The conditions of work particular to 21st-century digital capitalism form the grim landscape that Trebor Scholz paints here. On one hand, automation and digitisation have reduced the physical intensity of various kinds of labour, freeing some workers from degrading and dangerous work. Technological and social change has expanded avenues for creativity in the workplace and facilitated new industries, such as games and app development. Networked telecommunications allow flexibility in work schedules and labour practices.
But digitisation has also created opportunities for exploitation. The flexibility that mobile devices bring extends the working day as well as filling our supposed leisure time with social media use that generates profit for digital companies. In creative work, “doing what you love” becomes a mechanism to extract unpaid labour so that effective under-compensation is the norm, joining the austerity-fuelled race to the bottom in pay.
Moreover, digitised work emerged after decades of aggressive assaults on unionisation and neoliberal deregulation. As careers become a spectrum of precarious, short-term and low-waged gigs, a “job for life” becomes nothing but a quaint, half-remembered myth. Disappearing along with it is the stable class identity associated with labour struggle.
As Scholz argues, the exemplary instances of such trends lie in the “sharing economy” or, as he terms it, “platform capitalism”. His survey focuses on companies such as Uber and Upwork that leverage digital platforms to aggregate workers and services, doling out short-term, piecemeal jobs such as driving someone to an airport or debugging a section of code. Labour in this sector lacks formal contractual arrangements and is low-paid and unprotected, devolving risk to each temporary worker. Scholz draws a useful typology of both paid and unpaid labour along this digital economy supply chain, documenting challenges to hard-won labour rights as he goes.
Scholz is troubled by the normalisation of such unstable work, which he reads as “the shiny, sharp tip of a gargantuan spear of neoliberalism”. He adds that these labour practices are not always unethical or exploitative, but become so when driven by the maximisation of profits. In such contexts, crowdsourcing of labour becomes “crowd fleecing”.
The analysis becomes novel when, rather than merely lamenting encroachments upon workers’ rights, Scholz is future-oriented, documenting actual and potential sites of struggle against platform capitalism. He proposes actions to develop a fairer digital economy. In particular, he surveys examples of “platform cooperativism”, involving community ownership, design, regulation and/or profit distribution, as models for generating more beneficial work for digital labourers.
At times, the narrative in Uberworked and Underpaid is awkwardly articulated, partly as an effect of the typological form, and the emphasis is too intently on US legal and labour contexts. But the politics and practices Scholz documents and critiques are increasingly pervasive, making this a valuable, accessible analysis. The next time we Uber to an Airbnb apartment, tweeting all the while, we would do well to consider the labour struggles going on beneath those shiny digital interfaces.
Kylie Jarrett is lecturer in digital media, Maynooth University.
Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers are Disrupting the Digital Economy
By Trebor Scholz
Polity, 242pp, £55.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9780745653563 and 3570
Published 7 October 2016