Labor and Digital Distribution

I’ve recently become intrigued by articles that attempt to depict the labor involved in some of the new video distribution models.  For a while, there was an entire genre of newspaper articles (here is one example) devoted to the behind-the-scenes operations at Netflix.  Because most customers only interact with Netflix via a web interface, we may never see an employee in person, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a significant amount of intensive labor involved in sorting DVDs or checking to make sure customers are getting the right movie.  With that in mind, I finally was able to dig up a similar article, from the official Redbox blog, depicting a typical “Redbox ninja,” David Dunning, who describes the on-site and off-site labor involved in restocking, monitoring, and even cleaning the kiosks.

There are several things that intrigue me about these articles (and the Redbox one in particular).  First, the behind-the-scenes structure seems to suggest the idea of hidden truths or insider knowledge finally being revealed to a general public.  Christopher Borrelli’s Netflix article, cited above, conforms to this structure, especially with his account of exurban warehouses as “mythical New Economy temples.”  This behind-the-scenes structure seems to echo a similar rhetoric seen in making-of documentaries on DVDs.  We are getting access to hidden truths about how we get access to the entertainment that now seems magically piped into our homes.

By describing these articles (and videos) as a genre, I don’t mean to imply that they are false.  Instead, they seem consistent with some of the practices of “industrial self-theorizing” discussed by John Caldwell in Production Culture. While Caldwell primarily discusses production narratives, including those authored by below-the-line workers, these “distribution culture” narratives help to structure our perception of what might seem like a relatively impersonal transaction.  How do you humanize a transaction with a kiosk? With a web interface?  Digging deeper, how do workers for these companies understand their relationship to potential customers?

The Redbox article is especially fascinating to me due to the ways in which it romanticizes Dunning’s daily tasks. Like all Redbox regional operations supervisors, he is a “ninja,” working invisibly, almost in secret, quickly and efficiently servicing the machines, often in the dark of night.  The article also emphasizes the “flexibility” involved with Redbox, the ability to choose when to work, as well as the ability to complete much of that work from anywhere.  Dunning keeps in touch with field operators via cell phone and services some machines remotely from his laptop.  The article also helps to put a human face on the transaction process.  One of the complaints about Redbox has been that it takes away from the communitarian aspects of video stores, the ability to consult or just chat with the clerks you see on a daily basis.  To alleviate that concern, the Redbox article depicts Dunning chatting with customers and providing them with codes for free rentals if they are forced to wait for him to service the machine.  Completing the picture is a range of comments that either offers praise for a local field representative or compliments Dunning and other field reps for putting such a positive face on the company.  Still others respond to the article by stating that they also wish they could work for Redbox.

Prior to this article, my most specific mental picture of Redbox workers had been based on a series of articles describing the fact that Wal-Mart and other retailers were conspiring with movie studios to limit the number of copies of a given DVD that anyone could purchase, but in that scenario, the emphasis was on the absurdity of a major retailer declining to sell something rather than on the specific behavior of the Redbox employees themselves. My reading here isn’t meant to dismiss the Redbox post (or the somewhat older Netflix article) as mere public relations spin.  In some sense, it is far more than that, especially in the attempt to deal with the hidden labor associated with cyberspace, an issue addressed at length in Ted Striphas’s discussion of the labor practices required to maintain in The Late Age of Print.  As Striphas points out, with regards to Amazon in particular, “what’s clear is that getting books and other products out to such a vast client base quickly and efficiently demands highly intensive–and intensive–work environments” (101).  These articles help to shape the perception of those operations, both for the consumers who rent or buy DVDs and for the employees who participate in those activities.

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