“I’m Not a Robot,” or am I?: Micro-Labor and the Immanent Subsumption of the Social in the Human Computation of ReCAPTCHAs

Vino Avanesi, Jan Teurlings


This article analyzes Google’s reCAPTCHA as one instance of what Hardt and Negri have conceptualized as a subsumption of the social as opposed to the extracting taking place under conditions of formal and real subsumption, which occurs in a punctualized production process (e.g., manufacture or fordist factories). Like Hardt and Negri, we see digital networks as having enabled a new commons that capital is trying to subsume. We trace the subsequent development of reCAPTCHA as an ever-evolving form of subsumption of the social that varyingly reconfigures elements of hybrid, formal, and real subsumption. We distinguish between two phases in the subsumption of the social. In a first phase, dispersed micro-labors are captured, aggregated, and put to use to improve the use value of Google’s free Web services. In a second phase, we see that reCAPTCHA tools evolve into a tracking technology, allowing for an immanent subsumption of the social. We observe that thus processes of autonomous and cooperative work in the digital commons are brought under capitalist relations.


algorithmic governance, audience commodity, CAPTCHA, commons, digital labor, exploitation, Google, Hardt, human computation, Marx, micro-labor, Negri, ReCAPTCHA, rent, subsumption, value

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