Beyond the Screen: Uneven Geographies, Digital Labour, and the City of Cognitive-Cultural Capitalism

  • Dillon Mahmoudi Portland State University
  • Anthony Levenda Portland State University
Keywords: digital labour, cognitive-cultural capitalism, circulation, third-wave urbanization, urban political ecology, digital ICT infrastructure, data centres


In this paper, we demonstrate that an examination of the socio-environmental impacts of digital ICTs remains a fruitless enterprise without “materializing” digital labour. We suggest one approach to materializing digital labour: this first includes connecting political economic analyses of digital ICTs to the co-evolution and geography of planetary urbanization and technological change, and second, examining the relationships between immaterial, digital, labour with the material industrial production system. In the context of broad changes in technology, social life, and urbanization, many scholars have theorized a shift towards a third phase of capitalism, beyond mercantilism and industrialism, based in immaterial, digital, and cognitive labour. We introduce the literature on cognitive-cultural capitalism and third-wave urbanization as markers of contemporary capitalism, producing uneven socio-spatial arrangements across the global-urban system. Synthesis of media and communication studies and political economies of urbanization suggests that both capital accumulation and the social lives of (planetary) urban residents are increasingly mediated and structured by online, digital ICT platforms. We show that digital ICTs are sophisticated manipulations of nature that require and illuminate new ways of thinking about digital labour, and more broadly, of immaterial labour. We suggest that the immaterial labour associated with digital ICTs is actually material labour responsible for increasing the velocity of capital circulation, as a moment of production and an appendage of the growing complexity of third-phase capitalist industry and urbanization. The materiality of cognitive, cultural, and symbolic labour reaches beyond the city, invades the lifeworlds of a planet of urban residents, and excretes concrete, silicon, bits, servers, and energy waste producing an urban landscape beyond the city. Through an examination of data centres, we show the necessary relationship between the third-wave urbanization and its planetary reach into rural, pristine Oregon. Data centres in Oregon and the broader Pacific Northwest, highlight the uneven geography of “clean” digital labour focused in large urban technopoles, the potentially harmful, material, and socio-environmental, impacts of data centres in rural areas, and the necessary and dialectic relationship between the two for cognitive-cultural capitalism. We argue that third-wave urbanization, and the concurrent and co-produced technological advancement in digital ICTs and digital ICT infrastructure, creates the conditions for capital’s subsumption of cognitive and cultural labour.

Author Biographies

Dillon Mahmoudi, Portland State University

Dillon Mahmoudi is a PhD Candidate in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. His research and publications lie at the intersection of economic geography, labour, and digital technology. In his dissertation, he examines the economic geography of firm and labour practices in software firms through a relational case study of three US cities.

Anthony Levenda, Portland State University

Anthony Levenda is a PhD Candidate in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. His research and publications lie at the intersection of urban geography, political economy, and sociology of technology. His dissertation project examines the political economy and ecology of networked urban infrastructures by focusing on smart grid and smart city technologies and related markets.

Special section: The Materiality of the Immaterial: ICTs and the Digital Commons