The Rise of the Voluntariat

Like unpaid interns, the "voluntariat" creates profits without being compensated, but out of a sense of altruism.

CUNY Graduate Center Digital Labor Working Group

On April 27, online education startup and perpetual media darling Coursera announced the creation of the Global Translator Community (GTC), “a program designed to greatly expand the number of courses offering high-quality subtitle translations.” The GTC drew its inspiration from “learners spontaneously organizing to translate lecture subtitles for the benefit of their classmates.”

By organizing these efforts into a digitally hosted “community,” Coursera says, it aims to “empower . . . users to help us make education for everyone — regardless of language limitations — a reality.” Three days later, the company announced a new “partnership” with the New York Public Library and other organizations. The library will now participate in Coursera’s Learning Hubs program, designed to “give communities around the world the ability to access online courses for free, and also to engage with others in a blended learning setting.”

In other words, the Wall Street Journal explains, “[s]tudents will watch lectures on their own and then the library will provide classrooms for people who want to discuss the lectures in a group. The library will also hire a ‘facilitator,’ to help teach the class.”

Coursera’s announcement uses the familiar rhetoric of “access” to link these developments: “Please welcome all of our new Learning Hubs and Global Translation partners as they endeavor with us to provide greater access to the world’s best education resources for students in the US and around the world!” But the deeper connection between them relates to the question of revenue, one of existential significance to a venture capital-financed, for-profit entity like Coursera.

Vanderbilt professor Derek Bruff, who attended the recent Coursera Partners Conference in London, reports that company founder Andrew Ng “spent a fair amount of time talking about potential revenue models for Coursera. Actually, make that model, not models. Ng focused squarely on Coursera’s Signature Track option, which provides students the ability to earn ‘verified certificates’ for a fee on the order of $50.”

Both “Learning Hubs,” which have dramatically increased completion rates among Coursera students, and the subtitling of courses by the GTC, which will multiply the number of students who can pass the assessments required to earn “verified certificates,” are crucial to the “Signature Track” revenue model and the profits it portends.

What the creation of the GTC and the expansion of learning hubs in places like the New York Public Library really have in common, then, is the deployment of the rhetoric of philanthropy in pursuit of profit — a strategy at which Coursera has shown exceptional skill. While the company’s public announcements hew closely to the promises of free education that have always dominated its promotional discourse, the Wall Street Journal quotes chief business officer Lila Ibrahim speaking frankly of the learning hubs as a way for Coursera to “monetize its classes.”

This monetization turns out to rely crucially on taxpayer-funded facilities to keep overhead low: if Coursera had to rent classroom space on Fifth Avenue at market rates, it would certainly need to charge more than $100 a piece for its “verified certificates,” in which case its pricing would be less competitive, and its hype about “free” education would need to be retracted entirely. Instead it has used its carefully constructed “good guy” image to enlist a public institution that has lately faced severe budget cuts and staff reductions to donate a prime New York campus to its operations.

This is not Coursera’s first success at channeling taxpayer funds towards its profit goals: its learning hubs have also been sponsored by the State Department. The CEOs of the Universities of Phoenix, DeVry, and Kaplan, certainly adept in their own ways at exploiting public subsidies, must be wondering why they didn’t think of all of this first.

The New York Public Library depends significantly on volunteers for its educational programs; the announcement regarding Coursera’s new learning hub does not state who, if anyone, will pay the salary of the “facilitator” who will be hired to “help teach the classes.” Matters are clearer with the Global Translator Community: Coursera’s announcement states that it is recruiting “volunteers” to do the translation work, and Coursera boosters have described the new project as “crowd-translating.”

Coursera’s founders are no doubt aware that translation, no less than software engineering, is traditionally a paid activity done by trained professionals with specialized knowledge (particularly when it involves the kinds of technical vocabularies used in many college courses); otherwise, they would not have sought the considerable financial resources of the Carlos Slim Foundation to facilitate translations of its courses into Spanish in January.

But who needs Carlos Slim’s billions when you can have the courses translated free of charge by “a tight-knit community of committed individuals” enthusiastic about “helping millions of learners” and, well, helping Coursera expand its profit margin?

While joining Coursera’s “community” does not resemble a job in the “getting paid” aspect of things, it does require you to sign a “Translator Agreement,” which makes clear that the relationship between Coursera and members of the GTC is subject to employment law insofar as it ensures Coursera’s complete and perpetual ownership of value produced by employees — or rather, “volunteers” — but in every other respect, it is not a job, just a way to be nice.

Coursera’s GTC offers the clearest instance yet of an emerging labor force in digital capitalism, which I suggest we call the voluntariat.

The voluntariat performs skilled work that might still command a wage without compensation, allegedly for the sake of the public good, regardless of the fact that it also contributes directly and unambiguously to the profitability of a corporation. Like the proletariat, then, the voluntariat permits the extraction of surplus value through its labor.

But unlike the proletariat’s labor, the voluntariat’s has become untethered from wages. The voluntariat’s labor is every bit as alienable as the proletariat’s — Coursera’s Translator Contract leaves no doubt about that — but it must be experienced by the voluntariat as a spontaneous, non-alienated gift.

And the voluntariat is not, like the proletariat, the instrument of its own dispossession. Rather, its contribution of uncompensated work accelerates deskilling and undermines the livelihood of those who do not have the luxury of working for free — in this case, professional translators who cannot afford to give away their labor.

In recent years, companies have made enormous use of two major strategies for extracting economic value without compensating those who originate it: unpaid internships and social media. Coursera’s invention of a translation voluntariat synthesizes some of the most effective aspects of both of these strategies for the empowerment of capital and pauperization of labor.

Unpaid internships have allowed companies to command an-ever expanding labor force at no cost, but the potential of unpaid internships to devalue work further and further up the skill ladder has intrinsic limits. The very institutional existence of internships, after all, entails the (usually false) promise of essential skills acquisition that will lead to future paid work. In other words, unpaid internships will always require there to continue to be paid positions somewhere in an organization, because employers lure candidates into them in large part by dangling before them the possibility of eventual promotion to one of those positions.

The GTC presents no similar difficulties for the capitalist: it solicits the voluntariat’s labor with the sole assurance that that labor constitutes its own reward. The “Do What You Love” mantra central to unpaid internships plays a role here, but the illusion of a career-building apprenticeship that persists as the justification of internships has been removed. For the moment, Coursera is still offering salaries to some workers (mostly engineers), but there is no reason in principle why all the “careers” the company currently advertises could not be reimagined as “global communities” of volunteers.

Social media (and related Web 2.0 platforms) are machines for the extraction of value from uncompensated human activity. Nicholas Carr dubbed the “free” activity that contributes value to such platforms “digital sharecropping,” and the observation that “with every like, chat, tag, or poke, our subjectivity turns them a profit” is at the basis of Laurel Ptak’s “imaginary political campaign,” Wages For Facebook, as well as Jaron Lanier’s 2013 book Who Owns the Future?

It is unsurprising, then, that the central hub of the GTC is a “translators’ portal” that allows participants to “communicate directly with Coursera staff and with other volunteers from around the world.” The GTC software platform closely resembles a social media network in its selling points of “community” and “connection.”

Indeed, the privilege of using the portal would appear to be the “good and valuable consideration” in “exchange” for which the GTC volunteers are signing over rights to their translations in their non-employment contract with Coursera. Yet unlike the major Web 2.0 enterprises, which use social media to appropriate value generated by unskilled “playbor,” the GTC deploys the same strategy to gain free access to skilled labor.

One can assume that the GTC portal is also driven by AI algorithms that improve automated translation software through the aggregation of human-generated models. The efforts of the GTC’s voluntarian scabs, themselves participants in a novel deskilling strategy, will enable an even more systematic devaluation of the work of human translators.

Internships have made work more like non-work by uncoupling it from the expectation of wages. Social media has made non-work more like work by permitting the commodification of spheres of activity previously never conceived of as labor. The emergence of the voluntariat follows logically from both of these developments.

Like interns, the voluntariat performs an activity once defined as skilled, waged work for the sake of “intrinsic rewards”; like “digital sharecroppers,” they do so in order for capital to appropriate 100% of the “extrinsic rewards” produced by their work. More and more realms of work are now supposed to resemble spontaneous activity done for its own sake — such that, as Astra Taylor has remarked, “we are encouraged to think of ourselves as artists no matter what our line of work” — and yet our spontaneous activity is increasingly the source of corporate profits.

If we want to resist voluntarianization, therefore, we have two tasks. We should continue to expose the expanding extraction of profit from labor forms premised on “intrinsic rewards.” And we should seek the liberation of activities and energies captured by the alienated non-labor of social media.

Yet while we must challenge the obliteration of wages for the sake of profits, we should not argue simply for the restitution of the wage labor regime of last century’s capitalism. The growing corporate exploitation of spontaneous, voluntary activity brings into view a truth that capitalism could more readily obscure in an era of stable wage labor: that all social activity, whether or not it commands wages on the market, produces value — the message of both Wages for Housework and Wages for Facebook.

The goal, then, should not be to channel that value back into a market-driven wage system, but to socialize it, to restore it to the commons.