The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Niels van Doorn: Angels, Unicorns, and the Workers Who Ensure their Existence: On the Gendered and Racialized Exploitation of Service Work in the ‘On-Demand’Economy

Niels van Doorn, University of Amsterdam

I. This theoretical inquiry examines the gendered, racialized, and classed distribution of opportunities and vulnerabilities encoded in the emergent infrastructures, policies, and conventions of digital labor platforms ‘particularly in the US context. The paper’s argument unfolds in four parts. Part one opens with the argument that contemporary ‘sharing’, ‘on-demand’, and ‘crowdwork’ economies are embedded in, and present intensifications of, the neoliberal assault on labor that has been taking shape over the past four decades. This assault has had particularly vicious outcomes with respect to the livelihoods of workers across low-wage contingent labor markets, which have been eroded by the convergent forces of deunionization, workplace deregulation, job outsourcing, the proliferation of just-in-time employment and scheduling practices, and the offloading of risks and responsibilities to workers.

II. Part two then contends that while platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, Uber, and TaskRabbit are careful to position themselves ‘both legally and through branding strategies ‘as tech companies offering software as a service, they effectively operate as labor market intermediaries who exercise a significant measure of control over the ostensibly independent workforce they claim to ‘serve’. As such, they can be understood as new players in the dynamic and expanding temporary staffing industry, whose sociotechnical infrastructures and practices exacerbate the already precarious conditions of low-wage workers in today’s global service economy. They do so in four distinct yet interrelated ways: (1) by bolstering the immunity of employers ‘often known as ‘requesters’ in digital labor markets ‘and intermediaries through legally binding ‘terms and conditions’ documents that absolve both parties from most conventional social and economic responsibilities toward workers (who are hired and fired as independent contractors), but also through interface design strategies that induce information asymmetries which strongly benefit employers; (2) by meanwhile expanding managerial control and discretion over workers through software architectures that manage labor as data, materializing Jeff Bezos’s programmed vision of ‘humans-as-a-service’ in which an exceedingly scalable and flexible workforce is always work-ready and prone to self-optimization through distributed rating and ranking systems; (3) by consequently orchestrating a pervasive sense of superfluity and fungibility with respect to this workforce, whose members are rendered interchangeable and disposable on platforms such as TaskRabbit and Amazon Mechanical Turk; and (4) by exploiting the ambiguity that marks existing labor policy and legislation, which also works to perpetuate the attendant ambiguities and uncertainties of capital’s contingent and strictly provisional contract with labor under post-Fordism.

III. The third part of the argument focuses on how these four processes converge to produce specific, distinctly gendered and racialized forms of exploitation, which are in turn mediated by widening class inequalities. After a brief overview of the gendered racial history of service work, which highlights how this type of work has been consistently devalued and obfuscated, the paper analyzes how this history extends into the networked present of our platform-mediated ‘on-demand’ economy and how this subsequently intensifies the existing trends of job and wage polarization. More specifically, it is argued that the gig-based and largely obscured service work delivered by contingent workers, many of whom are women of color, crucially ensures the reproduction of the more visible and valued productive activities associated with white(-collar) masculine creative/knowledge work. Examples that will be discussed include the completion of a set of computational microtasks to aid a software engineering project, the cleaning of an apartment or running errands to relieve a young creative of menial chores that detract one from ‘professional’ work, but also the paid sexual performance via webcam to relieve this same person ‘frequently coping with stress ‘in a different manner. Ultimately, these platform-enabled gigs-without-benefits also serve to perpetuate a distinctly 21st-century class composition consisting of three tiers: a class of venture capitalists and angel investors looking to fund the next ‘unicorn’ start-up company; an entrepreneurial class of developers, engineers, and creatives hoping to found it; and a proletarian class of low-wage service workers whose exploitation forms its condition of possibility.

IV. Finally, the fourth part of the paper addresses the need to combine ethnographic research with grassroots organizing and activism, in order to generate digital as well as physical infrastructures dedicated to the revaluation of service work and the cultivation of platforms for solidarity among gig workers who by and large labor under conditions of isolation and fragmentation. Such infrastructures should draw on the vernacular skills, knowledges, and networks maintained by these marginalized workers ‘the gendered and racialized ‘others of value’ who thus far have had little leverage when it comes to deciding on the future of labor. In this way we can begin to move from individual trajectories of survival ‘life lived from paycheck to micropayment ‘toward collective projects of flourishing; away from exhaustion and insecurity toward sustainability and redistributive justice. In other words, this paper critiques and looks for ways to rewrite the current rules, norms, and values that govern digital labor, which have not only disrupted existing industries but are also disrupting the families of workers whose livelihood depend on these industries. Given that these workers are the motor that powers our quickly expanding on-demand economy, they should be empowered to influence the protocols, regulations, and business models that shape this economy.

Niels van Doorn