Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Free-time suddenly got a lot more expensive

It was announced yesterday that the Scottish government had awarded a £250,000 contract to First ScotRail to pilot a free Wi-Fi service on trains between Edinburgh and Glasgow. The hope is that the technology will eventually be available on trains across the country and will help stimulate economic recovery by lubricating the creaking wheels of commerce.

As someone who's spent a large proportion of the last year commuting (approx. 4.5hrs per day or 44 full days - not that I'm counting) the move promises a welcome technological luxury. More concerning, however, is that the scheme is vulnerable to corporate exploitation and is likely to further erode the thin line between 'work' and 'free-time'.

The initiative has unsurprisingly been welcomed by business leaders. According to Liz Cameron, chief executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce: 
Wi-fi connectivity is essential to doing business in the 21st Century and its introduction to our trains is vital to making public transport a productive business experience.
The question, therefore, is why do trains need to be a ‘productive business experience’? Will workers be paid for working during their commute? Will this be included as part of their normal working week and enshrined in their contract? Almost certainly not.

According to the TUC, workers gave bosses over 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime in 2011. That's roughly equivalent to one million full-time jobs and contributed £29.2bn to the economy. Staggeringly, if employees who regularly put in unpaid overtime worked all their hours at the start of the year, the first day they would get paid would be February 24.

Modern technology such as smart phones and Wi-Fi – rather than being liberating and empowering – have been hijacked by commercial interest. People are not obliged to work in their free-time – because if they were employers would be compelled to pay them – but they are expected to do so. This expectation – exacerbated by the fear of unemployment – creates a culture of anxiety and encourages people to sacrifice their free-time. It effectively means the wage you earn is worth less because you're working more hours and fits rather snugly with Marx's theory of alienation. The phenomena itself is part of an increasing capitalist monopolisation of free-time (on which I will return later).

One thing’s for certain. We now know why they call it ‘free’ time – because people end up working for nothing.

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