Week 5: Precarity

Brie Scolaro, LMSW

  1. Precarity and Definition

What is precarity? This is a new word to me, yet a very familiar concept for someone who has long been in social justice. However, words and semantics are important, and to consider the intersecting between precarity and digital humanities, it is important to me to have a clear definition of what this means and where it may come from.

DICTIONARY.COM : Precarity | “A state of existence in which material provision and psychological wellness are adversely affected by a lack of regular or secure income”

Merriam-Webster | Etymology of Precarity | “Probably borrowed from French précarité, from précaire “granted or exercised only with the permission of another, insecure, uncertain” (going back to Middle French, borrowed from Latin precārius “given as a favor, uncertain, PRECARIOUS“) + -ité -ITY

Precarity Lab’s Digital Precarity Manifesto | Precarity | “Precarity is Life in Chains

Precarity is Life in Chains – I feel this needs to occupy another line in this post to give this extra weight, as it has extra sat in my consciousness for reflection. I felt this on a logical but also emotional and spiritual level when reading these examples, but to the extent that a White AFAB US-born individual can empathize.

2. TLDR My Main Take Away(s)

Precarity in digital humanities = the exploitation of historically marginalized communities within the tech value chain (as per the Digital Manifesto).

Tech is made for you to NOT think about it and its value chain. Your website page is expected to instantly load, your stored “cloud” data expected to be instantly available (and actively hosted and protected until.. or if.. you ever choose to access it).

If we pull the curtain back of the tech value chain, we cringe at what is revealed, especially this history of precarity. Can we than hypothesize that this will continue, only to intensify, in the future? As the lines between human and technology continue to blur?

I am particularly moved by Manifesto’s citing of specific examples that serve to highlight how to define precarity of digital workers. I specifically mentioned here the Fairchild Semiconductor Plant run by Indigenous workers in 1965-1975.

The technology created here are the grandparents of the technology used in today’s electronics. Somewhere, a decision was made after a weighing of “pros and cons” in the digital tech value chain. However, White profit is typically the “pro”, the “con” being the continued exploitation of already exploited workers.

I still am trying to reflect on what precarity within digital humanities means if not for the examples presented in the Manifesto, and the full spectrum of what is included by the term “digital workers.”

5 thoughts on “Week 5: Precarity

  1. Jen Hoyer (she/her)

    Brie, thanks for meditating over the word “precarity”; it made me stop to think about the way we use this word. In thinking about the value chain of tech (and also, my larger thought that the precarity of DH needs to recognize related precarities and build solidarity with them), your writing makes me think about how the precarity of DH is deeply tied to the precarity of the internet itself, which we generally don’t talk about.

    What are we forced to acknowledge if we label the internet, and technology more broadly, as inherently precarious? And, what are the forces that create that precarity? I recently read Jessa Lingel’s new book, The Gentrification of the Internet (https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520395565/the-gentrification-of-the-internet); I really appreciated the thoughtful way it looks at some of the forces that destabilize the internet, and I feel like there are some very clear parallels to DH: to summarize very briefly, precarity comes as a result of biases in infrastructure decisions, and because of the ways that the values of big companies steer the industry.

  2. Katina Rogers (she/her)

    Brie, thanks for this reflection. In class today I’m going to bring our discussion back around to a very different use of the term ‘precarity’—the use we saw in the first reading, from The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. I think it’s really interesting that the Precarity Lab piece centered on the image of ‘chains’ to describe precarity; Tsing focuses on interdependence, which in some ways is the same concept. I’ll look forward to teasing out these ideas this afternoon.

  3. Adrianna Rios (she/her)

    As Jen and Katina said, thanks for sharing this Brie! I’m glad we are revisiting the term “precarity” today. Perhaps soon we could revisit “power” and “care”? I’m curious to see how our ways of defining these shift throughout the semester. For me, I think I used “uncertainty” to define precarity during our first meeting. But when I read the word now, My mind shifts more towards labor and financial precarity.

  4. Sean Patrick Palmer

    This is interesting because I look at precarity in more financial terms.

    I was raised in a single-parent household in the Pittsburgh area when the steel industry collapsed. Entire communities lost their way of life and a secure income. It was a tremendously insecure time.

  5. Tuka Al-Sahlani

    Thank you for this. The manifesto’s definition of precarity also raised my interest in the definiton and etymology of precarity. I thought the metaphor of the chain helped me envision the importance and overlooked “links” that hold and strengthen the chain ( industry). You pose an important question, who are ” digital workers”? Are we “digital workers”?

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