Labours of g0v: Rethinking Work from the Perspective of Data Activists

Written by Aaron Su

Image credit: Photo by Tankaku CC BY 4.0

This August, I sat at a roundtable with Ting Chih-Jen (丁志仁), an older man and long-time educator who has been active in promoting experimental reforms for Taiwanese public schools from the country’s martial law era to the present day. We were at a conference centre in Taichung, where g0v (pronounced “gov-zero”) – Taiwan’s largest open-source, decentralized civic tech community – was hosting a session of its bimonthly hackathon event. “I first came to g0v nearly eight years ago,” Mr Ting explained to me; in the meantime, he has coded and assembled a science education platform working to explain experiments, biological processes, and even epidemic prevention measures to the broader community. From educators like Mr Ting to environmental activists and Indigenous language preservationists, participation in g0v has been crucial in broadening the reach of their social movements, rupturing professional silos and workplace-centred commitments. 

In the transdisciplinary space g0v provides, everyone can feel the satisfaction of taking highly specialised skills that traditionally result in alienated labour – expended for a boss or a wage – and, instead, targeting it toward the direct and immediate betterment of the larger community at hand. This is especially true for most computer programmers, who have developed their skills in highly intensive environments and deploy those skills for high-profit margins, yet often do not directly experience the fruits of their toils. At g0v’s hackathons and online spaces, one routinely finds divisions of labour that break such workplace divisions. With a commitment to equality – all g0v participants famously go by the role of “nobody” – a programmer, a language teacher, and a social worker might all come together to share their various specialisations and skills, transcending their usual labour-based divisions to produce an educational program for minority languages. The reward of their Saturday toils might not be a wage but a website, app, or service that proximate friends, families, or communities might need. 

In bearing witness to such assemblages of expertise and labour, I became interested in how g0v participants of diverse backgrounds and training thought about the additional time they chose to spend at g0v, either programming new software or helping to run the organisation behind the scenes. From an ongoing Slack channel with daily contributions from over 11,000 members worldwide to bimonthly hackathons and other activist events, work does not stop at g0v. To date, g0v has produced many high-profile, high-intensity projects that are borne out of the brunt of individual contributions, such as an Amis/Pangcah Dictionary, an air quality monitoring dashboard, and a collaborative fact-checking and disinformation prevention system. How does such civic tech activism – whose results have indeed been transformative – proceed amidst limited resources and a wide variety of training and vocations? Beyond the material outputs of g0v, we must also not forget what activists and scholars have had to say about the distribution of infrastructural or emotional labour within grassroots or activist communities. There are members whose caretaking, organizing, and managing help to reproduce the bare conditions for activist work in the first place. Others have further written about the particular costs of serving as a digital activist, noting that such practices often intensify demands on members in ways inflected by class background, gender, and other social factors.

I thus wanted to start talking to fellow g0v members about their sentiments on labour and activism, especially given the context of Taiwan. Taiwan ranks 2nd in Asia and 4th in the world regarding the annual working hours demanded of its citizens. Although on paper, Taiwan retains strict measures on employment hours and guarantees several standard employee benefits, my ethnographic interviews thus far with several designers and programmers in various industries have revealed the many fissures in such guarantees. Unpaid overtime work, whether directly in the office or through coercive demands for additional labour via platforms such as LINE, is extremely commonplace, and resistance is often prevented by threats of replacement by other candidates in an overwhelmingly competitive skilled labour force.

At the same time, labour protests in Taiwan have persisted in their demands regularly. Labour unrest has even been Taiwan’s “biggest short-term economic problem.” Calls to reduce national working hours in 2015 to multiple requests for better pay and protection of migrant workers’ rights have surfaced through local protests in the last two years alone. 

It would also be remiss to neglect the currency of the global antiwork movement in Taiwan as a frequent topic of online discussion and reflection. References to and jokes about the tangping (躺平) movement in China – a collective lifestyle and social protest movement among Chinese youths emphasizing a rejection of oppressive work conditions in favour of “lying flat” as resistance – have circulated widely amongst Taiwanese netizens as well. Today, tangping remains commonplace in Taiwanese slang, though perhaps not used as commonly as an object of resistance to the Taiwanese government in quite the same way. In any case, these antiwork stances stand in stark contrast to the voluntary labour of many g0v participants, whose active will to transform many sectors of Taiwanese society through material practice has made the organization a role model for civic participation regionally and worldwide.

For participants like Mr Ting, the science educator, tech activism forms only a part of a larger worldview in which specialized labour has produced many unchecked societal injustices. g0v’s crucial contribution to this dilemma is precisely in its production of a participatory civic space, a radically democratic forum in which ideas can be circulated and negotiated together. During his presentation at the August g0v event, Mr Ting lamented the type of knowledge that emerges when education is proceduralized and relegated to a set of institutions rather than a continual process of self-cultivation through the life course. He put it frankly that his mission is to conceive of the real world as an infinitely expandable school (世界是沒有屋頂的大學校), in which everyone is a participant, based on communally recognized and affirmed knowledge (公認知識). Others, such as Liu Che Wei, similarly remarked on g0v’s relationship to larger contemporary movements such as citizen science: an effort to make more useful and socially just knowledge by putting scientific innovation in the hands of the public. These vocational commitments – to the possibilities of science and technology framed differently – often drive professionals to partake in g0v’s many activities.

g0v participants also introduced me to radical insights about time dedicated to activism, especially concerning wage labour. For example, an anonymous contributor invoked Hannah Arendt and her classic tripartite division between labour, work, and action as distinct practices in the public sphere to insist to me that activists are not workers (行動者不是勞動者). On the other hand, Liu also directed me toward a proposal for organisations such as g0v to remunerate non-commercial labourers through exchangeable “community currency” (社區貨幣) as a tool for incentivization and equality. These multiple approaches to remuneration, time, and activism keep the discussion around what material, emotional, or political benefits activism should afford to its members. These are stimulating, especially as highly experimental, participatory civic organizations like g0v continue to evolve and grow. 

Finally, as an anthropologist, I am not interested in using tech activism’s products or results as arbiters of its success; rather, I am interested in makes the work worthwhile. It would not be very responsible to omit the fun gained through community-making centred on shared goals, common training, and food. These forms of gratification, whether conceived in terms of emotional, cognitive, psychosocial, or other kinds of fulfilment, are worth mentioning alongside different sorts of material remuneration, political aspiration, or vocational commitment. Rather than antiwork, then, we might conceive of the deliberative action and purposeful tech-driven creativity that g0v participants adopt as akin to what J.K. Gibson-Graham and their colleagues call “taking back work”: reviving and reframing work for its potential as a space of ethical action, and as a space of mutual concern and survival. 

Vocation, politics, fun. The lack of a universal answer to how g0v happens is an occasion to appreciate the rich historicity of how the organisation has been made possible: in Taiwan, at this moment, with these diverse members. Taiwan is unique in its explosive number of emerging government institutions and civil society groups dedicated to open government and open data models, continually experimenting with new configurations of democracy and co-creation for the digital age, to varying degrees of success and failure. Its highly credentialed workforce, coupled with various movements and demands, has made tech activism a sensible choice in achieving political goals. Against the popular presumption that with the datafication of society comes labour automation and the loss of meaningful work, we can look to g0v for alternative configurations in our ever-changing worlds of technology and politics.

Aaron Su is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University, working at the interface of the anthropology of design, science and technology studies, and Asian studies. His research tracks the rise of participatory and collaborative design movements in Taiwan and China. It investigates their implications for fields of expertise as far-reaching as public health, environmental management, and urban planning.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “The g0v decade”

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