Virtual work?



No smartphone, tablet or the like can even exist without interaction with human activities


Our world (our?) is really very strange. For this reason, it is impossible not to mention here the masterpiece of Ciro Alegría, Ancho and Lejano are the world, less for its content (a deep dive into the Latin American indigenous and Amazonian world), but I remember it for the strength and timeliness of the metaphor present in its title.

This world is really weird. Last year, for example, to go back a little bit in time, everything seemed to be following a brisk, facetious and light normalcy. Fast as a fireball, but staggering like a drunk. The abysmal difference between rich and poor followed its “natural” course, in bonanzas (a thing of the past) and in crises, the latter converted into a true depressed continuum, to remember István Mészáros.

Thus, the unbridled clock of technology continued - to refer to Karl Polanyi's insurmountable metaphor - turbocharged as the "satanic mill”. Dominantly shaped by the movements of markets and corporations, the technology of our time remained connected, always online. No right to disconnect. Let the devastation of nature run its merciless and lethal course, let the destruction of work explode pockets of misery and poverty into almost every corner of the world, was an inevitable consequence of spirit of time. After all, the compensation was found in the joy of the new global barons.

And it was in this way that the machinic-informational-digital world did not rest, impelled by financial capital, the most aseptic of all, the one whose mister is always to make more money, as someone once said.

This new “virtual” reality could not fail to spread a differentiated verbiage, a new global lexicon: gig economy, sharing economy, platform economy, crowd sourcing, home office, home work etc. And it was like this, in the same wave, with the virtual work, which ceased to be a space for reflection by philosophers and physicists and gained the pages of newspapers, magazines, the internet, social networks, polluting the apologetic corporate pamphlets, repeated ad nauseam by CEOs. Like most things that spread like viruses, the content seems to matter less. What matters is having a media impact.

But, before dealing contemporaneously with virtual work, it is good to recall, even if briefly, what is truly noun: work.


From the outset, it must be said that the terrain is tortuous and shifting. A true anything goes. But if, as the genius of Guimarães Rosa taught us, “bread or loaves, it's a matter of opinions", here goes ours.

In its ontogenesis, the day was born and flourished as an authentic human exercise, an essential act to weave, shape and launch the life, production and reproduction of the being that had just become social. And in doing so, we have supplanted the last pre-human animal. That's why György Lukács, in his ontology of social being, resorted to Aristotle to present the two fundamental explanatory elements of this new human act: o think and the produce. It is up to the primeiro the delimitation of the purpose and the means for its realization, and the second, it is up to the concretion of the intended end, to effect its realization.

It can be said, then, that the English were right, in their language, in conceiving this vital human activity to keep the metabolism between humanity and nature as work. And so they did so that it could be clearly differentiated from labor, that other way of being at work which refers to subjection, vilification, tripalium and that ended up disfiguring work, in the anteroom of the Industrial Revolution, making it assume a “second nature”.

Work ceased to be vital activity for human-social reproduction and metamorphosed into workforce special, essential for the creation of surplus wealth that came to be privately appropriated by the new class from the towns. One sees, then, at least in this case, the clear superiority of Shakespeare's language: work, travail, arbeit, lavoro, trabajo, none of them offers the clarity of the binomial work and labor.

And that was how the only possible means of survival for the poor and dispossessed peasant and urban masses was indelibly transformed and became an imposition: to work in order not to be unemployed.

The imbroglio was not small and it profoundly changed humanity's way of life. This is because what, along with the appearance of humanity, germinated as a value, was transfigured into a lack of value (or non-value), in order to be able to “freely” create a surplus value. Which became privately appropriated by someone else. The alchemy of modernity was finally accomplished.


How, then, to understand virtual work at the same time?

A first point is ontologically central: if this type of work does not stop expanding here and elsewhere, it is good not to forget that no smartphone, tablets or similar can even exist without interaction with human activities, including the one that reminds us of caves: the work of mineral extraction, carried out in Chinese, African or Latin American mines.

There are no cell phones, computers, satellites, algorithms, big data, internet of things, industry 4.0, 5G, that is, nothing in the so-called virtual and digital world that does not depend on labor that starts underground, in thebranches of hell”. How could I indicate The privilege of servitude[1], on the filmic level, this concreteness is exasperated in the film Behemoth, by Zhao Liang. Under desertified temperature, accidents, contamination of the productive body, mutilations, deaths, this is the scenario part, prototype that shapes the world Interactive with their information technologies. And here I make a brief personal statement: as a sociologist of work, I visited a mine only once, in Criciúma, Santa Catarina. As soon as I descended into hell, I asked to rise to the surface. It was enough – and it marked me forever – the unforgettable, strong and dismal experience.

Thus, an effective understanding of what virtual work is contemporaneously forces us to break, from the outset, a double limit, which obliterates its senses and meanings. The first concerns the strong Eurocentric trait that often “forgets” that most of the global workforce is outside the countries of the North. This one is heavily in the countries of the South, in the global peripheries, such as China, India (and other Asian countries), in addition to Africa (South Africa) and Latin America (Brazil, Mexico). These countries have a huge workforce, which immediately prevents any “generalizing” formulation about the meanings of work, when the said one is strictly restricted to the North and excludes the South.

The second limit is, to some extent, a consequence of the previous one. Given the complexity reached in recent decades by the international division of labor, with the consequent expansion of new productive value chains, there is an indissoluble imbrication between the so-called intellectual activities and those so-called manual ones (we know, of course, the enormous limits of these rigid definitions). Or, in the words of the qualified sociologist of work Ursula Huws, between “creation” activities and those more “routine”[2], which expand into the universe of virtual work, online, with its digital command tools, software etc. and that are increasingly inserted in the production processes of factories, agribusiness, offices, services, commerce, etc.[3].

But it is imperative to emphasize, once again, that such activities could not even exist without the production of goods that originate in spaces such as the sweatshirts from China or other productive spaces in the South[4]. In the synthesis of Ursula Huws: without the production of energy, cables, computers, cell phones and many other material products; without the supply of raw materials; no launching space satellites to carry the signals; without the construction of buildings where all this is produced and sold, without the production and driving of vehicles that make its distribution possible, without all this material infrastructure, the Internet could not even exist let alone be connected[5].

Recently, on digital platforms, this reality has been exacerbated to the limit. You algorithms, conceived and designed by global corporations to control the times, rhythms and movements de todas work activities, were the missing ingredient for, under a false appearance of autonomy, boost, command and induce intense forms of surplus labor extraction, in which working days of 12, 14 or more hours are far from being the exception. the curious world Interactive algorithm, then, coexists very well with a tragic world real, where the unlimited predation of the productive body of work regresses to the past phase of capitalism, when it launched its “primitive accumulation based on the binomial exploration e spoliation, both unlimited[6].

Thus, contrary to an imaginary world of virtual work, ascetic, clean, paradisiacal, given the cleavages and differentiations present in the unequal international division of labor, we are simultaneously witnessing both the expansion of virtual work and the expansion of manual work, since the former depend indelibly on an infinity of human actions that develop in the thing world, objective, material.

Therefore, an effective understanding of the meaning real of virtual work it cannot obliterate and “erase” these central traits indicated above, which have made the world of capital in our time a complex tangle, which is stuck up to its neck. And that the pandemic exasperated and stripped.

*Ricardo Antunes he is a professor of sociology of work at the IFCH/Unicamp. Author, among other books, of The senses of work (Boitempo).

Originally published in the magazine With Science.



[1] Boitempo, 2020, 2nd revised and expanded edition.

[2] Ursula Huws, Labor in the global digital economy, (London, Merlin, 2014), p. 157. 

[3] Ursula Huws, Labor in the global digital economy, cit. See also the excellent book The making of a Cybertariat: Virtual work in a real world (London, Merlin, 2003), published in a special edition by Ed. from Unicamp, 2017.

[4] Ursula Huws, Labor in the global digital economy, cit., p. 157.

[5] Ibid., p. 157-8.

[6] See Antunes (Org.), Uberization, digital work and industry 4.0 (Boitempo).




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