Children in the Factory

Curator's Note

My partner and I wanted to cancel our Netflix because, more and more, we found it lacking anything interesting to watch. After logging in, it became frustrating trying to penetrate the streaming service’s dull, metrics-designed home page, sifting through its suggested content offerings, and finding that somehow their algorithm-tuned tailoring to our presumed personal “tastes” never matched our moods or desires. But then we thought about our children: How would they react? What would they watch? We would know the answer already if we asked them, so let’s not rock the boat.

A television with streaming affordances is a pretty new introduction to our household. Only a year ago, we had to hook our laptops to a TV screen if we wanted to watch anything online. Now, everything’s within easy reach by means of the slick remote—the gestural embodiment of abundance. When I was my children’s age (who are six and four), we had only two state-run channels in Finland, and children’s relationship to suitable content on the telly (like everybody else’s) was predicated on scarcity and lack—a half-hour kids’ program every weekday afternoon, which was consumed by everyone. It wasn’t that exciting, though, and always ended with a stop-motion animation from East Germany about this strange old person throwing “sleep sand” into people’s eyes. The good stuff from the West was circulating on BETAs and later VHSs. When I was seven, I remember playing the characters from Star Wars with my classmates in the snowdrift at the schoolyard during our break. R2D2, Leia, Luke, Yoda… I hadn’t seen Star Wars—and I don’t think many of my classmates had either—but somebody must have or had heard stories about the movie from older siblings. They were the ones with the experience, real or imagined; the rest of us just followed, imagining someone else’s imaginings.

About a week ago, my daughter (who’s six) came back from school in a slightly miserable mood. The reason was, she explained, that she couldn’t find anybody to play with during a break—especially because one of her closest friends was playing Harry Potter with someone else, and my daughter doesn’t like Harry Potter. Harry Potter is on Netflix, but it’s a bit too scary. My daughter likes My Little Pony and stuff like that. I don’t recall this being a problem when I was her age. There weren’t enough commodities to divide us. Scarcity brings together, whilst abundance separates, one might argue. This is of course symbolized by the streaming service’s interface, which is the same but different for every customer. Personal choice, individual freedom, economic privilege, together alone; experience simulated by algorithms and monetized into data—Netflix, like any cultural product, is a political and economic form.

The town I grew up in used to be quite well-off. It had two papermills and a well-salaried workforce. Comfortable. Today, one of the factories has closed, the other might be on the brink of closing, and I would say about 70 percent of shopfronts on the high street are empty. Most of the old work tasks have been automatized. Modes of production have changed. People have left and wealth goes elsewhere. But I feel that this factory from my childhood keeps haunting me. It’s moved—to our living room. Now, it’s my children who are running it. “To look is to labor,” as Jonathan Beller aptly puts it in The Cinematic Mode of Production. This is, to be sure, the kind of labor we might label as “cognitive” or “affective,” or more generally “immaterial.”

Every day my children join millions of other such affective laborers who keep a massive machinery going, turning “pulp” (in its various senses), not into paper, but into varied admixtures of fantasies, appetites, emotions, and imaginations. They have their tools, most notably the remote control—the magic wand—whose operation, the other day, my son was visibly proud to have learned. It is notably difficult to try to outsource this kind of labor to a machine, however sophisticated, as it’s work that keeps performing a kind of miracle from one moment to the next, turning dead matter (pixels, circuit boards, and such) into living beings. My children are animators in the very sense of the word: they bring pictures—hours and hours of “stuff” lying dormant, purposeless, and worthless in the streaming service’s databases—to life. They embody images, repeat and rehearse them, dream about them, and desire them. Thereby, they give images value that the images couldn’t possess otherwise. That is the indispensable and irreplaceable work my children perform—for no material compensation in return.

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