Virtual Migration: The Programming of Globalization / Edition 1

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Workers in India program software applications, transcribe medical dictation online, chase credit card debtors, and sell mobile phones, diet pills, and mortgages for companies based in other countries around the world. While their skills and labor migrate abroad, these workers remain Indian citizens, living and working in India. A. Aneesh calls this phenomenon “virtual migration,” and in this groundbreaking study he examines the emerging “transnational virtual space” where labor and vast quantities of code and data cross national boundaries, but the workers themselves do not. Through an analysis of the work of computer programmers in India working for the American software industry, Aneesh argues that the programming code connecting globally dispersed workers through data servers and computer screens is the key organizing structure behind the growing phenomenon of virtual migration. This “rule of code,” he contends, is a crucial and underexplored aspect of globalization.

Aneesh draws on the sociology of science, social theory, and research on migration to illuminate the practical and theoretical ramifications of virtual migration. He combines these insights with his extensive ethnographic research in offices in three locations in India—in Delhi, Gurgaon, and Noida—and one in New Jersey. Aneesh contrasts virtual migration with “body shopping,” the more familiar practice of physically bringing programmers from other countries to work on site, in this case, bringing them from India to New Jersey. A significant contribution to the social theory of globalization, Virtual Migration maps the expanding transnational space where globalization is enacted via computer programming code.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Virtual Migration is an exciting, innovative, and brilliant examination of how software flows replace people flows. It joins the urgent effort now under way in the social sciences to map a new field of inquiry.”—Saskia Sassen, coeditor of Digital Formations: IT and New Architectures in the Global Realm

Virtual Migration is a phenomenal book on a very important topic. A. Aneesh not only describes, explains, and interprets the phenomena of ‘body shopping’ and virtual migration in the global software industry, with especial emphasis on India and the United States; he also provides a series of suggestions to improve policymaking in these rapidly changing areas of the global economy.”—Mauro F. Guillén, Dr. Felix Zandman Professor in International Management, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

“This is a brilliant and innovative intervention in the study of globalization that demonstrates how much the specific forms taken by global institutional arrangements and processes depend on the structure and design of computer code. Virtual Migration will be invaluable not only to students in science and technology studies but to scholars in all fields interested in the troubled politics of the global movement of capital, technology, and people.”—Akhil Gupta, author of Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India

Angela Gray

“Aneesh’s arguments are well-organized and effectively communicate the often jargon-ridden world of complex technologies for those who have yet to go virtual themselves. . . . Virtual Migration itself opens up a very real (as opposed to virtual) space for discussing new forms of migration, governance, and globalization in which geographic perspectives and voices still have much to contribute.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822336693
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 1,524,664
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

A. Aneesh is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Global Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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Read an Excerpt

Virtual Migration

The Programming of Globalization


Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3681-5

Chapter One

Of Code and Capital

A silent transformation in the global organization of work is upon us. With high-speed data-communication links, workers based in one part of the world are increasingly able to work at locations far beyond their immediate horizon. Other stories of globalization and migration have commonly centered around the body, narrating how laboring bodies move from the developing to developed nations (see for example MacPhee and Hassan 1990; Zlotnick 1998), and how the integration of transnational labor-both documented and undocumented-takes place and struggles along national borders. Indeed, over the years the border has only grown in significance. In the decade after 1993 the U.S. Border Patrol doubled in size and tripled its budget; for migrants as well, the border has become costlier, in terms of increased coyote fees and also in lives-between 1994 and 2001 the bodies of more than 2,700 failed migrants were regularly recovered on both sides of the border between the United States and Mexico (Cornelius 2001). The border has not lost its significance, of course. But there is a development in labor migration that negotiates national borders differently. This book contrasts the account of embodiedmigration with the fast-growing but little researched virtual migration that does not require workers to move in physical space.

This story unfurls an emerging paradigm of transnational labor that allows workers in India to connect to corporations and consumers in the United States with high-speed satellite and cable links, performing through globally accessible data servers a range of work activities. One type of work, the staffing of call centers, has come under the focus of the news media. As inquiries from Americans who watch infomercials are routed to India, a teleworker in New Delhi may be selling them badly needed tummy crunchers, diet pills, orthopedic insoles, or even a fitness machine. Other work activities do not depend on the telephone: software research and development, engineering and design, animation, geographic information systems, processing of insurance claims, accounting, data entry, transcription, translation, and customer services such as technical support. Features of this labor integration may include a continuous monitoring of work by the client in the United States, who can perform quality checks and communicate with Indian workers as if they were on site. Since the United States and India have an average time-zone difference of twelve hours, the client may enjoy, for a number of tasks, virtually round-the-clock office hours: when America closes its offices, India gets ready to start its day. Thus paradoxically, the new space of transnational labor has reversed its relationship with the worker's body. Rather than move the body across enormous distances, new mechanisms allow it to stay put while moving vast quantities of data at the speed of light.

In an increasingly integrated global economy, therefore, a different kind of labor migration is taking place. I call it virtual migration. Although emerging online labor is part of the common trend in contemporary capitalism to tap globally dispersed labor in a more flexible manner, it has three distinctive features. First, online labor has limited direct, physical, face-to-face contact with corporations in the United States. Second, one could argue that online work is hardly transnational in character, as it takes place within national boundaries, and in many instances in direct response to immigration restrictions. Thus workers in India, while indirectly working for American corporations through subcontracting firms, still retain a single, unambiguous national identity. Unlike immigrants who physically work in the United States, they do not go through the agony of visa requirements, alien status, cultural opposition, and "nativist reaction" (Cornelius, Martin, and Hollifield 1994). Third, workers based in India may (or may not) be governed by local practices, including labor and tax laws. Yet just like traditional immigrant workers, they do cross national boundaries and directly occupy some employment space in sectors of the American economy. In short, they migrate without migration, which is why we call the phenomenon virtual migration.

The concept of virtual migration underscores that a programmer sitting in India and working for a local firm can directly provide services in the United States, that a call center employee in Delhi-who sits in front of a computer screen wearing a headset-may sell a miniature rotisserie to a Californian. Many software development strategies rely on transnational software platforms that integrate groups sitting across the globe. Such invisible and disembodied processes of labor supply add a different dimension to our conventional understanding of labor migration.

I seek to free the discussion of labor mobility from the confines of the body, and to place the flows of labor at the level of global capital flows. This approach enables us to see certain social aspects of the transnational integration of labor that remain invisible in the economistic language of outsourcing and subcontracting. There are also semantic differences between outsourcing, offshoring, and virtual migration. Outsourcing is a relatively undifferentiated umbrella term, covering aspects of offshoring and virtual migration as well as the subcontracting of services and manufacturing within the country. Offshoring, on the other hand, surely happens off the shore or overseas, and it may include manufactured goods and components along with services. Virtual migration differs from outsourcing and offshoring in two respects: first, it does not include the transfer of physical merchandise such as parts, components, or the whole product, as it literally implies virtual labor integration, not trade in merchandise. Second, it encompasses the noneconomic elements that always accompany any mode of migration (such as the sociocultural aspects of call centers).

To bring out the uniqueness of these online labor flows from India to the United States, I compare them to the corresponding physical practice of securing work visas for Indian programmers and bringing them to the United States to work on site-a practice called "body shopping." While online programming implies migration of skills but not of bodies, body shopping implies migration of both bodies and skills. Discussing the software engineering projects undertaken online as well as those undertaken on site, I attempt a different perspective on prevailing immigration debates in the United States as it relates to high-tech workers by exploring the changing channels of labor supply. As the majority of labor in the United States is increasingly being converted into information work-especially in the service sector that occupies a large employment space in the economy-I try to link the issues of the online delivery of work across national borders with immigration as well as with questions of globalization and technology.

Recent years have witnessed a quantum jump in books on globalization; yet there is still no account, to my knowledge, of the transnational space where globalization gets enacted or, rather, programmed. Serious scholarship has been a little suspicious of "virtual" spaces. In the 1990s the term "virtual" perhaps set off too much inflated rhetoric: it has been used too readily and too insistently in the dreams and discourses of the global village. Indeed, the virtual has turned out to be not so "virtual" after all. A recent work (Pellow and Park 2002) deflates pretensions of the high-tech industry as heralding a "third wave," which would transport humanity from the polluted and heavy materiality of the industrial age to a clean, light, and virtual information age. Silicon Valley-a putative center of the virtual universe-is littered with "Superfund" sites-the primary targets of toxic waste cleanup efforts. The "clean industry" has been dumping so much sewage laced with heavy metals like nickel, cyanide, lead, and cadmium into the San Francisco Bay that oysters and shellfish have become unsafe for human consumption. Why do we need to reestablish, then, the ill-fated virtual? My discussion of the term is different. I do not discuss "virtual" as a metaphor to signify all that is clean, global, and free from material stain. I dare not use it even as an ideal type that imposes a constructed unity on the slippery empirical. Eschewing the double of ideal and empirical as well as the binary opposition of the virtual and the material, I justify its usage for several other reasons: if words acquire meaning through use (Wittgenstein 1972), then virtual is already part of a network of speech acts with serious meaning for its users-thus virtual communities are not a figment of our imagination but part of the changing social landscape (see Turner forthcoming; Wellman, Salaff, Dimitrova, Garton, Gulia, and Haythornthwaite 1996). It is counterproductive and somewhat hopeless to undo well-established speech patterns, or worse, deny their existence; it would be more useful perhaps to locate the conditions of their emergence, and examine their social effects. Second, in my analysis virtual practices are quite concrete, grounded in programming languages and code whose materiality, as readable and undeniable as the words on this page, does not need to be deduced from unverified premises or generalized from particular events. Virtual migration is a measurable flow of code, containing work performance and skilled acts. Finally, I also hope to uncover in the course of this discussion the whole range of changes that virtual migration accompanies in terms of corporate, labor, and social organization.

One of the questions to ask is how this transnational virtual space is constituted. What modes of power and governance make it possible for this space to become the organizing space of transnational labor? Programming languages-rather understudied components of transnational work-appear to be the key organizing structures behind this emerging space, which in itself is neither national nor global. Instead it is symptomatic of a new kind of power, what I call algocracy-rule of the algorithm, or rule of the code, which perhaps constitutes the key difference between the current and previous rounds of global integration. As programming languages increasingly form an ever-present horizon of diverse work ranging from controlling heavy machines to typing this document, it is no mere accident that programming and coding are intrinsic to the emerging transnational labor regime, which is ordered and integrated through different relations of power and governance. Even call centers that may at first sight seem free from programming do not predate developments in software, for they are dependent on data servers and computer screens to carry out their work. This is why they are usually housed in software firms, representing only one component of their business.

Focusing on offshore online work between India and the United States, I understand that work is globally organized around three kinds of integration: (1) spatial integration, or the decoupling of work performance and work site; (2) temporal integration, or the real-time unification of different time zones; and (3) algocratic integration, or the role of programming languages or code in connecting transnationally dispersed labor through data servers. The three integrations highlight vital features of globalization programs, imagining and implementing a different organization and networking of capital, labor, and corporations in the electronic space of programming languages.

One may raise an obvious question: Why should we think of virtual migration as a transformation and not as a mere extension of the earlier capitalist trajectory toward global expansion? Why the rhetoric of novelty? The answer lies in the framing of the questions themselves. As a theoretical frame, I do prefer the language of "transformation" and "difference" over that of "continuity" or "linear successions." While I respect, and even participate in, the historical paradigm of linking disparate events through causal mechanisms, I also wish to suspend at times the epistemological belief in how they all link to original forerunners in a linear trajectory. As all knowledge is produced within certain discourses and linguistic frameworks, to be able to say that there is a trans-historical constant in capitalism linking the nineteenth century with the twenty-first century, we must employ a certain paradigm of causal connection (profit orientation, accumulation), but only with an awareness that this is just one of the many possible ways of integrating the events. Even in as hard a science as physics, there is some acceptance of this heuristic nature of causal models. I will quote one of the most respected names in physics, Stephen Hawking (1988)-no social constructivist-to illustrate the point: "a theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make. It exists only in our minds [or in our texts and instruments] and does not have any other reality (whatever that might mean) ... Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory" (emphasis added).

Of course Hawking does not mean that science is mere fiction or pure imagination. Perhaps he is suggesting that the ability to predict future events does not save a theory from being a mere heuristic device. Newton's theory of gravity still accurately predicts the motions of the moon, the sun, and the planets but it is no longer the dominant paradigm for causal explanations in physics. Einstein's theory of relativity changes the very understanding of gravity, which is no longer the force between two bodies but an effect of the fact that space-time is curved or "warped" around massive bodies such as the sun and the earth. The earth revolves around the sun not because there is a force called gravity; instead, it follows the closest thing to a straight path in a curved space, that is, a geodesic. The word "gravity" in itself is empty; it gains its specific meaning only after its insertion into a system of signification (Newtonian or Einsteinian physics). Even though words such as "space," "time," and "gravity" remain in use, they mean something entirely different after what Kuhn (1962) called the paradigm shift, marking a complete transformation in causal explanations. If the "scientific fact" concerning "what causes the Earth to revolve around the Sun" can change so dramatically, one may be allowed some room in discussing such pitiably soft phenomena as capitalism and migration.


Excerpted from Virtual Migration by A. ANEESH Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1. Of Code and Capital 1

2. Programming Globalization: Visions and Revisions 14

3. Body Shopping 37

4. Virtual Migration 67

5. Actions Scripts: Rule of the Code 100

6. Code as Money 133

7. Migrations: Nations, Capital, and the State 153

Appendix A: A Note on Method 165

Appendix B: Tables 171

Notes 175

Bibliography 179

Index 191

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