel phenomena. While my first book analyzed an analog medium in the wake of developments in digital media, my second book explored the ways digital media evolved as part of the analog commercial media complex in Japan. At the same time, my first book examined transformations in the commodity form (that is, how television networks derived profit from the circulation of celebrities), whereas my second book investigated the labor conditions of micro-celebrities in Japan’s digital economy. As a key structuring principle of inequality in society, gender takes central place in both projects and also in the manuscript I am currently completing. A curious commonality between Japan and Hungary is that among the OECD countries, Japan is the only country where the percentage of women in the National Assembly is lower than it is in Hungary.

I-Lin Liu: One key move in your argument of the book is to challenge the distinction between intellectual labor and affective labor proposed by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. You write that “in the past two decades, the digital economy destabilized the boundary between affective labor and intellectual labor” (pp. 17-18). Could you elaborate more on this point? Why do you think that this dichotomy will hinder our understanding of women’s digital labor in Japan?

Gabriella Lukacs: I came to think about the distinction between intellectual and affective labor when I realized that the notion of affective labor did not adequately capture the kind of labor women invested in developing and maintaining Internet-based careers. The limitations of the concept made me think whether the entrepreneurial individuals whose careers I analyzed in the book drove innovations in the realm of labor. In studying labor, a major inspiration I derive from Marx is that workers play an important role in developing the means of production even if only involuntarily. To translate this to the context of my research, individuals’ search for what they perceive as meaningful work galvanizes developments in capitalist accumulation including the ways in which labor is defined, labor relations are organized, and profit is extracted from labor.

Building on Maurizio Lazzarrato’s work, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri define immaterial labor as a productive activity that creates immaterial commodities. They identify intellectual and affective labor as the principal forms of immaterial labor and define affective labor as labor that produces or manipulates affects. Hardt and Negri represent a distinct approach to theorizing post-Fordist labor. Another prominent approach, developed by feminist scholars, builds on the theory of the social factory. Arguing that capital integrates the family and community into its formal practices of value extraction, this position sees the housewife as the paradigmatic figure of post-Fordist labor.  

A key observation I derived from my research was that the figures of the intellectual worker and the housewife were integrated in new occupational identities such as the girly photographer, the net idol, the blogger, the online trader, and the cell phone novelist. Drawing on this insight, I highlight that in the past two decades, the digital economy destabilized the boundary between affective labor and intellectual labor. An example is cell phone novelists who simultaneously performed affective and intellectual labor in developing their careers. To stand out among thousands of writers, authors had to work extremely hard on improving their writing skills. That, however, was not enough. They also had to proactively promote themselves and spend countless hours corresponding with their fans so that their fans would “like” their novels. This was important because editors consulted the popularity charts of cell phone novel platforms in deciding which novels to publish in book format. Some of these books sold 2-3 million copies, which yielded huge profits to the authors from royalties. The labor of a cell phone novelist was composed of the intellectual labor of writing novels and the affective labor of promoting their work. Both types of labor were indispensable for developing a career as a cell phone novelist.

I-Lin Liu: In one of the methodological sections in your introduction you address the issue of the differences between the “virtual and the actual selves” (p. 24-27). You note that in order to maintain a suitable online persona for their digital careers, Japanese online entrepreneurs tended to disincline to discuss their family background in public or with researchers. Additionally, their public life stories often follow similar narrative convention and featured similar tropes. One issue this phenomenon poses to digital labor researchers, as you’ve pointed out, is that one cannot get a clear picture of the class background of these online entrepreneurs. Could you share with us how you solved this conundrum? Or how did you turn this disadvantage into an advantage for your research?

Gabriella Lukacs: A curious aspect of this project was how I became a part of the self-branding strategies of the entrepreneurial women I interviewed. While a few of my interlocutors were mainstream celebrities, most of my study participants were micro-celebrities who saw all forms of promotion as helpful. This was an important reason why they agreed to meet me in the first place.

I asked all my interlocutors to tell me how they developed their careers. Most of my study participants had been interviewed by journalists before I talked to them, so I was able to compare various iterations of the accounts they shared with me. The stories, of course, did not significantly diverge, but they did feature minor differences and silences about issues such as class background, for instance. My interlocutors presented the stories of their careers to me stressing that what they achieved was something that anyone could achieve. This reasoning enabled them to publish self-help books and give seminars about how to develop careers like theirs. However, the idea that “anyone can succeed in the digital economy”—I theorize in the book using Paolo Virno’s concept of “the ideology of the possible”—bugged me because it was discrepant with my perception of the people I interviewed. The women I met were very far from being “anyone.” They were extremely driven, uniquely smart, and immensely talented. So, I dug deeper into women’s stories of their careers and reread them as means of self-branding.

I-Lin Liu: Online social media platform, or infrastructure is one of the focuses of your book. One of the arguments you make is that women’s online digital labor actively contributes to the development of various major internet platforms in Japan. But you also distinguish your understanding of infrastructure or platform from infrastructure research proposed by scholars like Brian Larkin (p. 167 n4). I was wondering could you elaborate more on this point.

Gabriella Lukacs: As a science fiction fan, I have always been interested in the relationship between humans and machines. When a new gadget hits the market, I always wonder whether it was the next logical step (in which case, we could discuss innovation in terms of technological agency) or the product of innovators’ inspiration and perspiration. Technological innovation is a result of diverse factors, but it seems to me that technological agency is undertheorized in favor of the agency of individual innovators.

An aspect of infrastructure studies I find fascinating concerns the agency of machines. I did not do as much work on this topic as I could have because I felt that it would distract from the stories of women I wanted to center the book on. I derive inspiration from Gilbert Simondon’s proposition that we consider the relationship between humans and machines as one that is not structured in hierarchy. I also build on Hamano Satoshi’s work that examines online platforms in Japan. Hamano argues that platforms are developed in dialogue with other platforms as their owners compete for the same market segments. As a result, Hamano notes, Japan’s Internet has evolved into an ecosystem. Finally, there is Marc Steinberg’s excellent book about Japan’s platform economy, which I was not able to incorporate into my own work because it came out when my manuscript was already in the production phase.

In previous iterations of the manuscript, I did focus more on technological agency, but readers rightfully pointed out that the line was fuzzy between technological agency and the agency of the software developers who created online platforms. Theorizing this fuzziness would have required me to conduct more interviews with platform developers, but I did not want to complicate my argument and further delay the publication of my book. I ended up assigning this aspect of my argument to footnotes. My personal struggle with infrastructure studies concerns not only the difficulties of theorizing the relationship between human agency and machinic agency, but also the feasibility of a project. To do theoretically nuanced and ethnographically grounded work on infrastructures involves interviews with multiple groups of actants. A model for this kind of work is Bruno Latour’s Aramis, or the Love of Technology, which is a book I find immensely inspiring.

I-Lin Liu: I really enjoyed reading the close analyses you give on “girly” photographer’s work and creative writings by net idols. Behind the two readings, the driving question seems to be “how is critique of the system possible in everyday life?”. In your reading of the photography by the young women photographers, you note that, unlike the Japanese male critics who only categorized them as doing affective labor, these young photographers are reflecting on or even critiquing the Japanese society. On the contrary, while online net idols deconstruct the cute culture in their creative writings, you point out that the online idols could not develop a critique of digital labor regime, because “net idols had to reproduce notions of femininity that anchored them to values that, in turn, reinscribed their vulnerabilities and even marginality in the labor market” (p. 73). You seem to be suggesting that it is the platform and medium in which these two groups of people work that either enable or limit their potential to critique the system. This leads me to my final question: I was wondering, are there movements resisting or challenging the current digital labor regime in Japan right now? From the conclusion of your book it seems like such movement is yet to emerge. How might the media ecology, or specific designs of various social media platforms enable or hinder the possibility of the emergence of this kind of critique?

Gabriella Lukacs: I did not do research specifically on pushback against invisible labor and after I finished the book, I started a new project that took me to a new geographic area and a new topic. That being said, I think about this issue throughout the book. I use the concept of disidentification in my chapter on the so-called girly photographers. Disidentification is a concept that I borrowed from Jose Muñoz who argues that individuals assume three subject positions vis-à dominant ideologies. While some align with ideologically normative subjectivities, others refuse to embrace the normative subjectivities that dominant ideologies propose to them. Disidentification is the third mode of engagement that neither accepts assimilation nor strictly opposes it. Rather, it is a strategy to engage with dominant ideological positions in ways that aims “to transform a cultural logic from within.”

When women develop new DIY careers, they depart from the types of labor that are conventionally assigned to them in Japan’s labor market (that is, unpaid reproductive labor and precarious paid labor). But that does not mean that they en bloc reject the dominant labor subjectivities that are available to them. The types of work women pursue in Japan’s digital economy involve a significant part of feminized affective labor. At the same time, most of these women style themselves borrowing from cute culture. Yet, I demonstrate that the women I interviewed strove to transform a particular cultural logic from within. And when they realized that they would not succeed, they quit what they were doing and tried something else. That is to say, the book does not argue that women accepted their mobilization to new regimes of invisible labor. Rather, I stress that they understood the power dynamics involved, which they expressed through poetry, photography, self-help books, and cell phone novels.

In the chapters about net idols and cell phone novelists, in particular, I demonstrate that women who developed careers in Japan’s digital economy made a distinction between bad and good types of invisible labor. They understood how complex the politics of invisible labor was and were aware that owners of online platforms increasingly tapped invisible labor as a source of surplus value. They, however, also knew that invisible labor was a form of labor that was instrumental to making life livable and its commodification produced nefarious effects.

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