Circuits of Labour: A Labour Theory of the iPhone Era

  • Jack Linchuan Qiu School of Journalism and Communication, the Chinese University of Hong Kong
  • Melissa Gregg
  • Kate Crawford


This paper questions the binary of material and immaterial labour in the information era. Instead, we propose a “circuits of labour” model, a holistic framework that helps connect various concepts and traditions in the study of labour and ICT (information and communication technology). Inspired by du Gay et al’s “circuit of culture”, we argue conventional frameworks need to be synthesized and updated to reflect fundamental changes and persisting issues of labor in our contemporary era, of which the iPhone is emblematic. On the one hand, our model consists of formal circuits, in which hierarchical domination is imposed by capital over the body of labour. On the other hand, it consists of informal circuits where relationships are defined communally between embodied practices and social and communicative capital. The informal and formal circuits of labour are “short-circuited” by survival labour and ‘playbour’, meaning either circuit may absorb productive energy from the other. This article then uses the case of Foxconn, the world’s largest electronic manufacturer that also produces iPhones, to illustrate the usefulness of the “circuits of labour” model. We finally discuss the broader implications and questions for future research.

Author Biography

Jack Linchuan Qiu, School of Journalism and Communication, the Chinese University of Hong Kong

Jack Linchuan Qiu (邱林川) is an Associate Professor at the School of Journalism and Communication, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he also co-directs the International Affairs Research Centre at the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies. He researches on information and communication technologies (ICTs), social class, globalization, activism, and social change. His publications include Working-Class Network Society (MIT Press, 2009), Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective (MIT Press, 2006), and New Media Events Research (Renmin University Press, 2011). Some of his writings have been translated into German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Korean.

Jack started college as an English major in Wuhan. He then went on to study Intercultural Communication at Peking University, M.Phil. in Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Ph.D. in Communication at the University of Southern California. During his Californian years, Jack has been a member of the Metamorphosis Project examining migrant communities and ethnic media in Greater Los Angeles. He was also a post-doc research associate conducting research on migrant workers and their relationship with emerging Internet and mobile-phone services.

In 2004, Jack returned to Hong Kong to continue his projects in the working-class communities of Pearl River Delta, where he worked on Internet café, Little Smart (Xiaolingtong) wireless network, QQ instant-messaging, Shanzhai mobile industry, and local e-government initiatives. Since 2007, he has led a 5-year participatory action research project on migrant workers and communication empowerment in the factory zones of South China, tackling subjects such as media literacy, citizen journalism, and labor solidarity. Another on-going project is multimedia storytelling about Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics manufacturer, especially through the voices of Foxconn workers themselves.

Besides China, Jack also worked on social and policy issues in other parts of the Asia-Pacific such as the People Power II movement of the Philippines, the Nosamo movement of South Korea, e-commerce in Japan, and telecom reform in India.

Jack co-founded the Chinese Internet Research Network in 2000 and has been serving on the steering committee for the annual Chinese Internet Research Conference series since 2003.

Philosophers of the World Unite! Theorising Digital Labour and Virtual Work - Definitions, Dimensions and Forms