The Social (Relations) Dilemma

The Social Dilemma that is currently streaming on Netflix has garnered much attention by raising a single question – how have we come to accept as normal the fact that a few hundred tech-enthusiasts in Silicon Valley has had an unprecedented impact on billions of lives around the world? Directed by Jeff Orlowski, the Social Dilemma features tech industry insiders raising ethical concerns about business models that shape our everyday digital experience. 

Though the docudrama has topped charts, the narrative on reckoning with this digital Frankenstein moment is not new. For example, Black Mirror is a popular show streaming on Netflix that speculates on how unchecked tech developments can result in a dystopian world. What makes Social Dilemma unique is perhaps because it features an array of “prodigal tech-bros” – usually white males who got rich working for big tech, but then got disillusioned and subsequently achieved “enlightenment”. 

The tech-bros point out that most platforms were started with good intentions to improve the quality of human lives. However, due to the advancements in AI, coupled with a shareholder model of revenue maximization, these platforms have become weaponized by those with nefarious interests. This has threatened liberal democracies, leading to political polarization. We are warned that a civil war is on the horizon, ironically triggered by social networks apparently aimed at bringing people together.

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Digital Workerism: Technology, Platforms, and the Circulation of Workers’ Struggles

UberTaxiProtestChicagoBy Callum Cant, Sai Englert and Jamie Woodcock

The so-called platform economy – the distribution of, and access to work through websites and apps – continues to grab headlines and the imagination of policy makers, researchers, and journalists the world over. Much attention is given to its rapid expansion, its potential for further growth, and the large amounts of wealth generated through it.

Amongst many others, PWC (2015) published a much-quoted study, if not always critically, which projected global revenues of $335 billion in 2025. If those numbers are potentially inflated, different valuations do point to a significant financial importance. For example, in 2015 ‘17 companies operating in the platform economy were valued at over $1 billion. Of these 17, 12 were based in the US, one in India (Olacabs), one in China (Kuaidi Dache), one in Australia (Freelancer), one in New Zealand (Trademe) and one in the UK (TransferWise)’.

Alongside these macro observations, an equally large amount of ink continues to be spilt about the liberating nature of the platform for the worker (for a particularly excited account see here). The gig worker, we are told, is entering a new reality free of the constraints of oppressive 9-5 employment, far away from the controlling gaze of their manager, able to choose when to work, set their own wages, and whom to work for. A new dawn of democratised entrepreneurialism is supposedly upon us.

Yet the actual evidence is – perhaps unsurprisingly – less rosy. Across the world, platform workers are confronted with the fact that, far from liberating them (or replacing them), new technologies play a disciplining role, deepening many of the characteristics of working conditions in a neoliberal economy: ranging from insecure and precarious employment relations, to greater managerial oversight and debt control. Callum Cant has masterfully documented some of these processes in his recent book on Deliveroo riders, as Jamie Woodcock and Mark Graham have done in their critical introduction to the gig economyRead More »